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The War on Game

An open letter to Raph Koster as part of the Republic of Bloggers.

Picasso GuernicaDear Raph,

What is the true definition of ‘game’? No, don't answer that. We both know why that question cannot possibly be resolved as long as it has that particular wording. But what if there was another way? What if there was something that could be truly and validly asserted about our definitions of ‘game’? If that were so, perhaps the war on ‘game’ that has so hurt our not-so-little community of players over the last decade could actually be ended, and peace restored.

You and I, I should like to note, are relics from an earlier era of games and game design – and both of us are caught in a certain tension between professional game design and the study of games and play. We are about three months apart in age; we both grew up as part of the second wave of tabletop RPG players; we both had our lives substantially and indelibly altered by MUDs; we were both becoming lead designers in the late 90s. You – enviably, in my view – got to work on the early MMOs, games that transitioned the MUDs to graphical forms and permanently altered the player practices of videogames as a result. I worked on a dying form – the point-and-click adventure – but as a result had the entirely enviable experience of having a not-yet-knighted Terry Pratchett as my first (and still utterly unparalleled) script editor, which I suspect did much to tie my career to game narrative, despite my certainty I was going to be known as a game designer.

Although in our exchanges I am usually sparring against your systems perspective on games, as game designers we have much in common. The design I’m most proud of, Ghost Master, which even won some small crumb of admiration from Will Wright, is entirely a systems game. Those systems are deployed in the service of a highly experiential form of play, but no-one who had truly mastered the game could doubt that it draws from complex, under-the-hood systems to generate both the experiential play and the highly demanding strategic challenges entailed in scoring the coveted ‘Triple Pumpkin’ medals. I argue against systems thinking not because it is incorrect but because when it is deployed as a doctrine it causes as much harm as good.

Of course, such is true whenever aesthetic values are set up as doctrine. In our previous exchange in the comments here you lament without malice the current domination of experiential, reader response aesthetic thinking about games. Your concern is that this downplays the role of the artefact – the game in at least one sense of the term – and in so doing it downplays the kinship between videogames, sports, and tabletop games. Here we are in full accord, for I have spent quite a while stressing this closeness of form myself (and not without considerable resistance from various parties who need not be identified). Again, our design practices were shaped by both tabletop games and MUDs – we could never deny the continuity there, no matter what others might decide ‘game’ means to them now.

I find it ironic that the experiential view could now now judged dominant from any perspective, since I had to argue so hard for a move towards this direction in the early 2000s. Game publishing (with which I might have had more experience than you owing to my ongoing status as ronin game designer) was disastrously fixated upon the aesthetics of challenge and victory even as the Wii was demonstrating that there was indeed a wider audience for games for whom ‘boss battle’ was a terrifyingly alien concept. I got into player satisfaction modelling precisely to break down this barrier – to make clear the different aesthetic values for play, and to try and resolve some of the industry’s gender issues by demonstrating that when it comes to the enjoyment of different styles of play, focussing on ‘male versus female’ is hopelessly misleading. (Yes, we found different distributions of play styles by gender – but more importantly we found the same range of play styles among all genders.) I never dreamt that moving away from the old regime could possibly obscure the importance of the game designer’s role in helping to craft game systems that can meet those needs (where this is possible, as is overwhelmingly but not uniformly the case). And yet as I find Miguel Sicart in one of his always-engaging books arguing that ‘game design is dead’ and taking his polemic against procedural rhetoric to a point that obscures even the merit of authorial intent for games, I can’t help but feel things have gone too far.

In my view, the war on ‘game’ that we were discussing in our previous exchange is not, as you suggest, concluded so much as it has entered into a period of trench warfare where the belligerent forces on either side lie in wait for their ‘enemy’ to make a move that they can respond to with excessive ire. It would be plausible to suggest this war could never be over, for all that reasonable folks such as yourself can extricate yourselves from it by “retreated to nonce terms despite the virtues of using the word ‘game’.” But I am not a reasonable fellow; I’m far too much of a dreamer, and I still think this war can be ended and our freedom to use the word ‘game’ without it being wielded as a weapon restored. This hope is grounded in the fact that all skirmishing sides in the war are still allied to our shared Enlightenment ideals of autonomy and self-governing freedom, and as such an accord that allowed all sides to preserve their aesthetic terrain should – at least in principle – restore detente.

This potential peace treaty is what for some time now I have been calling ‘The Liberation of Games’. It begins with my analysis of implicit game aesthetics, five years old now, in terms of drawing attention to the way definitions of games embed our aesthetic values. Your definitions were immensely useful in that research, and I thank you for them, because you so wonderfully embody the power of systems thinking for play (which, as you rightly attest, is allied to Sid Meier’s view that “a good game is a series of interesting choices”). To complete that research I had to disavow ‘game’, to stop having my own definition, and this is one way the Liberation of Games can happen. You achieve something similar by retreating to your ‘nonce terms’ ludic process (game experience) and ludic artefact (game object), with the parentheticals there provided only as a convenient translation for anyone new to this discussion. But of course, withdrawing from battle does not end the war as long as anyone else remains deployed. What we need is demilitarisation. How do we get it?

You gesture in the direction I claim is needed when you say “…‘game’ was never going to fit inside solely one definition”. That was what my implicit game aesthetics research was trying to highlight, and in a tangible sense what my earlier work in play style diversity had already highlighted: our different aesthetic values for play, all drawing against our common biological and psychological heritage – which is precisely why, as you attest, we can describe the consequences of game system design ‘atomically’ in so much as our responses to such systems are granular precisely where we too are granular i.e. in our emotional responses and cognitive capabilities. That ability to decompose the play experience and its relationship to designed features is precisely why games (whether as player practices or as artefacts) can be translated into rules, which are also ‘atomic’, even if (as I was arguing in Are Videogames Made of Rules?) it is problematic to treat rules as the fundamental atomic components of games. (You raise some interesting points about rules in your comment to that earlier piece, especially in the context of sport, but I shall skip over these here for brevity.)

The Liberation of Games as I have traced it begins with the acceptance of all definitions of games. Indeed, it is perhaps the sole requirement for this ‘liberation’ to occur. The best and only complete answer to the question of the definition of ‘game’ is the superset of all definitions of ‘game’. All those definitions are not equal, of course, but all the people providing them are – which is precisely why we must allow everyone the capacity to determine for themselves what is or is not a game. But we also have to acknowledge that what we are dealing with here is not ‘mere opinion’. The idea that what cannot be measured must be ignored is the ugliest of the simplifications bandied around as supposedly ‘scientific’ thinking. Our aesthetic experiences are the bedrock of our lives – there is nothing ‘mere’ about them. Indeed, rather than dismissing ‘mere opinion’ we ought to be engaging with the patterns that give it shape. Only that could be considered an authentic scientific response to encountering the diversity of our aesthetic values for play, values that we know exist and have meaning.

If this sounds trivial I would like to point out that liberty is never a small thing. People have been (and still are) harassed over their aesthetic values for play just as they have been (and still are) harassed over their gender and race. Indeed, these phenomena intersect to a rather frightening degree. That is why there is something tangible to be won from the Liberation of Games, even if my chosen title may sound flippant. (It is not, after all, the games themselves that stand to be liberated...) In addition to this political dimension, however, is the possibility of a restoration and expansion of dialogue between practitioners of the various game disciplines once ownership of ‘game’ yields to participation in an ecology of all possible ‘games’, which must surely then include a great many things few people currently include in their considerations. I may well agree with Caillois in considering theatrical plays a kind of game, but most cannot easily follow me on this path. With the Liberation of Games, such possibilities cannot be denied, yet no-one has to be interested in this or any other specific set of relationships within the landscape of play. That’s what liberty means: the freedom to be who you must be, and the freedom to not be what you cannot.

Our definitions – of game, or art, and more besides – cannot be right or wrong, they can only open or close the myriad available paths. The war over ‘game’ had us defending the passes, which inevitably meant a great many roads were closed to us. Opening them all is as simple (and yet as impossible) as acknowledging that only a set can include everything it needs to – game as artefact, as experience, as process, as story, as system, as victory, as puzzle, as decisions, as feedback, as lenses, as skill acquisition, as a theory of fun, as the elephant in the room, as the authorial expression of a designer, and as the free expression of a player. If it is still too early to be celebrating the Liberation of Games, it is not too soon to be striving for it.

Keep being the incredible person you have to be,

Chris.

The opening image is Picasso’s Guernica. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended.


Ecologies of Play

This is an extended reply to a comment raised in connection with Are Videogames Made of Rules? If you haven’t read this earlier piece, you might want to start there.

BloxelsDear Bart,

What is it that we take a rule to be? Is it a wording, is it a practice, is it a formal constraint? This ambiguity about what we mean by ‘rule’ lies at the heart of the difference between the argument I developed in Are Videogames Made of Rules? and the counter-argument you provided at length in the comments. What I hope to do here is clarify my position by responding to your extremely detailed counter, and hopefully shed some light on what it might mean for anything to be ‘made of rules’.

I always appreciate it when you engage with my arguments because you have an unswerving desire to take off all the panelling and poke around with the interior workings. Sometimes, you even put it back together again afterwards! I wish peer reviewers were as interested in engaging with my arguments as you are, but alas the practices of the academy have strayed about as far from virtuous discourse as could be imagined.

Let me break down your observations and respond to different points one at a time, in the hope that this will bring out the points of interest in both our positions.

1. You’re answering your question as though it was being stated as ‘Are games made entirely of rules?’

I don't think this is quite right: no-one makes that particular claim, which is clearly excessive. But you’re correct that there is another aspect of the claim that ought to be unveiled. I don’t think the missing term is ‘entirely’ but perhaps ‘fundamentally’. If games were ‘fundamentally made of rules’ it would mean that everything game-like was comprised of rules (plus whatever else those rules worked on, including such diverse things as players, dice, polygonal models, tensor arrays and so forth). My claim here is that this is only true in so much as the fundamental (=impossible to remove) element of elements are translatable into rules. That still gives a special status for rules – but that status ceases to be ontological (i.e. about the nature of the existence of games). This point is so subtle I didn’t draw attention to it, since I really didn’t think anyone was going to engage with this piece. But I was apparently mistaken!

2. You discuss ‘games’ as though this is synonymous with examples of individual games, but ‘games’ and ‘a game’ are significantly different in the context of your question.

This is such a clever observation it may exceed my ability to do it justice! Broadly, you are correct to say this but my usage is not accidental, it is merely not explained in this piece. ‘Games’ for me is a term that broadly means [Superset(game)]. I don't have time here to expand this point (although I will return to this later this year…) beyond saying that ‘games’ for me is just a term for the set of all sets of whatever is called ‘a game’. But your objection still has bite: that superset can’t be directly identified with individual games, which are ‘merely’ elements in that superset. But, and here’s the key point, the superset is not amenable to access in any other way since it inherently denies the attempts at unification implicit to every attempt to provide a master definition of ‘game’. I ought to be more careful about how I draw those lines, and I thank you for making me think about this more carefully.

3. There’s an elision of important differences going on in your argument between the nature of a game meant to be played by people sitting in a room together with the human rulesmaster and a game meant to be played by strangers separated in time and space from each other and from a potentially non-human rulesmaster.

Here we may disagree. I accept the broad point, in that the possibility space of the former is on-paper much larger than the latter, but how locked down or open a game is to on-the-fly modification isn’t necessarily a function of tabletop versus otherwise. MUDs are the obvious examples of videogames with far more variability than any non-RPG tabletop game.

So I don't think I’m eliding those differences, as I don’t see this split in quite the same way. But you are surely correct that the subtleties of distinction here are something I largely brush under the carpet for brevity. But that’s what comments like yours are so good at teasing out of the woodwork!

On to your commentaries on my objections:

But games (as generally understood) do include rules of play as a required feature for comprehensible interaction with a product intended to entertain, so in that sense, games are made of rules.

I don’t think that can be right... the presence of rules is no evidence of constitution. Every car ships with a manual but you would not be tempted to say an automobile was ‘made of instructions’. This may sound flippant, but the point is not: I am saying rules are intimately tied to games as a discourse involved in their play. That discourse has most force in its role of helping players acquire (or apply) the player practices required to play any game artefact in the manner ‘intended’. But just because of this, I am suggesting that those player practices are constitutive of games; the rules are the helpful discourse surrounding those practices, but are not constitutive, per se.

...your question refers to ‘games’ in the plural, and your argument points out (correctly, I think) that games as an ecosystem for playing certainly do seem to include components that aren’t just about dictating how to play. But an ecosystem for play is certainly not the same thing as a game, which is the direct experience that will be had by most persons engaging in structured play.

This is a fascinating claim in itself, and I love the whole idea of ‘an ecosystem for playing’, which you derive from my arguments. Miguel Sicart, in Play Matters, also talks about ecologies of play (drawing against actor-network theory), and it is one of the more engaging aspects of his book. This distinction between ‘games’ (as an ecosystem for playing) and ‘a game’ is extremely subtle and intriguing. As a game designer, I am always trying to leverage my experience as a play ecologist, and vice versa! The ecosystem for playing could be taken as the set of all player practices plus the set of all toys or components that can be played with – and that is a very different way of thinking about games and play than attempting to found an ironclad definition.

…’a game,’ for most individual games, can perhaps fairly be said to be ‘made of rules’ in that formal rules comprise a good majority of the stuff that defines that particular game.

Here I am obligated to explain why treating player practices as constitutive is a more robust interpretation than treating rules as such. And the clearest answer I can offer is that any player can learn to play any game without any access to the rules, provided another player is available to induct them into the practices of the game. The fewer new practices they must acquire, the easier this is.

For a tabletop game, the rulebook this set of practices eventually becomes can be seen as a static snapshot of the player practices of the design team in respect of the game, discussing how their game is played. That each group of players will inevitably vary those player practices is one of the reasons I am suggesting we treat player practices as constitutive of games rather than rules, because the rules as written remain the same but the games being played with those rules can be quite diverse – even if all you take into account is the differences in interpretation and not greater variations like house rules. I don’t think any two groups of players engaging with a Fantasy Flight game are playing the same way, as the rules often leave open a certain number of ambiguous points that the players have to negotiate and settle on their own.

For videogames, the distance between the rules and the player practices is even greater and we have two possible claims for what the rules might be: they could be the game design documentation (in so much as it is accurate to the game artefact) or they could be the programmed code of that artefact. I hope it’s clear that the former option won’t hold up. Most game design documentation is only a scaffold (albeit a tremendously helpful one – it’s one of the two things my company has specialised in producing). The latter option is more challenging to refute. My claim here is that programmed code constitutes rules for the computer but not for the player. This is one sense in which “Videogames are made of rules” – but since the computer does not play the game we must at least concede that this sense is substantially different from what that phrase would usually be taken to mean.

Now the program code is an important part of any videogame. In this piece, it is ‘what the players play with’, like the board and pawns and cards are ‘what the players play with’ at the tabletop. But I am claiming it is misleading to say “videogames are made of rules” because my general argument about what “games are made of” applies to videogames too. The rules in a tabletop game are a translation of the player practices; the programmed rules in a videogame are also a translation of this kind – indeed, multiple translations: the programmer translates the intended player practices and artefactual properties into symbolic code, then the compiler translates that into machine code. The machine code is a set of rules for the computer, of course, but not in any game-significant sense. Because of the translations, I say that the developers of a game are players-by-proxy in the game that all players play with a videogame artefact. That might be the most revolutionary claim I’m making here – and I don't expect many people to follow me on this. But I do want to assert the validity of this understanding.

I wonder whether considering this argument – being clear about whether your assertion refers to ‘games’ or ‘a game’ – might help to strengthen your argument.

This is one of the most intriguing assertions in your comment, one that builds on this distinction between ‘play ecosystems’ and individual game experiences. But I hope it’s clear that individual game experiences are comprised of player practices and the artefacts played with just as much as play ecosystems are. What the play ecosystem has over and above this are the development circumstances that place additional constraints upon what can be played. The play ecosystem offers a more complete picture – but I still contend my argument applies to those individual play experiences as well.

If your goal is to argue that any randomly-selected individual game is mostly not made of rules, I think that’s going to be much the harder (and more interesting) sell.

I hope in the preceding remarks I have had a reasonable shot at making that sale! I appreciate that no-one is obligated to follow me into my rabbit hole… but anyone who does will not find anything substantially out of place with my way of arranging things. And it gives a much clearer perspective on both ‘games’ and any particular ‘game’ by entirely setting aside individual definitions of ‘game’ as merely aesthetic statements (as I introduced many years back now with Implicit Game Aesthetics).

Now we come to a specific objection that requires some redirect...

Your arguments use D&D (more generally, pre-video tabletop games) as an example, and that’s fair; it’s a game, but it has a large quantity of input supplied on the spot from human players. But you then use D&D as a template for judging other games, and because they also have human input you conclude that all games are like D&D (because all games have human input) and thus all games, like D&D, are mostly not ‘made of’ rules.

I don’t think this is quite the line my argument is developed upon, but it is a clear point in my argument where additional clarification is required. The point is not about the near infinite agency of tabletop RPGs – if it were, everything would be a pale shadow of that. The point about D&D I was making here is that the ways that it was played were not specified by the rules at all, but grew out of different cultures of play (different player practices). Thus contemporary tabletop RPGs descend from the role-play lineage that stresses the taking on of a fictional role, and some computer RPGs are, at the very least, inspired by this style of play. Conversely, roguelike games descend from the rule-play, dungeon bash approach which was all about murderizing monsters for treasure (an approach that was also more likely to engage with permanent death, a feature the roguelikes have tended to inherit). These wildly different play cultures, the player practices of which continue to have lineage descendants even now, were not in any way specified by the rules of D&D.

You might want to object that this is a special case, that the play of videogames is more tightly constrained by the programmed artefact, and hence the rules. But that’s not exactly what you find when you look. Spawn camping is not prevented by any formal rules of online games, it is a normative constraint of the community of players. We can express that as a rule – but it is not manifested as a rule in that community but as a practice. Players know what not to do and why – but ask them to put that into words (to translate it into rules) and you will get myriad versions. The practices are consistent. The rule is an afterthought.

What about single player games? Let’s take a classic style Resident Evil. It is in no way part of the rules of these games that two players pad pass (“you do the fighting”), or that you creep save by returning often to the safe room, or that you speed run and never save. Those are the actual player practices. They are informed by the construction of the programmed artefact, of course, but my claim is that it is what players actually do – both with and against the intentions of the developer – that constitutes the games being played with Resident Evil.

Now for the crucial finishing move: the construction of the programmed artefact is also a product of player practices, those acquired by the developer from other games that they then conserve and modify to make their own game. That Resident Evil can be translated into rules is an undeniable fact. My claim is only that it is the player practices that comprise the game – both as-played, and as-made. Any rules we would care to state are best understood as translations of those player practices.

This is the line of argument I'm developing here. It’s subtle, and it won’t appeal to everyone. But it is an extremely robust position.

Humans in a room together can make up a lot of things as they go. But to deliver the required perception of fairness (which I know is a whole other subject of interest to you), a game must be defined as composed mostly of rules that are stable, that are enforced equitably for all players, and that can be applied automatically by a computer program. (See ‘code is law.’) The farther you go from humans-in-a-room to MMORPG, the more that individual game is indeed ‘made of rules,’ because it has to be in order to achieve its intended function. The more that players are separated and unable to agree on rules ad hoc, the more the rules must be codified and enforced as written... and thus the greater percentage of ‘the game’ is constituted by the rules.

My claim is that this perception of fairness is rooted in normative practices that are translatable into rules but are neither enforced nor learned not practiced as rules in any tangible sense of this term. Yes, the programmed artefact is a key part of the propagation and enforcement of those practices. But the artefact is a translation of the normative practices imagined by the developers translated into ‘computer rules’ (code), which are not game rules in any viable sense, and they are only ‘law’ by analogy to physical laws, which are only ‘law’ by analogy in the first place! The players learn these practices from either direct engagement with the artefact itself, or from reading translations into rules in FAQs, wikis etc. The artefact is immutable under standard conditions, sure, but it is not made of rules – or at least, not in the sense of game rules. It is made of machine code, which are rules for computers, but these rules are not even remotely like game rules, and no FAQ, wiki, or player can give a translation of these that would make sense of their actual play.

You make one final point of great interest...

I further suspect that it’s acceptable to think that most games are made mostly of rules as a requirement for recognizability. I love Minecraft’s emergent outcomes probably more than most gamers. But I can still think it’s made mostly of rules or else it wouldn't be recognizable as Minecraft.

Here, you make a fascinating deeper claim – that it is the rules that constitute the identity of the game. I have great sympathy for this claim. But if you accept my argument that any attempt to describe Minecraft in rules is only a translation of its player practices, this point becomes the observation that it is the specific constraints upon which player practices develop – and the affordances these permit, upon which the player practices diversify – that constitute the identify of a game. And here, expressed in this arcane yet salient fashion, lies the very possibility of saying that something is “basically the same game.”

I thank you enormously for your deep engagement with my argument. I hope in developing a reply, you can see why your argument could not be persuasive for me. But it is more than entertaining for me to engage in these deep discussions: it helps me clarify what it is that I mean to say. And that is invaluable.

With grateful thanks,

Chris.

Further discussion on these points is always welcome, so feel free to share your perspective in the comments.


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!