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Entries in Proteus (2)


Let Trigons Be Trigons: On Killing Gameplay pt.3

Part 1. Part 2. The following is my continued response to Adrian's Why We Need to Kill Gameplay To Make Better Games.

I think than when we’re focused on overcoming a challenge – we try to kill an attacker or win a race – we go into savage beast’s survival mode and shut ourselves down for any “higher class” emotions. Our vision gets extremely narrow, and we’re no longer multi-tasking. Beating the challenge becomes the only thing that matters.

The best example is QTEs. You either engage in them emotionally or win them, but you cannot do both at the same time.

Adrian is onto something interesting here, but he's mostly wrong. As I began to explain in part 2, playing video games commonly jam the language centers in our minds because we're engaged in an internal dialog. In the same way that it's difficult to listen to two people talk at the same time, or it's difficult to read text while typing a completely different message, we only have so much language mental capacity to work with. Sure, having our language centers occupied or jammed reduces our ability to think about other things simultaneously, sure it can reduce our navigational ability to that of a rat with random success (listen to radiolab episode here skip to 10:35), but saying this experience is simply a "beast's survival mode" is misleading. It doesn't get at what's really happening in an accurate way.

It would be more accurate to say that as we embrace and learn the new language systems that are the rules of the game, we revert to a more child like state of mental competency. And by working through this state we grow into a fully functioning "adult;" able to express ourselves through the game language which is akin to fundamentally thinking in a new way. This slow and difficult process of learning is what I think Frank Lantz meant when he described learning Poker as a "machine that you inject into your mind." This description of the experience of playing games aligns with how I described the world changing, eye opening effect of encountering the novelty in games by enduring the squeeze.

Furthermore, this brain-numbing effect that Adrian describes doesn't just happen with games. It happens when learning complex systems of all kinds. It's quite common and, most importantly, just one step in the process of embracing complex ideas, experiences, and emotions. You can't begin to be expressive or relate emotionally through this "machine" until you've injected it in your mind first. It's the same with learning piano. You have to learn all the notes and markings before you can really begin to move people emotionally with music. 

I think many gamers have a strong bias for what Adrian calls "higher class" emotions. They overvalue games and stories that can make them cry or feel some other kind of uncommon emotion. This bias reminds me of the bias many gamers have for "complex" stories. As for me, I value all emotions more equally. In general, I don't think it's worth arguing about when games evoke emotion in players. Humans experience emotions constantly. And especially in the realm of art that's focused on the presentation of images, sound, and experiences that convey ideas, emotions are constantly being evoked. We relate to ideas in art by connecting them to our personal experiences. This process of recognizing, relating, and emphasizing is what evokes strong emotions. 


Image by Shawn Handyside

In fact, I think that the highly personal and introspective dialog that we use to learn and overcome gameplay challenges aligns well with the kind of deep introspection that literature excels in. Our quiet, inner voice we listen to as we play is similar to the head-voice we read in the pages of a book. This deep, nearly silent dialog within us is so core to who we are, that games often give us more direct way to relate to video game experiences. Because video games are half-real that require real skill developed in our real brains, in some ways we don't have to relate to the ideas and emotions in games. We actually live them. You don't have to wonder what it feels like to lose a battle when you lose. You just feel it, and it's usually a crummy feeling.

Yet, at the same time, because you didn't lose anything of real consequence by playing the game, we have some room to enjoy even negative experiences and emotions. It's as if playing games automatically gives players a kind of emotional distance from their own actions so we can observe ourselves from a 3rd person perspective. This is one way how the experience of playing video games turns thought and emotions in on itself to be observed as art. This is one way how we can see ourselves reflected through gameplay. 

With that said, the basic way most video games convey ideas is through a unique kind of juxtaposition. In a bit of a metacognitive way, to better understand games we have to take our real emotions and experiences from the quiet recesses of our minds and compare them to the unreal ideas that a game presents via passive means. For example, we have to compare our experience of solving a block puzzle in Professor Layton with the fictional story scene. (see more about this curious fission here). This basic act of meshing gameplay meaning with story meaning is essentially the process of connecting two unlike ideas to build the more complex meaning. I view all complex experiences as a collection of well organized juxtaposition. The very idea of scoring music to a film or game is inherently a juxtaposition. The music doesn't exactly match up with the visuals in a concrete way, yet by comparing the music in its abstract way and the visuals in a concerete way, we can draw thematic parallels between them. And the result is for the better. This is nothing new to art or human experience.

So Adrian is off the mark. He lacks some fundamental lessons of art, emotions, and video games. In his attempt to focus on what he likes most out of video games, he's rashly attacking a core part of what games are (gameplay), and he's creating inaccurate statements based on how he wants games to work. He's reaching too quickly beyond his understanding as evident in his QTE example. QTEs are some of the simplest, most straightforward gameplay challenges that allow developers to present highly emotional, action packed, or cinematic scenes while giving the player the most minimal level of mandatory interactivity. QTEs are a perfect example of simplifying gameplay in order to focus on non-gameplay experiences. Adrian argues above that the best example of how emotions and gameplay don't mix are QTEs, yet below he argues that simplifying and removing gameplay complexity is how games can convey more emotion. And his example he references is The Walking Dead, a game with plenty of QTEs. 


Does it mean that if you want a deeply emotional game, you should drop regular gameplay, with all its core combat loops, gameplay mechanics and other voodoo? Yes. Any proof for that hypothesis? The Walking Dead, for example.

No. Gameplay conveys meaning. The rules alone and the interactivity of players in gameplay systems is real and rich enough to work wonders on our emotions. Perhaps gameplay and passive media have their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of the kinds of emotions and ideas they can convey best. But Adrian's statement goes too far. It's clear that Adrian in his games-as-business view where everything he loves about games comes from the non-gameplay, non structured, and more passive elements doesn't find gameplay to be deep or emotional. This leads me to believe that he doesn't see or understand what gameplay really is. And the "proof" that Adrian uses is troubling. 

The Walking Dead is a game that's 95% non-game from my experience (I've only played the first chapter on iOS). It's really an interactive novel complete with voice acting and branching story choices. With an understanding of what The Walking Dead is, I find the gameplay, interactive, and even narrative elements to be lacking. Yet, the surge of support for this game and the game-of-the-year awards it received are telling. I think The Walking Dead's success is due to the combination of the current zombie craze, the fan following of The Walking Dead franchise, storytelling that's similar to mainstream mediums like TV or movies, and the unusual games-as-business player-first-mentality where players take pride of "their actions/consequences" as the story unfolds. It's not that the story in The Walking Dead reaches new heights or new emotions for video games. It's that it's the perfect storm for gamers to think so if they are blind to how gameplay conveys meaning. The Walking Dead is not where the future of games can go. It's the future of how interactive novels can go.  


 Polish artist Kordian Lewandowski

But if we remove the challenge and trial and error gameplay from video games, can we even still call them video games?

Who cares? Do you play games to pass the time or to create memories?

Remember when Ed, creator of Proteus, asked the same question; "who cares?" In my experience, ending a discussion with this flippant response is a clear sign that the speaker has lost track of his/her point and has decided to end things dismissively instead of persuasively. The issue on the table so far in Adrian's article is not what a game is, or what to call it like with Ed's article. In this case we're talking about what gameplay is, what makes up meaningful experiences, and how to get more meaning from the games we play. When Adrian tries to grasp at such serious topics so carelessly, he opens his resolution up to scrutiny in ways he could have easily avoided. Without properly framing what "challenge" and "trial and error" gameplay is, it's hard to engage with his question at all. Yet, it's clear (or at least it will be soon) that Adrian misunderstands what challenge is and why its important. 

There are two problematic notions of challenge and trail-and-error that are common in game design discussions. Some think of challenge as gaming tasks or obstacles that are very difficult; that players have to spend a lot of time and effort to overcome. I think of challenge more broadly by separating what is challenging from what is difficult. While difficult describes a challenge near the limit of one's skill, challenge applies to exerting effort to achieve a goal in a rule based system. Challenge is important in requiring specific interactions from the player, helping the player goal-set, developing meaning within rule systems, and setting player expectations. If you remove all challenge from a game, you leave the experience open for the player to make up a value scale, make up their goals, and find the meaning among a bunch of less connected experiences. Some players are good at this and prefer this, but there are drawbacks. By putting the player first this way, designers lose the ability to reliably squeeze, mold, and guide players into more complex, meaningful, and consistent experiences. 

Furthermore, trial-and-error is a big part of learning. And learning is an important part of what gameplay is. As I investigated in Critical-Casts Episode 2: Expression, it's the learned, technical, and structured size of art that allows us to fully experience and convey the emotional side. For an artist, it's the technical side first. But what's not as obvious is that it's the same for the audience too. As viewers, readers, and game players we have to learn the complexities of a work and its medium to get more out of its meaning and emotions. So in Adrian's case, to put down learning is to really put down emotions. 

And again, the issue isn't whether we create memories or not. We, humans, are constantly living through experiences, having emotions, and yes, creating memories. We create memories by engaging with gameplay and by doing anything else.


In part 4 we'll look at Adria's post mortem and wrap up with a few game design considerations.