Testing Chambers

22 January 2012

Robert Yang recently did a series of interview with game designers over at Rock, Paper Shotgun. Entitled “Level With Me”, it examined designers’ approach to their work, whilst culminating in them adding elements to a Portal 2 level that Yang was designing with them.

Having realised the completed level in a mod – bookended by two of his own – Yang has written up some commentary on the reaction to it. He’s a bit frustrated and sad. And I think I would be too, if I were him.

I was shocked, then, by the most common line of criticism I saw: a refusal to read, an insistence that a level without a puzzle-y Portal puzzle is a bad level. It’s like the rhetorical equivalent of donkeyspace. I literally can’t go through the mental gymnastics required to conclude that challenge is the only interesting thing about first person single player games. Comments like that make me miss all the people who said it was pretentious; I want a higher level of criticism.

That’d be a nice enough quotation in Pinboard, but the whole piece is great, and had enough meaty thought in it that I had to break it out a bit more. It especially chimed with my beliefs around games as mechanical systems, and a literacy in those systems being what emerges from learning how to read them.

I don’t think I’m demanding much of players because we all already have the ability to read just by virtue of playing. Frank Lloyd Wright could read houses; as Portal players, you know how to read Portal levels, and you know when Portal levels don’t make sense. What if we used the “words” of a Portal level in different ways, to say different things? What if we used the “words” that form video games, and used them in different ways?

I think I agree with that. And Yang goes on to talk about materials a bit:

Puzzles and mechanics (like narrative, graphics, or sound) are just different materials you can use. (I think Dan Pinchbeck said something like that.) It’s the house you build in the end that counts. If that house uses wood but not concrete, that’s okay.

But if you want to argue that the resulting house isn’t actually a house, by your narrow reductionist definition of “house,” and it’s “totalitarian and unamerican” like Frank Lloyd Wright said about the Farnsworth House, then just know that history, if it remembers any of us at all, will think you were a silly person. Or you can ignore how architecture had the same debate we’re having right now.

One of Yang’s great disappointments is one of literacy. At the end of the mod, you walk into another Test Chamber. Not one of the many Test Chambers in the Aperture complex – but the Black Mesa Test Chamber, from the very beginning of Half-Life. And so many players just didn’t notice; didn’t get the reference; didn’t see the point being made. They were illiterate in the medium they enjoy.

…maybe it’s a problem of education. We force kids to read Shakespeare; we should also force kids to play Myst, Fallout 2, Half-Life 1, Planescape: Torment, etc. and their ability to read and ask questions will be much richer for it. A “Game Studies AP” class might assign System Shock 1 and X-Com. I mean, if you play Battlefield 3 for hours every day, shouldn’t you, at the very least, know that its core design is practically untouched from the original Quake Team Fortress mod nearly 15 years ago?

Or, you know, I guess we could just keep letting those players get upset when a game calls them out for thinking / studying so little about this thing that they invest so much time into.

And I think that’s important. In the comments on Yang’s post, readers have pointed out the “difficulty” of doing that – that the medium restarts itself every n years or so in a “hardware generation”, that only players “actively engaged in critical play” care about that sort of thing.

I don’t think that matters. Very few works are solely referential: they may call out to history, but by dint of existence they are also their own thing. So some players are, of course, going to miss the Black Mesa reference. Level With Me still exists, still has something to say, but those players will have a different – perhaps, lesser – reading of it. But that doesn’t mean Yang should stop trying to make the point he believes players can read; he’s right to assume the level of literacy he does.

We have to fight the “forgetting every seven years” a little. We need to make sure that somehow, we talk about old games, educate one another on things they haven’t played. Fifty-odd years into electronic gaming, we shouldn’t already be at the Fahrenheit 451 point of having to each take it upon ourselves to memorise particular works, particular publishers. This isn’t retro fetishism; this is basic history – and basic historiography. And that’s important to a work.

So, you know, keep on reading games. Keep on reading games that didn’t come out this year. It’s all useful.