The math is sad but hard to deny: the longer you work in games, the more your time at GDC gets swallowed up by non-conferencey things, like business meetings and catching up with friends. The meetings and the friends aren’t really the sad part (well, maybe some of the meetings); the lack of time left for panels and lectures is. I did manage to see a few talks, though, and a couple of them stick out in my mind even in the post-conference haze.
Clint Hocking gave a really interesting, theoretical talk on dynamics as the main generator of meaning in games, as opposed to surface aesthetics or raw mechanics. I usually zone out when people start comparing games to film, but Hocking went into Kuleshov, the cut, and its role as a source of meaning. Just as the suturing effect of editing contextualizes the raw text of film and allows the viewer to stitch together meaning from the gaps between shots, the dynamics of a game produce a space in which meaning forms for a player.
Hocking suggests that in MDA, the mechanics and aesthetics of a game are authored by the developer, while its dynamics represent an abdication of authorship in favor of the player’s own narrative. I don’t know if that quite works for me — players actively engage with texts and wrest meaning from authors in other media just fine, without the assistance of any conscious acts of abdication. But he does provide examples of oppositional gameplay in Go and Far Cry 2 that radically change the meaning of a game without ever altering its “text,” and some of the ways he describes the changing relationship between player and game based on their dynamics make me think of the posture model and how the same game can feel vastly different depending on your experience with it.
One of the nice things about Hocking’s talks is that he’s willing to reflect critically on his own work and look at it in a new way, even years later. (Or maybe he just has years and years worth of conference lecture topics stored up from his time working on Splinter Cell?) There were a bunch of retro game postmortems this year, which were mostly opportunities for back-in-the-day anecdotes. As fun as those are, it’s always cool to see a designer who not only makes good games, but is willing to stay engaged with them over time.