“You are a Pigeon who must go around the city trying to persuade business men not to jump off buildings by retrieving items from their home.”
A Serious Jest
By now, it’s a story that’s made the rounds: There once was a game developer, called Peter Molyneux, who was very serious about his games. Molyneux had many fans, but one came to love him so much that he decided to make a parody Twitter account in his honor. The account was for laughs, of course, but the Fan took it quite seriously, and it was a great success. This entity came to be known as Molydeux, and eventually, Molydeux became so popular that people began to mistake it for the real Molyneux. As a result, Twitter became nervous and suspended Molydeux’s account without warning. The people were heartbroken, as was Molydeux, but soon, Twitter came around and reactivated the account. The people were ecstatic, so inspired by Molydeux’s resurrection that they organized a game development jam in his honor. In a single weekend, hundreds of games were made, all thanks to some thought-provoking chuckles inspired by the mysterious, mystical Molydeux.
Molydeux is one of those rare jokes that’s so good it has turned into something else. It has become a force that straddles the line between an idealist’s passion and a fool’s hyperbole. It inflicts creative types with bouts of amusement and then inspiration. By telling a good joke, Molydeux has managed to become something important.
Context and Perspective
From what I’ve gathered, there are two schools of freeware game development:
- It’s done when it’s done, no matter how long it takes.
- Just make it work as quickly as you can.
Molydeux’s brainstorming sessions lend perfectly to the second school. Of course, its ideas are exaggerated to the point of absurdity, but the philosophy is still strong enough to create genuine inspiration. Many of Molydeux’s game ideas simply present an unusual premise, “You are a scarecrow in a world with just 1 bird,” implying that once you’ve got an interesting premise, you’ve got an interesting game. The mechanics can challenge the player’s intellect, but the premise will provide emotional context. Molydeux suggests that it’s not enough to settle for the same, tired settings. Sure, we can have games that reward us in a purely mechanical sense, but we need to move beyond that.
Sometimes, it feels like the philosophy is about upending the way we think about narrative structure in games: “Game in which you create the end cinematic. Then you work your way from the start of the game to make a perfect connection into that ending.” Don’t just play to get to the cutscene. Start there, and then do everything else. If you fail to lead up to that cinematic, then maybe you’ve won, in a way.
Perhaps, more specifically, the philosophy is about perspective. Games should let us defy the roles we’re expected to play. “Have you ever played a racing game and wanted to play as the road rather than the cars? I know I have…” You’re the narrator, so you should be able to narrate the experience of absolutely anything, be it animal, mineral or vegetable. According to Molydeux, game developers shouldn’t settle for typical perspectives. They should extend their reach.
The First-Person Problem
In Episode 26 of the excellent A Jumps B Shoots podcast, Michael Abbot discusses a problem that game designers face: (Around 1:09:40) “Designers can’t ever overcome the primitive first-person nature of every game…that even if you’re playing as Nathan Drake, you’re still first-person.” He goes on to discuss how we always narrate our experiences with games in first-person, even if we’re given a fairly fleshed out character, like Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston. If I talk to someone about what happened in an episode of The Wire, I’ll say “Omar did this” or “McNulty did that.” But if I tell someone what went down last time I played Red Dead Redemption, John Marston may frame the narrative, but I’ll end up talking about myself. John Marston said some stuff in a cutscene, but I’m the one that hogtied everyone in town. John Marston had nothing to do with it. It’s the nature of the medium.
The Molydeux philosophy takes this inherent, first-person “problem” of game narrative and attempts to approach it from every conceivable angle. “Imagine you’re a dove. Or a teddy bear. No wait, a punctuation mark! How about a single tear, running down someone’s cheek?” Theoretically, you could narrate the perspective of a tear or a punctuation mark with words, but this approach would quickly become befuddled. The interactive experience is a more effective way to communicate this sort of perspective. Molydeux’s jam suggests that first-person doesn’t have to be the problem with game narrative. It could be the solution.