I went to a big hoopla a year ago
The Time I Went to GDC 2013 and Thought About the Relationships Between People and Ideas
Greg’s Amazing Journey
I’m sitting in an airport at 1:38am to catch a 6am flight, and it seems as good a time as any to update this woeful blog with all of the things that I’ve been playing, all the thoughts I’ve been having, and my fascinating opinions about various digital entertainments. I know, I know. I’m too kind.
I’m dubbing 2013 the year of the indie because, if memory serves me right, it’s the year that Steam initiated its Greenlight program and I called the guy who made Thomas Was Alone a capitalist pig (or something to that effect) on his blog. His support for the $100 solution to the Greenlight fiasco was particularly surprising to me, considering how he made an indie platformer that used two-pixel-tall blocks to represent the game’s characters. One would think that kind of decision would have something to do with his personal economics not allowing him to pay an artist, but I guess one benefit of the indie revolution is that even economically stable people can now get away with making games that have hard to like graphics.
Unless that was last year, in which case it was the year of the indie because it’s the year that I went to GDC for a day, for the awards show, where it was officially announced that it truly was The Year of the Indie.
I meant to write up my GDC trip at the time, the March before last March, but felt like what I had to say was pretty besides the point, and also generally known and understood. Looking at my notes, I see an entire page about hairstyles (general trend was a highly stylized & manicured form of sloppy/unkempt/could-use-a-cut, which was then followed by men in their mid-thirties with faux hawks), and a second page about pants (boot-cut or skinny-legged). The bulk of my notes are just descriptions of the company booths:
- Some mocap booth – huge open stage where a lady of slight build in a body-hugging black suit covered in ping-pong balls dances seductively. Lot of middle aged guys standing around the stage, watching her. Her face is somewhere between expressionless and angry
- People working the Kixeye booth wear a shirt that says “hiring bot” on the back. Cheekily dehumanizing. Would love to “intern”
- Riot Games has a strength-test-for-swag booth. Punch a punching bag that has a “strength meter” attached, get swag. There is a very long line for this. Bet everyone trained all year for their one chance to rumble with the bag in the Riot Octagon. The Riot Games Event That Made A Man Out Of *(insert local male with lingering masculinity issues here)*
- Long, very long line for Valve. Valve also has the most no-frills booth. Just a plain sign that says “Valve” in Calibri or something, & one guy taking applications. No decorations at all, just a black curtain. Guy is wearing plain jeans and a black polo. Bet if I stand close enough he’ll smell like a new car
- Crytek is marketing a very generic military shooter named Warface. Or is it WARFACE? The tagline is THE FACE OF WAR HAS CHANGED!!!!!!!!!! (Emphasis mine.) Plays like any given CoD/Battlefield. Not sure what their angle is, since CoD puts out a new game every single year.
- This booth has a giant plexiglass touchscreen that is exhibiting a game about molesting/poking an anime woman. The employee working this is female. Boy howdy, what a place-to-work/job-to-have. Also this giant touchscreen display is more interesting than the game. Is this a social experiment? To see how many people will molest her inappropriately on a giant screen in front of a woman? I can switch the anime women out and replace her with an anime dog, which is much more pleasant to harass. Zoiks. The associations this company is making.
Nothing really cohesive. Just the ongoing lowest common denominator branding and community building that goes on when “the industry” tries to manifest itself as a collective presence. The actual awards show is not really worth discussing. It was held in this cavernous concrete room and involved blue and purple lights, and a lot of dubstep. There was finger food and free booze. I got drunk with Andrew and convinced him to pilfer abandoned, half-full wine bottles from other tables so that we could get drunker. I intermittently heckled Tim Schafer for something like twenty minutes until I realized he was Tim Schafer, at which point I stopped.
Going on in the background of all this was the awards show itself, a huge pageant in which “the industry” was constantly being invoked, usually in the context of its transition from economic powerhouse to ground zero of an emerging artistic medium. As if this were a new idea, mind you. People have been arguing for the artistic viability of videogames for decades, and many have been succeeding at it handily. Interactive fiction is the most obvious and blatant example, but there are games from any generation on any system that embody aspects of what a Great Work in videogames might be like. This belief in the power of the medium is common knowledge for people in the industry; indeed, the romance of the medium and its artistry are pretty much the only things that keep them working in those sweatshops. So who gives a fuck, right? Why do a bunch of insiders need to be reminded of what they already know?
My feeling about GDC as a whole was that it was a metabody for “the industry,” a place where it could attempt to define itself on a professional level, beyond the inane image that it presents at the more outward-facing press expos. By inane, I mean the picture of that poor guy sandwiched between a Halo-branded Mountain Dew cardboard cutout and a bag of Doritos, looking like he’d just been told his dad had died moments before the photo was snapped.
A kind of dreaming of its own existence, one where its major players can suggest all the things that could be true in the business–the things that all you dreamers out there think should be true–without ever discussing how they could actually end up happening. Is anyone really this naive? Sure. Yes. Dreams are an all ages, all stages phenomenon. Why, just six months ago, I moved to Alaska for the dream of pursuing an MFA in creative writing, with further dreams of teaching people important things and maybe getting some of that magical MFA fairy dust to rub off on me and my work. At age twenty-nine, this has been the culmination of a lifetime of dreaming. And now, after realizing that dream led to little more than the slim chance that I’d have a future of dragging the minds of a bunch of uninterested freshmen through basic thinking exercises in hopes that they too could appreciate the joys of writing, I’m leaving and wondering if I should shape my resume more towards barista or Taco Bell. I have that kind of work history–versatile.
I’m not trying to piss all over GDC. Not exactly, at least. As a manifestation of collective desires, what its curators are using the platform to promulgate are generally nice things. Up with personal visions, up with artistic integrity, up with games like Cart Life, Dys4ia and Little Inferno, up with humanity. If you follow your dreams, the market will follow you.
This was perhaps best symbolized in Journey‘s sweeping of the awards show, where it won literally every award it was nominated for. This was something like 5 awards, with more and more people walking up to the podium each time, always quietly surprised at their good fortune. More and more people showing up, until they went up for the last time and it became apparent that little Journey, the accessible, intimate and quiet game about wandering around and wordlessly interacting with people online to solve puzzles and explore a mysterious world, was made by something like thirty or forty people. This isn’t including administrative staff, marketing, janitorial, or any of the other jobs that are part and parcel to running an entertainment company: this was thirty people who only worked on generating material assets and functionality for the game, thirty people who received “multiple millions of dollars” from entertainment supergiant Sony to materialize their vision.
But let’s back up a bit.
From what I understand, which consists solely of the things that happen to me while I try to keep a lid on my social anxiety, Journey was one of the most hyped games of the year. In 2012, I would walk into the gaming rooms of people’s houses–houses that I’d been invited to, naturally–and would immediately be engaged in conversations about the game. I hadn’t even heard of it, but apparently Journey was neat and quite the experience.
And I do like experiences.
After several weeks of this, I sat down to watch someone play for a few minutes, which consisted of them sliding down sand dunes and jumping on pieces of decrepit, fallen architecture. Eventually a second player showed up, and the person I was watching and the stranger from over the internet proceeded to hop around and look at each other. There was something about using your avatar’s scarf to manipulate objects or create magic bridges or something, but I’d lost interest at that point. “Looks pretty cool!” I said, hoping to God that the dark opinions that reside inside my cold, dead heart could stay hidden, and then I got up to get a soda and pretend to get engaged in a conversation with someone else. Suffice to say, I didn’t find watching someone play a casual puzzle game with good graphics and sand dunes particularly interesting. Whether this is a knock against Journey I can’t say, since I haven’t played it and don’t intend to.
What I mean to say is that for a game that I don’t think is particularly interesting, a lot of people I know seem to find it immensely so for reasons that aren’t very clear to me, and so I chalk it up to the hype machine. The beast. 666. Sony’s marketing department, and its icky fingles that slither alongside the hearts of videogame writers and writhe, giving them funny feelings that are both erotic and deeply frightening (in a job security/don’t-go-against-the-grain sense), and so they say this crazy new game where you solve puzzles and can’t talk to your online coop partners is great and mysterious and has some very radical vibes that will appeal to ‘core gamers and casuals alike.
Even if the game was worth a damn, I don’t think I’m off base in saying that it’s suspicious when a piece of art wins every award that it’s nominated for. Outside of Thriller, nothing is that good. So then why bother putting on an awards show if you’re going to just give every award to the same game? Why nominate all those games, rent out the hideous Moscone Center (the interior of which looks like the kind of place you’d line up and execute volunteers at some art show circa 1990 while this and a laser show play in the background), invite all those designers and press and their friends, pay for hors d’ourves and booze so yahoos like me will be motivated to leave their hovels to attend and bear witness to a ridiculous bit of industry theater, in which everyone is told and reminded over and over again that “indie” is the future, and that Journey was the best “indie” game to come out in 2012.
One of the stories that was trending around last March was the increasing likelihood of a second videogame crash. In short, the industry had gotten into a cycle of spending way too much money on producing mediocre games that were held together by little more than their art and marketing departments. At this rate of expenditure, AAA games could expect to make a 3% profit if the game was a hit when there was only room enough for 3 or 4 games a year to be hits. If a game failed (i.e. did not sell several million copies), there was the potential that it could literally destroy not just its development studio, but the entire parent company. This constant razor-thin profit margin has been a truism of the industry for the better part of the new millennium, and has been the leading reason behind the increasingly conservative gameplay being paired with lowest common denominator design decisions. In the long run, this escalation of broad strokes popcorn gaming at the expense of focused and potent design has an easy-to-imagine potential of shrinking their market even further as consumers at the edges of the target demographic (14-22, male) increasingly lose interest and take their money elsewhere, thus making it that much more critical for a developer to dominate what core market remains. On and on, until Ubisoft or EA or THQ wake up to find a once cohesive demographic has splintered and been gobbled up by a hundred niche developers and Zynga clones, who can scratch the same itches of aesthetics, distraction and fun at the same time they scratch their own assholes, because they have smaller budgets, work from home, and are thus able to do so without any workplace ramifications.
What Journey is, in all of this, is a potential out for AAA companies. Hire some star indie designer and give them a team, encourage them to continue to trade on the aesthetics of indie games while keeping things strictly casual (if you need a manual, you’re doing it wrong, and probably alienating whatever crossover audience you’re hoping to capture with a $15 game on a $400 system. Who this might be is loosely defined and hard to understand, since what they probably mean is the Wii/Wii U’s target audience, i.e. people who wouldn’t spend $400 on a gaming system. Judging by how well the Wii U is doing at the moment, you can make an educated guess as to how real this audience might currently be), and let our world-class marketing department work its magic. This costs less money, entails less overall risk, and helps build brand prestige. There’s a reason The Chinese Room is set to make its first actual game (as some commenter on Kotaku once pointed out, Dear Esther is a tour-de-force by a guy they contracted to single-handedly do a complete graphical overhaul, (and if you want my capsule review of Dear Esther: it’s a story that is primarily told through its graphics, and the narration simply serves to explicate their power) and A Machine for Pigs is… well, let’s say I did not enjoy it enough to consider it a viable part of their oeuvre) a PS4 exclusive. That Chinese Room is not doing it just for the money, but also the marketing muscle, the exposure, and the lack of a sinking indie-qua-indie market.
And by sinking indie(-qua-indie) market, I mean the growing expectation that an indie game be cheaply priced, see discounts early, and wind up being sold for peanuts in a Steam sale/Humble Bundle within six months. For a prime example of this: the only game I bought at launch in 2013 was The Stanley Parable, and that’s because I’d somehow confused it with Elevators: Source. Had I known that Elevators: Source was the game I wanted to play, I’d probably still be waiting around for TSP it to hit the peanut economy.
This is fine for games that get a lot of press, as the variable price point taps different markets and makes it easier for someone who isn’t overtly interested in, say, an art game about walking around (Dear Esther/The Stanley Parable/most Tale of Tales games) to catch it on sale for $3 and buy it in a flight of fancy. Or in support of the arts. Maybe against their better judgment. Whatever the case, the die-hards will pay launch price, and then the game will descend through the sales intervals to hit up all of the constituents in its potential retail base before hitting rock bottom, where unscrupulous scoundrels pay zero cents for the indie bundle.
Games without the press/marketing advantage will more than likely lie fallow until that magic $3 (or less) sale happens, at which point the consumer will lightly consider whether a night of dining from the dollar menu is better than that game. The tragedy is that so many will opt for the double hamburger, chicken sandwich and small fries. This is the tragedy that innumerable small developers face every single day, regardless of the high quality or visionary etc etc you know what I’m saying; regardless of how good or interesting their game is. I don’t have to complete this thought.
So where was I? Ah, GDC. Economic collapse, enticing the young into slave labor with promises of the dream factory, the coopting of aesthetic and economic movements by huge corporations for the sake of raking in the big bucks. Year of the Indie. Right.
Is selling out bad, though? Isn’t that the dream, to an extent? Unless you become a fabulous success like Team Meat or Team Stanley or Team Garry or Team Mojang–where you and some guy you met over the internet suddenly make a bazillion dollars via some combination of marketing verve, quality design, and luck–selling out is pretty much the only way to not wind up living in a ditch, where you spend hours at a time trying to get a fucking Raspberry Pi to stop choking to death long enough to compile your new masterpiece. Or at least feel like that’s what you’re doing in a day-to-day sense.
This is of course the plight of artists forever. For every Ryder Ripps, there’s a hundred maybes still toiling away in their respective mediums and niches, and a thousand might haves that gave up and got a job making someone else money in some other field. You can tell the pressurized gurgle of an espresso machine is doing something horrible on the inside of my skull as I write this, wheezing and gasping and slowly pissing hot mud into a tiny cup on a tiny plate, while someone yells at me for not knowing anything about coffee beans. In order to afford moving to Alaska for grad school, I spent two months working for a man who seemed like he was going to punch me at any given moment. Five days a week, four hours a night, I drove out to his compound in West Oakland, where I would do menial office tasks that he barely understood while being browbeat and vaguely threatened if I showed anything less that complete psychic synergy with his very will. My rage would rise and crest every two weeks, where at the peak I had to bite down on my tongue until it bled, lest I jettison my future for the pure satisfaction of telling him to suck my fucking cock you fucking racist bag of shit, after which he would in all likelihood have punched me a few times before firing me. I would quell this rage with the dream that once I reached grad school, I’d be done with that part of my life. There would be problems, there would be labor abuse and long hours, but at the very least there would be the kind of job security and workplace propriety that precludes the possibility of anybody punching anyone else in the face.
I say this to remind you that there are horrors out there with which I know you are deeply accustomed, and from which we all run. With this in mind, it’s hard for me to outright condemn GDC 2013 for its disingenuous abuse of dreams and dreamers, because it fundamentally wants what anyone else does: if not freedom from suffering, then at least a limit.
Whether this is worth the kind of rhetorical manipulation of ideas about art, truth and indie that leads people like me to spend a lifetime pursuing a mirage, I can’t say. I guess it depends on whether I can start making a buck off of things like this.
Four months now after I sat in the airport writing, but thirteen months ago, the night at GDC ended in a mix-up regarding invitations to a party (in which I stood in line behind Leigh Alexander for a minute and had a desperate moment of sadness where I considered introducing myself as “oh hey, I’m the co-author of that book you liked“), which led to the final denouement in a bar. Three of us had not managed to become part of anyone’s guest list, so we walked down to the Mission and settled in. I an aspiring writer of some sort, Steven an aspiring game maker of some sort, and Rich who was an aspiring game producer of some sort. Of the three, Rich seemed like he was most on track. Fresh off of quitting a depressing job where he coached content producers for a video site on how to maximize their audience and ad revenue, and in the process making them think that their content stream would be lucrative enough in the long run that quitting their day job/wrecking their lives would be a good idea, he was in the midst of preparing for a big job interview re: producing games. He was reading books, researching production, just putting a whole lot of work in. An unimaginable amount of work, it seemed to me, for what was a job interview that probably required multiple years of experience and a long list of credits.
It is indicative of my own job psychology that I find it insane to prepare this much for an interview, particularly one that seems like a long shot, and is likely the reason that a future in customer service is not an unfounded fear of mine. Some people want it and go for it, and then some people don’t. But perhaps I digress.
Steven was working a misery job, the kind that you commute long hours to and don’t get paid much once you’re there. He was an artist of no small talent, although he hadn’t hit that point of no return yet, a moment in life that Jonathan Hickman describes as a redemption of your artistic self, where you finally decide whether to let it get snuffed in the endless hellfire that is art in the market economy, or to jump in and do whatever it takes to save it.
As for me, I was living at home, working four hours a week for a family friend (not the man in West Oakland, mind you), unable or unwilling to write, and slowly melting down with the kind of agoraphobia that leads one to not leave the house more than once a week; the kind that makes standing in line at the store a socially arduous nightmare, and which turns applying to a job into a catalog of exactly how unsuited one is for society, how much one has failed to accomplish in the four years since graduating college. Grad school was somewhere on the horizon and had come to represent that final redemption, a last ditch attempt at avoiding the pit of despair that aspirations seemed destined to expire in. Let’s say I was a mess, at least moreso than now.
We sat in the bar and made awkward conversation. Rich did most of the talking because he is Type A and somehow manifests the kind of social courage and interest in everything that marks an engaged and successful life. Or at least would signify it. He told us about Crusader Kings II and how it reminded him of Henry VI, Part 2 (or one of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, at least. Damned if I know), in which the agony of deciding to assassinate his inept and stupid son for the good of the kingdom–for the good of the lineage–was dramatized and made plain. The intervening millennia between the middle ages and 2013 pinched closed, and for two minutes a man in his late twenties was able to fully consider how courtly tragedies occurred, and how the scales of kingdoms were sometimes balanced. That this relied on his knowledge of history, his exposure to a piece of literature, only compounded the odd poignancy.
What is good work? Is Crusader Kings II good work? Would good work have made this more clear, have dramatized it more purposefully, instead of embedding it in a relatively dry simulation about medieval succession? Is good work mythology? By mythology I mean historical, fantastic, unreal. Perhaps emanating from the collective unconscious, but at least so storied, so embedded in culture that it seems as if it had always been there. So in other words, is good work something that seems like it’s always been there, in some way, on some level, just waiting to be reformed, reworded or embodied anew?
Steven and I had a train to catch, the last one out of the city, so we parted ways with Rich. I don’t know about other trains in other cities, but taking BART late at night always has a special thrill for me. The cars are quiet but the tube under the bay is extremely loud, and when I surface in West Oakland it’s like a tiny birth, like I escaped something that had been hounding me through the night. I asked Steven what his story was and he gave it to me, outlining details that reminded me of Kane Webber (last name not real. Much to my chagrin, I never could remember it), a friend I’d met online when I was fourteen and who probably killed himself ten years later. I say probably because who knows. He sent me a cryptic email once that said he was going away for awhile and not to worry, to which I replied “better not be killing yourself, I got money on this.” Some stupid cruelties just ring forever. A year later, my emails to him began to bounce and that was that. Back to the ether.
Steven was more stable and had become ensconced in a community to some degree, so that wasn’t what I thought about him. More the history of loneliness, the drifting, the barely buried fear of the future. These are common things for most people to feel at some point in their lives, but for them to be consistent themes stretching beyond mere years into decades…there was a familiarity there that I didn’t want to touch. My brother picked us up and drove him home, where I bid him a good night and parted ways. I wouldn’t see him again until the 4th of July, where oddly enough we would again be party to a similar social malfeasance in which we wound up sitting around together, making the most of it.
But that’s a story for another time. Instead, I told my brother about Journey‘s wild success, about the year of the indie, about Rich’s synaptic shock of recognition with Crusader Kings II, about the touchscreen lady and the ping-pong ball lady, the giant Modern Warfare 3 tarp they’d draped over the exterior of the Moscone’s North Hall, the abandoned NOS party square that was attended by two women in short shorts and some muscular guy in wrap-around shades who was pretending to be the DJ, the old bum who tried to con money out of me, the guys jamming on their Gameboys in the street, the bags and bags of useless swag, the kids in their 20s and purple skinny jeans getting excited about cream-filled pastries from Beard Papa, or who sat amidst the Yerba Buena’s grassy knolls with neon hair and laughed and talked about Starseed Pilgrim because they were finally alone together in public on a sunny day in San Francisco with the only people they knew who truly understood what lay deep inside their still beating hearts, dormant but woken now and risen amidst the huge halos of light and advertising that floated above the booths to announce their presence and import at this, the most important five days of 2013 anno domini: Game Developers Conference 2013, and everything there that transpired.
As he parked in front of our parents’ home, he nodded and said he was too tired for all this now, but maybe in the morning. Maybe after he got some sleep. Maybe then.