Is Fiction Just a Wrapper for Games?
Wednesday, 09 October 2013
A popular view of the role of fiction in games is that it is just wrapping paper, enticing the player to start playing before later being discarded as the 'real' game supersedes its mere trappings. This utterly misrepresents the experience of a great deal – perhaps even the vast majority – of players.
I've been told Markku Eskelinen advanced exactly this metaphor of wrapping paper in respect of the fiction of games. I shall call this the wrapping paper fallacy, since while it is true of some players playing some games, it is not true of all players nor of all games. An attempt to restrict the category of games to only those that fit this fallacy would be misguided, and fall under my critique of implicit game aesthetics. Rather than a systematic argument (such as the one I provided in Fiction Denial) what I want to offer here is an observational rebuttal to the fallacy by describing play situations that cannot plausibly be understood in this way.
Perhaps most significantly, the play of tabletop role-playing games is impossible to understand without reference to their fictional content, and it is implausible to suggest such games could be remounted in a different setting with impunity. In fact, the players of these games have strong aesthetic preferences for the kind of fictional worlds they want to play within, and only a tiny minority of tabletop gamers become drawn into the kind of systems-focus that 'discards the wrapping paper'. With freeform and other diceless forms, there is very little system to 'unwrap', which is to be expected in a game form so intimately wed to its fiction. Even considering computer RPGs, which do have systems that might be unwrapped, the fictional content is rarely if ever set aside. If the mechanics come to dominate the fiction, some players will view this with disappointment, some will happily engage with the systems while still enjoying the fiction, and some will have their play destroyed by the intrusion of the rules into their experience.
Similarly, in games that attempt to evoke fear it is implausible to view the fiction as a discardable wrapper since it is always involved in the desired experience. The rules can support the fiction – as Resident Evil's ammo, inventory, and save management mechanics all do – but it is ludicrous to suppose an 'unwrapped' survival-horror game satisfying its audience. Indeed, as current examples such as Amnesia (and older examples such as Clock Tower) demonstrate, the beneficial confluence between fiction and function has great power to enhance the players' experience within the fictional world of horror games, but they cannot do so in disregard to representation. The lamp-management of Amnesia relies precisely upon depiction to work – and this is far from a rare case in videogames. Any game aiming to evoke horror experiences necessarily depends upon its representational techniques, which could never be simply discarded without failing to satisfy the players they attract.
There are also those cases that are experiential in nature, for which mechanics beyond the interface contribute little of importance. The snowboarding game is a great example, particularly when played by those who don't really care if they win. SSX, for instance, provided a very satisfying simulation of mountain descent at speed – but this is not simulation in the game mechanical sense, but in the representational, theatrical sense. Fiction is essential to this experience, and only in the less popular 'trick' modes of such games is there any possibility of 'unwrapping'. Indeed, what would it mean to 'unwrap' the downhill descents? To think solely in terms of the branch points on the route, and to set aside the sensory experience entirely? It is not plausible to think that anyone could be engaged solely in the route-management aspect of a snowboarding game, since the vertiginous fiction of the snow-capped mountainside is precisely the main attraction.
Another example is the sports game, which relies for its appeal upon its fiction and the veracity of its content to the sports they are modelled upon. When a group of friends play 2-on-2 football with a FIFA videogame, it misdescribes their experience to suggest the representation is set aside so they can focus on the rules of football. This would be nonsense! Rather, the fact that it is fictional that your team is fighting for victory on a digital pitch is quintessential to the pleasure of such games. Even in the case of something like the Statis Pro tabletop sports games, which have game mechanics beyond the rules of the sport being simulated, the appeal is always that you are (fictionally) playing with real teams and real players. If you take off the wrapping paper, there is no reason to continue playing at all.
Rather than the image of the mechanics as a desirable present wrapped up in pretty but ultimately forgettable wrapping paper, a better point of reference in respect of the kinds of play described above (and many other instances) would be the relationship between representation and function in gallery artworks. The interest in the painting is primarily in what it represents – in the picture. Familiarity will allow the player of such an artwork to see past the fiction and enjoy unveiling the skills of the creator – Van Gogh's brush work, the pigmentation of the old masters, the impressionists' ability to imply through colour. But at no point does the fiction of the painting cease to matter. Indeed, it is this that the deeper understanding of a painting seeks to explore.
There are indeed some artworks that make the functional components more central to their experience – Jim Warren's Ripping sequence, for instance, or the blank canvases displayed in the Hayward Gallery's Invisible: Art of the Unseen exhibition. No doubt there are some appreciators of contemporary art who prefer such invention to more conventional paintings. But we should not confuse the tastes of a subset of those who appreciate art for the experiences of everyone who can enjoy a painting. The same is just of true of games. The wrapping paper fallacy makes a minority experience into a model for a vast and diverse landscape of play, a model that is much more parochial than its advocates tend to admit. Theorists of games need to spend much more time watching how people play and much less time treating their own experiences as universal. Only when we actually explore how games are played by everyone can game studies really claim to be studying games.
It feels like the conversation has moved on past this point. Yes, we have functional elements and structures (story, mechanics, images, sound, pacing, etc). Yes, they all contribute to the final experience.
What seems to be the point here is A) There are play styles for certain games that learn to turn down the volume of certain evocative stimuli as noise. B) There are other play styles that don't. C) The existence of Style A does not invalidate B.
That's a fine point.
However, the way I see this example being used more often than not is in the context of getting people to think about games analytically vs as a blob-like impenetrable experience over which we have zero control or understanding. Games are not some spiritual indivisible thing.
The lessons being taught are closer to:
1) You can use the miracles of analysis to conceptually separate various thematic and evocative stimuli from various mechanics and systems.
2) As a developer, you can use these theoretical constructs as ingredient to bake a new game.
3) Sometimes this means removing the theming and replacing it with a different theme. Conceptually you can perform this operation. Practically, this is done all the time and if you do it from the ground up, question your assumptions (instead of just implementing patterns) and iterate in order to tuck in all the lose ends, it can be quite effective. Yes, it is hard. But development difficulty is not a sufficient concern to invalidate a popular and proven design tool.
Some other extremely useful lessons I personally get from the cloud of metaphors that the wrapping paper strawman feeds upon:
- Theme is a great entrance into learning a system. It triggers pre-existing schema and makes mastering the basics of the game much easier. Be warned that different people need different themes.
- Some people do ignore story and theme after they get to mastery. These people are extremely annoying to have at a roleplaying table. However, they demonstrate an important concept of Efficient Play (aka the inherent laziness of players). If theme was seen as an entrance into the gameplay, it takes a certain mental effort to maintain that conceit. Once an alternate means of formulating the world is perceived, the old method is used less often. This happens and is a good thing to watch for in all sorts of the situations.
- The final experience *is* filtered through the theme. This is one reason I prefer a game atom approach since it lets you look at an integrated view of mechanics, evocative feedback and impact on the player in either macro or micro interaction loops. The story-mechanics dichotomy is lame. Let's move on.
Posted by: Danctheduck | Wednesday, 09 October 2013 at 19:23
Thanks for your thoughtful contribution here.
Not sure how clear it is that these four 'questions' posts (the next one is coming up on Wednesday) are aligned on popular arguments to try and flush out people's views on these matters (trying to find the productive places to explore, as ever). I've found if I don't mount these kinds of pieces with a bit of bluster, I don't get a response. I don't see this as mounting a straw man argument, but I can see why everyone else does! :)
"What seems to be the point here is A) There are play styles for certain games that learn to turn down the volume of certain evocative stimuli as noise. B) There are other play styles that don't. C) The existence of Style A does not invalidate B. That's a fine point."
This is indeed roughly my point - albeit seen from the A-side and not the B-side! - and thank you for calling it fine, although I think it is only 'fine' in the sense of 'small'. :D
"The story-mechanics dichotomy is lame. Let's move on."
I'd love to! But the arguments have not been resolved because they've not actually been had yet. It is these I'm trying to find - and it's not that easy to do so! You say "It feels like the conversation has moved on past this point" - I'd say that for me it feels like the conversation never actually happened, and people from either side of the divide just stopped being willing to talk to one another about it. Can't we do better than this?
Here's an interesting paragraph from your reply:
"Sometimes this means removing the theming and replacing it with a different theme. Conceptually you can perform this operation. Practically, this is done all the time and if you do it from the ground up, question your assumptions (instead of just implementing patterns) and iterate in order to tuck in all the lose ends, it can be quite effective. Yes, it is hard. But development difficulty is not a sufficient concern to invalidate a popular and proven design tool."
Okay, this paragraph seems to have your core argument in it: it says we can unwrap and rewrap games, and this (contra to your version of my argument) is not invalidated by the existence of games/players that are intimately tied up with the fictional content. I don't dispute that rewrapping is a valid development technique - I've done it myself often enough! - but it's not enough to respond to my argument to say 'we can rewrap!'. What I'm asking is: what *can't* we rewrap? Why? When does rewrapping require changing the fictional content (when do mechanics necessitate certain kinds of fiction)? When does rewrapping require changing the mechanical content (when does fiction drive mechanics)? What prevents certain games from being 'unwrapped' at all? Does anyone have anything productive to say on this? I've not seen it myself! My comments above attempt to begin this discussion, apparently badly, but badly is better than not at all! ;)
And I note - you don't actually respond to me, per se. You see the 'straw man' (the bluster required to get *anyone* to talk to me!) but you're not at all interested in the challenge I'm trying to outline (perhaps I'm outlining it badly?). Presumably what you see is that my objections don't invalidate rewrapping, hence the imputation of 'straw man'. That's not quite enough, though.
You want to defend 'rewrapping' as a development technique. Happy to give you this, as I say - I've done the same often enough. But does it not seem to you that it is solely system-heavy games that rewrap easily? Puzzle games, strategy games, numbers-heavy combat mechanics? Is it just the common mathematics that make these 'rewrappable'? That would be progress on this point if it were established this was the case! We could finally start to disentangle the middle ground where all the interesting stuff goes on...
Also, since mathematics are also representational, if the rewrappable games are only rewrappable in the maths (your own work I appreciate is still player-centric about the systems but set this aside for a moment) then we seem to have interesting questions about the relationships between two kinds of fiction - the fiction in which mathematics are representative (what might be called 'mathematical simulation') and the experiential fiction encountered by the player. Feels to me like there's an avenue of enquiry here that's also being shut down by everyone. Wouldn't understanding this help you 'rewrap'? Couldn't it productively assist in the process of "iterat[ing] in order to tuck in all the lose ends"? Wouldn't *anything* that helps with this process be productive - even if it asks you to think about the design of wrapping paper instead of the design of presents? ;)
Really enjoyed your comment, always a pleasure to spar with you, I hope my comment has added clarity to my position and not muddied it further. :)
*waves from 4,600 miles away!*
Posted by: Chris | Monday, 14 October 2013 at 09:58
Perhaps it would be useful to dig deeper into how theme supports or fails to support mechanics using the yardstick of "Does this situation make rewrapping easier or harder?"
I've run into several situations where these two essential ingredients are mis-baked:
1) Theme activates schema in the player that fail to ease understanding of the system dynamics.
For example I choose an upfront theme about writing poetry to a lover when the core mechanic is about launching objects that destroy other objects. You *can* make this work. However the key 'poetry' doesn't immediately trigger thinking about trajectories. It is a poor gate into the game.
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.
Of course just like in music or cooking, sour notes can also be used with finesse to add delightful emotional complexity. However, you usually don't put those notes upfront since it is a giant middle finger to your audience. Big-A Artists and their parasitic critics love this because it gives them something to blather on about, but it does horrible things to your 1-day retention.
2. Self contained systems of value are amendable to a wider variety of themes.
Endogenous systems like the mathematical games you mention can be played and understood with little external reference to narrative or theme. They use many of the mathematical topologies and problem spaces that Raph discusses when he speaks of the mathematical underpinnings of games.
What I personally find fascinating about these mathematical topics is that they occur regularly throughout the natural world. Lots of systems exhibit them so therefore you might expect lots of real world themes would apply. If a game is about managing exponential growth (cookie clicker), there are all sorts of existing stories that might give players a very reasonable and natural entrance into the mechanics since they have a wide range of pre-existing experiences that deal with exponential growth.
The opposite of this are systems of value that rely heavily upon external knowledge and context. Consider the fun of chess vs the fun of a pun (My favorite is the one about the frayed knot). The pun requires a deep knowledge of language in order to provoke even a minor chuckle. If you reduce it to mechanics, "Word A sounds like word A-prime" it loses the puzzle. The context is essential to the moment of mastery. Chess is far more amendable to being rethemed because the context, though important, is not critical to its base functioning.
3) When the larger culture context provides the majority of the value, not the mechanics.
Football comes to mind. 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.
In fact, the act of reusing core mechanics becomes more like terraforming a barren world. You need to build up culture and community from scratch and this is a remarkably difficult task. It is perhaps not a surprise that most eSports are grown semi-organically from the loam of existing robust communities as opposed to invented or authored like you might a text adventure.
All the best!
Posted by: Danctheduck | Sunday, 20 October 2013 at 19:12
Thanks for this absolutely fantastic comment! My apologies for taking so long to get around to it - I'm seriously swamped right now and struggling to stay on top of everything!
I'd love to pick up this discussion again when I have more time - perhaps a bloot on this topic in the Spring?
All the best,
Posted by: Chris | Thursday, 31 October 2013 at 09:47