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.

3 thoughts on “What are we asking for?

  1. Haha, we can’t go on like this. But I’ll try and answer your points best I can. Again I think I must have not been quite clear enough, or you must have simply misread me.

    “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 wouldn’t proscribe who designers should design for, though I would like to insist that they at least design well, and design their games to be games. As I said, as long as no-one notices an invisible wall, it doesn’t matter. The roles we inhabit in games are imagined ones, after all. Though you and I might be exactly the kind of people who go out looking to bump our heads into the fourth wall, I’d argue that this is the default mode of interaction for the non-gamer as well. Looking past all the cracks and just focusing on what the designer wants us to see as important is a learned skill in games. The inexperienced player is the one who will try and open every door, it’s only us, the seasoned gamers who know they are just painted on textures.

    What is important, if we are still looking at CoD style blockbusters, is the group in-between; those who know enough of how games work to keep focused on what the designer intended, but who has no interest in pushing the boundaries of how much they are actually involved in the game (as a side-note, how many gamers are actually like this? I think less than we’d normally assume). My point is (and always has been) that when looking at this subset (people in “the flow”), what analysis can we give of the actual role of the Player Character? Are we talking about a soldier? Okay, what sort of soldier, what kind of dangers does the Soldier face? Design is sloppy when it compromises this role, either in it’s imaginary aspect in the player’s mind, or it’s functional role within the game code (see back to my original article for a discussion of this).

    I think generally we agree, though at the end of your article here you appear to have again misunderstood me, with this quote:

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

    When I posited “the question is, how does this role match up with what the designer intended?”, this was a question for us, outsiders looking at a game experience, or piece of design, criticality. If a designer wants us to feel like we are in a certain role, he better keep a hold of the “ludonarrative dissodance”, as you put it. For the player, the designer should be totally absent; it is the game world itself that should convince the player to act in a certain way, if at all. Personally the style of game design which excites me the most is that which most recklessly embraces the death of the author (this is what I attempt in my own games). My ideal designer is not a co-author, or a partner or even a collaborator, but an invisible entity, a sort of Prospero behind the scenes, using his magic to bring together these different agents, and watching as the drama unfolds. In fact my favourite sort of designer is the one who has no idea how the story will turn out. Sadly, this idealised version of games design has little in common with the above analysis, of prescriptive roles within Hollywood blockbuster dramas.

  2. I wish I had the time right now to join in the conversation…looks like a lot’s been going on. I’ll have to catch up first, and there’s a lot of reading to do, on both your blogs.
    Coincidentally, I’ve been asking myself similar questions recently about the player’s role, and how that role manifests itself in the game. I’ll share my thoughts once I’m caught up and not quite so sleep-deprived.

  3. I find the idea of the designer not as a supremely all-knowing entity, but as one who helps the drama unfold, to be quite interesting. I just don’t think the designer should have *no* idea how things will turn out: he or she should set a limited possibility space, but within said space, any number of things could happen. For any of the player’s actions, the designer has any number of reactions, based on factors invisible to the player. The player’s choices lead to given consequences, and the story unfolds from that.

    To allow a design like this, and also to facilitate the collaboration between player and designer (assuming this is a desired end), I’d suggest using smaller “building blocks”, rather than just binary plot points (e.g. do I kill the Rachni queen, or set her free?). Give the player more ways to connect those blocks in meaningful ways, using choice and consequence to construct the story, but know that this approach really muddies the definition of the player’s role in the game. Are they an actor? Director? Spectator? Something else entirely?

    I’m actually in favor of having a behind-the-scenes designer: remember, I don’t think that the player ought to be pondering “what does the designer want me to do now?” Imagine if the player had the power to be the architect of his own fate, author of his own story. That would be an empowering mindset, but the designer’s hands would have to be very well hidden indeed. It’s been said that the designer’s primary job is to design the experience that the player will have while playing, but how many different experiences will be possible? Will the game allow for different outcomes? Will it encourage different viewpoints, different approaches?

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