There’s a 6 episode Netflix documentary I’m almost finished with called Chef’s Table. It’s been quite intimidating to watch, but not because I have a dream of opening my own restaurant, or because I want to learn how to create certain types of dishes. As a matter of fact, the show isn’t good for that at all. Rather, it profiles a series of chefs, detailing their lives (for the most part), and diving deep into their philosophies on the possibilities and experiences they can create. It’s no mistake that these chef’s are a part of this series. Without a doubt, they excel at what they do. Whether the cuts are ‘rustic’, the portions small, the plates messy, or the shapes pristine, the level at which they create their dishes is at a level that many culinary hopefuls wish to achieve. It’s likely that there are many chefs out there that are just as good, or possibly better. Yet, during this run of Chef’s Table, they weren’t chosen. Why they weren’t chosen, I can’t say, only the creator of the show can. While it’s clear why the first season’s chef’s where chosen, I believe that they were not chosen because of their skills, or because their lives are interesting, or because they cooked with only a few apprentices on an isolated island. I believe they a part of this documentary because of level of respect they held for the culinary arts.
The respect each person held for their craft was incredible, inspiring, and as I mentioned, intimidating. So intimidating that I began to question myself and the level of respect that I have for game development. Each chef is great at what they do. Although I haven’t, and likely never will be able to dine at one of their establishments, it seems clear that their food taste well above par, even if dining at the restaurant was more about the experience, rather than the perfectly cooked deer or salmon. But what was even more impressive was how much they respected cooking and crafting their food. And again, it was intimidating, forcing me to ask myself a few questions:
“Do I have that level of respect for game development?”
“Is my lack of respect the reason why I’m not where I would like to be?”
“If I lack respect for game development, is it because somewhere inside, I don’t like game development?”
These questions may be reaching for something where there is nothing. But, they were questions that I could not stop exploring in one way or another during Chef’s Table. Was I being fair to the art that I was trying to create?
There are many that would say they’re just games, and you know what, there are times where I feel those people are right. There are also those who say that games are more than that, but that’s a debate for another time. The line of thought that I have in regards to respect presumes that games are not just games. This premise needs to be in place because without it, I would feel silly believing that working on games deserves respect. So, let’s say that games are something complex enough to deserve a certain level of respect during development. The next question that comes to mind when I think “Do I respect this enough?” is “What does it actually mean to respect the game in development?”. Here is where things get a bit more clustered.
Let’s go back to Chef’s Table, and how these chefs respected their craft. What did they do that set them apart? From the stories they told, they all seemed to not only passionately care about how food was cooked and displayed, something most professional chefs care about, but it was clear that they wanted to know more about each dish and it’s components. They wanted to know the past stories that each plate could tell. They wanted each dish to sing about their future, and in the present, they wanted each element of a meal to completely trap you in their world. The waitstaff wouldn’t need to tell anyone about the dish, it spoke for itself, something it can’t do on it’s own, but through the interpretation of the chef. The chef was the translator between the stories that each piece of food had and the person that was about to experience that story. Each chef wanted to bring to the table elements that people would either not think about or experience, whether that meant going to the source of food and getting involved at the beginning of it’s life cycle, or using the same ingredient at different stages of it’s life, telling a multi-part play as you moved through the dish.
That is the type of respect that I would like to have for game development and for games as they progress from nothing into something. But what does this mean? Does this mean that each element of the game needs to have it’s own story that I fully understand/research from conception to it’s eventual release into the world? How much attention does everything get, and how can each element receive it’s fair share of study? It sounds much simpler when tackling each aspect on it’s own. The art can tell it’s own story, the music another, and the game mechanics can tell a tale separated from the rest. But what makes most experiences something special is if each of these were all brought together, played off each other, and created something new, like the ingredients of a chef’s meal. Now, does that mean that if I wanted to respect the craft, I should focus on the sum of the parts, and not the individual things that make each element great? Unfortunately, that’s not something I can get behind, although it would make everything a lot easier. To go a bit further, subjects of Chef’s Table also dove into the world of their food before it made it into the final dish. Every ingredient could tell at least two stories, one from it’s time during growth, and one from it’s time with the other ingredients.
I do think making this connection, and understanding how respect for game development is possible, but I feel as if I need to turn to something else to help bridge the gap of how I should respect game development.
One other thing I’m constantly finding myself comparing games to is dance, with game development being choreography. There are several parallels that I can make, some which have helped me though my design work. The one that I’ll touch upon is: most of the time you’re creating something from nothing, something that you want people to experience. Choreography and development can have strong elements of structure and strong elements of improvisation, in both the development stage, and in the finished product. In theory, what it takes to design a good dance is the same as what it takes to choreograph a good game. You can start off with a seed, something that you expand upon each time you go back to it. You design moments around the seed, moments you want to hit, moments you want people to experience, in either interpretive ways or explicit ways.
With dance, it’s a bit clearer for me to draw a comparison of respect, the same respect that I see in the subjects of Chef’s Table. Each move can be broken down to match the music and express a particular emotion that you’re having or want the audience to feel. You can sit and play back every moment that you created, see how it relates to the moments before, and how it will lay out a plan for the moments that come afterwards. It really is an extension of yourself, both physically and mentally.
Through choreography, I feel like there’s a lot that people can learn about game development, but again, that’s a separate topic that we can spend hours on. To bring dance back to respecting game development, maybe I’m thinking too big, too early. A 5 minute dance isn’t created in anything less than that amount of time, even if the entire thing is improv. An engrossing dinner with a story to match isn’t created in the 10 – 60 minute window after the kitchen receives the order from the waitstaff. A game of a similar level isn’t created during a small window of time. A game of that level needs to start off as a seed, and needs to have extra seeds placed around it, seeds that would help it grown. Each of those seeds need to be able to survive on it’s own, but thrive with it’s fellow seeds. Each seed needs a fair amount of attention. If you don’t nurture the artistic seeds, the story seeds may not grow into whatever their final form is meant to be. Thoughtfully nurturing each seed of development, keeping them together, but allowing them to survive on their own, can be considered an initial step at reaching a high level of respect for game development.
But does this nurture lead to a good game, a game that one can respect after they decide to stop watering the seeds? Does the end of tending to one part of a game mean that you no longer respect it, or you’ve given it as much respect as it deserves? Frankly, I don’t know, I still haven’t created anything that I think that can reach this level of discussion. Rather, at the moment, I’m still exploring whether it’s possible to respect game development as the chefs on Chef’s Table respect their food.
Because there are so many components that go into game development, it’s difficult to determine how to manage your garden before it becomes something others will consume. Furthermore, what counts as a seed? Is it too much to say that a seed starts as the smallest part of the element? This has the danger of becoming a intimidating rabbit hole. But the chefs on Chef’s Table seemed to follow this path. One episode had a chef go to the farm and create a system where the farm helps itself grow. This meant micromanaging each element of the farm before it left and found it’s way to the restaurant. Would it be fair to do the same with games? Before you even get to what can normally be considered preparation for the meal, should you manage the environment from which it came? It seems idea, being able to control everything, but the process may not transfer over from the culinary world to the world of game development. At times, it may not seem practical, especially for the solo dev with obligations pulling them in every direction.
And at what point does this control and desire for having the optimal growth become an unhealthy obsession? A seed can grow into a plant without 24 hour a day maintenance. Does respect for one’s craft also mean letting it breath on it’s own every once in a while? Should you allow the elements to grow on their own, improvising what you do based on what happens after you step away? It seems difficult to do in an area where developers have a high level of control.
During this search for respect, I keep on wondering…is this even necessary?