Abstract on Abstraction pt.2
Sunday, May 13, 2012 at 3:11PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Abstraction, Knights in the Nightmare, Medium, Story, Xenoblade

As an artist and designer in several different mediums I've learned a lot craft lessons. From my study of the craft of fiction in college, I learned about a method of writing that many amateurs adopt while trying to tell unique stories. The problem is, this style is unique because it's not very good, and most good writers steer clear of it. Understanding what this method is, why it doesn't work for fiction writing, and how this relates to game design is the focus of this article. 

 

The Imitative Fallacy

"The summer before last I went to Salt Lake City for the Writers at Work conference. In workshop with Steve Almond, I was introduced to the term "imitative fallacy." Until then, I'd always called the concept, "A boring story about a boring man." It was a Dangerous Writing caution: you must avoid falling into the trap of adopting the narrative tools of your narrator when telling a story—unless your narrator is a gifted story teller. It's up to the writer to craft a compelling story, even if your main character is an idiot. Or, in the case of The Secret to Love's Fifi, an emotionally disconnected scientist." ~Suzy Vitello

 

Restated, the imitative fallacy is creating a similar emotive or functional experience that the narrator, characters, or events in the fiction experiences. Put another way, it's when the artifice, the artificial construction that is the story framework, is created to imitate the form it contains. E.g. writing a story about a bored character in a boring manner thinking a bored reader will relate to the boredom of the characters/situation. Yes, the reader will relate to the boredom, and then stop reading altogether. 

The problem with the imitative fallacy in fiction writing is that it throws away the benefits of the abstraction that is the craft of fiction (storytelling). A story is merely a series of coherent events told through time. This means a storyteller does not need to describe every detail, every event, or every moment to convey a meaningful, coherent story. In fact, giving all the details would surely detract from the audience's focus on the core. To focus on the core, writers make cuts, edits, and bend every element of the writing (including time and space) so that the core is laid out one scene at a time with all the most important themes, characters, and events. The bottom line is, the craft of fiction involves conveying stories not recreating a kind of reality so the reader can "live" in the events and then hopefully sort through all the most coherent, core details. Just like with the diagrams I explained here, the design and the craft of fiction involves walking with your audience to the core and then letting them explore the meaning beyond on their own. 

Using abstractions (simplifications by cutting complexities from elements) in fiction is the primary way writers can guide the audience to the important details. The goal is to present ideas or an experience the audience understands. The audience understands these things by relating to the coherent elements. For the most part, the audience doesn't want to be bored when reading about a character who is bored. The audience doesn't want to be forced to solve a riddle to understand how a character feels solving a riddle. Just like when we look back on our own lives, most stories work better when the fictional frame (or the looking back) is somewhat removed from the events. This is called narrative distance. This is why the 3rd person perspective is used more than the 1st and 2nd person in fiction.

With most stories, we want to use the benefit of our removed yet observant perspective to better understand and relate to fictional events. When put this way, it's as if the magic of abstraction depends on this "relatability." It's as if we want some parts of the story to be rich in details and almost real in their presentation. And we need other parts of the story to be cut or summarize. I find this dual relationship between reality and realtability oddly similar to the half-real experience that is playing a video game. With this said, we must transition into a discussion on how the same kind of failure to understand the power of abstraction in the craft of fiction manifests in game design.

 

image by David Creighton-Pester

The Curious Fission 

The video game design with all of its story, interactive, and gameplay elements is more complicated than fiction writing. Remember that "gameplay" is a very specific and important topic that I took great care to explain in detail. While fiction writing typically works best when it focuses on presenting scenes that the reader can relate to and understand from a removed perspective, video games benefit from such a design and more. Yes, video games present events for players to relate understand from a distance. There's a wide range of story and in-game events that the player is meant to observe and understand without much interactivity. However, there are typically more events that the player controls directly in a video game. And this is where the core fission of video game design and craft that stems from the medium's half-reality comes into proper focus. 

Video games are split between two halves of a half-real divide. On the one side passive storytelling (the craft of fiction) works best when abstractions are fully embraced. On the other side gameplay is not an abstraction. Gameplay is real. The requirement of player actions is real. The gameovers are real. The victories are real, earned, and typically skill based. Because real skills are developed inside players, there's no way for the game to abstract what exists outside of the game system itself. With this said, you can begin to see the curious balancing act that game designers have to walk. You can see how it can be extremely incongruous and jarring when designers try to abstract the real (which they can't) or present as real the experiences of what should be abstracted (the fictional elements).

On the real side is a continuous experience of the player as their real skills grow and develop in their minds. On the fictional side is all the virtual events, characters, and game worlds. It may seem easy to separate these two halves initially. But the design of video games often attempts to blend both halves, which complicates things greatly.  Many gamers strongly believe that video games work best when the story and the gameplay are one in the same. I'm want to push back on this idea. I think it's great that some games have cutscenes, some games have interactive story moments, and other games try to convey it all through gameplay. I think it's great that some games have rigid narratives that are not changed by player actions, and I think it's great that other games have dynamic narratives. I feel that embracing the diversity and range of game-narrative design is important here. But ultimately, if a game tries to fully unite the story telling and the gameplay experiences, the designers will face irreconcilable differences in abstraction and conveyance in what I call the curious fission.  

To become master game designers we have to understand this fission. It's more complex than just gameplay. And it's more compelx than just story. It's a territory that's so new and difficult to manage, that it's no wonder so many designers struggle in this area. It's no wonder that designers not only have a hard time integrating story and gameplay elements, but players and critics alike have a hard time understanding the results. Put another way, the designers aren't the only ones who have to understand this curious fission; this half-reality that video games present. To get the most out of our video game experiences players have to understand the curious fission too. 

I already have an article I plan to write investigating this curious fission more closely. Look forward to my article on metaphors. For now I want to focus on an example of a game that I think missed the mark. 

 

Reverse Engineered Imitative Fallacy

Some gamers have a negative association with streamlining in games. To streamline is to make something more efficient or simple. By this definition streamlining is largely interchangeable with abstraction. The main difference I want to focus on is that when we streamline a process in game design, we typically do so with a clear, measurable, objective function in mind. Many gamers detest when developers announce that they've streamlined features and systems in the games they love because these gamers view streamlining as "dumbing things down." While it's true that streamlining, like abstraction, typically involves cutting of complexity, this isn't always the case with streamlining. Sometimes streamlining involves adding a feature that automates a repetitive task. For example, organizational tools like sorting and folders are features that help players streamline their inventory management processes. 

The purpose of streamlining is to make part of a game more efficient or simple, which then allows players to put more energy and focus onto other parts of the experience. The reason I brought up streamlining is because, like abstraction, knowing what to simplify is key. As I just discussed, the curious fission between gameplay and story elements in a game presents very unique design problems for developers. And the following is a fallacy that I often see developers make when attempting to streamline or abstract video game features that are already abstract. 

 

 

Let's look at Xenoblade, one of the most disappointing games I played in 2011. I'll say up front that the following analysis doesn't depend on any level of authorial intent. For our purposes we don't need to know the exact motivations or methods of the developers to determine if a feature is streamlined. Rather, we'll simply look at the the game's features and how they align with the craft of fiction and the art of game design to determine if and how the feature is streamlined.

Xenoblade has many features that I consider to be streamlined when compared to similar features in other JRPGs. The problem I see with these features is that they seem to be streamlined to make the raw-mechanical effort of playing a video game more efficient instead of being streamlined to promote and focus on the fantasy-adventure experience. What I mean by this is that the features seem to make it easy for players to simply play the game instead of experience the adventure set in the fantasy world.

 

The following are a few of the most obvious streamlined features.

 

The root of making abstractions and streamlining design involves deciding what to cut. And in Xenoblade's case, I believe the designers looked at the JRPG genre and streamlined the above elements to make the experience more focused on going through the "JRPG motions." I call this design method a reverse engineered imitative fallacy. The idea is there are some facets of video games that are best abstracted, and there are some that are best experienced. The reverse engineering part is when a designer looks at a video game abstraction and seeks to abstract off of it. But instead respecting or preserving the aspect of the design that must be experienced, the developer abstracts. This reverse engineering attitude is usually expressed with thoughts like "why do we need to have this feature? Why do we need to make the player do this?" If you ignore the journey and devalue the experience working up towards something, then it makes sense to start off a Metroid or a Zelda games giving players "all the powers/items at the beginning." This kind of thought process inaccurately looks at what these elements are (gameplay elements), how they're revealed (gradually and with tutorials), and that the gameplay experience of these elements cannot be abstracted (because they're skilled based). 

Remember when I said above that there are some aspects of playing games that cannot be abstracted because they're real? Well, the reverse engineered limitative fallacy is when a developer tries anyway. It's the opposite problem that many fiction writers face. Instead of erring by trying to make the reader actually experience what the characters feel, game designers err by trying to take away the real experiences through abstractions. And the result typically misses some core yet important quality. So for Xenoblade, it's as if the developers didn't value the core adventure experience JRPGs typically support with their abstractions. Instead they decided to cut the parts that make playing JPRG adventure rich in a very real way. 

You can examine any one of the features above and find the merits of its design. For example you can argue that it's convenient to take on as many quests as you can find. You can say that that such a feature prevents the acquisition of quests from burdening the player. While these things are true, the cuts that were made to create this streamlined feature are important to consider. Yes, the new version may be more efficient, but what did we lose in the process? As I explained in part 1, if we cut the important complexities from what we abstract, we could do a lot of damage very quickly. 

I see the adventuring aspect of the typical JRPG as a quest involving travel to different places, talking to different people, and fighting against various obstacles. I see the typical side quest as an optional side event on one's adventure that has the potential to add a unique experience to the grand adventure. You never know what people may ask of you or what you may be required to take on. But with Xenoblade's quest design, the quests are numerous, very similar to each other, and hardly take one far from the normal gameplay experience. What we're left with is a very functional questing system that has lost how it defines and shapes the abstraction that is the adventure. 

It's the same with the other features. The loot literally litters the ground of Xenoblade's fictional world. Picture if Mario's coins didn't force players to JUMP for them (the primary mechanic and core gameplay action of Super Mario Bros.). Picture if nearly every coin was just lined up along the ground for you to simply walk into to collect. That's how the loot of Xenoblade is designed. Loot is so easy to collect it's almost inconsequential; it hardly functions as a reward. Instead of being an abstraction that, in its simplicity, defines and shapes the adventure, the loot feel and functions like an excessive amount of carrots meant to string players along. 

To my knoweldge, the day and night have such a small effect on the gameplay challenges in Xenoblade I'm surprised the developers let players manipulate it so abstractly. Sure, it's convenient. But the player control over the feature makes it function less like day and night time. Instead, this abstraction on the abstract of accelerated game-time makes the feature function and feel like just another mechanical system to manipulate. It's the same for the fast travel. There's no fictional explanation for how the characters warp from place to place. Providing such a fictional and functional explanation is very important for games like Zelda and Pokemon. But since Xenoblade streamlines such a feature, we're left with a purely mechanical system reverse engineered and streamlined for efficiency instead of for adventure. 

 

Ultimately the designers of Xenoblade had to make what I consider to be a very artistic choice. They had the choice of embracing the purpose of common JPRG design by designing features to support the adventure experience. Yet they chose to embrace the functional, mechanical process of playing an RPG as the driving design goal for many of Xenoblade's streamlined features. What we're left with is a lot of complexity, a lot of abstraction, and a strained sense of adventure at best. Like Knights in the Nightmare, another terribly cluttered, complex, and abstract game, Xenoblade's design focus and therefore core meaning is something that isn't easy to relate to. It's as if players have to be well versed in the abstractions these games were abstracted from just to appreciate their design. It's too bad that even with such experience, these games aren't clean enough to let their design shine through anyway. 

 

In part 3 we'll look at more games and we'll even consider words from the developers themselves. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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