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Small talk, high concept

May 15, 2009

largeAnd with that, I have finally returned dear reader. First and foremost I would like to apologize for the drought of content on this site of late. Unlike many of my fellow university blogging cohorts, I do not have the foresight to offer the same professionalism of time management to plan out and write posts ahead of time. But I would like to thank all of you that continue to diligently return to read postings and look forward to an update on the site. Now with the summer season upon us I hope to post more regularly, frequently, and periodically for your liking.

As I return to become a employee of the video game industry for the summer, I feel that a nice introductory post for the season is to discuss the concept of the elevator pitch. Those of you that are unaware of what this phrase entails, the basic idea is that if you are a designer and were to pitch a game, you should treat it as if you were in an elevator with said producer with only a limited amount of time to impress said person on your game before either of you reach your desired floor and leave the elevator. It is the typical idea of Hollywood’s “high concept” which follows the twenty-five words or less, TV-Guide summary of pitching movies.

Placing these kinds of constraints can be healthy and necessary if you are designing a game, or at least promoting it. But like high concept, we fall into the traps of banality. The original label towards high concept did not come from the Hollywood blockbuster, though it owes a great deal to directors like Steven Spielberg that popularized it. It comes from VHS and direct-to-home video. It was a new kind of viewing films and not form of reception, a pre-cursor to the MTV Generation, where the public became both hungry and expectant of easy access movies. Think of channel surfing and looking at shows that draw you in because you randomly fall on that channel.

I am giving quite a cynical look on high concept and it is easy to guess where I am going with the elevator pitch in game design. But good design is structured around ease of access. I have mentioned before the importance of remediation and if you look at many of the games today, especially new franchises, these games immediate can be criminally summarized as game type one meets game type two. But, essentially a game can be reduced to a genre mash up or a game mash up. The technique is fair and unfair, frowned upon but necessary.

This is the most meta type game you could pitch in an elevator...ever.

This is the most meta type game you could pitch in an elevator...ever.

Looking at games such as Judith or The Path, these are fairly short games. But I doubt they could be adequately summarized in an elevator pitch. And these are fairly much shorter games than the longer AAA games that we are accustom to. It may be my over familiarity with film, but I do not believe that there is any genre where these massive high concept or elevator pitch games have been so easily widely accepted into both the mainstream and artistic cultures of videogames. We can either see this as a danger commenting on the low/middle brow content of games or liberating because there are no cultural gatekeepers compartmentalizing the medium.

It is not dangerous that these elevator pitch games have always saturated the market. Games, essentially, is a form of escapism like any form of entertainment. I always implore that gamers should never take for granted the importance of play in the medium. But we do not have the same amount of coverage for these more cerebral games from more independent developers that need the sort of exposure.

As I will no doubt be working on product that essentially will be conceived by the elevator pitch aesthetic, I don’t think because we are constantly bombarded by these games that we shouldn’t think critically about them. The prestigious film scholar David Bordwell has gone on to defend the high concept films that we still love today. There is a cultural history and intriguing study on both the content and reception of these blockbusters. And we should not be ashamed that many of the more cherish and well-received games are created because of its inception as an elevator pitch.

But as the videogame industry rapidly continues to evolve and independent games are on the rise, we should look at companies that take the risk and place the effort in creating these games outside the high concept realm. I would suggest looking at the Games for Change Festival that is occurring this month. And the next time your playing your favorite new release, ask yourself what makes this game stand out from any other AAA game this year. And ask yourself if this game is challenging or not challenging your expectations of what this game is to you but what it also is to the medium.

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