The Nature of a Masterpiece

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.

16 thoughts on “The Nature of a Masterpiece

  1. I agree with your selections. But something else picked my attention: Is a masterpiece something the creator can decide to do? Or is the status of “masterpiece” something that necessarily someone else gives to the work?

    1. Traditionally, I believe guild masterpieces were done intentionally, like a master’s thesis. I think that a creator can definitely try to create a masterpiece; whether she succeeds or not is definitely subjective, so in a sense the status is assigned by each reader individually.

  2. Hmmm. This is an interesting topic, and an interesting way of thinking about games and their creators.

    (And being mentioned here makes it very hard not to sound arrogant or condescending, even though the discussion isn’t even about quality per se. From the amount of times I come running to you with questions, you should know I do not consider myself superior in any way!)

    I see why you chose Phenomenon 32, though I’m not sure I wouldn’t consider Desert Bridge to be my “masterpiece.” Maybe I’m part of more than one guild? Either way, I hope I can get the really cool quests now.

    As for your masterpiece – I guess I agree. You’ve made some very excellent games, and other people might apply for master status with Looming… but I know that sooner or later you’re going to put out an utterly remarkable game that will completely flatten me, something that will put together the many skills you demonstrated in your previous games into something uniquely yours. I felt the stirrings of that in Looming, I think, and I’m looking forward to that game very much. The same goes for Auntie Pixelante, though I agree that REDDER comes close.

    And I know that I had a really good candidate, but I just forgot it.

    1. I don’t think you sound arrogant.

      I really liked Desert Bridge, but it seemed… hm. It was very idiosyncratic. The tricks it played with interface and so on were very clever, and it was wacky and fun, but I suppose it lacked a certain amount of focus? With Ph32, every piece fit together to reinforce the whole, and it felt so intentional that if you run into a bug you wonder if it’s really a bug or if it’s done on purpose. Desert Bridge had, perhaps by its very nature, a more slapdash feel.

      Of course, this is so utterly subjective.

      1. A sense of intentionality and cohesion is a big part of it, isn’t it?

        To me, Desert Bridge has all that – an incredible amount of thought went into making it all fit together, making every little description contribute to building the Lands of Dream in the player’s mind, but you’re right that the overall result feels unfocused – or, as I prefer to think of it, relaxed. That was quite intentional, and it’s also the reason that it’s the only one of my games I regularly replay, just for the sake of being able to go to Desert Bridge. I love that place.

        But to be honest, to me the significant change in my work starts with The Museum of Broken Memories (which feels like a companion piece of sorts to Desert Bridge). Everything before that feels juvenile to me – not terrible, but not quite there yet. With Museum, Desert Bridge and Phenomenon 32, the result is exactly what I wanted it to be (apart from bugs). And in a way I feel that all three put together form my graduation work – an exploration of three very different approaches to storytelling.

        Oh, what the hell do I know? I just do as the voices tell me.

  3. Thank you for this perspective.

    I think this helps me understand why I am so frustrated and dissatisfied with the apprentice-level work I have produced already. I want everything I do to be a masterpiece. I’m kind of a perfectionist like that. And when I look at all the games I’ve made so far, I see a complete lack of anything vaguely masterpiece-like.

    But now I have a better idea of what I’m working toward, and an adjustment of my expectations. I’m still trying to move from “apprentice” on to “journeyman” and make solid games that earn more than fifty cents each from advertising revenue. :p


  4. Oh, and I also wanted to say that I’m very much looking forward to your own masterpiece, coming up next after your prolific journeyman period.

    I think many people have been looking forward to your masterpiece ever since you came out with I Fell in Love With the Majesty of Colors.

  5. Interesting food for thought… I considered about a few people, and how this applies to them (it’s easy for me to realize that I certainly haven’t created any masterpieces, or even journeyman level work… I’m more like a kid at the beach than a master’s apprentice), but then got slightly hung up on Jason Rohrer… I love the guy’s work, and feel that he’s achieved some things that other developers have failed at with more ambitious projects; he is personally, perhaps my greatest single inspiration where developers are concerned… and yet, has he created a “masterpiece”? Certainly a subjective question, and some people may say that Passage was such, but I personally don’t see any of his games as being masterpieces. It’s curious to me, then, that he could be one of my very favorite developers…

    1. Hmm, yeah, I don’t think Rohrer has created a masterpiece yet either. It’s just that his “journeyman” work stands out so much that no one seems to notice that much. :p

      Passage was only his second game, after all. I even wrote a review on my blog of his first, Cultivation, way before he was well-known, and we had some email conversations back and forth about it. That’s how non-famous he was. :p Cultivation was very interesting but far from being a masterpiece. There were a lot of things I thought would have to be improved before I’d consider it a “good” game – though making a “good game” was not his goal, and he was satisfied with the end result he created.

  6. I’ve played a fair number of games online and I have to say that your work already stands out like a beacon from the rest of the flash game herd, Gregory.

    I think most great creators seem to find their true masterpiece(s) as a result of something that seems conceptually simple or natural to them- but mind blowingly beautiful to an outside observer. Plus, lots of hard work, I think it was Einstein who said that the best way to get “inpiration” was to be already working for three hours when it hit you :). I think what I’m trying to say is that by reaching for your masterpiece and possibly not taking enough joy in creation, you may actually hide your masterpiece from your gaze.

    To paraphrase Bruce Lee, the key is to try to express yourself honestly, and cut out everything that is supurfluous. Good luck. Also Phenomenon 32 is awesome.

    1. “I think most great creators seem to find their true masterpiece(s) as a result of something that seems conceptually simple or natural to them- but mind blowingly beautiful to an outside observer.”

      Very interesting point, thank you! I will have to remind myself of this when thinking about my own projects…

      (…remind myself that it doesn’t have to be complex and tricky to *me* – in fact, it’s probably better if it feels really simple and natural, but with the potential to be profound from another viewpoint)

  7. I love most of your games (assuming there may be some I haven’t played, i’m fairly casual); with their multiple endings and brain-engaging style, a far cry from tower defense or reaction shoot-em-up flash games I tend to play, and food for thought. Well, an entire banquet.

    I’ve always found the idea that you could be the only “actual” person and everyone else is just created to fit a little role in your life and/or give you the real impression you’re part of a bigger self-sustained reality an interesting one – it opens up things people never really tend to think about, since it’s an uncomfortable alternate to just accepting what “is” on face value without seeking an explanation or reason for it. Since you’d be the only real person, and your consciousness would be the reason any of it existed, how would life itself be gauged? Maybe “death” (since you won’t of experienced it yet, if you’re reading this) is simply a small barrier put in place and supposedly visited on other imaginary entities to add a value to your own life, and to enable anything and everything else that appears to have some value. Then human mind, consciousness and reality are things which, to me, are fascinating to the point of obscenity – what if the wildest possible theories are actually fact? What if you really are a solitary entity peeking into a self-created world set in motion at your birth and ceasing to exist at your death, which may simply be a natural phase back into this universal “developer mode” (simplest way to describe it) that a consciousness finds itself back in. Your game “Babies Dream of Dead Worlds” made me think about that, maybe the dreams are just as “real” as our waking reality. What if the “awake” you feel right now is actually completely fake and our dreams are what it is to be dead, what we were before self-conciousness, and what we will be afterwards.

    I’m heavy into lucid dreaming and dream diaries so for me, dreaming is a powerful thing, no matter how crazy they can be or how vaguely they are remembered. The fact we all so easily submit our consciousness to oblivion every time we choose to sleep, yet we don’t feel fear, fascinates me. Death is seen as a big step, a scary, permanent transition into the unknown, and yet sleeping – and failing to exist for the 9 or so hour duration – is the most natural thing in the world. And dreams, if we have them, can be as crazy as you like, usually totally out of our control, yet during them we do not question the maddest occurence or physically wrong thing to happen, only pndering when we’re awake if we’ve remembered.

    It might not be masterpiece material, but of all your work i’ve seen the ones concerning sleep, death, “the bigger picture” get me thinking the most, and I applaud you for creating them.

    P.S. I am not insane! Really! :)

  8. If one can loosen the requirement that a masterwork happen only once, and accept that a Master might show his Mastery again later as he transcends himself, I would argue that Majesty of Colours is your ‘masterwork’.

    … Curses, I typed that then opened ‘Exploit’ in another tab, got lost in it all the way to the end, and while it has none of the magic of Colours, it’s one of the most finely balanced/rewarding puzzle games I’ve played. I never got stuck for more than a minute, but felt good upon completing a few of the more challenging pieces.

    The plot was intriguing. Not too creative, but enough that it kept me reading the emails and wanting to know what would happen next. Had the game been pure puzzles, I would probably have quit before the end, feeling I’d seen all it had to offer.

    Good work there. Inappropriate place for a review, but there ye go =P

  9. Tim, I replied to you but it seems that my reply got swallowed. I was just saying that you should check out Steve Pavlina’s blog – he’s been writing all about that sort of stuff lately! :D

  10. Thank you for this text!

    I am in a completely different art, but you make me realize that I too, am still a journeyman in my art. I allowed myself a short gaming break just now for some entertainment. To come across “the day” and this website makes it deeply worthwhile. Thank you and thank “Play this thing”

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