Unkempt Activity

I visited the Game Developers Conference this year and was fortunate enough to listen to Eric Chahi’s Another World retrospective. Another World remains one of the most beautiful and forward-looking games I’ve ever played.  It was a game with a fantastic cinematic feel, made before games with cinematic feels even existed, and commits itself so wholeheartedly in creating a bizarre universe you’re aching to explore.

Something I loved hearing: after Eric Chahi created Another World’s introduction sequence, he then thought, “okay, so the character gets zapped and disappears. I guess I now better figure out what happens to him.” In hindsight, this improvisational style seems obvious.  First you’re racing from a cave flood, the next moment you’re in the cockpit of a gladiatorial warmachine.  I have no doubt Eric surprised even himself during development, and it’s that spontaneity that gives Another World so much charm.

On my own projects, I usually begin with a rough idea and just start implementing it.  I find the most interesting ideas never just float around in the ether. They’re buried inside the creation process, waiting to be unearthed.

A broad example is level creation. At one time, I used to spend a lot of effort in the paper sketch phase, planning out how a level would work. The catch was: once I laid down my first few blocks in the world and viewed it from my character’s point of view, I’d see new, better connections everywhere.  ”Ooh, adding a tunnel going under there would work great!” That unplanned tunnel then starts the domino chain-reaction redesign of the neighboring areas, and the paper sketch becomes instantly outdated.

(Though, I do think paper sketches and documentation are important.  It serves both as a good starting point and a way to get a grasp of the high-level “big picture.” If there was a way to feed paper documentation into a machine and pop out a completed game, that would make the process a whole lot easier, albeit less fun.)

A friend once described this approach as Termite Art-esque, referring to the Manny Farber White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art essay.

Good work usually arises where the creators seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity. […] The best examples of termite art appear in places other than films, where the spotlight of culture is no where in evidence, so that the craftsmen can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.

Though I’m completely bastardizing the point of the essay, I love that description of nibbling forward purely for the love of nibbling. Is it a smooth ride?  No.  Will it function well? Probably not.  Will it appeal to a mass audience?  Not a snowball’s chance in hell.

But it’s damn satisfying on a personal level. There’s great joy in diving headfirst toward a direction you think is interesting.  That joy is reflected in your work, and players instantly recognize it. When people write to me asking about game development, the best suggestion I always have is: just start making something!