James Portnow Games


JAMES PORTNOW INTERVIEW at MAGFEST 2013, or, Trying for Extra credit with James Portnow.

MY first and only time at MAGFEST, Or music and games festival, in Maryland., I stumbled in with a group of hardcore gamers and fanboys. BEing a gaming agnostic myself, or heck, a downright gaming atheist, was eager to prove that literature and ‘real art’ trumps games. In my vertiginous platforms, velvet leggings, bell sleeves, and frock coat: all black everything, of course, I was an incongruous enough figure amongst the cosplayers and hordes of folks smuggling with bulk-buy packs of noodles into the expensive hotel rooms they treated like hostels, no doubt bunking up ten at a time all over the floor.  When my friends spotted James Portnow and went weak at the knees: he’s known to novice game designers as the voice and pen behind Extra credits,  an animated lesson in design, history and just about everything. Inspiring for all kinds of artists and knowledge-seekers, not just game designers. When I chirped, ‘maybe I could interview him. for DV? It’s art too, no?’ I was met with derision by my gamer acquaintances. Well, the moral of the story is, never underestimate an aesthete, because, as I  hovered on the outskirts of a throng of the disheveled, desperate, hollow-eyed guys, James leaned over the podium and nodded in my direction:” The answer’s yes, by the way,” My friends gasped and almost had to be gagged as I ordered them not to interrupt. I should not have worried. Mr. Portnow was in full flow for an hour.. an hour… managing to cram in most subjects. The following is a small selection. Mind. Blown.


 DV- you’re pretty much of an intellectual, how did you get into games?

J (laughs) I don’t know if I’d call myself an intellectual.. but how did I get into games? OK, this is a little bit of a long story. Do you want how did I get into the games or how did I get into the games industry? How did I get into making games?

 DV-  I should think interest would lead you to want to make them, so Probably how you got into them… or both. 

J – so how I got into them, I actually remember the very moment, because I’d always like them, but I remember this time: it was one of my earliest vivid memories. I was five and I remember driving with my mom, we were in Seattle and we drove down to the Kingdome, which is old, our old stadium.. and we walked into this big boxy looking building which is an exhibition center next to our sports stadium., and we walk in and everything’s lights because it’s the Nintendo of America World’s fair, or whatever you want to call it. 

The NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) is only like a year old in the US and I’m like six, five or six, and im super excited. So im racing round the place looking at everything. I remember they had a blue carpet that I remember springing along.. and so im looking at everything. Then I stop, and I see this one game and I remember seeing there was a banner (?) for it and on this banner there was a city inside a crystal ball with a sword and ax behind it.. and you probably know what game this is.. and just keeping in mind, were terrible at conventions at this point, as an industry, right, and I laugh thinking back because they didn’t limit how long of the game you could play, they didn’t actually have a demo there, they just had as much of the game they had built. And so we’re waiting, we’re waiting on line, and I’m like the ONLY six-year-old in this line. I thought everyone was adult, everyone was probably thirteen or fourteen. 

But we finally get up to the front, and its Final Fantasy, the first Final Fantasy, and you probably don’t know too much about this particular game, but in the beginning you’re sent off and you’ve got this villain to fight and he’s captured the princess and you’ve got to go rescue her and it’s an RPG. It’s the first RPG really that I ever played. And so I go do this, I rush up to them and I go, ”I’m five!” I think the game is over, rescuing princesses is what you do. It took me 45 minutes to beat Garland, the first boss, and now it probably takes me ten.  But I come back, I’ve rescued the princess and this game is over… I really liked it, and this world is cool. And they say, when you come back, “Oh, thank you., well we’ll fix this bridge”, and there’s this moment when they say we’ll fix this bridge, when u step onto this bridge and the music swells and there’s this gorgeous piece of 2d art (not gorgeous any longer because it’s still pixels) but like,  looking out over the castle, over the slaughter and you get your Star Wars style text scrolls up telling you about this adventure and this world opens up in front of you, here’s this entire world for you to explore. And for my 3.30 small situation, that’s something I cant do in real life, the world to me was very small and very constrained and here was a place I could live whole other lives and explore this whole other world, and exploration’s always been very important to me. and that moment, that moment where I realized this was my world, it was a whole world just for me, that was the moment that probably led directly to me sitting here, right, and that’s how I got into games. 4.02 

In terms of industry, lets say it’s slightly less.. a somewhat more amusing story in a way. I was kicking around Seattle in a band, and my band-mates ended up doing the Leno/Letterman world tour thing and I did not. So I thought.. Oh my god, I’ll just have to find something else to do.. and I kinda thought about it, and I was actually on my way to becoming a lawyer, but I thought about it and I ended up getting my master’s a Carnegie Mellon, the Innovative Technology (?) program, and my friend told me.. a guy who I had known since kindergarten, we were playing games one night and he told me there was this school where you could go and study games, and I didn’t have enough time to take the proper test, SATs Mcats. One of those, I’d only taken the LSAT, id only taken the law exams, so I sent them everything, I sent them a cd, I sent them my writing, I sent them a manual to a game I had made and my last scores, and I said, ‘if they understand what all these things have to do with games, then this is the place for me,’ and they did, they let me in. and the reason I went was, I thought about it.. what, other than music, what I had spent my entire life, most of my life dedicated to, and I realized it was games, and I realized how much I wanted to do with this medium, right. A lot of the reasons I was going to go into law was, I was looking to 5.51 act constitutionally. I believe there is a greater good to be served., but I realized how much opportunity ( there was?) 5.59 so,  it sounds silly, but I think I got thru high school because of music. I was one of the kids who had my headphones on the entire time and I remember the first time one of my friends gave me a mix-tape it had a bunch of Soundgarden on it, but I had this moment when I was sitting in my car and ran the corner down.. 6.30 this is Seattle and I just sat there, I had got where I was going and I didn’t get out and I was like, yeah, this is real, this is it, this is what I’ve been looking for, it let me know that there were other people who felt the same things, and I had felt so utterly alone before that, and I realized that games had an opportunity to provide to people what music did for me. And that was it, from there I was… that was the big decision) 7.00 and the rest of the story is just getting higher prices, working on projects, but that part’s less important. That’s how I ended up getting into the corporate setting.

DV- okay well how do you see games fitting in with the scheme of things with literature and art and music?

J- Games are multi-disciplinary. Games are in some ways a unique blend of all the arts. And unique in a way that film is not because it also has, it also brings in the player as an artist, right. The person who plays is an integral part of that experience.  If I write a novel I have one set experience that people can interpret in different ways, but here two people can have an unlimited different experience. The… I have only painted part of that canvas, right, and the player paints the rest. I think we have to use all the traditional medium up, and I think there’s a lot that traditional media can actually learn from interactivity too. Utilize, basically utilize interactivity. There’s a game, ‘Dear Esther’, which, while I don’t think it’s the apotheosis of the form, I don’t think it’s actually good, the fundamental idea is of high quality. To have the narrative that is located in space – I wish they’d actually mixed it up, right, I wish they had not had it unfold in exactly the same way, but this idea that really its just a traditional story, that’s a very traditional narrative with this one added layer of some theory of impetus some choice, something of agency, that you as the reader, as hat/pat? I think there’s value there, I think that there’s there will be lots of things that both sides get back and forth.

DV:- so what do you think you can.. because I’m writing for people who are artists and writers, and some of them might be kids and some might be, who knows, in their sixties, I have no idea, so how do you think you can… Because I really like Dear Esther, and I really loved the narrative, but it was a bit limiting to play, just going through deserted buildings and this kind of thing. How can you combine literature and games? Do you see games as a progression in art, or is it just another thing, like, do you think its a progression from literature, so we’ll go, Homer, Shakespeare and then some games designer, or…?

JP:- So, one of the problems is, to me, the first space you have to look is, ah, to me you really have to look beyond the written word.  Ah…There are so many other ways to communicate within a game. Its like poetry right, each word should be pressed, each word, each syllable should have so much meaning it helps contextualize everything else. I think that the one I recommended in this panel was ‘Thomas was alone.’ You might be interested in Thomas was alone but it .. there are a group.. all you’ve got is a group of quadrilaterals.. it really just boxes moving around. But you’ve got a group but because of the words that are overlaid, it gives you the context. it makes you see those boxes as human beings and the play itself makes you see them as human beings helping each other out, and so much of that narrative is delivered through the play and so much of that play couldn’t, you wouldn’t have the context to  understand the (irony?) if it weren’t for the written word. And so I think there’s a lot of different ways that we can have these pieces of the draft, and I think that the real failing of Dear Esther was the lack of interactivity.

JP: And also I recommend if you get a chance, even as a non-game player, I really recommend checking out the Walking Dead. I know it sounds silly but. I didn’t like the comics, I didn’t mind the comics, I didn’t like the series, I wasn’t very into it,  but it does an incredible amount of showing just how much more powerful it can be to have you make a choice, a real choice n life. it can be just reading about someone else making a choice. Having lived in that experience rather than simply witness it is so much more powerful and I think its actually good because you have more traditional media taking the exact same intellectual property, the exact same. I mean it’s a different narrative, cos is about different characters, but it’s the same world, all this stuff.. and it’s mind-boggling to me how powerful that was and that was meaningful as soon as I had to dive through it and make mistakes. Different games. I don’t know if anyone made you see ‘loneliness?” loneliness uses no words and its very short, two minutes, its found on the web. Also, so next. Let me give you a couple of games I think you shd check out. All take about two minutes. Loneliness, id say, ‘today I die’, ‘the majesty of colors’,  and .. what else is there/ oh and loneliness is by a company called necessary games.. there are probably other games called loneliness. I had a fourth one I was going to recommend:’ ‘every day the same dream’.  And those I think are some good examples of how interactivity plays a role in the narrative and yet in some of those how also a traditional narrative is part of it. And how with especially in things like the ‘majesty of colors’, how in a lot of these, a few sentences contextualize the whole experience. And that, I think for people looking to at least write for the interactive environment you need to think about it in that sense, right, rather than in the more traditional manners.

 DV– that’s one of the questions I was going to ask..what do you think the biggest challenge is, for a traditional novelist or screenwriter, or poet coming to writing for games?

j-there are two to it. One is where we’ve already discussed where you think about it as a means to contextualize the experience rather than the story itself… the story is told thru so many other things the visuals, the actions the interactivity, all these things are an integral part.. otherwise, I mean that’s the failing of Dear Esther, they weren’t an integral part in Dear Esther. 

The second part and the really hard part is this interactivity, right? It’s not my world, it’s not my story. I lay out a space of possibility. I do not lay out a narrative, right. The narrative is not my narrative, its not your narrative it’s the players narrative, and as a writer to give that up, to be able to go from novels and say okay, instead of telling a story, I’m willing to lay out a possibility space for someone to tell themselves  a story, To tell their story to themselves is a big leap. So that would be my two.

m- so getting away from Robert Mckee’s idea of the story being everything, like in movies.. do you think that’s obsolete in games?

j- well  15.53 well, its just a different way to think about it  right, because the key is, the key is I am not telling as auteur, I am not telling my story right, the story that matters is the player telling the story to themselves, right, and their ability to explore these ideas, you are laying out ideas, you are laying out a world in which a person can explore themselves through the  manifold of this world, and so the actual lot is less relevant  than that opportunity for story creation via exploration. And so I wouldn’t say that the story isn’t everything, but the lot is certainly not everything.

DV– so what about games as teaching instruments, and I don’t mean in education, but obviously, most writers and philosophers are teaching something spiritual and moral or amoral or immoral?

JP:- the great thing to me (is) there’s plenty of teaching that one can do through games, but games have an opportunity that even novels don’t, which is rather than to be teaching instruments, to be learning instruments. As we just said, I lay out a space of possibility and a person can explore for themselves, so I lay out a moral quandary and let you wrestle with it and experience what you would do in that situation and learn about yourself through that, which to me is immensely powerful. You still need that same insight into these moral questions, you still need that same, to a greater sense these moral situations and philosophical situations that matter, and how you express and communicate them, but the great thing I, instead of making a judgment about them you are letting people understand who they are within that context.

 DV-so how deep do you think you can go. Do you have them exploring, I don’t know, pedophilia, incest, gang rape in Delhi, poverty or world hunger or something like that.

JP:- there’s great, there are fantastic games about poverty and things like that. The rest of them, yes it’ll be a long time before we figure out how to do it right. But the poverty example’s a great one, right. I wish I remembered the name of this game. There’s a couple of really great ones, one which you play, I think it may just be called ‘Food Cart’, and you play a single mother working a food cat in New York. And there’s another phenomenal one.. again you’re trying to live through a month on a thousand bucks, and you get to make a group of choices: what you’re going to do for your family where you’re going to live, all this sort of thing, but there’s this moment when.. you’re trying to also get a job throughout. There’s this moment where you can get a minimum wage job, right, which clearly even from the player’s perspective isn’t quite right. You’re also offered a secretarial job.. or there’s an ad for a secretarial job, you can apply to it. And it pays better, and it’s a better living situation, its a better physical and emotional situation in the workplace, so you clearly go for it and it’s a major thing  You have to type 120 words per minute, and it’s literally a test. Cause you’re at your computer anyway, playing this game. It pops up this test, and most people can’t do it, and your dreams are crushed in that minute. Right. And you really have this experience of hitting that brick wall in a way that we cant give in other things, and that sort of exploration, that ability to put someone in someone else’s shoes, that is so unique to this medium.

 DV- so im a huge film fanatic actually… so, to me, when I watch a film, I’m completely in another world, but I don’t get that from games. How would you communicate (to someone like me) what’s missing?

JP- in some ways my argument may be that you may not have found the right games yet, in terms of having that immersion. There are .. lots of things I wrote,  a whole episode on the phenomenon of losing the sense of even having control over your hand and really having that full transference, where you are doing the actions and living the experience. In some ways, I am a huge fan of pure mechanics games, like the puzzle game that you just showed me. I love them, I think they do a lot for my mind and I think they’re very enjoyable but you’re not going to get that same sense of immersion from that sort of experience.

JP: my answer’s indubitably yes.

DV-  do you think that? 

JP:- there’s a whole load of writers doing this.. if we talk about poverty games.. there are a plethora of these games.. but like anything else, more Transformers films get made than American Beauty, right. and so what we see, especially from the outside is a glut of games that aren’t that socially conscious.. but if you look at television, how much more of it is reality tv than Downton Abbey? but I think this is very hard to see, especially if you’re coming from a different outlook or perspective. I think a lot of games developers feel it very heavily, especially as its an interactive experience, an experience you live through. I think there’s an ethics of games, especially in terms of creating things that feel like a choice, that feel like you’re choosing when they’re actually directed by us. 

every medium to date has been abused. Shortly after we invent a new medium, be it the radio, poster art, tv, we hit propaganda, we hit commercials, we hit all these other ways. and that’s going to.. I think we do have a responsibility and I think a lot of people in games feel this very heavily, to use games for a greater good.

 DV- I’ve traveled a lot, especially in Asia, and every Internet cafe seems full of tiny boys playing video games.. so my question is, as everyone is not so privileged to travel, and many in more developed countries don’t have passports, as travel broadens the mind, could games be used to broaden people’s perspective, even to the point of ending racism, for example?

JP:- I once had a girl come up and tell me, after one of these panels, that she played World of Warcraft, and she played with people in a Guild, and she didn’t really think about US relations or world affairs, but she was plying on here server, and one of her guildmates was from Iraq, and one day he just stopped showing up.. and she got super involved. She was (became?) a campaign manager for a state representative, she was 25 at the time. It got her really involved; she had a human experience, even though it was over wires, she had a real human experience and came to understand the real world… the consequences of these actions, these things that seemed larger than her and irrelevant to her, through this interconnectivity. and so I think the answer is yes. But, like any time where we have brought masses of humanity that have not interconnected before, there will be a  period of acclimatisation. thee will be things.. we see a fair amount of unpleasantness on the Internet that shouldn’t be there but I think that we will come to establish a social contract on the internet, we will come to this understanding of the world community through that interconnectivity, but there will be some period of adjustment and pushback, like there’s always been  before we take cultural interaction up to the next level.

 DV- so what about going one step further. obviously, you’re transcending language with games, what about transcending thought or going into the realms of spiritual experience? That’s a really big interest of mine, and I’m sure many writers and others feel the same, (judging by the entertainment we see now.)

JP- So check out our most recent ones on Religion, and then read the comments on the second one, about Faith and Faith’s place. I think it’s important, I think it’s essential that we explore these things, they’ve formed such a huge part of human experience, and are such a huge part of the human experience. To just blindly reject these things is as ludicrous as faith rejecting science. So I do think we can explore because we can put you in situations that you don’t live through in daily life. We can put you through tests of faith, so iI think that beyond just civic, there a lot of moral, philosophical and in some ways religious questions that can be explored through this medium. I don’t think there’s any limit, just like there isn’t any limit to any other medium, I don’t think there’s any limit to what this medium can explore, it’s just a question of us trying to figure out how to explore it.

DV — A couple of years ago, I was asking why we couldn’t create a game that taught people how to meditate, how to relax even.

JP:- have you played Flow?

 DV- I haven’t.

J- Flow is a totally different game than most of the games you’ll play because it’s not fun. It was intended to have you enter that flow state and have you come out more relaxed, and to me, it actually does succeed. I think there’s a lot of games..  and an indie game that you play with a respirator and part of it is regulating your breathing. So there are lots of ways we can develop or explore any of these ideas. I mean we’ve just been very limited because right now we’ve been mostly mass-market entertainment.

 DV- (explains about the IOM, Wild Divine, Now named Unyte: a biofeedback-based mobile gaming platform,) there’s an online version, they have Deepak Chopra, a Zen monk, etc.. using Biofeedback.

JP- Well, I think Biofeedback will be very important, I think you’re going to see more biofeedback mechanisms incorporated in games. Not very soon, but within the next half-decade definitely.

 DV- I think writers in film sometimes suffer in traditional studios, from the fact that everything is done by committee. When you might start an idea, then ten other people come in and you get booted out of the way. that’s why there’s sometimes the ideas can seem incoherent. Obviously, if you do an indie film there’s much more auteurism. I think with games it seems to be similar; not that you’re fighting with other writers, although you might be, that in games, writers are even less important than they are in movies.

JP- Well, games are a truly multi-disciplinary, truly collaborative effort, unless you’re just one guy doing an indie game, at least you’re going to have to work with people who probably have a totally different mindset to you. Programmers, artists, sound people, all have to work together. You may not even speak their language. You’re a programmer who knows nothing about music and you probably have to collaborate with a musician who knows nothing about programming…And yet, I don’t think that necessitates either design by committee or a reduction in quality. 

I actually think there’s great power in having people from very different backgrounds, very different experiences, very different mindsets work together , and so I think that one of the most important things for game designers beginning their careers to practice that: practice that communication, that collaboration, the real willingness to be open to people who have a radically different perspective on the work.

DV- I think a high percentage of people who play games don’t care about the story, they just want to kill things.

R- One of the most interesting talks yesterday was a guy with a PhD, who talked about emotions versus logic. when the logic centre and problem-solving skills part of the brain flares up, the emotion and social side diminishes, and vice versa, and I wonder if that doesn’t have something to do with the fact that writing in games is not up to the standard of other media?

DV-It’s not as important..

J- I think the art of it is how our audience has been trained. I think most of them haven’t been trained to see that side of it. Two, I think writing for games has often been sub-par, because people come, and not even the best people, come in from a traditional film background and they don’t write for your activity, they write a script and it gets chopped up horribly. People just think of the amount of words per minute they’re going to use, even in a fairly action-heavy TV show 


PS; without wishing to be too controversial.. why the heck not? I"LL note that I made an obvious rookie mistake and shared the original of this post on a certain sharing network beggining with R.. geddit? and the incensed gaming fraternity proceeded to hack my site to shreds for a solid month. So, I took the interview dowm, hence the repost. yes, fashion bloggers fall pry to cyber-bullying too. DOn't mess with the gamers, guys. tread lightly.