February 26, 2008

Message Me, Videogames

by Nick Montfort · , 7:17 am

“I have poured the message of love and peace and happiness in Space Channel 5. These were the emotions and desires of this game.” -Tetsuya Mizuguchi

“Well, there are lots of message games coming out now. … [but] a lot of people like cake.” -Erik Wolpaw

What does it mean for a video game to have messages? Do any good ones have messages? Are there games that aren’t really fun to play, don’t have messages, but are still good games? That is, can games have anything besides message and gameplay?

Following up on recent discussion, I’ll describe here why I think Portal has more of a message than Passage. (I’ve tried to keep the spoilers to a minimum in this one…)

“Rrrrrgh,” says half the Internet, “Portal is the optimal game and it doesn’t need a message. Thinking about messages is stupid.” “Mmmmmf,” says another one-fifth of the Internet, “it does have a message! It has a message about existential despair, about a character being tormented for no reason, about the destruction of god by man.” “AAAAAAAAA!” says most of the rest of the Internet.

When I wrote my recent post about Portal, describing it as excellent and lauding its design accomplishments but not being effusive enough in my praise, I was careful not to deny that the game has a message. This seems to be consistently denied by Portal developers, though. Wolpaw sets up Portal as a contrast to “message games” and none of the developer commentary says anything about the meaning of the game.

I simply described the game as “purportedly message-free.” Besides being suceptible to the same existentialist readings that most video games, and most situations in life, can be, I think the game does actually say something. I agree with Joe that the game is not without a message, but is “underdeveloped” in this regard. (And, yes, I do appreciate all the comments from the Internet.) And I think this aspect of the game is underdeveloped because everybody working on the game more or less attempted to avoid it. The result is a very funny and sinister message, delivered well, but still, one that is stifled. This message could have been developed into a commentary on post-industrialization and technology of the sort that is seen in Bad Machine, or to say something about people’s relationship to training in modern society, or to comment on how we distinguish “good” and “bad” technologies. But, sure, it says that technology both oppresses us and liberates us. It says that you can overcome challenges by making connections instead of deploying your own firepower.

Passage, on the other hand, doesn’t have a message. At least, it has very little in the way of message. It has empty treasure chests that look like they’re going to have treasure inside. But this is not a pronouncement from the game developer. It’s not even a wry or funny comment. Instead, it’s something you can read meaning into in various ways:

Passage offers an environment that people can make meaning out of. Obviously there are some limits to the kind of meaning we’re going to be able to make: The treasure chests are not silver spaceships launching and taking us away to distant star systems. But diverting to pick one of them up also doesn’t trigger a cut-scene where we get praised for our wily discovery. It doesn’t make us more evil, or more good, influencing how others behave toward us. It’s just something which we can think about as relating to life. It’s pretty easy to think about it as being related to life, in fact, in multiple ways, whatever our value system.

So I put Passage in the category of games that aren’t fun, don’t really have messages, but are nevertheless successful because their concept works – they are ways of thinking about something else. In this case, the something else is life.

I did begin by mentioning Space Channel 5. Many of the best games with messages combine fun and relevant play with messages that are effectively portrayed in the fictional world (cut scenes, game spaces and encounters, and so on). The gameplay and the fiction relate to one another and to the message. I discover a plot, my seeming enemies turn out to be my friends, and as I discover these things, I am united with the world by dancing with others. Space Channel 5 is utterly unlike both Portal and Passage, but Mizuguchi isn’t kidding when he says the game has a message. And just as the gameplay accomplishments of Portal couldn’t have come together without the fundamental design innovation made in Narbacular Drop, the message of Space Channel 5 and the concept of Passage are there by design, and it took effort to conceive and nourish them.