My Week as a Game Designer
My shared love for digital media (videogames, flash movies, animation, interactive narratives, and so on) and literature (poetry, novels, epics, and so on) led me to become a student of digital humanities. Throughout my studies I have written on the effect of games and gaming on education and language acquisition, the effect of videogames on behavior, and the social implication of videogames. I have also done literary criticism of videogames and other forms of digital narrative. Still, one issue (or non-issue) regarding this field of study has weighted on my mind like no other: the popular notion that videogames are not a legitimate form of art. I recall having read in some Kotaku article that videogames will never be respected as an art form until “legit critics” who write texts of quality about games manage to become organized and establish a school of thought. This, of course, implies that the sub-field of videogame studies does not have any legit critics able to engage in elevated discourse and, essentially, do for videogames what Northrop Frye and Bentley J.R. did for Blake or Noam Chomsky did for theoretical linguistics. Added to this are the widespread notions, fueled by the ignorant commentary of biased news actors and the naïve statement of a small minority of game designers, that videogames are nothing more than toys for children (as Yu Suzuki, creator of Sonic the Hedgehog, has often remarked) that hold no artistic, cultural, or societal value beyond mindless entertainment (as suggested by several Fox, CNN, and NBC news actors). Despite the excellent theory and criticism of scholars like Jesper Juul, Janet Murray, and Ian Bogost and the applied research of academics like James Paul Gee, David Hutchinson, and myself (although I’m more of a junior scholar), to argue that there are videogame critics on par with Harold Bloom or Northrop Frye would be an exaggeration. Certainly, scholars’ contributions to the field of digital humanities and game studies have been priceless, but more established academic fields – like literature – have had centuries to flourish. However, to argue that there are no worthwhile critics is a flat and outright lie. While the field might still be lacking its Howard Bloom, I feel no shame in asserting that the videogames have its fair of Drydens, Lockes, Humes, and Johnsons, and I know that in the next decade the field will see an emergence in critics that will eclipse Bloom and Frye.
Still, despite knowing this, it still irks me when people say things like “videogames are not legitimate art”. This is a conversation that I had with some people during the winter break. They would argue that the true arts are painting, writing, and sculpting. They would say that these artistic practices require dedication, knowledge of aesthetics, and an eye for beauty – among other skills and sensibilities. I argued that game design required all of the skills required for painting, writing, and sculpting, but I wasn’t speaking out of knowledge. Certainly, as an avid gamer of 28 years it seemed to me that to make a game like Final Fantasy would require writing skills in order to craft a coherent plot, sculpting skills in order to make character designs, knowledge of architecture in order to create the setting, knowledge of painting in order to color everything accordingly, and knowledge of aesthetics in order to pull everything together into a complete text. Games like Flower, Shadow of the Colossus, and Okami have shown that a sense of beauty and a sensibility for symmetry and aesthetics is necessary to make deep, meaningful worlds. That’s the critic and gamer writing. As I previously stated, my comments came from someone inexperienced in making games.
It seems to me that the best critics, in film, art, literature, or any field, are those who have experience producing the art. Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, and C.S. Lewis are just a few who have engaged both in creative and critical writing. Following the example of these great minds, and being someone who writes about videogames, I figured I should go through the experience of actually making a game. I spent the last two weeks of my winter vacation learning to use the Unreal Engine Development Kit and attempting to make my own game with it. As a result I have come to the conclusion that videogames are art and I have found a newfound respect for the artists who call themselves videogame designers.
The first thing one needs when making art is something to create that art with. Just as sculptors need hammer and chisel, writers need pen and paper, and painters need brush and canvas, game designers need a computer. However, the computer is only one of the many instruments needed. Additional materials include art software like Adobe Photoshop, Maya, or 3D Studio Max, animation creation and editing software like Blender and Adobe Premier, and a game engine like Unreal Development Kit (UDK). My choices were the freely available Blender and UDK. I tried to jump right in and make a game, but as it is with everything, it’s impossible to “just do it” without any training, so I spent 20 hours reading and watching tutorials on how to use UDK. My learning process was slow. After 3 hours I managed to make a block, and after 3 more hours I could make basic shapes and stairs. It took me roughly 15 hours after I finished reading the documentation to make three rooms and a hallway. These, however, looked horrible. Their size was not in proportion to the character, the lighting was horrible, and there was no context to the three rooms. It was the game design equivalent of a badly written short story or a painting made entirely of solid colors with no shading. I kept using UDK and understanding it until I managed to figure out lighting, placement, and basic geometry. After a week of practice I managed to create three rooms in what I hoped would be a small temple on top of a hill overlooking a small settlement. It was at this point – after I had obtained basic knowledge of how to design worlds – that I discovered why I wouldn’t be able to finish my project. In order to fill up my world with the objects that I want in it – trees, grass, decorations – I would have to master Blender. This is a task that many take six months to a year or more doing. In order to make the walls of the houses, the ground, and the sky look like I want them to, I would have to master Photoshop in order to make textures – another six months to a year’s worth of time. In order to create the characters I want in my game I would have to learn to combine Blender with UDK scripting – which can be done in a month’s time but might take several months to master. Finally, in order to make everything fall together into a cohesive world, I would need to master UDK’s physics engine and geometry modes – tasks which might take a few months. These, of course, are tasks only related to the visual aspect of the game. In order to make the game PLAY as I wish it to would take extra time, and to make it tell the story I want it to tell will take at least a year. I have no doubt that if I worked on my title an hour a day I could make something resembling my vision in a year’s time, and that if I dedicated 8 hours a day to it I could have the entirety of what I want to do in 6 to 9 months. This is, of course, after I manage to learn Photoshop, Blender, and every other tool needed to create truly original work using UDK. I know that if I had someone to build models and animations for me and I could focus on making the game world and building the narrative, I could finish the project in 6 months’ time. However, I’m not a game designer. Despite my love of the medium, my passion is for reading (and playing) and writing. I will try to finish my project when I have time, but given my responsibilities teaching and writing I don’t think it will be finished anytime soon. Still, I would like to say that having gone through the experience of learning to use a game engine and trying to make a game has given me a new perspective on its practice. Now more than ever I see videogames as art, and now I feel even better equipped than before to defend that position.
To finish, I invite you to download UDK (just google it, it’s free) and see what you can do with it. You might be surprised at what you can create, and it might just give you a new perspective on gaming and game design.
Now that vacations are over, my next posts will be about academia related stuff – namely literary theory. But before we go there, check out videos of my progress with UDK (the first two) and the lovely kind of environments that can be created and I hope to strive for in the future.
My first attempt:
My three rooms: this is as far as I’ve gotten.
What I hope to design like in some future:
Go on, I dare you to say that this is not art.