Five years ago I started the Critical-Gaming blog because I wanted to articulate my thoughts about video games but also poorly written game reviews, how game stories can be critiqued, and most importantly why Super Mario Bros. for the NES is such a fantastic game. Back then it didn't take long for me to realize that I didn't have the language and the understanding to express myself. What I didn't know then was the understanding comes after grasping the language. So one article and one term at a time, I developed the language to express what I thought about games, and I learned a lot about myself in the process. For more on this topic see A Crash Course In Innovation or my podcast Critical-Casts Ep.2 Expression.
Everything on Critical-Gaming is of no charge, ad free, and with no distractions. This is an intentional design decision. Above all else, I wanted to remove the barriers for gamers who wish to learn about game design. The goal is a discourse and a culture of gamers who can better express and understand each other. My latest theory to further this gaol, the Trigon Theory of Video Games, presents the idea that video games are the product of an infinite tug of war between three major influences; influences that both define what games are and shape our attitude towards games. Though familiar to many, the trigon theory has great explanatory powers of insight. In a very clear way the trigon theory links all the detailed game design concepts I've written about on this blog to a wide range of player emotions, expectations, and desires along with other social, cultural, and technological trends. The trigon theory was specifically designed to help us understand one another more clearly. For more on the trigon theory read my series The Verdict on Video Games or listen to Critical-Casts Ep.3 Trigon.
With that said, I want to illustrate how effective the Trigon theory is when coupled with a Critical-Language by closely examining three outspoken members of the video game discourse. The first up is and article title We Are Explorers: In Search of Mystery in Videogames by Tevis Thompson. If you have the time, read it for yourself first. Read closely, listen carefully, and then see how I demystify Thompson's Mystery.
My critique starts with Thompson's first paragraph. Keep in mind that though I will be at times responding to individual words and sentences, this fine toothed "nit picking" is meant to clearly frame my thought process while fully embracing Thompson's point of view as articulated through the text.
My favorite videogames are the games I don't fully understand. They stay with me after I stop playing. They ask questions I cannot answer. They resonate with mystery.
I like this opening paragraph. It very clearly says something about the author's preferences. The only problem I have is that it seems to apply to a very wide range of games. It's not hard to find video games we can't "fully understand." Games more complex than Pong or Rock Paper Scissors tend to be so emergently complex that no one can “fully” understand them. Anyone with a decent memory knows that games leave an impression after the playing stops. The fact that we hold onto the memories of some games more strongly than others is a natural part of being human with preferences, opinions, and a limited set of experiences with which to relate to ideas. And even the most basic question games ask “can you do this” is one becomes harder to answer the more challenging games become. So far, nothing specific or unique has been expressed by Thompson, but the general sentiment behind his opening is enough to launch us into the content that follows. The topic at hand is mystery.
I get little satisfaction from completing a game. How boring, the feeling of 100%, all content exhausted, all achievements earned, all collectibles collected, all endings ended. If I see all there is to see and then put the game away, satisfied, then the game has failed me.
Another clear statement, yet it's an odd one. In light of the context set in the opening paragraph, we know that this idea of completing a game 100% is similar to “fully” understanding it. Uncoincidentally, I recently published an article about getting the full experience out of video games. I argue that the full experience doesn't exist because passive content, interactive challenges, mastery, emergent possibilities, metagame history, and DLC are all considerations that complicate what it means to get the full experience out of a game. Furthermore, there is almost always more to do and experience in a game beyond its explicit goals. So in Thompson's paragraph, we see that his enjoyment and value of video games comes from his ability to consume content as it is presented and outlined via the game designers. When the menus says 100%, he feels that he's done it all.
More interestingly, Thompson describes consuming video game content as seeing “all there is to see.” He didn't say play, experience, overcome, or uncover it all. The word "see" indicates experiencing more passive video game content. So far Thompson's leans in a games-as-business direction.
Also, Thompson states that he can put a game away “satisfied” while at the same time feeling that the game has disappointed him; “the game has failed me.” This stark contrast indicates that Thompson has more than one value system he uses for video games. More on this later.
I can no longer stomach good game design. Wherein I am led, step by step, through a litany of features and abilities, all while being made to feel strong or smart or cool. I am rewarded with unambiguous feedback and steady progression. I am assured that every puzzle and challenge, every problem, is solvable in the end.
Thompson goes on to make more statements about what he likes and dislikes in video games. Not liking “good game design” is a clear statement that shows Thompson does not support the games-as-art trigon view. Being “led step by step” is a good way to teach and empower players by properly developing skill. Also “unambiguous” feedback or clean feedback is essential for conveying ideas in games helping players learn the systems and make informed decisions. Indeed, these are "good" design elements that "good" games utilize for good reasons.
But the most interesting problems aren't solvable.
Part of the way games communicate ideas is through the structured, goal-seeking interactivity within their systems. Generally, by having a goal in the system, actions within that system are evaluated according this a goal-oriented value scale. Players are generally concerned with doing what helps them win, and this evaluative process helps focus a player's mind.
Even when the challenges in a game are structured and "solvable" that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of space to get lost in your efforts to find a solution. An assurance of possible victory feels like an empty promise when you're far from figuring out how to win. Sure, Checkers is a solved game, but unless you're at that level of skill or play an opponent on that level, the experience playing the game is still unsolvable from your perspective. So in Thompson's case, we're talking less about the ultimate design of challenges, but more about his perspective, experience, and attitude as he engages.
What I seek is a game that feels alive, that is more than the sum of its well-oiled parts, that makes me believe. Because once I believe there's something really there, some roiling, churning presence, a coded will – I play differently. I act as if. I reach out, once again, to encounter the reality of my experience. To make contact with mystery.
In this paragraph we get glimpse at Thompson's inner desires. Keep in mind that Thompson admits to “seek[ing]” which implies that what he's looking for is not common; otherwise his entire article probably wouldn't exist. Here Thompson does a bit of introspective reverse engineering in attempt to find what it is about video games that makes them feel “alive” so that he can begin to “believe” in them. He seeks this because he knows that when he buys into a game in this way, he plays differently; and he likes this difference. So the question is, is Thompson searching for something in the game or inside himself?
Long time Critical-Gamers should remember that I am not a fan of the phrase "greater than the sum of its parts". I think that more often than not people who use this phrase suffer from a lacking language to articulate their experiences. Instead of being able to break things down clearly and show how the smaller parts give rise to their overall feelings, they use this phrases as a shortcut. In this way, using the phrase is most likely a sign that the speaker is wrestling with a tangled ball of feelings, impressions, and experiences. And as we'll see moving forward in this critique, Thompson wraps up all his convoluted thoughts into a single word; mystery.
I can't blame Thompson for wrestling with the expression of his thoughts. In fact, I fully support the effort. But a clear language is necessary for expression, otherwise any attempt to express specific ideas with vague terms will only make the communication unclear and frustrating. My format here at Critical-Gaming involves starting with a concept, examining the discourse for possible definitions and meanings, framing the discussion, and then proceeding to collect, coin, or construct an exacting definition. The idea is, even if you don't fully agree with my terms, if I've set a clear enough definition you'll be able to accurately translate what I say or even correct what I mean. It's a win for everyone.
Thompson does not use a formula like mine in his article. He practically does the opposite. I think Thompson's first major step is a mistep because he attempts to tackle a concept ("mystery") that is far beyond his understanding and his range of video game terms. In other words, he has little hope of articulating his high concept of “mystery” because he can't articulate much simpler video game ideas that are needed to build up to that high concept.
In part 2, we'll look at exactly how "mystery" is defined, and why this definition clutters more than it clarifies.