Let Trigons Be Trigons: On Killing Gameplay pt.4
Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 8:36PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Critique, Interesting Choices, Language, Learning, Motivation, & The Mind

Part 1Part 2. Part 3. At this point, you might be thinking that Adrian is so completely entrenched in his games-as-business trigon view that he's set on killing gameplay to get what he wants out of games. Though I feel that Adrian doesn't understand gameplay, he does seem to have a great attitude about learning, fostering discussion, and being open to feedback. This is good because he received a lot of feedback for his article. 


Images from The Game Over Tinies

Before writing his follow up article Adrian posted this addendum on the NeoGAF forums:


I do not want to make interactive movies or books or whatever. Games do borrow elements from other media (e.g. music) but they also offer things that no other art from can, like interactivity and sense of presence.

This quote is the result of Adrian trying to articulate meaning without a clear language. By killing gameplay, Adrian is arguing in support of interactive experiences valued for their stories and emotions. Though it may seem odd at first, Adrian is really arguing for interactive movies or books. The Walking Dead game is perhaps best described as an interactive comic. And Adrian is in support of this game as an example of where he wants games to go. I can tell that Adrian thinks that by killing gameplay he's promoting something that doesn't quite fit into the category of interactive movie/book. But other than virtual worlds or simulations, there aren't many existing terms to accurately describe what Adrian wants. "Interactive movie" fits well. 


But a lot of you here believe that there’s one more crucial element that defines what video games are, and that element is challenge that can result in player’s failure (don’t die, solve a puzzle, be faster than an enemy car, etc.).

Why? We all respect Sid Meier, right? His definition of a game is that it’s “a series of interesting decisions” (or “a series of interesting choices”).

No part of this definition says that a “challenge” is sine qua non of video games.


Actually, if Adrian looked more closely at how Sid Meier defined "interesting choices" like I have, he'd see that challenge is a part of his definition. The part about "no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive" speaks to rule based systems with a goal that creates a value scale with which we can evaluate actions. This is how options can be "better" than one another. The dynamics and other gameplay elements help keep things balanced in a way that makes the pros and cons of player options unequal. Without a goal, there's no challenge in the system. Without this challenge, anything the player does is evaluated on whatever value scale the player wants. When the player decides what's meaningful in an experience, there are no interesting choices, just player preference and opinion. 


Let me use Skyrim to explain my point of view. I have played it for well over a hundred hours. I have finished the main story, most of the sub-quests, explored most of the world, destroyed the Dark Brotherhood, etc. It was a fantastic experience.

But: I did it all on god mode. From start to finish. I’d like to pretend that I was role playing a necromancer cursed by gods with immortality, but the truth is I couldn’t be bothered with trial and error combat and the inventory/speed limits.

Now tell me this: was I, or was I not playing a video game?

In my opinion, I was. It was an interactive, immersive experience full of interesting decisions.

I say Adrian was not playing a video game. Rather, Adrian was role playing while exploring video game content. He removed the game part of the experience by changing the rules. And though Adrian may find his choices to be quite interesting, according to Sid's definition they are not. Removing the combat gameplay, however straightforward and simple, removes a layer of challenge and meanin from the experience. If we take Adrian's example further, we might say that wathing someone play through a game online is about the same as playing it. It's not. Even if you play along in your head, you're still not playing the video game. 

I also find it telling that Adrian said he "couldn't be bothered" with learning the systems and how to play the game part of Skyrim better. His negative attitude toward trial-and-error is basically a refusal to learn the game to enhance his experience. Instead of enduring the squeeze, however small, he just skipped the learning process. This not only makes him a poor judge of what's interesting or meaningful in Skyrim's combat (or other systems connect to the combat. e.g. the whole game) but it also means that Adrian put himself as the ultimate judge, gravitating toward content he already deemed worthy. It's hard to be a good judge when one isn't willing to listen and learn first. 


For example, my definition of a “gameplay” was that it’s something featuring “challenge”. I called the “challenge”-less gameplay as “interactivity”. So it was “gameplay” versus “interactivity”. Wrong. That’s definition clusterf***. Gameplay is gameplay, and whether it features challenge or not is a whole different story.

I still stand by the general idea that removing challenge can result in a more engaging, deeper, more memorable experience that we still should call a video game, but there’s more to the story than this.


On the one hand, Adrian admits that there is a language issue that we must wrestle with here. On the other, he claims that we should still call video games "video games" when we remove the challenge. As we saw with Ed's thoughts on the definition of games, some think it's really important to fight over labels and what they should mean. I'm much more concerned with establishing clear terms so we can better communicate what we mean. 

At this point Adrian believes that removing gameplay from games can result in "more" engaging, deeper, and memorable experiences. In a general sense, every other storytelling or artistic medium has proved that it's possible to create such experiences without gameplay. Some of these other mediums are even interactive, with their own rules and sense of "presence." It's clear that Adrian wants "more" from video games. And it the job of designers, like me, to balance giving Adrian what he thinks he wants against what he needs and what is essential to the medium. What Adrian claims to want may be impossible to create, or it may lead to odd products like Fez that seem to embrace game design yet turns away from the design principles that make it work. Regardless, the design challenge is worth taking seriously.


Adrian's follow up article Killing The Gameplay ... Postmortem is not a typical post mortem. Here's what I mean:


One thing is that I have decided not to add my own comments to any of the quotes, whether they were for or against my hypothesis. I think it would be unfair for me to have a say without the other side being able to respond.

When I first read this, I considered Adrian's postmortem to be unuseful for my critique. After all, Adrian isn't really the one talking here. Though I think it was a wasted opportunity for Adrian not to supply his thoughts and comments, there is still one way that he has left his impression on the page. I think there's key information we can gather about Adrian's thought process and point of view based on the statements that Adrian bolded in the quotes. I've separated these statement out below. 


Emotion – the word – is just misused. 

"video games” is a bad name that doesn’t really encompass all the things that the medium can provide.

Adrian understands that there is a language issue that's part of the underlying problem. This is good. 

I was impressed by how the fear doesn’t stem from the threat of seeing a Game Over screen and having to start again from your last checkpoint, but comes from the atmosphere the game creates.

Adrian gravitates toward the idea that the tension in Silent Hill isn't enhanced by the threat of loss, dying, and game overs. Certainly the eerie setting and creepy soundtrack are a big part of the game's atmosphere, but this atmosphere is still the backdrop to the interactive game experience. Playing Silent Hill in "god mode" wouldn't have the same effect. I feel like Adrian can prove this to himself just by playing a game in god mode and without. I think he knows there's a difference, which is why he has such a bias against learning or what he calls "trial and error." I don't blame him. Learning is hard. And if I didn't know that learning is worth the time and effort, I'd want to avoid it as well. 

Failure, for the right player, is powerful.

Both “gameplay” and “dying” are overrated, and are holding games back. 


Adrian seems to believe that failure, or gameplay, is mostly an issue of preference. That if some gamers simply don't like failing, they can get an equivalent meaningful experience out of games by foregoing the challenge and playing in god mode. It's obvious that because learning is such an important part of video games, concepts like trial-and-error, repetition, and failure are important natural results of players engaging with gameplay. 

Would you say that learning and self improvement are "overrated?" Seems like a preposterous statement to make. Would you say that applying oneself to play a musical instrument and having to start from the beginning of a song to get it right is "overrated?" Probably not. I think that because Adrian views games primarily as conduits of story and emotion, that he completely misunderstands and overlooks the value of gameplay. 


The cognition involved in traditional gameplay is surely very different from the cognition involved in processing emotional experiences.

What we have right now in gaming is a bunch of people using tools developed for delivery systems like books and movies, which depend on the “consumer’s” passivity to work and trying to shoehorn them into a medium that requires active engagement. 

Here it seems that Adrian struggles to find reason for why he feels so strongly about non-gameplay interactive experiences and why he is so adverse to gameplay. Could it be that our cognitive processes are different when we play games versus when we feel deep emotions? Perhaps. But even so, I don't think this would be enough evidence in support of Adrian's ideas. I think it's telling that Adrian bolded the second section above. Adrian recognizes the inherent juxtaposition within the complex medium of video games, and he seems to side with the idea that this fusing of unlike experiences is unnatural  or forced ("shoehorn").


Action isn’t good for building emotion, but I think it can set the stage for certain kinds of emotion, both before and after the challenge occurs.

The Walking Dead needs puzzles to space out the hard-hitting moments every once in a while

Making elements such as narrative, worldbuilding, exploration and discovery into engaging facets of gameplay creates a wider range of experience for the player without relying on a constant stream of combat or other purely “gameplay”... encounters. 

 I find it odd that Adrian and others think so little of action. Sure, the Hollywood-macho-martial-arts style action is particularly well-worn these days, but the action itself still conveys a lot of ideas and meaning; and from meaning comes emotion. In the similar abstract way that dance of all kinds conveys ideas and expresses, a fight scene does the same. Dancing and fighting really aren't so different. Furthermore, action is a general word to describe force and motion that exist in the world outside of our minds. If you think of people as being forces, and drama as ideals colliding into each other it's easy to see action as a driver of expression.

So no, action is good for building emotions. Video games and movies may be obsessed with gun based action, but this still speaks to the fact that even this kind of violent action expresses ideas and evokes emotions in its fans. Saying that action "sets the stage" is a sideways way of talking about the importance of action. It's better if we try not to remove how we are affected by experiences from their concrete sources; e.g. action. Action doesn't set the stage for emotion, it is the sage of life and we're just emoting in response. 



The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights. Muhammad Ali



In my mind, I frequently consider how I might design games to help satisfy gamers like Adrian or Thompson. I pay attention to the things that turn them off to gameplay and learning, and I try to design the kinds of experiences and emotions they're looking for. I do this within gameplay systems knowing just how effective they can be in addition to knowing all of the drawbacks of gameplay. Maybe it's because I've been playing games since I was 3 years old that I don't think of video games as being particularly special; they don't hold any kind of unrealistic promise for me above other mediums.

I think it's important not to try and argue against gamers like Adrian. Letting Adrian be himself, gameplay killer and all, can only help our industry grow stronger as long as he continues to maintain his open mind. Whether you want to see more games try new things or not, undestand that design is about embracing the limits of our ideas when we try to express them in a medium. And when the smallest broken part can throw off the entire machine, it's simply unwise to suggest killing gameplay before we understand how integral and meaningful it really is. 

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