Frank Lantz recently wrote a post at Gamasutra about formalism. It is fundamentally about the stakes of formalism, what self-described formalists do and do not do, and how he sees the current world of video games. The much-quoted paragraph that has seemed to draw the most positive and negative interest is this one:
So when I see smart young critics complaining about “ludo-essentialism” or “ludocentrism” or “formalism” in a way that implies that being primarily interested in formal qualities of choice and action makes one an ally of the status quo or a defender of ruling videogame conventions I want to speak out and say: No, we feel as disconnected from most games as you do, if for opposite reasons. Everywhere *you* look you see points and goals and competition and puzzles and combat. Everywhere *we* look we see pretend worlds and childish make-believe, imaginary dragons, badly written dialogue and unskippable cutscenes in which angry mannequins gesture awkwardly at each other.
Bracketing off the elision that Lantz makes between the “ludo” terms and formalism itself (which is important but that I’m fundamentally uninterested in), what Lantz seems to be marking here is a bright line between form and content.
Lantz makes a distinction between those two things fairly often. There’s this interview from a few years back where he describes the games he made at Area Code as less “content-driven.” There’s also the fascinating longform interview that he recently did on the Designer Notes podcast where he explains about his procedural-esque fine arts work before games. In that podcast, Lantz is very specific in explaining that he turned to particular kinds of games in order to get away from games or experiences that leaned too much into “content.” By this he means things like the interactive CD promotional material of the 1990s — you create a small set of experiences, you make sure the brand is imprinted on those experiences, and you proliferate prerendered video or 3D model elements. From listening to the podcast, I get the feeling that Lantz doesn’t dislike those things so much as he finds them uninteresting, which helps to put the quotation above into context.
So when I read Lantz saying “pretend worlds and childish make-believe, imaginary dragons, badly written dialogue and unskippable cutscenes,” I’m reading a distaste for content. At the bottom, the fundamental rules that make up the possible interactions, emotional resonances, and readings of those “make-believe” worlds do not seem sufficient enough for Lantz.
That is to say that, for Lantz, the structure that undergirds a game like Skyrim is not interesting enough to warrant as much attention as the structure of a game like Hoplite. And as far as it’s concerned, I can’t blame him–games operate on humans in the same ways that other media do in that they require a certain discipline in order to fully resonate. In other words, its all up to taste, desire, and readiness, and games are so big as to cut across lots of different spectrums of all three of those qualities.
In any case, Lantz is evoking form and content in order to evaluate form and to cull content he doesn’t much care for.
I want to take a moment to evoke Deleuze and Guattari in order to suggest an mode of evaluation that evades form and content distinctions yet still gives access to some formal analysis (formal analysis without form, a bizarre byproduct of language and methodology).
In A Thousand Plateaus, the two authors read Hjelmslev’s strange theory of lingustics reductively in order to push that theory into a larger field than lingustics itself. The specifics of this move don’t matter so much; what’s important is that Deleuze and Guattari suggest a net (rather than a hierarchy or a dialectic) of content and expression.
Content in this case refers not to the dragons and fairytale language that makes up Skyrim, but instead “formed matters” that include both substance itself and form. To unravel the language, content is what constitutes a thing and how that thing is constituted. For Deleuze and Guattari, content is always wrapped up in its form; the systems of Skyrim (mechanics, the plot, the affordances of the controller and the engine, and so on) all comprise the content that is there. There’s no distinguishing between the structure of a thing and the thing’s unskippable cutscenes.
Expression is a term used to describe “functional structures.” Expression also deals with substance and form, but instead of what and how in relation to the object-in-itself like content, expression deals with the what and how of interaction between different objects in the world. To render this a little more clear, expression is a way of talking about the ways that an object can come into contact with other things and “form compounds.”
We’re a little in the weeds right now, and we’re going to get a little deeper, but I promise we’ll come out the other end.
Later in the book Deleuze and Guattari have this to say about content and expression:
The independence of two kinds of forms, forms of expression and forms of content, is not contradicted but confirmed by the fact that the expressions or expresseds are inserted into or intervene in contents, not to represent them but to anticipate them or move them back, slow them down or speed them up, separate them or combine them, delimit them in a different way.
and the next page
The independence of the form of expression and the form of content is not the basis for a parallelism between them or a representation of one by the other, but on the contrary a parceling of the two, a manner in which the expressions are inserted into contents, in which we ceaselessly jump from one register to another, in which signs are at work in things themselves just as things themselves extend into or are deployed through signs.
That’s a lot of wordage, but I’m mostly including those bits just to lead into my end here. Form and content are fundamentally classification techniques that attempt to split objects up into their substrate (form) and everything that rests on top of that substrate (content). It’s the sheet cake of aesthetic critique. Sheet cake is necessary sometimes, and often the simplicity of sheet cake makes it the best and easiest choice during complex crises (aka birthdays and office parties).
Analysis of content and expression is the salad of aesthetic analysis. It’s an attempt to acknowledge the internal workings and forms of an object (content) and the ways that the object interfaces and is altered by the world around it (expression). This form of analysis is an attempt to think the complexity of objects in the world, and I think it is a more interesting way of thinking through video games than the more-static form and content method.
I’m making a similar theoretical move here that Lantz does: I find analytic methods that give me easier access to complexity and shifting relations more interesting than I do the more static modes of analysis, and I think content and expression opens that up a little more than form and content.