Masquerade and Authorship

Some of you may have played The Sense of Connectedness, an abstract puzzle game which I posted on a few forums and tweeted about.

It is not my game. I had absolutely nothing to do with its development, apart from a bit of beta testing.

Michael Brough, developer of the upcoming Vertex Dispenser, solely and fully developed The Sense of Connectedness.

A few months ago, agj proposed the idea of releasing a few jam games based on the theme of masquerade under others' names. I released Michael's game as my own, Jonathan Whiting released mine (with art by agj) as his own, agj released Jonathan's as if it were his, and Michael released agj's under his name.

This plan was not necessarily meant to trick people. I was mostly curious about how it would feel to have a game released under another's name, and if any of us had a distinct enough style to make the ruse readily apparent. But mostly I was inspired by the theme and wanted to make a game and put it out there.

I expected to feel guilty when my game Face Time was released under another's name. It was my first visual novel, not written quite as well as I wanted, and intentionally featured a mostly unlikable protagonist with multiple neurological and psychological issues. As such, I was not entirely surprised when it received no comments on TIGForums, and mostly negative ones on the indiegames blog. It still felt terrible seeing nasty comments get addressed to Jonathan, who, unlike me, attached his real name to this endeavor.

What I didn't expect was how guilty I would feel when Michael's well-designed and clever and fun game spread from TIGForums to the Indiegames Blog to Rock Paper Shotgun to JayIsGames, to Brothersoft and on. I love his game. I am proud of his accomplishment. But I felt completely and utterly sick seeing all the praise for his game get addressed to me.

Which is kind of weird, you know? To most of those commenters, I might only exist to them as a four letter pseudonym on the internet, or maybe a collection of a few games or tweets, or even less than that for people giving feedback on sites which didn't even attribute the game directly to anyone.

Also adding to my guilt is the fact that I did nothing to promote his game beyond slapping it up on TIGSource. I responded to no forum posts. I emailed no sites about it. I haven't even been looking at the download statistics. I'm still not sure whether not engaging with the game was the right thing to do. It made me feel better in the short term, leaving the misattribution to inference and not strengthening it by acting as its creator in comments and blogs. But it also made me feel terrible in the long term knowing that I treated the release of another's game worse than if it were my own.

So, have I actually learned anything from this?

Ever since reading "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" -- a short story by Jorge Luis Borges about how the novel Don Quixote would have a radically different meaning if it were written word-by-word by an unassuming 18th century French author than if it were written by the original 17th century Spanish author Cervantes -- I have firmly believed that authorship matters.

These games do reflect their individual authors' styles and interests. But at the end of the day, did it matter to the players of our games who claimed credit? I don't think so. These are all short projects which stand on their own merits.

I also don't think there's enough data to conclude anything from the fact that no one figured out that our four stated games were not our own. I think all that shows is that none of us are well-known for distinct styles, or even just well-known period, and the few developers that would be most familiar with our works were in on it from the beginning. Or it might be that players and developers implicitly understand that game designers are wholly capable of changing their styles.

For another perspective, you can read Michael's thoughts here at his blog. AGJ's viewpoint is also worth a look, as is Jonathan Whiting's reaction.


December 15, 2010

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