essay, video games

What are we asking for?

[This is a response to dmccool‘s comment from the last post]

I think some background information will help other people catch up to what we are talking about here.

dmccool posted “Second Meditation” in which the idea was put forth that since the best coverage — really the only appropriate reporting — of video game spaces is that which is based on the writer’s impressions (New Journalism) then the best accounts must be those that arise from talking about — often in a first-person narrative — what actually happened when the player themselves (New Games Journalism) interact with the game. This means, of course, that designers must account for this behavior and construct the game in such a way that interactivity — the primary strength of games — rules over the other information delivery systems like text and visual artifacts.

Someone is playing a game. Their reactions and thoughts can often be just as important as the process — “gameplay” — itself. [See “Things I Ate in Skyrim” as a prime example.]

“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.”

Yes, I agree. In fact, I wrote something very similar a few weeks ago:

“The most base level of making a game is to make it a set of scenes. The player transitions between these states like moving from scene to scene within a slide show. Press a button for the next slide, press a button for the previous slide. It is a narrative only is so much that the player reads or experiences the story as a transitional function on the part of the character that they are watching. The interaction is minimal or, if it exists at all, does not really matter. This, as a game, is the worst form of story-telling. This is making a book into a game by just adding a set of buttons for the player to press to get the next story beat for them to consume. This is not what the best games allow for a player to experience. It should be more.” (emphasis added)” — A Set of Scenes

However, the question that comes to mind is this: what are we asking for and who are we asking it on the part of?

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 [for] 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.” (emphasis added)

Who are the designers making the game for? You and I, dmccool, who will take the game apart — like me — and even potentially develop emergent narratives that, while interesting, do not match up with what they intended or even guessed was possible? Or should they design for those players will probably never notice the invisible walls and who enjoy passing through the corridor of action thinking they are the action star? Which one of us should they design for?

I’m a relatively poor student who does not buy the latest games and often gets things used when I can. I am personally not the audience for them. It’s people who can and will shell out major money for an experience and not necessarily a story. I want a narrative and especially the ability to write my own as I play the game. I am not always looking for fun to be given to me. I will often seek it out. It sounds as if you are a similar mind, dmccool.

The Assassin’s Creed series is who we should take our [cues] 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.”

I disagree with that. I liked that Assassin’s Creed, had such a great kinetic feel to the movement — it’s the same thing I liked in Mirror’s Edge too. However, I was immediately disconnected from the reality of the game in its very premise. I do not care how fun it can be, how easy most movements are, you cannot give the player agency within memory. That does not make sense.

I was quick to realize that there were, in fact, no real choices in the game. As long as I was playing as one man in another man’s memories — even genetic memories — it meant that I could not achieve true agency. The story is set before I get there. Even though I know this on the highest layer of interpretation (realization of the fourth wall), I was constantly reminded that all actions were an illusion on the lower interpretation (moment to moment) by the very presence of collectible items. How can there be something I am able not to do if I am, in fact, living someone else’s memories? (By the way, I thought this problem was even worse in Assassin’s Creed 2.) In fact, I considered that the game was purposely prompting me to realize this outcome every time it let me control Desmond, who was also limited in what he could do. His options were my options: either take a break or continue to play the game.

You have also, assuming you did not mean to do it, said something — “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” — remarkable similar to what Clint Hocking said about BioShock — “…Bioshock seems to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story” when he basically invented the term ludonarrative dissonance. So, yes, that’s bad in any game.

“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?

I’d like, in answering this, to go back to something Ari said — and I agree with — a couple weeks ago:

“If you’ve ever found yourself stuck and wondering ‘what does the designer want me to do now?’, you’re asking the wrong question.

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.” (emphasis added)

I don’t necessarily disagree with everything you are presenting, dmccool, but am wondering if you might be fighting a losing battle.