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Blog Thing: Talkin' About Practice

Some notes from the NYU Game Center's Practice 2015 conference.

I did an image search for
I did an image search for "Monday game," and now I'm weirdly nostalgic about my dad's old Electric Football kit.

Hey Giant Bomb Community! Welcome to my new column. It doesn’t have a name yet, but maybe it will soon.

Over the last few months, I’ve received a lot of requests to write more about some of the things that I love. Not only games, but music, movies, anime, books… Really, a lot of things. My response to these requests has always been the same: "God, I’d love to, but I just don’t have the free time." Well, consider this the latest in the long running Giant Bomb tradition of turning something we can’t fit into our schedules into work thing, so that we can do it anyway.

So, on every Monday that I can manage it, I’ll be writing a post about whatever it was that held my attention over the weekend. It could be a new game that I’m digging into or an old movie that I finally got around to seeing, an album that I can’t stop listening to or a single episode of a TV show. I’ll also provide a little list of whatever else I spent time on over a weekend, just to keep those of you interested in the loop. Mostly, this will be a personal and (mostly) informal place for me to chat with y’all about whatever it is I find myself thinking about after the weekend is over.

So, what did I do this weekend?

I went to Practice, the NYU Game Center’s yearly conference about the (uh) practice of making all sorts of games. This weekend’s schedule included talks from the designers of games as varied as Just Cause 3, Planescape: Torment, 80 Days, and Jenga. I’m thankful that Practice casts such a wide net partially because games are such a heterogenous thing and partially because the conversation that emerges when you put such a diverse collection of game designers together is just fantastic. Over three days, guests lectured about challenges in development, explored different design styles, and engaged in honest debates about some pretty heady questions about the nature of games and play.

Did you know that each Jenga block is slightly different in size and weight?
Did you know that each Jenga block is slightly different in size and weight?

Don’t get the wrong impression, though. While conversation definitely got esoteric and philosophical, the focus of the conference was the practical processes of game development. It’s just that when a group of really smart designers gets together to talk about making games, things naturally (and productively) turn towards some Big Ideas. In the middle of Kevin Cancienne’s talk on the animation process he used to bring the dogs of Home Free to life, he slipped into a poetic aside about the joy of watching animal bodies move in ways humans can’t. Jeff Mishtawy from the International Motor Sports Association may have set out to speak about balancing (real) car races, but his talk led the audience to consider broader questions about cheating and player desire for “fair” competition. In sessions dedicated to open conversation, attendees were as likely to collaborate on control scheme solutions as they were to debate whether it was more useful to think about games as experiences or as sets of rules.

The conference ended on a one-two punch from adventure game designer Brian Moriarty (Beyond Zork, The Dig, Loom) and critic Leigh Alexander. Moriarty’s talk was a sort of archeological exhibition of narrative design. Not content to call Colossal Cave Adventure, Wander, or even early choose your own adventure books the start of interactive fiction, Moriarty dug deeper until he located even earlier examples of works where “viewers” became “players.”

Among the many examples, one stuck out more than any other: Kinoautomat, a Czech film by Radúz Činčera that follows a man who fears that he may be the cause of an apartment fire depicted at the start of the film. Činčera’s film, originally shown at Expo ‘67, gives viewers two buttons (one red, one green) and a handful of opportunities to make a choice for the film’s protagonist. In truth, the audience doesn't have much input: Many of the choices eventually “fold back” into the main plot line, offering only the illusion of freedom. But this is Moriarty’s point: Kinoautomat’s structure presaged many elements of contemporary narrative game design. One choice leads back to a previous scene in a sort of prototypical version of what we’d now call a “checkpoint” system. After showing another scene, which gives the audience only three seconds to cast a vote as to whether or not to knock out a security guard, Moriarty jokingly called Kinoautomat the originator of the Quick Time Event.

A screening of Kinoautomat. The red and green lights around the screen tally up the audience votes.
A screening of Kinoautomat. The red and green lights around the screen tally up the audience votes.

The joy of Moriarty’s talk was that he’d unearthed these surprising progenitors for current gaming trends. Again and again, Moriarty surprised and elated the audience with strange and prescient examples of early interactive storytelling. But deep inside that joy is an anxiety: How could a room filled to the brim with experts in games have missed such important keystones to the medium’s history? What else might we be missing? Alexander’s closing words zeroed in on this anxiety. Speaking about the way games have changed in the many years since she first began writing, Alexander joked about the repetitive cycle of conversations that critics, designers, and fans have found ourselves stuck in--it’s 2015 and Newsweek ran a story wondering if Fallout 4 is art, afterall. In her closing comments, she asked the attendees to think about why our industry has such a short (and faulty) memory, encouraging them to design solutions so that we’re not stuck having the same debates in the next decade that we’ve been having for the past few.

I’m not sure that we can solve that problem all at once, but I do have a small request. In the comments, tell me about a game, or a game mechanic, or a platform, or a piece of games journalism or criticism that you’re afraid our collective consciousness might forget about or that you think doesn’t get the attention it deserves. (My submission is Elizabeth Magie’s The Landlord’s Game.)

If you want to see more from the conference, check out the conference’s official blog and the Twitter hashtag #Practice15. Videos from the event should be online sometime in the next few months. I’ll be sure to link them when they are.

As for the rest of my weekend, I spent it...