Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Is Forfeit

Last week, I discussed the unfortunate tendency a great number of developers seem to have- the need to turn their inward creative process straight outward, with little modification or filter. Players find themselves under fire from mortars of seemingly irrelevant and excessive information. This bombardment leaves us with an oversaturated, shellshocked mindscape, unable or unwilling to devote any neurons to thoughtful consideration of our games.

A great host of people enjoyed Lost (myself among them, although the last season was a bit ragged). Even if one doesn't care for it, it's difficult to argue that those first handful of episodes weren't tremendously engaging. Structurally, Lost worked so damn well because it didn't front-load its information. No great prologue or origin story got in the way of the action. In started immediately with tension and led us into the pure unknown, slowly dispensing more information and more mysteries. By being mindful of the audience's "Why should I care?" perspective, we were presented with a mystery and left to ponder it. Once more information was finally manifest, we'd been given a reason to care- because we had formulated our own ideas and want to see if we're "right."

In his book Everything Bad is Good for You, Stephen Johnson argues that television today is leagues more complex than it was, say, 20 years ago. In direct contrast to the "TV is so dumb now" contentions heard by many, Johnson argues quite convincingly that we're getting smarter as an audience. Audiences are able to understand and engage with more complicated storylines involving far more plot threads and characters. Part of the reason he argues is writers have become more adept at keeping their audiences engaged and interested, rather that simply marching forward with de rigueur plotlines.

If it wasn't Lost for you, imagine a show, film or novel that instilled that feeling of engagement. Not just wondering "What will happen next?", but a deep pondering of what was going on and why. What the work really meant. Now think about how many times that's happened to you playing a game.

There's a handful of canonical examples (e.g. Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, Planescape: Torment), but the ratio is far, far lower. I hate making games vs. other media comparisons, but I beg your indulgence on this one. As games have become more playable, readable, they've also adopted the least appropriate ways of communicating a message. I don't mean a plot necessarily, I mean something more fundamental than that. The core thing a game is actually about, what an architect would call the "parti" of a building's design. Having a plot with characters and events is certainly one way to communicate that message, but there has to be something there to begin with. Otherwise, it's just sound and fury signifying nothing.

Even if such a core does exist for a game, it's so often communicated with no more nuance than a Styx concept album. Rather than subtlety, players are drowned in information and exposition. This seeming irresistible urge to explain strips all mystery from a game. It also establishes a tone of interaction that should the player need to know something, even something thematic, they'll be told it explicitly. They're given no reason to consider what the game could be trying to express, and adopt a passive mental stance. Many will just switch off and sit back, waiting to be told and likely ignoring most of it.

Even more worrisome than this is the leap from "We'll tell the audience everything we think they should know" to "We'll make sure the audience does everything we want them to do." Player agency is flayed away, what little choice remains amounts to choosing how you'll shoot these three dudes before hitting the next cutscene/NIS trigger. When John Walker says "Homefront is barely a game," this is exactly what he's referring to. (While I haven't personally played Homefront, this trend is easy to spot in plenty of recent titles)

John encapsulates the problems with this style of design better than I, but I'll add that I think this stems from the same thinking that leads to heaping irrelevant information upon players. We're so worried every single person that touches our game won't have the same experience, we exclude any possibility but the exact one we've manufactured. It drives players toward passive roles. It's almost training the audience to only respond to prompts and only engage with the most explicit, surface message.

The undercurrent in all this is that we can't trust our audience. We can't trust them to understand what's going on without heaps of exposition, can't trust them to be engaged unless they're doing exactly what we think they should be doing. We ought to have more confidence in our audience. We have to trust that our players aren't mindless, that they don't need to be spoonfed and hand-held. Elegant and effective design can mean the difference between player agency being enlivening and not aimless and frustrating, but the right response to that is better, more rigorous design, not stripping away all agency until only the "right" choice remains.

If we're willing to have something to say and have faith that enough people will understand that, we needn't yoke ourselves to tired and constricting plotting. Not everyone will get that message, and that's okay. Encouraging thoughtfullness and having an otherwise engaging game is fine, even if not everyone engages with it on a deeper level. You can't catch everyone and you can't ensure everyone will have the same perfectly paced, dramatically timed experience. Trying to do so will likely result in something that's, well, "barely a game."

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Blogger Unknown said...

Great post! To further compare games to other media (although I don't like to either) when a show is first released, the creators have the ability to control how much we watch at a time, assuming we watch their show live.

On the other hand, games can be played in one sitting if one chooses. Developers can't stop a player from playing their game at a certain cliffhanger to let them ponder about it. Instead we can just push on through to immediately find out what happens next without having to think about it. I like it when games give me hard choices to make because it forces me to stop and think.

Come to think of it, I'm now more interested to see how episodic games influence this idea...

March 31, 2011 at 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

“They're given no reason to consider what the game could be trying to express, and adopt a passive mental stance. [...] It's almost training the audience to only respond to prompts and only engage with the most explicit, surface message.”
Would you say this is a reason why few gamers are receptive to the actual meaning of the games they play, as opposed to the theme and plot?

Also, where would you rank games such as Batman: Arkham Asylum or any Mass Effect game on a HomefrontBraid scale?

All in all, I find it difficult to strike the balance between a manufactured experience and a game with a meaning too obscure for the player to grasp. But this is definitely an interesting topic, and also a very hard design problem.

March 31, 2011 at 11:57 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Sometimes I feel the same way about games that I do about a Geoff Johns comic. There's so much lore and back story and information... it's like it's being broadcast to me. I'd rather feel like I'm the one learning it.

March 31, 2011 at 3:53 PM  
Blogger Codicier said...

Lost's script sometimes appeared to have huge holes in it, but it always gave the impression that the information regarding them did exist somewhere and this helped to make the series so compulsive to follow.
In gaming terms the equivalent is how it feels to a player when they tries to open a door they find it's just a texture applied to the wall, compared to finding a door and it behaves into a convincing and consistent set of rules then figuring out how to use those rules to open it (see Alec Meers locked door post on RPS for a far more poetic lament on this subject).

When you describe how when watching lost you “formulated our own ideas and want to see if we're "right." it sounds a lot like the way a player would react to exploring a well put together sandbox game to me.
All of the examples you have listed are games who's "big idea" seemed to be about a narrative message. Is it equally valid to consider games whose big idea is conveyed through a gameplay mechanic and from their players interaction with the system? (Boardgames seem to have alot of good examples of this)

@Ali893 about cliffhangers, as a counter argument id summit that the way the civilisation franchise makes players want "one more turn" as a almost perfect example of this. Turn based systems can I think produce just such moments, where you find yourself caught between dread and anticipation.

March 31, 2011 at 7:34 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alli893 One of the things I did kind of like about Alan Wake was how the game has six or seven "episodes" and the end of each had basically a closing sequence and the next started with a recap. The structure did lead me toward stopping at just those sequences.

TTG has been doing cliffhanger stuff with their episodes, but it's a bit tricky since it's usually 4-6 weeks between releases. And rarely does choice factor into that. But it could be very interesting to end one episode on a decisive cliffhanger, knowing you'll have to start the next with that decision.

@Hugo It's a number of things, newness of the form, criticism (vs. just reviews) not having a prominent role and a lack of games actually trying to have some substance beyond, "Isn't this fun?!" I'm sure things will continue to advance, and have even in just the last few years.

And there's kind of two axes here, really. One, how explicit is the game in conveying its message and two, how much freedom does it afford you to do that.

Arkham Asylum, Mass Effect and Homefront all tell a pretty explicit story. ME2 does reach a bit further with some of its content (e.g. see this). Braid has meaning that's more symbolic.

Maybe there's kind of message of "Having your country invaded sure sucks" to pull from Homefront, but that's kind of hard to reconcile with the otherwise "Yay America!" tone the game has since, you know, America has done most of the invasion in the last decade.

The big difference, and the reason why I find the trend Homefront so disquieting is that amount of freedom you're afford in exploring those games, both literally and in terms of their metaphor. ME and AA have a good amount of freedom, even though you're locked into cutscenes from time to time (I actually found AA a bit excessive in this regard, where it end up being "Watch Batman do something awesome" when it could have just as easily you interactively doing something awesome).

But at least the moments outside of the cutscenes in both those games are free, and there's a lot in there that's optional. Homefront sounds like even the moments when you're not shackled in a cutscene, you're kept on an extremely tight leash, dragged forward by NPCs and confined by artificial barriers.

I think that's a different concern than being too explicit and expositional about a game's content, but I think the same motivations produce both.

April 2, 2011 at 8:20 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Matador Comics, especially big banner superhero ones, are really guilty of this. There's just a unrelenting torrent of information and "story" that isn't relevant and just ends up being noise. It occludes anything interesting that might be going on.

@Codicier Lost was definitely not perfect and I think it got a little too caught up in reveling its mysteries, to where the expectations were so high, it would never be possible to satisfy them. But especially when it comes to the mysteries surrounding the characters (as compared to the Island), it really do work sodding well.

I think Braid is actually a masterclass in unifying its message and its mechanics (I keep going back to Braid largely because I led a discussion about it at work this week and it was cool seeing people that had never played it before reacting to it). But yes, the text vignettes that start each world do serve to frame the game's mechanics and without them, it might be a little harder to pull meaning directly from the mechanics.

Granted, that's a hard problem, right? Like you can convey feelings directly through a game's mechanics, but without any kind of framing, I don't know how likely it is for most people to dig deeper. Battlestar Galactica's boardgame is about paranoia, deception and betrayal. No question, that is exactly what its about. But it's not like after playing it, I reflected on personal experiences where I was deceived or betrayed like I did after playing Braid and thinking about regret and mistakes.

Bridging that gap is definitely tricky but a very interesting problem to consider.

April 2, 2011 at 8:29 AM  
Blogger Codicier said...

Ahh i think i get the focus of what you write a bit better knowing your issue is about evoking introspection not just sensation.
I really need to just sit myself down and finish off Braid, so many people i respect rate it so highly.

Sadly platforming is my gaming nemesis, so it has always took a concerted effort to get past my discomfort with the mechanics and finish those games, and i guess this is the sort of problem that Homefront (& other games like CoD) have overreacted to.

RE you final point: Have you read Soren Johnsons 'Start Making Sense' article(& its follow up)? He makes some really interesting points about how Schema's frame design mechanics

April 2, 2011 at 6:08 PM  
Blogger Michel said...

I still haven't seen Clint Hocking's Dynamics talk, but I understand he spoke a bit about the importance of theme and framing. The art of games lies in the dynamics, but just like film editing there needs to be thoughtful context. Dynamics can't stand alone. Even something as seemingly abstract and pure as Go would be quite a bit different if the stones were reduced even further to weightless plastic discs.

Brenda Brathwaite's Train is part of a series called "The Mechanic is the Message", but that's actually kind of misleading. Without her careful framing Train would just be another Battlestar Galactica--a brilliant game, but ultimately meaningless. The "message" is a product of both mechanics AND theme.

Anyway, Nels, this is all just to say that I believe "bridging that gap" to frame mechanics in a way that supports the message is not only a tricky and interesting problem, but a necessary step in making a game truly meaningful (if not ert).

April 3, 2011 at 1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Games that dump loads of exposition and backstory on the player rather than making the information available and then trusting the player to seek out that information for themselves aren’t being made with the player in mind. They demonstrate a lack of consideration for the player by not taking the time to consider whether the information is actually necessary for the player to know.

Jeremy Bernstein gave a really great talk at GDC this year about this topic called No Exposition Necessary: Minimizing Exposition in Games. Check out the slides here: (they don’t have notes so they’re not as useful as the actual presentation but it’s still worth a look).

April 3, 2011 at 2:07 PM  
Blogger Jacob Clark said...

Remeber when Aqua Teen Hunger Force tried to have a plot? When they realized the show was better on the random factor it really got better.

I guess I come here also to play devil's advocate as well. I don't like the way that most games have to be full action, all the time but all predetermined things are not bad. I guess, case and point for me would be Comic Jumper by Twisted Pixel. I think there games even though are linear are some of the best. To think of anyone of their games not being told in one way might not work.

Great Post!

April 3, 2011 at 2:30 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Codicer Yeah, that's the other tricky bit with most games, right? There's almost always some bit of skill and if that just doesn't line up with what you're good at, it's just kind of inaccessible. And I had read those columns of Soren's, but a while ago. Thanks for the reminder, I'll revisit them.

@Michel Get thee to the Vault! ;) It's good stuff, and I'm going over some of the things I missed at the show (see below, actually) and there are some gems.

And yeah, framing mechanics is really the challenge, at least for now. But how to do that without being horribly heavy-handed is no small feat. Spend a chunk of today talking about that with some my team, actually. Suffice to say, more talking will occur soon.

@Elves Thanks for pointing that talk out! I don't remember seeing it on the list of sessions (maybe it was part of a summit?), but I just watched it in the GDC Vault. Good stuff!

@GaminginPublic Thanks! And yes, comedy, where so much relies on timing, is definitely tricky to pull off. And it's less about linearity per se, and more about the freedom afforded. Braid is relatively linear, but by divorcing the goals from progression and making the text vignettes totally driven by the player, it affords a great deal of freedom.

April 4, 2011 at 12:50 AM  

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