A Game is a Game (Everyone Can Make Games)

There was a fire of discussion about democratized gamedev when Super Mario Maker came out. It was short lived, of course, the implications cannot reverberate when the subject matter is a walled garden. With Super Mario Maker, you have sort of the tools to make sort of Mario levels. Since communication is filtered through the iconography and symbolism of Mario, the expressive endpoint, beyond making Mario levels, is exploring how those symbols can be stretched, transformed, or reimagined. Nevertheless it’s a game completely anchored to its brand relationship. In other words, Super Mario Maker isn’t really capable of protest. As the servers will close and all of the levels deleted, the levels in Mario Marker are effectively detritus to Nintendo. Regardless of stated noble intentions of fun and bringing people together, they don’t care about the transformation of Mario. I suggest checking out games that do care, before Nintendo DMCAs every utter mention of their mascot.

I’m assuming Nintendo’s recent harmful and unnecessary vigilance to take down every fangame has something to do with the success of Super Mario Maker. It’s not a complex speculation: there will be a sequel to Super Mario Maker and likely “spin-offs” featuring elements of (or exclusively) other Nintendo properties. Fangames thriving (despite the expertise required to make a fangame that does not at all overlap with the appeal of template “creation software”) could send a message that you can make Mario levels without using approved tools. These future Mario Maker installments may be powerful enough to effectively be a salve for people driven to make fangames, though I doubt completely. I still find it disorientating how little anyone cares about Nintendo exerting weight on fangames. In fanfiction communities, outcry is immediate and full-bodied, when for example George R. R. Martin expresses his reductive opinion on the harmfulness of fanfiction. There’s little defense for fangames.

My favorite writing on Super Mario Maker was this by Micheal Thomson for how exact and illuminating of an attitude traditionalists have toward democratized creation. Note that I absolutely fricken hate this shortsighted review. In summation, emphasis mine:

“Super Mario Maker’s” levels feel strangely raw and hostile, underscored by the game’s endless lives, allowing you to play the same level over and over until you’ve made it to the end, at which point you’re sent back to unreliable heap of broken community creations. Over time, it becomes intensely dispiriting, with the few creative levels being lost among the gaping archive of disposable failures. There is a futile egotism to “Super Mario Maker,” a piece of software that caters to delusory belief that enthusiasm and creativity are interchangeable, that being a fan of something can, if practiced with enough care, create an equivalent of the work to which one’s fandom is fixated.

Therein lies the absolute bile. Contempt not aimed at Nintendo, but at those inspired and excited enough to create. This review was taken to task by multiple people in multiple ways, a few of which I don’t quite agree with, but I’ll save belaboring. The heart of this expression is twofold:

  1. Game design is an exact expertise reserved for the privileged or supposed geniuses, it’s not something that just anyone can do
  2. Attempts of game design that lay outside the genius, talented, or privileged group, is overall demeaning and insulting to great works that exist in the medium

I’ll concede that all Micheal is trying to say is that the perverse explosion of off-beat, ruinous, no-holds barred Mario levels that manifested with the debut of the game were not worth his time (I like the term digital vandalism). I believe his sentiment—casually made Mario Maker levels have no inherent worthstill upholds the above two points. Without a doubt, this is a reactionary stance to democratized game dev which rears itself in any easy to use gamedev format. Klik&Play, rpgmaker, twine, heck even gamemaker and unity, have received pushback from many facets of videogame culture, and I would cite the above postulates as why. Unconsciously but desperately gaming maintains its walled garden.

As gamedev becomes more accessible and democratized, it’s imperative that interpretation, criticism at all levels, becomes democratized too. It’s not enough that games become easier to make, they need to become easier to accept. What constitutes goodness in videogames is mostly insular. A game needs to present itself through templates of other successful games, signaling their legitimacy and privilege by applied focus testing. It doesn’t need to be like this: good game design is an incredibly broad idea when it’s defined as for-use. If design is allowed to have inherent, explicit meaning that’s not beholden to “the spirit of Mario”, or any other expression of videogame traditionalism (commercialism).

I seek to broaden what constitutes a “good videogame,” which means more or less repeating splinters of solutions, mutilating minutiae, enacting an impulsive redundancy at my own comfort. I’ve never been near as prescient toward the digital arts as “A 21st Century Digital Art Manifesto,” which I recommend reading.

I bring up Liz Ryerson’s manifesto to quote a quote, from an essay called “Why Hypercard Had to Die”:

HyperCard is an echo of a different world. One where the distinction between the “use” and “programming” of a computer has been weakened and awaits near-total erasure.  A world where the personal computer is a mind-amplifier, and not merely an expensive video telephone.  A world in which Apple’s walled garden aesthetic has no place.

…(When Steve Jobs came back to Apple)…He returned the company to its original vision: the personal computer as a consumer appliance, a black box enforcing a very traditional relationship between the vendor and the purchaser.

It’s such a frustrating irony that Mr. Thomson refers to an egotism of the user through Mario Maker. A creation tool with very specific limitations is a kind of egotism, suggesting importance while binding the user. Super Mario Maker itself is especially egotistical through suggesting importance of Mario iconography. Instead, he encountered what is possibly an individual’s very first experience with game design and deciding that they’re egotistical for even bothering. It’s such blatant upholding of the traditional relationship of purchaser and vendor: these levels are not sufficiently Mario. Logically this echoes with those who say a certain videogame is not sufficiently a game; those who say a videogame does not have an appropriate amount of polish. Those pointing at any different videogame and crying that it does not properly signal it was made by someone with my values.  

Imagine a parallel world of normalized, personal game design where every Mario game came with a level editor. A Mario game that’s unafraid of being edited and vandalized by anyone for any reason. Any videogame could simultaneously be an accessible creation tool alongside its “core game experience.” Many personal computer games in the past did have map editors and things aligning with ideals like this, but as computer science became less of a hobby, more competitive, more “legitimate”, more commercialized, that simple gesture of collaboration is disappearing. People readily accept not just anyone can make games, otherwise, their time and money spent gaining specialized knowledge is not quite as important as they were led to believe.

When I played Cube I basked in that potential world of the blurred distinction of use and creation. Cube bills itself as an engine first and foremost. It is simple to call it rpgmaker but for Doom-like fps games. The default assets are cobbled together by contributions the author received, lending the engine an inconsistent aesthetic, that nonetheless feels particular because of the warmness of its lo-fi textures and models. Cube is collaborative beyond the goal of polish. Assets are tuned to be symbolic and familiar, rather than striking or especially evocative. In that respect, Cube’s unflashy values have a lot in common with Super Mario Maker’s dedication to clear and plain Mario iconography. The stark difference is that Mario Maker has a history, story, and purpose, while Cube is informed only by raw elements of its style of play. There’s no marketing, dressing, narrative, or explicit goal to Cube besides creation. A map’s context is wholly what a person was trying to communicate with their limited tools.

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Unlike other level creation software, playing a level and creating a level in Cube has no separation. At any time during play, “edit mode” can be turned on by pressing the appropriate hotkey. The dev’s stated intention: “the aim of this game is fun, old school deathmatch gameplay and also to allow map/geometry editing to be done cooperatively in-game.” Cube is a game inspired not by Doom and Quake, but by their fan content, the remix communities that lingered with those games. An engine made collaboratively for the express purpose of cooperative creation.

When edit mode is on, Cube is naked. Flight and no clip is enabled. Any model or texture can be lighted, deleted, replaced. Triggers can be added or removed at will. A new level can be built on an old one. It’s possible to look ahead in the level, to look at and appreciate the design during or after finishing a map. Levels can be skipped entirely. There’s no reason to play a map as intended except for an implicit honor code.

cube-2016-10-29-04-20-12-60

Cube is as such a non-egotistical game. Many videogames are measured by what kind of impact a player is allowed to have on the world, but what is tamperable is already predetermined, decided by the developers. Though agency is Cube is still constrained to what the toolkit allows, it allows for immediate and radical impact to be had on its world. Player choice goes beyond the intentions of a map’s author with the literal ability to change the fabric of a level. Creator and player are on the same field.

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Since Cube is trying to emulate the result of fandom, it can end up feeling dry and clinical in a way that’s impossible for genuine remix content. Cube succeeds in making that sort of expression immediately accessible for anyone to fully participate in, while missing the obvious passionate single-mindedness that produces that kind of work to begin with. It’s an awkward combination, or in other words, people have attachments to Doom et al, so regardless of Cube’s advantages, there’s very few maps made for the engine (or even its garish sequel). Though it’s not surprising when noncommercial games are lost in their corner of the internet.

Map design in Cube is manifests in three general ways: carefully made maps trying to match the complexity and polish of successful genre games, gleefully excessive maps that either can’t quite match the “spirit” of their influences or otherwise seek to go against them, and weirdness outside of explicitly responding to videogame traditionalism. A polished level is predictable, safe, and exists in infinite; while the unpolished extreme, the perversity of a room filled with a thousand enemies becomes exhausting even quicker. I feel the artful designers are very savvy and likely very bored with their preferred style. New expressions go a bit beyond a binary of polish and vandalism. People seeking with restraint to deface, abstract, hyperfocus, and reinterpret where and how the arena fps is played. Those best Cube maps certainly don’t capture the spirit of Quake or Doom or whatever, they’re made in tandem with the engine’s impermanence and vulnerability. Floating, open, strange winding architecture, accents the artificiality and impossibility of the space, the utter frailness of a game that can be upended at the player’s whim.

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These attitudes are found in other modding scenes and in Super Mario Maker, but I’d go as far to say the generalizations work as a total spectrum of design approaches, amongst the spectre of videogame commercialization. Really, without being hammy about it, fangames are legitimate videogames, and game design is a constant. Traditionalists will turn their nose at forms that aren’t respectable for their comfort and related belief in market purity, so I think it’s important to be utterly consistent and prop up all manifestations of alternative and underground videogames. The reason games like Cube don’t exist on a wider scale, the reason Mario Maker only just came out, is a thinly veiled elitism of who is allowed to make games, from all facets of videogame culture. It shouldn’t be difficult or controversial. Everyone can make games.

check out cube’s website if you please

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