In part 3 I proved that forming an objective definition for filler and padding is more difficult than most realize. I'm not satisfied with this conclusion. As I explained before, when we say that a particular level or challenge is filler it is in attempt at a basic level to explain that something about the experience is disappointing. Such a vague and subjective statement works best when it opens up the conversation to a detailed, more objective analysis. However, I'm curious to consider if there is still an objective way to think about filler. To be frank, I too think that some games have excessive, wasteful, or "filler" gameplay content. I think we all inherently understand that elements in art can work for it or against it. And when it works against it, such elements can be considered a waste. So to continue this investigation we have to consider what it even means for art, the expression of people, to be wasteful in the first place.
Do consumers of art have no way to evaluate what is excessive or wasteful in someone else's artistic expression? Are we even the authority of what is wasteful in our own works of art? Whatever the artist decides to do, however he or she decides to get that job done, is all of it equally legitimate? Equally important? Equally necessary? The short answer is no. Though it's entertaining to believe that artists have absolute control, authority, and freedom over their expression, the nature of art itself doesn't allow such authorial control. The artist is not all powerful because art is concrete. In other words, to make art, the creative expression with boundaries and limits, one has to create something through a physical or virtual medium. And because art requires a medium to exist and convey information to an audience, we have a perfect entry point to gain some ground on this difficult concept of wasteful expression.
Art is a tricky concept to define. In my experience people too easily toss around abstract and philosophically distracting considerations when talking about what art is. As is my custom, we'll start with clear definitions to help us pin down what art is. Dictionary.com gives us two definitions that are great jumping off points:
1. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
2. the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria; works of art collectively, as paintings, sculptures, or drawings
Is art in the medium itself or does it begin in our minds? Is art our reaction to the stimuli or is it our awareness of how the information is processed? Are the aesthetic principles of art something we experience like an event in real life, or is it something immutable that we are frequently reminded of but never grasp fully? These are all profound questions that we can steer clear of. Art is a word that refers to quality, expression, groups, and products. For the purposes of this article series and in my typical analytical style, we will focus on art as a product so that we can examine its elementary, objective parts.
image by Chris Lange
Art is something that is strongly connected to its medium. Some philosophers describe this relationship as art being supervenient over and above its medium. There's no need to think too hard about this statement. We don't need to worry about it or of paradoxes like the Ship of Theseus. The relationship between the art and its medium can be clearly illustrated with a simple example. Take a painting of a dinosaur. If you view this painting from a normal distance so that you can see all of its edges clearly within view, you'll see the dinosaur as the subject of the composition because you can see many of its smaller complex parts (blobs of color) all at once. But if you zoom in and continue to zoom in soon the dinosaur cannot be distinguished at all. You may be able to see some sections of color, but it gets increasingly impossible to derive that the painting is of a dinosaur the more you zoom in.
The example is simple, but what it illustrates about complexity is quite profound. When zoomed out, you cannot grasp the finer details, but you can easily understand the composition by taking in the details all at once. At this level you very effectively grasp the meanings that can only be conveyed visually with so many complexities. Zoomed in, you see only a few details at once; you see that the painting is made up of very small sections of color. To figure out what the bigger picture is, you would have to keep the mental picture straight in your mind like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. On this zoomed in level, you can't see the complex, meaningful composition. And unless you do a lot of work, the sections of color will be random and mostly meaningless. I often use the phrase "seeing the bigger picture" because of how literally we can experience the emergence of meaning from complexity.
The Limits of Art
Bringing the discussion back to what was discussed in the intro to part 1 of this series, art is a finite work made up of complexities of a medium that convey information. Random information is easy to convey. It's easy to create nonsense, gibberish, and art that's a collection of meaningless bits of stuff. Like I explained in part 1, it's hard to make appreciable art. Put another way, it's hard to make art according to the "aesthetic principles" referenced in the definitions above. For our purposes, we can think of these appreciable, aesthetic principles as the qualities that frame the meaning that reflects the complexities of real-life in a perceivable, relatable way.
We've reached the limit of the land and lake.
Think back to my Mario Melodies series where I talked about variation and a concept called the minimum degree of difference. When talking about variation of level design or of a game's design space, one must first identify the smallest degree of meaningful difference. This degree essentially defines the ruler by which you'll measure gameplay content. And yes, declaring this degree is somewhat arbitrary. But the point is to highlight the differences of the game elements not necessarily to focus on how different they are by any measured degree.
With 2D Mario platformers I chose the brick unit because everything in the game seemed to be measured in brick units from Mario JUMP, to enemy sizes, level structures, to coin arrangements. The brick is also great because it's fairly large allowing players to gauge the size of obstacles and formations easily while playing. It's always better to chose a minimum degree of difference that's easily observable by players. Though you may not know it explicitly, Mario can do a standing jump of 4 bricks high and a running JUMP of 5 bricks high. We internalize these rules so that we know which JUMPs Mario can make. Likewise, the level design and gameplay fit together like lego pieces, which goes a long way in helping the player make informed decisions.
I also thought the concept of minimum degree of difference was important because I knew that the meaning or quality design of Super Mario Brother's gameplay was not infinite with endless variety to explore. The uniqueness and highest meaning of SMB gameplay only exists when enough of the level design layers are present and working together. So, shifting the first Goomba on 1-1 by a pixel to the left doesn't make that first encounter significantly different in any observable, appreciable, or meaningful way. Yes, there's a difference between the two versions, but that difference isn't meaningful. For the most part, the minimum degree of difference defines the point where any change that exceeds the degree is significant variation and anything below it is just fine tuning. For another Goomba example see here.
Like with the minimum degree of difference, when I first thought of the idea of static space I was also scratching at the root issue of the finality of art. I coined the term static space because I wanted to describe video game challenges where the player must engage in a repeated or continuous action without much variation until successful. Yes, while completing these challenges you're still moving toward your goal, but while doing so the gameplay scenario (interplay, dyanmics, relative advantages, entropy, etc.) is practically frozen. In small doses, everyone can stomach a bit of static space in games. But force too much for too long and the meaning and impact of the act itself gets stretched into nothingness; stretched perhaps into something so different the result is new and utterly unlike the original. Don't believe me? Just listen to the intro of this fantastic Radio Lab episode titled Time (start-3:07; 50:40-end).
It turns out we've recognized the limits of meaning and expression in game design for years. Now that everything is in perspective, we can finally consider...
How Art Can Waste
A clear way to think about art is that though there may be many interpretations of it, and though the artist may attempt to communicate any idea, the art itself is a limited choke point between these two sides. Communicating through a medium is like the squeeze in that it has its own rules and limitations we must adhere to. These rules and limitations directly affect what can be expressed through the medium. For example, a written book cannot convey sounds or motion in any direct way. And we can't taste a film or a video game. Yes, there are many examples of art that exists at the edge of existing within the rules and breaking them.
Most art lies well within the rules for good reason - namely because communication is a function based on these rules. We increase our ability to communicate through a medium by understanding these rules and developing techniques to refine the craft. And because of this function, we can begin to approach the issue of wasteful art from an objective angle using the same kinds of approaches we've been using to analyze function in game design.
What a waste of perfectly good pixels. Pixel Pour 1.0
The aesthetic principles, the rules of craft, and criteria by which we'll measure game design "waste" is not as arbitrary as you might think. As I began to explain above, the trends that exist in art are not always the result of personal taste and popularity. I argue that the most influential trends are the result of advancements in our understanding of the rules of the medium, which we cannot easily change. By identifying and sticking close to these rules, we'll be able to analyze waste in art without using our own biases and personal preferences. Specifically looking at video game design (the design of gameplay) the following points make up the foundation of our criteria.
- Art, being communicated through a medium, is finite and therefore there's a limit to the amount of meaningful content we can derive from its complexity.
- Typically, the more complex the idea to be conveyed, the more complexities in the art work are needed. This also means that there is a level where considering too few of the necessarily complexities prevents the idea from being expressed at all.
- To understand increasingly complex ideas the audience must observe or learn the complexities. Necessary complexities that are not instantly perceptible require the audience to memorize the data. Learning is work.
Just with these three statements we can better understand the elements of craft for any medium. If communicating ideas is the goal, then we can look at the way an artwork presents, supports, and works against its own ideas. The reason why we have a concept of checkhov's gun is because it's clear that it's possible to introduce complexities into an artwork that are not necessary to the complexities that build the meaning. In such a case, the time the audience observes, thinks about, and tries to fit this extra element into the larger, more complex meanings of the artwork is time better spent on complexities that actually matter.
The more complex an artwork, the more even a single extra element can distract from the more meaningful elements. This is a simple property of complexities you can experience yourself here. The more work the audience puts into unfruitful pursuits, the less energy and time they'll have to put into the important complexities. So if you value the time and energy of your audience -- more importantly if you value how effectively your art communicates, you should take care to carefully remove all significant, unnecessary, distracting elements.
For video games we have to consider the ideas communicated and the method they're presented. This will involve revisiting our terminology for describing design spaces as well as covering a new and detailed method of discussing pacing. Because video games are interactive and challenging, we will also need everything we've learned about game design and filler up until this point.
It's all happening in part 5.