Heath asked me to write another bit for Desktop, and I was more than happy to play around with a few thoughts on video games. I tried exploring some of the useful attributes that make up a game. What sets it out as a medium separate to all the others. Where the strength lies in games; how they work in relation to other mediums. Anyway:
The same parabolic arc again and again and again. Not a single high resolution pixel is different from the last and yet I expect the result to somehow be different. I accidentally release my finger off the screen too early and somehow knock down those last few blocks. This frees me from the humiliation of hearing the condescending squeal of those damn pigs. I finally flush the toilet and go back to work.
All that's needed to make a game is to define a few rules and add a goal or two. These rules don't have to be too complex, nor does there need to be many of them for the essence of the game to be evident. The rest is polish and aesthetics. These rules can be as simple as a clever nugget of interaction design or a twist in the gravity of our world. Build many of these rules and mechanics on top of each other and the final result can be incredibly detailed and complex. Make sure that the end result – the completion of the goal – is worthy unto itself as well as tied into the internal logic of the rules.
I grab the chair as it flies towards me and throw it straight back at him. Dodging a punch, I pivot half a step and slam my head into his nose while kicking another henchman in the chest. A leg flies towards me, which I grab and bring the full weight of my elbow onto the right knee, the satisfying crunch signalling the microsecond I have to prepare for my next attack.
The goals shouldn't lead the player on for no reason: the desire to interact within the ruleset and the mechanics should be a worthy experience unto itself. It should be fun after all. Make sure it's designed to get progressively harder as the player's skills improve; there should be a constant reshaping and resettling of this system to push them into an optimum and engaged state of flow.
I need to remind myself that this isn't a series of intersecting two dimensional planes. This world needs to be re-conceptualised as a three dimensional world that can only be accessed from two dimensional slices. I rotate the world around and jump to the next ledge.
By playing with these rules, we're able to explore new ideas that we hadn't considered before. We're able to see our world in new ways by interacting with a system of ideas that we can't possibly expect from our daily life. Games are simulation machines, they allow us to safely play with ideas in a way that other mediums can't provide by allowing us to experience new ways of being.
The cut scene signals to my brain that I am allowed a small dopamine hit as reward for completing a series of tasks. The poorly scripted conversation is the only time I'm expected to care about the narrative that's intended to push me on to the next series of tasks. I have no input into this story, just a means of progressing through a narrative structure ill-suited to this medium.
Video games aren't that great at making us feel for characters. There's obviously exceptions to this generalisation, but it's hard to feel for our protagonist when we can start again if our health drops below zero. It's even harder to feel for an algorithmically defined non-player character when the lip movements and facial expressions are comical at best. The lazy approach to empathy is to provide a rigid story for us to move passively through a linear fashion from beginning to middle to end.
I wonder around the city, dropping in and out of conversations that repeat every so often, as entry points into the larger background of this world. I care not for the individual people, but the stories that they hint to. I understand the amount of time I will have to put in to experience the whole story that this world provides. These snippets do not provide enough on their own, but by spending time in this world am I able to understand my motivation for continuing on this journey. I start a fight with an innocent bystander for no other reason apart from the joy of fighting.
The strength of the medium of video games to tell a story resides in the way in which the rules and the mechanics and the higher order systems are able to add to the narrative. The use of a mythology is to situate us within this world, to help make sense of it. That way we can create our own particular story as we move through the world, by picking and choosing chapters as we go along. If the game is fun enough and we don't want to stop playing and living in this world, then we can tick off every chapter and every subplot we can find until we've exhausted all possible stories.
This is my world, I built it. It's taken me a long time to get to this point and I'm not close to considering it finished. It was nearly destroyed several times but I got through those dark days with determination. I'll need to get more resources to make it grow but I'm happy to spend more time in something of my own to make it better.
Does the absence of an implied narrative provide a space for players to create their own narrative? If we're given the chance to create our own homes, our own protagonist without a mythical backdrop, do we start creating our own stories inside the game? Without a predetermined goal, can we still consider it a game or does it become more of a toy for us to play with. How do we relate to the differing experiences of implicit and explicit systems of play? Further, which experience is more interesting, engaging, fun?
After sending it off I immediately got back into playing videogames for a bit, which was lovely. Finally bought Fez and was sadly disappointed by the direction it took. I was hoping for a lovely twist on the platformer archetype, with devillishly hard mental acrobats to figure out how to traverse the world. Turns out the game is a twist on platformers, a rather brilliant and charming twist, but that twist relies on codes and notekeeping. I ended up playing it with the ipad open on every walkthrough I could find. Shame, but still.
Meanwhile, I was trawling through my hard drive and found this talk by Tom Armitage on games titled Five Things Rules Do, which I inadvertantly ripped off most of the essay without realising it. It's brilliant in all the ways I'd forgotten it to be.
Once you're done with that, set aside an hour and watch this talk "Designing to Reveal the Nature of the Universe". It discusses everything I like about the games that I like by two of the indie world greats: Jonathon Blow (of Braid, and upcoming game The Witness) and Marc Ten Bosch (upcoming game Miegakure). Braid used time as the key game mechanic – altering, warping and reversing it – while Miegakure uses the fourth dimension as the main game mechanic. Having these two discuss the nature of games and the rulesets that govern their worlds is a real treat.
The selling point is the list of virtues they present, which could somehow be used across all design fields if one were to think long and hard about it. They are:
Lightest of Contrivance
Strength of Boundary
The underlying concept: Show a lot of truth, with minimal contrivance