Sunday, July 5, 2009

Pedagogy, Game Systems and D&D

It seems this Far Cry 2 permadeath experience is interesting to more folks than I expected. Kieron was kind enough to give a mention in RPS' Sunday Papers and Clint himself wrote a fantastic response (and if you're coming here from either of those places, welcome!). And I wanted to discuss that response, or more accurately, ask "That sounds great. So how do we get there?"

That is to say, an alternate title for this post could be, "How Do We Make People Want to Die Forever?"

I highly suggest you give Clint's post a read, but to summarize, he says focusing on using narrative techniques to make games more emotionally impacting is deeply problematic. By emphasizing narrative tools, instead of ludic (game) ones, we're ultimately limited to being as good as film, literature, etc. Instead of exploiting the unique strength of games, we'll inherit the constraints of narrative-based media, and toss all the constraints of games on top of that.

To expand more upon something Clint touches on, one of the big challenges with using narrative-based tools to address these issue is the player becoming emotionally invested in the narrative is a precondition for it being affecting. This is very hard to do and I'd say the majority of games that attempt this do not succeed for most players. Quality of writing/performance will only address this so much. As human beings, we're basically hardwired for emotional empathy. Good writers/actors/directors understand this and they are quite good at creating fiction that creates empathy. Between the uncanny valley, nonlinear storylines, breadth of content and other issues, there's a lot of work to do for games to get to this point, and even then, I'm skeptical of us ever truly hitting par.

Anyone who's played tabletop RPGs for a while will recognized this problem of narrative buy-in. The GM will construct a serious, complicated storyline only to have the players not engage with it at all. A poor GM will become frustrated, dig in their heels and start rubbing the player's faces in a narrative they don't care about. Games have the same problem, except they can't detect when the players are not being engaged and course correct like a good GM can.

Clint argues, and I agree, that if we're going to see games create meaning differently, and possibly even be more engaging, more affecting, we have to do it through the tools of gameplay. The deep meaning games can produce will come from interacting with their systems.

But how do we encourage players to seek out these deep interactions?

As of now, a great many players, through no fault of their own, are content to sit back and enjoy the ride. Engaging deeply with game systems is still a relatively uncommon occurrence, and it doesn't help that there aren't too many games that are especially conducive to this. I'm barely even sure where to start building this pedagogy.

Making game systems more readable (ah, that old chestnut) is a good start, I think. If the depths of these systems is too obscure, it's going to be difficult to encourage investigation. It's easy to add permanent death to Far Cry 2, because the death mechanic is obvious and ubiquitous. Others interactions may be less obvious and playing with them (literally) is only possible when their existence is known and at least partially understood.

Like a good GM, we need to facilitate players in seeking out what interests them and then finding ways to still surprise and challenge them. Creating that investment is the first step toward deep meaning. For narrative-based media, their currency is empathy. For us, I think the currency is interest and engagement.

Beyond that, I don't really know. But it's something I know I'm going to be thinking about a lot in the days and weeks to come. And I know that we have to find some methods of teaching players how to discover these meaningful interactions. It's not going to arise organically for a great many people, simply because it's so different from how we engage with narrative-based media.

To be clear, I'm not saying all games have an imperative to do this. There will always be a seat for the Mario Karts, for the Trines (as an aside, I've been playing this lately and it's fantastic. Imagine D&D + The Lost Vikings + Little Big Planet).

But if we want to create experiences that are profound, that will truly touch those that experience them, we have to light the path for them. So how can we build some lanterns?

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Blogger Nick LaLone said...

It seems to me that people want the feel of a video game with the emotional appeal of real life consequences without the pain involved. It's like going on vacation from pain.

I really wonder if the two (video games and pain) are compatible.

July 5, 2009 at 7:49 PM  
Blogger Nick LaLone said...

Thinking further, how can you get across the ambiance of a system of rules without including the programming for all of the possibilities? Game systems always seem tailored toward the particular story in that certain aspects of a world are ignored (e.g. Mario can stand 3 inches from Lava, Master Chief can get blasted with a sniper shot in the head and maybe live to keep on fighting).

Game systems always seem to be built on the assumptions and tools that a character needs to survive. Why not create an engine that takes all of those things into account with the addition of a variety of tools that don't seem like mechanics?

That's it for some vague statements from me!

July 5, 2009 at 7:56 PM  
Blogger Graham said...

Something that always comes to mind when people talk about games + emotions, is what emotions we are trying to evoke. Not all emotions are created equal!

The one that comes to mind is based on this ubiquitous idea of 'the game that makes you cry'. Taking the Saving Private Ryan example that Clint uses, the emotion that I think movies usually tweak when they make us cry is loss. The problem with creating loss in games is that the whole nature of a goal-based game is that loss is a failure state. We are trained to avoid and loathe it. In movies, however, the inevitability of the loss allows us to come along for the ride and experience it in a meaningful way.

When was the last time a movie made you so angry you threw your remote control across the room?

When was the last time a movie made you jump up and pump your fist in the air and shout, "I did it!" ?

Games (game mechanics, specifically) are already pulling emotions out of us -- loss (crying) is just not one of them.

July 5, 2009 at 8:00 PM  
Blogger WorldMaker said...

After reading Clint's post, among other things, I was thinking about how in the Unreal Tournament world there are Mods, but there are also Mutators. I think there is an interesting distinction there that I think is worth considering to apply to other games and game forms, although maybe with a better general name than "Mutator".

In Unreal terminology, where a Mod may do a large number of things and change a lot of the game, a Mutator is more often than not a (much) smaller script that simply "tweaks" and existing game mode. Generally a Mutator is bound to the key rules of whichever game mode (deathmatch, ctf, ...) it 'mutates', but within those confines has a number of "knobs" that it can twist and events that it can react to.

At the most basic level, mutators are game mode "presets" (although they are scripts, so they can do more dynamic things in reaction to gameplay than just "preset"). What makes them extremely useful is that they are: easy to install, and easy to spread (the game client automatically downloads from the current game server a mutator if it needs it). They are also usually extremely small (1-2 KB).

Most mutators end up representing rulesets that groups wish to self-impose ("for this round we can only use shock rifles", "for this round every shot is insta-death", "for this round we have permadeath"). In my experience, the Mutator world is a wonderful collection of teams of players seeking out interesting ways to keep a sandbox (a well liked game mode) continually fresh.

Certainly "perma-death" is an easy rule to self-impose and self-penalize in a game like Far Cry 2, but I can't help but wonder what interesting rulesets might arise with a rudimentary "mutator" system available.

Even if a developer doesn't want to give players all of the keys to the city and allow outright modding, just opening up many of the tweakable properties that a game used in debugging and testing to fine-tune the game, and basic actions like saving/loading and easy response to important in-game events, could lead to fascinating explorations of a game by its community. (Again key being that such scripts/presets/et al are easy to share.)

I think all of this is applicable at the narrative level as well. Mutators and mods come primarily from the FPS world and FPS are the easiest to make comparisons to, but I think they can apply in one form or another to just about any sort of game. I think there might be certain group "dialectal" changes that can be found to tweak narrative language to work better for individual tastes than the current "one size fits all" mentality of most game development. (As in gamers don't want one "superior spaghetti sauce": some gamers want chunky and others want thin and some prefer more garlic or more mushrooms...)

I hope that makes sense... I think that I still need to work on explaining what I'm intending to say here. Hopefully you can at least see why these thoughts are swirled in with the other stuff in this discussion.

July 6, 2009 at 12:20 AM  
Blogger Julian said...

I wonder if things like achievements can help lead players to this type of engagement? Meta-game constraints nothing new (eg. no-magic playthroughs of Final Fantasy games, speed runs, zero body count plays of Deus Ex etc) but having it codified and put in front of their face in an opt-in, visible but unobtrusive format could be one way to lead players to this type of engagement. Examples of this are already cropping up.

There is, of course, a danger that players become reliant on "official" meta-game constraints, but I'm sure it can also open some players' eyes to the possibilities. Any time you're trying to lead people to engagement, some of those people will not move on to engage personally, but will simply continue to follow you.

I'm also wary of suggesting that any one path is the only valid one: I respect and am excited by Mr. Hocking's views on interactive meaning, but I believe we would be losing something if we abandoned authored narrative games like Shadow of the Colossus. Creating an interactive analog of a narrative form by imposing immutable consequences on your actions is one valid path to more powerful experiences with games, tinkering with rulesets and creating meaning from the mechanics (a la The Marriage) is another, and there are many more valid and useful approaches. There is room in film for comedies, tragedies, documentaries, art films, etc. to coexist, and I believe these different strategies for creating involvement, emotion, and meaning in games can and should run in parallel.

Sorry, for that last tirade, it's just my awkward and verbose way of saying I agree with your second-to-last paragraph, Nels, and I think it's important not to lose sight of that.

So back to my actual point... um... Achievements? Maybe useful for instigating a deeper connection with the game?

July 6, 2009 at 10:33 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@B4GD I think there's a reason smaller indie games are often lauded as being more affecting- their simpler dynamics are easier to fully understand and thusly, derive meaning from. There's so much happening on a ludic level in Halo as compared to say, Braid, it's hard to get people to see past the moment-to-moment interactions. We've got a lot to learn about making complexity readable.

@Graham Absolutely. I think the Quest for Tears is a bit of a red herring. More empathic emotions are really the domain of theatre/film, and literature to a lesser extent. Music, especially performance, has a different set of emotions it's good at evoking. Audiences don't go to Saving Private Ryan for a concert-esque experience. We shouldn't be asking that games provide a experience akin to theatre.

That being said, games thus far are only really good at evoking frustration and satisfaction from goal achievement. We're starting to poke at camaraderie. That's great, but as you said all emotions are not created equal. Those feelings (probably) aren't going to meaningfully affect someone's life. I want to try to figure out what emotions games can powerfully evoke that will create meaningful, memorable experiences.

July 6, 2009 at 1:22 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Worldmaker I think I follow what you're saying and that's definitely interesting to think about.

It's a little tough too, as sometimes there are things the players don't know they want. There's a bit of difficulty reconciling things that may not be optimal with the effect they're supposed to produce. E.g. if most players had their way, they'd be able to run & gun in Resident Evil. But the point of not being able to run and shoot is it turns space and movement in scare resources, the touchstone of the survival horror. Turning that off means the aethetics of the game are possibly lessened. Is that okay? I'm honestly not sure.

@Julian Achievements and other similar permanent metagame awards could be a possible carrot. I played Mirror's Edge single player earning the Test of Faith (no guns) achievement and I think it coloured my experience non-trivially.

And don't get me wrong, I think there's still space for games do derive meaning from narratives. But Clint's warning is a all too real, I think. If we find narrative tools create more meaningful games (see Fable 2) and commit to that path, we're never going to find out what games can do that film/theatre/music/fine art/etc. cannot.

Shadow of the Colossus is great, but it would be about as good as a film. I want to find out what simply could not be done with movie.

July 6, 2009 at 1:41 PM  
Blogger Julian said...

That carrot is an especially apt analogy here, since you ideally want to be able to remove the achievements and have players continue in that direction. I'm sure there are other, better, ways to involve players in this way, but perhaps this can be a launching point for trying to figure out those methods.

I would concede that you can evoke the same types of feelings, but I don't believe SotC would have been as effective as a film. The sense of single-minded determination, of striking a devil's bargain are as impactful as they are because it's you who's doing them. I cared when Agro died in a way that I didn't when I watched Saving Private Ryan because I had a personal investment and relationship there, in addition to the obvious removal of a gameplay asset (are we calling this ludonarrative harmony, or ludonarrative consonance?). A hopeless struggle hits home in a different way when you're the one striving for the unattainable, and it's especially effective in SotC's case because it's subverts the standard success/failure paradigm.

I can agree that these are not things that are impossible to express in a movie, but this type of blending ludic and narrative techniques can produce something with a unique timbre and stronger impact. A movie can make me sympathize with loss or futility, but it can't make me experience them directly like SotC did.

To reluctantly make an analogy to film, movies didn't need to do away with dialogue and acting to establish itself as something with value distinct from theater. There are cases where this was done that are interesting and valuable. But filmmakers have also used the unique properties of the medium to enhance the basic approach of theater and create works with qualities that theater cannot reproduce, although they flow from similar traditions.

I think focusing solely on replicating film's strengths is missing the point. But I also think that turning our back completely on centuries of insight into how we communicate is misguided. I'm very glad we have people like you and Hocking trying to find ways around narrative, but I'm also glad we have people like Ueda trying to enhance narrative with the medium's strengths. I think Hocking's alarmism is a symptom of his stance as a polemicist. There will always be gamemakers who try to push the boundaries, just as there are always controversial and progressive filmmakers, authors, visual artists etc.

In some ways, I'm falling in to the same polemic trap, as I really do think that the possibilities Hocking and yourself are looking toward are genuinely exciting. I would be dismayed if there were nobody exploring that direction. I just also respect the work of people exploring in different directions that are equally valid and almost as exciting. The (equally unlikely) future where no games feature narrative elements, and everything is either a rule-based meaning puzzle like The Marriage, or a perfect and directionless simulation/playground is as bleak as Hocking's film-copycat boogeyman.

July 6, 2009 at 3:09 PM  
Blogger whiskeypail said...

I did a search through the comments for "ico" and was surprised to find not one mention, especially from graham. That entire game is based around one of the most intimate of human actions: holding hands.
It's so simple and yet it provides an entire rule set for the game. They hold hands because they can't communicate. They hold hands to help each other, and they hold hands to guide each other. It's eerily beautiful(but i will chide anyone for crying over that game) even though Yorda is essentially just a blue key for blue doors. When you do go through losing her, your first thought is,"holy shit i lost my key."
To a lesser extent Shadow of the Colossus does this as well with the horse. This new Ueda game has only a trailer but I can already FEEL the symbiotic nature of it. It's a boy and his blob all over again. It's in those types of strong-helps-the-weak-and-vice-versa relationships I think gamers can empathize with most. Even old school shooters had this type of relation. When I lost my power ups in R-type i was not defeated or weakened but "bummed out".

July 6, 2009 at 9:44 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Julian Sorry about the delayed response, been busy.

I'll confess to being a little hyperbolic, but only a little. I'd be less concerned if more folks that approached meaning narratively did so as elegantly as Ueda. Unfortunately, for every Ico/SotC there are countless others, even ones done well, that are marching closer and closer to marginally interactive films. That's the bit that makes to sympathetic to the drum Clint and others are beating.

@whiskeypail It's interesting to look at how personifying resources can, in turn, possibly increase player connection with that resource-as-character. Several folks from Ubi Montreal gave a talk at GDC about basically this. Elika in Prince of Persia, the buddies in Far Cry 2, etc. are really just in-game resources anthropomorphized. At first it feels a little strange to think about it that explicitly, but then it does start to make some amount of sense.

July 9, 2009 at 10:16 PM  

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