Does it matter how it was made?

I recently watched Mad Max: Fury Road. Generally speaking I’ve never been a fan of the action blockbuster, but the film’s very strong lead performances, intriguing and unusual world-building, rich sociopolitical subtexts and – most importantly – extraordinarily striking visuals and art direction elevated it far above the norm to something very compelling, singular, and original. I don’t ordinarily seek out behind-the-scenes stuff for most media I consume, but whenever something has particularly excellent visuals, I tend to look for any videos or information I can find on the creative process behind them (the Dark Souls Design Works and Half-Life’s Raising the Bar remain two of my most treasured books for just this reason). To my shock, it became apparent that in the overwhelming majority of shots, the cars were actually physically present on the shoots: those sweeping takes across the car “fleet” were takes in which all those cars were actually brought on set (though “on set” loses a little meaning in the middle of a desert) and filmed driving alongside one another. I was very pleased to discover this, speaking as someone who has always preferred the real-stunt for the car chase (or the costume or animatronic for the monster) to their CGI equivalents, but it got me thinking.

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One of the most common questions I get on this blog, the various other sites I post about URR on, and in my website email inbox, boil down to “how did you program X?” or “could you please write more technical rather than design/progress-oriented blog entries?”. For the former I try to give a design oriented answer (“I made the system do A B C and keep track of D whilst factoring in E because I wanted it to output F”), whilst the answer to the latter generally boils down to “I’m afraid not”. I don’t write technical entries partly because there’s a lot of very new PCG stuff in URR that is (currently) unique, partly because I don’t find coding as a practice particularly interesting (I enjoy coding, but only because of the results produced at the end), partly because my code is rarely very elegant (since I don’t come from a Computer Science background), partly because I am remarkably ignorant of useful computer science terminology, and partly because I just think what the code does in the game and how a player experiences it is so much more interesting and important than anything I could say about lists, dictionaries and matrices (whatever those are).

I therefore find myself somewhat torn – I think the use of physical objects rather than CGI in Fury Road should be applauded (even though I suspect most viewers couldn’t tell the difference), yet I dismiss equivalent questions about my own under-the-hood processes, and have little-to-no interest in the coding of any other games out there, even those which I love and revere above all others. How can I resolve this apparent bit of cognitive dissonance? Does it actually matter for the appreciation of a piece of art how something is done, or does it only matter what the viewer/player gets from it; and does this vary across genre, or across different creative practices (film-making/game development), or in differing contexts between the contemporary states of different media formats?

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There are certainly arguments that the process of construction is important to the overall artistic product. I’m sure many people would argue that there is undeniable artistry in the “production” of art – that producing film special effects through CGI or physical effects brings a different artistic quality to a film, just as I know of many programmers who certainly describe programming as an artistic and creative process. For myself, it’s definitely a creative process, but only as the means to the creation of the eventual creative product; I’m not a programmer who derive any pleasure from, or has any interest in, creating the most optimal code or the most elegant code or the most interesting and effective way of coding some particular element. It’s not at all artistic for me. Similarly, the perceived aesthetic worth of so many modern art movements are fundamentally contingent upon emphasising the form of production – drawn without the lights on, randomly thrown paint, using only certain pens or brushes, and so forth – that it seems hard to remove the process from the value of the final product. Indeed, in URR all the art is ASCII/ANSI art, and to me some of the visual pleasure in looking at URR’s graphics (if I may say so) comes from understanding the constraints and limits placed upon the artistic process, which is to say the particular process of selecting and placing characters and colours.

On the other hand, by suggesting that process matters, are we not inevitably suggesting that a piece of art cannot stand on its own merits, but we need to know its production for a full appreciation? This brings with it some pretty obvious problems: there are tens of thousands of ancient works we cannot go back and investigate the production of. For every one modern novel whose development can be traced across author interviews and hand-written notes later made available to an interested public, there are a thousand whose origins are shrouded by time. Certainly, we don’t know what we’re missing out on by not appreciating how these were written – perhaps every chapter of a certain work was written only on certain religious holidays, knowledge of which would bring new understandings of the author’s intentions – but there may nevertheless be meanings we can’t comprehend. But if we believe such production-oriented meanings are always important, we inevitably limit ourselves to only partial understandings of almost all works, and that just doesn’t seem right; some of my most profound experiences have been with art (of whatever form) the production of which I knew nothing about, or only learned about after the experience. Perhaps knowledge of how something was made should be treated as an enjoyable addition, not a crucial component?

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In watching Fury Road I also found myself quite surprised that, in essence, I couldn’t tell the difference. I’m sure some people who viewed it realized “wow, none of those are CGI” just as I’m sure others thought the same way I did – “I assume these are CGI, because that’s the norm” – but that was my particular experience. I actually recall some time around halfway through the film thinking “wouldn’t it have been cool if they’d actually got all these cars in these shots?” but such a possibility seemed too remote to be worth taking particularly seriously. I think there is some broader point we can learn here about how the expectations of any art-form, especially in an era of major technological change (CGI in cinema/TV, and the expanding horizons of hardware/software capabilities in games more generally), can come to shape our experiences within that art-form, and even trip us up. Now that we expect so much to be done in cinema through CGI, it actually comes as a shock to learn that something wasn’t made using such a technique.

In turn, that highlights one of the things I find so compelling about the worlds of Dark Souls and Bloodborne (yes, I couldn’t go through a single blog entry without bringing these games up again) – they deliberately produce that same surprise in the player by allowing you to later explore areas that, in 99% of other games, would be mere skybox (background art that shows parts of the game world that cannot actually be explored). You spend much of the game staring at these areas that you expect to be inaccessible, and then when you get there, visiting that place has far more impact than some new location one had never even observed before gaining access. Just as films so often feel slightly more “real” once you know CGI was minimal, the same can perhaps we said about game worlds when you find more of the visual world to be physically present than you perhaps expected.

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As with last week’s piece, I’ve mainly been throwing out ideas here rather than putting forward a particular argument; I’m not yet sure myself where I stand on these questions, and I find the arguments I’ve outlined here (and I’m sure there are many others I’ve omitted) to be equally convincing on both sides. Ultimately, however, I am inclined to think that whether or not it “matters” how an artistic product was produced depends on our appreciation of that medium. I have the deepest appreciation of games and literature, a strong appreciation of cinema and television, and then from there I have a tremendous drop towards my level of appreciation of music, theatre, dance, poetry, and other cultural forms. This is not of course from any rejection of those forms, but they just don’t happen to be the cultural/media forms that especially interest me. But because I know games so well, I can “step behind the curtain” and appreciate how they were constructed if I so desire; I rarely do, but I have the knowledge and expertise to do that. By contrast, I have no real ability to do that for music, as I can barely tell instruments apart, let alone come to appreciate how the method by which an album was constructed should be considered when appreciating the final product.

This does not guarantee that I will have a more shallow experience of that piece of music than someone else, but it certainly alters the nature of my experience from the piece of art itself, to the piece of art and its methods of production. When one engages with the latter, its production methods inevitably find their way into one’s brain: I cannot view a film of a game without considering how it might have been created. Such elements have to matter when we are in a position to consider them, and are bound to influence our consumption of the art; but when we are without them, I don’t think we are any worse off. To return to games, which are after all the focus of this blog, I certainly don’t feel I lacked anything in my appreciation of games when I was younger and didn’t know much about game design, development, and production. Nevertheless, now that I do, I cannot help but appreciate something that subverts our expectations of game production, or a game that was a struggle for a single developer to produce, or a game whose visual or storytelling elements, perhaps, clearly demonstrate a remarkable commitment by its designers or writers. How much production methods matter perhaps therefore depends more than anything upon how much we know of those production methods, what production methods we have come to expect, and the extent to which a piece of media breaks away from those norms and tries something profoundly new – not the pure pragmatics of the basic processes that constitute programming, filming, or putting words to paper.

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20 thoughts on “Does it matter how it was made?

  1. I think an interesting notion might be that CGI does not look quite that real; but as we are suspending our disbelief we stop looking for the flaws on purpose. So even when presented with material that is physically shot footage, we do not do a ‘realism check’ on it and might assume it is CGI; then if we know, we can sort-of relax that suspension of disbelief and enjoy the footage more deeply. A bit like trusting a person so well they can say things without you mentally cushioning yourself for odd comments.

    In that sense, a game which does not allow you to visit parts of its skybox can similarly require that suspension of disbelief; and contrariwise if you visit the skybox the game can seem more to be trusted. The games I like most were the ones that won my trust very early on and let me relax and trust their worlds would be coherent.

    So in a way, the peek ‘behind the curtain’ might also be something that allows you to trust a game sooner (because even when it is limited you know its limitations right away) and for music or poetry it comes much later (because even _after_ reading it you are left questioning its _actual_ quality). At the same time, seeing a lot of CGI films that require you to ignore flaws my stunt your appreciation and leave you with a shallower appreciation of these films, because you purposefully dulled your perceptions.

    There’s a fair chance that what we lack in fields that do not interest us (poetry or music for some; games for others) is enough investment of time and effort to get past that first stage of not knowing not being able to relax and enjoy. Perhaps in games in particular people are over-specialised in games, and become a bit stunted or even blind to other forms, purely because of the huge time-sink of games, and the particular type of suspension of disbelief they require. And perhaps that makes the experience overall far more shallow than would be possible otherwise, if investment was made in other culture.

    • All very interesting thoughts – the idea of “trust” here is very intriguing, and I see the kind of thing you’re getting at here. I realise it’s an extreme example, but that recent genre of silly knock-off films from new big releases (like, if memory serves, “Alien: Resurgence” after “Independence Day: Resurgence”, and that Suicide Squad rip-off I can’t remember the name of) has such wretched CGI, and just visibly wretched CGI, that it absolutely undermines any enjoyment you might have got from the thing anyway. I wonder if there’s any academic literature out there on suspension of disbelief… this has got me wondering!

  2. I was shocked when I saw the guys-on-poles were a practical effect and not CGI. Amazing movie, far exceeded my expectations in every way.

    I don’t think there is one answer to the question. Every person is different, and will be interested in a different level of engagement. Many won’t care for the behind-the-scenes; but the ones who do are likely your most devoted fans and those who will claim you as an inspiration and mentor. Usually it’s a good thing, a teaching thing, to get to see behind the scenes. But sometimes it results in a “that’s all it was?” kind of response; still, those are interesting to know great results are possible from creative use of common techniques.

    Big picture, I’d say it will extend the impact of your success on the people most deeply engaged, but won’t matter for the 80% who are less engaged and just dabble or enjoy the game moderately. I don’t know the cost of exposing the info, but if your goal is impact, this will increase it and the inspiration URR can have on others.

    • You said it – a total masterpiece. Even if the sequel is a little bit weaker, it’ll still be a 10/10 (as Fury Road is surely an 11/10 genre-defining masterwork), so I’ll be going to see the next film the moment it shows up in the cinema. Teaching: yes, good point! I can totally understand the value of the behind-the-scenes look for aspiring designers, and I know a decent number of people have said that to me about this blog (which is extremely kind, and I’m so glad it’s inspired other people who have never coded before to start programming).

  3. That’s interesting, because (talking in a different layer) roguelikes tend to leak many gameplay details to the players. One could question “is it really necessary to know if a certain weapon does +1 to attack or +2 to speed?”, “does the player need to know those details instead of sense them as a result?”.

    And to answer directly to the question, i do think it matters, not in a rational way though. We as humans are incluned to value others based in the effort they have to put to achieve something. Maybe it is worth more the effort than the result, we rather hail someone than saves a person risking his own life than someone that saves thousands of lifes without blinking.

    • Ah, that’s a good point – I suppose there’s a second-level question here not about whether it enhances enjoyment or satisfaction or whatever to know something about what’s going on under-the-hood, but whether it is actively beneficial to reading the text (i.e. playing the game in that case) in the first place? Because there’s no doubt, and anything with permadeath exemplifies this, that having some kind of good understanding of what goes on in the game’s system is incredibly useful…

  4. I’m reminded of a film class that I took in college, which I enjoyed a lot more than I thought it would. It gave me an appreciation for the process of filmmaking that I’d known very little about before, and changed the way I look at film (for the better). I think the same could be said of many forms of art; it sometimes takes a bit of effort to understand and appreciate them, but that effort can be rewarding in the end. Similarly, I enjoy following dev blogs like this one. I know very little about programming, but I enjoy the behind-the-curtains look. After following dev blogs and playing completed games, I find that I do generally enjoy them more.

    On the other hand, I kickstarted Torment: Tides of Numenera, but am deliberately avoiding following its development because I want to experience the game without prior knowledge. Can too much knowledge of the development of a piece of art diminish one’s enjoyment of it? I imagine this is more the case for “hand-crafted” narrative games where the story can be “spoiled”, than for procedural games like URR.

    I expect/hope that you’re keeping a few good URR secrets from us, though, to be discovered later on…

    • Ah, now that sounds like a class I would have enjoyed! Interesting distinction re: following PCG/hand-made games – I’ve never considered that .I’ve never been someone who really follows devblogs myself, but now that you make me think about it, I suppose all the ones I follow are PCG ones. Maybe it was playing games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne that really taught me the pleasure of coming to a game without knowing anything (I mean, obviously the game itself has to be rich and deep as well, but coming to any game with no knowledge also helps). Mass Effect Andromeda is likely to be one of the very, very few recent games I’ll be making time ot play, and I don’t want to know much about it – I’ll check review numbers when it comes out, and if they’re as high as the original series, I’ll buy it, but not read anything more.

      Oh, but of course I am! No need to worry on that front 🙂

  5. For me, I love to know what’s behind the scenes, especially in video games. In general, I like all the anecdotes and stories that you can gather about the process of creation. I think it’s something that I seek for about 10 years or so but way more in video games than anywhere else. I think you develop this need when you have a real connection to the media you’re searching infos about.

    • Interesting! I totally agree there’s something very pleasing about having that connection to the media in question, and I certainly do find the processes of media production – especially for something that is very unusual in a lot of ways, like Fury Road – intriguing in their own right, even if actually don’t wind up adjusting my appreciation of the artwork itself.

  6. In literature I can appreciate something like Gravity’s Rainbow because a certain level of knowledge of form and tropes and such let me see the ways Pynchon broke rules, in purely creative and bold ways, and in scientific and calculated ways. I would have missed alot without some knowledge of the production.

    However, I think some of the deepest aesthetic experiences are not in the technical construction of “elements”, but are based in their particular application. This would be why music (or finding Anor Londo to be all but empty) can be so affecting; you don’t need to know the tools to be worked by them.

    I had a meta-game question for you, though:

    Beyond code or specific themes and ideas, is there anything that you intend to add to game development with URR as an argument? Is any part of this critical of the way games are designed? Because you seem to be very concerned with closing the gameplay-narrative gap, which is as good as sanctified in gaming.

    • Mmm, Pynchon’s a good example, I think – so many of his works play with so much outside the novel that having some idea of the kinds of broader literary ideas he’s using/deliberately mis-using is definitely useful! And ditto Dark Souls.

      Hmm… what an interesting question. I suppose on some level I’m trying to explore the value of social/cultural elements to game worldbuilding, and also to make an argument that one can develop a particular game mechanic (i.e. around discovery, finding clues, etc) to be as challenging and complex (hopefully!) as any kind of combat mechanic has ever been. I’m definitely interested in also… I don’t know, further exploring the potential for the one-person production team, and hopefully the potential for what might appear to be an “art game” to have visibility and impact beyond a small community. But I guess in those points we’re talking about the next couple of years, not right now! Especially whilst I’m on a coding break :\

  7. Must it be binary: it matters or it matters not? I think it’s a decision that pertains to everyone, and there are no good answer. You can enjoy a game, a movie, … without a care about how it’s made. Or you can dig deep about how it was made (technologically speaking) but also its history, its context. People who enjoy doing this say it adds richness to the whole, it informs the work and makes it deeper, more layered. On the other hand, there are people who would just be bored by it all, and that’s fine.

    The same goes for creators. I’m doing a PhD in CS and I love caring about the nitty gritty. Frankly, I care too much, it has been a real impediment to my productivity — and maybe even to the quality of my output (remember the story about the students who had to make the greatest number of pots vs the students who just had to make the perfect pot?).

    I really think that you not caring overmuch about the techniques and the “good looks” in your code is one of the reason why you’re able to be so relentlessly productive (really, I’m taken aback each time I read about an update to URR).

    • I agree with the productivity comment! I also looked back at some of the pascal code I wrote as a teen in the ’80s, and I was amazed how short it was and how much it accomplished. Most of that was due to being command-line related programs without error checking, but it inspired me to “go faster” in prototypes. All this engineering I’ve learned is great and necessary for products, but there is a definite time for git-r-done. And even with good frameworks, working in a modern windowed GUI really has an overhead cost that I’d lost track of.

    • Oh, certainly – that’s interesting about your own PhD experience(s), though. In some ways I had the opposite problem in my PhD, since in the first draft of my thesis I just wrote vastly too much and tried to look at every single semi-related problem I could get my hands on, and my first draft ended up 50,000 words over the word limit! I then learned how to actually focus on the nitty-gritty, as doctoral work should be, and managed to fix it by the end. Anyway, that’s very kind of you re: relentlessly productive! Thanks a ton. I am still being so right now, just sadly not on URR for the last couple of months, though once normality resumes towards the end of this year I hope to ramp back up to my old levels of coding speed…

  8. I didn’t read all of this (was just stopping by) but I saw something you wrote within and wanted to comment on it. You state that your code isn’t very elegant and that you care more about the end result than the actual method/construction of the code that creates that result.

    To some extent, I think this is the mindset of an engineer (I’m nearly done with my engineering undergraduate degree). Although engineers are ultimately concerned with *efficiently* reaching the end result, the end result truly is king. For something like a computer program where, nowadays, you can be “sloppy” with your programming and use up extra memory without fear of any major repercussions… I don’t see any problem with ignoring the “efficiency” by which you arrive at the end result(s) for the systems or mechanics in your game.

    I think this distinction aligns what you are doing more with art than science. If you were designing a fighter plane, you’d be concerned with the construction (the details) of how the end result was achieved. But you’re not. In that sense it is more like a painting. Bob Ross stood there and painted clouds on the canvas only to cover up half of them with mountains later. He could have simply not painted the clouds to begin with. The end result would still have been the same, however. Perhaps less efficient in achieving the end result, but the same end result nonetheless.

    Just really resonated with me and wanted to contribute this as food for thought. You are doing something great… combining many skills, ideas, and disciplines in to one package. From an academic standpoint, I think that’s outstanding. The world could use more people connecting the dots and tying the knots in the way you are with this game.

    After I finish up my undergraduate degree in engineering I plan to pursue a PhD in History, which is a far cry from the accounting career I envisioned when I first started college. I hope to study the interaction between history, society, and technology. I wonder what questions your game might raise of our own world? What parallels can we draw? Fascinating to consider.

    Cannot wait for 0.8 as it seems the game will be in a highly playable and enjoyable state. Have plastered this on my Twitter and Facebook. Keep up the great work and best wishes from the US!

    • Hey – thanks for this awesome comment and the kind words! Firstly, I really appreciate the URR enthusiasm – those questions of history/society/technology are what I looked at in my PhD, and what I continue to look at now that I study games and related domains in my academic work, and it’s a tremendously rich field. I do hope that URR in some ways will raise questions about the real-world – these won’t necessarily be essential for the player to notice and consume, but there’s definitely a certain set of political messages at play in the game. As for the art/science thoughts, I definitely see my objectives as far more on the side of art than science. And thanks for plastering this on FB/Twitter! I greatly appreciate it 🙂

  9. I believe you can appreciate a work of art or product both in terms of the finished object for what it is, and also the means by which it was created, as two completely separate entities.
    For example, you can appreciate a modern painting that consists of just a few splashes of paint for what it is – the emotional impact that it might have on the observer – and at the same time feel completely dismissive of the 5 minutes it took to create it.
    Or you can appreciate the intricate and thoughtful preparation of tea in a Japanese tea ritual, even though the final result – a cup of tea that you can drink, is somewhat mundane.
    But most of the time both the process of creation and the finished product itself are worthy of appreciation, depending on where your interests lie. Think of tremendous works of art like the carvings of the Alhambra, a Mandala sand painting or even a structure like the Empire State Building. Both the final result and the way it was achieved can be appreciated in completely different ways.
    Even though one leads to another, they are completely different and independent in terms of how they might be appreciated.

    • Those are two great comparisons which really highlight the relationship between the effort and the product extremely well. I quite agree the different processes/outcomes are the things worthy of attention depending on your interest, but also obviously depending on the context and the kind of sociocultural *stuff* arrayed around the practice in question, and what the general consensus believes to be important. These are really important links, I think, and if I ever take this kind of analysis deeper, I definitely want to explore some kind of transient art – Mandala, tea ceremony, etc – and dig really deeply into the philosophies and forms of value theory at work there.

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