Friday, November 16, 2012


All media, be it pop, art, prose, or games, and their value as entertainment, are defined by how they retain the interest of the consumer. Media will make certain demands of the consumer; To listen critically to a song or a verse, to keep track of characters and plot in a movie or novel, or to execute complex actions in a video game. If the consumers accept the demands made by the media, they are rewarded with new content; Hidden subtext, a dynamic and melodic chorus in a song, or a new environment to explore in a game. This is the feedback loop: the constant alternation between challenge and reward when listening to a piece or album, watching a film or television show, reading, or playing a game. If the media is not challenging enough, the new content is devalued and the player/listener/reader/viewer is calloused to new content and skims through it unappreciatively. However, if the media is too challenging, the consumer will not have the patience to see the content on the other end of the challenge. It is a precarious balancing act that is completely dependent on the medium and the consumer's attention span.

However, that does not mean that any specific media have fixed feedback loops. Indeed, all forms of media have explored the spectrum between depth and accessibility. On one hand, there is a concern that the consumer will have a short attention span and require immediate gratification, a concern that is becoming increasingly validated in a world where media is easier to access and cheaper than ever. On the other hand, consumers may demand more challenging content in order to feel a greater sense of reward or entitlement. For music, the band Fun is on the former end of the spectrum, dealing exclusively in ebullient, non-offensive pop concerning ubiquitous anxieties and unrelenting idealism to the point of being theatrical. On the latter end of the spectrum rests The Mars Volta, a group that pours multiple hooks, polyrhythms and noise experiments into every song they create at a neck-breakingly fast pace. This has never been a proper indicator of the quality of the media: Contrary to the tastes of the snobby intellectual, there is beauty in the dilution of content, pacing exposition at a rate one can comfortably digest, and if content is paced too densely it can be impenetrable; Contrary to the tastes of the crass reductionist, media can be monotonous if it builds too slowly, and rewarding if it challenges the consumer. Indeed, the exact rate at which ideas should be introduced to the consumer is dependent on both the medium one is working in and the audience one is working towards. Many popular indie rock bands, such as The Shins and Arcade Fire, will write songs built around a singular hook of a chorus, set up tonally by a conventional verse. Through this these bands create a simple but effective feedback loop: the setup and establishment of key and (aesthetic) tone, followed by the reward of a catchy, cantabile hook, and repeated in strophic form. by repeating the verse and hook alternatively, they repeat the feedback loop, alternating between challenge and reward for the listener. In this genre, the verse is exposition, and the chorus is cathartic execution: In the former, the pieces are set on the chessboard; In the latter, the game. It is the maximum utilization of minimal content.

The opposite is true in conventional forms of hip-hop such as the work of anyone from Pac to Meek Mill: The verse is the focus of attention, and the chorus is establishment of tone. Furthermore, the verse is a constant stream of new, non repeating content lyrically, set against an ostinato of instrumentals. This is why many songs in this genre will begin with the chorus, or eliminate the chorus or hook all together (such as Lil Wayne's "6' 7'", Jay-Z's "No Hook", Danny Brown's "30", Pusha T's "Blow", or Nas's "A Queens Story") This is an exceedingly clever method of pushing content to the listener- while the rapper is pushing new content to the listener at a rapid pace in the form of lyrics, the listener could listen to the beat, which is repeating over and over again under the rapper. Here, the rate of exposition is stacked vertically: The beat is redundant and easy to chew, while the lyricism is a blitzkrieg of wordplay, narrative and complex rhyme schemes. While a listener might enjoy a song on first listen because it bangs and has all types of incredible instrumentation and sampling, that listener is also rewarded on repeated listens by being able to interpret and analyze the lyrical content.

Films face a similar challenge in having to having to create layered feedback loops. In an action movie, there will be set up and exposition for the first two thirds of the film, leading to a massive climax of cathartic violence. However, in order to maintain the interest of the audience, the film must also be composed of several smaller feedback loops- exciting set piece moments of tension and release, to entertain the viewer as he or she is being set up for the climax. This is also the skeleton of the convention romantic comedy- smaller feedback loops of cutesy slapstick humor as the film builds a larger loop of two people falling in then out then presumably back in love. The feedback loop is easy to control and manipulate in cinema- the consumer is presumably devoting their full attention to the product, unlike music; The consumer is also forced to only see what the film wants him or her to see when the film wants to show it, unlike video games. It's a phenomenal and tightly fixed medium of entertainment.

Video game developers need to be especially conscious of the feedback loop, and different people have different interests in what kind of challenge they want from a video game. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an RPG developed by Bethesda Softworks, a collective of industry veterans that have been notable for creating vast worlds rich with mechanisms and mythos. The first three Elder Scrolls were tremendously difficult games- games in which you had to build a character by placing points into certain skills, and if you put too few points into a certain skill, you would be completely boned for the rest of the game- a possibility that modern game design conventions avoid. In the fourth and fifth iterations of the series, Elder Scrolls games have given the player the option to play in a version that is almost impossible to fail in- the player can run around the world, throwing around spells at characters like some sort of coked-up wizard serial killer. As these games become easier and more accessible, the they become less like a game and more like an interactive sandbox, where the player blows through content and lore as fast as possible and is heralded as the hero of every town and guild in the game world. Here, the player is treated as some sort of hybrid between a tourist and the √úbermensch. I could only imagine that many people who play video games find this treatment immensely satisfying- adolescents who want immediate escapism from a world where they ultimately do not feel they have enough control. However, this is a double edged sword- as the player moves through levels, dungeons, plot, combat, and lore at an incredible rate, they slowly become callous to the details of the game that the developers spent hours trying to perfect. The player begins to notice vistas and the thrill of combat less and less and starts to notice little incongruities and inconveniences- an arbitrary menu here, a choppy animation there- more and more. Eventually, the player is focusing more on what is slowing the rate he or she is consuming content moreso than the content itself. This is the point at which the player's actions are out of the developer's control as the player tries to break the rules of the game in order to negate challenges as much as possible. This is where all writing, art, and design is completely devalued in the player's experience.

On the other end of the spectrum is a game called Dark Souls by the Japanese developers From Software. This game explains nothing about it's mechanics nor context. It presents the player with a massive, continuous, and dangerous world. It delights in monkey wrenches and fail states: At one point a few hours in (after you think you have finally figured out the combat system) there is a large bridge. When you try to cross it, a giant dragon comes out of nowhere and sets the entire bridge on fire, resulting in instantaneous death unless the player ducked quickly into a set of stairs on the right. The game is purposefully vague about where the player can and cannot progress and how to unlock areas. Furthermore, there is no in-game map- the player must remember which roads lead where. This forces the player to prod at the game and experiment with it to advance- and to advance at a snails pace that most people interested in video games would not have the patience for. However, as the player advances and succeeds, the reward feels immense- one soaks in every vista, every new room, and every new encounter. The player lavishes in every new area and detail as the huge, mysterious map begins to fill in with shortcuts to and from areas the player has been through before. Furthermore, the game revels in surreal twists of logic. At one point the player can take an elevator from a later point to the starting area, at which point I was astonished. I could not believe that the chapel I spent hours getting to was mere stories above the shrine at the end of the world I was dropped in. Upon further thought, I realized that it was completely impossible- the elevator was a vessel through non-euclidian space, a trick built on the work of MC Escher. At other points, the game plays with scale- one room contains a massive rat, at least 8 feet tall and covered in scabs and matted fur. The game forces the player to play by the game's rules, instead of bending and distorting to allow the player to access all of it's content as quickly as possible. However, the game is more rewarding at each victory than any game to be released in the last decade. Indeed, Dark Souls stretches the feedback loop farther than many things in many mediums.

So why do we revel in different rates of challenge and reward? Why don't we focus on a medium where we can be in complete control of when and how the player, listener, or viewer is challenged and rewarded? The answer is hidden under a veil of self-indulgence: consumers do not want to allocate complete attention to a piece of media that does not need it. Consumers do not want to be forced to sit in a concert hall and not have to check their cellphones or drink or talk to their friends. Consumers don't want to play a video game where they are not being challenged on their own volition. Consumers don't want to be forced to read an entire book in one sitting. That is why, as media creators, we cannot force viewers, listeners, and players into claustrophobic skinner boxes with our products to ensure that they pay full attention to it. All we can do is offer: Here are our worlds, our voices, our deepest passions. Here are our half-justified explosions, our funniest dialogue, our saddest heartbreaks. Here is our work, our art, our focus-test-assured Kick Ass Title that has words like "Dark" and "Justice" and "Duty". We will let you be the hero of our worlds, the most intimate listener in our recording sessions, the most trusted lover of our protagonists. But only if you want to be.

And if you want to, I had better get paid for it. This shit doesn't make itself.