Previous month:
September 2012
Next month:
November 2012

October 2012

Emotional experience through a gameplay world


The nature of our terms affects the nature of our observations.
                                                                                    --Kenneth Burke

We need a better way to write about games. I don’t mean a new form of journalism. I’m not seeking the Lester Bangs or Pauline Kael of video games. My point is much simpler.

We need more words.

For a long time we’ve tried to make games align with our critical sensibilities. We’ve focused a dramaturgical lens on narrative games; we’ve applied film theory to cinematic games; we’ve examined games as rhetorical systems; and we’ve tried to understand the systemic principles that define games. These are worthy efforts, not a waste of time. We each shine the light we own.

But as we’ve waited for games to “grow up” and claim their cultural place in the sun, the medium has broadened and deepened beyond our ability to discern it. In other words, as we’ve struggled to affix labels like “art game” and “experiential game” to a broad stylistic spectrum, game makers - mostly, but not exclusively, in the indie space - continue to push ahead, challenging us to keep up and find new ways to critically engage.

I'm talking about designers like Jonathan Mak, Mark Essen, Christine Love, Jonathon Blow, and Jenova Chen, among others. I'm talking about studios like Molleindustria, Capybara, and Tale of Tales.

I'm talking about an indie movement bigger than games, driven by what Paolo Pedercini (Molleindustria) calls a "soft-rebellion" of artists with "an excess of creativity…a creativity that exceeds the ability of capital to commodify it."

We’re no longer waiting for designers to produce games worthy of critical scrutiny. The situation has reversed. Creative designers are building games, inviting us to find a language or critical approach to convey their essential meaning...or if not meaning, then what they are. What they do. New tools (or refined tools) for new games.

We can go about this in several ways, but maybe the best place to start is to think about our critical lexicon. We need new words. Or better words. Or simply different words. We’ve worn out the old ones. I'll show you what I mean.

Focusing on three “artsy” games released this year - Journey, Papo & Yo, and The Unfinished Swan - I collated review and analysis texts from a range of outlets (Edge Magazine, Joystiq, Eurogamer, PopMatters, Wired, plus ten others). I chose these games because they were widely reviewed, but more importantly because each invites critical assessment on its own terms, outside traditional genre boundaries. If any games can provoke a fresh supply of words, these are the ones, I thought.

Next, I generated a word cloud for each game, filtering out game titles, articles (a, an, the, etc.), and terms like “game,” “Playstation,” and “review.” Here are the results. (Click to enlarge any cloud.)


What emerges is a stark and narrow collection of terms, none of which goes very far describing the essence or, dare I say, soul of these games. There’s nothing wrong with words like "emotional" or "experience" per se. Most games do convey a "world" and deliver "gameplay," but too often these terms function as generic placeholders. They communicate a vague sense of something richer, more vivid and complex. In a mush of overused terminology, they’re essentially meaningless.

Some critics excel at structural analysis, digging for words to characterize hard-to-convey elements of games like dynamics and variation. Richard Terrell has been plowing this row since 2007, nobly wrestling with the limits of language. On the academic front Juul, Zimmerman, Bogost and others have built theoretical frames that help us understand how games communicate meaning. Frank Lantz and his gang at the NYU Game Center are contributing mightily, exploring game design as creative practice.

But we continue to see a disconnect between scholarship about games and the critical community charged with writing about games for a broader non-academic audience. Worse, we struggle to capture the more elusive, expressive dimension of games. Their poetic and sensory qualities are too often wrapped up in the kinds of generalities the word clouds above illustrate.

So, what to do? I believe Susan Sontag's charge to critics in her seminal "Against Interpretation" has relevance today:

Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us... Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life - its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art - and, by analogy, our own experience - more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

I disagree with Sontag's belief in the futility of "meaning." A good critic can "read" a work of art without prescribing a definitive point of view or ignoring "what it is." I've enjoyed reading various responses to the ending of The Unfinished Swan, for example, but not even its author's explanation can determine my own sense of its meaning.

But her main assertion sticks. If we are to see games clearly, we must show how they are what they are. Part of that work is structural and systemic, and part of it sensual and aesthetic. We've made inroads to the first, but little progress with the second. We need more words. Different words. Better words. Finding them won't get us all the way there, but it's a good start. In my next post, I'll give it a shot. You can let me know what you think.

Crafting wonder

Jenova Amy Ian

Players and critics are hardwired to classify. We obsessively index and categorize the games we play, relying on their mechanical properties (platformer, RTS, FPS, etc.) to communicate their essential characteristics. Not content to classify the games, we even classify the gamers, building taxonomies to describe who plays games and why. We’re human. We file things. We can’t help it.

Publishers follow suit, describing their games in familiar terms. When I saw Dishonored a few months ago at E3, the booth rep made sure I knew the game would appeal to FPS and stealth and RPG fans alike. The Arkane/Bethesda folks wanted us to know Dishonored would blend and refine familiar elements from other successful titles, and those expectations frame how we see the game. It's hard to find a review of the game that doesn't focus on Dishonored's mechanical debts to Thief, Bioshock, Deus Ex, etc.

But what about games that downplay or discard traditional game architecture? How do we classify them...or should we? We can discuss games like Journey, and Dear Esther in the same breath with Eric Loyer’s games (Ruben & Lullaby, Strange Rain) or the work produced by Tale of Tales (The Path, The Graveyard), but these games share little in common, aside from their status as “art games” or “experiential games.” There I go classifying again.

It’s possible to ask more interesting questions. At IndieCade last week, I attended an illuminating panel discussion among three designers from different places on the design spectrum: Jenova Chen, Creative Director of Journey and Flower, Amy Hennig, Creative Director of the Uncharted series, and Ian Dallas, Creative Director of The Unfinished Swan.

Moderator Dan Pinchbeck (Dear Esther) began by asking what developers can learn from adopting an unorthodox approach to game design.

Jenova Chen observed “there is a big difference between being a designer and a director,” noting an important distinction between mechanics design and 'experience design.' “I really see my brain functioning differently when I'm trying to create an emotional arc and meaning. I'm thinking as a director, not a level designer or a mechanics designer.” He emphasized the importance of crafting the player’s experience, enabling the player to behave freely in a game world, but within purposeful constraints that impart meaning.

Amy Hennig concurred, stressing her belief in authored experiences. “All my favorite games have a definite authorial voice. It is a crafted experience.” For the developer, this requires a “giant act of faith” in your team. It is unrealistic to expect one person to drive a singular vision. A team must build “creative trust and humility” to determine that vision and collectively pursue it.

The Fun Imperative
“In experiential games, we're not necessarily optimizing for fun,” noted Ian Dallas. "The Unfinished Swan is about provoking wonder and curiosity... All factors coalesce to provoke a feel.” This isn't easy to communicate, let alone build. The people building a game can lose track of the big picture over time, he cautioned. "It’s easy to get completely absorbed in day-to-day fixing.” If you're not careful, you can get lost.

Pinchbeck asked how designers should respond to “the pressure within traditional game design to make everything fun.” No other media, he opined, feels the pressure to be entertaining all the time.

Hennig responded that it all comes down to pacing. “Games that try to operate at 11 all the time rely on bombast and spectacle. We need lulls and valleys.” She described the occasionally awkward position she finds herself at Naughty Dog. “We're trying to navigate these issues in a AAA space,” with a lot of money to spend. “Golden shackles,” she said with a smile, admitting that she sometimes envies indie developers’ freedom to experiment. “Audiences react so very differently to what we produce,” she remarked. “We want to craft an experience without letting the player see the strings of the puppeteer too much.” It’s a terribly difficult balancing act.

Peaks and valleys
Chen observed that we remember games with huge peaks and valleys. Designers create acceleration. “Up and down. If I'm a dancer and I'm always going flat, it's boring. But when I go up and down, it's more interesting.” What is fun? We needlessly limit our definition, according to Chen. Good interactive fun can occur in a valley, but “it needs to be beautiful, not broken. Even at the bottom of the arc, it needs to be very well designed.”

“Our games are more meditative” than mainstream games, Dallas said. “We must communicate our values to the player early on, even from the marketing.” But even a quiet game like The Unfinished Swan must take players’ patience into account. Studying players and their behaviors, Dallas believes most will walk in a single direction for 3 seconds before becoming bored. Players need frequent stimulation, so designers must respond creatively. “We put turns in staircases, for example, to address this issue... It sounds stupid and pacifying, but it's a fact of design.”

Chen emphasized the point. “Discovery is a reward for doing something boring, like pushing a stick forward.” (Audience laughter) Something needs to happen that feels interesting. A real desert is mostly flat. Chen and his team created dunes for players to climb and discover something in the process. Each dune must be interesting to climb, not just scenery. It keeps the player engaged.

Pinchbeck remarked “We talk about pace, but we throw everything we have at presentation. People talk about mechanics, but we spend far more time thinking about presentation." The Unfinished Swan and Journey seem to have similar priorities: a sense of place, of wonder, of discovery. Do these trump mechanics in experiential games?

“We called it ‘grameplay’: graphics as gameplay,” Chen said with a laugh. “If Flower doesn't have grass on the ground, it's super boring. Same with sand in Journey." These design elements communicate environment, as well as provide a tactile experience players like. “Discovery is seeing output from your input,” Chen observed. Hennig chimed in, “Like getting your pants wet in Uncharted, which Jenova loved.” “Yes!" Chen replied, "Simple things like that can be better than level design!” (Laughter).

Please interpret
“Interpretation is also interactivity,” noted Hennig. “I’m drawn to the simplicity of Journey and Dear Esther. “This is a world I can discover and interpret. It's like a poem.” She lamented the role of exposition in narrative games. “At Naughty Dog we struggle with exposition and the expectation of exposition.” Players seem to want “every damned thing explained.” Navigating these expectations is her biggest challenge. Drake can deliver a monologue, but it's an inelegant solution. Nevertheless, many players want it, perceiving purposeful ambiguity as a mistake. “People say it's a plot hole, and we're like ‘no, it's not! Interpret it!’”(Laughter) With a game like Uncharted, “you have to play to the people in the front and the people in the balcony.”

Regarding ambiguity, Chen stated that he never tried to make Journey mysterious. “We were trying to connect players on an emotional level.” In real life, people are busy and have many things to do. We rarely connect. Online players assume other players will behave like jerks, so we don’t connect there either. “But in the woods on a trail, you feel very small. Alone. Vulnerable. If you meet another person there, you say hi. We wanted to make the player feel very small and powerless.”

Chen believes this feeling was an essential part of Journey. Players reported the game reminded them of the original Legend of Zelda, a game with no handholding. “We didn't tell the player anything,” noted Chen. Modern games too often rely on checklists and completion to engage the player. Such games are seen as more “game-ish,” than Journey, but they don’t provoke the kind of engagement Chen seeks.

Emergent as experiential?
Pinchbeck wondered about the emergent narratives that multiplayer or open-world games offer. Aren’t these also experiential games? Chen responded that he enjoys playing Call of Duty games and believes they are well designed. In CoD “you get rewards for mechanics.” You just killed three people in one shot, so you get a reward for demonstrating skill. But the narrative campaign modes do not feel experiential. “When I feel a sense of wonder in an FPS, it's always emergent from mechanics. A grenade bounced an unexpected way and did something crazy. That's great, but we don't work in that space. We're trying to craft surprising moments.”

Hennig questioned emergent gameplay as narrative. “Emergent experiences are fun, but I don't see them as story,” she stated. Storytelling in games is tricky business. Players don't have the patience for being stuck. “We walk a razor-thin line between authorial control and player agency. The more you do the second, the more you risk ludonarrative dissonance. Too much of the first, and you feel like you're on rails.”

The pretty imperative
All three panelists agreed the pressure to produce stunning visuals is ever-present in contemporary game design. Indie developers typically target a smaller audience more tolerant of abstraction, and Hennig sees this as a very good thing. “Photorealism is antithetical to game design, she observed. “We bury problem solving in production values. People won't buy our games if they don't think they look awesome. The games that have affected me the most are the most austere. They are like poems... Why can't we affect people emotionally on the level that a Hallmark commercial can do in 30 seconds?"

Pinchbeck wondered if we simply haven't done it well enough. Do poor writing and acting continue to undermine games? Chen sees it differently, returning to simplicity. “In Journey I wake up in the desert and make my way to the mountain. That's the story of Journey. Everything else we added through architecture and discovery.” We must leave a wide space for player interpretation. We need to leave room for the player to dig so the story under the surface will emerge.

What a life


I know a game designer. He is quiet. Absorbed. A bemused observer. The one who notices patterns. The smart kid who sat in the back at school, bored out of his mind.

He is a builder, but for as long as he can remember he's been caught between two conflicting impulses: save the world, or blow it up and make a new one. He lives in the space between, drawn to anarchy, but irritated by disorder.

He believes a robust system can harness chaos, but he knows entropy will play the last card. Still, he stubbornly believes he can win. The triumph of design. The elegant loop. Optimal trumps beautiful. Strike that. Optimal is beautiful.

He does his best work alone. He trusts his instincts, but fears he may be too smart for his own good. His intelligence both enables and alienates him. He lacks the common touch. The winning smile. The self-effacing demeanor. He says the thing that needs to be said, but at the wrong time, or with the wrong inflection. Charm is an awkward chore. He wishes we could skip the diplomacy and just focus on the work.

For him, it's always about the work. Keep your eye on the ball. Leave your pride at the door. Bromides, but valid ones. He lives for incremental progress. The daily grind is the fun part for him. The crashes and roadblocks are his wheelhouse. Eureka moments are lovely, but overrated. He has learned to appreciate the squashed bug that stays dead.

He shares an uneasy relationship with his audience, the player. Without her, his game doesn't exist. He needs her, yet mistrusts her. She will teach him things he needs to know about his game, but what will he teach her? What is she willing to learn? Can he challenge her expectations without losing her? Her confusion will be his mistake. How to balance the urge to please with the resolve to push, to innovate? Sometimes when his mind wanders, he recalls his days in QA. It's definitely better on this side of the fence.

Now he's on an airplane with the latest build on his hard drive. He's headed to an event where he will show and tell and show and tell. He's got the business cards and the pithy description, but his ace is the game, all by itself. Out of the kitchen before it's finished, he'll share it with people he's never met, hoping they will spend a few moments to consider a thing he's risked everything to make. He'll take notes. Maybe he'll get a meeting.

I know a game designer. His work lives in an unreal space. Call him an artist. Or don't. It makes no difference. His game is the thing. File it in whatever cultural drawer you like. I know a game designer. He acts like God. What a life.