Archive: April 1st, 2009

Platforms and Poetics

[Research] (04.01.09, 10:51 am)

More loose and scatterbrained notes…

The platform informs expression.

Poetry is developed to exist within a system of constraints. These constraints are often metrical (so many lines and syllables per line), but more generally are constrained in terms of compactness. Poetry is designed to be as compact as possible. Elegant expression within a tightly constrained system is the ideal in poetry.

Platforms impose constraints, and can be worked within to guide artistic expression. A platform will constrain the form, structure, and means of growth that an artifact built on the platform may have. These constraints may include features that are required, or are inherently dominant in artifacts, they may be constraints in terms of complexity or abstraction.

I am deliberately vague here on what a platform is or can be. In a general sense a platform could be a medium or genre. The term as it is used with the most familiarity refers to video game systems (as well as engines). Thus, Unreal Tournament 2004 is a platform, and so is the Atari 2600. The “PC” is a platform, but an open ended one (also an ambiguous one, as computational affordances have changed dramatically from the earliest PC games to the present). However, more generally, a platform could be other media or genre of artistic representation, such as digital video, murals, or wooden blocks.

The constraints imposed by a platform are not bad. Freedom without constraint can be disorienting. Working within a platform with constraints enables the work to build off of existing material, distinguish itself from other works within the platform (by virtue of comparison to what it does similarly or differently). It enables aesthetic judgments of elegance within constraints.

The necessary requirement for expression is fitting the constraints of a platform to the artistic goals of the end product. If the two match well, then the final work is enriched. Both the platform and the product have coherent and compatible systems. However, it is very frequent that the two may not match, resulting in some kind of dissonance. Sometimes, this is what is intended, but often it weakens the final product and the meaning behind it.

In terms of games, a good example of platform coherence is Braid. The game itself is a commentary on the genre of “platformer” games, and it makes use of their conventions, but ultimately reveals some ideological messages behind them. An example of platform dissonance is Charbitat, a project I worked on, where our goal was to develop a game about procedurally generated space, but had difficulty shaking the conventions of static maps that were used in Unreal Tournament.

In this sense, games and poetry are similar, because they work within some field of constraints and strive (can strive, really) to achieve elegance within them. In both cases, there is a period where the platform must be chosen. Someone wanting to write a poem about insomnia must choose how to put words to page, whether it be a sonnet, haiku, concrete poem, or so on. Similarly, someone wanting to write a game about insomnia might choose among platformer, puzzle, adventure, first person shooter, Atari VCS, and so on.

There is a problem, though, and that is that many popular and conventional game genres are restrictive as platforms. Beyond imposing constraints, they impose ideologies as well. While a haiku has cultural conventions that give it ideological constraints (compression, naturalism), game platforms are slightly more complicated. It is not immediately clear what the ideology of the Atari VCS might be, but it definitely involves restrictions in what expression is allowed (symmetrical backgrounds, two sprites, two particles, and so on). The ideology of the Unreal Tournament platform is a little bit more clear. This is not to say that there cannot be elegant works built from these platforms, but rather that for many types of expression, these platforms will be dissonant.

It seems that to resolve this it is necessary to devise new platforms, rather than building from existing ones, but this endeavor is risky and problematic.