Interview about video games: Peter Brinson

Se presenta la entrevista en inglés, la lengua de trabajo del desarrollador de juegos, Peter Brinson, que alcanzó una gran fama y reconocimiento internacional a través de su título The Cat and the Coup, que a través de dibujos inspirados en la tradición persa aproximaba al gran público a la injerencia occidental en la política iraní. Entre sus producciones podemos destacan The Rehearsals and Returns y The Infinite Children. Una entrevista que viene a sumarse a otras como las ya hechas a Jordan Magnuson o Marcus Richert.

Peter Brinson
Peter Brinson, a la derecha, en la GDC 2019.

Biography: brief personal details, academic training, professional career, influences.

Peter Brinson is an artist and educator living in Los Angeles.  He teaches computer programming within art practices, game design to computer science students, and cinema production to game designers.  He makes games and films that explore the aesthetics of cognition, feature documentary play, and celebrate collective ownership.  He has exhibited in numerous venues, including the Independent Games Festival, Ars Electronica, Museum of Modern Art, Slamdance, Indiecade, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Games for Change, A Maze Game Festival, The Kitchen, and SIGGRAPH.

Brinson attended the University of North Carolina and the California Institute of the Arts and is a Professor of Practice at the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media and Games Division in the School of Cinematic Arts.

Question: One of your most famous titles was THE CAT AND THE COUP, which featured a character unknown in the West, such as Mohammed Mossadegh. Could you explain to us how the documentation and design process went?

Answer: For The Cat and the Coup, Kurosh ValaNejad and I spent years working and reworking all corners of this project until we decided we were finished.  From the start, we knew what emotions we wanted to realize, but it was difficult to understand what questions and answers we wanted the player to tackle.  Games are good at challenging the player to questions their assumptions.  But since Americans didn’t know about Mossadegh, we didn’t have misconceptions to confront.  We decided to make it an enigmatic tone poem that plants mnemonic moments in their minds.  I believe that players come away ready to say in a subsequent conversation, “Mossadegh?  Yeah, my take on him is….”

Peter Brinson
Captura de pantalla del videojuego The Cat and the Coup.

Q: Going back to that creation, what is the relationship between the world of video games and Art? Do they fall into this category?

A: In this age of the full blow internet, the art world gives us something particularly precious – finding value in each player, audience member, or visitor.  I’m talking about having folks experience the work in a gallery or theater.  The simple context and small effort that goes into visiting a location – even if my game doesn’t take advantage of that space – let’s just a couple dozen visitors represent a successful day.  Instead, having 20 to 30 downloads in a day is hardly a success.

Indeed, the internet tremendously shaped the direction indie and art video games took over the past 20 years.  But it didn’t have to be this way.  Creating work on a small scale and for a particularly interested audience is not a new phenomenon, and we can only wonder what the character of games as art would have been if the internet had not concurrently existed.

Q: Do you consider that this kind of productions are a means of political denunciation, of visibility of minorities? Can they, as Jane McGonigal pointed out, «change the world»?

A: When it comes to challenging form, I can’t help but feel that today’s avant-garde is tomorrow’s Pepsi commercial.  But a good topic is always worth exploring. I hope my work can complicate players’ points of view, and I trust them to work with the little bit that I give them.  Is that good enough?  I think so.  But to say video games can change the world is either silly or entirely vague.  This is like asking if birthday cakes changed the world.  They surely did, no?

Q: What was the documentation and information process behind each of your projects? What made you decide on one subject or another?

A: I’m always trying to think of a premise with levity.  In the earliest stages of my ideas, I share a two-sentence version of the project with people and see if they chuckle.  I never expect a full laugh, but if I get a quick smirk, I know the project has the potential to invite the player to bring their opinions and point of view to the experience.  My goal is to get them to question those assumptions.

After that, I start prototyping and playtesting.  The hardest part of this stage is crafting something that’s not too ugly.  Making the visual art for any game is a considerable endeavor, and it seems like an inefficient use of limited resources when prototyping.  But I can’t help it; if it looks like programmer art, then I can’t get excited about the project.

But maybe that’s why my games are so light on mechanics.  My prototypes appeal to the player because of how they look.

Q: Great video game creators like you, Susana Ruiz and Jamie Antonisse come from the University of Southern California. What does this institution bring to the world of video games? Why does it play such a prominent role in it?

A: Making video games is stunningly difficult.  So many aspects and efforts have to be correctly aligned to make something worthwhile.  It requires a team that respects that working well together is more elusive than wrangling technology.

Further, we’ve always understood the game design process begins and ends with understanding the player’s experience.  But at the same time, if you let the technology slip into a low priority, then you’ve got no game.  Wow, I guess our attitude is “pay attention to everything, as without everything, you’ve got nothing.”

Q: Which of your own works have had the greatest acceptance at user level? Does this assessment coincide with your own preferences?

A: More than any other project, my recent video game Infinite Children, a single-player narrative game that incrementally gets longer – for everyone – every time anyone earns a Steam achievement, turned out to spark the most animated conversations from players.  Even though it’s fair to label Infinite Children as an experimental game, this “community expansion dynamic” seems to map onto AAA paradigms quite well.  That’s where folks take the conversation after they play the game.

What if, say, a single-player Bioware game gradually expanded from a short (and always complete) story to a longer and more intricate version every time it gained a new player?

Peter Brinson
Captura de pantalla de Infinite Children.

Q: What future projects do you manage?

A: I’m collaborating on a mobile game that encourages young Americans to vote this November.  Although I could easily claim I’m doing this for noble reasons, really, I just wanted to work on a shared idea with a good team.  I wanted to get out of my head and make something tonally and stylistically mainstream for the first time in my life.

Having said that, my next project is likely a return to my solipsistic roots.  Next year I’d like to get going on a narrative game with this premise – you play a teacher in a small near-future music college who has been tasked with training Amazon’s Alexa to take your job the following semester.

I’ve been teaching at the university level for the past 18 years.  I’m ready to make a project inspired by my experiences in the classroom.

Q: To conclude, how do you value the expansion and acceptance of video games as cultural products? What recent titles would you highlight?

A: Sure, the video game player is sometimes made fun of, but my experience is that, culturally, video games have always been accepted because they make a lot of money.  The only pushback I’ve ever received is from academics who bristle at what a college degree in video game development suggests about the future of a liberal arts education in the United States.  I see their point.

As for the games themselves, I still enjoy AAA games, and I damn well continue to be impressed by them.  But I’m probably not going to be emotionally moved by them very much now that I’m not young anymore.

And yet I feel like I’m easy to please.  I find David Oreilly’s Everything to be a wonderfully delightful sign that the best is yet to come.  That game is such a simple example of “oh, of course someone should have made this.”