Friday, December 4, 2009

Response to "Three False Constraints"

This is a response to Danc, of Lost Garden, and his essay on the so-called "hard problem" of creating culturally meaningful games.

As a single player enthusiast, I found most of your essay to be offensive to my sensibilities. I disagree with the vast majority of you assertions: content stimuli are integral to player emotions, and rules too can provoke emotional response. Multiplayer is no desirable substitute for content but is instead an augmentation to it that very often doesn't fit a game. Inter-player communication is frequently far worse than even poorly conceived material from developers. Most importantly, the single player form offers a set of desirable experiences that multiplayer simply will not provide and it is therefore a viable and potentially culturally meaningful medium of expression.

Your argument that interactivity precludes stimuli as a means by which an audience interfaces with a work seems astoundingly close-minded to me. Yes, as a player controlling a character, I can make my little Gordon Freeman jump whenever I so please, but that doesn't mean that I don't jump (by which I believe you to mean startled, in this case) when a Strider crashes onto the street, priming its beam weapons. My ability to shoot and kill almost every character in Deus Ex doesn't stop me from considering the characters meaningful, nor does it detract from the sense of importance of the plot-oriented fights.

Single-player video games, including both minimalist pieces like Gravitation and The Passage and AAA titles like Left 4 Dead and Homeworld, are as much about beautiful and interesting stimuli as they are about rules manipulation. If you don't agree that many games' rules are "meaningful", how does that detract from the works' artistic stimuli? If films were choose-your-own-adventures, would that detract from the aesthetics and empathy delivery that the medium provides?

You make the argument that game designers want a magic equation to force particular audience reactions - a power that it seems you think filmmakers etc. possess. The only response I can think of is "Are you out of your mind?" No medium has a magic audience-control button, but game designers can deliver "content payloads" just as easily as other artists. The problem at this point seems to me that most designers don't know what content to use as payload.

That's also not to say that the rules themselves cannot provoke emotional response - Braid, for example, repeatedly makes use of the rules of the time travel mechanics to provide interesting, aesthetic scenes, such as its masterful finale. Shooters are also adrenaline-charged by the nature of their rules; even the most spectacle-deprived examples of the genre can prove pulse-pounding by how they are played, filling a player with trepidation, relief, and triumph.

Single player game design isn't about giving an "exact experience". I don't know where you got that idea. It is, perhaps, about a particular type of experience - guiding a player along a world, performing a plot for them, crafting a mechanical expression for their interactions with other objects. But even Valve, who are widely regarded as the most firmly dedicated designers for tightly scripted experiences, recognize and embrace the fact that players react to situations differently. They do their best to accommodate their playtesters' feedback in providing alternate solutions to obstacles, stronger forms of in-game feedback to player actions, and more gripping draws to important stimuli occuring in the game world. Good game designers don't try to force players to experience particular stimuli - they make it so that most players will find them naturally.

What shocks me is that you then posit the multiplayer experience as the solution to these imagined problems. I've played a good number of multiplayer games, and have read experiences across the internet of still more interactions with other games. Chat rooms, SMS, and voice chat are no substitute for good writing and presentation in a game. In fact, with many games, those features are like telling people in a movie theater to talk about whatever they want, as loudly as they want, while the show's going on - on their cell phones, if they so choose.

People troll. They grief. They are vulgar and anonymity enables them to forget that the people on the other side of the game are just as human as they are. Role playing in multiplayer games is sparse and ill-performed and efforts to do so are scorned and sabotaged by all sorts of other people.

I suppose the game that most closely approximate what you seem to desire is Second Life, a zoo of a virtual world made up almost exclusively of player generated content. From my friends who play it and from the news surrounding the game, I often hear anecdotes of all sorts of elaborate and mean-spirited exploitation of the trust the developers put into players. From unwanted invasions of indecent content to application of mechanic loopholes to "break the rules" of players' own authorship, miscreants exploit Second Life's freedom of interaction to a sometimes unbearable point.

I don't think you'll find many developers or players ever talking about the impossibilities of "people talking in a room" or "saying something important about the human condition". The former won't be said because it's unimportant, the latter because it's untrue.

Your final point about larger audiences is something I've read about before, and I agree with a good deal of the essence of it. There is indeed a "Blue Ocean" of gamers-to-be out there, and they are playing things that we old-guard or whatnot consider to be "shallow". There is an awful lot of money and popularity in that field, and I don't think it is "wrong" to cultivate it. I do, however, think that servicing that market exclusively as an industry would be an unfortunate decision. Just as I think that not all games should be multiplayer, I think that not all games should be single player; in turn, I think there should be a balance between the social games and more traditional genres.

I am interested to hear what experiences you have had with multiplayer games that outshine those of single-player games. You time and again say that inter-player interactions are "natural", "more entertaining" than authored experiences, have "an explosion of meaningful emotional reactions" and are "capable of yielding vast universes worth of meaningful games". As I've stated before, my many experiences with multiplayer content, while they were very enjoyable, have never lived up to those lofty standards. I would love to hear some of your anecdotes.

In short, single player experiences are an integral facet to gaming. While the medium does face difficult challenges, the solution is by no means a surrender of the constraints that you claim shackle designers.

With inspiration and careful, iterative technique, an author can evoke human emotions in a single player game. With stimulus aesthetic and engaging mechanics, content and rules augment each other to communicate authorial intent. Finally, with communication between the developers and the players, strong communities of audiences are established to reach a sizable, dedicated player base.