These days, we use the word “masterpiece” to mean “a work that could only be created by a master.” Any especially good painting, game, or poem could be called a masterpiece. Originally, though, the term had a very specific meaning: a masterpiece was the work created by a craftsperson to demonstrate that she was now a master of the craft.
The craft guild educational system started with apprentices. Apprentices worked for and learned from a master. When they were finally able to earn money on their own, they usually became journeymen: craftsfolk who worked and produced good products, but weren’t officially recognized as experts. In order for the guild to recognize a craftperson as a master, she would need to make a masterpiece: a work that demonstrates her skill.
It’s interesting looking at this concept in the context of game development. Terry Cavanagh‘s masterpiece is VVVVVV. His work beforehand was excellent, but 6V demonstrated that he had a mastery of every aspect of the craft: challenge, story, managing the player’s feelings, and creating a unified feel. The concept is a little awkward to apply to teams, but it can be done; Ico was an excellent game, but it’s only with Shadow of the Colossus that Team Ico created a masterpiece.
The way I see it, a masterpiece must be perfect. I don’t mean that it must be without flaw, but it needs to be complete in every way. If there is a big piece missing, or if the work is not expansive enough to fully demonstrate mastery of the form, then it can’t be considered a masterpiece. Masterpieces are dissertations, theses, graduation projects: they are evidence of the creator’s skill and control over the totality of the craft.
It’s fun to play a game to decide on masterpieces for various creators. Frictional Games have Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Jonas Kyratzes has Phenomenon 32, a great example of a perfect masterpiece that still has flaws. Valve has Half-Life 2… or maybe one of the episodes? Or maybe some other game entirely, depending on your opinion. Personally, I don’t think Anna “Auntie Pixelante” Anthropy has made her masterpiece yet, although REDDER comes close.
As for me, I know I haven’t produced a masterpiece yet. I’m still a journeyman. I have been thinking lately about what I could do for a masterpiece, though. I’ve got one tempting idea involving survival in a warzone without weapons.
Do you disagree with any of my choices for masterpieces? Do you want to suggest candidates for other creators? Please comment with your ideas.