Design Space: Infinite Undiscovery pt.5
Monday, April 23, 2012 at 10:14PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Balance, Design Space, Interesting Choices, Medium

How do video games convey ideas? Though video games communicate ideas by utilizing other artforms like music, film, and literature, each of these artforms operate under different rules, which develop different craft techniques that appeal to different aesthetic principles. To simplify things, we'll only consider how video games communicate ideas through gameplay in this article series. As it turns out gameplay is what makes this investigation particularly difficult. Player interactivity within a rule-based, goal-oriented system makes video games a unique artistic medium. And having to develop real skill to play most games gives us a unique criteria to analyze the efficiency and waste of gameplay.


Communication. Distraction. Waste.

Like I explained in part 4 with the concept of chekhov's gun, crafting an artwork that communicates ideas clearly requires an awareness of what the audience might be distracted by and how these elements detract from the core meaning. In general, artists don't want their audience to spend precious time and mental energy working with details that don't add up to something significant. And if just thinking about an extraneous element is distracting when engaging a passive medium like books, then actually learning extraneous complexities or participating in extraneous challenges in a video game can be damaging. In other words, because video games are interactive experiences driven by knowledge and learning, any wasted effort learning can have a strong negative impact on the conveyance of gameplay ideas and the fun of the entire experience.

Why do players work at games? The most obvious answer is to win and to become more competent. Since work is hard, we prioritize what we seek to learn about a gameplay system. Most gameplay systems feature complexities of varying importance. This is to say that some complexities are nuanced and others are core to the gameplay experience. Gamers intuitively know that nuance is an inherent property of increasingly complex systems simply because every little detail can't be essential information necessary for winning. And we know that focusing on the core or mandatory gameplay elements will ensure that we prioritize our efforts on what will be most useful.  

Gamers don't want to spend too much time and effort chasing functional dead ends. We don't want to put hours into learning a useless mechanic or a character that is too weak to win. This is an issue of balance. It's the job and responsibility of the game designers, knowing far more about the game than new players do, to guide players into a fruitful experience. Sometimes a friendly reminder or a tip is all players need to steer them in the right direction. Other times entire gameplay systems need to be tuned. A common type of balance that most gameplay focused gamers appreciate is that of interesting choices.  

Forcing or allowing players to delve deeply (learning) into a shallow system due to a lack of balance is a waste. Notice how I refer to both mandatory and optional gameplay challenges here. To explain why both are included, I'll draw an analogy to story design. A story is more than just a collection of details randomly dropped on a page. As I explained in great detail in my series Story Design - Story Telling, the content of the story is a completely different from its execution. The content of the story are the details and complexities that make up the raw data, which includes characters, setting, plot, and theme. But none of this data is a story. A story is a sequence of (coherent) details depicting events over time. Therefore, it is the execution, the actually assembling of words in linear order on the pages,  that both makes a story a story and puts the content into the proper, appreciable context. 

Video games have an analogous structure. The story content is analogous to the design space of a game in that it is a raw and somewhat abstract representation of the end product. Furthermore, the execution of a story is analogous to the level design of a video game. For a game is not a game until you can actually play it. And you can't play a game until there's at least one level with one challenge for players to take on.

Before we move away from the story analogy I want to bring up one final point. The non-interactive medium of literature and the interactive medium of video games are not too different when you think about it. Both have content that's delivered in some kind of organized fashion. And if you're thinking that the linearity of books versus the emergent nature of video games is the important differentiating factor here, consider the following. Though the words in a story are presented in a strict linear order, not all words carry the same weight (is this starting to sound familiar?). Some words are just for the construction of sentences. Some are logic bearing words. Some are content bearing words. And depending on the combination, some sentences present ideas that are much more significant and deep than others. Just because your eyes move across these sentences and your mind sounds out the words doesn't mean you've fully grasped the meaning. We already know this, though. The more you read and reread good books the more you discover and the more you get out of them. Knowledge is power. 

I find it interesting that for all the control writers have over the linear order and execution of their content, language and mental human limitations allow for a range of interpretations and other inconsistencies in the delivery of content and meaning from book to reader. This is simply something we have to live with with any artform because art communicates, and the effectiveness of communication depends in part on the receiving individual. In my years studying the craft of fiction in college, I've learned that the best writers embrace the interpretive range of possibilities by carefully crafting every word of their writing to not only communicate their core ideas but to limit the possible interpretations that detract from the core. Likewise, the tightest video games are designed to lead the player back to what's most important and valuable in the work no matter how the player decides to explore the emergent possibilities. The key takeaway here is the optionality of a poorly designed or wasteful gameplay challenge may mean some players won't experience it, but that doesn't excuse the wasteful design or the fact that some players will experience it. 


A Simple Case

In order to make any kind of assessment on design waste, we have to frame the analysis. First we have to declare which section of the game we're analyzing. The single player campaign? A single level? A single mode? Then we have to identify what kind of meaning is conveyed through the gameplay. 

The simplest examples are games like Tetris, Pac-Man, and many other classic video games. These are relatively simple games with few complexities. These games are particularly easy to analyze because they only have one mode or level to play. As soon as the game begins, you're exposed to all of the elements, mechanics, and wrinkles the design space the game has to offer. And because you essentially play the one level until you lose, these examples can't feature design waste right? Not exactly. 


Download Not Tetris here 


Instead of considering waste in terms of distracting or detracting challenges in a series of gameplay challenges, when there's only one level to a game the waste is a direct result to the design of the game itself. Imagine a version of Tetris where all the pieces aren't tightly designed. Call it TetriZ. Let's say that the Z-block was programmed just a few pixels off so that it never fits snuggly with any of the rest of the pieces. You may not notice at first, but soon you'll see that though it appears that the Z-block fits into your formations, it never quite fits enough to register a line clear. Your initial reaction to this might be to claim that this version of Tetris is poorly designed or sloppily made. The point I want to stress is that you think this because you inherently understand something about the core meaning of Tetris' gameplay.

Tetris is a fantastically elegant, simple, and deep puzzle game that uses the tightly packed, quantified tetrominos (shapes made of 4 squares) to challenge players to solve a wide variety of player created spatial challenges. Whether intentional or not, if the Z-block was coded in the way I described above, then working with the unavoidable Z-piece would introduce unsolvable obstacles into your game. And if the core spatial, algorithmic, problem solving gameplay is how Tetris conveys the most meaning, then this poorly designed Z-block would actually introduce an obvious problem to how TetriZ communicates its meaning.

Though you may interpret the game of Tetris as a metaphor for the toils of industrial work, and though you may interpret TetriZ as a metaphor for a "disfunctional working environment," the design and interactivity of both games are clear. You may try to explain the poorly programmed Z-block of TetriZ as a legitimate part of the game's design, but the fact is the bad Z-block is not consistent with the rest of TetriZ's tight, functional design. But by merely having the bad Z-block in the game, the gampelay conveys an inconsistent interactive world to the player and therefore incomplete meaning. TetriZ is a game that clicks sometimes and at other times fails on a basic mechanical level. These two gameplay possibilites are so contrary to each other, that TetriZ fails as both a puzzle game and a satire. It's too flawed to be a skill based puzzle game. And the tricky Z-block is too subtle and infrequent to be a satire on of Tetris. For a great example of a Tetris satire, see Not Tetris depicted above. 

TetriZ's poor design allows players to waste their time engaging in a near perfect gameplay system that is ultimately broken. Yes, art can convey multiple messages and multiple themes, but artists have to be careful that the multiple ideas don't work against each other. Ideally, all the parts of an artwork should work with each other to strengthen the whole. This is a somewhat abstract goal that is nevertheless important to keep in mind. Though it may seem arbitrary that I picked the classic Tetris as having meaningful design and TetriZ as conveying cluttered meaning, it's not so arbitrary when you consider what art is and how complexities work. We'll explore this idea shortly.


Now we have to consider what the aesthetic principles are of gameplay. In part 6 the examples get more complicated. 

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