Monday, June 29, 2015

Critical Switch: Intro to Game Design and Drama

Zolani told us last week, and him and I have both been hammering on for the past year or so, the interactivity-focused nature of ludology, that is, the formalized study of games and play in both digital and analogue spheres, is almost completely useless for studying games as works of art, especially given that we're finding, more and more, that interactivity is actually a massive element of all artwork, and that the interactivity we have with videogames in particular (as opposed to analogue games) don't really allow us the freedom of choice and action that is, supposedly, the definitive characteristic of the form.

Actually, now that I'm thinking about this, I realize that I should probably reiterate some stuff that we talked about around this time last year.

I return of course the devastating, razor sharp clarity of the words of Masayuki Hambalek, a Japanese game critic, who said about a year ago:

When you can’t do something in a digital game, it simply doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t lower the degree of freedom.”

Digital spaces are different from real life. Whereas a fence that prevents us from getting too close to a particular place is an intentional restriction on our freedom, in a videogame, an invisible wall is more or less a rule of nature, an element like gravity or inertia that makes sure the whole universe functions properly.

As I stated in response to that thought on my own blog not long after:

We as critics and players more often than not highlight the fantastical things that games allow us to do over the mundane things that they do not. In reality, the amount of things you can't do in a videogame far outnumbers the things that you can, but the appeal of most digital games are those specific possibilities they do offer.

Or, as Zolani put it last week: “Interactivity is crap!”

As a result, interaction alone, we find, is likely not the element that makes for interesting and meaningful gaming experiences. I believe personally that what makes particular interactions interesting is their basis in contexts that we find compelling, be it a fictional universe or even just an aesthetic. It's not necessarily the what you do, because ultimately that “what” can be boiled down to polygons and numbers, but the who, when where, why, and how you're doing it.

I guess you could say that means I like videogames with good writing, and you wouldn't be lying, but I also enjoy plenty of silly bullshit games like Resident Evil 4 that build satisfying interactions through the most loosely-constructed contexts. In fact, poorly-written AAA action games give us a pretty strong argument for this kind of “context-based” understanding of engagement, because what most of them do is construct a context for the interactions that is just convincing enough to make for satisfying experiences. But that's a different episode.

As we move away from an interactivity-focused view of what makes games great or important, I think it's equally important that we not assume that interactions themselves are unimportant, if nothing else because the interface itself is what gamers most directly engage with. So basically, a game needs to have some kind of playability to it!

I feel like that's fairly self-explanatory so think of it this way: “gameplay” as it's thought of is not the notes and chords of the music, as I think someone like Keith Burgun would assert. It's more like the mixing of recorded music. When I listen to music, the mixing is the thing between me and the music, it's the thing that delivers the music to me, or the thing I have to work through to hear the music. Depending on the artistic aspirations of the piece, that mixing can be hyper-focused towards an aesthetic goal: this is your slick, mirror-shine pop record, or your raw, demo-quality black metal album. But still, in most cases, you're going to want a mix that healthily balances professionalism and cleanliness with excited performance and untamed energy. For videogames then, the gameplay, the interface, is not “what the game is” but rather the thing between me and the game, the thing that delivers the game to me, or the thing that I have to work through to get to the game.

The most obvious lesson this can show us with commercial videogames is that the design of these games should be relatively open to an audience who wants to pick up and play, and not be egregiously difficult or needlessly obfuscant. But my primary concern today is actually with games that, in an effort to streamline the relationship between the gamer and “who, where, why, and how” kinda skip out on the “what” because it's viewed as largely superfluous.

Among the early classics of what are broadly called “art games” a term that will hopefully die with scholarly study, and among what are often called “walking simulators” or “first-person narrative games”, the common design trend has been to build games that have almost no semblance of challenge or what the critic John Thyer calls “resistance,” whatsoever. And that works, for me, when the game you're making is meant to be a more exploratory experience. The Stanley Parable would be actively harmed by an attempt to add bizarre resistance to it, and I think Limbo was always harmed by it's attempts to mash up it's aesthetic and loose, heavy sense of embodiment with it's puzzles.

But I'm already also seeing a small trend of games wherein a sense of resistance is completely lost where I think it would strongly benefit the piece. Temporality by James Earl Cox III, for example, has a really bare interface. Temporality is a 2D game wherein you view multiple men's lives in a non-linear fashion as they move through phases: from childhood onto military service. These characters simply move forward through space and time until they is inevitably shot dead in an early-20th century war while somber piano music plays. You can walk backwards and view events backwards but the events themselves aren't changed, only the way in which gamers view them.

The game is largely sentimental and I think what it wants to do through it's simple control scheme is convey a sense of inevitability to these characters' deaths. But the game also has you use the same control scheme to show lives that are full of vibrance and value and human experience. So when we inevitably get to the war torn field where these characters meet their ends, it feels bizarre to me that they inevitably die without me having some way to try and save them. I'm not saying that I should be able to save their lives, but rather that it would feel more appropriate if I, while their deaths were inevitable, was able to participate in some romantic struggle to take them as far as I can. As it stands, the quote-unquote “lack of challenge” inherent in Temporality's structure and controls feels nihilistic whereas the narrative information it's conveying is romantic, sentimental, humanist.

Huh, if only there were an ultra-specific term for naming a kinda conflict between how people interface with a game and the narrative content that game is trying to convey. Hmm . . .


So in essence there are, again, in my view, about two types of dysfunctional video games: those whose form of resistance against the gamer is so vicious and poorly-constructed that it makes me play designer and remove myself from the fictional or aesthetic context to try and understand the game as a series of hitboxes and numbers, whereas games that offer too little resistance fail to convey the weight and seriousness of their dramatic context.

The question then emerges is “what kind of interface would we add to this? What kind of resistance?” Now, the answers to that are endless, but I think how we go about doing that can easily be derived from a study of what we understand as “game design.”

If we were to add those kinds of interfaces to Temporality, we would attempt to do things like find cover, move between lines of fire, all of which can be built from understandings of deadly projectiles that we find have existed in commercially released games for decades.

There are tons and tons and tons of examples of this, and I want to go over a few of them in my next few episodes, so rejoin me in mid-July as we dive deeper into the study of Game Design and Drama.

Next week, Zolani Stewart will be back with an analysis of Naisance.

From Seattle, Washington, I'm Austin C. Howe.

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