“When the factory-made house parts are unloaded, the manufacturer’s obligation to the customer is often concluded and local on-site workers are usually hired to complete the dwelling.” —Lester Walker, American Shelter
Creation is hard.
Some things take seven days. Some take nine months. Others take upwards of a decade. Margaret Mitchell allegedly took ten years to write Gone with the Wind, which sounds like a long time, until I consider how long it has taken me to write these forty-eight words (now fifty-two) and her 1037 page epic feels like a swift undertaking.
People are still reading Mitchell’s novel over eighty years later. Sturdier still: The Pyramids of Giza (circa 2500 B.C.) remain standing. When we build something, we tend to want it to last. Unless it’s a sandwich. In which case our best efforts result in a ravenous devouring, the evidence of our efforts winnowed down to a few scant crumbs.
On the scale of creations, then, between Architecture on one end and a Grilled Cheese on the other, we find Popular Culture at the center: A compromise between the former’s functional heft and the latter’s melty unctuousness. Pop songs and pulp novels have always been created for quick consumption, leveraging an immediate impact over sustained relevance. 1950s comic books were printed on thin paper for a reason. The average radio hit has hovered around three minutes far beyond the invention of the 78 RPM record with its 180 seconds of play-time.
Today, our most popular pop culture is, arguably, the video game. But whereas they began life as ephemeral blips lasting the length of a quarter, new games can span the course of dozens of hours. At the medium’s commercial advent in 1972, a round of PONG might have lasted a few minutes. Nearly a half-century later, an average Fortnite fan plays between six to ten hours a week. It’s not unheard of for people to have spent over 10,000 hours in Minecraft. Building.
Two recent titles from the two leading console makers each offer players a chance at creating their own games. Software that doubles as a creative tool is not new; I remember learning rudimentary coding skills using Logo on my elementary school’s Apple IIc in the mid-1980s. But as gaming continues to evolve and expand its reach, studios are becoming more eager to prop up tomorrow’s developers with playful exercises in DIY content. Games’ very interactivity makes it the one medium capable of this osmotic connection to its audience. But is it worth building something—your swung sledgehammer, another tap of the B button—from within another’s walled garden?
I’ve just spent an hour tweaking the angle of an artificial sun. My robot protagonist walks toward the camera and I need the ensuing shadows to be just right, the lens flare to be dramatic but not overbearing. Satisfied, I run my project through its paces one last time. A floating text box presents the only instruction: “Look me in the eye.” When I make my robotman saunter up to the screen, towards myself, the player, and he reaches the point at which its mechanized retina effectively lines up with my own, an off-screen voice cackles in threatening laughter and the robotman explodes.
This is my first attempt at creation in Game Builder Garage for the Nintendo Switch. Garage was developed by Nintendo themselves and is a kind of interactive handbook for what they do best: make games. Begin the title and instead of playing a game, as one usually does when pushing start, you’re tasked with building your own. What follows is a series of seven tutorials, each culminating in the creation of a simple game. At any time you can slip off the training wheels and enter “Free Programming” mode, where you can try out your newfound skills. You can then share these makeshift games with others online.
After a few months on the market, trends have emerged. Some attempts are hilariously unflattering imitations of other, more popular games. Some are shocking in their ability to circumvent the software’s strict limitations and make something wholly unexpected. Often the most popular are those that do both: use Game Builder Garage’s rudimentary toolset to create a known quantity in the most complicated and inefficient way possible.
My initial reaction to these derivative echoes was: why? Why would you spend countless hours making an awkward, imperfect copy of a thing that already exists? But the developers themselves want you to go even further. They want you to rewrite existing code line by line.
“In programming, there is a learning method named ‘sutra copying,’” says Kosuke Teshima, a co-director on Game Builder Garage, “in which you learn programming by copying sample code. It’s an effective method.” This is why the in-game tutorials lead you step-by-step, offering less of a loose template and more of a connect-the-dots formula. For some reviewers, the process was slow and laborious. But we adults forget that, as children, we learn by mimicry. Much of popular culture has not been unique but instead a clever iteration on what came before: From Chuck Berry to Elvis, The Goonies to Stranger Things, Pet Rocks to Funko Pop.
Nintendo’s own first stabs at early games were barely disguised forgeries of other titles. Before he directed Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, Shigeru Miyamoto designed a little-played title called Devil World. You move around a maze consuming dots. Only by copying the design precepts of a game like Pac-Man did he understand how such a game could be built; twenty years later he returned to the concept with Pac-Man Vs. If one of the most illustrious and feted game designers in the industry isn’t above some constructive imitation, who is?
Me, that’s who. I vow to make something bold and singular in this Garage. But first I need some sleep.
Dreams is another piece of game-creation software, released early last year for the PlayStation 4. Developed by British studio Media Molecule, it shares the primary goal of Nintendo’s Game Builder Garage—give creators tools to make their own games—and nothing else. The two experiences are shockingly disparate. Imagine if 2004’s dual swords-and-sandals epics, Troy and Alexander, were not directed by Wolfgang Petersen and Oliver Stone, respectively, but instead David Lynch and Mr. Rogers.
Dreams’ aesthetic is blue and hazy; Game Builder Garage’s is yellow and stark. Dreams’ built-in game is a moody exploration of memory and artistic integrity and childhood trauma; Game Builder Garage’s first built-in game is a simplistic riff on Tag.
The path each developer took to make this Game-Making-Thing reflects the user experience. Media Molecule spent over five years developing their grandiose vision. Nintendo took a mode from their cardboard construction Labo kits and stripped it for parts to build up this standalone software. And so Dreams’ is diffuse and expansive while Game Builder Garage is compact and quirky. Dreams is vast and unwieldy but extremely powerful, giving users the requisite brushes and instruments and logic and physics to create anything they can imagine as long as they can figure it out; Game Builder Garage is nearly pathological in its desire to hold your hand while giving you strict, finite limits. And yet I’ve spent twice the time in the confines of the yellow garage than I have in the unending blur of my dreams.
Those who make certain kinds of games for a living often talk about the freedom to go anywhere and do anything, as if such aimless wandering is what we want to do in our spare time. But there’s a deeper freedom in knowing what you want. Conceptual artist-turned-game-developer Zach Gage, designer of celebrated mobile games SpellTower and Ridiculous Fishing, has said he doesn’t watch TV or play games when he wants to unplug from the real world. For him, he only finds escape in creation.
“We refer to a lot of media as ‘escapism’ but it never makes me feel free,” he told me. “The only time I feel free is when I’m making things.”
Both Game Builder Garage and Dreams offer such escape. But it’s a hard-won freedom. In the clichéd image of escapist interactive fantasy—see a mountain in the distance, trek across miles of digital earth, reach the peak and look out over your conquered land—you merely have to press the joystick in the direction you wish to travel, and off you go. The developers have done the work for you. Here, you have to draw the mountains. You have to point the camera. You have to make the character move when the player tilts a stick.
The blank canvas when making a game is not a flat page or screen, like it is for a writer, or an empty music scale for a pianist, or an imagined frame between outstretched thumbs for a film director. It is an impossible, intangible void. In my short time as an amateur game creator, I’ve felt the horror of my usual writer’s block, but cubed. Here is not only a blank plane but blank dimensions. Here is silence. Here is stasis. The way Game Builder Garage and Dreams depicts that negative space is telling of its designers’ priorities.
Dreams drops you in what looks like a makeshift art gallery. You look around by controlling a spectral dollop with eyes called an Imp. To move around the space you must first jump into a little triangular character with legs. (For a game called Dreams, it cares a lot about the logistics of corporeality.) From there, somehow, you learn to build still sculptures, or animated backgrounds, or a background score note by note using a vast collection of instruments: all of the pieces you will need to one day build your masterpiece.
In addition to its suite of tools, Dreams comes with a playable story built entirely using those same tools. It is, as the kids say, a flex. After a few hours messing about with its creation software I could barely negotiate the nesting doll of menus required to animate a single bouncing ball. Yet here was a two-hour interactive narrative with original music, puzzle elements, light platforming, and an affecting story, carved from the same clay in which I sloppily muddied about.
Called Art’s Dream, you play as a jazz musician who can somehow move around his memories in order to put his present life back together. The choice of music is a perfect representation of creation’s ordered chaos; we start with a framework and then improvise until it sounds good. Jazz is an American-born institution. So are video games. Tennis for Two, the first known jittering specks of controllable light, was birthed in New York’s Brookhaven Lab back in 1958, a couple hours west of Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where you might have found Charles Mingus playing his upright bass.
Just as sheet music can only approximate what happens when musicians gather and fill the air with sound, the blueprints of video games are likewise sterile, staid documents that pale next to their electric reality. At least when seen from my layman’s eyes. Programmers likely look upon this schematic of that first video game and see a beauty I never could.
Here is what the programming screen in Game Builder Garage looks like:
Derivative echo? Constructive imitation? Or… something else entirely?
Early on in Garage you are told, “There are all kinds of different Nodon living inside your Nintendo Switch console.” These are anthropomized “nodes” that you connect in order to make things happen. So instead of coding a robot to walk to the right, you connect the Stick Nodon’s output to the Person Nodon’s input. In all, there are over 80 of these, each personified with faces and one-liners. The Button Nodon is pushy. (As you might expect.) The Retry Nodon is prone to regret. In time, you learn to build your game by connecting and manipulating these adorable and aggravating stand-ins for binary code. What Nintendo did with Game Builder Garage is what they’ve done countless times before: Take something already there and use it in new, unforeseen ways.
Sentient creatures existing from within a game has long been a playful conceit—David Crane’s Little Computer People, the 1984 predecessor to Will Wright’s The Sims, proclaimed right on the box, “Human-like beings actually found living inside computers!” But Nintendo flipped the equation. Instead of humans inside computer code, we are given computer code with the personality and physical traits of humans.
Nintendo has a long history of self-referential anthropomorphism. In 2008, Wii Fit featured a talking scale that looked exactly like the Wii Balance Board you stood on to control the game. In 2013’s Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball, you took batting practice from a man in a suit-and-tie who happened to have an early Nintendo baseball toy called an Ultra Machine for a head. 2019’s Ring Fit Adventure is an exercise role-playing game controlled using a yoga ring, where your on-screen guide is a mystical, and chatty, yoga ring. Game Builder Garage has taken this near-fetishic predilection to its illogical conclusion. Now the characters are the very programming languages used to create… themselves.
The only non-functional entities are two glowing dots that host and manage proceedings. Mechanical tones emanate in chattery rhythms with subtitles underneath. The blue dot is Bob, his tones upbeat and enthusiastic; the pink dot is Alice, whose chirps sound weary, blasé, as if she’s given a thousand humans these same lessons before you. Shannon Liao, The Washington Post’s reviewer, suggested you’ll like Game Builder Garage if you like school. As a college instructor, the comparison feels apt in this one detail alone: the teacher’s voice, tired but hopeful, redolent with that low-frequency hum unable to mask its own frustration with your pupils’ inability to just get it already.
If there is one reason to play Dreams or Game Builder Garage, it is to peek behind the digital veil and understand that everything we do with a computer is intensely, supernaturally more complex than we think. One of the included tutorial games in Garage is called “Mystery Room.” You inhabit a 3D space replete with odds and ends—a TV, a crate, a big mashable button on the wall—and you need to solve simple puzzles to open a hidden door and find a treasure chest. But of course, in this game about making games, you need to make everything first.
Part of the puzzle involves punching the wooden crate until it explodes. Sounds easy enough. We’ve already built the little person who can punch, and the crate. But how to enmesh the two in a satisfying way? Our friend Bob The Blue Dot shows us how. And it’s simple, really: place a Destroy-Object nodon (“I’ll break it real good,” it says), change its settings to invisible, change the “Destroy What?” dialog box to “Crate,” link the Destroy-Object nodon to the Fancy-Object nodon (at which point each blink and smile affectionately), place a Touch-Sensor nodon, make it invisible, change the “Check What?” box to “Crate,” set the connection points to Z+ and Z-, connect Touch-Sensor to the Person nodon, place a Button nodon, place an AND nodon, link Touch-Sensor to AND’s input 1 port, link Button to AND’s input 2 port, connect AND’s output port to Destroy-Object… and voila, you can now punch and destroy the crate.
But wait, Bob says, that was too easy. The crate should take a few hits. So now you need a Counter nodon that counts your desired amount of punches. And then connect that to a Comparison nodon and a Constant nodon, which then gets connected to the Destroy-Object nodon… and voila.
But wait, Bob says, that doesn’t feel very satisfying. Your pummeling should sound like knuckles cracking into wood. So you place a Play-Sound nodon, choose a pre-recorded effect, and connect it to the AND nodon… and voila.
But wait, Bob says. What about some visual feedback as you punch the crate? Yet more steps.
Now take that interaction and layer on every needed movement or reaction or sound of any one game and witness the resultant mess of connections and boxes.
Remember: this is coding simplified for beginners. Nintendo has marketed the game mostly to grade school children. If you, like me, have already spent a few decades on earth, and want to feel the destructive power of time’s crushing weight, pay $29.99 for Game Builder Garage and the privilege of knowing your best years are behind you.
In spite of this creeping existential threat, or maybe because of it, I hunker down and finish my creation. After connecting and placing and tweaking innumerable other nodons, I’m satisfied. I name the game “Don’t Make Contact!” It needs some more polish but I’m happy with the cruel, realistic absurdity of its win condition: that to follow the rules is to damn you to failure, and that to succeed you need to destroy yourself.
Later that night, full of pride, I put a controller in my wife’s hands. She plays. An off-screen voice cackles. Her avatar explodes.
“So what’d you think?” I ask.
“Your game sucks.”
She’s right. It does. But for the past three hours and twenty-seven minutes, I was free.
Play Irwin’s “Don’t Make Contact” in Game Builder Garage: Go to “Receive” in Free Programming mode and enter Game ID: G 005 PHF 70F