Art is finite. I suspect that you intuitively understand this concept. Perhaps a better way of expressing this idea is artworks have boundaries. Some art is contained within a page or a canvas. Some are limited to the screen and speakers. Some sit in specific locations on this planet and are difficult to move. But all art has boundaries that mark what it is and what it is not. With this relatively simple principle, we can understand game design topics such as design spaces, grinding, filler, and pacing. In this article series we will explore these topics that all fit within the idea of the limited exploration there is of an art work; or what I playfully call art's infinite undiscovery.
A game by tri-ace. Never played the game, but the title has charmed me.
Because it's harder to make appreciable art than to not make appreciable art; because a coherent work is harder to create as it grows in complexity; because craft requires skilled work; and because design is specific and goal oriented we understand that limitations are inherent to art. By excluding elements from the art we seek to create artists try to create works that reflect ourselves or capture some kind of discrete idea that is independent from the seemingly infinite complexity of the universe. Or even when one doesn't have a specific idea or aesthetic goal in mind, the work that we create has a beginning, and end, and is composed of a specific set of complexities. Let's focus on the specifics.
The specifics that make Wordsworth's work distinct are the same specific complexities that make such literature distinct from Frost and, for that matter, distinct from Kandinsky, and Miyazaki, and Miyamoto. For these reasons we know that though art can be very deep, we can't derive infinite content from it. No matter how deeply you look or wildly you interpret works from these artists, you can never make their art meaningful and coherent in the same ways that other art works are in communicating their ideas. In other words, there's no way you can derive the story of The Lord of the Rings from the Harry Potter books. Seems obvious, but this fact is an important result of the way meaning emerges from complexity. The perspectives and contexts we bring to an art work as we relate to, make sense of, and react to it may be infinite, and each person may be free to interpret a work of art however they please. However, in the end an artwork is finite and that means there's a limit to the coherent meaning we can derive from it.
The root of what art is, how it works, and the meaning we can derive from it stems from the nature of complexity. Just one word, one brick, one blob of paint, and one sound isn't enough for most artists to convey their ideas. Likewise, one frame, one scene, one rule, one mechanic isn't enough either. The art we create tends to be complex because the world around is complex and therefore our experiences and ideas are complex. The more clearly and accurately we want to express a complex idea in art, the more complexities we need to use. There's no way to get around this limitation because, as I say often, complexities cannot be compressed. I explain this idea in my series A Defense of Gameplay along with the following idea; complexities take work to appreciate because we have to learn them. Learning generally requires some memorization, analysis, focus, time, and repetition. These requirements feel like work for most people even if it's to better appreciate a work of entertainment. So while complexities make our art rich, they simultaneously make it harder to appreciate.
To reduce the "work load" artists have learned to craft and design smarter. What this means is that complexities can be chosen and presented in such a way as to make the most sense to the audience. The more easily we can relate to the complexities of a work and the more sense these complexities make, the less work we have to do observing, memorizing, and analyzing the complexity to see how everything fits together. In other words, we typically highly value coherency within art. I should note here that even abstract and experimental works of art can still be highly coherent even if most people cannot relate to the content from everyday life experiences.
The quest for coherent design has developed into the concepts of dramatic relevance, and checkhov's gun, which are very important in story telling. Dramatic relevance is the presentation of complexity in strong context as the story is told. The idea is, the purpose of a story is to convey ideas through a series of coherent events told through time. For example, though a story may span a number of years, it is not necessary or effective to tell that story by describing every minute of every day for those years. Using summary and jumping forward in time, a story can quickly convey what happens during less important moments to focus more on the key moments. This restructuring of story scenes allows writers to put scenes together that make the most sense in sequence. You may find out that one character is a traitor right before the whole team sets off on an important mission. Getting this information at this point sets up the upcoming mission with a lot of tension. Instead of learning about the traitor and just thinking "I'll keep that in mind. I wonder what other characters may be affected as this story unfolds" you may think "oh no, this mission is more dangerous than any of the other characters know! Everything is about to go down!" You see? The later is much more dramatic than the first.
Checkhov's gun is about not distracting the dramatic presentation of a story with details that don't contribute to what's most dramatic and relevant in the story. In other words, writers should craft stories to focus on the details that add up to the events and themes that carry the most meaning. Simply including back story or information on a character's history doesn't necessarily add to the story being told though it may add to the complexity of the presentation. Don't just add details because you think they're interesting. Always keep in mind what kind of effect such additions will have on the overall presentation. Knowing your craft involves understanding when to include such details and when to cut them out. Notice how these story telling conventions and techniques stem from the ideas conveyed in the work, the complexity of the story, and the limitations of the medium.
Video games have their own conventions for conveying coherent narrative and gameplay ideas. A big part of a game's conveyance is feedback design which I talk about in my series The Coefficient of Clean. The other part is development and pacing, the order that levels and challenges are presented. Some games seem to get the pacing just right providing new, interesting content and challenges just before we get bored. Other games seem to drag on by forcing us to play through mandatory, repetitive, and possibly unchallenging tasks. Because many video games are interactive, emergent, and feature optional challenges, getting to the bottom of this issue of potential, pacing, and padding will take nothing short of a detail and sophisticated approach.
In part 2 we'll tackle the concepts of grinding, filler, and padding head on.