May I draw your attention to Stephen E. Dinehart's Kickstarter for his extremely cute game Pinky Elephant: Collision of the Colorverse?
It occurred to me this morning that my undergraduate thesis on landscape creation through fractal noise synthesis and language generation through morpho-phoneme systems was in 1994. I would have done a game-focussed Masters degree if any member of the faculty had understood why I was working in that field, but as it was I had to teach a robot to read instead. But this publication date – 1994 – puts me into the ‘first wave’ of game studies scholars. In fact, for a brief moment I thought it made me the original game studies scholar. But let’s not get carried away.
“First wave” makes much more sense to describe game studies scholars than feminists, don't you think? It gets you all worked up about wanting to beat the final wave! But when exactly would you judge the first wave of game studies?
Taking my 1994 publication as a benchmark, let’s take on the usual contenders.
Bartle? Didn’t get a paper out until 1999. Sorry, King of MUDs, you’ll just have to settle for being the iconic co-founder of one of the most influential game formats of all time instead.
Aarseth? 1997. Too slow Espen!
Juul? 1999. GG, Jesper.
But then, just as I’m flush with these easy victories, along comes James Wallis with a grenade in his quiver. Because from 1994-5 he published the incredible journal Interactive Fantasy, which as well as being an awesome publication is famous for hosting Greg Costikyan’s incredible essay “I Have No Words and I Must Design”. And he also points out that Chris Crawford was publishing the Journal of Computer Game Design from 1987-1996. Respect, Chris. I yield the hill to thee.
Of course, it all comes down to what we mean by ‘game studies’. What Juul and Aarseth can lay claim to was carving off a niche for the study of games that wasn’t the ridiculously narrow field of game theory (really: mathematics of competition). I didn’t do that. I went into industry and made commercial videogames instead. To these two, and others in this ‘first wave’ of game studies scholars, all who study games owe a debt.
Those who came before this – like Thomas Malone and Chris Crawford (and Richard Bartle too, since I conveniently overlooked his 1985 book...) – are the zeroth wave, the people studying games before there even was a game studies field. And before them, of course, the legendary sociologist Roger Callois and heroic historian Johan Huizinga. I would add to this Ernst Gombrich: if Imaginary Games achieves anything, I hope it is to show how Gombrich completes this holy trinity of the progenitors of game studies.
So, no crown for me, no victory, no honour. Except the honour of being part of this grand tradition of thinkers who claimed that games and play are worthy of study. And in this, I salute each and all who came before, or who follow after.
The opening image isn’t one of my maps from my thesis project (I can’t find any GIFs from this era of my life) but from a graph structure constraint noise synthesis project by Amit Patel that is orders of magnitude superior to my basic height map technique (even taking into account that he doesn’t have my language-module for naming settlements in a procedural language). You can learn about Amit’s fascinating project on his Red Blog Games blog.
Zachary O. Toups, Lennart E. Nacke, and Nicole Crenshaw are investigating players’ attitudes towards collecting ‘virtual objects’, that is, things that exist only in the fictional worlds of games. They would welcome your help with their survey, linked above.
A letter to students at ARCOS in Santiago, Chile.
Dear ARCOS students,
It came as some small surprise to me when, in a recent letter, your instructor Pablo Gorigoitia mentioned that Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames was one of your course texts. This book, written with the IGDA Game Writing Special Interest Group and edited by myself, has been my most successful title by far, but I never really anticipated that it might be read as far away as Chile, some seven thousand miles away! To put this figure into perspective, we live nearly as far away from each other as the diameter of the planet we co-inhabit.
I’d like to take this opportunity to share my thoughts as to why game narrative is important, and this requires that I first make clear the extent of game narrative as a field. For although it is not often recognized, no game that is made escapes from having narrative elements. The reason for this is that the play of all games generates exceptional narrative experiences, in part because humans are natural storytellers and construct our way in the world by means of narratives, and in part because play is one of our freest emotional expressions and thus inherently memorable. It is no coincidence that sporting events are used as stories-within-stories so often in blockbuster movies: the strong emotions generated by sports – both in its participants and its observers – make an outstanding (if occasionally lazy) scaffold for storytelling.
We must, however, be clear to distinguish an explicit narrative – one that is placed into a game by a writer – and implicit narrative that emerges from the game as a system. I am interested in both these forms, and have made games that pursue both approaches (although the latter – systemic stories from games – is far harder, and usually more expensive to develop). Similarly, we ought to distinguish between diegetic stories that occur within the fictional world of the game, and non-diegetic stories that feature the player themselves as a character. “I won at Chess!” or “I got a Tetris!” are non-diegetic stories that are simply about the game being played, and are not really our principal interest when we study game narrative. That said, if you do not understand why players tell non-diegetic stories, you are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding how to construct those stories that occur within the fictional worlds of games.
At the moment, I teach a module on Game Narrative for the University of Bolton that I will soon also be teaching for Laguna College of Art and Design in California. One of my students at Bolton, James Drake, asked me over the Summer before he took that particular course what he could do to prepare for the Game Narrative module: I told him to read a book or a play. He was rather confused, and could not believe that I wasn’t directing him to play a game instead. But if you want to understand game narrative, you have to understand narrative, and that is a task best approached in media where it is far easier to construct. If you want to be a great game writer, you should begin by reading Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare – or indeed Eduardo Barrios and Isabel Allende. You’ll have to: we have very few great works of game narrative to refer to, so we must discover the standard of exceptional work in narrative from elsewhere.
What makes game narrative so especially difficult is the player. A novelist or playwright can mostly count upon their characters to co-operate (although there are times when a story gets out of control…!), but the moment we let a player into our story we have lost our sole authority over the narrative. As Street Fighter II puts the matter: “A Challenger Appears!” We now risk fighting the player for the flow of the story, or ruining their narrative experience by giving them no illusion of agency in how the events transpire. This is why it is far easier to mount a narrative on the backbone of something like Grand Theft Auto, where the player is presumed to be an anti-social ne’er-do-well (or rather, that they will act as such in the fictional world!). We can count on players to act badly. Counting on players to co-operate with our story is far more difficult, although not quite impossible. For a start, we can ask them to do so.
I am of the opinion that if we want to make better videogames, we must study game narrative. This is because the experience of these kinds of games (indeed, all games at some level) involves entering into a fictional world, and if we do not understand the mechanics of such imaginary games we are severely limiting what we can achieve. But to understand game narrative, we must also understand narrative – and this requires us to pay attention to those media that have been experimenting with fictional worlds for millennia rather than just a few decades. This is why Game Writing commits a whole chapter to the basics of narrative theory, a field that goes all the way back to Aristotle, more than two thousand years ago.
I encourage you all to wrestle with the fascinating questions of how to leverage the interesting qualities of videogames in the context of the established methods of narrative, precisely because we have not yet produced any unequivocal masterpieces of game narrative. Such future games as might attain to this title could come from anywhere in the world – they are as likely to come from Chile as from Europe and the United States, where commercial pressures make storytelling in games take rather humdrum and conventional paths, more influenced by Hollywood action movies than anything else. Who knows, someone in your very class could be the Pablo Naruda of videogame narrative, a digital poet, taking our youngest medium to new heights.
With infinite hope for the future,
PS: you are lucky to have Pablo as an instructor, so treat him kindly! And tell him he owes me a beer.
The question of tutorials is one that has haunted my career as a game designer, and if it has not tortured others it can only be because they have failed to notice how devilishly difficult it is to construct an adequate tutorial that can balance all the competing needs of players when facing a new game. In your reply to my piece The Aesthetic Flaws of Games, you identify (as it says in your title) Tutorialization as an Aesthetic Flaw in Games, which is to say, you describe an aesthetic problem that occurs when a game works too diligently to explain itself, since this in itself can lead to player frustration. This is what you have termed ‘tutorialization’.
The challenge in creating an adequate tutorial is the complete absence of knowledge we possess of the actual people who will be learning to play our game. Pitch the level of detail too low, and there will be players confused by what is expected of them. Provide too much detail and those players who are skilled in figuring things out will be irritated. I have come to think of tutorial design as the Hard Problem of Game Design, in reference to the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’ (which as it happens, is not anywhere near as hard as it seems!). What is particularly bemusing about creating tutorials is that if you watch a player learn to play a game from over their shoulder, you might not need to say more than a sentence or two in order to put them on the right track. But this is because we have the intelligence to interpret the problems a player encounters and provide appropriate guidance: there is no adequate way to transfer this skill to a computer!
I want to illustrate the impossibility of a perfect tutorial by comparing the general approach of the Japanese game tutorial to a generalised archetype of a Western tutorial. The key difference between the two methods is their politeness – but by this, I do not mean that one approach is more polite and the other less. Rather, each represents a different ideal of politeness.
For the game designer producing a Japanese-style tutorial, a number of assumptions are in play. Firstly, if there is information being provided, it must not be possible to miss it i.e. it would be impolite to design a tutorial that could be skipped by accident, as this might mean a player is not properly briefed on the game. Secondly, each and every person who comes to the game, irrespective of their age, should be able to grasp the fundamentals of play from the content of the tutorial. These assumptions lead to a tutorial that is fastidious in describing how to play the game, that presents its information clearly in ways that cannot be skipped, and thus has the maximum chance of ensuring that everyone who starts the tutorial finishes knowing how to play. The ideal of politeness here could be summarised as “every player adequately briefed.” To fail even one player would be impolite.
Now the archetype of the Western-style tutorial draws against a different conception of what would be polite, specifically that to waste the player’s time would be rude. Therefore this kind of tutorial places an emphasis upon allowing the player to skip over those areas that they do not require instruction in. It is assumed here that skipping a step in the tutorial is not something that would happen by accident (and if that happens, it is the player’s fault anyway). This leads to a tutorial that attempts to minimize the total amount of time players spend within it i.e. that aims to be the most efficient at delivering necessary instruction. The ideal of politeness here could be characterised as “try not to waste the player’s time". To lecture the player in something they already understand would be impolite.
Obviously, not all tutorials made in Japan fit the Japanese archetype, and certainly not all Western games fit the alternative model, but the general patterns are illuminating. The Japanese ideal of politeness is rooted in the collectivist morality of that culture whereby individuals ought to accept limitation for the benefit of everyone. The Western ideal of politeness draws against Enlightenment individualism whereby each person is expected to take responsibility for themselves. The two ideals are incompatible. You simply cannot create a tutorial that will ensure all players are adequately briefed and that will not waste any player's time.
The illustrative example is that according to the individualist ethics, if you skip information that you needed that’s your fault; in the collectivist ethics, if you skipped information you needed, that’s our fault – therefore, we should make certain you do not do this. The individualist complaint at being constrained by the tutorial – which is a part of what you mark by tutorialization – has as its complement the collectivist complaint that some players did not adequately understand what to do. As I hope is clear, to provide a degree of instruction suitable for anyone necessarily involves an experience of tutorialization for some proportion of players. Thus tutorial design always risks either tutorialization or perplexity (my term for a mismatch between expected skills and actual player practices). This is not a soluble problem. You simply have to choose which kind of failure is more acceptable: that any player might be impatiently frustrated, or that any player might not know how to play.
Now as it happens, the kind of frustration that tutorialization draws attention to tends to be problematic in just those players who possess what I term confusion endurance. Such players are undaunted by puzzles because they actively enjoy working out solutions, and indeed, players fitting this archetype (called Mastermind in BrainHex), are more likely to complain about being told what to do than to moan about being provided incomplete information. This is markedly different from the majority of players who absolutely require clear instructions and are thus far more likely to complain when they don’t know what is expected of them. For such players, the aesthetic flaw of tutorialization simply does not occur, although perplexity is an ever-present risk. The latter kind of player outnumbers the former by as much as 10:1 in the population at large, although it often doesn’t seem like it because confusion endurance is extremely common in those dedicated to games as a hobby (or, for that matter, a career).
This demographic observation also relates to the question of game manuals, raised by both you and Chris Billows in his reply to your piece, Breaking the Fourth Wall: Why Tutorials Ruin Games. I heartily agree with your remark that “The game manual was its own artform.” But the manual was also a liability: in early videogame design, the presence of the manual invited overdesigned game systems, that is, systems of such complexity that a manual was a requirement for playing. Yet at the same time, no arcade game could possess a player manual for obvious reasons. And in the rise of the mass market home console player with the PlayStation and PS2, the need for the manual was severely reduced by the recognition that it was the minority of players that ever even looked at a manual.
If you want to know why the manual has fallen by the wayside, look to this: the moment publishers learned that the manual was only being read by 10-20% of players, they saw an opportunity to shave off the cost. Curiously, it seems as if the players who would read the manual are also the players with confusion endurance – which is an odd sort of situation; the players who least need help understanding how to play are those that are most likely to read fully detailed instructions of play. I greatly admire manuals, and have enjoyed creating them – and I’m delighted that Nintendo games now come with a digital manual built in by default. But at the same time, we cannot expect the manual to return to its former prominence. It is a minority interest now, and it costs money to both print and translate it (the latter cost remaining even in the case of digital manuals). What we have instead, however, which represents an interesting development in its own right, is the rise of the wiki as a player-generated manual, and for certain games – particularly sandbox worlds like Minecraft and Terraria – the wiki should probably be understood as part of the game itself. This is a topic for another occasion.
Finally, I should like to address Chris’ concern that tutorials break the fourth wall, as linked to above. There is an obvious rejoinder: the “Game Over” screen also breaks the fourth wall, and more egregiously than any tutorial. What this draws attention to is that there is a distinction between the fictional world of the game, and the meta-world in which the player is operating the game. This is a secondary imagined world, usually isolated from the main fictional world, in which communications between the player and the game makers occur. The equivalent in theatre is perhaps audience participation, in film the “werewolf break” in The Beast Must Die (1974) or the message “Based on a true story” occupy a similar meta-fictional space, as does a good ol’ fashioned cliffhanger of the kind associated with classic serial films such as Flash Gordon (1936) and almost exhausted of its possibilities in classic Doctor Who (1963-1989).
Personally, I found the use of the meta-world to provide puzzles in Metal Gear Solid (1998) was far more jarring than any tutorial, but it serves to illustrate that we cannot count upon the meta-world to simply sit in the background. It is actually always in play – every time we choose to pause the game, we resort to it. But as a game designer, I have frequently faced the question of how much to resort to the meta-world during the tutorial, and my usual decision is to have characters remain sealed within their fictional world and use display text alone to refer to the meta-world. This, it seems to me, is about as elegant a solution to this problem as can be found. As an aesthetic flaw, I would say it is only when this is done clumsily – as when a character blurts out “press X to make me jump” – that it causes any degree of rupture (my term for being wrenched out of imagined experience). The distinction between player knowledge and character knowledge – well understood by tabletop role-players – is one that digital game developers would be wise to take to heart.
With thanks to you both for continuing our discourse,
Written as part of the Republic of Bloggers. All replies welcome.
I’ve removed the sharing buttons in the footer of each post: Typepad was contacting each social network every time a page was served, which makes the site run far slower than is necessary. I don’t think anyone was using these buttons, but let me know if you did find them useful.
Thrilled to report that the blog is not dead, it is just under pressure from conventional social media. I have recently been enjoying my greatest extent of cross-blog conversations since the previous decade – and I’m loving it! Here’s what’s been happening…
Cross-posted from Only a Game.
I can sympathise with your position in Silent Hill 2: Horrible Survival, Not Survival Horror, in that many of your criticisms are justified. Nonetheless, I shall defend Silent Hill 2 as one of the few times that commercial videogames have dared to push into artistic directions, and I still cite it as a triumph of narrative design within an industry that seldom achieves anything memorable in this space. The key to appreciating Silent Hill 2, however, may well be to place it within its historical context. Indeed, I am not of the opinion that games can be appreciated as artefacts divorced from circumstance (nor films, novels, plays, or music, for that matter!). The artefactual reading of media is, I now claim, always the incomplete reading.
I came to this game having been extremely impressed by the design of the original Silent Hill, which is more open, and cultivates a greater sense of freedom, than the sequel. However, Silent Hill is also a rather conservative game – it has its rather cleverly conceived setting to set it apart, but under the hood is a string of conventional puzzles punctuated with clunky combat. Nonetheless, at the time I was impressed with Silent Hill’s attempt to push beyond the rather limited ambitions of videogame experiences. It aspired to much, for all that it had problems delivering it.
When my wife and I went on to play Silent Hill 2, it annoyed me with its obvious staged linearity and almost total absence of what I, at the time, considered characteristic of game design. Where was the open structure of the first game? The tightly constructed progression? Why am I so constrained in almost everything I do now? So it was with some surprise that, after a few more playthroughs and considerable reflection, Silent Hill 2 eventually came to stand out as an exceptional case of game narrative. Indeed, I am hard pressed to find any game prior to 2001 that fulfils its narrative ambitions to the extent of this game – which is not to say that it is an unqualified success on all fronts. But then, my general view of game narrative prior to 2001, when Silent Hill 2 was released, is rather negative. There are signs of what might be possible… but they are rare, and almost always dragged down by an overbearing emphasis on puzzles or combat.
This is not the case for Silent Hill 2. For perhaps the first time in commercial videogame design (and I make a distinction here that you never do, in my experience), a development team took risks – serious risks, actually – to push their game away from the conventional expectations of the player community in order to explore a more artistic space. I will not argue that it is an unqualified success, but I believe what it does achieve has to be measured against its own contemporaries. This is the year of Grand Theft Auto III and Halo: Combat Evolved, videogames that take movies as inspiration and then… well, fail to reach narrative escape velocity, remaining parasitical on the original works. Silent Hill 2 builds upon the first game in ways that strengthen the originality of its premise; comparisons to Twin Peaks are tenuous: Kafka would be a more reasonable reference.
Crucially, I would never claim that Silent Hill 2 was the epitome of the survival horror genre – it quite obviously went in a radically different direction from the mechanics that support this kind of play. I agree with the others commenting on your blog that should be understood as a psychological horror game. It moves in the same direction as Dear Esther, which it may have been an inspiration for, but it did not have such a radical vision underlying its streamlining. (Indeed, as a fully commercial game, it could not have gone there). In this regard, it's funny reading your account because you obviously brutalised a great many of the entities in Silent Hill 2. I did not. I ran away. A lot. It’s a game that doesn’t require you to kill many of its denizens. It isn’t playing the survival card at all.
And this is what I think is wrong with your commentary here: it is mostly refuting claims made about Silent Hill 2. I don’t think you’ve let the game itself have its fair share, which is always (in my experience) a problem of trying to appreciate something that others have lauded insuperable praise on. This has certainly destroyed any hope of me enjoying various movies. Yes, the voice acting offers less than might be hoped – but in 2001, what game cannot claim this? (Also, should we not take into account that this is dubbed into English? Many Japanese movies dubbed into English are far more atrocious than this!). I can overlook this the way I overlook the melodramatic gesticulations of the characters in the 1920 Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, or the special effects in the 1960s Star Trek – to give two contrasting references that share in common only the extent of their break from convention at their time of origin.
Silent Hill 2 shares this same merit: it attempts something far beyond its predecessors or contemporaries. Clearly, the team do not manage to deliver an artwork of comparable magnitude to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which is their chief inspiration, but to even have chosen this as an ambition in a commercial game project in 2001 – when rivals are choosing The Godfather and Aliens as their template because these are, quite frankly, supremely easy influences to synthesise into a string of violent episodes, Silent Hill 2’s decision to construct a game in which violence can (depending on the player’s proclivities) be a tangential part of the experience is significant. This was four years before 2005, the watershed year for artgames, signified by Shadow of the Colossus, Façade, and The Endless Forest. It is amazing to me that Konami allowed Team Silent to go as far as they did from the comfortably well-trod road of mainstream commercial videogames.
Sadly, the general response to the game at time of release seems to have echoed your grievances, since by Silent Hill 3 the franchise returns to a far more conventional design – an endless string of combats, stitched together with an attempt at extending the story of the first game. Konami seems to have considered Silent Hill 2 a failure, at least in commercial terms; I persist in viewing it as a flawed triumph. Even now, sexual abuse as a theme rarely appears in commercial games, and (in respect of a different thread of the plot) while you are correct that ‘you are the murderer’ is an overused trope, here the focus is on the guilt brought upon by euthanasia, which is far outside of what we expect commercial games to attempt to deal with. Besides, the pivotal scene in this story occurs not at the climax of the story but in the final conversation with Angela at the burning stairwell in Lakeview hotel. Cut scenes are overused in the games of the 2000s, and most are not worth the expense behind them: this one is rich with a symbolism rarely attempted in games. Perhaps, in your ire at the design, you could not appreciate the successes within the narrative.
Regrettably, sharing this viewpoint has delayed my reply to your letter, but I could not stand idly by while you besmirch the name of a game that I still stand by as an early example of the coming willingness to break with the stultifying conventions of commercial videogame development.
With great respect,
Written as part of the Republic of Bloggers. All replies welcome.