essay, video games

Wooden boxes on spaceships and other verisimilitude problems

Alternative title: The post in which I challenge dmccool’s ideas on total immersion. (I’m sorry about this, dmccool. Please prove me wrong.)

On the post “Second Meditation“, dmccool and I got into a back and forth on the problems I see what dmccool refers to as “Sloppy design”.

Says dmccool:

“The ‘Sloppy Design’ comes in when such measures [invisible walls] actually interfere with what we perceive is happening – the whole point of staging a fight where there are lethal drops, is that this adds danger and drama to the situation. If it so happens that the invisible walls are noticed by most players, and cause most players to clock their characters are not really in any danger, then that is sloppy design.”

I have quite a few problems with this idea. One, I feel that the argument here is that total immersion in the game world is the one and only solution to understanding the existence of the player-character. It’s a part of that, sure, but just because the player is better at being a part of the world does not mean that the design is necessarily better or that design that does not do that is “sloppy”. Two, breakage of the forth wall — ” invisible walls are noticed” — is not always a bad thing either. As dmccool notes, saying “as long as we don’t [realize]” these invisible boundaries, they might be very helpful to us. However, I think this too is problematic.

I want to note that, above all else, I do absolutely agree with the idea that lessening or mitigating these interruptions are the goals of best design practices.

I would like to re-frame the conversation some though. What we are talking about, I feel, is the concept of flow as it applies to understanding the in-the-moment player interactions with the game. Ideally, flow, the zen-like “in the zone” feeling,  should be generated and maintained as long as possible in the case of playing a game. There should be moments where I think I am the character I am controlling and I act without noticing that I am, indeed, holding a controller (or not) in my hand. This is what I think dmccool is making the case for: flow maintained at all costs.

And I mostly agree with that… with major a caveat.

Subversive play, an essential part of the play-character process which relies on the parts I talked about before, is driven by the partial knowledge of the player. They purposely engage with the game knowing they do not know things (i.e. accepting in light of their ignorance) in order that flow, defined here as the momentary negation of the asymmetrical knowledge problem, occurs. By approaching the game at all, they are saying that they do not know everything about it — and maybe never will — but that they want an experience that will, at times, transport them — through flow (mechanical) and “suspending disbelief” (narrative) — into anther world, the location of the game. However, the immersion is broken before it even begins!

One of my favorite definitions, even if it does not cover everything I think might be games, is from The Grasshopper: “Playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

To refer back to some things I wrote months ago:

“Entering any game world, taking part in the “magic circle”, is a voluntary expedition. It is the exploring of a space through willful intent. You agree to the world and its quirks by entering into it. Passing through “simulation gap” is the invoking of a strange user agreement. This EA is not in giving up your rights to use the content of the game but your own roles within the world. Coming into the world, not unlike Alice, means that the rules of reality are strange, distorted and even a subset. Yet that first step must be one of choice, of willfulness, of voluntary commitment to the world.”

“We play games to make choices. By the simple logic, we must want the presence of situations that will cause us to have to choose. The more choices, the better. In the pursuit of verisimilitude of the subset of reality, we take place in simulations that will cause us to stay in the simulation as long as possible. Thus, the use of “unnecessary obstacles”. The perfection of a clean experience, the perfect ending, is not something we want. We dislike and disengage from anything that does meets the uncanny valley of realism. If things are too good for the protagonist, things going too well, we stop the experience. On some level, we recognize and crave the imperfection of realism.” (“Unnecessary Obstacles“)

We engage with any medium by knowing it is a medium. Through flow (mechanical) and “suspending disbelief” (narrative), as I mentioned before, we come to be momentarily transported into the world. This is the goal! However, we need moments that remind us, even if they are unintended, that we are playing a game, reading a book or watching a film. In order for Catharsis to happen, we must have developed the necessary dissonant distance to accept that the game world is not our own. For the catch-then-release to happen, we must be able to break from the flow and ‘breath out the emotions’ after an incident. If we do not ever break from this engagement, we live in a delusional state. The fictional world becomes our world.

I completely agree with dmccool that these breaks of flow should be planned and not just suddenly occur as we come to realize that the wooden box we just shot, while on a spaceship, just exploded, as an example. Verisimilitude problems, and especially but not limited to ludonarrative dissonance, should not be part of the experience, at least not a major part. However, I do not see a way to escape them as I think dmccool wants. The initial menu, loading screens, even on-screen HUDs are a constant reminder that someone (you) is playing a game and interacting with a world through a character.

Going back to dmccool’s comment:

“A better solution might be another illusion – maybe a tripping animation, were characters stumble as they approach the edge and automatically walk back or maybe have characters always grab onto the ledge as they fall off, only to be helped back by another character, Left 4 Dead style. While these are still illusions, if they trick people into thinking they are on a precarious ledge then the designer has done their job. If the measures taken break the suspension of disbelief and make us realise we are in a different role to the one we are being told we are in then that is a failure of design. I’m willing to be pretty hard-line about this. If you can’t make me feel I am on a precarious path, change the story so it doesn’t involve one.”

In the comments that led up to this one, I was talking about how I tried to commit suicide in Dragon Age: Origins as soon as I found a cliff to (attempt) to jump off of. The argument made here, I think, is saying that all “precarious path[es]” should be avoided and that the story, even if it takes place around such a thing, should make great pains to avoid allowing the player to consider jumping off of it. I disagree with this strongly.

Player intention is very hard to determine!

As I mentioned in my comment:

“If I had succeeded [in committing suicide], the game would have been over right then but my interpretation of the events would have been highly unique. The problem lies though in reading that intention of the player. What if I had tripped off of the ledge or had been pushed by another NPC? Do you force the player, every time a possible death situation happens, to reload the section or even game? Even more complex, as Heavy Rain tried, do you branch the story at every possible choice and potentially make a game take decades to produce?”

Even worse, at least in how I see it, is the designer who tries to trap the player into the game with constant rewards.

“If the whole reason for playing games is to get pleasure, then they are essentially a drug in software form. (This is why Jon Blow sees many MMOs, and especially many Facebook games, as being unethical in their blatant use of rewards to keep people playing.)”

Even if the designer could keep me constantly immersed, is that even a good thing? An ethical thing? Additionally, is that even possible? I’d argue: probably not.

1 thought on “Wooden boxes on spaceships and other verisimilitude problems”

  1. Hey, thanks for the reply. Interesting thoughts here, I’ll do my best to respond and defend my position.

    One caveat I’d like to begin with is throughout this discussion we’ve had in the comments thread, we’ve zoned in on the Player Character in a single player roleplaying game. I think if there is such a thing as a player character, it’s nature will differ drastically from game to game, and it is only really in a single player roleplaying game that some of these problems might occur. In particular, our Dragon Age Origins discussion was one framed around the idea of a Main Character juxtaposed with a Player Character.

    What interests me is what sort of character we can said to be playing at any moment. This also applies when we are not looking at any particular character with player agency. In the Dragon Age example, if the party fighting above that abyss are not actually in any danger, then this doesn’t necessarily matter to us. It is vitally at the point where our suspension is broken and we realise that the characters are in no danger whatsoever of falling. If that happens (and not just to a few people, but to many) then we have to seriously consider what the designer is doing here. The excitement of that very setting is the chance suffering a lethal fall. If the designer never had any intention of placing us in that setting, we were being offered a film scene and not a game level. This approach to games design, that as most players are willing to accept they are wilfully being lied to on every level when it comes to setting, has lead to all the worst atrocities in games design. Call of Duty, I’m looking at you.

    As long as we are willing to forgive games for not giving us actual scenes, but only film-like facsimiles of these scenes, then designers will continue to offer us games that are nothing to do with what they pretend to be. There is a tug of war here, between actual games design, and overwhelming the senses with film techniques. Personally I would rather have 10 games in mundane settings that give us real, meaningful interaction, than 100 set on imaginary paths, with bombastic backdrops that offer no relation to the game themselves.

    What I am arguing for here shouldn’t be seen purely in terms of immersion. I think whenever someone is really in the “flow” as you put it, of a game session, no matter what is going on they are experiencing what it is like to be that particular player character. My point is merely there is an unusual distance in some (badly designed) games between the Main Character we are meant to be and and the reality. Whether we are “totally immersed” or not, whenever we play a game we are taking on a role (be it a narrative or even a functional role), the question is, how does this role match up with what the designer intended?There are better examples than Dragon Age here.

    The Assassin’s Creed series is who we should take our queues from when it comes to falling off ledges. The genius piece of design in Assassin’s Creed was to reduce climbing and jumping to merely holding down two buttons. A non-gamer can grasp how to run across rooftops and scale towers in minutes. What is important here is you are playing a trained superhero assassin who would have no real difficulty with the basic timing of jumps and catching ledges. The game instead focuses your attention on where to jump, what route to take across the city tops, immediately transferring you into the role of some fantastical genius of parkour, who only needs a few seconds of analysing his surroundings before you are off and escaping from any number of guards. What frustrates us often in games is when we find our own input woefully inadequate to the narrative demands of the Main Character’s prowess. If we are playing a character who makes it look easy, then it should feel easy.

    But what if we are not playing a trained assassin? What then for precarious ledges? I see two approaches. Either we go the way of the utterly brilliant Ico and Shadow of The Colossus where we play a small, gangly boy who stumbles about the gameworld as if he is being tugged and thrown by our unreasonable control demands, and waves his arms around as he is taken too near the edge of a drop by us. This character can fall off any ledge (often enough to his death), and is in a constant relation of utter vulnerability to his epic, foreboding surroundings. In essence, Team Ico’s solution is to make us vulnerable to falling off the ledge.
    The other route as far as I see it is to take agency way from us when we try and make a character fall over a ledge. This we also find in Shadow Of The Colossus, when riding a horse (there is no way to persuade the horse to jump to its death). This solution works nicely, as the horse riding segments would otherwise be frustrating, and actually adds to the immersion, making us feel like we are riding a real beast. Left 4 Dead offers something similar, making characters automatically grab a hold of the edge of the ledge whenever they fall off. Though immersion takes a hit here, what is maintained is the danger of the drop (a character left dangling will need to be rescued, if all characters end up in this state at the same time the game is over. This is probably the funniest way to lose at Left 4 Dead).

    If we can’t think of solutions like this, then I still maintain we shouldn’t put settings like this in our games. Like Warren Spector told the Deus Ex team again and again, make worlds, not movie sets. Interaction is the paradigm we should always operate, and try and push that as far as possible. The invisible walls can only be forgiven as long as most people fall of them, and we really do see ourselves (or our characters, whatever,) as being in this particular scene. Otherwise you are not designing a game, but a scene from a film. This way of thinking infects a huge portion of the games industry and we should fight it at every step. Every time someone offers us a gamespace or a role with new ways of interaction, and consequences actually realised, we should applaud it. And every time a CoD game gives us a battle scene where we don’t have to fire a single bullet, or takes us down a precarious path that is supposed to make us feel in danger but every single player will discover it is just like any corridor, we should complain. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UGtlUMMkOU

    I hope that answered some of your objections.

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