The cave has developed into a symbol that simultaneously represents romantic, childlike wonder and a melancholy, even ominous, loneliness. For me, the first few moments of Cave Story are the most affecting. A child stands alone in a cavern. I make him jump some spikes, then run under some bats. I find a heart locked up in tube-shaped container. I set it free. I pilfer some guy’s gun while he’s sleeping. After a few minutes, I wonder how long the boy had been in that cave. Probably a long time. He must be hungry.
In those first few screens, before the aforementioned pilfering takes place, the boy is defenseless. His vulnerability is illuminated like pale skin under a relentless, beating sun. Somehow, this makes the prospect of pressing forward all the more enticing. Within its introductory moments, Cave Story successfully taps into those two disparate manifestations of the cave symbol: the unsettling melancholy of isolation and the excitement of exploring uncharted depths. It really nails the tone that I think most of us crave in a game’s introduction. That feeling of being thrust into an entirely unfamiliar setting. I wrote a song about the game before I even finished playing it. I recruited my sister to draw her interpretation of the song, which resulted in the picture above. Of course, I would soon find out that the boy is actually a robot, so he doesn’t need to eat, and the rabbits are actually called something else that’s not “rabbits.” In the end, my song doesn’t really make much sense, considering its source. Nonetheless, the creative seed was planted, and all it took was about an hour of play.
The Two Modes
In this inspiring lecture, Monty Python’s John Cleese cites studies done in the sixties and seventies by the psychologist, Donald Mackinnon, on creativity. According to one of the comments below the video, Cleese’s lecture is over two decades old, but I think it’s one of those few things that is truly timeless. Cleese deftly aligns his personal observations of creative people in action with Mackinnon’s research, which found that creative folk were no more intelligent than non-creative people. They “had simply acquired a facility for getting themselves into a particular mood, a way of operating…Mackinnon described this particular facility as an ability to play“ (starts around 5:20). Framing his argument with Mackinnon’s research, Cleese asserts that creative people generally operate in two different and distinct modes: “open” and “closed.”
“By the closed mode, I mean the mode that we’re in most of the time when we’re at work. We have a feeling inside us that there’s much to be done, and we have to get on with it if we’re gonna get through it all. It’s an active, probably slightly anxious mode, although the anxiety can be exciting and pleasurable.” As I devoured Cleese’s words, I thought of how I felt when I played Cart Life. Time moves quickly, and it doesn’t stop. Profits are incremental. Melanie tires quickly. I have to sell enough coffee in time for her court date, so she can keep her child. Cart Life, by implementing strict time constraints and forcing you to persevere in the face of repetitive tasks, makes its rewards of exploration and emotional connection more meaningful. This sounds to me like Cleese’s closed mode.
“By contrast, the open mode is relaxed, expansive, less purposeful, in which we’re probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor, which always accompanies a wider perspective, and consequently more playful. It’s a mode in which curiosity for its own sake can operate. Because we’re not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.” This probably applies most directly to something like Knytt, but it’s also how I felt when I played Cave Story. The game isn’t really open in the way we typically throw the word at games. It’s a fairly linear platform shooter. And yes, Cave Story provides clear goals, but it lets you forget them and shove them into the back of your mind. It lets you see the cave. It doesn’t tell you how to do anything when you start, so mechanical discovery accompanies aesthetic discovery, which allows the pleasure of learning a new language. Furthermore, the mechanics encourage creative play. As I progressed, I ended up switching guns sometimes as a direct response to the game’s stimuli, but other times I would opt for the strategy that brought the most interesting results. I can use the bubble gun to play defensively, but only if I’m quick and careful. Or I could opt for the sword because it only takes a couple good shots, but I better not miss. Cave Story’s gunplay provides immediate feedback to your performance, leveling up and down as you take damage and dish it out. There’s no obligation to adhere to a single strategy.
A State of Play
As I continued to absorb Cleese’s lecture, I kept thinking that the terms we use to categorize games (linear, open-world, etc.) align closely with these “moods” or “way[s] of operating” that Cleese discusses. Is this game linear or open-world? Are you playfully exploring, or are you ticking things off a list so you can get to the point? This is oversimplification of course, but it stands to reason that gameplay can facilitate a creative mood, but not all gameplay is (or even should be) creative. An achievements system, for example, seems to rely heavily on the closed mode. Chasing a platinum trophy might force you respond to a game differently, but it doesn’t really make you play creatively. It just gives you the satisfaction of completing something that’s possibly challenging, but undeniably completable, like washing dishes or doing your taxes. This sort of play sounds boring when you tell someone about it, but it’s not a bad thing, and sometimes a clear, achievable list of goals is exactly what someone needs. As, Cleese says “It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent (like thinking). And it’s also easier to do little things that we know we can do than it is to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.“
When people talk about their best gameplay experiences, they often turn to relatable experiences. “I played Fallout 3 without killing anything except the Radroach in the beginning!” “Oh yeah? I played through Fallout 2 as an idiot.” I don’t mean relatable in the sense that we can relate to them, but relatable in the sense that certain experiences lend well to narration, and the players themselves are often instrumental in making these moments in a game’s narrative interesting. Through gameplay, the player engages in a creative process, and the result is an addition to the narrative, which can either highlight a game’s strengths or spotlight its breaking points. Cleese says that creativity is impossible in the closed mode, but I think his overarching discussion suggests that creating a finished product, or molding creativity into something tangible, requires both modes. Theoretically, if you remain in the open mode all the time, nothing substantial or polished will ever get done. But if you constantly remain in the closed mode, you’ll never create anything interesting. It makes sense that engaging gameplay makes use of both modes, as well. In the Fallout series especially, you’re checking things off of a list, but only to give yourself an excuse to explore every nook of a fascinating universe. You’re thinking “I don’t just want to play this game, I want to play this game in a way that’s interesting. I want to craft a unique experience.” That’s the creative process at work.
“Too often we get stuck in the closed mode,” says Cleese. What I like about being a barista, or writing, or making music is the sense that the alteration of some minute detail can create an entirely different experience. But most of the time, while I’m at work I get stuck in the closed mode, thinking about how many dishes I have left to wash instead of allowing myself the time to free-pour a pristine latte. Similarly, I think we get bogged down with games sometimes because there’s simply too much to do. What was once an inviting ocean of exploration becomes an endless list of chores. It probably all has a lot to do with how a game introduces itself. If a game immediately tells you how to do everything and then asks you to go through the motions, then isn’t it also instructing you how to play? Does front-loading a tutorial encourage a player to remain in a closed mode? As Cave Story shows us, those first few moments can make all the difference.
For a long time I’ve thought that games give us release through explorable narrative. I know they can provoke an emotional response or intellectual stimulation, but ultimately, I didn’t think they could help me create something outside of criticism, since I’ve never made games myself. Now, I think that games can help us think creatively, and thus help us create. Creativity solves the problem of the absence of art, and gameplay is essentially creative (though sometimes this aspect is less emphasized) problem solving.
Lately, I’ve been trying to think of the creative process as more of an exploration than a dogmatically structured exercise, and I think it’s made me more productive. When I’m recording, instead of trying to find the perfect sound, I search for an interesting sound and then accept it for what it is. Of course, then PLAYTIME IS OVER, and it’s time to switch to the closed mode and shape that sound into a larger, somewhat coherent structure. I’ve also been trying to view gameplay, in general, as more of a creative process, as I did intuitively with Cave Story, and I’ve found my experiences on that front more rewarding as well. Of course, this approach can’t work for every type of game, and ultimately, both the creative process and gameplay are different for everyone. So it’s probably best to take all of these words with a grain of salt. And then forget them. Except the ones that Cleese said.