The (possible) Source of Classical & Western Game Design
Wednesday, July 9, 2008 at 1:30PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Gamer Culture, Misc Design & Theory

As I was thinking about Classical game design the other day, I came upon a realization. After I had watched the new Hulk movie with all of the B.E.S. members, as is our custom, we conducted a rousing and thorough discussion of the movie. Without getting into the details, the new Hulk movie was disappointing for us. Like so many super hero movies that seem to have caught the attention of main stream America, the screenplays writers have no idea how to write "action".

All in all, action in a film is very similar to mechanics in a video game. And when writing a super hero film (or any action film) connecting the action to the core themes/characters/and ideas of a story is essential for creating a cohesive product. The first Hulk movie (which is to this day my favorite super hero movie) is an outstanding example of linking action/super abilities with the characters. In this case, Banner had a problem with his anger and himself (as a character). Using the Hulk as the symbol for power and anger, as well as employing a set of poignant visual metaphors, the Hulk/Banner grows (literally/metaphorically) as a character. At the climax, Hulk/Banner embraces himself and gives up his power/anger to overcome the deep seeded oppressive force of his father, who was the source of Banner's trauma from childhood.

Respecting the action/form/function of the characters that are in a story means taking the care to harness and bring together the action with the characters and their purpose. So, in the climax of a film we can understand that the main character isn't simply fighting in a boxing match. He's fighting for his family. Speed Racer isn't racing for the corrupted businesses within the racing circuit but for the thrill of the race. And Neo isn't sacrificing his life against an unbeatable enemy, but he's fighting because of how others believe in him and for the freedom of mankind.

Thinking about the mechanics of action in film reminded me of anime and Asian film. In the free wheeling fun spirit of most animes, the character's unique abilities are fused with their purpose, back story, and themes of the show. And what may be even more clever is, anime finds ways to shape characters/plot through interactions contained completely within their unique actions. Obstacles characters must overcome are represented by concrete forms that take on actions, functions, and even personas that interact with the main character in a very specific and personalized way.

Though I'm no expert on Japanese culture and history by any means, I do wonder if the pattern of a deep, respectful connection between people and actions that pervades the Japanese from their zeal in hobbies, their anime and film, to their game design stems from the way of the samurai.

Think about it this way, being a samurai was more than a hobby, job, or even career. The way of the samurai was a way of life that demanded a warrior to discipline their mind, body, and spirit. To live in such a way was much deeper than swinging a sword at one's enemies.

To see through the eyes of a samurai, to know what life is like for them is only possible (I can imagine) from following the way of the samurai and becoming one. For how can anyone know what it is truly like to train every day, to sharpen one's resolve, and to use a sword as a weapon to kill people. Perhaps the only way to know the relationship between person and action and how they can be one in the same is to take part in that action. This idea is reflective of the core of Classical game design and how video games can become art forms.

On the other hand and the other side of the world, we have America. We all know (or should be familiar) with the basic history. We were once oppressed and controlled by the motherland, so we fought for our freedom and independence. Once we got it, our culture glorified and grasped on to a few themes and ideas: Romanticizing nature, the American Dream, and freedom of all kinds are just a few of them.

Perhaps these ideas that are embedded in our culture are the source of Western game design. The lure of nature might have translated into the trend of making open world games. Perhaps Western game designers want to create a world that's open for the player to explore and conquer like the Americans did way back when. Perhaps the American Dream developed into how players can go from rags to riches by accumulating in game wealth, properties, and items. Even if the value is nothing more than points that can't be used for anything (achievement points), the attraction to get as many as possible no matter how difficult the challenges are or how bad the game may be (Avatar) is very real. Perhaps both of these ideas are about creating a sense of freedom for the player: freedom to change the controls, freedom to move the camera around, freedom to choose who to interact with and how a story unfolds. The more options, the more freedom even if the options don't have a substantial effect on the gameplay.

These were just a few ideas I had the other day. I haven't done any real research, nor do I plan on doing so. But do keep an eye out for where the games we play come from.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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