Intention and Interpretation

[The last few days of writing have been incredibly strange for me. I’ve gone from not caring too much about my daily musing to doing research on nearly a daily basis just to make sure I say things that are near to true. If it was not obvious already, I’m reading about some ideas and forming others nearly simultaneously with my writing. It is entirely possible that I have contradicted myself at least once so far in the last few days. This is an on-going discourse between both myself, others and the ideas I come across. I don’t have all the answers. But I think together we might come closer to finding them.]

In following the conversation from yesterday, I would like to draw a distinction between what I feel is two different approaches to the problem of designing and optimizing for tragedy. While I am primarily interested in how a player might try to arrange tragic events and endings, Ari is looking at it “from a designer’s point of view first and foremost.” Both are needed, I think, to understanding how this might be accomplished but also present very different paths toward the goal.

“It’s entirely possible to construct either kind of game [comedy and tragedy], and both games will say very different things about the designer’s view of the world and convey very different emotions. However, like the riddle of the Sphinx, this question must be answered before the designer can proceed. The desired view (optimistic or cynical) should be decided upon beforehand, maintained and reinforced throughout the design process in the gameplay.”

From a designer’s point of view, intent is very important. It is the foundation from which the creator builds and maintains the world. When the intent is the clearest, the player and designer are in sync with the understanding of the reward system and the player’s fortune should probably be increasing as the two come closer to harmony. The designer sets forth the path for the player to follow, the intended road, and the player, ideally, is step by step doing those exact (or near approximate) actions. This should, as the quote mentions, be “reinforced throughout the design process.” (When it fails, when the mechanics and narrative do not match up, it is called ludonarrative dissonance.)

As a fiction writer, this makes perfect sense. As part of the world-building, a necessary part of science fiction, the author should decide how technology or magic will work in the story, preferable making it logical in some way, and then stick to this throughout the narrative experience. The cultures and peoples, in the best stories, are reflections of the world they are in and their actions, which are influenced by their biases, inexorably flow from the combinations of their psyches and their world. Anything that happens mechanically in the narrative that seemingly contradicts previously understood rules needs to be explained within those rules (i.e. Harry Potter can be resurrected, a seemingly impossible task, because love, as demonstrated throughout the books as him surviving Voldemort’s first attack, is stronger than any magic).

“If this dissonance, this dichotomy in which the character’s lack of awareness of his own doom parallels the player’s awareness of that doom, is unavoidable, then let’s work with that. Let’s use asymmetrical knowledge, suspense, and rewards to lead the player toward the tragic end they know is coming. For real tragedy, this end should be fixed, with perhaps the illusion of choice, a choice leading to an outcome made undesirable by the character’s tragic flaw.”

Obviously, the intention of the developer or writer is important because it sets the world to spinning and maintains how activities can be done within the narrative — ignoring for the moment the ability to hack or glitch games which results in breaking the mechanics in some way. As long as rewards and story exists, the player can be led to the ending that was intended by designer or writer. Even when player does not know what will happen next, they know something will and are driven forward in the game by curiosity and the reward system(s).

“By continually rewarding the flaw and upping the suspense (just not to unbearable levels), the player is led to the tragic conclusion. The asymmetrical knowledge reaches a point of equilibrium, albeit too late; the tension is released; the damage is done.”

What if the player disagrees with the reward system, story or even perceives it as something different than intended though?

In the best case (as seen by the designer), the reward system and story leads the player toward a failed understanding of the intention, an alternative interpretation of just some elements. In the worst case (as seen by some designers), the player invents an interpretation that suits their goals, thinking and that may challenge the designer’s intention or even disregard it (such is often the case in subversive play).

“Going back to tragedy for the moment, let’s continue from the idea that limited knowledge of the game’s events is necessary to create the most powerful tragedy. (I had my renegade Sarah Shepard ignore the loyalty missions for Samara, Jacob, Miranda, and Thane, and I knew full well that those four would be filling coffins before the credits roll. Tragic? Perhaps, but less so for me. That’s the ending I wanted.)” [Emphasis added]

There’s the problem. Player interpretation grows from their knowledge. As long as they know they can arrange the story a certain way, they will orient, optimize, their experience toward that end — or even away from it. The interpretation of the experience then is potentially in conflict with whatever the designer intended. By knowing that those characters, “Samara, Jacob, Miranda, and Thane”, would die in Mass Effect 2 but not caring, the story was constructed from the experience as the player planned it. The interpretation, as opposed to the intention (saving them all), ruled over that play experience.

Of course, by knowing that that players have that foreknowledge of the endings and branching paths (something that is becoming harder and harder to escape), the designer could theoretically use such knowledge against the player. Oedipus, as the player in this imagined game, knows that in one ending that he will kill his father and marry his mother (as maybe Kotaku leaked) and so the player, not wanting that outcome, tries to avoid it. That leads him, as he meets his biological father on the road, along the tragic path. However, he must not be aware that it will lead to tragedy. Right?

“For real tragedy, this end should be fixed, with perhaps the illusion of choice, a choice leading to an outcome made undesirable by the character’s tragic flaw.”

“And yet…only a player who wants to experience the feeling of watching this “slow-motion train wreck” will play the game through to the end. It might not be “winning”, or “fun” in the traditional video game sense of the words, but they succeeded in achieving the desired tragic ending. The player can relax and enjoy their catharsis.” [Emphasis added]

How can the player have a desired ending without the foreknowledge that the choices will lead her there? (Is that how tragedy could happen?) This is, as I see it, the intersection between the two views. While the designer wants the player to have “fun” (thus keep playing and buying products), they also allow the player to choose their own adventure — or, at least, present the illusion of that. The player, in turn, optimizes the experience for their own enjoyment (be it the “train wreck” or “saving the galaxy”) through understanding the intention as presented in the game and as filtered through the on-going interpretation of the reward system (mechanics) and story (narrative) while playing the game.

As a writer, I am not comfortable with my story being taken apart from the inside by characters who suddenly have some limited free will now deciding that they like one ending over another. [Actually, I may use that for a story about a story during a story.] I feel for designers who have to craft the situations, rewards and story in such a way that not only does it make sense, is fun (ideally) but also set up multiple possible and intended paths through the experience. On good days, it must be challenging and exciting. But on bad days… man, that must be very tough. Thank goodness I only have to deal with interpretations and not narrative reconstructions or mechanic misunderstandings.

One thought on “Intention and Interpretation

  1. I’d like to point out a trend I’ve noticed especially in this post, regarding the designer/player divide.

    First off, a maxim of mine: “Without the designer, there is no game. Without the player, there is no game”. However, the ‘designer vs. player’ mentality is still the accepted paradigm in many games, a paradigm I feel should be examined, and perhaps done away with. If you’ve ever found yourself stuck and wondering “what does the designer want me to do now?”, you’re asking the wrong question. I want to spend time playing the game, not trying to determine what the designer’s path or intended solution is.

    The player should be seen as a collaborator, a co-author, a partner, not an opponent. The designer gives the player the building blocks of play, and the player stacks them as desired during the course of the game, and within the rules of the game. If designed properly, not only will the structure maintain some form of meaningful cohesion, but the structure will look slightly different for every player, and after every play-through.

    “What if the player disagrees with the reward system, story or even perceives it as something different than intended though?” Well, good! As an art form, games should be subject to interpretation, open to discussion. A player who disagrees with the reward system, who fails to follow the trail of breadcrumbs, is simply exercising their right to play the game their way. A designer must expect and prepare for that.

    “The interpretation of the experience then is potentially in conflict with whatever the designer intended.” The designer and the player are different people, so different interpretations and conflict are to be expected. Designer intent is important, but should not come at the expense of interactivity.

    “As a writer, I am not comfortable with my story being taken apart from the inside by characters who suddenly have some limited free will now deciding that they like one ending over another.” As a writer, you shouldn’t be comfortable. As a fellow writer, neither am I. As a designer, on the other hand…you must expect players to ignore clues, to go places they shouldn’t, to optimize for their own enjoyment. A storyteller must hold tight to the reins during the creative process to keep the scope of his story from exceeding his intent. A game designer, however, must set up the outermost boundaries, arrange the game rules, and then set the player loose. it is through interactivity, through play, that the game’s character(s) take on a life of their own.

    I know that this thread was mostly about tragedy, the careful structure of which often requires a more limited, more linear, game progression in order to make sense. And I know that what I mentioned above was more about offering the player more freedom, more openness. But the most powerful tragedy I’ve found is when the character, the player, or both, justify their actions by saying “I have no choice”, or “this is the only way”. When the player is given some measure of freedom, and by following the character’s tragic flaw they throw that freedom away, then the fall becomes the player’s as well. At that point, they are truly a collaborator in the tragedy.

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