Nikolay Dybovsky, CEO of Ice-Pick Lodge:
On the Threshold of the Bone House, or as Game Becomes Art
(Report from Russian Game Developers’ Conference 2005)
I would like to share an important idea with you and try to explain where this idea comes from. Its wording consists of a dozen words all of which I will try to explain now to avoid confusion when you start to argue and criticize. Or if, on the contrary, you choose to accept it, we will be positive that we are talking about one and the same thing.
Our studio, Ice-Pick Lodge, emerged only a few years ago and it happened so that it was conceived with a manifest with the name of “Deep Game”. The manifest is rather small, - it is only one page long. It stated that the game would soon make a point-blank step to change its attribute characteristic to an absolutely different form of human activity, of act of art. And I was implying the activity of not the developers or the author of the game, but of the player himself.
This manifest soon aroused vivid interest. I remember how I presented a design document that was preceded by the abovementioned manifest to various distributors and experts that had been working for years in the gaming industry. They were interested and stated that that was the same path that cinematography had taken shortly before, and that it was high time talking and doing something about it.
Then we began making Pathologic, the creation of which was long and painful. The theme announced in Deep Game was soon forsaken. At one point I realized that, even among my closest comrades-in-arms who as it may have seemed shared this idea with me, it is long lost, forgotten and not interesting to anyone.
So now there appeared the manifest of Pyotr Prokharenko, who has written about the same matter but in other words, even, somehow, from another side. Suddenly, discussion of the like reports burst from every side, like a flurry. Some reaction appeared to Pyotr’s manifest, an article on author’s games was written, and I was asked questions on this topic.
This speech, just as some other works that I have written recently, is a result of some important dispute. It is debated by a vast number of people, for the theme of the player’s creative activity within the game seems to get on people’s nerves. This is a good sign. In the course of this dispute I felt that there exists a front, and a vast one, with serious people being part of it.
Like yesterday I was astonished to find that Sergey Orlovsky who, on the contrary, seems to stay away from such discourse, also made a statement that a niche for such games is inevitable, that they have always be, are and will be present, and will never face being stony-broke.
So this entire large front of people, all of us looked at each other to understand that we are thinking closely the same things, and that all of it is obviously relevant, important, and real.
Then the question arose: “What now?” Yes, gaming industry is to become art, it requires author’s game design. Yes, there is some stagnation to be seen in the industry that everyone acknowledges, and the game is to perform a whole new leap to its new qualitative characteristics. “What is to be done now?”
I will try to tell you how I myself would approach this task, for I do have a plan. I will just present you some new views on the video game. I will be talking about game in general, but we will take it as default that the topic of the conversation is the video game.
Two important reservations are to be made:
Firstly, I will not try to prove that this is necessary to anyone. People ask if we need this at all.
I will take it for granted that, definitely, many do not need that at all, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And, I will not try to prove that game as a form of art, deep game, has a right to exist. I am taking it for an axiom that not only does it have this right, but it exists already. This is not to be discussed.
Secondly, I do not want you to look at it from the angle of financial gain. This is an important aspect, but people are recently focalizing on it rather than anything else.
This is doubtless an interesting point but that is not what we are to discuss. We are only talking about the structure. I will offer a new section on some things that we are used to, will raise some curtain. It is possible that the things I will be talking about will be so trivial that many will find them hackneyed and obvious.
Now let’s begin. Why this report is called so? What kind of bone house is that? I will recite something that I’ve read in an incredible book. It is a book by a man whose name is Vladimir Propp, a literary critic and scholar. It is called The Historical Roots Of Fairy Tale. The book dissects what every fairy tale that we have known since our early childhood is, be it The Magic Swan Geese* or Koschei the Immortal**. What is there behind the hero’s leaving his home, his passing the Cabin On Chicken Legs***, his matchmaking, happy marriage, the riddles he is given by his magic helpers, etc. Propp is a world-famous scientist and his ideas are used by everyone now. He supposed that the fairy tale derives from the initiation ritual.
The initiation ritual is a specific primeval phenomenon. A person who, by the laws of accepted tribal moral, was not yet considered a sterling member of the society, had to pass a frightful, cruel and, according to our contemporary vision, inexpressibly painful ritual. He left for the woods and achieved a specific structure there that was called “the dead house” or “the bone house”. This is the same thing that the Cabin On Chicken Legs is, and Baba Yaga that all we know equals to the dead. The dead mistress of the hereafter.
The young man then died in that house, that is, he died in a purely symbolic way. He was awfully tortured in The Bone House: mutilated, lacerated with knives, hung under the roof on thongs that were stuck through his skin, roasted alive… to put it short, these youngsters were symbolically killed. After that they, all wrapped in numerous taboos, returned from this house to their tribe as hunters, warriors. That is, a boy entered the house, the boy died inside this house, and a warrior, member of the tribe came outside.
The bone house is a myth of some sort. This is an important structure that a man has to pass to be born in a new way. All that was happening to the person in that house was but a game. He was played death. He was killed in a game-like way, and in a game-like way he was reborn. And he was reborn as a better man, with a higher combatant value, as a more necessary person, and he then could communicate with the ghosts. He could perform rites and was now closer to the celestial world. After all this symbolic dying and resurrection the man could perceive important godly truths.
Initiation has left its trail on all of our history. It still exists up to this day. Numerous institutes of our society repeat it. I believe that each man craves for the better, that every man is able to achieve a very high level of perfection. And I think that many of you will agree with that.
Of course this path to perfection is not passed immediately. There are people who achieve the enlightenment all out of the sudden! They get it with an insight. But that is an extremely rare thing. In most cases it is a piecemeal way, and a painful one. Pristine people with their somewhat different perception took it as a symbolic death. You had to enter some deadly cabin and be reborn inside of it. So this process was perceived as something partite, not gradual.
(* a Russian folk tale, Aarne-Thompson Classification type 451. Girl neglects her younger brother who is then carried away by geese, and she has to overcome symbolic obstacles to bring him back home;
** in Slavic folklore, an archetypal male antagonist who is generally described as abductor of the hero’s wife. According to Propp, his function is to do evil onto the hero or his family, thus providing the movement of the plot. Some sources (e.g. Max Vasmer) point out that “Koschei” is derived from the root that denotes “bones”. His attribute, “The Immortal” implies that he is undead and it takes extreme symbolic measures to terminate him;
*** in Slavic folklore, the house of Baba Yaga, an old hag or witch that may be hostile or, rarer, friendly to the hero. In Propp’s theory, her function is to provide the hero with the means to fulfill his quest. Interpreter)
What is art? Let’s explain what I call art, to begin with. Cast away this entire aura that surrounds this image that is connected with museum, with painting, with everything that comes on the top of your head when you hear the word art.
Art is activity that soaks all our everyday household life. It is not some elite high side of the human existence. It is some form of conscience, exactly that activity the aim of which is to reach perfection. Hereby I propose to take art in a most practical and utilitarian way.
Talking about games, I am very interested in how art works. It may sound cynical to some extent, but I am not interested in art’s high status, that it is wonderful, divine, that it is for the chosen ones, for the refined. It is important that art is accessible, that it can help, that it is handy.
Art is very painful. If art is for real, then it is a painful and difficult process. The dialog of man with a piece of art is always a grave loss. Yes, absolutely, art gives pleasure and joy, and its terminal goal is happiness, but the man only achieves this happiness through anguish. This is the same as initiation. One can’t obtain another winding of spiritual perfection without torment.
It is also important that the initiation ritual is existent to this day. It is everywhere: getting a new job, entering a university, suffering a punishment. It is a form of rite that is dissolved in our life. In the twentieth century, even more so now, in the twenty-first century, it is bigger, more saturated than during the previous five centuries, from the Renaissance on. The myth reenters in the twentieth century gaining gigantic power over the man.
Art is the most precise, most just from of carrying out this ritual. It is that bone house, the frightful factory of death that guarantees you this death and guarantees you resurrection.
What is metamorphosis? This is a Greek word that means shapeshifting. But back in the day when Ovid and Apuleius wrote about it, the notion metamorphosis was aptly taken by the antique thought and began to be used in its ritual connotation, as qualitative change of man through passing specific gaming moments. The antique world passed the stage of pure ritual and created a new authentic form, a most saturated and gross one that was suitable for game mediation. It created ritualistic game moments so that metamorphosis would be achievable. For instance, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass is more of a game of initiation, but it is a fierce and sharp game that threatens the participant’s very life.
Game has not changed a yota since then. But it has obtained more pretence, non-reality. All these polygons streaking before our eyes in the monitor, chess, all these people moving across the board. They are only squares, they are nothing. But the activity itself, and because its roots lay in the ancient magic, guarantees the result. It is understandable that game is a totally different form of art, for the one who is addressed is involved in a totally different way.
The player. His role is indeed unpreceded. Maybe it is because the game has not awakened yet as a form of art, because there was no such conscience that would allow for the player and not the creator to be the main author of the piece of art. By creator I mean the medium who is involved in the shaping of this labyrinth, the architect of the bone house. The medium and the player himself – they meet each other in this house.
What are expressive means? The key word is means, as means to overcome, to knock down. When I talk about expressive means I will be implying the techniques.
The game possesses a large scale of techniques. Some of them were unknown for cinema or theatre, although it is them that we use as basis when we are building a game.
Theatre gave origin to drama, the conflict itself, and its notion in the game sphere. Cinema gave birth to all of the visualization, pictorial representation of all that is happening before the player’s eyes. But let’s forget about that.
The first and very simple game arsenals that are now the alphabet of the gaming industry were worked out a long time ago. Besides, if there are, say, twenty-six letters in the gaming alphabet, only three are known. There are learning books written about these three letters, these three signs are being intensely studied. But these are the simplest signs, let’s look for more! The more letters we have, the richer our language will be. The language of the game is totally undiscovered yet.
I suppose that we start from the first and most difficult means. The metamorphosis of the player. This is a sort of the fourth letter of our alphabet. It is known but only known in a very primitive way and in most cases through aggression. In the metamorphosis there lays the authorship of the player. The magical sacrament of metamorphosis appears in the game, if it is the Deep Game we are talking about. The presumed unreal, toy of a death during the game is the most valuable thing. But in the contemporary aspect of game with its reversibility, with its ability to save and reload all is being done for death to be taken as unreal; for this most valuable feature of the game to be negliged.
We may talk about two kinds of metamorphoses.
The first one is the metamorphosis of the hero, the alter ego that the player identifies himself with. Besides, this alter ego is not necessarily the ego of the hero that the game is played through. It may be a fixed point, or a group.
The second one is the metamorphosis of the world. The player transforms the game world, himself remaining unchanged at the same time. A person who is walking through the game must see how the outward things that lay vulnerable to his power are being transformed. The player identifies himself with the game opening doors, solving certain tasks. Their meaning must touch the actor so that the primary metamorphosis would be feasible.
The game has made its most productive steps on the way to art and what it now needs is conditionality. Whatever detailed the game may be and whatever detailed version of the world it may represent, whatever “real” an object may seem in the screen, the game is still not real. Its claims to pretend to be the reality are doomed.
The game mustn’t pretend to be real for that is what it will inevitably grow to be. This is that strangest abstract process of achieving victory. It implies shapeshifting, if the man himself feels that it is him who is involved in the gaming process and all of the objects he sees before his eyes are some kind of symbols. Same as in that bone house, those ritualistic paraphernalia that were necessary to destroy and resurrect the man. The game, as in “Deep Game” and not just a pastime, will only gain from this. By no means am I saying that it is good for all games.
Another expressive means that is, without doubt, used excessively, but used without thought. There is that tendency that pure accident, randomness is leaving the game. Pure luck evaporates and the game leans to predictability. Accident and conditionality will work well in the game as nowhere else, better than in cinema and theatre. Let’s try to make pure accident an oriented object, make it exactly the expressive means which will allow the player to cark his victory, this process of metamorphosis.
The terminal goal that I am driving at is the notion of conflict. Conflict is a clash of variously oriented forces, the player being involved in one of them, and he further becomes that force. This is the main thing in the game. This well-played, well-directed conflict justifies all the visual effects. It is the conflict, neither the superficial attractiveness nor the hit title that will make the man one hundred per cent involved in the game. A literately directed conflict means that, as we are laying out its blueprints, we in the first place are planning the terminal effect that winning this conflict will have on the player. Take most action games, shooter games, for example. They do have conflict in them, but it is a conflict of a knife cutting through butter. Yes, there are some instances in a shooter that distract you from achieving the finale. Braking through these obstacles you make your way step by step to the closing video clip. But this is not a kind of conflict that will shock, that will come back to you. This victory will remain in the game and, having walked through this conflict, you will not be changed in a slightest way.
I presume that for game to become art, for the skeleton of the game to become akin of that of the abovementioned bone cabin, one has to do this minimal thing. The game must construct a painful disharmony. This conflict is to be aimed at what the person is painstakingly living through, at this unfinished view that one sees before himself.
I will give an example. I will start placing glasses one atop of another on the edge of this table. When they reach the critical mass, I am sure that many will feel an urging impulse to dash to the table and catch this tower, or at least to push it down to stop this situation grow on you, for it is unbearable for a long time.
If the player carries such actions, if he turns disharmony into harmony, he will begin to create. Destruction is ill not only because it is bad or evil but also because it is ineffective from the point of view of the metamorphosis.
When the man entered the bone house he died there, not demolished the house. If the youth burned the house even before he entered the door he would return to his tribe as a boy, and the tribe would kick him out into the wood to the site of fire. And that is what’s happening. Let’s do everything possible, so that, having walked the whole length of the road to the victory, passing all of the obstacles, be it monsters, doors, labyrinths or puzzles, let it be time, after all! let the player who has passed all of it feel himself a Creator. Let him feel that he restored harmony.
If the player feels that entire disharmony that the author has left him in an unstable state, all this awful, ill situation that should not remain the same, - then he will not be able to distract himself from the game, will not be able to leave the computer, leave the game forever.
And if, having walked the whole path, the player will realize that he will have restored harmony with his ritualistic or symbolic decisions, will see the result with his own eyes, see this small world change, - that’s where the game becomes art and the player the coauthor. And that is only the beginning. It is only the fourth letter of the alphabet.
And this is it. I just wanted to share something that I feel.