Artist, writer, game designer; the biggest feather in Brenda Brathwaite's cap, in my book, is that she had a hand in creating some of the Wizardry games.
A recent dinner conversation led to this interesting piece by Brathwaite about the lasting legacy and impact authors seem to have on our psyche and why talented game developers don't get the same sort of acknowledgement.
Among the many games on my desktop, there is a specific game that I play every few days. It is something that's old and time-worn, and God knows how it runs just fine on my iMac, but it does. I play it out of a sense of comfort, I think, because I know it inside and out, and it knows me. When it was made, game players could speak of nothing else, and game developers were humbled. It is one of the greatest designs our medium has ever seen, and that remains true nearly two decades after its release. I say this not just as a player but as a game designer with nearly three decades in the industry myself. I know a work of greatness when I see it.
And so, it was interesting to me to hear its designer mentioned the other evening in a gathering of fellow game developers.
I wonder how much cred he has among developers now?
The question wasn't asked in an insulting way. Rather, it was raised as a curious point, a wonder, nothing more. And so, I took the bait, and I wondered what it meant for a developer to have "cred" now or in the past, and what precisely "cred" means to us in the first place.
Cred, by our definition, can be loosely translated to "what have you done for me lately?" It is a taking stock of a developer's most recent works. Typically, these recent works are called into question – and hence the cred issue raised – when the developer has either a) been silent for a number of years or b) produced something which is less than one would have hoped for. The only way out of this cred death spiral is to a) release a very good game, b) stop making games after your very good game or c) die.
I wondered aloud if people still discussed the cred of the great American author John Steinbeck. His last published work is The Winter of Our Discontent. The title, perhaps, foreshadowed its reception. Some were kind to the work, but many critics and scholars were not fans. They criticized Steinbeck's decision to speak for the characters rather than let them reveal their thoughts through action. The novel's construction was sloppy, and its pacing was uncharacteristic of earlier Steinbeck novels. While Steinbeck noted that he was trying to tackle a specific challenge with the book (morals in American culture), he was condemned for exactly this experimentation. His effort, critics noted, was too overt and not well concealed under a typical and masterful layer of metaphor. The book wasn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, but when compared to his previous glories (instead of others' stock in trade), it didn't compare well.
In short, Steinbeck didn't give us a Steinbeck. How dare he. Then he died. Two unfinished works were published posthumously, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights and a screenplay, Zapata. Had he lived, they may have accused him of trading off Arthurian legend since his own well had quite obviously dried up.
Yet, we do not remember Steinbeck in this way. Instead, we talk of his influence. We divide his work and the work of other masters into categories, and we reserve the title of "Major Works" for those contributions that touched our souls somehow. For Steinbeck, these works are East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and Travels with Charley in Search of America. They are all wonderful and worth reading. East of Eden is the best book I've ever read. In those pages, I witnessed a master at work, and I am humbled by his eloquence. When I play the game on my desktop, I feel the same thing.
Steinbeck's legacy is judged not by his last, but by his sum. This is not something we have learned to do.
In all, he published 27 novels in his lifetime, many short stories, won the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, and took home the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, just a year after The Winter of Our Discontent was released. Steinbeck's influence, like the influence of our masters, is everywhere. Think of the games you play and how they came to be. Who inspired that young coder to enter the industry? Who was blown away by a game he could only play at his friend's house? Who financed that company? Who invented whole genres that we live and breathe today? Who inspired you? Who inspired those who inspired you?
This is influence and legacy. These two are the important things. They outlive the individual and the games. Cred is but a symptom of our expectations, our insecurity with our own medium. We expect too much from the masters within it; we expect mastery at all times.
I want to see our masters explore new mediums. I want to encourage their creativity and support their efforts even when they don't succeed – especially when they don't succeed. I want to acknowledge that there is something in their brain that doesn't work like the something in my brain or your brain, and give that brain the creativity, the room, the respect, the love and the support it needs to make genius, make mediocre and make garbage. We must encourage the free exploration of ideas, of patterns, of play, and not beat our masters into the ground with their own legends. Otherwise, they stop. They just stop and go away, and we don't learn from them anymore. We blunt them, and that is a tragedy.
Steinbeck had this to say:
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected… If the glory can be killed, we are lost.
- East of Eden
Reprinted with permission from Applied Game Design.
Brenda Brathwaite (@bbrathwaite) is a game designer and creative director currently working in social games. She has been in the industry since 1981 and worked on the Wizardry, Jagged Alliance and Dungeons and Dragons series among others. She writes at AppliedGameDesign.com.