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Ihobo.Game TableauFor more than twenty years, International Hobo Ltd has been helping developers, publishers, and researchers understand how and why people play games. We provide fixed-price support with game design, narrative design, and dialogue scripting to both publishers and developers. We were the first company to coin the phrase 'narrative design', we founded the IGDA's Game Writing Special Interest Group and won their MVP prize, and our award-winning work has been praised by everyone from the IEEE to Jane McGonigal. You can learn about what we offer on the Services page, and discover (some) of the games we've worked upon at the Softography page (many projects are covered by NDA—some we never get to say we worked on!). Join us on our next adventure!

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Game Dissonance (1): What is Game Dissonance?

BioshockWhat is game dissonance and how do you prevent it? This question is not one that game designers tend to ask, and yet almost every effective practice we have for creating games depends upon our intuitive grasp of the ways that game dissonance disrupts the player experience. In this short series of articles, I will explore the nature of game dissonance, the origins of the concept, and how to design systems and write game stories that avoid falling prey to this quintessential human quality when it manifests in our play.

The origin of the concept of dissonance in this sense, as a cognitive flaw, is in the work of the psychologist Leon Festinger. His work grew out of earlier models for human behavioural change by Kurt Lewin in the 1930s and 40s, who suggested that human behaviour was not a purely internal matter, but the result of a collision between our internal states and the social forces (or fields) we are situated in. In 1954, Festinger wrote about "social comparison forces", suggesting that when people are uncertain of their views, they seek to compare those views to those of the people around them. In other words, it was not purely a matter of good arguments that swayed people, but also that we have an innate drive to accord with the social context around us - usually, to align with it.

He became interested in the edge cases: what happens when people's internal states are radically out of step with the social context around them? Extending a research programme initiated by Lewin, Festinger began to stage-manage encounters in a series of experiments that contemporary research ethics would probably have excluded from consideration. In 1954, he began observing a doomsday cult that was convinced the world was going to be destroyed in a catastrophic flood. This flood did not happen. Afterwards, those who were on the fringes of the cult readily abandoned its tenets and recognised they had been rather foolish, while those who were deeply embedded reasoned that the world had been saved as a result of their faith. These observations were to deepen Festinger's concept of social comparison.

Festinger began to theorise that humans were driven to attempt to maintain some kind of consistency between their thoughts, their feelings, and their behaviours, and that his concept of social comparison was only a special case of a more general phenomena. A series of further experiments shored up this understanding, and led to the publication in 1957 of A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. This theory would become one of psychology's few great success stories, with applications in every aspect of human experience. The core idea is that inconsistencies between internal mental states (beliefs, theories, memories), emotional responses, and behaviour creates an uncomfortable tension (cognitive dissonance) that sets off a drive to reduce the discrepancy. Sometimes this involves changing the internal states either as they relate to the individual (switching beliefs, 'editing' memories) or the social group (identifying a certain set of 'others' as different in some key way). The theory has been applied to almost every conceivable aspect of human affairs - I myself applied it to politics and morality in Chaos Ethics with the concept of 'moral horror'.

Game dissonance is nothing more nor less than cognitive dissonance in the context of the player experiences of games. Festinger's big idea would be first applied to videogames, albeit almost accidentally, in 2007, when Clint Hocking (at the time, a level designer and scriptwriter at Ubisoft Montreal) wrote a notorious critique entitled Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock. Despite being its most obvious legacy, the coining of the term 'ludonarrative dissonance' is arguably the least interesting aspect of this frankly insightful analysis of Bioshock's narrative, which was also one of the first to lament the absence of anyone we could convincingly call a game critic (a problem that has only marginally improved in the intervening decade or so). Hocking argues in the piece that Bioshock's narrative design is flawed because it offers two different player contracts: one, as a game, and another as a story. He alleges that this sets up "a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story". Was he right?

Yes and no.

Firstly, Hocking made the claim that the player contract with Bioshock as a game is "seek power and you will progress", and that this is an appropriate arrangement for a game about Ayn Rand's rational self-interest i.e. that the player contract aligns with the theme of the game. He also notes that this is "a pretty standard value in single player games where all the other characters... tend to be in direct conflict with the player". According to his reading, the player contract aligns with the theme because (he contends) "I actually feel the themes of the game being expressed through mechanics". He argues this because he harvested the Little Sisters, and interpreted this as "the game literally made me feel a cold detachment from the fate of the Little Sisters." This reading is problematic, though, given the huge number of players who did not harvest the Little Sisters, and had no desire to do so i.e. the opposite experience to Hocking's. Rather than the game mechanics being about Ayn Rand's philosophy, as Hocking claims, it might be fairer to say that Hocking's play experience aligned with Rand's philosophy. This is a subtle yet important point.

The alleged 'Ludonarrative Dissonance' comes about because Hocking claims that the story does not align with Rand's work in the same way, being framed on the narrative contract "help Atlas and you will progress." Hocking's threefold complaint is that helping someone is not in line with Randian rational self-interest; Atlas is opposed to Ryan, but Ryan aligns with Rand and hence "I am philosophically aligned with Ryan by my acceptance of the mechanics"; and finally, there is no choice in how the player positions themselves with respect to the contract, since "even if I am opposed to the principle of helping someone else... I must do as Atlas says because the game does not offer me the freedom to choose sides in the conflict between Ryan and Atlas."

I didn't comment on this back in 2007, although I did read it at the time, because I had neither played nor studied Bioshock at the time, and so it seemed wrong to wade in. However, I think it now safe to make the following remarks. Firstly, that the assumption that the player contract is aligned with Rand's philosophy is mistaken, and is more a fact about Hocking (and others who played like him) than it is of the game as such. Secondly, that the player having no choice but to align with Atlas is crucial to the story since it is part of that story that Jack (the player character) has no choice but to do as Atlas commands. This is, in fact, a major plot device and reveal within the story. Finally, since Jack is not the player and since the story depends upon Jack's backstory (not the player's free will - indeed, the player expressly has no free will as Jack) that Hocking's suggestion that the player needed a choice of whom to align with is ultimately mistaken.

Now none of this means that Hocking was wrong to claim there was cognitive dissonance brought about by Bioshock's story. It's clear that Hocking did experience dissonance, and the same might be true of anyone else who was intelligent and educated enough to mount such a sophisticated reading of the game. But that dissonance was caused less by the game as such, and more by Hocking's reading of how the game should have mounted its themes. The most remarkable thing about Bioshock, though (and Hocking was keen to make a similar point himself), is that it is capable of sustaining this kind of critical engagement with theme. It is a sad fact of videogames both then and now that very few manage to get a theme into their story at all, and fewer still manage to get it into the game mechanics, or join the two together. In this respect, the biggest flaw in Bioshock that Hocking reveals is that we weren't doing very well at bringing theme into games - and in that regard, it is worth pointing out that we still aren't. That Hocking's piece is remembered for coining 'ludonarrative dissonance' and forgotten for an insightful critique of narrative design that is still just as relevant today is both slightly tragic, and also entirely unsurprising.

However, I can go further in usurping Hocking's discussion. In suggesting that an aspect of what went wrong in Bioshock was that the player lacked a choice, Hocking reveals a likely cause of his dissonance: the assumption that player choice is an essential missing link in bridging the gap between a game story and the game systems. This, I would suggest, is what might be called the scriptwriter's fallacy - that the power of a videogame story lies in the choices that are not available to a screenwriter in other media. I would counter this claim the same way I did in my blog-letter to Caroline Marchal and John Yorke, Beyond Choice in Game Narrative: that screenwriters perpetually overestimate the importance of choices, and as a consequence all too frequently offer meaningless choices that the writer has effectively pre-empted, instead of engaging with the turbulent depth of game's capacity for narrative where the player can take the story where the developer cannot hope to anticipate. Contra the scriptwriter's fallacy, it is precisely the narrative power of plays, books, and films that the participant cannot change how the story ends. Whenever games stories are created solely with the toolkit of the screenwriter, the result is not greater artistic possibility, but far less.

In this serial, I hope to clarify Hocking's concept of 'ludonarrative dissonance' by replacing it with a more general concept - that of game dissonance. I view this substitution as essential, because in so much as 'ludonarrative dissonance' is a valid conceptual apparatus, it is only so because of the screenwriter's fallacy. In short, there is not and cannot be a fundamental and inescapable disconnect between games and stories of the kind 'ludonarrative dissonance' is usually evoked to explain, firstly because stories are themselves a kind of game (a point I made at length in Imaginary Games and will not be recapping here), and secondly because game dissonance occurs in so many other contexts that the few times it occurs between the narrative systems and the other elements of a game design cannot be taken as anything more than a special case of a much more general conceptual framework for understanding the aesthetic flaws of games.

Those that contend that games and stories are radically different entities and that therefore ludonarrative dissonance is the inevitable consequence of trying to tell conventional stories in videogames have too narrow a view of games. Very few experienced Games Masters would suggest that there was an insuperable gap between the game mechanics and the narrative of a tabletop role-playing game, and when there is it is because the rules break with the world of the game, not because the story intrudes upon the game systems. This is an essential clue that the only reason 'ludonarrative dissonance' feels like an appealing concept is because of resistance to the colonisation of games by screenwriters. This resistance is well-intentioned. But it should not be couched in terms of opposition to game stories.

The problem is not, and never has been, that stories and games are different things - they're not. As Ian Bogost already made clear back in 2009, they are both structured systems, one (in his terms) of rules and the other of narration. The problem was never between stories and games, but almost always between the stories that game developers can make, and the stories that screenwriters can make. If a game has strong narrative design, there will be no dissonance, 'ludonarrative' or otherwise. Besides, as this serial aims to make clear, the problem of game dissonance has nothing to do with stories at all - but it has everything to do with player practices.

Next week: The Aesthetic Flaws of Videogames


Game Mechanics vs Player Practices

ASWD vs Arrow KeysDear Pablo,
You asked earlier this week how game designers define 'game mechanic' and how you differentiate it from 'game system'. And this is an interesting question, for a number of different reasons, not least of which is historical.

'Game mechanic' and 'game system' are terms that have a history, and it is 'game system' that appears to be the older term, or at least, the term to have come into common currency sooner. Already, by 1974, Dungeons & Dragons talks about its "combat system", Frank Metzner's War Machine in 1984's Companion rules is a "mass combat system" – even Chainmail in 1971 talks of "The Move/Counter Move System", "two systems of movement" etc. In fact, the concept of a 'game system' is completely an artefact of the tabletop wargame scene that was driven forward to a huge degree by Avalon Hill, and that went onto influence videogames more than is usually acknowledged – not least of all via Dungeons & Dragons, the influence on videogames I've discussed many times, including in Imaginary Games.

Some time around the early 2000s, it became fashionable for videogame designers to start arguing about 'game mechanics', and for game studies academics to begin vaingloriously trying to define this term once and forever. Miguel's "Defining Game Mechanics" shows the problem exquisitely – he can explain at great (and beautifully precise) length what the problem is with 'game mechanics', but his solution is to propose yet another definition, a strategy with failure built-in. Also, neither Miguel nor anyone else has been able to show where the term 'game mechanic' came from, or how it became so widespread. However, I can find reference to 'game mechanics' in a 1973 edition of Simulation and Games, a 1979 edition of Games and Puzzles, and its successor The Gamer. In other words 'game mechanic' is also a tabletop game term.

And that's where and why it all goes wrong for everyone trying to 'fix' game mechanic as a term. Because both 'game mechanic' and 'game system' are concepts from tabletop game design where rules are explicated in written form by necessity. It is a 'game mechanic' in D&D that the D20 is used to resolve a percentile hit chance with 5 percentile increments, and this is part of the 'game system' for combat resolution. It is arguably a 'game mechanic' that pluses on weapons add to both to hit and damage – a mechanic consisting of a great many rules, not all of which appear along with the combat system in the rulebooks. In other words, for a tabletop game, everyone saying 'a game system' is made of 'game mechanics' (bonus points if you spot that 'game mechanics' are also made of 'rules') is continuing the practices of tabletop game design that flourished in the 1960s and reached a turning point in the 1970s – just in time for videogames to join the party and make everything much more confusing!

So the root problem with 'game mechanics' and 'game systems' applied to videogames is that we are applying these terms solely by analogy almost all of the time. Sometimes that analogy goes deeper – when I write a Game Design Document (GDD) for a client, it will be organised into chapters that are conceptually game systems, but nothing inside that design is something I would usually point out as a game mechanic in any formal sense. Conversely, Raph Koster is much happier using the concept 'game mechanic' in his design thinking, but he has a clear conceptual framework that guides his use of this term - and as comments at his blog repeatedly reveal, not one that transfers without friction to other designers! Historically, 'game mechanics' is shorthand for something akin to 'clusters of rules serving a single representative game purpose' in tabletop games. And while some videogames directly parallel tabletop designs, and therefore retain a meaningful sense for 'game system', few if any are specified in actual written rules, because this is not how videogame design proceeds.

So how does videogame design actually proceed? Well, as ever, there are multiple ways of describing what goes on, but I'm just going to focus on how I deal with this problem, as discussed in my DiGRA paper "No-one Plays Alone" (inspired by a brilliant argument I had with Dan Cook!) and explored further with the inestimable assistance of the good and excellent José Zagal in "Game Design Lineages: Minecraft's Inventory". My approach is to recognise that what anchors all the different game design processes are player practices – the things that players learn to do repeatedly. Many of our player practices began as rules, mechanics, or systems in tabletop games – the player practice that you grind for experience points to level up and gain in power, for instance, comes directly from the XP system of D&D. Many other player practices were built up and maintained by the specific design opportunities afforded by videogames. All these player practices form lineages that intersect but also proceed very conservatively… just look at that analysis of inventories in the second paper for a great example!

Most game designers and game studies academics seem to think player practices are an unnecessary abstraction. I don't. Player practices are the real habitual foundation of games and game design; it is 'game mechanic' and 'game system' that are largely abstractions of convenience. They are relevant and useful only as long as they can be applied – which is to say, only with complete confidence when there are written rules. This is always the case at the tabletop, and is sometimes the case with videogames, especially if the game designer has a background at the tabletop and therefore writes their GDDs in the style of a rulebook, or when a coherent conceptual framework allows the terms to be used with local precision. In all other cases, you can invent a set of rules as a mental model for what's going on… but it's always going to be a post-hoc justification for taking the analogies with tabletop design further than ought to be comfortable.

Videogames do not usually invent new 'rules' as such, although they are sometimes conceived of in terms of 'game systems', and 'game mechanics' are solely a way of picking out an arbitrary aspect of the game for discussion in isolation, usually held together by a common representational purpose, or else centred upon the player's choices (also a concept coming to us from the tabletop!). What videogames always do, however, is iterate player practices. Watch the evolution of arrow keys to ASWD and mouse look between Dungeon Master and Half-Life via Quake and you're watching actual changes to actual player practices, reflected in the games being made and how they are being played, none of which involves a 'game mechanic' in the sense that this term was being used in tabletop design, let alone a 'game system' – even though I would have the greatest sympathy for anyone who said that the ASWD and mouse look scheme was a control system because, frankly, that analogy is easy to follow.

Every year, a horde of really interesting videogames die a commercial death because the people making them forgot that new players did not know anything about how their otherwise wonderful game worked. Instead of taking a set of existing player practices and putting a new twist upon them, they invent new player practices from whole cloth… and then few if any players put in the effort required to learn how to play. We don't even provide manuals ('rulebooks') any more to make the learning any easier! Players are dumped into a new videogame with just their prior habits to rely upon – which is why thinking in terms of player practices eliminates in one simple step myriad close-to-hopeless commercial paths in game development. If you don't know any of the player practices your eventual audience has already learned, your project is already in serious trouble! More likely, you know it so well you don't even think about it, precisely because player practices are habitual.

The videogames that succeed combine and iterate player practices to create new experiences – nothing in Fortnite is 'new' except the specific combination of practices each season brings to bear, rooted on practices raided and inherited from elsewhere. Minecraft's core player practices, including its inventory, are inherited from a grand tradition of prior games that also participated in those practices. And all these player practices are sustained in videogames because code and assets were created by developers who had learned the player practices and could create new videogames that reproduced them. Sometimes they did so thinking about 'game mechanics' and 'game systems'… but regardless of how they described what they did – they took the existing player practices, and developed them into a new videogame.

That's the game we play as game designers – and it's a game with a long history.

Many thanks for kicking off this discussion,

Chris.

In response to Pablo J. Gorigoitia's tweet on Monday 29th June 2020.


Guild vs Houses: 2-player co-op for Splendor

SplendorHere at ihobo, we rather enjoy a quick game of Splendor, and we're always looking for new ways to play. Since we also love co-op games, it did not take us too long to experiment with a co-operative version of the game.

Guilds vs Houses is a variant for the popular boardgame in which 2 players (the Houses) attempt to defeat an automated opponent (the Guild), who plays by a unique set of rules, described below.

 

Rules of Play

  1. Set up the game exactly as you would for 3 players (i.e. remove two chips from each stack except the gold). Set up the turn sequence so that both of the Houses (human players) take their turns before the Guild.
  2. When the Guild takes its turn, it acts according to the rules described below.
  3. Players combine their victory points and compete against the Guild to be the first to reach 20 victory points.

 

The Guild

The following rules govern the Guild's actions:

  1. Splendor SequencePurchase Lowest Numbered Development Card: The Guild purchases the development card in the lowest numbered slot it can afford (counting top left Rank III card as the #1 position and the bottom right Rank I card as #12, i.e.top left, to bottom right)
  2. Else, One of Each Gem Token: If the Guild cannot purchase any development cards, it takes one gem token of each kind. If any stacks have run out, the Guild takes one gold token for each gem it would otherwise have received.
  3. Or, All the Gold Tokens: If the Guild already has one of every kind of gem token it takes all the remaining gold tokens instead. Count solely gem tokens for this rule - development cards that contribute gem values do not count. (This will guarantee it can make a powerful acquisition next turn.)
  4. Flip After Three: Once the Guild has three development cards of the same kind, turn one of the zero victory point cards of that kind face down and place it over the other two - this indicates that the Guild may no longer purchase Rank 1 development cards i.e. slots 9 to 12. (This will mean it picks up tokens more frequently, accelerating its buying power.) In the unlikely event that the Guild has no zero victory point cards when it gets three of a particular kind, the lowest value card is flipped over, and its victory points no longer count towards the Guild's score.

The Guild's buying power massively exceeds that of the Houses, but its automated purchasing help balance its performance against the players' collective intelligence, as it seldom makes the 'best' purchase. If the players manage to co-operate, victory is attainable - but it does not take long for the Guild to build up substantial resources if it is left unchecked... The game is especially difficult if all the Noble tiles have similar requirements, and easiest when the Nobles have more distinct requirements. Good luck!

The variant might work with more than 2 players, but it has not been balanced for this - let us know in the comments if you try any variations!


Games and Theatre

You never quite know what's going to pick up momentum on social media - ihobo founder Chris Bateman's tweet about the advice he gives to people wanting to improve their game writing and narrative design skills was just an offhand remark, but it seemed to resonate with a lot of people working in the games industry!


Game and Theatre


A Tale of Two Walking Simulators

FirewatchOver at Only a Game, ihobo founder Chris Bateman continues his intermittent correspondence with US critic Jed Pressgrove, this time sparring over the 'walking simulator' in a two-part blog letter entitled A Tale of Two Walking Simulators. The two parts discuss the 2016 game Firewatch and the 2015 game Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. Here's an extract:

If we put side to side the artgame achievements of the walking simulator, broadly construed, it marks bold new possibilities for the media that share the name ‘videogame’, new paths that in no way invalidate (and indeed, help illuminate) our more familiar player practices. 2005’s The Endless Forest – Tale of Tales’ landmark ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’ – not only led to thatgamecompany’s Journey but revealed new potential for the encounter play that had been inherent in table top-role playing games but had struggled to find expression in any visual form. Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, perhaps my favourite game of this century, turns walking into a magical experience using only the tricks of the nature documentary and a cunning alliance of sound and vision. But it is perhaps The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther that especially helps shed light on contemporary games by being built upon the skeleton of an FPS yet stripped of its guns and violence. It delivers a wondrous ghost story whose thin play seemed to open the door to new narrative possibilities in videogames by denying the necessity of challenge – for which it had to be ostracized as ‘not a game’ by legions of aesthetically conservative players.

The letter is mostly concerned with videogames as an aesthetic and artistic medium, and not as a commercial medium, but if you have an interest in the walking simulator genre, or either of the two games discussed, you should definitely check it out!