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.

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)

Indigo Prophecy’s unique approach to story-telling

Indigo Prophecy is a cult videogame that released in 2005 and is the only game I’ve played that can be classed as a thriller. What I like most about this game is that the entirety of its game-play is dedicated only towards telling the story. Not one iota of game-play is self-sufficient, the game-play relies on the plot to grab the player’s attention. Indigo Prophecy also contains some narrative devices I’ve never encountered before and I’ll discuss them a bit more thoroughly.

A screenshot of Indigo Prophecy.The game isn’t built around the game-play, it is quite the opposite, the game-play is only used to tell the story. The main objective of the game is to prevent the main characters from losing their willpower. If the detective characters lose it, then they will resign and if Lucas (main character) loses it, then he will either turn himself in to the police or commit suicide. Using character development as the key game-play object provides a unique narrative experience. Even though the game-play portrays the characters well, it still portrays the psychological state of the characters through aesthetic elements. When Carla is made tense due to a grim psychic reading, she still tells the player later that she was made tense by it.

The suspicion mechanic is also a notable narrative device, when police are near Lucas and trying to find any sign of criminal behavior the level of suspicion is used as a game-play element. This increases the level of suspense quite dramatically. Of course, like the psychology mechanic, the suspense is still portrayed through aesthetics.

A picture showing interaction between the characters of Indigo Prophecy.If you were to take away the story, aesthetics and characters away from the game and judge it only by game-play, you would get bored very quickly. The game-play is a monotonous sequence of button-mashing and tedious tasks. The game-play are only used as a means of conveying the story and portraying the characters. Unlike most games nowadays, the game isn’t marketed to provide a fun and visceral game-play experience. It is aimed at providing an experience that tells you the story in a way that is immersive and to portray realistic lovable characters that the player can relate to and care about. The characters are not presented merely for practical reasons in game-play (read this).

Lukas breaking out into sobs. D:In previous posts I have spoken of games that place the player in a certain position of authority. I spoke about games where the player executes the will of the protagonist (Half Life), games where the player is the will of the protagonist and the protagonist is the executor (Deus Ex) and games where the player is merely an adviser (Machinarium). In Indigo Prophecy the player is the protagonist’s source of willpower.

Whenever the protagonist is under an immediate level of stress and hardship, the player is responsible for keeping the protagonist on track. There is a moment in game-play where the player needs to press a sequence of buttons quickly enough in order for the character to succeed. These quick time events require good concentration and it causes the player to be as focused as the character. The buttons that need to be pressed also fit with the movement in relation to the player’s viewpoint.

Whenever the protagonist is under physical strain, the player also has to exert physical effort. There are moments when the player has to repeatedly mash buttons in rapid succession, in order for the character to exert physical effort. As you can imagine, this synchronizes how the player is feeling and how the character is feeling as far as strain is concerned.

Whenever Carla (one of the main characters) is in a fearful situation, the player has to control her breathing so she doesn’t panic. Carla happens to be claustrophobic. In one level, Carla goes to an underground police archive in order to retrieve some files. The player has to control her breathing and look for the file at the same time (a tedious task). If the player fails to control Carla’s breathing than she will storm out of the archive and the player will have to start again. The importance of controlling fear is of narrative importance for portraying Carla’s dedication to her work and the importance of monitoring her fear is of metaphoric importance.The metaphor being that; even when we try to focus on an important task to take our minds off of the fear, it doesn’t seem quite possible and actually focusing on the task can actually make the fear worse.

A screenshot from a very eerie scene in Indigo Prophecy.Criticisms (spoilers follow)

This game seems to be more focused on the development of the characters than the development of the back-story. The back-story of Indigo Prophecy is about a conspiracy behind what started civilization and how it is related to a passage between differing worlds. A conspiracy following two conflicting groups that have shaped the world around us, orange clan and purple clan. Indigo Prophecy seemed to introduce these concepts into the game only at the very end, which made the game feel rather rushed.

Maybe the plot was only a way of portraying the changes in characters, this might make the actual lack of back-story portrayal a positive. Maybe this was what David Cage was aiming for when he made this game, this would also explain why the game-play makes the player complete such mundane tasks that don’t relate to the story as a whole (eating, having a shower etc).

Conclusion (end of spoilers)

This game is a thriller, because it puts the player in a position of responsibility that causes the player to feel the suspense and stress of a scene. It is a thriller, because it is a game built for the genre and not a typical game archetype. It is a cult video game, because it does not appeal to players of a particular gaming genre, it doesn’t even specifically appeal to gamers. Unlike most conventional games, Indigo Prophecy is written first, designed second (which is how it should be). This game is a true work of art, I wouldn’t exactly call it a masterpiece though, but it is good enough considering it’s rather unique nature. When I get a PS3 I’ll get Heavy Rain and dissect that.

Artistic Games or Interactive Art?

A lot of the things I have been hearing lately about the computer software industry seem to be centred around whether or not interactive mediums are evolving as a successful means of artistic expression. Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t and remaining stagnant, but either way there needs to be better clarification as to the differences between artistic games and interactive art.

What I’ve been hearing:

Systemic Emotion – Groping the Elephant

Dead Island Trailer and the Future of Games – Frictional Games

State of the Art: Teenage Wannabe and On the Tyranny of Fun – MetaGame

The Dragon Speech – Chris Crawford

Specific Violence – Fullbright

The Depths of Game Narrative -Darby McDevitt

Some of these articles are saying that games can’t provoke emotion as long as they are only focused on being fun or competitive (The Chris Crawford Speech and the Frictional blog). The MetaGame articles go as far to say that games can’t be art, because of the mere game mechanics of win/lose structures. The other two take no side of this idea, but they do still provide much reflection as to the state of games.

Currently I haven’t established my opinion as to which is more capable of provoking emotion. On one hand, artistic games can use the systematic thinking employed by the actual game to provoke, so far, limited emotional responses. On the other hand, artistic games are usually exposed to exploitation by the players trying to win. When the game mechanics are emphasized too much, the player cares less about the aesthetic part of the game. The characters are valued less for their human values and more for their place in game-play (As was mentioned in Systemic Emotion and The Dragon Speech). Some examples of Artistic Games would be; Mass Effect, Amnesia, Braid and Demon’s Souls.

Interactive Art is where the actual interaction with a piece is what gives it aesthetic value and emotional impact. These kinds of art have the nature of being more powerful, but this might just be because of the elements taken from other seasoned mediums (Heavy Rain for example, owes cinematography most of its success). One of the major drawbacks of this kind of artwork, is that the mainstream gaming audience doesn’t care much about these kinds of works. Many people would rate Heavy Rain as a bad game, because they expected it to be a game. Art works like these don’t have the same kind of engagement level as games, people approach them as games. Therefore they are criticized as games. Some examples of Interactive Art would be: Heavy Rain, Penumbra and Indigo Prophecy.

I don’t know which is more effective, but both kinds have the potential of striking a large variety of pallets. Maybe remaining limited to artistic games might increase the creative innovation, as Salvador Dalí once said;

“You know the worst thing is freedom. Freedom of any kind is the worst for creativity. You know, Dalí spent two months in jail in Spain, and these two months were the most enjoyable and happy in my life. Before my jail period, I was always nervous, anxious. I didn’t know if I should make a drawing, or perhaps make a poem, or go to the movies or the theatre, or catch a girl, or play with the boys. The people put me in jail, and my life became divine. Tremendous!” -Slavador Dalí

Modern Warfare 2 without the Gameplay

In my honest opinion Modern Warfare is a series with a lot of potential in narrative, philosophical and artistic aspects, but it’s combat is emphasized too heavily. The combat game-play is way too cumbersome (mentally) in order for the player to think about the plot or for the developer’s to deliver the plot properly. The “No Russian” level is an exception though, it isn’t made to be fun, it’s made to deliver the plot in a way that portrays the motives of the Ultra Nationalists. Unfortunately it is really poorly executed, this video does it better. Enjoy.