September 30, 2008

The Ambition Men

Ambitious businessmen live out of the top floors of skyscrapers; ostentatious offices that open out onto rooftop gardens and putting greens. They are outfitted in four-thousand-dollar suits, show up to governor's mansions with fast cars and trophy wives, and have cultivated expensive coke habits. Ambitious game developers, by and large, are nerds who have very intense thoughts about game design, and are also really addicted to cocaine.

No video game has ever said so much about life and death, and in so little time, as Jason Rohrer's Passage. More complicated statements have been made in games about the pursuit of love and wealth but typically in cutscenes bolted onto a platformer whose mechanics are thematically unrelated. Rohrer, however, uses no such crutches, and instead his every idea is communicated to the player through his/her act of playing the game. This industry's highest-regarded designers can't do that. Depending on your tolerance for invoking the word 'art' in discussions of games, you could call it art. Or just really good.

For some reason we don't call it ambitious. 'Ambitious' is Peter Molyneux attempting to express the same concept in Fable. The design goals of Fable were generally about probing the conceits of good and evil; Molyneux the self-made morality lifeguard inviting players into his ethical swimming pool. Aside from that exercise, Molyneux intended for players to create a character and watch him grow up, find treasure and accumulate spouses throughout the course of the game, much like Passage. It didn't fully work in Fable, since once the avatar entered maturity the world around him turned immortal. Technically the character would age, his birthdays observed by an in-game statistics menu, but the feature didn't mean anything. The character spends his whole life undertaking low-rent RPG quests, same as it ever was. It could have worked as a depressing commentary but regardless it didn't convey the sense of aging -- unlike Passage, which could do both.

So why, then, is Molyneux the ambitious one? 'Ambition', when used in game reviews, is a pejorative. It means 'almost there': not that a game is excellent but that it underdelivers on initial promise. Grand Theft Auto IV is 'a living, breathing world.' Spore is 'ambitious.'

What were the ambitions of Will Wright, another high-wire idealist? The ambitions that conventional wisdom tells us less than a month after Spore's release, were unsuccessful. Spore was supposed to have serious educational applications; it was meant to be an evolutionary sandbox, an epic biological journey, the mind-expanding, all-encompassing history of the universe: SimEverything. Something like that ought to be pretty complex in nature. Spore should have been renowned for its complexity. Instead, if any word dominated the Spore media narrative, it was -- well, it was 'DRM', but after that it was 'simple.'

We have to believe that someone like Will Wright can't make SimEverything and not at least end up with SimSomething. Spore has several somethings to choose from but for the purposes of this case study here's one particular thing that Spore offers: our third take so far on players watching their creation age. Wright's preoccupation is biology, not genetics, but his game recaptures some of Fable's lost ambition. Spore asks the player to invest, more than Fable ever did, in the physical appearance of their characters and to guide their evolutionary passage (shall we say.) Everyone's favourite part of Spore is the creature creator, but the whole game is a creature creator. The so-named tool, while versatile, can only sculpt the physical form but the game is about forming a protective, emotional bond with your species and writing their genetic history in your mind. Fable does little to indicate the passage (sorry -- let's say 'voyage' instead. Or consult a thesaurus and go with 'aqueduct') of time, but in Spore each evolution of the species is associated with markedly distinct challenges. It reinvents appearance with each scene. The difference between Cell and Civilization is that of three-foot in kindergarten and six-foot in college.

Three ambitious guys all with different takes on the same concept: Rohrer is elebrated by an admittedly small audience; Molyneux is chastised for overpromising; and Wright's contributions go largely unrecognised in the face of scaled-down dreams. Spore was reviewed on the hype and if it lives and dies by critical opinion, then that's its failure: Spore is too simple. It arguably doesn't exploit its own ambitions, it only realises Fable's by accident, and Passage outperforms both of them anyway. So why, then, does Passage work? Well, because it's simple, right?

Unlike Fable and Spore, Passage removes every element extraneous to the theme: if even one thing doesn't contribute to the central artistic expression then it is out. In the absence of distractions, the purity of the theme is enhanced. You could make the case that Spore would have been a better evolutionary playground -- if not a better game -- if it didn't feel obliged to incorporate overly goal-oriented structures. Likewise, Fable might have been a better morality play if it didn't insist on adhering so closely to contemporary RPG convention. Both games balanced their ambition with the safely commercial. Rohrer doesn't have that problem, being the only one to work without a team, or publishers, marketers or distributors, and he doesn't need to worry about critics or hype. Spore and Fable are the expressions of many years and many people. Passage is the expression of Jason Rohrer. Jason Rohrer is one man and Jason Rohrer has a maxim: to live a life of voluntary simplicity. Is the key to ambition ironically not trying to do everything? Will the best ideas and purest expression come out of indie games, the format with the least production but also the least encumberance?

Simplicity is Spore's critical curse and the secret to Passage's success. It can mean 'elegant' and it can mean 'shallow'. Reviewers can write off Spore because it meets the latter definition, but even that negative simplicity can work to Spore's benefit. If Spore is simple it becomes accessible, and to the same mainstream, casual audience who play (and only play) the Sims. To those players, Spore works as a video game primer, a basic introduction to the mechanics and artifice of the RPG, the MMO and the RTS. Is that ambitious? I don't know. Is it valuable? I think so.

That's Spore standing apart from its purported goals. That's another point of view, that Spore should be accepted for what it is and not held to what Will Wright said at a GDC presentation three years ago before he had to come back down to earth. Wright and Molyneux are smart guys with bright ideas, worth listening to even if they don't always deliver. It's good to talk about failed ambition, I think, because it makes us look for it elsewhere. In looking at smart games by smart people, patterns will emerge. To create an awareness of missed opportunities establishes a subconscious need for them to be realised -- design goals not yet achieved -- and maybe that's how someone else is inspired to finally make them happen.

At the end of the day, where does that leave Wright or Molyneux? That while they fail ambitions and expectations, the discussion they elicit is ultimately good for the industry? They are the accidentally selfless? How can people so hugely ambitious find personal solace in that kind of reputation? Maybe Molyneux and Wright, after working so hard, don't feel totally pleased to wind up with a certificate of participation while some nobody aces the same test. Well, tough shit. Jason Rohrer makes a game a month and most of the time they're not Passage. Such is the life of the ambitious man.

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