Two Views of the Medium

In his 1883 essay Two Views of the Mississippi, Mark Twain described his experiences as an untutored observer of the Mississippi, and later as a skilled riverboat pilot. Twain lamented how his knowledge of the river eventually robbed him of the sense of mystery that once captivated him as he stood on its banks:

Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river.

Technical familiarity often diminishes aesthetic appreciation. It's a curious, somewhat tragic phenomenon, and though illuminated by Twain over a century ago, it applies to playing video games as well as piloting steamboats.

I remember when FarCry came out for the PC in 2004. Reviewers described its paradisiacal island setting as "captivating" and heralded it as a "stunning graphical accomplishment." My modest PC met FarCry's minimum specs, and I was initially pleased to find it ran acceptably at medium detail settings. I thoroughly enjoyed the game, until I made the mistake of cranking up all the settings to see it in its unfettered graphical glory.

While the resulting framerate rendered the game completely unplayable, with maximum details and graphical effects it looked absolutely dazzling. No longer content with my current settings, I ventured into the advanced graphics options, and embarked on a rather desperate mission to achieve the absolute best visual experience possible. I also updated drivers, reconfigured system settings, and more.

In the end, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to "improve" the game, but ultimately came away dissatisfied and frustrated. Each time I changed settings and loaded up a level, the light that glinted through palm fronds didn't cast the right shadows, the reflections on water weren't detailed enough, the terrain detail popped into view too late, and so on. My initially positive experience with FarCry had become hopelessly entangled in technical considerations. I'd completely lost sight of what I'd loved about the game.

I'll admit I may have been a bit obsessive, but it was an obsession encouraged by a gaming culture completely fixated on the technical aspects of the medium. Consider the fact that the release of every high-end PC game is followed by a deluge of online and print articles that offer exhaustive details on optimal configurations. Simply running a recent PC game well can require a fairly intimate understanding of your machine's inner parts. Console gaming has traditionally been less knowledge-intensive, but the "HD Era" is changing that. Now, only the perfect combination of cables and displays will allow you to experience next-gen gaming at its finest.

And the knowledge apparently required to appreciate video games doesn't stop with nuts-and-bolts operational issues. Any discussion of the qualities of a game inevitably turns, at some point, to an enumeration of its technical features. No game review is complete unless it tackles issues like framerates and load times. Terms like anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering have crept into the hobby's lexicon with ease. And we're tantalized by promises of multiple texture passes and procedural physics, even if we have no idea what the hell these terms mean.

Those who create and market game technology are fond of proclaiming that their products will deliver compelling, transcendent gaming experiences. Which is completely ridiculous, of course. It's like saying that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is majestic because Michelangelo had some really kick-ass paint. Engaging, transformative experiences don't issue forth from etched silicon or code, to be beamed into our minds via cathode rays. They arise from the wellspring of human creativity. The technology is merely a vehicle.

Unfortunately, the rapid pace of innovation inevitably places technical matters front and center. And it doesn't help that so many games are released with serious technical shortcomings. The challenge, then, is in maintaining an appreciation of the creative and inspiring aspects of gaming.

Though Twain claimed he could no longer appreciate the grandeur of the Mississippi, I suspect he was engaging in a bit of hyperbole. I'm willing to bet that even as a riverboat pilot, he was occasionally moved by scenes of beauty. I'm similarly convinced that gaming culture's fetishistic attention to technical matters doesn't have to rob us of the ability to appreciate gaming as a medium for creative expression. But I do think it makes it more difficult.

I don't want to come across as some cranky Luddite, bent on returning gaming to the eight-bit era. I love gaming tech, and I'm as excited as the next guy about the prospect of a new generation of hardware and games. But I long for the day when technical considerations are eclipsed by attention to actual content, and games are appreciated first and foremost for the experiences they provide, rather than for the technology that brings them to life.

Comments

Those who create and market game technology are fond of proclaiming that their products will deliver compelling, transcendent gaming experiences.

And beer commercials tell you that you'll be surrounded by hot women if you drink their beer.

It's marketing. You shouldn't give it any more time of day than you do the message of the beer commercial.

As for gaming's pursuit of new tech, new tech is pursued because it's relatively easily achieved. There seems to be this unspoken implication that the focus on the latest and greatest tech necessarily comes at the expense of everything else. Coming up with new, inventive games is a creative challenge, and it's not one that would be better met by putting the brakes on the tech race. More often, new envelope pushing tech opens up new possibilities, even if the possibilities aren't realized until people have poked around the hardware for a while.

The tech race continues because it's easy to cram more transistors on the next generation chips, and the continued development of hardware proceeds at a reasonably steady and predictable rate.

Fly, as usual, your article is so clear and well-written that I feel pangs of envy. Great piece.

And it's a perspective not often discussed. I wholeheartedly agree with you, but what you describe is very hard to communicate to other gamers satisfied to be pushed to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade.

Also, kudos on slipping Twain in there. Like beer and good cheese, the work of Mark Twain is always appropriate.

Well written! As usual

Part of the appeal for pc gamers probably is the tweaking part, and the upgrading. For me at least it used to be, now I just want the stuff to work. It has been a while since I really was baffled by technical prowess, from the first 3DFx prolly. I remember looking up to the two suns in Unreal 1 when first coming outdoors, that was a real 'wow' moment.

Since then games have only gotten prettier, but leapfrogs like with the first 3D cards? Never again...

dejanzie wrote:

Since then games have only gotten prettier, but leapfrogs like with the first 3D cards? Never again...

Methinks you'll be eating your words on that one in the not-too-distant future.

Good article Adam!

baggachipz wrote:
dejanzie wrote:

Since then games have only gotten prettier, but leapfrogs like with the first 3D cards? Never again...

Methinks you'll be eating your words on that one in the not-too-distant future.

What, with the new physics cards? I haven't seen real progress in AI in years, and no such graphical leapfrogs. Or maybe I should upgrade my pc, that's also possible

Another aspect of this that I've noticed is technical familiarity with the environment the game sets you in. This is a bit more specific to MMOGs, like with EQ, DAoC, and WoW, when you first start, the world is fascinating, and sometims scary.

"That quest asked me to kill 10 Diseased Mewling Hill Goats that are outside of the reach of the guards! Are you kidding? I might die!"

That tension adds so much to the game. The unknown of the zone you haven't been to. Then you level and spend months playing the game. You look around online, and find maps with specific coordinates for everything you need to complete quests, basically walking you through every thing that used to be fun. This speeds your characters climb up the level ladder, but it greatly reduces the mystique of the game itself.

fetishistic

Hey, cool. A new word!

Actually, I think the attention to gameplay is still present, your just viewing gaming in a nostalgic light. Your WOW's and Half Life's and so many others have gameplay and content on a scale we've never seen before. Sure, the graphics are great but they are used to augment the game, not make it. If you think back, the technical issues we have with games today certainly existed with the games of old. I can remember all the time I spent trying to get Doom2 to run on my rig 10 years ago.

Another good article Fly!

Well done! Extra props for the Twain.

The Fly wrote:

Those who create and market game technology are fond of proclaiming that their products will deliver compelling, transcendent gaming experiences. Which is completely ridiculous, of course. It's like saying that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is majestic because Michelangelo had some really kick-ass paint.

Excellent article. You've managed to expose some deeper layers of the traditional graphics-versus-gameplay dispute. As you say, "The challenge, then, is in maintaining an appreciation of the creative and inspiring aspects of gaming." And that feels to me like a harder thing to achieve as time passes.

I like your final opinion on Twain's words, too.

Enjoyable as usual, Adam. Seeing as how this is the first new article with the headshot avatar, I'd like to thank Sway for doing them up. They're awesome!

Good one, Mosca. I think that we see a lot more talk about the technical actors and shortcomings of games for the same reason that most Hollywood prpoducers are obsessed with breasts, rather than the more creative aspects of their medium; because the elements that make good art good and bad art bad are so illusive that they are nearly impossible to quantify. And yet, we know one or the other when we see it.

Certis wrote:

Enjoyable as usual, Adam. Seeing as how this is the first new article with the headshot avatar, I'd like to thank Sway for doing them up. They're awesome!

Wait... Sway is alive?

Personally I find that technical familiarity increases aesthetic appreciation in gaming. If knowledge of the terms anisitropic filtering, anti-aliasing, procedural physics, etc. hinders you're experience when you don't really know what they mean, I suggest googling them.

A better understanding of these terms won't make a poor game fun. Far Cry's achievements, for instance, only annoy me as it is a showcase of how to waste technical advancement. On the other hand Half Life 2's procedural physics animation system can't be appreciated without a minimal understanding the the process, or at least a little experience animating the old fashioned way.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

If knowledge of the terms anisitropic filtering, anti-aliasing, procedural physics, etc. hinders you're experience when you don't really know what they mean, I suggest googling them.

Twain's argument was the opposite: that ignorance is bliss, and that knowledge of the technical underpinnings of gameplay takes away the magic.

A better understanding of these terms won't make a poor game fun.

Exactly! And I don't think they necessarily make a good game better, either.

Half Life 2's procedural physics animation system can't be appreciated without a minimal understanding the the process, or at least a little experience animating the old fashioned way.

I guess maybe the effort and technical craft that went into developing the system can't fully be appreciated without some knowledge of the process. But generally it seems like you could be completely ignorant of physics or animation systems and still marvel at the level of realistic interaction that HL2 offers.

TheFly wrote:

I don't want to come across as some cranky Luddite, bent on returning gaming to the eight-bit era. I love gaming tech, and I'm as excited as the next guy about the prospect of a new generation of hardware and games. But I long for the day when technical considerations are eclipsed by attention to actual content, and games are appreciated first and foremost for the experiences they provide, rather than for the technology that brings them to life.

While I completely agree with your article's general thesis (and found the article to be well written and exceptionally readable as well) I have to be a bit contentious about this one point. (And honestly, it is more that I have a bone to pick the common perceptions regarding the state of the industry than with anything you really touched on here.)

Did "that day" ever really exist? The day which all gamers seem to eventually look back on, eyes clouded with nostalgia, and say "damn, things were better then." Was there really a time when people looked first for creative innovation when playing (or even designing) games with a greater frequency than they do now? Or than they did in 2000? Or in 1995?

Now, I am perhaps a bit younger than most others who frequent this board, and my own personal experience only goes back as far as the NES (with vague memories of my older brother's Atari 2600), but I think I have been around long enough to firmly state that I don't really buy it. It seems to me that both technical and creative innovation have come in unpredictable spurts; sometimes they have been tied together, other times maybe not so much, and unquestionably the creative spurts occur with less frequency than the technical ones.

But is there any less interest now in creative innovation than there was 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years ago? I don't think so. Yes,

1. we see a lot of sequels, licenses, and franchise games these days,

2. publishers are wary (and perhaps rightfully so, given that they are in business to make money first, and games second) of investing in new concepts, and

3. the majority of gamers seem more than content to pass by many of the creative gems that do actually get published.

But when has this not been true? Has the increase in production costs really changed anything? Think back to the days to the NES, SNES, and Genesis, and consider the three points I mentioned above.

1. There were still lots of sequels, sh*tty licensed games, and franchises. How many hundreds of awful, derivative, asinine platformers came out for every Mario or Sonic game? And how many mind-numbingly bad racing games for every F-Zero or Rock and Roll Racing? And I'll be damned if Madden wasn't a best selling game back in those days too.

2. Publishers have always and will always be interested in the bottom line first, and this will almost always be at odds with the creative impulse. However, there will always be exceptions to this rule too; some companies, such as Nintendo, will continue to recognize and take advantage of the fact that there is a market for new ideas. Look no further than about a dozen games that came out for the DS this year if you think publishers won't support innovation these days. sh*t, look at the entire concept of the Revolution, for that matter. Also, while EA may be a powerful argument that big business is sucking the life out of game development, you only have to look towards a few of their major competitors (Ubisoft or Take-Two) to see a bit of evidence to the contrary. Yes, they also rely heavily on franchises and licenses as well, but they also take some surprising chances as well.

3. Again I must ask, has there really ever been a time that this wasn't the case? Even before gaming went mainstream, it was still the case that plenty of worthy games went unnoticed by the average gamer. How many people played Uniracers for the SNES? Or Gunstar Heroes for the Genesis? Many people here may have, but I bet you don't know many other people who did.

Of course, I can't say that nostalgia does not cloud my senses from to time as well. But I think that at least in this case, we only manage to blind ourselves to the the good things that are going on in the present when we look to the past wearing rose colored glasses.

But I long for the day when technical considerations are eclipsed by attention to actual content, and games are appreciated first and foremost for the experiences they provide, rather than for the technology that brings them to life.
Did "that day" ever really exist? The day which all gamers seem to eventually look back on, eyes clouded with nostalgia, and say "damn, things were better then."

I know you said it wasn't really specific to this article, but it's worth mentioning that Fly was referring to some day in the future, not reminiscing about the past.

Oops. I read "were" when he wrote "are." That makes a lot more sense given the context of the rest of the paragraph, as a matter of fact. Better get my eyes checked or something.

Anyway, my rant against the dangerous allure of becoming a grumpy old man (or woman) gamer still stands. However, when I was a kid, I had to walk five miles through the snow up hill both ways to play pong, and I liked it, gosh darnit.

The Fly wrote:
Danjo Olivaw wrote:

If knowledge of the terms anisitropic filtering, anti-aliasing, procedural physics, etc. hinders you're experience when you don't really know what they mean, I suggest googling them.

Twain's argument was the opposite: that ignorance is bliss, and that knowledge of the technical underpinnings of gameplay takes away the magic.

I like Twain's argument as it applies to riverboating and other subjects, and I'm glad you presented it as I'd never read it before. I'm saying Twain's argument does not apply to gaming, at least not directly. I can see where getting mired in the settings of a game like Far Cry for hours can ruin the fun, but I don't think tweaking settings is equivalent to technical understanding.

Here's one reason why: Mastery. There are no masters when it comes to making video games. The best of the developers out there are still pioneers. They're not making perfect artisans of a craft, but mad scientists taking chances, making mistakes, and generally advancing the medium through the violent process of experimentation.

Take for instance the old cry for more polygons. Years past that was the obvious solution to rendering a more interesting scene. But then bump-mapping hits the stage, creating a much easier path to detail. Genius!

Half of the fun to a great game is figuring out how they did it. Maybe I'm a fluke and for everybody else ignorance is still bliss. For me, the unveiling of reinvention is giddying.

After re-reading your (very well written) article it seems I don't disagree by much:

I'm similarly convinced that gaming culture's fetishistic attention to technical matters doesn't have to rob us of the ability to appreciate gaming as a medium for creative expression. But I do think it makes it more difficult.

I will agree that a techno-fetishistic approach to games can hinder appreciation if it's the first angle at which you look at a new game. For the initial experience I just want to jump in and play it.

Copingsaw is correct, fetishistic is a great word. Just as hard to write as it is to say out loud.

Copingsaw is correct, fetishistic is a great word. Just as hard to write as it is to say out loud.

Supercala-fetishistic-expialadocious. If you say it loud enough, you'll aways sound precocious.

The Fly wrote:
Copingsaw is correct, fetishistic is a great word. Just as hard to write as it is to say out loud.

Supercala-fetishistic-expialadocious. If you say it loud enough, you'll aways sound precocious.

I had to google "precocious" but after I did that became recursively funny. Then I noticed you had sigged me so now I take back anything I said that implied that your article was off base. You're obviously a genius.

All of these postulations and it makes my brain return to one Wolfe theme; you can't go home again.

We try to justify our wavering devotion to gaming in techincal overtones, but in reality it's often the culmination of years of being jaded by gaming - desparate to recapture some of that OMG! factor of our youth we had with Space Invaders, or Little Computer People, or Joust, or Riddle of the Sphinx, or Super Mario Brothers... when nothing could prepare us for the fact that we were *doing stuff* , actually doing things that affected those little people (pixels) on screen.

We try to bury it in wraps of "AA this and anistropic that and blur motion sub pixel shading that", when the truth is often that we've been there, seen that, done that, and we've lost something.. as Twain says. We might enjoy, imbibe, even love games... but how many of us are ready to say that we will forgo all obligations to stay up all night to beat Contra, or Dragon Warrior, or Kid Icarus? Whether it results from the blessing (or curse, as your viewpoint may be) of marriage and children, marital obligations, adult situations, the days when you could stay up all night, passing a controller bleary-eyed back and forth with a pre-pubescent buddy are probably gone.

Do you find that this is true or false? Have your memories of the overall most fun time you've had gaming favored earlier memories or recent memories as the technology that brings us our games grows more sophisticated?

Not appreciating a game (especially graphics) because you can't tweak an older pc to run the latest and greatest at full detail is similar to not liking NASCAR because you keep taking a pinto to compete in the races. You're not getting the full experience, but this is not something that directly relates to the diminished capacity of fun in the activity itself (except your own)?

The more I think about it, the less I buy the arguement that obsession over knowledge in and of itself ruins the game experience. Technical understanding and appreciation hasn't reduced my appreciation for the games. It may with other things such as popular music or the general sound of languages, but not for games. Hell, if you don't understand basic concepts to what's considered "art", or perhaps what makes a good wine, you won't appreciate it quite as much as people who do.

But for whatever it's worth, I think games were more fun back then. Still are in many cases (and this is true with knowledge on sprites / pixels / assembly / etc). Playing through Contra in the arcade, or Street Fighter 2 to me is much more immediately enjoyable than Call of Duty whateveritisnow. Is it still considered nostalga when you actively play the games today instead of just singing "Memories"?

zeroKFE wrote:

Oops. I read "were" when he wrote "are." That makes a lot more sense given the context of the rest of the paragraph, as a matter of fact. Better get my eyes checked or something.

Anyway, my rant against the dangerous allure of becoming a grumpy old man (or woman) gamer still stands. However, when I was a kid, I had to walk five miles through the snow up hill both ways to play pong, and I liked it, gosh darnit.

I agree with what you are saying, but you seem to be missing the point of the article. The longing is not for a time when games were good, but a time when what went into making a game good was somethng we never thought about, so we enjoyed the game for the game's sake.

Jayhawker wrote:
zeroKFE wrote:

Oops. I read "were" when he wrote "are." That makes a lot more sense given the context of the rest of the paragraph, as a matter of fact. Better get my eyes checked or something.

Anyway, my rant against the dangerous allure of becoming a grumpy old man (or woman) gamer still stands. However, when I was a kid, I had to walk five miles through the snow up hill both ways to play pong, and I liked it, gosh darnit.

I agree with what you are saying, but you seem to be missing the point of the article. The longing is not for a time when games were good, but a time when what went into making a game good was somethng we never thought about, so we enjoyed the game for the game's sake.

I think you nailed it, n00b. This is a subject I've had on my mind for a while, but I think that all of us here, by virtue of the fact that we are here - at a gaming site - are far too intrinsically interested in the underpinnings of game mechanincs and the industry, etc. to ever be "back" at that place.

This will never happen, but if I suddenly disappear for weeks or years that is where I'll be - off enjoying the bliss of ignorance.

Fletcher wrote:

This will never happen, but if I suddenly disappear for weeks or years that is where I'll be - off enjoying the bliss of ignorance.

A fitting epitaph!

Jayhawker wrote:

I agree with what you are saying, but you seem to be missing the point of the article. The longing is not for a time when games were good, but a time when what went into making a game good was somethng we never thought about, so we enjoyed the game for the game's sake.

Nah, I got the point of the article... I just felt that it dovetailed nicely into one of my current pet peeves about gaming enthusiasts.

Of course, as I acquiesced in response to Certis, without my convenient misreading of the last paragraph of the article, my rant is a bit of a non-sequitur. It still felt good to get it out, though.

Jayhawker wrote:

The longing is not for a time when games were good, but a time when what went into making a game good was somethng we never thought about, so we enjoyed the game for the game's sake.

It has been really interesting to see this thread develop, because although I wrote the article without a hint of nostalgia (I was looking forward, not backward), I can easily think back to the games I played as a kid and see how, as you put it, I enjoyed the games simply for their own sake.

I was actually thinking about how no other creative medium is put under the same scrutiny, from a technical standpoint, as gaming. The content in cinema, photography, literature, sculpture, etc. is taken at face value, to a much greater degree. There are a number of reasons this is the case, not the least of which is the fact that the technologies that drive the underlying craft in these other mediums have, to varying degrees, stabilized to the point where the matter of greatest import is the content itself, rather than the delivery of that content. With gaming, much of the struggle (and cost) still lies in simply making a game work properly. The content is secondary.

It's difficult to imagine at this point that high-end gaming tech will every reach the point where, like photography or literature, for example, the technology required to deliver the content is highly functional and readily accessible. This upcoming hardware generation is going to provide greatly enhanced graphics, but it's also going to demand incredible technical resources. So here again, in a different respect, the technical aspects of gaming interfere with the maturity of the medium as an art.