Category Archives: essay

Multimedia works and the “weakest link” principle

Things Ain’t How They Used to Be

A long time ago, I read an article on the internet that wondered about how great all the movies used to be. In the forties, it said, all the movies were so good and now, most are terrible. This, of course, is completely false. This was written before the term “blog” was even introduced and was probably the words of someone who was then very young. A much more likely hypothesis is that bad works tend to be forgotten and that time is an very effective (though sometimes unfair) quality filter.

But still, are there really films of the quality of Casablanca these days? Or, my personal Hollywood favorite, The Maltese Falcon? It not possible to objectively quantify quality, but most people would agree that something is missing to most contemporary films. They have better image quality, better special effects, in many ways they have much more polished acting, more sophisticated editing; they’re shown in bigger, better theaters and even home media is of better quality than most theatrical releases of their time. Surely, we can pull off another movie of the quality of Casablanca, right? But if so, why hasn’t it happened?

This question brings to mind other issues. The apparent low quality of the average movie is not an isolated occurrence. In the same vein, why are so many video games bad? Why are so many Broadway musicals so embarrassingly silly? Did culture peak just a few decades ago? Have we just gone by our equivalent of Ancient Greece’s turn of the 6th century B.C.E.?

Well, I for one don’t think so. Talent abounds. Similarly, our demands in term of what constitutes quality have also risen sharply. To get back to Casablanca as an example, from a purely logical point of view, its story makes absolutely no sense. If a similar story were released today, it would be mocked by any educated critic and blogger. But most likely, before that occurred, its script would be altered to make up for these mistakes. These alterations would most likely severely hinder the suspension of disbelief that the film allows. Some of its sense of idealism and romance is not restrained but is in fact exacerbated by the logical blurriness of its plot.

Bigger is Better, Except When It’s Not

This consideration about Casablanca‘s plot is not the only aspect that would probably not escape the judgement of a modern viewer. In fact, each aspect of a work of fiction or a work of art is condemned until exonerated by today’s standards. And here  is the crux of the problem: the greater number of  media types one uses in a single work, the more one exposes it to points of failure.

Let’s take the example of a musical comedy on stage based on high quality non-musical play. The musical has all the good elements of the original, plus some good music and choreography. In all logic, it should be better. But in reality, that’s rarely the case.

First, let’s look into the hypothetical original. Why was it successful? It had a good text, good acting, good direction, good sets, good sound, good costumes, good lighting and was staged in a good theatre. Now, one could break this down even further. What constitutes a good text? What makes a good theater? But bear with me for now.

Here comes the musical adaptation. It’s much more complicated to stage. In all likelihood, it will require more stage performers who sing and dance, it will require choreography and voice direction, lyrics and music. Let’s say one of these are bad. Let’s say it’s very bad. That would usually mean the whole show it bad. A musical with bad music is a bad musical, no matter how good the text, acting and costumes are. If the music is bad, the whole show is bad.

Now you can explain that really, if you stop and consider how good the text and the costume and the actors are, independently from the music, you’ll find spectacular quality. And that may be true. And you’ll probably be able to convince people. But the overall show will still be bad.

Each time a new type of media is added, the number of parts that can go wrong increases. And it does not increase linearly, it increases exponentially. Adding special effects to a film does not only add the need for special effects to be good, it also requires their aesthetic to be consistent with the overall aesthetic of the whole film, it requires the live performers to know how to work inside of a partially virtual environment and for their direction to be adequately guided in relation for that.

Each medium is not self-contained but affects every other. Any addition complicates every other aspect. If everything is done well, a new medium will add to the overall experience, but if any  single aspect is done poorly, it can ruin everything. I remember when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released, among its numerous criticisms was the fact that the font used for its subtitles was inconsistent with the one used in the previous films. I remember it bothered me, and I was not that much of a fan.

This is the weakest link principle: a multimedia work of art or fiction is only ever as good as its least well used medium. And the more media there are, and the more they are intertwined, the more harshly that rule applies.

A video game with a bad interface is a bad video game, no matter how good the rest of the game is. A play staged on a badly lit stage is a bad stage experience, no matter how good the rest of it is. A TV show with with bad camerawork is a bat TV show, no matter how good the acting or the lines.

The Space Captain and the Orphan Girl

Let me now quickly plug two TV shows I love: Babylon 5 and Candy Candy.

Babylon 5Babylon 5 was a TV series created by J. Michael Straczynski. It first aired between 1994 and 1998. It is not very popular among the general public, but was extremely influential on television writing overall. This  is mostly because of the huge focus that Babylon 5 placed on continuity and character development at a time where most TV series tried to make every episode self-contained. On most TV shows, at the end of each episode, the series was reset to the situation where it was at the beginning. On Babylon 5, however, most episodes took place within a story arc and the overall series plot evolved within the episode and the differences made in the world were permanent.

For example, on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the first officer of the Enterprise, William Riker, meets several women along the course of the series with whom he forms romantic entanglements. They are usually never referred to again in subsequent episodes. In Babylon 5, when the the character Londo Mollari forms a romantic attachment with a woman, Adira, not only is it never forgotten but eventually used against him as leverage later on in the series.

The complex and subtle nature of the series’ plotlines, the number of intertwining stories, the way they were kept in balance with one another is unprecedented tour de force for television, one that led the way for other television series from that point on to eschew the reset format of self-contained episodes in favor of a continuity systems. For example, this influences dramatic series that might otherwise have placed much less emphasis on continuity like Buffy the Vampires Slayer (1997-2003) or ER (1994-20014). It also influenced sitcoms like Friends (1994-2004) or Sex and the City (1998-2004), which show a degree of focus on continuity very rarely seen in previous instances of the format, frequently referring to events of previous episodes, rewarding faithful viewers at the possible expense of casual ones. This was much more prevalent in later seasons of both Friends and Buffy.

And yet, Babylon 5 was, in many respects, a bad series. Some of its dialog was poor. The phrase “Most amusing,” for example, was often used by many characters even though it often fell flat. Some of the acting was, by any measure, poor, while some was excellent. Some sets, costumes and special effects were below-par. Many of that can be explained by the relatively low budget of the series. On average, each episode of Babylon 5 cost half as much as an episode of a Star Trek series produced around that time. But explanations, as explained earlier in this post don’t matter. The fact of the matter is many aspects of Babylon 5 are simply sub-par.

The anime version of the main character of Candy Candy: Candy White Ardlay

A similar assessment can be made of the 1970s anime series Candy Candy, which originally ran from 1976 to 1979 in Japan. The series was a gigantic success in almost all of the countries where it was aired. The only two exceptions were the United Kingdom and the United States, the two countries where the whole of the story takes place.

That success came even though the series was produced extremely quickly. The animation is choppy and there are many factual inaccuracies. Books in English are bound on the right, like Japanese books and not on the left, American servants bow to their employers like Japanese servants, family structures are very hierarchical in way that very foreign to the Western world in which the series is supposed to take place. And yet from South America to East Asia the series was extremely popular with extremely devoted fans throughout Europe.

The flaws in Candy Candy were not limited to the series itself but continued with its distribution. The series was often very badly dubbed. In many cases, the dub was translated not from the original Japanese but from the Italian dub: Silvio Berlusconi’s media group, MediaSet used to buy the rights for Japanese animation, cheaply dub them and resell the Italian language versions to be re-dubbed. This included Candy Candy.

And so it seems that my weakest link theory has been proven wrong. Despite their array of flaws and imperfections, Babylon 5 and Candy Candy seem to be two perfect examples of works of fiction whose qualities made up for their flaws. But is this really the case? Maybe not.

Finding Hal Wallis

Getting back to Casablanca, where is our modern-day equivalent of it, if it can and therefore must exist?

Again, there is a lot of subjectivity involved in ranking works in terms of overall quality. That said, I have an opinion on the matter. It would be silly to name names here, as any specific example would be besides the point, but whatever more or less lines up with some of the Hal Wallis classics nowadays would probably be a high-polish independent work. (Actually, the game Don’t Starve as well as the film Primer by Shane Carruth comes to mind.) However, being independent, they are, by their very nature, distinct from classical works in their overall status.

We are much more likely to accept imperfections in something that is not touted as being the state of the art: artisan bread is supposed to unevenly textured, handmade pottery is not supposed to be decorated in a perfectly symmetrical way. Their roughness becomes an asset rather than a flaw.

But then, what about the inaccuracies in Casablanca? Well, in all fairness, they were never inaccuracies for their intended audience. The vast majority of moviegoers in the forties did not care about such details. And now, the movie has become a classic and this, rather than exacerbate its flaws, transforms them into artifacts of their time: something to be loved and treasured.

What then of Babylon 5 and Candy Candy? They were not classics when they were first aired. And they were certainly flawed.

Well, yes, but their imperfections contributed to their suspension of disbelief. The were coherently imperfect. It sounds unfair and maybe it is unfair, but it works. Had they been polished in all aspects but one, than one rough aspect would have ruined the whole series. But they were rough all over. Their incredible qualities existed not in spite of that roughness but within it. The bad dialog never got in the way of Straczynski’s subtle politics. The silly and incoherent translations did not in fact create obstacles for Candy’s journey through a completely impossible and inaccurate America but made the world she explored more acceptable on the surface of the canvas it was set up on. It’s a work where everything is a little off to begin with, so nitpicking is by definition pointless.

Fiction, art and entertainment are not literal. Through their many layers of allegory and figurative meanings, it’s easy to lose track of what’s what. I maintain that my weakest link principle holds. But the weakest link in that figurative chain has to really be a weakest link. It has to stand out from the rest in terms of its quality as well as its nature. A link made of paper is not the weakest link on a paper chain.

The next question is: will some technical aspects of the current big budget film industry fade away or are they here all to stay? The question is not as absurd as it seems. There are still black-and-white films being made today. Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff was made entirely without computer graphics. It is not inconceivable that there might exist at some point in the future a trend to make big works of screen entertainment that boast little or no digital trickery and adopt a style closer to the more naive one of classic Hollywood, may it be for cultural reasons or, more likely, for financial ones: there are new kinds of media competing with feature films in the limited realm of paid entertainment.

I don’t actually think this is going to happen, though, or, to be more precise, if it is going to happen, it’s not going to happen that way. The aesthetic motivation is most likely simply too weak. As for the proliferation of different media, I do think it will continue to increase, making the more popular ones diminish their reliance on expensive and superficially spectacular feats. But even that is a long shot.

Why no dialog trees in Go, Jill!

My current side project is a text adventure tentatively called Go, Jill!. I want it to be a mostly-free roaming world with a main linear story where the player character, the titular Jill, will be able to talk about a lot of things to a lot of people. But one thing I don’t want is dialog trees.

Interactive story and branching

Dialog trees are very similar to the concept of branching stories. Usually, when people hear the term “interactive story” they think of branching story. It seems to make sense, right? How else is a story going to be interactive? In fact, there are many arguments that can be made both in favor of and against branching in interactive stories. Most of them were masterfully presented in the book Interactive Storytelling for Video Games.

In general, branching gives a better sense of agency, and that’s a good thing. But, as counterbalance to that, branching carries many downsides, some of which are:

  • It’s hard to write one good story, let alone several good ones.
  • Similarly, in a scripted story (as opposed to an improvised one), a good plot is usually made by planting narrative seeds that will bear fruit later. This is further complicated if the story branches.
  • A story should generally be surprising. If it branches, people will either be progressing at random or not be surprised.
  • Generally, the end of a story either presents a conclusion or a clearly purposeful sense of non-conclusiveness (like The Sopranos). If the story branches, one may always have the impression that the conclusion they saw is only one of many and that often feels wrong.

An ending being only one of many if fine if the game one plays is really set to make people construct their own narrative. Several role-playing games are made precisely to allow that. However, while they are clearly set in a narrative-like world, they don’t have an actual narrative in the generally accepted sense of the term. The ending the players arrive at simply did not exist before they played. It is not one of many pre-existing ones.

Dialog trees

Dialog trees are mostly a form of branching. Even if great care is placed in making sure that they never have negative consequences (like Ron Gilbert did) every time a choice is made it usually prevents another one. In a game of strategy that’s good, but in a narrative context, that’s bad. Furthermore, most dialog trees don’t take the care Ron Gilbert did and actively use dialog trees to alter the course of the story and branch it out.

And here, we have many problems. The first one is that characters usually know more about their own world than the player does. That’s something that very visible in David Cage’s work. A character can open a drawer and find a photo than makes him sad. The player had no way of knowing that the photo would be there, but the character did. At the end, such choices are just random to the player.

Dialog trees are just like that only more so. When we talk to someone in life, we usually have a good idea of what will offend them and what will make them happy. In games, it’s mostly luck. It’s actually worse than luck because the narration of the games forces it to be surprising, on an innocent-sounding phrase is unpredictably likely to turn out to be offensive to a character for the sake of drama. If it weren’t, the story would be boring.

Also, some of the choices offered in dialog trees might be a lot less subtle than what the player has in mind. Let’s say a character asks the player “Should I go talk to my friend about her husband being unfaithful?” and the possible choices are “Yes,” “No,” and “I don’t know, maybe.” And answer like “Yes” can lead to

  • “You totally should. You’d be a horrible friend if you didn’t.”
  • Or “Yeah. I think so. If you don’t and she found out you knew, she’s going to blame you for it.”
  • Or “If you want. I mean, it’s your decision.”
  • Or “Sure. I’ll go with you. I can’t wait to see the bitch go down!”
  • Or “Yes. Let’s go to the café that just opened downtown.”

Even if the whole first line is given, the conversation might end up having the player character say things that the player never expected.

This is randomness, and randomness and storytelling don’t go well together. This is one of the areas where it is particularly tough for story and gameplay to merge. As Jesse Schell is very found of teaching, randomness is generally good for games. He also likes to say that story is often good for games as well. For my part, I’ll add that randomness is usually terrible for stories.

My alternative

Let’s be sensible: for point-and-click games, dialog trees are still the best solution. But Go, Jill! is going to be a text adventure. For that medium, dialog trees can easily be a bad decision. It’s very important to use one’s medium as much as possible. And I have a blog post about just that topic. For a text adventure, I always found dialog trees to be clunky. A sort of haphazard interface inside of the main interface. Text adventures do not have a perfect interface, obviously, but throwing a dialog tree in the middle of it takes away their main attribute: free exploration or at least the illusion of it. If I’m playing a text adventure, I like to feel like I can type anything. I know that only a few words will actually work, but if I play along and the game is well made, that feeling can still hold.

Some people often like to say that text adventures are misleading because they claim the user can type anything in the input field but only very few of these commands will work. First of all, a list of suggested commands were usually distributed with games at the time. Second, all games restrict actions. Try and have Mario walk in front of a pipe in the 2D games! Get Nathan Drake to talk the people who are shooting at him into changing sides! Take a saw and try dividing up those Tetris tiles! Go ahead, do it! Games are restrictive by nature. Text adventures, like all games, try to use their limitations to be better from them, as opposed to artificially build clutter and pretend that those limitations do not exist.

What I intend to do with Go, Jill! is to encourage the players to have Jill ask about and tell about as many things as possible to the non-player characters, with a specific focus on relations between people. It’ll be a lot of content, but I’ll try to make it work. Again, this will mostly be about exploration. The main consequence to most of that content will be the way the player explores and understands the story. With some exceptions, the actual gameplay will be unaffected. So, for example, Jill will be able to ask character A what he thinks of his romantic partner’s relationship with his mother. This will not be a suggested topic, just not I’ll throw in there. If the player tries it, there will be a response.

The idea is that from one same mass of text, each player will be able to explore the parts of the story that they want at will. Progress will depend on them following the main story path, but it will truly be an interactive experience in the way most of the backstory and underlying relationships will only emerge if the player seeks them out.

There is no negative consequence to picking the wrong option because there is no option to pick. There is no frustration for getting to the wrong ending because there is only one ending. But if a player is not interested in an aspect of the backstory or a character’s opinion, they simply won’t have to pursue it. If, on the other hand they want to learn all they can about what most of the characters think about things, that will be available to them with no in-game downside.

This will definitely not be a game one plays to win but one that one plays to explore.

Why do we even have adventure games?

Illustration from Pride and PrejudiceNow that I’m among people who love and make games all the time, a question that has surrounded me for years keeps presenting itself in ever-varying ways: why do we even have adventure games? How did they ever get popular? Why are so many people trying to bring them back?

Surely, adventure games aren’t really games, are they? There’s usually one possible outcome. You follow a story that you don’t even get to influence, unlike role-playing games, where the players actually get to make the story in many ways. Sure, there are a few puzzles to solve, but really you might as well watch a movie or TV series and you can get pretty much the same thing and not have to click for hours to get it.

Actually, there is something to that last point: adventure games are in many ways closer to TV series than to many other games. And their purpose is much closer to television than to, say, a fighting game.

A few days ago, I was watching an episode of the TV series Once Upon a Time with my roommate. That episode ended with a revelation about how a character in the “A” plot matched a character in the “B” plot. This a very common technique in Once Upon a Time. About two-thirds through the episode, my roommate exclaimed, “I just figured out who he is!” There was an implicit tone of contest: I had not figured it out. I actually had not even figured out that there was a new connection made in this episode. After that point, I started thinking about it and I figured it out too. When the episode ended, our assumption was confirmed: we had gotten it right.

In many stories, though, the fun actually comes from getting it wrong and being surprised by that failure. In his game design class at Carnegie Mellon, Jess Schell refutes the claim that some entertainment, like television, is passive, and some, like games, is active. He claims — and makes a very good case for it — that all entertainment is active. The way my roommate and I put active effort into figure out that part of Once Upon a Time is a clear illustration of that.

Note that here was no explicit challenge presented to us. Nor was there an explicit mystery in the show, unlike, for example, in a murder mystery where the identity of the killer is presented as an explicit challenge. The implicit nature of the mystery did not make it in any way less compelling.

Now, one could argue that the challenge was, still mechanical and that it comes from one of the series main, for the lack of a better word, “mechanics.” But this sort of engagement is present throughout fiction. Let’s take Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as an example. Jane Austen was certainly not writing a television series nor a video game. In it, two characters make a claim directly related to each other’s moral and social status: Mr Darcy claims that Mr Wickham is an immoral man who should not be trusted and who, if one allows oneself to give him any credit, will use his influence to perform harmful actions. Mr Wickham, on the other hand, claims that Mr Darcy is cold ad unfeeling and that he takes pleasure in belittling others in order to increase his own sense of heightened self-esteem. The reader is asked to take sides, just as implicitly and just as actively as in Once Upon a Time. And the challenge is just as balanced as any video game is balanced. On the one hand, the central character, the though who we actually view the story, is very much inclined to side with Mr Wickham. She presents evidence against Mr Darcy that is reinforced by the fact that it is the point-of-view character that’s presenting it. On the other hand, we also know that Mr Darcy is one of the main characters and we know that the title of the work is “Pride and Prejudice, or First Impressions” which strongly indicates that false perception will be a important component of the story.

A fan painting of Guybrush ThreepwoodA more explicit way of seeing this is when a story is told in person. One should always make the most of their medium in all circumstances. I have another blog post precisely about that. When telling a story in person, it’s usually a good idea to tell it in such a way that the person (or people) you’re telling it to can interrupt. Actually, scripted stories in which a story is told very ofter use that technique. If someone who’s telling a story in person in a way that could allow interruptions outright rejections them, for example by saying something like, “Please, don’t interrupt me. I‘m telling the story”, they are simply neglecting their mediam.

Adventure games reverse the order in which that participation occurs in the story. Instead of leaving places where to say, “guess what happens now?”, they are constantly saying, “Guess what happens now?”

Unlike games like the Professor Leyton series, an excellent series of games, but not adventure games, in actual adventure games, the story is not present to frame the puzzles, but the puzzles are present to enhance interaction with the story. Tim Schafer’s Day of the Tentacle provide an excellent example of puzzles that work to enhance storytelling-focused gameplay. While action games give players the opportunity to direct fighting parts, or the navigating part of stories in an interactive format, adventure games let players play with the “Guess what’s next?” part. There’s more to it of course, but this is the main spirit that drives them.

So, in short, adventure games are a digital medium that is centered on the part of storytelling that makes us feel like saying, “Let me see if I can guess what happens next.”

Games and Theater: what they have in common

Here, at the ETC, we have a lot of links with the theater. One of the school’s founders is a theater person. Many of our current faculty members are linked to the theater in one way or another. I’ve been thinking about that and it led me to wonder: where is the connection? What’s theatrical about games? I’m not really wondering what’s game-like about theater, because I can’t think of someone I know who went from games to plays. But from theater to games, I’ve seen that leap.

In many ways, games and theater appear to be complete opposites. One is perceived is high art, the other as mere popular entertainment. One is for the educated elite, the other for the uncouth youth. But there are only perceptions and they are mostly inaccurate. Theater can be silly, gross and uncouth. Games can be profound and intellectually stimulating. Still, that’s too broad a connection to account for our faculty members formed in the theater.

Both are a strange hybrid that mixes art, tough finances and business realities, sometimes difficult people and goals that are hard to quantify. But that’s also true of film.

I’m pretty sure that what links the theater and games are their strong reliance on metonymy. For theater, the same physical stage can be used to show a comfortable living room in one play and a street corner in the other. It can be used to show one in one scene and the other in the next. Generally, only a few elements will need to be changed to indicate the difference. A streetlight might be enough to indicate a street. Lights modified to look like they come from a window might be enough to indicate that we’re indoors in a comfortable house.

Games often have to do the same. Two characters moving their hands towards one another can mean an exchange. A colored light can indicate a faction. Positions and movement often do not have to be as natural as one imagines for the game to work, to be an enjoyable experience.

But handling metonymies well takes experience. Knowing how much is not enough and how much is too much for someone who’s new to the experience is not as easy as it seems. It takes experience and a way of framing the elements of the experience, to project what the whole of the work will be like to measure how well each metonymy works. I think that’s why we have so many faculty members who come from the theater. And I also think it’s why the stage and drama are to be taken more seriously than they often are by people in the digital media world. Our work encompasses so much, it’s easy to oversee what we should carefully pay attention to. Let’s not do that.

Why not a Proust-themed transmedia work?

Why a Proust transmedia world

This semester, I am taking Jesse Schell’s Game Design class. He did a lecture on transmedia, which has recently become something of a buzzword. In his lecture, he mentioned several examples of transmedia worlds, like Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes or even Tolkien, that were created long before the concept of transmedia itself. Peter Pan is particularly notable, as it was first a short story, then a play and then a novel. It was transmedia in the nineteenth century. This is true of others works, but Peter Pan is very noticeable in this regard. As Jesse was explaining this, my mind went straight to Proust. Proust definitely created a world. It is deep, it if fictional, and it has another criterion that Jesse brought up: it makes some wishes come true. Most of all, it is huge. It may not seem like it at first, but it really is gigantic. A partial list of characters available on line just begins to show the depth and subletly of Proust’s world, how it is multilayered and how every small piece has meaning. Unlike the other worlds that Jesse showed, Proust’s world does not have supernatural elements, but, very much like Star Wars, or Tolkien, there is a deep, meaningful philosophy present throughout the whole narrative, the philosophy of the two “ways,” Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, what they mean, how they relate, who fits in which and how they can be applied.

The number of pages that compose The Remembrance of Things Past varies from one edition to the next, of course, but the estimate that’s given most of the time is three thousand pages. That’s if you stick to one version. The last three volumes, composed of the “Albertine novels,” The Captive and The Fugitive, as well as the seventh and final volume, Time Regained, are posthumous and unfinished, that’s why they’re only about two hundred pages each. What makes it into the final book depends on the editor, and of all the current French editions, each picks a slightly different variation. I’m not sure where to show sources for this assertion, as I personally stuck to the Gallimard versions, but I heard this from a Proust expert, Pascal Fouché. The Pleiade edition, also from Gallimard, is supposed to have all known variations.

But the variety of versions for a single, huge, coherent world does fit within Jesse’s definition of a world suitable for transmedia. At note about the “coherent” part: Proust’s story is notoriously incoherent, particularly when it comes to time. Time is basically “bent” in Proust. In the first volume, the narrator remembers seeing a woman whom he refers to as “the lady in pink” when he was about ten years old and was visiting a philandering uncle of his. Spoiler alert: the lady in pink is, a few volumes later, revealed to be none other than Mrs. Swann. But, by that time, it is also made clear that Gilberte Swann is the same age as narrator, so when the narrator saw the lady in pink at the age of 10, Gilberte was also 10 years old and at that time Mrs Swann was married and no longer called on single gentlemen at all. So really the narrator, at the age of ten, was visiting the version of Mrs Swann from several years before he was born. This point is never made explicitly, but such inconsistencies do not stand out it Proust. The story of The Rememberance of Things Past is made to be as vague as possible and these details, more than anything, give it an organic texture, like something you’d remember but that is on the tip of your tongue. And three thousand pages long.

The idea of a transmedia world that has in inconsistent story is not that unusual. The canon of Star Wars varies from one medium to the next: there are in fact several “levels of canon” for Star Wars. And Doctor Who has an immensely incoherent story. One of the writers, either Russel T Davies or Stephen Moffat (I’ll admit I don’t remember which one) actually recently said that it doesn’t really matter if the story of Doctor Who is consistent: you can always explain that the timeline has changed because of some sort of time travel. What was important was for the world to be consistent. And in that measure, Star Wars, Doctor Who and Proust all pass.

At the time of writing, the slides for last lecture were not up, and I was relying on them to see how much Proust followed Jesse’s guidelines for a good transmedia world. But at the time, when i was looking at the list on the screen, I was thinking, “That’s pretty much it.” So what’s missing?

Simplicity and transcedance

I’d say that what’s missing is simplicity and transcendance. Proust has neither of those. There are no situations in Proust where the social interactions or personal goals are streamlined to something that can be stated in one sentence. Anything in Proust requires explanations of several pages made of extremely long sentences. Some paragraphs go on for several pages. Proust is, if anything, complex. As for transcendence, there really isn’t any either. I don’t know if transcendence in that context actually means a supernatural element. I don’t think so. But whatever transcendence means, Proust’s world doesn’t have it. The greatest thing his characters can aspire to is some sort of underappreciated artistic achievement and a tiny bit of social mobility. M. Bontemps is gently mocked in the narration at some point because he is a simple diplomat and doesn’t know much about the finer things of life. An occupation that most people at the time as well as nowadays would consider a tremendous accomplishment is still no big thing in Proust’s world.

From then on, the question poses itself: is it a shortcoming of transmedia worlds that they require simplicity and transcendence? Pokémon definitely has it in every form. It is not a world as deep as Proust by any means. Harry Potter is a complex metaphor, but it falls short by the way it fails to address many important issues. The one that always disturbs me every time I think about it is that the wizards definitely have the ability to cure cancer and many other illnesses, they also have the ability to fix many of our social and economic problems. If the world of Harry Potter were to be taken literally, wouldn’t the whole wizard community be guilty of possibly criminal negligence towards muggles? That’s one of the attributes of simplicity and transcendence, the complexities of the real world don’t “map” into it. They do map into Proust.

So are such works, the transmedia works, the works that do embody the principles of simplicity and transcendence, are they inferior to more finite ones? If they are, is it by nature or only the current instances? And if it’s only the current instances, are deeper, more complex worlds about to come when the time is right and the public and maybe authors and technology ready for them?

That, I don’t know. Would Proust be making games today? Would Shakespeare? Maybe. It’s fun to extrapolate but not really useful. Maybe Proust, had he grown up in the seventies or eighties would have been reprimanded for being lazy and pretentious and given up on literature altogether and gone into banking. Who knows? But the question about how deeply simplicity and transcendence it tied to interaction is a serious one. And I have absolutely no clue as to where to start looking to answer it.

When will all the classics come?

Last Friday, Extra Credits team members James Portnow and Daniel Floyd did a Q and A with some of their fans. I happened to catch the end of it. One of the points that James Portnow made was how the great classics of games had not been made yet. I am quoting from memory here as, at the time of writing, a recording on the talk has not been put on line yet. I think the question was where in the history of game we were. Everyone seems to agree that we’re at the very beginning of huge things to come. I cannot honestly deny that I share that impression. But Portnow went further and said (if I remember correctly) that the game equivalent (and he meant equivalent as in role in history, I think, not in content) of The Odyssey or of Hamlet or Dante’s work had not been made yet. I don’t remember clearly which tiles he quoted. At some point he mentioned a nineteenth century title and pointed out that there was a huge gap between The Odyssey and that title. This is, obviously, true.

Still, there is one aspect that he seemed to have ignored. Classics were not always classics. Joyce and Proust were never popular writers. Neither was Descartes for that matter. But many authors that we now consider classics and force reluctant children to read while they’d rather be watching TV, going to the movies or (how shameful!) be playing video games were precisely considered the popular entertainment of their time. Two names come to mind in this category: Shakespeare and Dickens. As a French person, I’d like include Corneille in the list, and maybe even Molière. Balzac certainly fits the description. Idle children in the nineteenth century, instead of doing something productive, used to read Dickens or Balzac, or some other pointless, easy and potentially immoral readings. Now these are assigned as schoolwork.

The Far Side: Hopeful ParentsI’m not sure we can be certain that games that were made as early as the eighties or maybe the seventies will not fit that description some day. But it would be unwise to categorically assume otherwise.

Treasure Your Medium: Agatha Christie and Game Design

Spoilers ahead. Sorry.

I love Agatha Christie. I mean I don’t just really like her work, I LOVE what she does and how she does it. I don’t love all of her works, but when she does it right, she’s among the best the world has ever know.

There are many reasons why Agatha Christie was so good at what she did. But, as far as I could tell, one of the main reasons is that she treasured her medium. She did not write play-like books, or movie-like plays or novel-like plays. When she was working with a medium she took the best she could out of it. Others do this as well, but the topic of Agatha Christie’s novels make her efforts more visible than many others’.

Let me illustrate with a few examples. First of all, Appointment With Death. This is a famous novel of hers, adapted into a wonderful film, very faithful to the book. At the end, Poirot reveals that the murderer is (shock!) the last person anyone suspected. In both the novel and in the film it’s based on, Poirot explains in detail his reasoning and how and why he gets to his inevitable solution.

The first play Agatha Christie worked on was Alibi, based on what is arguably her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She was not satisfied at all with that play and proceeded to write her own stage adaptations from then on. For Appointment With Death, she realized that Poirot’s monologues and complex deductions were fascinated to her fans in the novel, but would be tedious to wach on stage: it would then be little more than people standing still while one of them was talking. So not only did she change the solution to the mystery (hint: the only even less likely suspect in the play) but she removed Poirot altogether. In the play, some of the remaining characters, a pair of romantically entangled young people in particular, figure the solution out by talking to each other and comparing views on the events. This is a dynamic, dramatic, visually and psychologically compelling way of presenting the solution, a way that is perfectly suited to the stage. A way that embraces the medium.

Why then did the story of the novel work on film? Films are in many ways closer to novels than to stage plays. Not in every way, of course, but certainly in way that matter here: they can punctuate long speeches with flashbacks (murder mysteries often do that) or with reaction shots. They can emphasize how dramatic a specific part of the speech is with close-ups or camera movements. Plays don’t have these tools. They have other advantages, but none of them would have allowed Agatha Christie to make Poirot’s monolgues enjoyable on stage. So she accepted the limitations of her medium.

Another work by Agatha Christie that stars a young couple as the detective character is one of my all-time favorites: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?. In that novel, at the very beginning, our young hero, Bobby, finds in the middle of a golf course (brace yourself) a dead body! In a panic, he searches the body and pulls out of a pocket a photograph of a woman. He finds her rather plain. Later on, there is a police examination and Bobby’s co-hero, Frankie, also gets to see the photograph that was in the dead body’s pocket. But she finds the woman in it beautiful. When the two of them try to figure out what is going on in this complicated story, they actually go so far as to argue over that detail. Frankie goes so far as to accuse Bobby of being too choosy when it came to women, an acccusation that Bobby has to take seriously given the tangled nature of his relationship with Frankie. Much later, it turns out that there were two photographs in the pocket. Bobby saw one and that same one got removed from the body before the police got to it. Frankie saw the other. The nature of the narrative text allowed Agatha Christie to describe both photograph in the same language while sounding specific but in fact being vague enough that her reader did not suspect that she was describing two distinct items.

Returning to the stage, Agatha Christie’s stage masterpiece is certainly The Mousetrap, the longest-running play in the world. In it, the main murder takes place on stage in front of everyone. The audience is in front of the whole thing without any visual obstacle between them and the very crime they’re a witness to, but not only can’t they communicate any of it to the characters, the stage is set in such a way that what the audience does see is no real help at all as who did it. The trick is so simple that I won’t ruin it by revealing it here, but it would not work on film, radio or in a novel: The Mousetrap is made for the stage only and only works on the stage.

As for Agatha Christie’s overall masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which has been adapted in movies, TV series, plays and comic books, it too uses its medium to the fullest. Most adaptations try to work around how Ms. Christie takes advantage of the narrated word, but often only attempt to do so in vain. It may work, but it cannot feel as smooth as with simple narration.

Agatha Christie did not just accept her medium but she treasured it. When she set herself up to write a play, she did not try to make it “cinematic” or “like an epic novel,” she made a play that would give her audience an experience that only a play can give. And she was right to do so.

When it comes to games and interactive media, for me, the master of that skill was and still is Ron Gilbert. The way he uses dialog trees creates humor that could not exist in any other way. The two games I enjoyed the most in the recent months, Portal and Braid do similar things. Would Portal, even just its story, work nearly as well in another medium? One trick that works in Portal — whether it is intentional or not — is that, unlike in film, in games we are really usually guided by pre-recorded voices. In that way, the way we are introduced to GLaDOS is perfectly believable. This would not be the case in a film: we would expect a film to polish everything Aperture’s AI says. At the beginning of Portal, the game, we may know that the audio problems of the GLaDOS AI are placed there by Valve, but we are ready to believe that, even within the story, they are just events triggered by Chell’s actions because, well, that’s how games work. The sort of metastory or metastructure that comes out of finding out that GLaDOS scrambles her own messages with static comes as a surprise in the game in a way that would not make sense in the same way in any other medium. Furthermore, this revelation is meaningful in the game: it’s an essential part of how we progressively learn the true nature of GLaDOS, but also, in part, the true nature of what Portal itself is.

If Agatha Christie knew how to accept the limitations of her media and to embrace what made them special, there is no reason why we should not do the same. We may be filmmakers and writers and musicians but when we’re making games, we’re making games and that’s the essence of what we’re doing, just not a cast made after the fact, or an afterthought, but, I repeat, the essence of what we must do.

Why I want to make games

Here at the ETC, a very informative and charismatic speaker asked the students, “Why do you want to work in this field.” This field was video games. In her mind, it most likely was in the AAA industry, but maybe she meant video games in general. I had a looming impression that my answer would be too convoluted to fit in the succinct Q and A format we were in, so I kept quiet. Now that time have passed and I have somehow managed to brush my thoughts into a coherent set of threads, I will answer here.

In short: classics.

Interactive media are in their infancy. We may have come a very, very long way since the seventies, but that’s certain to be only the first few steps of a longer journey still. We’re where the Western novel was in the eighteenth century, where the theatre was in the Renaissance, where painting was in the Middle Ages. We’re still in the times classics are being made.

When I got into Carnegie Mellon, I most likely had a choice between the ETC and Dramatic Writing. In many ways, Dramatic Writing tempted me more, but the ETC seemed to be the right choice. An argument I heard a lot if favor of the ETC is that it would make me much more employable that Dramatic Writing. It would have been a blatant display of a superficial character not to take such an important and practical aspect in consideration. But that was not it.

Why would I have gone into Dramatic Writing? Because I love television. Writing in American television blows my mind, not in every instance, of course, but definitely in most respects. But then what? Let’s say I make it television, for the sake of argument. I get a small job as a story editor on a mediocre show. Then another, then another. Then I get a job as a story editor in a good show. Then another. Then I become a lead writer for that show. Then for another. Then, at last I am given my own show. Even if my new show is a success at that point, what then? I will not be like David E. Kelley, or Aaron Sorkin, or Chuck Lorre. Those people will have moved on by then. And with the Internet and (duh) video games taking center stage, where will television be like by then?

Whereas here, in this medium, I have the opportunity, maybe, someday, with a lot of work, a lot of luck and a bit of faith, to be like the David E. Kelley or the Chuck Lorre of video games. I don’t know if games, or interactive entertainment, or whatever one feels like calling them, are where novels were in the eighteenth century. Maybe they are where novels were in the nineteenth century: big, bold, formulaic behemoths of literature about to gain some level of respectability in the arts. Or maybe that’s where games were in t he eighties and we’ve reached the moderns in games. Maybe our independent games will turn out to have been the Virgina Woolfs or the Prousts of the medium. I don’t know. Maybe one of use will be the Agatha Christie of the medium. Given the opportunity, if earned, I’d take that title with more pride I could express here.

The important things is that games are lagging a lot behind most media and that’s normal and we should embrace it and take it as an opportunity to do great things and to be great for it. Interactive entertainment is where the future is still very likely to be shinier, more beautiful, more challenging, more intriguing, more delightful than the present. And I want to be part of that, in some respect.

Get them! They killed adventure games!

Now that I’m at the ETC trying to find my way through Real Life by Building Virtual Worlds, trying not to get lost on a tangent about the whole apparent contradiction of the matter, I find myself looking at my old, beloved adventure games, no longer at some fossilized artifact of a bygone past, but more as a moribund selfless martyr waiting to be nourished back to health so that it can go back to being productive, beautiful and beloved. Is my assessment accurate? And if it is, am I the one to do it, or to take part in that movement?

It’s generally a good thing not to dwell too long on past wrongs and better to focus on future endeavors. So let me be very bad and dwell a lot. Even if adventure games are not, in fact, dead, they are in many respects as good as dead. And I call murder! Murder, I tell you! And I will, just like an Agatha Christie detective, point a stern finger at those responsible. At least according to me.

Games as software rather than entertainment

You’d have to be really old to remember this, but there was a time when video games were sold as software, not unlike office software. The number of lines of dialog, number of rooms in the game, duration of the music included, were listed in bullet points as features on the back of the box. What is a “box”, you ask? Look it up, that’s not the point.

This was not particularly harmful for adventure games. True, VGA graphics did not translate as beautiful graphics, but beautiful graphics existed and did influence games for the better. Where this started to make a real difference in the output is when features started mattering more than content

FMV and 3D

The beginning of trouble came with Full Motion Video. Now some of my favorite games of all time were made with FMV. Full Motion Video was the practice of basing most of the graphics of the game on pre-recorded video. Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within was such a game and is, in my opinion, about as great as an adventure game can be. (From Sierra, by Jane Jensen.) Yes, some of the dialog was cheesy and the background music was silly and some of the effects and the acting were a bit over-dramatic at times, especially during the intro, but this is, overall, forgivable given how young the medium was and how tight the story turns up in the end. But then, FMV became the main selling point of the game, rather than a tool, a medium for great content. Released at about the same date, Phantasmagoria, also from Sierra, by the very person who created the very medium of the graphical adventure game, Roberta Williams herself. Phantasmagoria, while innovative in many ways, did suffer from a repetitive structure and — form my point of view at least — overly gratuitous violence.

A good example of how technology can get in the way of good fiction can be found by following those games chronologically to the third Gabriel Knight title: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned. The 3D engine for that games was clever, versatile, clearly benefited from extensive user testing and despite all that mostly came in the way of a good gaming experience. The story of the game was not bad, but very clumsily plotted. In the previous two Gabriel Knight titles, the backstory was slowly hinted at through the consequences of some of the player’s actions. In Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, the whole backstory is dropped onto the player towards the end of the game in one very long slide show. No 3D in the world is going to make players enjoy that. In the previous Gabriel knights game, Jensen seemed to have put a considerable amount of effort in making her characters as humanly flawed as she could, people the player could relate to, no matter how great they looked or how pathetic they appeared.

Still, adventure games could have lived through that. They could have used 3D in a positive way. Some did, particularly the Tex Murphy series. Or they could have persisted in staying 2D after a while. But the gaming world as a whole evolved in a way that turned out to be terribly harmful to adventure games as a genre.

 The opposition between core and casual gamers

Nowadays, there is a clear split between casual and core gamers. Core gamers play games like BioShock and Mass Effect. Casual gamers play games like Angry Birds and Peggle. Or do they? Do core or casual players play Super Mario Galaxy? What about Plants vs. Zombies? But without getting entangled in that tricky debate, it’s important to keep in mind that in their heydays, adventure games were very much targeted towards core gamers. One of the reason for this was that at the time, there really was no such thing as casual gamers. At that time, if one played video games at all, one was a gamer without that many subcategories.  A funny and very accurate description of how casual gamers somehow recently became a very important demographic for games can be seen in Yahtzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation review for Peggle.

But this has changed. People who actually play video games or computer games are core gamers. People who play Wii Sport or Angry Birds are not gamers at all, according to most people you will ask around, including the players themselves. These are just people who happen to play games. And yet they should matter: as of 2009 Wii Sports was the best selling video game of all time. This, on its own should mean something. The vacuum within the very identity of casual gamers is a problem. Let me explain.

The first adventure games were hard. Very hard. Zork was created at M.I.T. for M.I.T. students by M.I.T. students. That is not exactly a broad demographic. As the genre became more popular, many efforts were made to make the gaming mechanics easier and allow more people into the genre. But the change went from “very core players” to “less core players.” Take a game like Plants vs. Zombies. This games is the result of the opposite shift. Pop Cap originally made games for extremely casual players and slowly shifted towards more core-like titles.

Current core-player games focus on using complex graphics systems, themes that appeal to young males, a focus on speed and thrill. The large number of horror games are war games should serve as a testimony for that. They bring out thrill, not thought. Compare BioShock and Loom, for example. They hardly have any themes or mechanics in common. The slow pace of adventure games, the focus on reflection rather than thrill, these rebuke those who became gamers since the late ninties. Those sought more or less the exact opposite sensations that adventure games provide.

I would argue that that means that adventure games have become a genre that should be directed towards casual gamers. And yet, it still carries its legacy identity of being a core gamer’s genre. Trying to sell adventure game to gamers has failed since about the year 2000, mostly because the demographic that is actually likely to enjoy adventure game, casual players, does not even identify as gamers at all.

Lady on the Plane

Casual gamers tend not to care about pixel shaders, 3D sound or fragging in multiplayer. They would probably care more about plotlines being deep and yet flexible, about motivations being complex yet believable, about the world they’d visit being intriguing and yet reassuring. One would feel comfortable escaping to.

Text-based adventure games are an excellent example of an incredibly powerful resource gone wrong. Tools like Inform7 offer a huge ration of ease of use compared to power of creation. It’s a programming language that looks very similar to English and is meant to be used to create text-based adventure games. Yet many of these cater to a small, hard-core crowd; they often take pride in being difficult and they don’t seem to care much about potential newcomers to the genre. As Extra Credits reminds us, easiness in games is generally not a problem is the game had depth. Then, ease is merely a transparent interface to an immersive experience. Again, this is an instance of the potential new audience for adventure gamine and interactive fiction being placed on the wrong side of the core gamer/casual gamer divide, mostly based on what should be an archaic focus being placed on technology. That, right there, is what killed adventure games.

Can adventure games be rescued? I think so. I think the key element if one intends to revive adventure games is to hold on to  a lot of what used to make them great, but to rethink a few aspects of how they work. These might actually be fundamental aspects, such as how they deal with interfaces, introductions and tutorials, or their standard themes and their verbosity, for example. Many of these are symptoms of how they still hang on to their status of core player genre. It is a very harmful misconception that casual players deserve a lower status. (Some successful casual games, maybe, but that’s another issue.)

A couple of weeks ago, on a plane, I showed Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge to woman in her fifties. She looked very curious about it. She said that to her, the experience looked similar to reading, but with interaction. She said she loved reading, which is not a statement commonly attributed to core gamers. She seemed tempted by the idea of giving Monkey 2 a try. However tempted may she have been by the genre as a whole, as themes go, she would probably be more interested in a psychological conflict than in a story about an inexplicably evil villain bent on taking over the world and the axiomatically selfless hero who is bent on stopping him.

Who’s right

It’s important to keep in mind that neither theme is better or worse than the other. The question is more: who does which one address? And can the answer to the previous question be used to save adventure games? Aren’t some big studios (both in film and in gaming) trying to trick their respective audience by selling them technological advances rather than content mostly because the quality of one is much easier to gauge than the quality of the other?

When the iPhone and iPad came out, many reviewers thought they would fail, or be only mildly successful, because most people were not asking for any of the feature in either of the devices. No one wanted all-touchscreen phones. No one wanted a large tablet device. They didn’t know it was an option, except after the device’s announcement, where they only knew about it in theory. But both of these have shown to be extremely popular.

Casual gamers aren’t asking for adventure games. But hardly any adventure game is really catered for them. Trying to impress casual gamers with AAA titles is very likely to fail because the technical or thematic aspects where these titles shine is not something that casual gamers care about.

An excessive focus on technology without regard to its relevance and an strong and yet somehow artificial divide between casual and core players is what killed adventure games. By fixing those problems, we should be able to bring adventure games back.

Are Video Games Art? (part 1)

This question is asked more and more around me. Whether or not video games are art is a point often brought up in both Yahtzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation and the excellent video column from the same site, Extra Credits. I had no clear intention to actually give a final answer to this question when I began this first post. At first, I just wanted to take the question apart to, as it were, see what it is made of. After doing that I did come to the answer: “Are video games are? Definitely maybe. Or perhaps certainly probably. It depends.”

Before we go any further, I really need to point out that I am not an artist. I don’t create art. I am not an art expert; I am not an art dealer. I’m just somehow interested and curious about the matter. Any inaccuracy one may find in this post will be welcome, as long as it is somehow constructive.

Art and entertainment

So, before jumping to conclusions, let’s carefully consider the question. It reminds me, first of all, of a line in Federico Fellini’s , when, running after the main character, movie director Guido Anselmi, played by Marcello Mastroianni, a critic asks, “Is cinema art or entertainment?” My first reaction to that question is: how is art not entertainment.

That last question may seem rhetorical in tone. I really don’t mean it that way. I ask it that way as sneaky entrapment to those who like to accuse someone asking this of being philistine by bringing up the very possibility that art and entertainment are the exact same thing. Phrased differently, “How is art not entertainment” could mean, “Art is just a form of entertainment.” Some would pounce on that sentence to accuse the one saying it (in this case me) of being a philistine. If that is what you thought, I’m on to you.*

What I really meant was, “In what way is art not entertainment?” There is a part of entertainment in art. People are willing to pay to enjoy it. Some pay to own works of art, but if you pay to go to a museum, or to go to the symphony or to a rock concert, chances are that one of the many roles of that act is to relieve you of some amount of boredom. That is one way to define entertainment. I’m not denying that art is much more than that. I’m actually stating it outright: art is much more than that. But some works of art, particularly works of art that are structured around a narrative, certainly comprise elements of both.

A designer friend of mine once asked me, “Do you know what the difference is between art and design.” I gave the correct answer without an instant of hesitation: “No, I don’t know.” He told me it was that design adds an aesthetic to something that already has a practical purpose and that art has no reason to be other than itself. For example, if your computer is beautiful and sleek, it’s design. If you keep it on a shelf long after it’s become obsolete because it’s just so beautiful, it’s art. (I have an Mac G4 cube I keep that way.) Another example, if a urinal is well designed, it has a simple aesthetic that doesn’t clash with its purpose. If a urinal is in a museum under the name, “Fountain,” chances are it would be in bad taste to actually go ahead and use it.

Why do I bring that up? In part because according to the definition I just gave, design and art are exclusive from one another. Even if they use the same techniques and tools, one cannot be both one and the other. Note that this definition is not absolute. You may choose to consider that design is subsection of art, but that wouldn’t really change much: there would still be a dichotomy, just not the same one. In that case, some works of art would clearly be in the subsection “design” and some would not.

When it comes to art and entertainment, I would argue that there is, on the contrary, a gigantic overlap. If one takes films like the aforementioned or Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, there will be, I hope, little objection to their being called works of art. So here, I’m asking: is their artistic aspect and their entertainment aspect parallel? Or are the two different aspects of one thing? Or, if I were to put in a corny, proverbial way, two sides of one coin?

Not a definition of art

So, are video games art? If any of you at this stage are thinking, “Wait a second, you’ve given examples of works of art, and you’ve defined design and entertainment but not art! You sneaky weasel! Why have you not defined art yet?” Then, I defer to your good judgement. I don’t think that any definition of art can be made both wide enough to accommodate all instances of art in the world and at the same time narrow enough to actually keep any sort of relevance.

So where does this leave me? This time I’ll defer to Freud and psychoanalysis in general, where one of the main elements that contribute to classifying a neurosis as pathological is its lack of social acceptability. If you are particularly vain and insecure, it may be a form of neurosis, but it may not be pathological. If you have a strong compulsion to take off all of your clothes in all of public places, it is.

The aspect of that definition that relies on context fits my point about art. What art is, too, depends on context. Would Andy Warhol’s cans of soup have been art in the nineteenth century? How about during the Italian fifteenth century renaissance? Let’s take another example and say that Kazimir Malevich‘s Black Square fell in a time machine and fall into fifteenth century Italy then someone finds  the painting and claims it as his own. Would his contemporaries be impressed? Would they consider it art? It’s unlikely that it would have been considered so outside of its context. This is an example — however crude may it be — of how art is dependent on context and on social acceptance. In some cases, art may even depend on social rejection. When Duchamp made a urinal into a work of art in 1917, part of artistic gesture was that it was scandalous. Nowadays, scandal is in many ways integrated into the concept of artistic merit. When an artist tries to be scandalous, we consider that it’s part of what artist are and we let it to the more conservative groups to be offended by saying that any deviation from the most conventional definition of how one should lead one’s life in “not art.” In any of those cases, the constant is a strong link to a social context.