Lost, The Wire, Game Design, Meaning, and Brian Moriarty

I just read this interview with the Lost executive producers, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, and it’s got some pretty interesting comments in it that relate to some of my current thoughts about game design.

This first quote speaks to a concept Jonathan Blow and I talk about all the time when discussing game design and development, namely, bottom-up versus top-down game design, and listening to your game as you develop it and being able to react to what it’s telling you:

Lindelof: I think one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned over time as a show runner is that the more you listen to the show, the better your show.

I was struck that Lindelof used the exact same phrase when talking about developing Lost.  I’m being a bit hyperbolic here, but I think there’s a general belief in the game industry that you can top-down design games, that if your design document is good enough, you can just type it in, that making a game becomes predictable, but I really don’t think this is true if you’re going for greatness.  This is not to say you just start typing without any idea of what you’re going for, you definitely have to have aesthetic goals, but you need to have the freedom to listen to the game.

I also think this is why hybrid developers, like programmer-designers, and artist-designers, and artist-programmers are more effective, because the game speaks to you at many levels of detail and in many languages, and you’ll miss some of them if there’s a tin-can-and-string telephone between you and the game…sometimes late at night the game whispers something to the programmer about design or to the artist about programming, and he or she needs to be able to react to it.

This is also related to the rant I gave at GDC this year; you need more than a few days of development for your game to start saying important things to you.

The Lost guys also talk about how much they knew when they were creating the early episodes, and this relates to the ability to react to how the show itself is coming together:

Lindelof: We have to have the answers to the mysteries so that there is something to work towards, but what we don’t have are the stories. J.K. Rowling can sit down and say, here’s how Harry Potter’s parents were killed, and here’s who killed them, but how am I going to reveal that information to the audience in the most emotionally impactful way? So we know what we want to do, but we have very little idea of how and when we’re going to do it.

There’s a really great Bill Moyers interview with David Simon about The Wire that touches on this topic in a very similar way:

Simon: And, you know, I’m not suggesting we have everything planned to the nth degree. But we knew, for example when we wrote that scene in the beginning of the first season, that by the end of the run those three characters would have been treated as pawns in a chess game.

And we knew that character that cited what was ailing post-industrial America, he happened to be a union captain and one of the longshoreman. That he would be speaking to, at the time, what we were reacting to with Enron and things like– and WorldCom and the first sort of– first shots across our bow, economically. That people were trading crap and calling it gold. And that’s what THE WIRE was about. It was about that which is– has no value, being emphasized as being meaningful. And that which is– has genuine meaning, being given low regard.

The part at the end of this also speaks to me, because I’m constantly thinking about how games can have deeper meaning.  The talk I gave last year at the IGDA Leadership Forum asked,” Why are we making games?”  It’s really clear, listening to these guys talk, that they have meaningful things they’re trying to say with their art.

Carroll: Do you still see that as the central issue, man of faith versus man of science?

Lindelof: The paradigm has shifted from that to, were we brought here for a very specific reason, and what is that reason?

They’re even thinking about how their audience is thinking about their work:

Lindelof: Locke is now the voice of a very large subset of the audience who believes that when Lost is all said and done, we will have wasted six years of our lives, that we were making it up as we went along, and that there’s really no purpose.

I think games occasionally try to do some self-referential things like this, like the protagonist in Uncharted 2 saying things like “I’m so sick of climbing stuff”, but it’s happening at a much more surface level, and it’s not directly speaking through the interactivity, the way we need to be doing to come into our own as an art and entertainment form.

On the topic of actually answering questions, and making the meaning plain, they understand the perils:

Carroll: Is there a worry that there exists questions for which any possible answer is not as interesting as the question would be before you knew the answer?

Lindelof: Absolutely.

This is something Brian Moriarty has lectured on in the past.  He’s a gifted presenter, and his lectures The Secret of Psalm 46 and Who Buried Paul? are master classes on the topic.  J.J. Abrams gave a TED talk about his “mystery box”, which is a fine talk, but not as good as Moriarty’s.

Finally, I think this is something Jonathan did really well in Braid.  Iroqouis Pliskin gave an excellent talk at GDC about his interpretation of the meaning behind Braid.

I’ll relate all of this back to SpyParty in a future post.  Or maybe I won’t.  :)


  1. Ron says:

    I definitely get what you mean about using the crossover to have what you’re developing talk to you.
    I am in the artist-programmer subset, and this has led to many interesting developments that really couldn’t have been created unless I was both.

    Just out of curiosity what group would you put yourself in? Programmer-Designer/Designer-Developer/etc.

    • checker says:

      > Just out of curiosity what group would you put yourself in?

      Well, I’m currently wearing all the hats, but I normally think of myself as programmer-designer. I can do art at a passable-but-not-great quality, though, which is also hugely useful (even just having an eye for visual aesthetics as a programmer is imporant). I wish I knew how to make music! You occasionally get people like Kyle Gabler and Casey Muratori who are programmer-designer-artist-musicians, they can make cool video games on a desert island out of a pile of palm fronts, coconuts, and sea shells!

  2. jordy says:

    I think it would be great if games transfer a certain feeling an emotion. But by the gameplay itself, rather then by the art or story behind it.
    Art and story telling are great features in games, and I especially like some indie games for it, but it doesn’t sink really deep.

    Sometimes if I watch a good movie, I get a certain emotion or feeling that got “transfered” from that movie to me, I think games should try to do this as well, but by there gameplay instead of there “features”. Cause in the end that is were gaming is all about. And no matter how much money you’re throwing at an expensive game for cinematic shortcuts and story scripts in the end a movie does the job better.
    Ofcourse you can try to combine story and gameplay, but I really think the gameplay should be the vocal point of it all. How does it make you feel, besides that you enjoy it.

    So I think for you game it would be really great if you can bring that feeling of anxiety, fear perhaps, concentration, to the player, perhaps by a level that he himself starts to think by himself how it would be like if he would be put in some kind of similar situation.
    Altho that has never really happened to me, and I have no clue how to archieve such a thing, but I do think art, storytelling, etc. are secondary to gameplay in archieving it.
    Perhaps also it has something to do with the player “forgetting” about to goals he has, wich is to win, cause this might distract him from the momentum of the gameplay. There is a small, tho I think for quite some time, a tradition in some art/indie games to leave out the goals in the gameplay and just trying to immerse you into the gameplay itself.

    Alot of vague rant perhaps, but let’s say that is cause of my limited english ;).

    Anyways goodluck.

    • checker says:

      I agree 100%, and I don’t think it was a vague rant at all, I think it’s what a growing number of game designers are trying to do: really make gameplay/interactivity primary, and see what kind of emotions and meaning are possible.

  3. jordy says:

    Yea, hopefully you will be among the first to succeed. Thinking about it a bit, I think the game that came closest for me doing this is the flash game Canabalt, somehow the gameplay sucks me in a bit and I can remember the first time playing it I was thinking how it would be running there :).
    But unfortunately repetition is an fearsome foo in this case. Ofcourse there are more (indie) games that got me thinking a bit, but I think Canabalt really excelt in it by doing it by the gameplay itself mostly.

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