Putting Boots on the Ground

George Saunders spoke on Bookworm about how he manages to write fiction that grapples with high-level concepts. Silverblatt poses the question as wondering how Saunders manages to create a "generic, audio-animatronic American who's responding to the arrival of [the fears of a fascist state, or climate change] in the ways that people would." To put it more plainly, how do you deliver a criticism or inspection of something without speaking down to the reader or abandoning the medium of fiction entirely. I think this question carries across to all mediums, especially games.

I don't think that the first move when I go into a fictive mode is to say "Okay, you're only one person. You're a person who is not you, but is somehow related to you, because of the filament of imagination." Now, you might wanna write about totalitarianism or whatever, but you can't. That's like making a knife out of jello. You can't do it. So then you have to put yourself in one set of legs on one particular day. Maybe in the back of your mind you say "note to self: whatever this is, let's account for this, that, the actual complex reality." You have to start with boots on the ground, so to speak. I don't know if I'm answering your question, but that's my first move. Say forget conceptual theory, it's gotta be a particular day and a particular smell and a particular dude and then you can start doing whatever you're gonna do.
I think this is one of the biggest problems that games are grappling with right now. We have ideas of what games are good at, but we haven't entirely figured it out. We don't have boots that we can put on the ground when we go to make a game about a subject. This leads to games that attempt to deal with serious subjects in inelegant and heavy-handed ways. That's both what's so exciting about games, and what makes it so difficult for really great games to exist. I think a game that got this right is Cart Life. The gameplay systems are very solid. It plays with lack of information, gameplay metaphors, world building, and time pressure. It got a lot that games are good at down before exploring the themes that fit into its game systems. A systemic simulation like this is only one approach to making a meaningful game, however. Will we decide that there are certain systems that work best for serious games? Will it be the narrative and adventure game systems of games like The Walking Dead or Kentucky Route Zero? Generative systems like Dwarf Fortress or Spelunky? It could be all of them, none of them, or something else entirely. I guess the interesting question is, what will be the boots that video games put on the ground before exploring the world?

You can listen to the full interview here.