March 15, 2005

Canon Formation

Andrew Stern, over at GTA, puts forward a comment made during his panel discussion at GDC this year:

One of the comments that came out during the panel discussion Why Isn’t the Game Industry Making Interactive Stories is that the game industry has yet to reach its "Citizen Kane moment". This is the idea or hope that at some point someone will finally create a game that uses the medium in such radically new ways that it uncovers a new grammar of expression, and in the process reaches new artistic heights.

Like Andrew, I too have always found the analogy of early Hollywood cinema (CK is no Lumiere Bros production, after all) to games rather suspect, though I suppose useful in its own limited ways. The thing is, I think we *do* have a grammar of game expression and one that specifically incorporates elements of storytelling even (at least, that's what my dissertation is arguing), but because of bad implementation in a lot of games, the sheer *number* of games, the advances in technology that splits games into very different generations, and an industry that perhaps harbors even more control than early cinema ever did, it's rather tough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Toss in there the fact that we still operate with fairly limited understanding of game genre (or, I should say, genres), and the fact that we tend to view games and stories as binaries rather than components of the same part (when story is involved), and I'd say its not surprising that we find ourselves at a loss for a single defining moment.

And let us not forget that Citizen Kane enjoys at least part of its enormous prestige because of the multiple academic and popular voices that declare it so. Canon formation, be it in film, literature, or games, for all its limitations and problems, is also a useful filtering process. I suspect that as we all continue to understand, critique, debate, and teach a critical theory of games, we'll see how the waves (as Andrew so finely put it) crash together to form certain peaks.

mark's reference to Fable’s disappointment as both game and story, despite the hype (in the GTA comments), in fact, reminded me of one of my favorite publication histories, documented by Lawrence Rainey in his article "The Price of Modernism: Reconsidering the Publication of The Waste Land" (The Yale Review 78 Winter 1989: 279-30). T.S. Eliot had already planned to publish The Waste Land in his own Criterion, but he was looking for an American venue as well. Ezra Pound tried to convince The Dial to purchase the poem, and he argued that The Waste Land was “the justification of ‘the movement’ of our modern experiment, since 1900” (Rainey 282). Initially, the Dial only offered their usual $150, which Eliot thought too little. Eventually, and through no small measure of effort on the part of Pound, The Dial decided that they wanted the poem. In recompense, “they would offer Eliot the second annual Dial Award in confidence as the price of the poem, while officially they would pay only the $150 which had been their original offer" (Rainey 291). Rainey points out:

Literary history records few spectacles so curious or so touching as that of the two editors of a major review offering a figure nearly three times the national income per capita—in 1986 terms, the same ratio would yield over $40,000—for a poem which neither had seen or read. (Rainey 291, emphasis mine)

After offering such a substantial award for a poem, the editor of the American publishing magazine found it “disappointing on first reading.” That’s right. They paid that much, for something they hadn’t even seen, and, upon reading, didn’t much care for. Marketing, even in high literary circles, is an amazing thing.

In any case, this desire for a Citizen Kane moment reminds me too much of the "games that make you cry" quest ... Interesting, since the sentimental was for many years both feminized and disdained in literary circles (and, one might argue, still often is, despite valid attempts to recoup the term). Aren't there other ways we can frame successful emotional moments in games outside of either some sort of Rosebud moment or an appeal to the Old Yeller factor? Can't we point to foundational games - ones that really introduced a new element of play, style, or integrated story? I'm pretty sure we could all name a few.... some that even alter the way we encounter some games as stories. I know that some have taken a stab at creating a canon, of sorts (see the attempts by both Costik and Juul), but I wonder what we'd put together if we did focus on a very limited canon? For the first-person sneaker, would you choose Metal Gear, or Thief, or a later title? Why? Tetris seems an obvious choice over many other games, both for its foundational gameplay and because it's 'publication' history is ripe for discussions of copyright and the industry, but I'm sure arguments could be made for others.

What would a very narrow canon - say, twenty titles that you would teach in an Introduction to Computer Game Studies class - look like?

Posted by Jason at March 15, 2005 5:55 PM | TrackBack

As you're well aware, this is some tricky terrain. I think you're dead-on to point to foundational moments in gaming-- the first time a camera swooped around a shivering Mario on a snow covered bridge in Mario 64, for instance, I knew deeply that gaming had just changed forever. Some ten years on and variations of that engine are still being rampantly used (and abused). But that feeling of awe, something akin to seeing, say, the first glimpse of the brontosaurus in Jurassic Park (a tired but true reference), is an emotional response but we have to be careful about framing it completely as such. Emotional materiality might suffice, I suppose, as it allows aspects of interface, ergonmoics, story, etc. to come into play. But you're right-- there's a lot that needs to be defined in order to go down this path (genre in particular).

For example, take Resident Evil 4, Capcom's latest entry into the "survival horror" genre. Although it's strange, as Henry Jenkins pointed out to me while I was ranting about this game, that we'd look to a title with "4" in it to find innovation (in truth there are far more incarnations of RE then the "4" would imply), it's particularly appropriate for this discussion because RE4 absolutely demolishes anything established by previously released RE or, more precisely, survival horror titles in general. I could go on for a while about the advances in gameplay and storytelling mechanics-- the hybrid first/third person view, the coordinated AI of your opponents, the environmental interaction, the interactive story (IF folks take note-- although your actions are extremely limited to only one or two choices in RE4, there is direct control of some aspects of the cutscenes. Though this at times amounts to a sort of Dragon's Lair type of interaction, it does manage to violently shake the development of story away from its isolation in gameplay), but it seems that this is besides the point. Capcom's marketing push of RE4 as a new breed of survival horror begs the question-- how do we canonize these sorts of titles? Do we look towards RE1, which, along with Alone in the Dark, established the genre, or do we look to RE4, which, in some ways, perfected it? GTA: Vice City or GTA: San Andreas?

We don't generally ask whether, say, Aligheri or Petrarca should be included in a study of sonnets. We look at them both. I guess that in my long-winded way, I'm saying that games seldom make sudden leaps and bounds. It takes time for an approach to be solidified, implemented, cannibalized and reimagined. But there's the rub-- who does this imagining/ reimagining? [Aligheri. Petrach.] I think that a lot of our problems with canon/genre/etc. still stem from the lack of, well, I'll say it, authorial authority associated with gaming. Most programmers, with the exception of a select few (Meier, Miyazaki, Kojima), attach their names to their projects. Us literati constantly discuss progressions in an author's work-- can we, or should we, do the same in gaming? When lacking a discernable "personality", can we do the same with a series of games? A company?

Once again, as you pointed out, Jason, genre is the key to untangling this mess. But where do we start?

Posted by: marc at March 17, 2005 2:06 PM | Permalink to Comment

For all the complaints about sequels and derivative, licensed titles, I think it has more to do with implementation rather than context. As you point out, nothing prevents a licensed title from containing innovative, unique, or just plain fun attributes. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, or Chronicles of Riddick (sequel and licensed, respectively) did just fine, bringing interesting concepts to the table. It also speaks to the different capabilities of games of the same franchise within different generations of game platforms. Some games don't move beyond what they could do when they were on the NES. Others evolve. Understanding the difference does necessitate a certain appreciation of the materiality of the game.

The question of authorship is indeed complicated, though in some respects I wonder if the notion of the Implied Author in some respects gives us some leverage for dealing with these collaborative ventures (heck, even most "claimed" game titles still require a huge team). In literary studies, we have a certain problem of intentional fallacy, but one significant difference between games and, say, novels, is that with games, we *can* ascertain a certain degree of intentionality. Now, there's a lot of room still left for interpretation, but on at least a primary level, the intentional goal of a game (save the princess) is a lot clearer than the goal of a novel (do we judge "Sister Carrie," or do we admire her?). Note that I'm not saying similar ambiguity can't exist in games, but on a certain level, we do know what an ideal playing experience would be, because it is the one that best completes the game.

Where do we start? I imagine, one game at a time. These broad discussions are great, but more scholarship needs to dig deep into individual titles.

Posted by: Jason at March 18, 2005 12:02 PM | Permalink to Comment

All good points, Jason. What I was trying to argue was not that there was some sort of overarching intentionality present in gaming that's also in literature, but rather that we still seem to be stuck in categorizing based on established means of canon formation. There does need to be some quarrying done now, or we lose the very rare opportunity to ascertain a medium at or near the moment of its conception. How about a nice game of chess?

Posted by: marc at March 18, 2005 12:29 PM | Permalink to Comment

"seem to be stuck in categorizing based on established means of canon formation" - marc

Too true. The question is, how do we avoid throwing out the baby with the bath water? What is useful to keep from old models of canon formation, and where do we need to adapt and evolve?

Posted by: Jason at March 21, 2005 11:05 AM | Permalink to Comment

A very unconsidered thought -- but isn't part of the difficulty with canon here the difficulty with the nature of the medium?

My canon in literature or art would probably focus on some notion of quality or the identification of particular movements and their leaders.

My canon in game studies (digital game studies) would focus much more on formal divisions and popularity-- e.g. the Atari 2600 platform, the early text adventures, the arcade machine, etc. I guess something analogous might be coming up with a canon of cars or airplanes.

The thought, I guess, is that pure text and pure color and pure form are all free fields. The digital game is always artistry applied and integrated into a moving technological target -- and I think that's part of the difficulty of establishing a canon.

Posted by: greglas at April 2, 2005 2:01 PM | Permalink to Comment

Greg - Point well taken, though I'm not sure I followed that last bit about "pure text," etc. - do you mean, established media such as print and painting fall more easily into canonization than multimedia objects like games?

I wonder if rather than focusing on "leaders" (Pound and Eliot for Modernism, Miyamoto for Nintendoism), we might focus on subgenres of games such as those you list. You might define by platform, game engine, game type (puzzle, etc). But we do this with literature too - the Norton Anthology of American Lit > the Anthology of Fiction > Anthology of Modern Poetry (actually, not sure if that's true - the Modern Poetry size-wise is a beast). Point being, I could probably come up with a canon of the epistolary novel or the dramatic monologue (Browning, etc).

I admit - there are likely more factors that contribute to genre than in some print versions, but the nuances are ones that literary studies have been grappling with for years (e.g., should we consider Emily Dickinson's letters as letters or poems ... or letter-poems? Is Chopin's The Awakening short long fiction or long short fiction?).

Part of the drive behind my question was an interest in *how* people would select their games, exactly along the lines that you describe...

My temptation would be to look at various innovations and evolutions (movement from a shooter to a sneaker, e.g.).

Posted by: Jason at April 5, 2005 9:28 AM | Permalink to Comment
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