Wave Foam – “Jenova speaks… and we’d do well to listen”
Jenova Chen (“flOw”, “flower“) spoke at the Develop 2009 conference in Brighton. I’ve found two different excerpts of his talk, which you can access here and here. Besides mentioning that a new game is in the making (rejoice!) he mentions similar ideas to the ones I’ve discussed in my recent “State of the Art” editorials. I’d like to give particular emphasis to one sentence that I find of utmost importance – according to Gamasutra, while developing “flower“, Chen realized “that in the attempt to make a “fun” game, the team had blunted the emotional impact.” This is a crucial point of my “games can’t express emotions” ‘thesis’, and something I’ve argued for a long time.
Art is a vehicle of emotional expression and communication, the translation of an author’s personal beliefs, feelings and sense of aesthetics into the work of a specific medium. That’s why, for games to be an art form, designers need to focus on emotional expressiveness, and to do so there is no other answer than shunning ‘ludism’ and the ‘fun’ side of games. Because ‘ludism’ is the shape of traditional games, and games aren’t about emotion, they’re about challenge, competition, reward and penalty. That’s why they could never serve as proper inspiration for an art form. But in its current form, computer games’ interactive dimension can only express very crude, low level emotions – the ones it inherited from traditional games. And because we’ve been stuck with that (pseudo) emotional template, we’re still light-years away from the expressive power of a film, book, symphony or painting.
This is the main reason why games “don’t have their own Citizen Kane” [yes, I’m pulling a “Citizen Kane” on you guys, you’ve earned it]. I don’t know what a “Citizen Kane” of video-games would look like, and quite honestly, I don’t think it even matters to this debate. Because whatever it looks (or will look) like, I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen it yet. And whoever thinks otherwise needs to watch “Citizen Kane” again, and appreciate how far cinema went from its genesis to that singular point in time. Games haven’t tread that path yet, and they’re pretty much where they were when they first emerged. Matter of fact is: video-games still aren’t able to convey madness, loss, nostalgia, hope, aging, infancy, memory, love, longing, or any of the other complex dimensions that are part of the wealthy, emotional tapestry of “Citizen Kane”. And in place of “Citizen Kane” you can place any other masterpiece of cinema, literature or music, that this fundamental truth will still hold. There is no “Citizen Kane” of video-games.
And while we’re on a fatalist note, let’s be honest, with the way things are going, it’s likely games never will achieve that high point. Designers blindly insist on this abhorrent paradigm of ‘fun’, and everyone seems to be on board with them. But for the interactive medium to evolve into a proper art form, it needs to move away from the language of ‘fun’, and into a new interactive language that can express emotions and complex abstract concepts. An emotional, artistic language. Right now, games aren’t artistic, they’re ‘fun’. For some that suffices. Not to me.
That is why I’m curious to see where this newfound truth will lead Chen, and other visionary creators like him, in future ventures.