An open letter to Danc at Lost Garden as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Other replies welcome!
Last year one of my firestarters on fiction denial (one of my ‘four questions’ posts entitled Is Fiction Just a Wrapper for Games?) provoked a heated but seriously productive exchange between us. Sadly, at that point Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms landed in my lap and I was suddenly too busy to respond – but I haven’t lost my desire to do so! This is my attempt to continue our discussion – and to ask: when we are ‘baking’ games, what must a game designer understand about fiction and representation? Or to put this another way: what are the ‘rules’ for making game worlds?
A brief summary of where we got to: I suggested that a problem with the view that games are ‘really’ just crunchy mechanics and that the player ultimately discards the fictional world is that the contents of the game mechanics tightly constrain the ‘theme’ that can be attached. You simply can’t treat the functional elements of a design as something that could be transplanted wily-nily without utterly mauling the process of game design. I prefer to say ‘fiction’ to theme, since ‘theme’ has a very different, specific meaning to me as a writer (i.e. the themes the story is exploring, not the setting to the story). Let’s use setting to refer to the fiction/theme of a game world that can be built upon game mechanics (in the bottom-up way you design) or the starting point that can be supported or developed by game mechanics (in the top-down alternative). How does setting function in the practices of game design?
Your approach has always been built on productive reductionist principles – split games into their components, i.e. bottom-up design. I use this kind of technique often in boardgame design and occasionally in videogames, and it’s a sound approach. What you have to be careful with is the problems the game designer introduces by being the conduit for the final design and world – a problem you, like almost all great game designers, solve by iteration. We sit players down with the game and learn about how they come to play it, using this to adjust the game’s content (both mechanically and in terms of setting).
In your last comment you identified three problems in the relationship between settings and mechanics that really intrigue me, since this is precisely the conversation that is covered up when game designers or scholars pretend the fictional content is at best an enticement to play and at worst entirely irrelevant (my bugbear) – and by academics who treat the narratives emerging from play as strangely isolated from the mechanics (which might more offend your sensibilities!).
Riffing off your comment, here are three rules (or at least, guidelines) for designing game worlds.
1. Avoid Incongruous Settings
The first problem case you identify is when the setting encourages players to understand the play of the game in a way that is contrary to how the mechanics function. You say the setting “activates schema in the player that fail to ease understanding of the system dynamics”. I'll translate this as the First Rule of Game Worlds: Setting and mechanics must accord. The only exception to this rule is if the game is intended to discombobulate the player, as for instance Eternal Darkness’ insanity cut-aways were trying to do. But usually, the game designer wants the player to learn to play easily according to the mantra for commercial success “easy to learn, hard to master”.
This word ‘schema’ is one you get from psychology (Piaget etc.) although it comes from philosophy prior to the divorce between the two fields, and was coined by Immanuel Kant. The idea is that we have in our minds certain ways of understanding certain situations – schema, or I might say mythologies – and these come into play associatively (since our memories are associative, via the hippocampi). So it’s (usually) bad practice to have player’s prior associations disrupt their understanding of a game’s systems, that is, the game mechanics. Players might eventually overcome this and learn the way the game works, but my sense is that incongruous settings remain unsettling even after the game is learned. You give a great example of the problem in reference to your fantastic game Triple Town:
In Triple Town, we initially made the bears into children. Mechanically, the bears were obstacles that you wanted to remove. When they were children, many players activated the schema that they should be protected. Expectations did not match mechanics. Confusion, irritation and uneasiness results.
Part of my purpose in writing Imaginary Games was to stress that when we talk about the aesthetics of play, it matters whether setting and mechanics (fiction and function) align. To be aesthetically satisfying to a player, it is vital to allow for this since (as you note) the player’s experience is always filtered through the setting. An odd consequence of this is that the player's prior experiences become as much a part of their play with any game as the game itself – and there is a style of play (and a set of design approaches that correspond to it) that makes the dominant setting not that of the fiction but of the mechanics. Which brings us to rule number two...
2. Mathematics Imply Settings
The second problem you identify is presented as an opportunity: “self contained systems of value” provide opportunities for “a wider variety” of settings. In fact, you note that such games (puzzle games, strategy games, numbers-heavy combat, to use my previously offered examples) are playable without setting. This leads you to the point that something like Chess, which is mathematical (topological) at base, is easier to transpose between settings than a game that depends on contextual content.
Now my take on this is related to yours but steps from a different angle: mathematics are already a representation, so mathematical games already have a ‘setting’ of a certain kind. It’s what we sometimes call ‘abstract’, although this can be misleading. What this implies is that when a new fictional setting is applied to, say, Chess, we aren’t so much adding a setting that wasn’t there, we’re actually merging its mathematically-implied ‘abstract’ base-setting into a fictional one. The Chess mechanics are a little mechanical sub-world, with its own representational implications that are not negotiable in the same way that any fictional content merged with it might be. Even if you changed the names of the pieces to X1, X2, X3 etc. the rules of Chess would still feel like a power struggle because that's what they mechanically represent.
From this follows the Second Rule of Game Worlds: Any and all mechanical sub-worlds must merge with the game world. What made the wrapping paper fallacy appealing was the recognition of two utterly distinct worlds – the abstract world of the mechanics, and the representational game world. But the former can only be removed from the latter if in itself it successfully supplies a sufficient base-setting. Chess does – it’s a spatial contest, and anything that supports that metaphor will merge with it, even contexts outside of battle like The Simpsons (in part because metaphors of conflict are transposable into any human or animal relations). But you can’t strip (say) bingo or a point-and-click adventure down to a plausible base-setting because the core play isn’t forming a self-contained system in the same way. Bingo relies upon its community for its experience (more on this below!) and adventures rely upon their fictional content in a way that is effectively case-by-case rather than a defined and reusable system (even though the lock-and-key puzzle approach does form such a system, and does recur in many kinds of game).
Now, isn’t this second rule the same as the first? Not quite, because not all mechanics give us base-settings, only those that form your “self contained systems of value” or something like it. And you can merge any number of such systems provided they accord with the fictional world. Indeed, playground worlds often add games-within-games because they can easily be merged this way (the 90’s style arcade games in 90’s-set San Andreas, for instance, or gambling in Red Dead Redemption). Merging is also possible in more aesthetically satisfying ways – the circuitry-based influence game in robot-massacre classic Paradroid, for instance, which makes the game so memorable because the ‘mini-game’ in itself gives the paradigm of the entire play experience of possessing and discarding droids (a style of play that went on to influence the first Grand Theft Auto).
The second rule also gives lie to the whole ‘two distinct worlds’ conceit of ‘rules vs. fiction’ in that many games are one coherent fictional world and many congruent mathematical/mechanical worlds that have been merged with it, and often (but not always) with each other. Games that allow you to build or tinker with devices as well as deploying them for racing or combat also show this merging, from tabletop games like Car Wars and BattleTech in the 80's to Forza and Kerbal Space Program now. It is misleading to think the mechanical world could be built and only then ‘wrapped’ in cars, mechs, or spacecraft. No, at all stages the fictional world and the mechanical worlds must merge congruently, and often it is the fictional setting that informs the design of the mechanical sub-worlds. Nonetheless, each base-setting for each mathematical sub-world is also reusable, just as character archetypes and plot tropes are reusable in narrative fiction. This ability to reuse patterns, however, does not and cannot make the base-settings more fundamental than the fictional worlds, although they can certainly be more important to a subset of players.
3. Play as a Practice
The last of the problems you identify is one that particularly interests me. I gave the example of a sporting game as antithetical to the wrapping paper fallacy because the mechanics – while necessary to their play – aren’t the locus of the player’s enjoyment. You summarize this issue nicely:
You can retheme/reskin a sport and it loses the vast majority of its value. The culture and the community around the game has turned into an intricate, many layered game of its own. The chants, the commentators, the game night scheduling, the tribal associations are the real game. To copy out the core mechanics and give them a new game is like copying out raw DNA and thinking you have a complete ecosystem of living and breathing organisms.
You suggest that building a new game bottom-up is especially challenging because it’s like “terraforming a barren world” where you must “build up culture and community from scratch”, and this as you say is terribly difficult. Absolutely – from a bottom-up perspective. But from a top-down perspective the problem is radically different. You still need to build up your own culture and community, but you begin with ‘neighbouring’ fictional world cultures to provide your ‘settlers’. It’s something that marketing departments recognise, although generally fail to know how to productively influence. People like certain kinds of fictional worlds, and seek their entertainment within those media that deliver those specific kinds or anything like them.
The reason generic fantasy and urban horror novels sell well in the market for books is that they already have their collective culture and community. Genre fiction forms superset fictional worlds – what I call (after Charles Segal’s observations on the interconnectedness of Greek mythological stories) a megatext. Whatever the nuances of an individual book series, it's mythology is rooted in a wider frame of reference, one that spans many other books and series that at first glance are entirely isolated. Mash-up movies like Shrek – and mash-up fighting games like SoulCalibur and Super Smash Bros. – show that they aren’t as isolated as they may first seem – they are ‘close enough’ that other worlds can be made out of collisions between their otherwise isolated content. What’s more, there is a connection between otherwise isolated fictional worlds via the people who are interested in them: both the readers and the writers of genre fiction are participating in the practice that sustains that genre.
Videogames are no different, but as well as participating in the practices of setting (fantasy, science fiction, crime) players participate in the practices of mechanical genres too. The First Person Shooter is not defined by its perspective but by the practices of those players who participate in the FPS culture. The games certainly do affect this – Halo: Combat Evolved significantly altered the practices of the FPS (dropping the inventory for two weapons, adding vehicles), as did Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (putting RPG-like advancement mechanics into multiplayer). But changes to mechanics only become changes to practices when the players actually like what has changed and then seek more of the same. And some changes fork the practices into two different cultures – as Battlefield 1942 has effectively done. The words used to form the genre terms don't reflect the practices very well, because we’re trained to see games in boxes like ‘FPS’ that seem to pick out the important feature, but only describe how that practice split from its predecessors. The reason for the name ‘First Person Shooter’ is that most shooters in the 1980s were rendered in 2D, and so the 3D first person perspective was a step in a new direction.
The Third Rule of Game Worlds is thus: No-one plays alone. Even the most dedicated solo player is embedded in design, genre, fiction, and play practices that are sustained by a community. Even a designer who makes a game that only they will ever play relies upon many others to facilitate the making of that game (especially on an industrially manufactured device like a computer!) as well as the communities that nourished the games that taught them the practices of play they riff off. No-one plays alone, because to learn to participate in the practices of play - whether narrative, mechanical, or both – requires you to have been part of a wider culture. Indeed, Miguel Sicart suggests that to be a virtuous player, you need to recognise your relationship with other players, a point I also raised in Is the Interface the Game?
This rule seems odd, because it does not seem to be about the relationship between rules and fiction, mechanics and setting. But that’s because contemporary views of our world have mislead us into thinking everything is explicable in isolation. It’s a hangover from the Victorian sciences and their mythology of the universe as a giant mechanism. This viewpoint, while often useful, can sometimes obscure the vital connectivity between things. Terms like ‘emergent’ actually try to hold onto this older perspective by ignoring complex networks and treating them as still a single thing – ‘superorganisms’ and the like i.e. as still isolated provided we change the scale that we look at them. There’s a place for that point of view, but there’s also a place for exploring the network connections themselves, and we are currently at a time where we need the latter perhaps more than the former.
New game designers often seek to amaze the world with their utterly original design – which then inevitably flops. This is primarily because playing games is not simply about isolated artefacts (‘the game’) that are played by individual players. When seemingly original game concepts take flight it’s because existing communities of players pick them up – one games journalist, for good or ill, is always talking to a community of players who must share some commonality of practice with that writer or they would not read them. This can be a common games platform (even in the 80's, games magazines succeeded primarily by being about one kind of microcomputer), or shared aesthetic values for play, or just shared values for talking about the practices of play.
So your terraforming metaphor only lacks the idea that a new place to live creates a new practice from roots in existing practices – the terraforming is just a means to an end, and that end is settlement (something that you clearly recognise yourself!). Understanding that your settlers are choosing between different places to settle – different games to play – helps game designers recognise that since no-one plays alone (or, if you prefer, no-one plays in a vacuum!) you are always recruiting your settlers from other game worlds. A few are novelty seekers, but most find it easier to get into a game if originality is tempered with familiarity, both in the mechanics and the setting.
There’s much more I'd like to discuss with you – about your company, your time with Microsoft, your new game project, your positivistic view of the world, and about the ‘extinction of blogs’ but this has already gone on long enough! I would just like to end by thanking you for the supportive words you gave me that GDC when we first met outside the internet, since along with Jack Monahan your encouragement helped me stick with blogging even when it was seriously depressing me. For this, you have my infinite gratitude.
From one blogging game designer to another, all the best in all your projects!
Danc informs me he has found nothing to disagree with in this letter.