Defining the rules that bend the rules.

After reading a rather thought-provoking discussion on this MetaGame blog post, the definition of what a game is in my mind has been subjected to significant change. Take in mind, that I am not reffering to the discussion between me and Keith Burgon, but rather the discussion between Jorge Sousa and Ruicraveirinha.

“Sculpture and architecture, for instance, in which observants positioning and movement count as defining traits of the experience, irrevocably change the mental conceptualization of the artifact, both in its emotionally expressive and cognitive qualities. Though we may stand still, and not act, our eyes also interact through movement (we have tunnel vision, so we can never see see everything that we see at the same time), which is why even static, immutable objects like Mona Lisa or Metropolis can actually be very diferent artifacts in our minds, only on the account of our eyes having moved differently, having seen different parts at different moments, attracted to different points of interest, and the particular order of images out of which we built “Mona Lisa” and “Metropolis” actually changes our “perception” of what they “objectively” are.” -Ruicraveirinha
 

Ruicraveirinha said this in response to an article brought up by Jorge Sousa. In the article, Scott Juster states that the difference between high-brow and low-brow has been determined throughout history by how much the art work can change given interaction. The low-brow being interactive plays and high-brow being plays where the audience accepts the way the writer has made it. Ruicraveirinha basically says that games are not distinguished by the degree of interaction.

After reading this, I think the distinction between games and other art forms is that the game designer defines the system by which the audience’s interaction abides by. With architecture, the rules governing human movement and in turn mental conceptualization of the artifact are somewhat fixed. The rules governing human movement throughout a building are characterized by social hierarchy, functionality of the rooms, how the people are meant to move around the building, the activities that are conducted on the premises and of course, how the building and its rooms are spatially arranged. All of these systematic factors contribute to how a building is utilized and interpreted; social hierarchy determines whether your looking at a hotel from the penthouse or from the bottom floor. Functionality of the rooms determines which people observe certain parts of the building and when. How the people are meant to move around the building changes; how they must act when moving about(eg. idle in an elevator or carefully walking up stairs) and how they’re perspective changes when taking certain routes. The activities that are conducted on the premises changes the mood and overall tone by which the building is conceptualized. The spatial arrangement of the building changes what is visible by who, when and where.

All these concepts intertwine and cannot be negotiated with when designing a building(unless in the rare case of an experimental work of architecture). The additional parameters by which the architecture has to work with do change the way that these concepts operate and lowers the overall complexity of the art forms rules. If the guy-with-money says that the building has to be a government building that dwarfs all of the people who enter, spatial arrangement is limited to making large rooms and social hierarchy considerations are limited to making the big-wigs spatially higher and overseeing. The architect has to add these parameters that work with the rules governing interaction with buildings, in order to influence how the people conceptualize the building. The architect takes in mind how interactive the building is, but is powerless to change the rules.

That’s where games are distinct from other art-forms. Games aren’t an art-form that are defined by how the audience interacts with it. Games are the art of defining the rules by which the audience interacts with elements of the game, because a game cannot exist as rules alone. A game’s contention can be defined by the rules, for example Monopoly or Osmos, but those rules still need art assets which the player can interact with in accordance to the rules.By providing rules that differ from reality, the entire aesthetic content of the game changes. A great work of architecture is not a great work of level design, for example.

Games as a whole cannot be classified as high-brow or low-brow, only individual games themselves. The idea that high-brow and low-brow works are distinguished by how interaction changes their contention is still quite a valid idea. How Monopoly is mentally conceptualized doesn’t change much because of interaction. Monopoly still remains to be a game about ruthless capitalist acquisition. Therefore according to this idea, Monopoly is very high-brow.

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Anomalous Behavior

This post is about how real life stories amaze us and how games (or more specifically interactive stories) can learn from this.

Amazement is a form of surprise. When we are amazed, we are witnessing something that contradicts our current understanding. So when a real life story amazes us, it is because the anecdote breaks our system. What sets it aside from regular surprise is that the feeling compels us to not only figure out what is going on, but to also explain and comprehend it.

Real life anecdotes break our system, because our simplistic subjective interpretations of the universe can’t explain the phenomena. For example, A Maze’N Things have optical illusions that contradict depth perception and spatial awareness. There are probably some people that manage to perceive space by unconventional means, but everybody else would be amazed by these kinds of illusions.

As I noted before, fictional stories heavily utilize our current understanding of the real world. If a fictional story fails to temporarily change our understanding of the fictional universe, then anomalous behavior will be met with disbelief and the narrative will be met with criticism. The story-teller has to make sure that the audience is fully aware of any differences in the fictional world relative to reality and it would also be wise for the story-teller to cater for different interpretations of the real world. An example of a story taking these measures before beginning, would be The Hurt Locker. In the prelude to The Hurt Locker, the film introduces a character as the protagonist and gives him the same sort of treatment that a protagonist would receive in other stories. The main difference though is that, the “false protagonist” dies in the first scene. This prepares the viewer to accept an atmosphere that lacks safety.

Now, for the part that interactive stories can draw off of. The reason why real life stories are amazing and believable is because, we know(consciously or not) that behavior in our world is governed by rules, not by the arbitrary creations of story-tellers. Observe this quote;

“Einstein argued that there must be simplified explanations of nature, because God is not capricious or arbitrary. No such faith comforts the software engineer.” -Fred Brooks

If a games storyline is dictated by low-level rules that abstract into higher-level order, than they can evoke amazement and possibly change the player’s understanding of the world. If the rules defined, establish emergent order similiar to real life, but not quite the same, than anomalous behavior can occur. The player will not question the realism of the story, because it is not of the artist’s arbitrary creation, but rather the artist’s design. So long as the story that emerges is somewhat comparable to reality. If the fictional world isn’t mechanically similiar enough, than the amount of involvement required from the audience will outweigh the emotional involvement that the story can evoke.

Simulation-based story-telling is not only a way of creating compelling and/or amazing experiences, but is also story-telling that is most parallel to what games are as an art form. The painter defines a piece by how he/she places brushstrokes on a canvas, a musician defines a piece by sequential patterns and a game designer defines an artwork by rules.

I’m not saying that this is the definitive future of video-games, but it is a mighty fine possibility.

deus ex (machina)

Deus Ex Machina is a literary device whereby a seemingly unsolved problem is resolved by a new character, event, ability or object.

Deus Ex is a videogame whereby the player character resolves issues that were seemingly inextricable. So in the case of Deus Ex, the player character is the deus ex machina.

This ties in a lot to Warren Spector’s design philosophy. Stories that aren’t just told to the audience, but told with the audience. The game is called Deus Ex, because it is a deus ex machina that is missing a machine(or the closest human equivalent).

The Key to Blissful Loneliness

One of the most intriguing concepts I have learned about human psychology is that every human emotion has a natural purpose in certain scenarios. Fear tells us to run away from dangerous predators, Sadness tells us to make changes to our lives or strategies in order to continue despite a loss, Anger tells us to prepare for an attack and Surprise tells us to open our eyes and ears really wide so that we can figure out what the hell is happening. This is a rather rudimentary idea, but I still find it very interesting.

All base emotions were developed before society and as the limbic system(emotion part of the brain) is the brain stem, all modern-day rational behaviour was built on top of that. Jealousy developed as a means of motivating people to win over the competition(fairly or otherwise) and Lust developed as well, it should be obvious.

But up until recently, I was a bit divided as to why loneliness is met with depression. I originally thought that it could be either an in-built incentive to keep people socially exchanging ideas and emotional expressions(in order to remain in the loop and somewhat enlightened), or a means of encouraging people to be compatible with the people around them. I now have a completely different theory and I’m quite sure this one is more relevant.

How loneliness typically feels:

When loneliness is met with depression and almost forced rumination, it makes the loner feel hopeless, helpless, empty, worthless and dissatisfied with life. Depressed people also have trouble enjoying what they usually enjoy and can make them feel guilty.

When somebody fails to connect with other people or relate with other people intimately, it can be seen by that person as a reflection of worthlessness. Whether it be worthless genetics(ugliness, baldness, obesity etc.), a deficit of social grace(awkwardness) or simply a failure to emotionally connect with other people. Either way, being conscious of this can lead to the previously mentioned feelings and because most of the aforementioned skills and attributes develop from either genetics or childhood(read “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman if you don’t believe me) it can also make the loner feel helpless.

Why these feelings exist as a result:

One thing that led me to ask this question is, why do our primitive selves care about these capabilities. Although it obvious that being alone it makes us feel these ways, it isn’t quite obvious why these feelings exist.

I’ve got it. Lacking these capabilities is met with the natural notion of being an evolutionary dead-end. This notion would have come into existence back when civilisation was just starting up. During this period of time, the only way anyone could pass on their legacy or influence, was by having a blood-line. Ergo, if you repeatedly failed at finding a mate, than you would have become depressed.

Loners feel; worthless for being 2nd class and guilty for occupying space and resources that evolution never intended for them to have. Loners feel hopeless for not being able to pass their influence on through time, but more importantly, loners feel that their emotional selves will never be expressed and embraced.

The key to blissful loneliness:

During civilisation’s humble beginnings, living a life without having children or falling in love would be a pointless life that the world would not care about or respond to. But in modern society there are far more numerous ways to influence the world. Whether the legacy you want to leave behind is an expression of your character or an ideology that you fervently believe in, is all up to you.

If you are longing to let someone close enough to know who you really are and empathize with you, know who you are inside, then instead make something that expresses your feelings and portrays your emotive character. Maybe even an artwork that portrays the feeling of loneliness itself, like some artists have done in the past(eg. Celldweller’s lyrics or The Company of Myself game).

If you want someone to care for and appreciate you, but have trouble getting that close to somebody, then make a significant change to the world for the better. People will remember you for years to come. There are scientists, engineers, artists, athletes etc. that are remembered for decades after they die. That’s not the same as someone caring about you, but try to think what I uncovered and you may be able to alleviate those feelings.

The first option is best for the loners that are lonely due to a lack of social grace or emotional expression. The second option is best for the loners that are alone due to factors like ugliness, insensitivity, addiction problems or anything really. Which ever you choose, just take in mind that depression is completely demotivating. Though if you take in mind what I said then you may be able to transcend the link between solitude and sadness.

Hedonism and Meaning

In many elitist circles, people tend to classify what is art and what is not. Most of the time in these circles, the conclusion is drawn that anything made for the expressed purpose of either stimulating feelings of adrenaline or sexual arousing the viewer is not art, because these feelings usually do not produce memorable experiences. The genres they are referring to have derogatory terms; pulp-horror, dumb-action, torture-porn.

I must admit I’m not fond of this hedonistic entertainment either, but not for the same reasons. When a fictional experience is designed solely as an emotion-driven experience, the narration of the story takes higher priority than the story itself. This usually results in the story becoming unbelievable, over-dramatized or stretched. I’m not saying that these kinds of works are bad, I’m just saying that it is not my cup of tea. Whereas these elitists wouldn’t even recognize it as tea at all.

I have noticed that this phenomena doesn’t just pertain to dumb-action, it occurs in almost any genre, regardless of which emotion it prescribes. Whether it be happiness, love, sadness, anger or even nostalgia, the over-abundance of such emotions usually leads to stories without meaning, stories that aren’t believable or shallow stories that don’t discuss themes thoroughly. For example; soap operas like Neighbours, fantasy romance books like Twilight or overstretched dramas like Lost.

Unfortunately, there are also consequences when the story is written without intent for effect. Although these stories can enlighten the audience with a thorough and in-depth discussion, the emotional value of these stories are not as high and can be less holistic. Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic seems to be written for believability and contemplation. The individual contexts that are in the game are very well constructed. Each planet has its own unique social, political and economic virtues, as well as some intriguing conflicts as a result. But Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic is also quite dry at times and most of the dialogues are plain information dumps. This is probably intended to suit the Jedi ideal of emotional neutrality and self-control.

A truly great story needs to have symbiotic balance between story mechanics and narrative effect. Mass Effect 2 does so quite masterfully (except for its combat game-play). The story/strategy structure of Mass Effect 2 is designed in a way that facilitates intellectual contemplation and emotional involvement. Here is a flowchart that sums up the story:

The synopsis of Mass Effect 2.

Blue indicates the general strategy from the perspective of a robot. Black is the story in relation to the long-term strategy. And Red is the emotional effect of the story and strategy. Not only is Mass Effect 2‘s emotive impact holistically considered and realized, but the storyline is quite believable and the economic decisions made by the player make sense from a robot’s perspective. As far as I am concerned that’s a recipe for a damn good dramatic game.

Mass Effect 2 isn’t the only game containing this kind of structure. Beyond Good and Evil has a very similiar structure:

The synopsis of Beyond Good and Evil.

Imagination anyone?

When most people are enjoying a work of fiction, they usually interpret it as a virtual world. When people are observing a fictional work from an analytical point of view, it is obvious that this is not the case. A fictional film is seen by many as a window into a different world with similiar mechanics to our own, when really it only provides vague snippets of audio-visual info. The mechanics of the fictional world are merely the educated imaginings of the audience. Imaginings that are educated by the knowledge of our own world.

For instance, if a character gets angry, the audience has to guess the stimuli for their aggression. The audience guesses by looking at other elements and crosschecks them with probable causes. Without knowledge of anger, the audience has no hope of determining the reason for this anger. Imagination is where the mechanics come from, the story is actually executed in the viewer’s head. Sympathy comes into play when the audience needs to choose from the separate stimuli for aggression. The audience either has to sympathize with  the character or apply a generalized archetype, the choice depending on how well the character is portrayed or ‘fleshed out’. The french film Welcome to the Sticks (Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis) puts the audience’s ignorance to good use. As the characters are slowly portrayed, the audience’s understanding changes and is almost synchronized with that of the protagonist’s.

The elements of fiction displayed in a Venn Diagram.

Of course, it isn’t all the responsibility of the audience in order to figure out the events in the story. It is the job of the cinematographer to provide hints by employing techniques of editing. the Kuleshov Effect demonstrates this idea. It is the job of the author to present ideas in a way that hints the reader, maybe using metaphor or implicit declaration.

Games are a bit sketchy in their method of portrayal. I have still yet to play a game that uses irony in it’s story. There is no widely accepted technique or viewpoint as to how imagination is utilized in games. Imagination and reasoning are already employed in game-play, but it is rarely used as a means of story-telling.

Most games (now-a-days) construct narrative methods with the goal of delivering as much as information as possible in the most explicit and comprehensive way. So that the player’s cognition can be wasted on other things like: solving puzzles, killing badies and grinding for more level-ups. Most of the time these game-mechanics have little effect on how the player perceives the fictional world. That’s why I refer to games like Call of Duty as being films (poor cinematography by the way) with combat game-play attached. But recently there have been a few hopeful titles; Bulletstorm, Portal 2 and LA Noire.

The front cover of the game M.U.L.E.

Quite a few old games utilize imagination for story-telling, because at the time they simply did not have the rendering power to tell the whole story aesthetically. M.U.L.E. for instance, conveys its premise through the consequences of the player’s actions. When the player figures out the premise, it is a “Eureka” moment. Another example is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where most of the settings are described in dialogue. The actual spatial aspects of the game are merely shells of a larger picture made by the player’s mind. The social aspects of game-play are micro views of large scale trends that the player calculates.

The failings with many games is that they attempt to tell the story without regard to its impact on the player. I seriously doubt that games can tell powerful stories if they only use the story as a fictional justification of the game-play. Considerations for implicit narrative aren’t required to create a powerful experience, but they are required to make a compelling story and provoke emotions that are actually relevant to the story.

Interesting links relating to story-telling:

Finding Games True Voice – Frictional Games Development Blog

Realm Of New Fictions – Huge Entity

The Deaths Of Game Narrative – Gamasutra(Darby McDevitt)

Transcending Prejudice Part 1

Currently, I’m attending Secondary School and two separate mathematics classes. More often than most of the time a student questions the practical value of a mathematical concept.

“When will I ever use Quartic Equations in my future art career?”,”Why would I ever need to know how to factorize an already pointless function?” or “The hell is a boxplot? and when will I ever use it?”

Practical Use =/= Practical Benefit

I’ve never seen much of a practical use to understanding these concepts either, other than software engineering and programming. Programming clearly puts mathematical thinking to practical use. What is practical? Why adore practicality? Why go to school and study if your only reason for being there is practical benefit? There is a practical benefit to studying mathematics, like there is a practical benefit to physical exercise. Both physical exercise and understanding mathematics maintain the functionality of the machine.

There is no practical use for running around a circuit for 5 minutes. When you are doing so you’re not transporting anything, you’re not completing a task and you’re actually wasting a lot of precious energy. Although you are not employing this process as a means of fulfilling a task, you are fulfilling a basic practical need through the process. The practical benefit of exercise is to maintain your body.

Just like physical exercise, there is no practical use for contemplating and solving a matrix. When you are doing so you’re not designing a bridge, you’re not calculating a profit margin and you are wasting quite a bit of energy and time.

Mathematical understanding is not a tool.

So what is the Practical Benefit?

Part 2…