Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Over The Flagpole: Escape as Art

I got into a conversation the other day with a friend of mine, a comp lit grad student. Her familiarity with gaming being somewhat limited, and my love of pontificating being extreme, I gave her a quick re-hashing of the old Roger Ebert "Video Games Can Never Be Art" discussion (a conversation I usually shy away from, since Ebert is a) obviously wrong, and b) probably arguing in bad faith for his own amusement). That argument/conversation morphed into a more interesting one, which I'll try to summarize here.

For me, a game becomes art when its mechanics and interactivity - the things that define it as a game as opposed to a series of pictures or a movie or a novel - make a meaningful statement about reality. Jonathan Blow's Braid is the obvious example, with its themes of perfectionism and regret amplified by the game's time-manipulation mechanics. (More recently, Molleindustria and Jim Munroe's game, Unmanned, examined the disconnect between Americans and the consequences of their actions by forcing players to divide their attention between two screens, one displaying dialogue choices and the other arcade-like mini-games related to the life of an American drone pilot). It's obvious to me that games can be designed to be art.

But the question that nagged at me while thinking about the issue was this: Can games generate art (or at least, artistic moments) without designer intent? Not just in the sense of unintentional meanings being found in the design, but as an expression of player freedom (hypothetically one of the key tenets of game design?)

One of Ebert's major contentions against video games is that, by giving up control to the players, a game's designer can never express a singular artistic vision the way a director or an author can. What he doesn't understand is that game designers don't give up control - they incorporate it into the stories they tell. (Most) games are not designed to play themselves - they expect certain actions from players and respond in turn. The design of a game is not just the world the player moves through, but the actions the game allows the player to take. In fact, the whole point of much of game design is to constrain player actions to the ones the designers want. Going even further, pieces like The Stanley Parable* make the case that ANY freedom in a game is an illusion, since the world is entirely constrained by the designer's intent. The only choice is to play, or not to play.

Even open-world games, touted for their openness to player choice, exist as shallow ponds, surrounded on all sides by the inflexible nature of the rules that make up the system. Most games that talk about freedom are actually talking about adding more rules, more systems into the game. Oh, you can own your own property in this one! - Once we've defined what property is, how it's purchased, and what benefits and effects it conveys in game. The system either tightens - you can romance many of the cast in Bioware RPGS, each of whom requires extensive scripting, animating, and writing - or becomes painfully vague - you can romance almost anyone in Fable III, but only by making the process generic enough to be described with extremely flexible rules. In either case, all actions are still defined by the rules supplied by the designer, and all "art" is the product of the designer's intent. But can the interaction of the rules themselves, divorced from the artist's goals, produce art?

All this got me thinking about Langton's Ant.

The Ant is a very simple (hypothetical) mechanism that produces very odd results. Existing on a grid of black or white squares, the ant moves according to two rules: If it encounters a white square, it turns right, flips the square to black, and moves forward. If it encounters a black square, it turns left, flips the square to white, and moves forward.

As you might expect, for the first several thousand iterations of these rules, the Ant produces a chaos of black and white squares. But then... (And this happens regardless of the initial black-and-white makeup of the grid, although "obstructions" may delay the process), the Highway emerges. The Ant begins to build a long, diagonal pathway away from the central pattern, made up of identical 104-step loops. In the most basic version of the Ant, this occurs at around 10,000 steps. Which is to say that, coded in those two very simple rules is hidden information about the incredibly complex behavior that occurs in their 10,000th iteration.

Video games have a lot more than 2 rules.

Obvious news flash: Game designers don't physically build the games we play. Instead, they lay out rules that describe the world they've imagined. If the rules are well crafted, the world is constructed to the designer's specifications, and the player is "trapped" within that design. They can only have the experience the designer WANTS them to have - any art that occurs in that scenario has been dictated by the designer, with the player acting, essentially, as a prop. But, as we just learned, rules can be tricky... And, really, what's a bug? A rule that's not doing what it's meant to.

Sometimes a bug in a game is there because someone miswrote a rule - a variable was mis-set, a step was left out. But sometimes it's because the rules are interacting in strange ways, ways the designer never intended.** Rules related to how player movement works intersect with rules defining how surfaces behave at corners... and suddenly you're on the other side of the wall.

There are whole communities built around these glitches. Speedrunners, especially, delight in finding ways to "break" the game to improve their times. But it occurred to me that there's something artistically meaningful in these sudden bursts of freedom - perhaps the most meaningful message games can convey. The artist loses control of his or her art - or, maybe, the rules themselves become inadvertent artists, working in concert with the players.

The example that comes to mind, that maybe this whole discussion builds out of in the back of my mind, is from the first game I ever owned: Super Mario Brothers. Every non-castle level of SMB ends the same way: the player guides Mario to the end-of-level flagpole, touches it, slides down, and control is taken away until the start of the next level. The flagpole stands as the edge of the designer's intended play area.

Which makes for a disconcerting experience when you realize you can jump over it...

Now, there are very few areas in the game where this is possible without cheating (although, now that I think about it, the use of cheat devices like the Game Genie to alter gameplay is ALSO a way for players to defy or circumvent the designer's intent by interacting directly with the game's rules). The easiest is in World 3-3, where there is a player-movable platform directly before the goal (probably significant that this trick is only possible in one of the rare parts of SMB where the designer gives control of the environment to the player). With good timing and a proper running start, Mario can leap OVER the flagpole, escaping the intended bounds of the playable area. Moving past the castle, Mario can now run along a featureless brick wall, unable to backtrack... until time runs out and he dies. Technically, it's pretty non-climactic.

But, as a kid, it was an incredible moment. I had ESCAPED the level. I was free from the designer's plan. I had done what wasn't expected.

Now, I'm not trying to suggest that this is some horrid violation of the universe's physics that would make Shigeru Miyamoto rip out his hair in a dark rage. It's clear that Nintendo knew about this glitch, and added a placeholder area behind the flagpole so that the game wouldn't crash. But the rules of SMB are exceptionally clear: the flagpole is the edge of the world. You can't jump over it, you can't escape. In the language of the game's design, it's a solid brick wall.

But by colluding with the rules, I beat the design. Experienced a moment of authentic-feeling freedom in a world entirely bound by constraints.***

It felt like art to me.

*The Stanley Parable is an excellent freeware mod for Valve's Source Engine. You can download it here, and I strongly recommend it. I'll probably have a post about it up in the next few weeks, but it's a game that deserves to be played before you read about it.

**Interestingly, combos, the backbone of most competitive fighting games, stem from a glitch in Street Fighter II that allowed players to chain moves together. Glitches like these often end up becoming part of high-level gameplay in competitive games, basically allowing the interactions between the rules, and the player's ability to take advantage of them, to trump initial designer intent.

***One of the factors behind the success of Valve's game Portal (besides being excellent), is how well it simulates this feeling. The entire first two-thirds of the game function as a metaphor for the game player, being forced to complete ridiculous, arbitrary tasks by an inflexible machine. The moment where the player breaks free of GLaDOS's control, escapes the fire, and breaks into the "backstage" is an in-design attempt to recreate the same freedom I'm trying to convey in this post. Of course, it's fake freedom... But it talks to the same part of the gamer mind, I think.


  1. Really great article. You like how I called it an article? It's 'cause it was one.