Some good stuff coming from there, but from all the coverage I have had access to, this talk by Jonathan Blow is the most interesting (and complete – audio and slides included). A bit incomplete in the sense that it doesn’t address the need for commercial games to work as commercial products, but commercial viability is not his point anyway.
For some time I have held the belief that games have a hard time as meaningful forms of expression, because the kind of activity and instant-to-instant attention they require tends to overwhelm the mind and distract from what could be meaningful in them. Cutscenes and narrative are hailed by some as the answer, since they are aspects of the game experience where the player is not (necessarily) bombarded with that level of activity, and is more receptive to messages and ideas. However, these tend to be times where the game stops being a game and becomes something else, a purely narrative experience where the player is turned into a spectator, one anxiously deprived of interactive capabilities.
Portal, Bioshock or Half Life (and other games before them) break the mold a bit by rarely coming to a full stop. You can listen to the audio recordings, computer speech or feel the chaos around you while you are moving, exploring or figuring out what’s coming next. In Shadow of the Colossus, you have long periods of riding where your mind is free to think about the land and what happened to leave it so barren. But these moments are still not using the power of interaction and player agency.
I think he does a great disservice to World of Warcraft by focusing on a limited set of aspects of that game, and completely ignoring the amount of player-to-player interaction, player-created goals, and encouragement of exploration. If you play WoW as a single-player game and see other people simply as means to achieve your own goals, then yeah, all you have is a very addictive but unfulfilling experience. But if you don’t restrict yourself like that, you have access many aspects of human nature: greed, friendship, despair, organization, envy, curiosity, and even conscious self-expression through role-playing. You could say that those are the same experiences you can get with real-life social activities. But, as he says of poetry vs movies vs music, they are all capable of providing interestingly different flavours of the same thing.
I loved his description of games development being poorer as a result of being done as series of problems to solve or squash. It’s all too true, especially for a problem-solver kind of developer like myself. 🙂