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Problems Too Big for Us (that must be solved nonetheless) Jonathan Blow 29 July 2008
"The formula followed by virtually all games is a steady progression toward victory: you accomplish tasks until you win." "Like cinema, games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance. They will need to stop pandering to the player’s desire for mastery in favor of enhancing the player’s emotional and intellectual life." Daniel Radosh, The New York Times , 28 September 2007
“ The first 35 years of motion pictures, from 1895 to 1930, yielded a handful of films that are considered masterpieces for their technical innovations, but the following decade was when cinema first became the art form that we know today. As cinema matured, films developed the power to transform as well as to entertain. Video games are poised to enter a similar golden age. But the first step isn’t Halo 3.”
Mainstream Games are Inherently Conflicted People can sense a conflicted work; it won’t strike them deeply. Disharmonious, it won’t resonate. How can we solve this? How can we remove the conflict?
Art Games (Very Small) Communicating via game rules or perceptual primitives.
The Marriage by Rod Humble “ Here’s what Rod’s marriage feels like.” Free download on the Internet.
Gravitation by Jason Rohrer Expressing “Real-Life” Themes through Rules of Interaction Free download on the Internet.
Introduce new rules to Gravitation : change / dilute / damage the meaning. Power-up: Freeze the block counters, once, so you have time to push them. What does this freeze mean ? By adding and subtracting rules from Gravitation you can travel a continuum. Gravitation will always some meaning.
<ul><li>Extend this to any game: </li></ul><ul><li>Any time we set up a system of rules or behavior, that a user interacts with… </li></ul><ul><li>(“ Dynamical System ”) </li></ul><ul><li>… that system communicates something to the player. (Whether that meaning is intentional or not). </li></ul><ul><li>I’ll call this the Dynamical Meaning . </li></ul><ul><ul><li>(Like Ian Bogost's "Procedural Rhetoric" but different). </li></ul></ul>
Mainstream Designers are not thinking about dynamical meaning. Rather, implementing a story and a basic gameplay mechanic that is "fun". The story and "fun" mechanics have separate meanings that often conflict. Like a film scoring Happy Circus Music through a funeral scene.
“ Like cinema, games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance...” This implies some kind of story… probably.
Big Daddy and Little Sister Bioshock Conflict: Altruism vs. Balance
Plus health, ammo, mana, and Hypnotize Big Daddy spells.
Grand Theft Auto 4 Conflict: “I like Kate.” No, I don’t. The game rules expressed to me that I don’t care about her.
Half-Life 2 Conflict: Alyx Relationship vs. Game Progress
There are many conflicts in these games. (I just picked one from each.) How to solve these conflicts? a) Don't Use Story b) Don't Use Dynamical Meaning c) Make Dynamical Meaning Match Story
<ul><li>A) Don't Use Story </li></ul><ul><li>Why does the industry produce Story Games? (Why not $10MM Pac-Man or whatever?) </li></ul><ul><li>1) Tradition: That's just what we’ve been making, </li></ul><ul><ul><li>so that's what people expect </li></ul></ul><ul><li>2) Players respond to story games </li></ul><ul><ul><li>more than to games without stories </li></ul></ul>I’d like (1) but realistically, (2) is major.
What does a story do? ... Gives you "Interesting Mental Stuff" - What happens next? - Adds mental interest (people doing things) - Themes / moods / etc Perhaps we just need to supply Interesting Mental Stuff that doesn’t come from story. - But while Rohrer games are hard, anyone can write a story.
<ul><li>B) Don't Use Dynamical Meaning </li></ul><ul><li>Technically impossible – </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Dynamical Meaning is automatic! </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><li>(But you could navigate to 0). </li></ul><ul><li>So this devolves to case (c). </li></ul>
<ul><li>C) “Tight Coupling” (Bogost) </li></ul><ul><li>Or, at least, eliminate conflicts. </li></ul><ul><li>Middle Road, realist solution. </li></ul><ul><li>Pressing bubbles out of wallpaper. </li></ul><ul><li>Change aspects of the story that don't fit. </li></ul>“ ... Games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance...” Create these dynamics with story, and don’t sabotage them via gameplay.
<ul><li>(C) is Practical but Still Difficult </li></ul><ul><li>Designers are not trained to consider Dynamical Meaning. </li></ul><ul><li>It’s not in the culture. </li></ul><ul><li>AAA production models do not support this. </li></ul><ul><li>(Gameplay changes are very expensive!) </li></ul><ul><li>If the story is still the core of the experience, </li></ul><ul><li>we’re back to making Movies + Interactivity. </li></ul><ul><li>Plus, we have further story-oriented problems… </li></ul>
Still No Golden Age There are other, more-fundamental conflicts. Very difficult to solve! “ Why should we care? We're making tons of money.” Maybe games will always be an immature medium (as the public sees them).
Fundamental Conflict: Challenge vs Progression We base our mainstream games on story, but also challenge. Why challenge? It's visceral, "fun", etc, etc. But more fundamentally... Challenge communicates to you that your interaction means something – that it is important or necessary.
Fundamental Conflict: Challenge vs Progression A Reason to Exist Like "Suspension of Disbelief", but for games and importance. Without challenge (or something to take its place), that suspension is hard to maintain.
But the audience wants Story. Challenge conflicts with Story: Story is a reward and the purpose of challenge is to not give us a reward until we deserve it. Industry Solution: reduce challenge; use faux challenge instead… - Dramatic Presentation of Non-Difficulty (e.g. God of War) - DDA This is a mitigation, not a fix. Thus the conflict still exists and the works are weakened.
Challenge Substitutes: Not Difficult, but Interesting “ Invitation”-style alternatives. Open Problem: How to make the game meaningfully respond to the player’s choices, without blocking progress.
Fundamental Conflict: Interactivity vs Delivery Trying to create “Drama” or “Crafted Impact”. Requires careful pacing and framing. Delivery.
Interactivity sabotages Delivery! You don't know where he came from. “ Intelligent” drama manager? Yeah, show me… It can never match a human drama manager. A human drama manager can never match a human writing a pre-baked story. (Character animation analogy!)
Dynamic story generation will always produce worse stories than human writers! If your interest is in presenting authored drama, novels + movies are always going to be better than games. The interactivity doesn't strengthen immersion, it weakens it! If we adopt authored drama as the core value proposition ... then our core is something other media do better? That is no golden age. Summary of Conflict: Interactivity vs Delivery
<ul><li>A) Don't Use Story </li></ul><ul><li>(At least, not as a core value proposition). </li></ul><ul><li>We said this was hard. </li></ul><ul><li>So what. Let’s do it anyway. </li></ul><ul><li>Scale the Mentally Interesting Stuff: </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Gravitation MGS4 </li></ul></ul></ul>This is an unimaginably big job, but we must do it.
“ ... Games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance...” We said this viewpoint was a bit too story-centric...
Video games are not a traditional storytelling medium per se . The player is an agent of chaos, making the medium ill-equipped to convey a pre-authored narrative with anywhere near the effectiveness of books or film. Rather, a video game is a box of possibilities, and the best stories told are those that arise from the player expressing his own agency within a functional, believable gameworld… Steve Gaynor from his blog Fullbright , July 27 th , 2008:
These are player stories, not author stories, and hence they belong to the player himself. Unlike a great film or piece of literature, they don't give the audience an admiration for the genius in someone else's work; they instead supply the potential for genuine personal experience, acts attempted and accomplished by the player as an individual, unique memories that are the player's to own and to pass on. ...The most powerful stories told are the ones the player is responsible for. To the player, video games are the most personally meaningful entertainment medium of them all. It is not about the other -- the author, the director. It is about you.” cf. Doug Church’s “Abdication of Authorship”
A good place to go for the “story” part of things, though I think there is an essential author/director within this framework. (I don’t quite believe in Abdication of Authorship.) But this is not where we are headed now. Half-Life 2 developer commentary! AAA market forces encourage over-control of the player.
The Art Games can help us make progress. Will we ever reach the goal? I DON’T KNOW. But to try competently, we Art Game authors must abandon the Message Model of Meaning.
“ The Moral of the Story Is” High School: Taught to read works and say what they are about. Gamers get mad at Art Games: * Inherently Pretentious * Being condescended to This is often true! If the message model of meaning is applied when the works are created. The Message Model of Meaning Is Insufficient.
Frank Lantz (via email): “ ...meaning which is less specific, less concrete and deliberate, harder to define, harder to pin down, a meaning that transcends the author-reader conduit model of ‘message’ style meaning, a meaning that absorbs intention but is not bound by it, a meaning that can't be reduced to a claim about the world, but is no less about the world because of it.”
Message Model author is at least a little deluded. The true meaning of a game can be discovered, explored. It’s multidimensional and fuzzy. “ If I understand it, it can't be that important.” Instead, what if I build something that reaches beyond the edge of my understanding, and we all explore it?
“ As cinema matured, films developed the power to transform as well as to entertain. Video games are poised to enter a similar golden age...” Not yet, unless we just want to be film + interactivity – human impact But if we work hard, for a long time, we can get there. Maybe.
What Are Games? (For our purposes, software running on computers.) Trying to achieve a goal, with some rules governing your actions and the game-world's response. Games create a meaning of life in a temporary, low-stakes subdomain.
Games make goals achievable by training the player. The player builds a mental model of the game. Formal Abstract Design Tools' “Perceivable Consequence”
That is to say, all games actively teach. This teaching can happen at many different levels (not just the core game rules). See these books for varying perspectives on games-as-teaching.
<ul><li>All games teach… </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>what will we be teaching all these people? </li></ul></ul></ul></ul></ul>Many people will be playing games... Games will heavily impact patterns of human thought, and thus what it means to be human. (as books and film already have .)
Game Designers Lack Discernment. All we care about is whether a lot of people want to play our game. We don't care why they want to play. We don't show concern for our players' quality of life.
Scheduled Rewards: Collectables, Unlockables, Advancing Story, Achievements MMOs have empty gameplay but keep players hooked with constant fake rewards. (“The Treadmill”) .
There are many ways to make a game “fun”, but we usually pick the easy one, which involves sacrificing the player's quality of life. Keeping players hooked via rewards. Often the gameplay is mindless. So long as people play, it is the same to us. Would they still want to play our game if we removed the scheduled rewards?
Rewards can be like food (naturally beneficial) or like drugs (artificial stimuli). We over-use the drugs, because we don't understand food. Radosh is hungry, but we give him cheap drugs instead.
<ul><li>In pursuing ever-more players, the game industry exploits them </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>in an unethical way. </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><li>We don't see it as unethical </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>because we refuse to stop and think about what we are doing. </li></ul></ul></ul>All games teach. What does World of Warcraft teach?
<ul><li>World of Warcraft says: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>You are a schlub who has nothing better to do than </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>sit around performing repetitive, mindless actions. </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Skill and shrewdness do not count for much; </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>what matters is how much time </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>you sink in. </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>You don't need to do anything exceptional, </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>because to feel good </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>you just need to run the treadmill </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>like everyone else. </li></ul></ul></ul>
<ul><ul><li>These things take root subtly, subconsciously. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Like advertising and brand identity. </li></ul><ul><li>People identify with their activities. </li></ul><ul><li>People are products of their origins, </li></ul><ul><li>and their environments. </li></ul>
Natural Rewards (reinforced by artificial rewards) Manveer Heir on Clint Hocking's blog: “ The brilliance in Portal lies not only in its simplicity (and excellent humor), but also in the moments of realization when you figure out a puzzle. No puzzle stumped me for more than five minutes in that game, yet I went from being COMPLETELY dumbfounded one moment to feeling like a genius the next, as I realized what I was supposed to do.”
The primary challenge for mankind in this century Our actions create the environment, whether we intend this or not. global warming ozone holes air / water pollutants light pollution intellectual property digital rights control human rights safety leisure time fast transportation intellectual exchange economic mobility
When millions of people buy our game, we are pumping a (mental) substance into the (mental) environment . This is a public mental health issue. We have the power to shape humanity. How will we use it?
<ul><li>as an industry </li></ul><ul><li>are we propagating </li></ul><ul><li>the intellectual and emotional versions </li></ul><ul><li>of this ? </li></ul>
When millions of people buy our game, think of the multiplier that acts on any small improvement we make. When millions of people buy our game, think of the multiplier that acts on any small improvement we make.
“ A shooter must be well-balanced” (a very Architected idea). This conflicts badly with the supposed moral choice. The message delivered is: The designers of this game are trying to manipulate your emotions in a clumsy way.
Bioshock claims to be about altruism and humanity, but here is what it really teaches: Shoot everyone you see without warning, from as far away as possible. Only care for women and pre-teen girls. It's a very weird game that we couldn't proffer as an example to normal humans.
Good Explorational Design (augmented by architecture): Portal
Architected Save or Kill? Explored (with supplemental architecting) MUST MURDER! Little Sister Weighted Companion Cube
mkozlows on the Quarter to Three forums: “ It's a measure of Bioshock's quality that killing little girls actually made me, a jaded and manipulative gamer, feel guilty and slightly uncomfortable. But Portal actually made me feel guilty and slightly uncomfortable about throwing a crate into a pit. That's pretty damn impressive.”
“ As cinema matured, films developed the power to transform as well as to entertain. Video games are poised to enter a similar golden age.” As a designer, I want to see us harness that power to transform.
As a player, I desire to be transformed. I am not getting that, most of the time. I am frustrated by games.
What is worthwhile, or deep, or interesting? It is very subjective. Your ideas are different from mine.
But as designers, we can hold the intention to be worthwhile, or deep, or interesting, whatever that means to each of us, and to respect the player's potential to live a high-quality life.