A lecture about how our games are inherently conflicted.

Note: A better version of this lecture was given a few months later in Montreal, and the recording has much higher audio quality. You can find it here.

Jonathan Blow gave the closing keynote speech at Games:EDU South on July 29, 2008 in Brighton, England. This one-hour lecture is about three ways in which current mainstream games are inherently conflicted, and how this holds them back from affecting people as strongly as the forms of linear media they are striving to emulate. Art games are used to build a perspective from which to see this problem and maybe attack it a little bit.

You can download the lecture as a .zip file containing the PowerPoint slides, along with an mp3 of the audio:

(Games:EDU Keynote, 35MB).

Unfortunately the recording came out at a low quality; the questions from the audience at the end are difficult or impossible to hear, but hopefully the answers are detailed enough to provide clues as to the questions.

19 thoughts on “A lecture about how our games are inherently conflicted.”

  1. Nice presentation but, as an A/V dork who works with presenters day in and day out, it breaks my heart that you didn’t repeat the questions from the audience. Always repeat the audience questions. Always.

  2. That was splendid.

    I suggest that story is an overloaded word in this context? as emerged with the last questioner in particular. Other words which may add precision to the discussion are plot and anecdote. I can play MGS4 and have many anecdotes (I killed a guard in an amusing way you didn’t for example) which are different from your game but we will have the same plot. In The Sims I think that players make their own plots built up on top of numerous emergent ancedotes.

    My thinking is that when comparing with different art forms then using more than one example if a way that helps clear thinking. As you know I fear movie only comparisons with games because I am not convinced that their techniques are ours (I know you feel the same), to show how music or painting or modern poetry use their medium in comparison would be splendid to see in one of your lectures.

    As always very thought provoking. Thanks!

  3. Yeah, in my original drafts of the lecture I started going into this kind of stuff, but I had to cut half of it as-is. It’s funny, I have this pattern where I have an idea for a lecture and then I’m like, “That doesn’t seem like enough to say, let me add more stuff,” and I change the idea for the lecture several times because I am generally not content with it (this one was going to be about academia+industry interacting or whatever!), then I don’t manage to get myself to really work on it until all night the night before the lecture, at which time I realize I have tons of stuff, and need to cut the majority of it.

  4. It was a pleasure seeing something from my blog show up in your talk, as I always admire the perspective you bring to conferences. Thinking of it, you’re right that I must have been unconsciously drawing from Doug Church’s ideas of abdication of authorship, though it took listening to your presentation for me to realize that.

    I think that especially in the near term authored story elements will of course remain important, but that their strongest function is similar to the rest of the environmental set dressing: to frame the player’s actions and the unique experiences he pulls from the game. I’d fault mainstream games using “a story” as the spine of the experience, as opposed to supporting a true multiplicity of stories.

  5. Excellent talk. I would agree with Matthew: always repeat the question. It has the nice side effect that you will gain some time to think about your answer. Also, you can be even manipulative by changing the question slightly so it is easier to answer. 😉

    At 46:47 you are referring to something in a blog with an american flag. I didn’t quite get it accoustically. Would you care to post a link?

    You’ve mentioned about how games create bizzare and goofy situations. You criticize this as being inferior to media where delivery is more controlled. I agree that this is a big difference between linear and interactive media. But I have a different take on this. I think this property can be also seen as a strength and need to be embraced by game designers. I’ve written an article about it here:

  6. Jonathan,

    I have been enjoying Braid very much, it deserves the accolades that it has been receiving. You should feel proud that the three years’ of work you put into this game.

    I found your lecture very interesting, but I disagree that the design of GTA is conflicted in quite the way you suppose. I think your argument rests on the idea that the only way for a game to confer value on a particular element is by attaching a significant gameplay reward to this element. But it seems to me that narrative can be a reward in itself. (The collectibles in Psychonauts, for example, give you interestingly-presented narrative material rather than progress or abilitites.)

    I wrote about this issue on my blog, versusclucluland.blogspot.com

  7. Awesome lecture! It’s great to hear a clear, cohesive discussion on these topics as well as a challenge to the industry that we can be so much more than we are.

    Earlier this week I was lurking on a forum and stumbled across a thread which was “What was the first game you played”. Most of the responses were from the playstation/n64 era, and one read “Halo, when I was 6”. Besides feeling very old, I have to wonder how that will effect an industry push toward a golden age. New talent coming into games was introduced to the medium during the story-as-crutch, bloated budget, “film+interactivity-human impact” age. To them, its what games are. Graphics and story.

    Perhaps the golden age of games will end up more closely resembling a radical art movement than something embraced by the mainstream.

  8. That was a great lecture, more so because it resonates with my thoughts.

    I’ve been feeling that today’s games are like watching a movie, but stopping after each and every scene to solve a puzzle or take a quiz before proceeding, just because it’s a “game”. I am approaching games as a way of communication, to soak in whatever devs worked so hard for, and so these challenges are nothing more than obstacles.

    Apparently, others don’t feel the same. After peeling open a fresh, new game, they put it in a tray, and start pressing Start button until they can do something, skipping anything devs has placed before the gameplay kicks in. They don’t know what the game is about, they just enjoy shooting people, driving cars off a bridge, or blowing up tanks. For all intents and purposes, games are simply toys for them. Nothing to soak in, nothing to learn from, nothing to reflect on.. Just something to mess around with, and feel “cool.”

    Speaking of that, it seems like that’s all game industry really cares about–something “cool”. Cool guns. Cool moves. Cool graphics. Cool this, cool that… I’m sick and tired of hearing that word. I want meanings and purposes in each and every little assets in a work. I hear average age of today’s audience is like 30-something. Isn’t industry mature enough to put more emphasis on something other than something “cool”?

  9. I thought your lecture was very insightful. I’ve always enjoyed narrative in games, even if it interrupts the gameplay, however, I’ve often heard others complain about being forced to watch cut scenes, etc. I had always thought of this as a necessary evil however, and never considered how an integration of a story’s purpose and gameplay design could perhaps increase the impact and lessen the annoyance of playing a game.

    That being said, I thought you were a little unfair on Alyx Vance. One of the reasons I’ve always liked the Half-Life series is that the story never seems forced, every environment is designed as if it could be a real, used place, and you’re never taken out of actual gameplay for the story. Perhaps my memory is going, but I don’t remember Alyx ever taking particularly long unlocking the doors to explain something other than expressing relief or a similar emotion in one line. All the major story points come at logical breaks after a long sequence of actions. I think the doors provide a more important purpose of directing you towards the current action. It wouldn’t make sense for Alyx to open a door under fire.

    Aside from that, Alyx being the only person who can open such doors, being a good shot, and never getting in the way (at least I haven’t encountered it) makes her very attractive from a gameplay rewards perspective as well. In fact, almost all the likable characters in Half-Life 2 are also very helpful, and the game as a whole integrates story and gameplay with minimal interruption better than any other game I can think of. Perhaps some people may still be annoyed with slower sections that don’t involve shooting things in a game packed with such action, but I often doubt those people are looking to take much away from the game. Should the logical and narrative coherence of the game be removed simply for these people to experience non-stop gun-play?

    PS Braid was mind-boggling fun, thanks for making it

  10. Wow, I’m late to the party but I’m definitely going to second Ian’s reply here. Kind of left-field I though.

    I don’t even particularly like the Half-Life series, but I surely respect what they’ve done to further the progress of narrative and gameplay juxtoposition in the business. I remember reading about a session at the GDC of ’08, actually, in which Kim Swift and Erik Wolpaw of Valve (the former … formerly of Valve iirc) were basically saying exactly what you’ve said (five months earlier actually) about the whole disconnect bewteen the story-story and the gameplay-story. :/

    Braid was awesome, though!

  11. But it’s not the same thing. The idea that the gameplay-story and the story-story can mismatch has been around for a long time… search for the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance” and things like that.

    That is different from my main point in this lecture. I was saying that the very structure of story conflicts with the very structure of gameplay, and that there is likely no way to fix it for most kinds of games. That is a different concept.

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