Electron Dance

A Theoretical War, Part 2

This is the second article in The Academics Are Coming series.

4. defection

In 1998, Jesper Juul presented a paper titled "A Clash between Game and Narrative" at the Digital Arts and Culture conference, based on his ongoing postgraduate research. He asserted that narrative was not just unimportant in games but actually burdensome. Games and narrative were "two phenomena that fight each other" and attempts to merge them would inevitably "zigzag" between the two.

Juul also demonstrated that narrative ended up as digital paint which is a similar to an argument put forward by Brian Moriarty in last year's GDC and also here on Electron Dance:

"I illustrated this [using] a silly platformer with background art by Michelangelo, dialog from Shakespeare, characters from Ingmar Bergman movies and music by Bach... but it was still just a platformer... [Such games] may have an arty veneer, and explore important topics and themes, but it's all bolted on to familiar game mechanisms that are not essentially synergistic."

Clearly both men take issue with propositions like One and One Story (referenced last week) but I found some of Juul's arguments oddly anachronistic. It was published when game story was becoming more and more important to players and 1998 was notable for being the year that Half-Life blew everyone away. Players were no longer shooting blocks and dodging pixel balls; they were sweating and surviving in Black Mesa, fighting their way out of a catastrophe, trying to piece together what had gone so wrong. Was Juul swimming against the tide?

Three years later he published a piece called "Games Telling Stories?" in which he softened his position. Ironically, this appeared in the same inaugural issue of Games Studies that contained Aarseth's and Eskelinen's shots at narratology. Although Juul still maintained that narrative and games were difficult to reconcile he conceded:

Games and narratives can on some points be said to have similar traits. This does mean that the strong position of claiming games and narratives to be completely unrelated (my own text, Juul 1999 is a good example) is untenable.

Whilst the rise of the cinematic-burdened AAA title might have been attributed to shady marketing attempts at  overselling limp mechanics, something that echoed the concept of narrative was going on in games. Mechanics were almost becoming incidental to some players. If the setting was interesting or beautiful, they wanted to be there: they were happy to ride shotgun, even if they couldn't always wield a shotgun.

(Aside: As games have become serious business, game studies as an academic field has expanded. At the same time a segment of games studies was trying to divorce itself from notions of story and narrative, it was recruiting from players who had been gripped by games that had let them spend some time somewhere else.)

5. checkmate

But as discussed last week, if you run your keyboard through twenty random platformers on Newgrounds or Kongregate, you can quickly tire of the platformer trope. Spikes, pits, jumping, obstacles. Enough already! This is a ludological problem and here I am Moriarty and Juul: I can see through the arty veneer. Andy Nealen (Osmos, Hemisphere Games) said at the "Indie Rant" at this year's PAX East that he wants developers to stop making puzzle platformers and go make something else.

"If I see anyone flip gravity again, I'm gonna fucking freak out."

Andy Nealen at PAX East Indie Rant

But yet it's difficult to see fun in a world of rules. Raph Koster's attempt to decompose games into atomic units (a notable example is headshotting in Quake) seems to drain the life from games, as if what's missing is the composite experience. Adding A to B makes some other-worldly strange C (as a mathematician, I might posit that the function that composes a game from individual units is non-linear which makes decomposition a tricky business). Koster could easily argue that all FPSes offer, by and large, similar mechanics. But I would wine and dine Half-Life 2 any day, and toss Lost Planet in a river in a heartbeat.

In fact, this is precisely the kind of issue Dan Pinchbeck tackled in his 2009 thesis. It opens with a comparison of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Half-Life 2; both offer similar mechanics (Pinchbeck’s phrase is “ludic activity”) yet the former is perceived as a far more frightening and harsh game than Valve’s FPS vision. Trying to move on from the ludology versus narratology fight, Pinchbeck studied a decade of FPS games in attempt to isolate “the mechanism by which rule and fiction come together”.

My own struggle between the purity of rule and the impact of story came to a head in 2010. I was troubled by Alexander Ocias' Loved. It's a bog-standard platformer dressed up in the clothes of an unexplained dysfunctional relationship. It has a far more limited mechanical palette than that used by One and One Story yet I found myself recommending it to others. I wrote:

Loved, like other games before it, tells me that if a decent story or strange experience is absorbing, I can overlook a lack of gaming ambition. A narrative, emotional ambition can be enough. Why is that?

After twenty dull platformers that do nothing for the brain, it's the twenty-first that fucks you up. I could no longer ignore that storytelling alone could transform tired mechanics into something that could engage.

And then I heard about Brenda Brathwaite's experimental board game Train and it was game over for my own ludological obsession. It is a powerful demonstration of how story context breaches the wall of rules and changes a gaming experience.

Spoilers follow. The game challenges its competing players to get a train, with carriages stuffed full of little yellow figures, to the train terminus first. The players eventually discover the end of the line is none other than... Auschwitz. It sounds like a cheap trick. But then The Escapist reports it moved someone to tears and Tracy Wilson wrote how she and her fellow players, knowing the game's reveal in advance, couldn't bring themselves to play.

A big debate raged in the comments over on Raph Koster's blog between the "cheap stunt" and the "meaningful mechanics" schools of thought. But as I said about Infocom's Planetfall last year, it doesn't matter what you think about the game: knowing that some players were moved is the crucial point. It is the counterexample that disproves the rule that rules rule.

This extreme example demonstrates that meaning imposed on a game's mechanics can sometimes be the most important addition to a game. This goes hand in hand with Ian Bogost's "proceduralist" view of games, which proposes interpretations of games in terms of what their mechanics say. Without context, mechanics have no voice.

Train (Photo: Games For Change)

6. present day

Students in games studies are often taught the importance of rules as the fundamental unit of game design. This might explain why we see so many interesting and diverse puzzle games emerge from student projects such as Continuity and Narbacular Drop. But Hokra developer Ramiro Corbetta recently discussed how Proteus helped confirm his doubts about this focus on rules:

Maybe I’m giving Proteus too much credit. It didn’t completely change my view on digital games. I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time. I’ve been questioning my allegiance to a mechanics-centered game design perspective for as long as I’ve held on to this “philosophy.”

The academic world has largely moved on from the days of ludology trying to build a church of rules-worship; you're now more likely to be engaged in debates about the rigidity of Bogost's proceduralism excising players from game analysis (although Miguel Scart kicked this one off, Charles Pratt's excellent overview is a far more accessible read).

But outside academia, no one was paying any attention to what game studies academics were writing about. Which meant, at some point, the gaming public was going to discover this debate all by itself like I had - and the whole thing would start again. This time around it would be on tweets, on blogs and on YouTube... minus academic restraint.

And in its darkest hour, Twitter mobs would howl for someone to do us all a favour and die already.

Next week: And some rules were less equal than others.

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  1. It’s interesting to consider debate around games outside the idea of fun (however that may be quantified). I think it relates back, though, in how some games seem like a chore but do well; if an MMO has a comparable (or even worse) ludic experience than one the player enjoyed but also had, say, better graphics, it could pull that person in for an extended period of time without ever bringing to mind whether they enjoyed it or not long sentence hey hey yeah yeah.

  2. Fantastic as usual, HM.

    it doesn’t matter what you think about the game: knowing that some players were moved is the crucial point.

    And THAT is the key remark right there. It applies to any art. Sure, the painter may have intended something with his work, but in the end it’s how the audience perceives it, is affected by it, that truly defines its impact.

    To put it another way, results mean more than intent. If I said something incredibly racist and then defended it by claiming “that’s not how I meant it,” well, that’d be a very poor defense. What I intended matters a lot less than how it was taken. Similarly the creator’s intent with a game tends to pale compared to the player’s personal experience.

    It’s pretty easy to rig empirical “proofs.” Making a platformer with Shakespeare dialogue, Michelangelo art, Bergman characters and Bach music is a cute trick, but it sounds to me like there was significant effort to make it a platformer first and glue these things on. It doesn’t prove anything. Yes, the mechanics of platforming are relatively stable, and it’s true to say that in most cases, game mechanics are at the forefront of the experience. But that doesn’t mean there can be nothing else, or that anything else is hackneyed, bolted on, or irrelevant.

    And that right there is my problem with the rules-rule camp. Rules are important. So are mechanics, and mechanics are not rules. But neither is the end all of what goes into a game experience.

  3. @BeamSplashX: What all these true believers believe is this: that their theory is the future of games. Just like the arcade three-lives-quick-to-die approach is now anachronistic (it’s still around, but it’s the kind of thing you put into your game as a bit of a joke) then the pretensions of story will all fall away and look ridiculous in decades to come. What we consider to be good design is changing all the time. In the beginning, there were no tutorials, and lo there were tutorials and now, fucking hell, we’ve had enough of baby tutorial levels. It’s all evolution and some of the games we think of ACE right now will be the Ultima IV’s of the future.

    @Steerpike: Yes, I like Train as a strong proof by counterexample (it’s certainly not the only one, but it makes its point forcefully), rather than, say, Moriarty’s platformer which is just an example of a crap platformer rather than establishing an indisputable point.

    I haven’t made much distinction here – what’s your view on rules vs mechanics? Can we fight about what they mean? Can we, please?

  4. I’ve experienced something similar to platformer fatigue with music (the medium games seem to share more with that ALWAYS plays second-fiddle to movie comparisons). I get into something and all of it seems fresh and cool (like Daft Punk-esque house music), but eventually the tropes overshadow any other aspect of the music. Sure they might use cool samples, but it gets to the point where I can predict when they’ll do the filter sweeps, drop all the drums but the kick, etc.

    I guess they’re like music videos, in a way. Ones where you just see the band play are like pure mechanics, while some bolt on some story, which is at its worst when it interrupts the song for more story. However, even songs with such videos are available in a “pure” form, to which games rarely have an equivalent. The closest analogue I can think of is Yakuza’s Adventure Review mode (though that cuts out all of the story content and only has side missions) or Mega Man Xtreme’s… Xtreme Mode, which just removes all of the story in addition to upping the difficulty.

  5. The poor puzzle platformer, it wasn’t the genre’s fault. Incidentally, you’ve reminded me of Loved. I’m yet to play that.

    Terrific piece HM and it seems I’m not as lost as I thought I was. I think rules and mechanics can only take you so far before you need some ‘paint’ to put your actions into some sort of context; to anchor or align them with something specific so to speak, like Brathwaite’s Train. Where would Every Day The Same Dream be if it looked like a piece by Kandinsky or Miro? I’m betting out in the cold. Its mechanics would seem meaningless without the appropriate paint. Just look at Rod Humble’s The Marriage; Humble stripped away as much paint as possible to see if the mechanics could do most of the talking and in the end it was a difficult piece to decipher, so much so that he explained it in the accompanying readme. It was a fascinating experiment and something that always springs to mind when discussing meaning through mechanics.

    @Steerpike: Where were you when me and Armand were talking about Ruins eh? ;-)

  6. As programmers we often get to see the game in its ‘pure’ form as we’re using programmer art. It’s often literally a bunch of blobs on a screen, usually as garish as possible to encourage the artists to get on with it.

    We play very different games to the finished product.

    I used to be quite dismissive of the pictures (not the story, of course) but then I played Knights of the Old Republic. I was finding it competent but unengaging (It’s Baldurs Gate in Space! With smaller areas! and bits I can’t get to!) until one day I just upped the graphical quality in the settings. It just became magically ‘better’, more engaging and interesting. Somehow the shinier graphics tipped it over the line and since then I’ve had far more respect for the mysterious powers of ‘chrome’.

  7. Nice piece. I think there is something about the way my brain tends to process a lot of things but I just finished Yakuza 2 and I have to say that I would have enjoyed the game much more if I could have skipped the cutscenes. Large sections just involved me staring at my computer screen (checking emails and forums) while it carried on in the background. The combat and environmental narrative I enjoyed but the ‘sit here and watch this to give you context’ moments just bored me. No different than my normal views I guess. Anyway I enjoyed reading this.

  8. Well, I’ll give it a try, but I haven’t had a chance to really think it through too much so I reserve the right to change or clarify:

    In my view, “rules” are the structural laws designed to make a game fair and fun, and establish constraints of play. For example, in baseball, one of the “rules” states that the batter is out once he or she has committed three strikes. In chess, one of the rules states that Bishops are only able to move diagonally. Rules are consciously followed and as such appear less in video games, because the game experience is more controlled.

    “Mechanics” are structural elements that define the logical reality of the game type or game world – for example, platformers are, mechanically, games that focus on precision and timing. Thus both Sonic the Hedgehog and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time are both mechanically platformers, but have very different rules.

    Does that make sense? If not I take it all back. Oooo! This could be the point of contention that leads our two sites to war!

  9. Reading this (and the previous piece), I found myself wondering about the extent that academic research reaches commercial game design. Probably some extent, because we’re aware that there are successful game design formulas that tend to be repeated. The problem is that “success” is defined by number of sales, so even if someone is tired of anti-gravity games, they’ll keep being produced as long as they’re being sold (and they will).

    I also wondered about why 2012 games aren’t so much better than 1990 games. I mean, if there’s science behind them, knowledge should be cumulative. 2012 games are better than 1990 games in technological terms (graphics, power, etc), but probably not in terms of recipe, of design. Does this mean that people really don’t care about that kind of debate, or that we haven’t reached anything substantial on a rational level through discussions like this? That’s probably too radical.

    Staying on subject, I think the decomposition of game design in story x mechanics makes sense, but it’s pretty risky. It leaves aesthetics out, for instance (and it’s definitely not the same as story). It gets more complicated when you see that some games, even though they’re both called games, are probably not the same thing to be compared… like you wouldn’t (shouldn’t) compare Half Life to Digital: Love Story. They’re both “games” in that they’re interactive media, but they follow completely different design rules, and they involve completely different behavior from the players, and they have completely different cognitive/emotional impact on the players. Putting things like that under the same label is risky if you come with arguments like “narrative interferes with game mechanics”. It’s confusing because we might not even know what (kind of games) are we talking about.

    I don’t really have a point here, just brainstorming.

  10. You’re a wise fellow, Nicolau, I like your thoughts.

    One of my majors was film; an art form that’s now had a good 100 years of evolution and study. Based on this I think I can answer your first question (“why 2012 games aren’t so much better than 1990 games”)…

    The study of a medium leads to understanding, but not necessarily mastery. The effort of scholars to delve into the meaning of cinema, or games, or what have you, can certainly lead to best practices, but doesn’t guarantee them. Certainly movies are technically superior today, and certainly directors are able to draw on knowledge gained from the study of cinema, but even after a century there’s no indication that scholarship leads to technical or experiential perfection. So we study such media to appreciate them, and to understand them, but not necessarily to make them better.

  11. @HM I think I just think of a mechanic as the resulting behavior when you add up several rules. The resulting behavior when you add multiple mechanics and then some players is dynamics. … I think. You know, I used to teach this stuff. I really should know the terms.

    @Nicolau I think it depends on your definition of better. There are a lot of forces that compel games not to improve in a certain direction. A big one is market forces, as you mention. But games are improving in some other ways, not just in graphics, but in some design ways such as accessibility.

    As for the science, there are academic charts and graphs out there that sort of say things like, for this amount of input, the player expects this much output. They just don’t seem to be something worth trying to decipher for a talented designer, who develops the much-quicker instinct to navigate this kind of water by intuition. And sometimes they study what you might think of as the wrong thing (we have metrics now in game development, a lot of them, but how do we know what to measure)? So there is science, but the application of it is still a challenge.

  12. @BeamSplashX, @BadgerCommander: I should clarify that the hard ludological position doesn’t just have a beef with cutscenes or text, but artwork, style and world consistency – all these things are totally extraneous. I think it’s important to note that a ludologist would decry the fawning attention given to story, artwork and environmental narrative. Ludology sees no value in exploring whether cutscenes are the best way to play out a story in-game, because the idea of a story or immersive, coherent world – full-stop – has nothing to do with making a good game. Juul’s original paper makes the point that in the 80s most games used to have instructions like “shoot aliens for points” and that was about the only “story” they needed. World building itself is not a problem; the fact that it’s taken over development *is* (just look at the fascination with world/story rather than gameplay in most trailers – go spin up the Reset trailer, for example).

    @Gregg: Yes I should have brought up The Marriage. It was at the back of my mind; it’s sort of a negative example. It doesn’t prove that context is crucial, but it’s definitely contributing evidence. (Note that a game’s title also provides context.)

    @CdrJameson: Yes it’s interesting isn’t it? But this takes ever-so-fucking-close to the question of whether we are being dazzled by graphics when the gameplay is shit. I think ludology/narratology debate deals with a higher level of question, whether we are being dazzled by world when the gameplay is shit, but it’s definitely in the same ballpark. But Mercenary, huh? Did it need shinier graphics? (I was always hot to play the aborted PC version…)

    @Steerpike: I can’t say I agree or disagree on mechanics vs rules. The MDA framework, one of those game design epiphanies, refers to mechanics as being “design counterpart” of rules. That is, rules are algorithmic whereas the mechanic is what a game designer would formulate. Raph Koster also tries something which ends up confusing me because he relies on game grammar to explain it and I’m not a game grammar kind of guy. And now Amanda suggests something else. Uh, I’m just going to walk away from this.

    @Amanda: I thought dynamics were the mechanics taken together as aggregate, the system that arises from the rules. I really feel like this is a conversation I should not prolong =) This is going to confuse everybody who isn’t familiar with MDA.

    @Nicolau: Whether academic research reaches commercial game design is probably the most important question of this whole series and that will become clear next week. Why aren’t 2012 games much better than 1990 games? I’d add to Steerpike’s and Amanda’s excellent points a personal opinion that, over twenty years, coding games has remained a relatively slow task. A lot of time spent on building and rebuilding tools rather than taking reliable environments and making something fresh with them. Effectively, too much disastrous waterfall-based development and not enough gettin’ high with design. I also want to re-iterate the point I made above to Beam & Badger that the ludology/narratology debate was really about more than just story, but also encompassed aesthetics, especially as a lot of “narrative design” in modern gaming is in the aesthetics (environmental narrative etc.).

    Anything that wasn’t rules/mechanics was deemed of no ludological interest; what kind of game didn’t save them, not even interactive fiction. Michael Mateas summarises Gonzalo Frasca’s position as this::

    “Finally, Frasca argues against Aristotelian interactive drama on the grounds of technical impossibility. It is very difficult for a human author to write a single drama. It would be even more difficult to write multiple dramas, in real time, in response to player interaction. Since the current state of AI is nowhere near the point of producing systems that can write good static plays on their own, then certainly interactive drama is not possible.”

  13. @HM Yeah, all these terms kind of crash in to each other. Like I said, I taught them but that doesn’t make them any easier to break down in to words without borrowing definitions from textbooks. Really, the terms are interesting academically, but does having the “right” term for the individual job really make a design better? I am on the fence here. It makes it easier to teach design and talk about design but a lot of game design is intuition.

    And along with your points about tools: we do have tools, but sometimes those tools lead down a particular design path. The Unreal engine is fun to use. And out of the box, it makes shooters.

  14. Amanda:
    But games are improving in some other ways, not just in graphics, but in some design ways such as accessibility.

    That was my thoughts exactly. Just an example off the top of my head; I’m betting XCOM: Enemy Unknown looks and handles a damn sight better than UFO: Enemy Unknown, regardless of whether it has the ingredients that made the original recipe or design so good. UFO: Enemy Unknown was way ahead of its time and mechanically there aren’t many games these days that can hold a candle to it — even the games that try to emulate it stumble on certain things — but it’s difficult to play these days because we’re used to more intuitive and accessible interfaces.

    @HM: Yeah, I thought I’d mentioned that the title ‘The Marriage’ was the only paint/context Humble didn’t strip away (besides say, colour, but I’m not sure how much that communicates on its own). The title of the game is pretty much the only thing that gave your actions context and as such it was instrumental in understanding what it was really about (ie. what Humble was intending) without reading the readme. Me personally, I’d say The Marriage is a perfect example of how context is crucial because without that title I’m betting there would have been a resounding wtf across the net; that, or lots of strange, far reaching interpretations (like Janet Murray’s Tetris reading!) ;-)

  15. (I have to say though, that is a fascinating reading, and solid is a rock.)

  16. @Amanda: Heh, don’t look at me, it was Steerpike who brought up rules vs mechanics, go talk to him =) On the tools front, I wanted to say more but my comment was overlong already. Tools are getting better – with packages like Game Maker, Unity and Stencyl – but things have only really been moving forward in the last 5-10 years as evidenced with the explosion of Newgrounds and Kongregate. But they’ve been a stumbling block for a long time as design has been the preserve of programmers. Small design changes turn into massive coding expense and, at some point, you have to say “stop there and ship”. We need (and are getting) more evolution of tools to improve design iterations and experimentation.

    @Gregg: Of course the downside of progress is that old stuff feels “really old”. My dreams of playing Ultima Underworld have been thwarted by its ye anciente olde interface. And landmark title Ultima IV hasn’t survived to the present day. Interactive Fiction, to some extent, is a niche genre because of its “archaic” interface which hasn’t moved on that much.

  17. Fantastic article!

    Ludology sees no value in exploring whether cutscenes are the best way to play out a story in-game, because the idea of a story or immersive, coherent world – full-stop – has nothing to do with making a good game.
    My problem with this position is that no matter how much an academic gets on a podium and says “Games are only mechanics!”, I will still always want to play games with story and characters. Later in that comment you say that we might just be being dazzled by world building – but I *want* to be dazzled by world building! After all, isn’t that an excellent description of how fiction works? ;)

    I know you’re playing devil’s advocate and just presenting the ludological argument but I just felt like I had to stick up for games which have more than just mechanics. The most emotionally engaging and thrilling gaming experiences I’ve had have always been story related. Granted, I have my fair share of unique experiences that arose from the game conditions – like that time I picked a lock in the Cradle and there was a zombie on the other side and I killed it and was down to a sliver of health but was so triumphant and pleased with myself and studied its body and wondered why I couldn’t pick it up to move it and realised HOLY **** IT’S NOT DEAD and then before I could run it got back up and killed me – and yes, I’m glad of those moments. But those experiences, amusing and anecdotal as they may be, don’t seem to me to be as moving as the time when I got to the twist in BioShock (or, to be frank, played most of BioShock), or when I let down a crewmember through my hubris in ME2 which led to her death (and, in ME3, the destruction of her entire race, which felt like a genuine tragedy in the theatrical sense), or even the time I finally entered the Palace Cellars or the Museum of Mistakes in Fallen London. If I had to choose between those games or “pure” games like Chess or, I suppose, Counterstrike, I’d give up the pure games in the blink of an eye.

    Also, I know what you mean about the tools of game-development. I read an article somewhere a few months ago which suggested that, while film-makers, novelists and playwrights have a pretty much solid foundation to work from, which has remained unchanged for a long time, the foundation of game design is much more fluid, which means you have to keep reinventing the wheel. But like you say, things seem to be settling down with tools like Unity and Stencyl, so maybe this will be less of a problem in the future.

  18. Thanks James. Glad you’re still sticking around. Personally I’ll just be glad to be shot of A Theoretical War as the writing has been quite a burden (it’s like a fractal subject, you can keep going on and on and on) plus site stats indicate that I seem to be haemorrhaging readers. Eeeeek.

    Yes, I am playing devil’s advocate. I do not endorse any purist position but I have to show how a position would defend itself; I think any ludologically-biased individual would be upset that I wasn’t being even-handed in the affair as the ludologists come in for more of a beating than narratologists (but then I thought ludologists were acting more like bullies than the latter). In the end, games with story are still being bought. Although in the comments on another site recently, I did groan about how the market is not an arbiter of quality or rightness. Which, in itself, is sort of siding with the suggestion that “players are duped”. Eeeeek. Goodbye another ten readers. But that was another discussion unrelated to this.

    Everyone brings their own baggage to the table. Raph Koster (who gets name-checked far more next week) is big into ludology but his work has mainly been MMOs therefore his worldview is informed by that goal: aiming for replayability and renewed subscriptions over story. The writers of video games will lament how hard writing for games is yet how important it is when they get it right: but they don’t have much hand in actual mechanics, so for them gaming bio-diversity is about subject matter than actual gameplay. Everyone has an angle, even me.

    Devil’s advocate moment coming up.

    If you had to choose *one* game, – would you choose a game you can learn off by heart, like Thief or Torment – or would you choose a game of depth and great variety like Chess?

  19. Ooh, tricky question. I think, ultimately, I’d choose a game I could learn by heart. Ideally it would be one like Mass Effect or The Baron, ie. a game which is broadly linear but which allows you to make meaningful choices. (In The Baron the choices don’t really affect the plot, but they affect the *emotional context* of the plot, so in my mind that’s significant enough to be meaningful.)

    I think this is due to a number of factors. While systems can be very interesting, I’m more intrigued by stories. I’ve always liked books. I like characters. Even if a game or book or film is linear or limiting, I can get a lot of satisfaction from playing it over and over, sometimes after a few years’ break: if the story is good enough, I relish the familiarity.

    While a game like chess would have plenty of gameplay variety, I ultimately wouldn’t be very interested in playing it because my actions in the world have little emotional context. While I enjoy playing, say, strategy games (which have similar levels of variety), what I most enjoy about them is the implication that there’s a little narrative going on, of my empire growing and beating the other empires. When I played Warhammer (a tabletop wargame) I sucked at tactics but really got into the lore of the world, because that’s what I was really there for.

    Having said all that, I wonder if your moves in chess *do* have emotional context, because you’re playing against an opponent which creates an emotional narrative of struggle and either victory or loss. Hm. But I’d still rather have characters, a fictional world and emotional/character-based choices than that emergent struggle/victory/loss narrative. That’s entirely my own personal taste – but the fact that I want that kind of game suggests, I think, that such a game is worth making.

    And I know what you mean about the problem of market forces determining how good a game is. If we went with that, Twilight would be the greatest novel of the decade, and Modern Warfare the most brilliant series. But on the other hand, letting the academics decide amongst themselves what constitutes a brilliant work of art has led to modern art and some modern poetry becoming so inscrutable that they’ve almost become a joke. I guess the best option is to say “Neither *determines* whether a work is ‘good’ or not, but they should be taken into consideration, and you should have to decide for yourself”. Anything else seems like a simplification.

  20. If you had to choose *one* game, – would you choose a game you can learn off by heart, like Thief or Torment – or would you choose a game of depth and great variety like Chess?

    That’s pretty much why I hesitate when I’m asked what my ultimate Desert Island game would be. I loved Thief, and Torment, and Heavy Rain, but could I play them over and over and over again? I’m not sure I could. Something like Torment I’d love to play again at some point in the future, possibly alongside my better half so we can chat about it as we did with Heavy Rain but I sort of worry that returning to it might tarnish those prestine memories I have. The more I think about it though the more I veer towards something like Dwarf Fortress as my ultimate Desert Island game because it’s probably the only game capable of generating half interesting dynamic stories– it’s as much story simulator as it is ‘fortress’ sim.

    Just skimming through the many stories I’ve read and emailed to people over the years and spotted this one, it’s a little gem, even if there is a bug in there:

    Amputee Liaison
    « on: August 21, 2008, 11:26:53 am »
    So, the liaison assigned to my fort was missing a right foot. This isn’t a bug by itself, but it’s annoying how slow-moving he is (he also falls unconscious all the time). Why would the parent civ force this guy to travel large distances is beyond me. Anyway, the real bug is that he brings a sock and a shoe with himself every time, and drops them on the edge of the map. Apparently they give him the replacement footwear even though he doesnt need it.


    The human site leader wanted me to kill a black bear. I looked it up later in legends mode, and apparently the black bear had been evading hunters for about twenty years and had killed one named Ret Scholardipped ten years prior to my adventure. Ret had apparently married a woman named Snodub Chunkyhells. That’s a goblin name… so I thought it might be a bug. Snodub was born in 640 to abducted parents in the goblin city of Profaneflag and lived in the Hateful Fortress. When she was five years old, the humans attacked and conquered Profaneflag, enslaving some of the populace — others escaped to Cursetufts, but Snodub remained and grew up under the new leader, a former high priest of the god of night. She later married Ret and moved to his home town, Glitterfold, where I took the bear quest. Snodub was the only person in the history of the world to have “Chunky” in her name.

  21. It’s funny you mention Train as a counterexample, when I first read about Train it sounded as eye roll inducing as a platformer-shakespeare mashup.

    I sort of agree with the ludology position, but it depends on the terminology being used. People use the word game to mean different things. Sometimes they mean just the “pure game” and sometimes they mean the overall “interactie” (the pure game plus story, graphics, ect.). I would say that story (and music ect.) tend to hurt (or at best are irrelevant to) the quality of the “pure game” and vice versa. I really can’t think of many times when this isn’t true. But the “interactie” might be better off even if the individual parts are weaker.

    I think Portal 2 is a good example. Most of the comedy would have been better if it didn’t keep getting repeated every time I reload*. The puzzling would have been better if the setting didn’t require going through the between test chamber areas. But I like the comedy and the puzzles and the setting, so just having one of these elements would weaken the overall experience.

    My personal preferences are probably affecting my opinions. I’m the opposite of James, my favorite gaming experiences have all been moments when I gain a better understanding of the game’s systems. So naturally I lean towards opinions which suggest those are the important parts of games.

    Of course, the hilarious “say apple” joke wouldn’t be possible without interactivity, so maybe I’m wrong. Still, Valve knew enough not to let interactivity ruin their shoot the moon joke.

  22. Nicolau’s point actually reminded me of a thought I had last week; when it comes to game design, we don’t know the exact right answers, but it often feels likely that we have all the *possible* right answers in front of us. We just don’t know the right combination, and even the end result of that is dependent on what purpose the player seeks the game out for. Even if Counterstrike is somehow the magic mixture of the best multiplayer FPS design rules, it will always produce awful travelogues.

    That accessibility has improved doesn’t strike me as an especially “games in 2012” idea- Baldur’s Gate is easier to play than the Gold Box games, for example. However, I’ll concede that it’s relatively easy to simplify and explain to obtain a wider playerbase, but the proper rate at which to increase complexity is difficult. The mainstream doesn’t offer a built-in curve that one can intuit the way they could with, say, movie trailers. I could see the trailer for GI Joe 2 and easily assume that it’s less complex than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (or even The Avengers). But the details of Bioshock versus Singularity are far more difficult to interpret without further research.

  23. @Gregg: Yes, I’ve heard wonder-stories about Dwarf Fortress. And I stayed up far too late last night reading an RPS account of a Neptune’s Pride game (linked to from this site, actually). There is definitely a place for that stuff. I guess the closest I’ve got to that kind of narrative is the many, many times I had stupid deaths in Spelunky. It’s probably just a matter of taste what you take on your desert island, though.

    @rubybliels: As far as I understand Train, it sounds like a really predictable setup and a cheap shot at the players – but having read some articles on people’s reactions to it (I can’t remember where I saw them so can’t link them, sorry), it sounds like the fact the game is 1) interactive and 2) makes you assume, for the first part of the game, that this is just a fun game about trains, makes it deeply powerful for lots of people who play it. And the article I read said that the reveal, actually, is not the point of the game: the interesting bit is what players do *after* the reveal. Do they just stop playing? Or do they try to sabotage their own trains? As a piece of game design it seems really silly but, as I said, people seem to react to it on a very deep level, for some reason.

    And while I kind of see where you’re going with the game/story dichotomy, I’m not sure it’s so simple. A FPS without sound and animation is one thing, but it’s probably not very satisfying. Haven’t you ever played a game where the guns just didn’t feel meaty for some reason? And then played one where the guns felt *perfect*, and even though it turned out that mechanically the two guns were pretty similar, the “feel” of the second gun just felt better? Sound and animation can make a shotgun or an assault rifle far more compelling.

    Or, on a larger scale, what about if you’ve spent the entire game searching for this one character who did something terrible to you? Maybe he actually harmed you in a way which hurt you emotionally (maybe he destroyed something precious to you) and which also hampers your gameplay ability (maybe it makes your aim wobbly, or means you can’t duel-wield). Let’s say you really, really hate this guy, and the whole game has had you fighting through various obstacles, all the while hampered by whatever he did to you, just to drive the point home. And finally, at the end of the game, you fight him – and it’s a punishingly difficult fight. Wouldn’t your moment-to-moment experience of the fight be partly determined by the mechanics of combat, but also by your emotional connection to your enemy? You might dodge more frequently because you know he’s a hardened soldier; you might play more sneakily and run up to him to do damage and then run back out of harm’s way because, even if you only whittle him down, you want to win, no matter how long it takes. You might expose yourself unnecessarily, taking unnecessary risks because you want to *hurt* him, or you might become deeply focused, so determined on winning that you don’t want to make a single wrong button-press. Perhaps the end of the boss battle has some kind of unusual interactive element: maybe you have to mash a button to push him off a cliff, or sprint towards him to deliver the final blow before he shoots you, or maybe it’s one of those slow-mo shooty sequences like at the end of MW1. Wouldn’t you be filled with a feeling of “I’m so close to teaching this guy a lesson – just a little more!” and mash and sprint and aim and shoot like crazy, partly to win but partly because *that winning is of deep emotional importance to you*?

  24. Darn, that should be “dual-wield”. I always hate it when people get that wrong, sorry…

  25. Just to clarify my position: I think the overall experience of playing can get better with the addition of narrative (and music, ect.), but the individual parts usually suffer. Most of the time that is fine, but as someone who is usually more interested in the “pure game” aspects, I like for people to focus on making the “pure game” the best it can be.

    RE Train: My problem with it is that it seems like a cheap shot. You make a good point. If other people think Train is meaningful because it’s interactive I can’t say “No you’re wrong, you didn’t feel that way”. I can really only say that for me the individual parts tend to clash.

    RE meaty guns: I don’t disagree with you here. But does the fun of playing with an enjoyable toy enhance the “center you’re screen on the opponent’s head and click before he does the same to you” part (or vice versa)? The toy usually works best with a sandbox environment where you are free to experiment, whereas the “pure game” works best where you are limited and forced to find a solution.

    RE character who did something terrible to you: First of all, winning can be emotionally important even without an authored narrative. I’ve played storyless videogames where I face an annoying enemy and get catharsis when I finally defeat it. As for your example, that would be an example of “pure game” and story working together to reinforce each other. The problem is, I can’t see how that would work for an entire videogame. If that is the entire storyline, then surely the story could be improved. If the whole story is more in depth then I don’t see how it avoids the usual problems of mixing story into game.

  26. Just to re-iterate the point regarding Train: it’s proof by counterexample. If rules were all we needed to understand how games work, the destination of the trains would not affect the gameplay. Except that it did for some players: therefore rules cannot provide a complete framework to explain how games function. (If I remember rightly, I think I picked up this interpretation of Train from Clint Hocking via a Critical Distance GDC podcast.) Also, Train didn’t come out of nowhere, it was based on Brathwaite’s observation that context changed how people played games; I doubt she knew how well Train would work before it went live.

    On the subject of the desert island game, I think a comparison with books is revealing. A book is the opposite of interactive but there are many who have favourite novels that we re-read on a regular basis. I have a friend who hits up Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 often, a book that keeps on giving. Can games that are biased towards story keep on giving like this? Mainstream game scripts are huge and I doubt I’ve seen everything in Torment. It seems like James is interested in games from the modern media-hybrid angle and rubybliels from that of the traditional meaning of a game. This is all good.

    I have no problems with people preferring one form of game to another, but would stop short of saying one is more pure. It’s the absolutism I am against. Role play has been around for years, for example: no one has criticised the story elements in D&D campaigns as superfluous, D&D is more than the system. And then again – how much storyline does Missile Command really need? (Although the games still lives off the context of nuclear apocalypse.)

    Gregg, yeah Dwarf Fortress and any number of multiplayer games do tend to spin out narratives from the events that happen. Dwarf Fortress, I think, is one of the few games that successfully procedurally world-build, packed with so much random content and complex dynamics that each game is a story to itself. It’s a brilliant game that is incredibly ludological in design – yet procedurally generates such complex, diverse stories. Stories of epic failure, of course.

    Personally, for many years I was fascinated with creating games that carried a story. I devised an epic series of five games that cloned the mechanics of Flashback, pouring heart and soul into its complex plot. I realised in the end that I wasn’t trying to write a videogame, but actually a novel using the video game as a vehicle. That was the moment I decided to stop making games and concentrate on honing my fictional skills (which have gone nowhere).

    If I were to make a game now, I would probably focus more on making an interesting rule set and weave story through it. But then you have something like Proteus which doesn’t really emerge from rules but the aesthetics of exploration. I would never have made Proteus; my game design head is too challenge/goal-oriented for that.

    I suspect those who play lots of games will eventually experience a form of “ludological creep” where they start recognising the systems and inwardly groan that the new game on the block is just another bloody auto-levelling RPG or a platformer where you push blocks around. And so on. I tend to be more cynical if I see the “same mechanics” in action too many times.

    I’m not going to disagree with you much on Portal 2, rubybliels. Gregg B and I loved the co-op because it was a return to the tight focus of the original game, whereas in single-player mode the story was overplayed. The Little Harbour Master had much harsher words for the game, of course.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t part with the story of the original Portal for the world: puzzles being set in testing chambers run by a computer gone mad is a brilliant harness. Unfortunately, that narrative trick could easily be overused.

    Anyway, just a few more hours and the essay will be done…

  27. Excellent series of articles, HM! A couple of thoughts about platformers in general and One and One Story/Loved in particular.

    About puzzle platformers: I used to hang around JayIsGames a lot and I was surprised that, for a casual crowd, the arty games seemed to get a lot of love, maybe the most. And I think this may be because, if you are looking for something to play for a little bit during a coffee/study/procrastination break, you usually don’t have the time to learn a new mechanism. (Sometimes you do, but the new mechanism has to be really clever.) So having the same old mechanics or a slight tweak on them can be a feature, not a bug, for the Flash game audience; and then the way these games can distinguish themselves is by putting some story on top, or some nice art. (See Wonderputt for an example of the art — it’s a little harder to get story into a miniature golf game.)

    About Loved and One and One: I think they both do tell their story through the mechanics, partly. Loved has the thing where if you disobey it makes the game harder and harder — looking at your post I think you acknowledge that in the comments, but I think it is a notable aspect of the way the game abuses you. (Maybe it’s not hard to master if you play through a couple of times, but again I don’t think the core audience is going to be folks who will master the game till they can beat it into submission.)

    One and One… well, it tells a story through the mechanics, but it’s not the story the author meant to tell. It’s the same story as Loved, in fact. I was chilled by the levels where the woman was running heedlessly to the man and he had to stop her before she fell in the spikes, and even more by the ones where she was running away from him (again, heedlessly into spikes) and he had to catch her for a kiss. If Tim from Braid made a game I think that’s what we’d get. I’m glad that the designer is only 18 because it means maybe he’ll learn a bit more about relationships sometime (and I feel a little bad harshing out on a kid this way, but he’s got enough attention that I think it needs to be said).

  28. Matt, thanks and glad you enjoyed these articles!

    I’m certainly not going to be one of those boring people who tell people what they should like – I remember popping onto RPS comments back in the day saying how I couldn’t get into Recettear and then got a response that accused me of being a instant gratification gamer. Right.

    For me, One and One Story just didn’t float my boat and I couldn’t see anything I’d want to tell other people about. My time is so limited that I really want to be impressed or see the edges of something novel when I play and One just didn’t register on my dashboard; I play a lot of short-form games, looking for something interesting to write about or spark off ideas. Other views I’ve consulted are AlexP of GamesThatExist who liked it and Pippin Barr who didn’t. It’s good to hear you got something out of One and One Story. I’m afraid that the developer’s intended message was all up in my face and was unable to see anything else.

    The best interpretation of Loved I’ve seen was in a comment from Switchbreak on a Second Person Shooter piece about it. He put forward that it was about the developer/player relationship which fits extremely well. I’m bored with games which are commentary about games because meta-game statements are “easier” than real life ones as you’re using the language of game to talk about games… but I still like Loved and have replayed it several times. I lap up that cold, dismissive ambience. (I’m torn over whether to call the graphical flair that occurs when you disobey a mechanic or not.)

  29. Well, I wouldn’t say I liked One and One. The line about Tim from Braid wasn’t a compliment — if games can say something through their mechanics, games can say unintentionally say something pretty repulsive through their mechanics (and through non-mechanic trappings like the godforsaken blue-male-PC pink-female-NPC dichotomy). That’s what happens with One and One. (Also, if you got bored and quit early you didn’t get to the creepiest parts.)

  30. @Matt: I agree. I suppose this is a problem inherent to art games: if you say “this game is art” then that means that every single element, from the controls to the colour-elements to the music cues, can be interpreted to mean something.

    I don’t this is necessarily a bad thing – I mean, this is what happens in novels and plays and films all the time, and I think they’re richer for it. But it does mean you have to think about every aspect of a game.

    I suppose the problem that One has is that it’s trying to get a message across by cramming a love story into a platformer. So of course there must be spikes because in platforming language “spikes” means “instant death – avoid this!” And once you have that established, and you’ve set up the female love interest as a desired object that has to be preserved, then it seems perfectly reasonable to have her run towards spikes so you have to save her, because that’s just how the language of platforming works, and oh look what we’ve done there that’s not good at all.

    I guess you could argue that the problem arises, at root, from treating the woman as an object. But I’m not sure it’s quite as clear-cut as that, because in a videogame *all* elements are objects. That’s the way code handles them, so it’s inevitable. And I’d also say that since, in Freudian terms, everything with emotional value can be characterised as an object – if you’re an arachnophobe then spiders become phobia objects, if you’re in love with someone the person becomes a love object, if you have an object given to you by someone you respect then that becomes a cathected object (ie. it gets “invested” with emotional “energy”) – because, in Freudian terms, all significant things in the world are objects *anyway*, this becomes more of a problem. But on the other hand, from a Freudian perspective One makes *perfect sense*, and it’s the very *fact* that it allows these Freudian fantasies to play out – saving the girl, being the strong hero – that it’s unpalateable.

    So the trick must be to use game objects to establish a world filled with Freudian desired/hated objects – so that the game is emotionally charged – but to ensure that these objects are active rather than passive? The girl could be a loved object – if someone loves her that’s kind of inevitable – but she might have her own ideas about who she’s going to be with. And – here’s the important bit – the game wouldn’t just side with the player avatar, but would kind of “speak up” for the girl, the same way that Braid supports the princess, unlike One, which doesn’t really support the girl.

    Sorry, I’m just rambling and hoping something interesting comes out. If it didn’t then don’t mind me.