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.



Cayth said...

Just finished reading the source essay as well, to ensure I'm not missing anything.

Starting with a few quick responses:

Multiplayer as an (possibly pinned on) "augmentation" for a game: This depends a great deal on the game itself. In general, specific genres lend themselves better to multiplayer modes than others; One can even identify specific design elements in games that can predict how well the multiplay mode will work. For instance, shooters with heavy inventory management tend to have trouble adapting to multiplay; it's simply a matter of the responsiveness of players. AI is fine with waiting while you reshuffle your gear, a human is not. RTS games are incredibly well suited for multiplay, mainly because most AI can't be competitive without cheating.

Would movies written as "choose your own adventure" detract from the meaning and empathy delivery? Yes, I'd have to say it would. But for that matter, I don't think cinema is inherently better at that, as Danc claims; it's easier at the low end, perhaps, and has a nice potential, but it still requires good writing and acting to make it stick. So, once again, choice of media cannot cover for poor ingredients.

As for social interaction in multiplayer games: since you both seem to have implicitly decided to only refer to MMOs here, I'll stick with that. Yes, people troll. People are jerks in real life too. Do you expect to have a meaningful relationship with everyone you pass on the street? The key here is to provide implicit guidance through the game as to how the community evolves. Top-down design won't help you here, you need to use the base mechanics of the game to encourage player community. This isn't so different from your understanding of how a single player game's mechanics influence the feel and tone.

No, Second Life is not the end-all MMO. I would say it is the corpse of MMO's in general. With no direction whatsoever, and no accountability whatsoever, you set yourself up for disappointment. It's not anonymity that brings out the worst in people, it's the lack of accountability, or more precisely, the lack of risk. In any social environment, when you remove the element of personal risk, people take a turn for the worst. The current economic crisis was precipitated by those in power not worrying about how they spent other people's money; they were then justified by bailouts from politicians who's primary and secondary concerns are getting elected and getting re-elected, respectively; worrying about other's money is quite a bit farther down the list. When you no longer have personal risk, the main impetus for acting in a manner congruent to reasonable social norms quickly breaks down.

So, how can there be an element of personal risk with anonymity? Well, lets look at EVE online for a second. EVE has very free form yet robust systems for designing and running player "corporations" (their basic player group) and alliances, with tools for shared (and permission based) corporate accounts, holders, even shares. Naturally, there are those who try to be unscrupulous in their access to and use of such resources. What happens to them? Well, aside from the fact that word can spread very fast that you're untrustworthy, if someone really wants to, they can track you down and kill your character. Even in "safe" areas, assuming they're pissed enough at you to accept the consequences. They might just hire other players to find and take you out, or even (in one memorable occasion) hire an organization to slowly infiltrate your corporation, then strip it to the walls from the inside out. The minimum of direction is provided, and the players work out societal contracts.

Cayth said...

As for "chat rooms are terrible" and "nobody roleplays": I have a couple of responses to that, first, most games try (and should) offer means of connecting with specific players repeatedly, ie. guilds, corporations, buddy lists, whatever. Continuity of contact goes a long way toward encouraging meaningful discourse. Can I have a deep and philosophical discussion with a person I just met on the bus about the true role of the third person limited narrator in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash as compared with his later work and that of Gibson? Yes, (I have, in fact), but it's quite a bit less likely than with someone I've repeatedly chatted with before. Second, by choosing who you converse with, you can find a group that is more likely to have thoughts pertaining to your interests and maturity levels. Second, as far as roleplaying goes, game designers need to understand that less is more, in terms of game mechanics to encourage roleplaying, and more is more, in terms of background fluff/stories/etc. Also, they need to realize that players are much more likely to play along with their own creations, not whatever the designers came up with. Again, in EVE, the major null-sec alliances (player groups that battle for and control large swaths of space and infrastructure all on their own, with no "official" (npc) faction involvement) are very, very involved. They easily blur the line between roleplaying and embodying their actions because their involved in their own legacies, not some npc faction the game designer came up with. BoB (the late Band of Brothers alliance) was quite serious in their desire to control all available space, and was often convincingly megalomaniacal. The tactical infiltration tactics that eventually weakened them enough to bring about their demise as a major power block where done by real people convincing other real people that they could be trusted. That is more fascinating and awesome than any scripted quest, no matter how epic, could ever be.

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