Games

The Art of the Unfinished: Early Access Games and Other Works in Progress

If the player of a building game like Clockwork Empires is intended to help build a world in the game itself, shouldn't that player be able to take part in the process of building Clockwork Empires itself?

For the low, low price of 30 bucks, you can play test Clockwork Empires for Gaslamp Games. Or, at least, that's what it feels like to me when an individual plunks down his or her money for most games labeled “Early Access” on Steam.

My perspective may be a bit retrograde in the post-Minecraft gaming landscape. I'm informed by the old school idea that playtesting is a paid position in a game development company, given that it isn't necessarily a pleasure to play buggy and unfinished products. Playtesting is a part of the creation of a game, necessary to a video game as copyediting is to a novel. And while I have playtested in an unpaid capacity before, as a beta tester, still I never paid anything for the privilege. After all, it seems a bit like a job.

Again, though, this is a new age and a new economy for gaming. A kind of new patronage has sprung up around this art form, due to things like Kickstarter and, of course, the aforementioned “Early Access” concept. From that perspective, I understand the practicality of the idea for development companies with little start up capital and no official publisher. I understand the idea of future players paying for a product as the development team works in a sense. It's crowd sourced patronage, crowd sourced production. No longer are a few wealthy individuals putting up cash for a stake in a possible blockbuster. Now, we all produce with the hope of just a good product that we will enjoy being completed.

So, it isn't the economics of it that really baffle me. Actually, what it is is the aesthetic questions that arise around the idea of experiencing a piece of art in process, rather than as a product. Certainly, it wouldn't be the first time that the arts or literature offered sneak peeks at works in progress. James Joyce's novel Finnegan's Wake appeared in serial form under the title of, well, Work in Progress. Charles Dickens major novels were largely written episodically as well. Famous painters have routinely hung their studies in galleries (a study, after all, is a work intended to practice particular features of a later, more complete painting).

While there is some precedent for incomplete works being published and marketed for the public, the aforementioned works, though, weren't buggy or “broken” in some way. Finnegan's Wake's early chapters were certainly edited and polished prior to magazine publication, whereas playing video games as works in progress is a curious thing. My recent playthrough of Clockwork Empires, for instance, was fraught with strange moments in which I wasn't sure if I was not understanding how to play it (there is still no tutorial within the game itself) or whether I was just running into features that weren't fully playable yet. In some sense, playing some early access games is like watching a movie before the special effects have been added or the sound has been edited. It really is an incomplete work, almost like playing through various drafts of a piece of art.

While scholars of Shakespeare read the early folios of Hamlet, an audience for the material isn't especially interested in viewing draft after draft of the famous play on a Friday night. They want to see the beautiful object, certainly, perhaps, edited by the director (almost no one puts on the full text of Hamlet), but that's kind of the point. The director has polished the work for reception. He doesn't offer the audience a chance to peruse the edits he made to the script or the chance to watch the play's rehearsals or for that matter the chance for the audience to experience that editing and rehearsing and to then help him make corrections.

Strangely, though, the medium of video games may be one especially suited to the concept of an audience-based directorship, oriented as the medium is towards a more directly interactive relationship between the work and its audience.

Indeed, Clockwork Empires may be an especially apt example to consider in this regard given the nature of the game itself and how it wishes to present its ideas to its audience. Clockwork Empires is a game about building. The player takes on the role of a whole colony of people, plopped into a new world with meager supplies who then have to survive and get an economy running. The player is intended, as it were, to build a world, so why not, then -- on the “meta” level -- allow its audience to build the game (in some way) as well?

In that sense, perhaps, 30 bucks is indeed a low, low price to spend in order to have some opportunity to be a part of the creative process itself by finding and squashing bugs or giving generalized feedback on the developer's boards about what is working and what is not. If the audience is intended to manipulate the final product to their own ends, then why not afford the opportunity (for a price) to manipulate the process of that work as well?

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image