Over the decades and centuries, many conventions we now take for granted in film, literature, photography, and so on first came from independent, experimental artists. It has seemed like common sense, then, to assume that the next best innovations in gaming would come from a vibrant indie scene, and from gaming developing a true avant-garde. The former has been churning away merrily for some years now, hugely helped by the advent of digital distribution. The latter has been brought to the forefront of discussion by, of all people, Peter Molyneux.
There are many game designers working on small, innovative, experimental games that we could certainly call, collectively, an avant-garde movement. Most of these are obscure, as many of the experimental filmmakers of the 1960s remain obscure outside of certain university curricula. Art games and experimental games don't exactly blitz the airwaves with commercials, or buy major splashes on news and review sites.
But Molyneux is well known, after a career that has so far brought out the Populous, Black and White, and Fable franchises, among other games. And he gained significant attention when, earlier this year, he announced his departure from Lionhead Studios to form a start-up called 22 Cans.
22 Cans will be releasing 22 "experiments" better to understand how players tick. The first, Curiosity, is due soon. The sum total of the 22 experiments will, theoretically, be a huge pile of data on how people really engage with social tools, that will form the backbone of a game to follow two years later.
When I first read that premise, my mind immediately turned to The Simpsons. Yes, really. Specifically, my trivia-filled brain immediately swung around to the episode "22 Short Films About Springfield," and actually, I was on the right track.
That episode not only borrows liberally from Pulp Fiction, but also from an independent film called Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Both the original film and the Simpsons parody posit that the best way to understand a thing—a day, a person, a story—is to come at it from many directions at once. A series of vignettes, the idea runs, may say more than any one in-depth straightforward look.
Twenty-two experiments, to say everything about the players and what makes us tick. Twenty-two short projects to combine into a whole that tells us more about who we are and how we communicate than any one, in-depth, straightforward look.
Molyneux's game ideas have always been full of promise that didn't necessarily translate to the finished worlds. Black & White was a god game that left players feeling less than omnipotent; Fable always promised wide-open choices but settled into a bit of a binary groove. The fullest expression of Molyneux's ideas have perhaps best been realized in games he never touched: everything that came from the "Molydeux" Game Jam, an effort he applauded.
The games all came from ideas tweeted out by a Molyneux parody account, Peter Molydeux. And that, in many ways, is the best sign of all that the world of gaming has never been more ripe for outsider input. Hundreds of mostly unknown folks with some talent to contribute banded together for a weekend to make playable games based on deliberately outlandish ideas from a person who only exists to poke fun at the mainstream industry-that-is.
Neither Molyneux or Molydeux are anything like an Andy Warhol, to be sure. And game design that seeks to go off the beaten path tends to have less in the way of mind-altering drugs or warehouse orgies than much of the experimental art of the 1960s had. But there's a same fundamental sense of questioning: what is our medium, why does it work the way it does, and can we take it apart and make something different out of its elements?
For the most part, we're seeing the emergence of a gentle, persuasive variation on the avant-garde in gaming, rather than a trenchant, angry one. And it's spreading into playable, accessible games with amazing speed. Games that appear on Xbox Live, the PlayStation Network, mobile devices, or even downloadable for actual computers are stepping outside of established genres faster than we can make up new ones for them.
What do you call games like Journey and Flower, which highlight the idea that a game can be stripped down to its barest components, and yet still be both beautiful and meaningful? How do you best describe a Sword and Sworcery? You can tell someone what Minecraft is, but do those words explain what makes it so well-loved? How do you explain that Johann Sebastian Joust is a video game, when it operates without a screen?
From where we sit in the mid-point of 2012, the line between outsider art and insider art is blurring. It absolutely takes a massive amount of resources to make what we still think of as a mainstream game. And the mainstream does us the favor of pushing the boundaries on technological innovation. Anyone deliberately staying outside of the system isn't going to have the millions of dollars it takes to, say, improve the physics of a major game engine. But games require player participation, and players have lots to add. And in an era of mods and cheap game engines, of user-created content and social networking, the participant adds to the experience in an ever more literal way.
For every game that appears as if by magic from outside of the mainstream, some part of what defines "mainstream" changes. We see the phenomenon at its crass, commercial worst (and also, at its fastest) in the proliferation of Facebook games and mobile apps that are nearly indistinguishable from each other, and in the ones that are blatantly cloned. One good idea becomes an instant mainstream idea, if it can be mimicked fast enough.
Other ideas, though, take more time to percolate. Journey's less is more approach to multiplayer communication won't be the last time we see an action as simple as a ping stand in for the whole array of human speech. And games like Braid and Fez, that intentionally use the tropes and hallmarks of genres in order to subvert those very genres, become more popular every year.
And every now and again, a thinker who prefers to work outside of the establishment does have the resources to do it inside the establishment, in a way that makes a splash. Which brings us back to Peter Molyneux.
Whatever 22 things we learn about how players perceive the content, value, and very act of playing a game, we can expect to see them used. Everywhere. Not just in whatever game project 22 Cans comes up with for 2015 and beyond, but in other games that share the ecosystem, too. If someone really is willing to pay $77,000 for the sake of curiosity, everyone who makes games will take notice. Ideas, good and bad, travel quickly. And once let out of Pandora's Box, as it were, they never go back in.
I truly hope that the 22 things we learn show us the better sides of human nature, and not the worse. And I hope in the end that they give us better games, not cash-grabbier ones. The ripples will ride out far beyond one game. These ripples always do.