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Why Study Game Narrative?

A letter to students at ARCOS in Santiago, Chile.

Book Pad 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,

Chris.

PS: you are lucky to have Pablo as an instructor, so treat him kindly! And tell him he owes me a beer.


The Politeness of Tutorials

Mario Tutorial Dear Jed (and Chris),

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,

Chris.

Written as part of the Republic of Bloggers. All replies welcome.


Blog Republic Round-up

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.


Horror and Punishment

Silent Hill 2 - Angela on the Burning Stairs Dear Jed,
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,

Chris.

Written as part of the Republic of Bloggers. All replies welcome.


Expertise as Involvement

expertDear Joseph,

Your brief blog letter was a welcome surprise, and raises two interesting questions. Your primary interest is in what qualifies someone as a ‘game expert’, which is a fascinating enquiry in itself. But in addition you tangentially ask what justifies someone as being involved in what I have called the Republic of Bloggers. I shall tackle this implicit question first.

I need to make it clear that when I talk about the Republic of Bloggers, this is categorically not about games. Certainly games is something that is being talked about within the ‘republic’, but I view it as a far wider activity – one covering politics, philosophy, media studies, and far more beside. In short, the Republic of Bloggers is any intelligent discourse that occurs on the internet between blogs (whether or not those conversing consider themselves as 'blogpublicans'). This last point is key, as it stresses that what I am calling the Republic of Bloggers identifies a particular and peculiar means of discussion, and indeed, precisely the means of discussion we are currently pursuing here. It is the form of an exchange of letters, rather than the form of forum comments or similar bite-sized discourses. And this is key because the letter format carries with it a certain intent, a degree of politeness, and a desire for an exchange of ideas between specific individuals. That is what I hope we are doing right now. It is not something that I see, for instance, on Facebook or Google+, and certainly not on Twitter with its water-cooler mini-quips and barriers to substantial discussion.

What I value about letters, and what I find that forum discussions and social media abjectly fail to deliver upon, is convivial discourse – which is to say, it is friendly, cordial, and a meeting of minds in the best sense of the term. It is not a flame war or a pig-headed argument, the stubborn inability of two strangers protected by the mask of anonymity to communicate, as the internet all too easily devolves into. On the contrary, it denotes an intent to commune and convey, to share thoughts, ideas, and queries. I value this kind of discourse immensely.

Which brings me to the question of what qualifies someone as an expert. You ask about expertise in games, and raise a number of worries: do you need to have played EarthBound? Final Fantasy? Or BioShock? Do you need to have read Foucault? Hegel? Or the Speculative Realists? The answer to these specific questions is definitely no! You want to tag me as an expert but I haven’t played any of the games you mention (although I’ve studied them), nor have I tackled Hegel or Foucault in any depth, and the closest I come to the Speculative Realists is roping them into my collective term ‘secular animists’ in Chaos Ethics (although I have met and had good discussions with Ian Bogost, and exchanged short emails and comments with a few others under this umbrella).

On the whole, ‘expertise’ is a fascinating concept – and particularly because I, like most ‘game experts’ am self-proclaimed as such. I was arrogant enough in my youth to think that my tiny corner of knowledge was brilliant enough to make me an expert and just started writing as if I was one. In later life, I have had this ‘officially certified’ by claiming a bckdoor doctorate (a PhD by Publication), which is a nice endorsement of my smugness – but it doesn’t really change the fact that my expertise is only really my willingness to be identified as an expert. Honestly, it is quite difficult to ground the concept of an expert in any other way these days!

Particularly in games, the breadth and depth of the material that would have to be learned in order to have total knowledge (accepting this rather ridiculous term at face value!) is physically beyond the ability of anyone to acquire. There are more games being released in a year now than in the entire first twenty years of the digital games industry – or for that matter, the first few millennia of designed games. So none of us purported ‘experts’ can possibly know everything about our field! The most we can do is recognise our own expertise in some aspect or area. For me, this has come to mean the aesthetics of play – but when I first started exploring this area, I just called it ‘game design’ (another word, like ‘expert’ that turns out to have little meaning when closely examined).

Expertise, if it is a viable concept, just marks a willingness to become deeply involved in a particular subject area – and in so doing, it ought to require a willingness to recognise that authentic expertise means understanding other people’s perspectives in that area, and not just blowing one’s own horn. I see slightly too many self-proclaimed experts whose only interaction with others is to shoot them down: such people are, in my estimations, second-rate sages and cut-price cognoscenti who are hoodwinking themselves and everyone else into buying into a singular point of view as if it was universal and inviolable. Truth, in so much as I have any faith in this term, emerges only when an issue is examined from multiple perspectives, so to have access to expertise is partly the capcity to synthesise divergent viewpoints. It does not require perfect knowledge – such hallowed grails are impossible. Rather, experts are just those people willing to get involved in a subject at a level beyond a mere dalliance or hobby. My suspicion is that you may already be well on your way to achieving this.

It seems that you seek the conditions for expertise in games and are wondering what you would need to do to attain to that status. You say “I’m not sure what an expert in games even would be or how to become one.” Well as far as I’m concerned you’re already a step ahead of most game experts because you recognise the utter ridiculousness of the concept – even though you still buy into it because you want to tar me with the brush of expertise! If indeed I am an expert, it is only because I’ve continued to study, to watch, to read, to learn, to talk, to listen, to play, to watch people play, and, above all else, to think and to write about those thoughts. If you wish to become an expert about games, I can only advise you do the same.

With unlimited love,

Chris.

Joseph has not replied (and need not feel it is necessary to do so).

No other replies.


What is a 'game expert'?

Over at Game Intellectualism, DapperAnarchist/Joseph writes a short blog letter asking: what does it take to be a ‘game expert’:

I’m pretty sure you know that the original Republic of Letters was made up of men (yeah, mostly men) with expertise in some subject - philosophy, law, natural science, history, whatever. This Republic of Bloggers is made up of… who? Experts in games? What then is an expert in games? … You’re clearly an expert, if any such thing exists. Do you feel like one? How do you think you became one? And do you think there are necessary things to be an expert?

I’ll be replying shortly, I’m sure other replies would also be welcome!


The Rules of Game Worlds

An open letter to Danc at Lost Garden as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Other replies welcome!

Lego Dinosaur Dear Dan,

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!

Chris.

Danc informs me he has found nothing to disagree with in this letter.

Other replies:


Games, Guns, and Gender

An open letter to Sheri Graner-Ray at FEM IRL as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Other replies welcome!

Alpha Protocol Dear Sheri,

For about a decade there, we were running into each other once or twice a year, in California for GDC (where we both hosted events for the IGDA), and sometimes in your neck of the woods for the equivalent event in Austin. Life inevitably moves on, and in my transition to father I am not quite the International Hobo I once was, even though I still consult under the brand of the company I founded. There are so many great people I miss from the US conference circuit that it would be dangerous to start listing them lest this entire letter was just a who’s-who of wondrous games industry folk, but I really miss not getting to see you and my “Jazz man” Joe Saulter at GDC, and I learned so much about the social problems of representation in games from your respective round tables – fixtures of my GDC schedules every year I went.

Women and the Games Industry

I'm writing in part to ask: has the situation improved for women in the games industry, or games as a hobby? I have not really seen much sign of progress in employment terms... My first boss, Angela Sutherland at Perfect Entertainment, is still the only female executive I've worked with, although Nicole Lazzaro introduced me to a few at Casual Connect in Seattle a few years back. If there are more women going into games as a career, it is still a long, long way from parity, and there seems to be a definite problem transitioning from ‘the production line’ to the boardroom.

But then, on the other side of the coin, I feel like the ‘Casual revolution’ spearheaded by companies like PopCap, and the ‘social games’ gold rush that followed, have at least put pay to the lie that “women don't play games”. Yet this gain seems to come at an odd cost, since the design-by-metrics approach that undergirds the business model of the so-called social games is entirely gender-blind, seeing women as simply another source of revenue. Better, perhaps, than naively believing women will not spend money on games, but hardly likely to encourage the creative exploration of the new visions that female developers might bring to the table. Do you have any thoughts on this?

The Truly Social Games

Of course, social games do not really foster community, they are viral rather than communal in nature, but our industry does have a genuinely social genre in the form of the MUD and its descendant, the MMO. I loved my time in the two MUDs I played at university, the Star Trek-themed TrekMUSE and Manchester University's own UglyMUG. In the former, which was very supportive of role-players, I was a Romulan ambassador who, after a romantic liaison embroiled her in scandal, retired to a shrine where I officiated over weddings. UglyMUG, which still runs today, was less of a role-player's world but was always extremely social, and changed the course of my life. I treasure my memories of both games.

You, I know, have maintained a relationship with the truly social games and still to this day play City of Heroes avidly. I saw it demoed at E3 many years hence and knew I wouldn't be able to play it – the ‘RPG’ in ‘MMORPG’ ironically excludes me, and not because I don't like RPGs – on the contrary, I like them a little too much! They bring out my obsessive tendencies, and my wife has sensibly limited me to playing just one computer RPG a year. An MMORPG with its indefinite play length would be very dangerous for me to play.

I'm curious, then, about your experiences of community on City of Heroes. I think you were a MUD player back in the day (way to make us both sound old, right?) – do the new games manage to sustain the tight community and opportunities for role-play that the MUDs and MUSEs excelled at, or did they all fall down the hole of the LP MUD and DikuMUD, overjustifying their play with compelling reward structures? Can you say of your fellow heroes that they are friends, or merely that you play together?

Guns, Guns, Guns

For myself, I seem to have been cursed with having to play gun games. I say ‘have to’, but what I mean is that my regular weekly game with friends (which sometimes plays boardgames, and sometimes plays online) has devolved into multiplayer co-op gun games like Counter-Strike and Payday out of a certain necessary convenience they provide. There are limited opportunities for obsessive reward structure pursuit, and the short play time of each round makes for easy stopping at the end of the night. I note that my brother-in-law, who shares my obsessive response to cRPGs and thus avoids them, has ended up playing similar games with his regular gaming group.

What slightly troubles me about this is how inured to gunplay it has made me. When my wife and I went to the US embassy in London to get my residency papers sorted out (for the time I was living in Knoxville and working with a number of US clients), I was disturbed to see the security staff armed with firearms. When we came back a few years later to get my son’s dual citizenry and US passport, I calmly noted “they're packing MP5s”. This was a direct response to years of playing Counter-Strike which, like it or not, has changed my relationship with guns.

I would still rather play a fantasy game or even a superhero game like your preferred MMO, but no-one is making these in the readily-playable forms that can slot into the odd night here or there. Instead, players like me are becoming accustomed to firearms in the same way we are all now so used to living with cars that we can't even acknowledge the deaths they cause without invoking some kind of dismissive excuse. It's a topic I dig into a little in my next book, Chaos Ethics, and it does trouble me: we can’t seem to look our technology squarely in the robotic eyes.

As a game designer, I can scarcely turn my back on technology at this point, but I worry about the representation of violence in videogames (and the tacit valorisation of gun violence) as much as I worry about the representation of women (or lack thereof). Although my Tennessee born and bred father-in-law has given me a much greater appreciation for the love affair with guns that your nation pursues, I cannot shake the worrying sense that the romance of guns on TV, in the cinema, and in videogames, is not something entirely neutral in its cultural effects.

Blood and Guts
You have said that women players in your experience don’t mind the violence in videogames – my experience is slightly different. There are women gamers who don’t mind the violence, certainly, but those people I've seen who are troubled by game violence and gore tend, in my experience at least, to be women. I think of the UK trade rep who came with me to see the unveiling of Fallout 3 at  the Games Convention in Leipzig: her eyes almost literally popped out of her head when she saw that the game literally had eyes popping out of heads. Not to mention the option to make the game even more gory, should you wish to.

The thing about this issue that troubles me is that I think you’re correct to see this as not specifically a gender issue, yet I think female voices are the most likely way to get traction on alternative representations of violence in games. Men who don’t get on with these kind of things tend to simply avoid them. As a case in point, I have a penis but still don’t enjoy needlessly bloody games: one look at Team Fortress 2’s combination of cutesy graphics and gore was enough to turn me off forever. Similarly, Rob Brydon, who did voice work with me at Perfect, wouldn’t record our arena tank game’s sports commentator because he didn’t like to hear his own voice inciting (imaginary) violence.

Freedom of expression protects the portrayal of violence in games, and its not something I want to push back against politically. Yet I would like more alternatives... I’d like more experimentation in the fiction of games and less dependence on guns and cars. If helping women developers find their own creative voice isn’t a way to foster this, then I fear I will just have to accept the current status quo – and that does not please me.

Anyway, I hope this letter finds you well, and not too irritated by the endless stream of legal letters that mega-corporation Cengage (which publishes books by both you and I) has been deluding us with in relation to its 'restructuring' boondoggle. I’ve committed this year to writing more letters to other bloggers, since I have let my community evaporate and – shamefully – have blamed it all on other people and the rise of the social networks. Facebook and Google+ have been a factor, but I also stopped talking to other bloggers, and that was my fault. With that in mind, I had to write to you as one of my first ‘letters’ since back in 2006 I implored you to blog, which you now do.

One last thing: was it you or Brenda Brathwaite (now Brenda Romero) that I was talking to in Austin about the boardgame Pandemic? Okay, I said I wasn’t going to devolve into name-dropping but I can't for the life of me get that memory straight in my head!

Wishing you all the very best,

Chris.

Sheri has confirmed that she will be replying sometime soon.

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