My Second Favourite German Word

There is a quote that goes something like “If you can’t explain something simply then you don’t understand it well enough”, variously ascribed to Einstein or Feynman. It’s been getting to this point that has taken the time.

Even now, while I can explain my top-level plan quite succinctly, I can see that it will mean sailing into waters that are uncharted, for me. So, while I can see what other people have done, I know where my strengths lie, and can try to imagine the confluence, it’s going to be both exciting and terrifying to implement.

But this is me, so you know that I’m not just going to tell you the two-sentence summary and leave it like that. No, I’m going to explain the background and the thinking that led to this point because I think that’s where the best stuff lies. The summary can wait till later. That’s just giving you the fish.

The complicated bit for me is that this plan is the confluence of several disparate threads that have been winding their way around the inside of my head for years. Many, many years for some of them. My challenge, in wanting to explain how I got to this simple plan, is picking apart its underpinnings so that I can examine the foundational pieces one at a time. As each piece influences the other, it’s hard to know where to start. However, as you can tell from the title, I’ve plumped for a single word.

This word is the splendid German compound: Gesamtkunstwerk.

Literally, it means total (gesamt) art (kunst) work or factory (werk): “total artwork”, or “total art factory”.

It is a term whose meaning is somewhat nebulous and which has evolved over time, starting in opera, and moving through architecture and beyond. Regardless of its changes, the overall meaning has always been one of encompassing a broad range of creative disciplines within a single project, often under the direction of a single person. You might also think of it as being related to the use of the French word Auteur with regard to film.

In many ways the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk doesn’t say anything that we don’t already know intuitively. However, I’ve found it a great way to focus my thinking, and a single point around which to coalesce many previously poorly defined ideas.

So how exactly am I defining this magical term? Well, I use Gesamtkunstwerk to describe a single complex creative work that applies two critical principles:

  • There is a single vision for the whole. This can be a common vision held by all the creatives on the project, or the vision of a single person who controls the whole process.
  • Each creative discipline supports the others. The art reflects the writing which reflects the design and the music; the theme is reflected in the language and the art and the graphics, all brought out in the gameplay. While there are different technical skills involved in each area, the understanding is that the creation, as a whole, is a single piece.

I’ll pick up on how this fits into the rest of my thinking next time. For now, think about your favourite gaming experiences, or favourite films. There are many reasons why you might like something. However, for me, the most important common feature of the vast majority of my favourites is that they don’t just have one part working well; not just the music or the dialogue or the design or the lighting. Every creative element moves as one to support the emotional goal and tell the same story. The art style sets a tone and mood that feeds into the design, the layout supports the gameplay, the language resonates with the theme. You get the idea. Each creative element supports the other. In film, the music supports the action (or lack of it), the style of camerawork and framing reflects the mood, the development of the script is mirrored in sets, costumes, and music. Again, no element works alone. This is what moves a creative work from good to great.

In some ways it’s easier to see when it doesn’t work. How often have you played a game or heard a reviewer comment on art that jars with the theme, or layout that grates against the flow of play? All too common.

I’m sure you’ve seen films where music, camera, and tone of acting could have all been working from a different script. Again, sadly common.

By comparing what doesn’t work, to what does, I think that you can probably see how useful the ideals of Gesamtkunstwerk can be as a shorthand for quality: the better a project fits the two key elements, the better it is likely to be. I think the term is useful because, as I said earlier, it helps to focus my thinking.

Looking back over the three decades that I’ve been working on creative projects, and watching hundreds of “making of” documentaries and interviews to search for best practice I could use, I’ve often heard people claiming that they were applying the two principles of Gesamtkunstwerk. I’m sure they genuinely meant it when they said it. However, without the focus of the term, they almost invariably fail to truly grasp what is needed to implement it and the project drifts, driven by pragmatism and expediency instead.

Now I’ll be the first to point the finger and call my sentiment here both idealist and perfectionist. Guilty as charged, m’lud. I want to create beautiful things; perfect things. Things that I can be proud of and which make me happy. And yes, I know very well from bitter experience that the real world makes this almost impossible. However, even though I know that I’m unlikely hit the target, I am still going to aim high.

Having pondered this for some time, I’ve decided that for me, Gesamtkunstwerk is the best way to describe the gold standard I want to aim for in all my future work. What does this mean? Well, for Quirkworthy, the most important implication is that I need to broaden my remit. Game design is only one of the elements that make up a Gesamtkunstwerk. Focussing on only that fails the test. I need them all.

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2 Responses to My Second Favourite German Word

  1. Pingback: Here’s the Plan |

  2. Pingback: Moving On |

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