When I attended the Practice: Game Design in Detail conference at NYU, there was one discussion titled “Game Design
vs. & Programming” (the ‘versus’ was crossed out, as shown). It was run by Chris Hecker, Nick Fortugno, and Manveer Heir, and the talk was essentially asking the question, “how related are programming and game design? Do programming skill help game designers?” Not a terrible idea for a talk, but unfortunately, it didn’t go so well. What happened was, Hecker would essentially argue “yes – programming is great for game designers, because it teaches you system design!”. Unfortunately, his opponents didn’t use this obvious: system design is useful, not necessarily “programming”. It was never clear if they were talking about computer programming specifically, even. So if you write down your rules, is that programming?
Essentially, the whole chat was sort of ruined because one term was ill-defined. This happens a lot in my discussions about digital games online. Today I’d like to take some time to talk about a few definitions, so that we might improve the way we discuss these things.
One term I’d like to talk about today a bit is “experience”, as well as a few related terms. What is an “experience”? Well, the dictionary is extremely broad, and I think that that definition works just fine. However, a lot of people seem to have an interesting use for the word when it comes to modern digital games.
I recently had an interaction that went a little bit like this: I said that a very story-based game may be somewhat similar to watching a television program for an onlooker, i.e., someone who did not have the controller in their hand, but was watching. I used the term “watching”, and the person I was talking to said that I should be using the term “experiencing”.
“But isn’t experiencing a result of watching?” I asked.
“Well, yes, but a story-based game is trying to become an EXPERIENCE.”
So, if we look at the word “experience” in the normal way, this makes absolutely no sense. It would be like a person saying “that’s not a dog, it’s an animal!” So clearly he is using “experience” to mean something larger than the normal dictionary definition. I asked for clarification, and his answer was not surprising.
To quote him exactly:
“In pursuit of that element[experience, his definition] a story-game has (to me) a huge advantage over any show or film, in that by getting me to interact with it I naturally become more engaged in the outcome of my actions, even if I’m not the sole director of my character or my choices are limited.
The Story-Game Myth
Right now, the status quo belief about games – or rather, about our modern digital interactive software – is that combining story and game turns a “mere game” (more on this later) into “something more”. “An experience”. “Immersive”. “Art”. Whatever.
Firstly, this isn’t even true. As I’ve explained in meticulous detail here on the site, games and story do not add up (or multiply, as many seem to believe) to the sum (or factor) of their parts. They damage each other along the way, and while you may be left with something decent, many compromises will have had to have been made along the way and you are left with something that has neither the strengths of a great story or that of a great game.
But worse, this is disrespectful and insulting to games. When do we ever do this to other mediums? Sure, film and music go well together, but are we going to go as far as to say that watching a well-scored movie is better than listening to a great rock album or symphony? Or that because text and images go very well together in comics, a comic book is better than a great painting? Very few people would go and say that “this combination of mediums is just better than that medium”, but I feel like it’s the status quo to believe that the “Story Game” is simply a “greater achievement” than a well designed mechanical game. Use of terminology like “mere game”, “just a game” or saying that games are just “blasting zombies” or some other such frivolous activity is another example of this. I’ve used the term “Game Shame” to refer to this phenomena of gamers saying things that belittles their pastime.
I Hit X, Therefore I Am
I get into discussions regarding the relationship of story and games quite often, and there’s this even more wrong idea floating around that goes a little something like this: “because I AM the character, the story is even more effective!” To explain why this is wrong, we have to jump into stories for a moment and talk about how they work.
Stories work because we get to know the characters involved. Because we get to know them, we feel empathy for them. Only then can they be faced with a difficult decision. For if we, the observer, do not know them and therefore feel empathy for them, we cannot know how difficult a decision is for them to make. The “difficult decisions” are of paramount importance, as they are what happens in a climax of a story, wherein main character(s) are forced to make a major, game-changing, irreversible decision that illustrates something about how they have changed as a person.
Now the view seemingly held by most “videogame people” is that if you pressed a button to make that decision happen, it’s more meaningful. “You are the one doing it”, and so it’s more powerful and a deeper sort of experience. But there’s a huge problem with that concept.
The problem is, if I am making decisions for this character, then this character is not a character. We can never get to know him, because his decisions were the very thing that would’ve let me get to know him, and I am making his decisions for him. So, “he”, be they Link, Cloud, or Adam Jensen (from Deus Ex: Human Revolution), is much more closely related to a tennis racket than they are to a character. I’m a person who believes that tennis is actually extremely deep and elegant and beautiful, so I have no problems with tennis rackets or purely mechanical games. But because a lot of these “story-games” were attempts at creating a good story, yet have main characters who are not characters, their gameplay is extremely thin. When a story-game’s story isn’t good, you’re left with a crappy mechanical game.
I want supporters of “story games” to defend this point. So let’s say there is a decision coming up, and we’re giving the player control over what that decision is. One of those choices will make for a much better, much more meaningful and consistent story. One of the choices will make for a kind of mediocre story, and one is just absurd and totally throws the story into a non-sensical direction. Like, perhaps an example might be deciding to randomly kill someone you just saved. For sake of argument, let’s say that this action would have nothing to do with the overall theme that the game has been establishing up until this point.
The point is, some of those decisions make for far better stories than others. And so, are we saying that there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to play such games, assuming everyone wants a great story (look at me with my wild assumptions)? If so, why are we giving the player a choice in the first place? Because the simple act of pressing a button to cause an event to occur makes it mean more somehow? Does a film mean more if I was the one who pressed play on my DVD player instead of my friend doing it?
Oh that’s right. It’s more “immersive” – another word which needs careful definition (quite literally, since my spellchecker apparently thinks it is not a word). You feel immersed in the game because you inputted the command. Whereas you don’t feel immersed in an excellent episode of The Sopranos? All good art, be it interactive or otherwise, is immersive. The user should forget himself and be in the atmosphere.
In short, if people are going to claim that the act of having made the choice yourself rather than having simply watched or read it played out is inherently better, then they have to support that claim. Yet it generally seems to be just this thing all digital gamers automatically accept.
The concept of a story game really is quite insulting to authors, screenwriters and playwrights. It says to them, “you know what? I can improvise a story that rivals anything your ass can come up with after years of toiling over each and every scene.” I really think that videogame people have a lack of appreciation for what goes into writing a great story, how rare and fragile they are.
What really bothers me about the “immersion” concept is how tied it is to the technology arms-race. Nobody would ever call Final Fantasy VI “immersive”, despite being extremely story based, because it doesn’t have today’s (or tomorrow’s) level of technology. You’re parroting ATI and nVidia’s PR talking points with your “immersive” talk – I hope you’re aware.
Let’s start over, and lay out a few ground rules for discussion.
1. All games are art (and note that “art” does not mean “good”). If you mean “art” in some way beyond “the product of human creativity”, then you need to define it up front.
2. All games are an experience. If you mean “experience” in some way beyond the dictionary definition, then you need to define it up front.
Beyond that, I’m eager to hear some responses from everyone on this article. Why/how does it “mean more” if I am the one who caused an action to happen on screen? I am not saying we shouldn’t experiment with the idea, and I do know that some very interesting interactive art-installation pieces have already been made. My argument is that we should probably not call these things games, and it should not be the norm to combine stories and games. If there were 5 or 10% of developers doing that, it wouldn’t be a problem. But right now it’s like, 90%, and I’m tired of stories hurting my games.