In Watermelon Sugar and Game Design

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I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this post for a while. Several weeks ago I tweeted that everyone who makes games should read Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar. Sam Crisp read it and flat-out asked me why I recommended it, and I kind of floundered.

My explanation in an email was this:

I think it gives a really great primer on how you create narrative within a set of rules without rendering everything in the world so explicit. Right now we’re at this weird point in games where we create these worlds, put players into them along very narrow pathways, and then provide SO MUCH FUCKING INFORMATION in codexes (I think about Tomb Raider and Remember Me here). IWS gives you an entire world with some very clear rules and just sort of poetically works within those rules to give you this very tight, very enjoyable weird science fiction story. It is pleasant, it feels good, and it doesn’t fall prey to overexplanation.

I stick by this, but In Watermelon Sugar is more than the sum of its nonexplanations. Over the past couple years, I have seen more and more people making the connection between games and poetry or games and theater (and I’m sure these arguments have been made for the past hundred years in some capacity, but I’ve only keyed into them very recently.)

I think In Watermelon Sugar is important for game devs to read because it is the basic operations of a video game pushed backward into literature. The book retains a bare bones plot that is propped up by various locations and material properties, and these limitations allow for Brautigan to make small yet drastic performative leaps away from the familiarity of what he has crafted. For example, the book presents us with the idyllic, communistic iDeath, the group home that a number of characters live in. We’re never quite sure what it looks like–we know people live there, that it is open to plant life, that it is growing, but not much else. This semi-familiarity–this sense of understanding the shape of something without having a clear representational image of its bounds a limits–means that Brautigan is always free to move outside of those limits. There can’t be any violation of the reader’s trust, of the rules of the space, because we don’t clearly understand what those rules are in the first place. Thus when it is explained to the reader that there are many bricked up rooms in iDeath, solemn memorials to the dead, we don’t balk because it is against our expectation. We just accept it.

I think this is important and should be taken seriously by developers who are working with narrative as well as those who are simply devising rules and systems. In the excerpt from the email to Sam above, I’m commenting on how I think that there’s an overexplanation of worlds in games, as if the act of writing thousands of words of backstory somehow makes them more “real” and believable, as if internal consistency somehow generates unassailable faith on the part of the player (AVB touches on some of this here.) Video game narrative is infected by a desire for the grandiose, and honestly, it is never quite fit; when it does, I think it is totally on accident. So maybe we should be looking toward models of incompleteness, of opacity, and of oblique angles rather than models of utterly complete encyclopedic understanding. The cantina scene in Star Wars is cool because you look at all of the characters and think “wow, I wonder what their stories are.” It is much more boring to read all of their stories.

It works the same with the design of systems, although I think designing incompleteness and performative acts is hard to do–the most successful efforts in games also have a kind of de-fanged feeling to them (I can do anything I want in Skyrim, but it never really feels like your plot actions have any consequence in the world of the game). In a strange twist, maybe taking In Watermelon Sugar seriously as a way of thinking system design would also have us taking esports and emergent practices from those kinds of games into account. I don’t know how that gets transported into single player and narrative experiences, but I think it is worth thinking about.

I’ve rambled a bit, and I’m sorry, but the book had a pretty profound effect on me that I’ve been trying to parse for a few weeks. This weekend I’m giving my copy to Zoe Quinn and maybe she can make more sense of it than I can.

You can buy In Watermelon Sugar here and I bet you can find a digital copy online if you look hard enough.

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One Response to In Watermelon Sugar and Game Design

  1. JervoNYC says:

    Brautigan is one of my all-time faves, and I’m always thrilled to see someone appreciate what he did. This is a really interesting perspective; you’ve given me lots to think about.

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