Monday, January 4, 2010

On Metaphors and Podcasts

Once again, Michael was kind enough to invite me onto his podcast, this time sharing the mic with Corvus and Leigh. We discussed some of our favourite games from last year and, as always, I was honoured to be among such insightful and interest folks. Our segment was the second of four, so be sure to give the others a listen as well.

I wanted to follow up on a comment I made on the podcast, so if you haven't listened to it yet, you may want to do so (and I'm going to discuss the game I picked for the podcast a little, so considered yourself spoiler warned).

The game I selected left me thinking a lot about the use of metaphor in games. In terms of narrative, metaphor for an archetype is quite common, especially instantiations of the Hero's Journey. More recently, we've been seeing experimentation with the use of mechanics to communicate meaning metaphorically. E.g. Jason Rohrer's Passage and Gravitation, or Jon Blow using Braid's mechanics as a metaphor for regret and inevitability.

What we haven't seen as much, and part of the reason why I found Little King's Story (my pick on the podcast) so interesting is its mechanics and fiction are a metaphor for other elements of the game's fiction. The game takes place in a child's imagination and most of the people and things you interact with in the game are based on things from the child's life. The game does a fantastic job of transporting the player into the child's imaginary world and allowing us to experience it as the child would.

This is exactly what Psychonauts tied in to (and to a lesser extent, Brutal Legend). I heard Tim discuss the origins of Psychonauts at PAX and, in short, he was fascinated by the way dreams are essentially elaborate metaphors constructed by the subconscious.

Another example of this was the 2004 game based on Tron. Now, I don't really care for Tron at all, but its use of mechanics as metaphor is interesting (and I had forgotten about it until reminded by a post on The Binary Swan). Tron takes its mechanics, most of which consist of typical game tropes, and gives them justification in the game's fiction. All the relatively dumb things that are de rigeur for games actually make sense- climbing through conveniently-sized air vents is merely the way security backdoors are visualized in cyberspace. Your character suddenly gaining more strength and new abilities is just downloading and installing better software.

As Tron takes place inside of a computer, cyberspace fiction of the game makes this layer of representation much easier to add. But the fact that we've only had a handful of instances of cyberspace in games, the most compelling of which is still probably from SNES Shadowrun, leads me to believe there's a great deal of possibility here. Dreams, the afterlife, and so forth; there are many ways a fiction can support this kind of metaphor.

It might even be possible to use mechanical metaphor to represent actions in the real world. Re-Mission uses the conventions of a shooter to symbolize the way a patient's immune system and various treatments will fight cancerous cells. Other serious games have capitalized on this as well. What I'd really like to see is a political game more symbolic than Democracy 2 (as much as I love it) or Congress Matters.

Games are well suited for presenting this kind of metaphor because they excel at conveying experiences. Visual media obviously can exploit narrative metaphor, perhaps better than games ever will. But the distinct and reoccurring actions that comprise a game's mechanics offer a vehicle for symbolism that simply doesn't exist elsewhere.

And ultimately, games are built upon metaphor and symbolism to begin with. Hit points are symbolic of a character's wellness, clicking to direct units in an RTS is a representation for a general directing their troops. It seems there's fertile ground for symbolism and metaphor that stands apart from representing archetypes, as powerful and interesting as that can be.

I realize this whole post is kind of abstract and barmy, but hey, it's a new year. I get at least one, right?

Oh, and best wishes for 2010 to you all! For me, I'm very much looking forward to finishing one project, hopefully getting to talk about another that's very exciting personally, seeing a bunch of awesome folks again at GDC and celebrating my one year anniversary of marrying the most amazing lady I've ever met. May this year bring you all the best, in games and life!

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Blogger Mr Durand Pierre said...

I'm curious, did you play Silent Hill: Shattered Memories? That game was almost nothing but metaphors. It doesn't make much sense until the end, but it's worth going back to explore. What I find especially interesting about it is that the metaphors change depending on your choices and behavior throughout the game. But it's not in a way that feels forced. It's not like Silent Hill: Homecoming, where in some endings everything is a dream and in others they're not, but rather the way you interpret what these monsters could potentially represent changes based on the mindset of the player/character. It's a really unique way of telling a complex story that is enhanced, rather than hindered by player agency.

January 4, 2010 at 3:55 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@M. Pierre I haven't, but I Michael, Steve and Leigh all have good things to say about it. It's definitely on the list to check out and your additional information may have moved it up a bit.

January 5, 2010 at 6:55 AM  

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