The Shape of Things

JacksIsn’t it strange the effect that shapes can have on us? Where do they depart from abstract form and become meaningful and evocative? A cylinder, with a bit of reshaping, begins to look like a thigh… and, once we begin to perceive it as a thigh, it takes so little to begin to perceive it as a sexy thigh.

We are all dogs with our own rubber bones– but we are invested in the pretense that these are bones, whereas dogs are just way more into chewing on rubber. Lucky dogs.

With modern manufacturing methods, it’s now quite easy to find things in all the many forms we find appealing, for reasons we no longer quite understand. We know that we like healthy looking fruit, stable shelter, and attractive mates, but the reasons why we start to like things which take on aspects of these appearances become more distant and nebulous.

Do we like the shape of a car because it reminds us of a friendly face, or a safe place to live? Do we like the color of our clothing because it reminds us of delicious fruit or of flowers? Or, far more likely, do we like these things because they remind us of something else that reminds us of something else, and so on, and so on, until the root source of the positive feeling is lost in echoes?

Happy chair smiles to hide the pain

Happy chair smiles to hide the pain

Our emotions are chained to one another, and artists try to pull on these chains, to draw us in one direction or another, for their benefit or for ours, and unless we see the links in the chains there’s no way we can resist. Learning to analyze art and our emotions gives us the power to resist, but robs us of the ability to feel as powerless and swept away by art as we might be otherwise.

Accountability is a bitch that way.

Some of us are tasked with creating these shapes, and it’s hard not to be struck sometimes at what a strange job this is. These people have to be cognizant of the web of associations which each shape evokes, and to design new shapes and tweak old ones with these associations in mind. And sometimes the difference between a design that works, that evokes what it’s supposed to, and one that doesn’t, is terrifyingly small.

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

-Mark Twain

That’s part of the reason why we’re driven to create, I think. Our patchwork minds are animated by that lightning in ways we could not achieve by any other method. Every line in a drawing is a plot twist that changes the story of the picture. Many of them are weak, predictable, expected, but every once in a while you draw the line that is Luke’s father, that is Keyzer Soze, that is Tyler Durden, and the object portrayed is transformed.


Is it a duck or a rabbit? No, it’s a drawing.

Being an artist is being, first and foremost, your own audience. Your blank page is your mystery, your finished piece your revelation. One of the things that is beautiful and exciting about games is that they allow us to explore a work of art in much the way an artist explores his art while creating it. Every story has a hundred possible outcomes when it is being written, so why not give the audience a way to experience all of them? A bizarre and beautiful world is an amazing thing to see, but it’s only a set painting unless we can rotate it, explore it, manipulate it.

This is the difference between shapes and mere projections.

Before games, it was the artist’s to manipulate, the artist’s to arrange, the artist’s to explore so that the ‘best’ possible aspects and ‘best’ possible narratives emerged from the shape he had conceived. Now, games allow the audience to author their own experience. They are a kind of meta-art, and drive artists to be a new kind of meta-artist, shaping the path their student artists take into their world, shaping the tools their student artists will use to explore and manipulate it.

Drawing Hands

Labor-saving methodology

Yes, it is true, as I’ve said, that there is much that is the same between this medium and all other media, and much we can learn of how to make better games from the exemplars of those media– but, as much as they may be similar, games are different in very fundamental ways.

For instance, as Roger Ebert (who will be missed) pointed out, we cannot control the exact ways in which players will encounter anything which we’ve designed. This was a good observation, but it is foolish to perceive this solely as a limitation. This is a strength of the medium, every bit as much as a weakness. We simply haven’t learned to harness it yet.

We are one more level removed than the artists of any other medium, and though many, like Roger Ebert did, perceive this as a lack of fine control, perhaps it is also a kind of artistic leverage. Though we are distanced from our audience by the extra space of interactivity surrounding our creations, there is a personal bond between the audience and the work itself that does not exist with other media.

We must explore the context of exploration. We must manipulate the frame of manipulation. We must be the artist that defines the boundaries within which other artists work– and, by so doing, we can make collaborators of our audience, and share something far more personal than can be shared by any other form– or, at least, more personal to the audience, rather than the author.

In the end, isn’t it the audience that matters? The artist is just the engine of the audience’s edification and amusement.

How lucky for us artists, then, that we have front row seats to our own show.


I should probably actually see this movie at some point

  1. “Though we are distanced from our audience by the extra space of interactivity surrounding our creations, there is a personal bond between the audience and the work itself that does not exist with other media.”

    I disagree. I write journalism and books for a living and have received many powerful personal emails responding to some of my work, especially my more private emotions publicly expressed in published essays. It may well be that game creators and developers get this sort of mail as well, but it is not exclusive to the medium.

    • I did not intend to be dismissive of the emotional connections that people form with the written word (I am a writer as well, after all), but rather to state that the emotional connection formed is qualitatively different when there’s the degree and style of shared authorship that games provide.

      One allows you to tell one story which can change a person’s life. The other allows you to tell a million stories which change along with a person’s life. The training game in Ender’s Game comes to mind, if you’ve read that.

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