Saturday, March 23, 2013

Videogames as Possibilities

Let’s resume what I said in my last two articles: on one hand, the representational aspect of videogames is always shifting, in the sense that the moving image in front of the player is different in each playthrough, and that no two players will ever see the same game in the same way. On the other hand, we should not forget that the mechanics governing the movement of this image are quite fixed, and are not wholly under the player’s control, because it is the designer who decides how much freedom exactly he’s going to allow in his game. Our question now: what lies between these two extremes of the player’s agency and the designer’s control?

In one word: possibilities. So, here’s my proposal: instead of Sid Meier’s “game as a series of interesting decisions”, let’s try out “game as a series of interesting possibilities”. Or even better: “a good videogame is a series of interesting possibilities”, because I’m thinking mainly here of videogames (although I think this qualitative statement can also stretch out to traditional games), and I’m less trying to understand what games are than what games are good at. Truth be told, I’m not fond of definition (that’s usually when name-dropping Wittgenstein is expected), and this is not a rigorous academic paper, so consider this idea as a modest proposal, without any presumption of being all-encompassing or definite. Still, I have my reasons: I prefer thinking in terms of “possibilities” because it stands closer to this intersection of player and designer while “decisions” puts the focus on the player. These decisions have been designed beforehand, so the designer is not completely neglected in Meier’s canonic definition, but it’s the player who ultimately decides, and therefore the emphasis is on him. “Possibilities”, though, is probably closer to the designer’s end, because he created these possibilities in the first place, but it also represents how the player sees a game, how he experiences it: “this or that may happen, I may do this or not, etc.” Also, “possibilities” is more inclusive since it can cover these so-called not-games like Proteus or Dear Esther, in which the player doesn’t have a lot of options, even though these games are rich in possibilities (the procedurally generated island of Proteus or the random selection of the fragmented narration in Dear Esther). It thus removes the idea of challenge, which I do not find necessary: to use a classic example, how is Snakes & Ladders challenging? The player has no decision to make (he merely follows the dice), but the game is fun because of its numerous possibilities, which are born out of the game’s design, the careful arrangement of snakes and ladders on the board.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Illusion of Choice

“A game is a series of interesting decisions.” We all know this famous assertion made by Sid Meier (does anyone know when and in which context he said it, or do we just have to take it for granted because it has been repeated so many times that it became its own truth?), but what did he mean by “interesting decisions”?

Let’s take strategy games, maybe the more “gamey” genre of game, or at least the one closer to traditional games, and the one Meier is renowned for: they’re a precarious balancing act, where every decision must lead to various consequences, preferably with some degree of unpredictability, or else there’s no strategy at all, just an optimal tactic that will work in every situation. But in a narrative-centric game, what makes a decision interesting is completely different, and is not necessarily coherent with what would be best from a purely ludic’s perspective: for example, it is not always wise to present equally seductive rewards when a player has to choose between a “good” and an “evil” option. The designer would say we should not penalize a player for prefering one or the other path, because who will want to be “good” if the game becomes dull or too hard or too easy? But what does it say, from the point of view of ethics, when a game presents such “interesting decisions”, based on a system of rewards?

Friday, March 01, 2013

The Protean Form of Videogames

Maybe this can explain why I find videogame criticism so difficult or at least so alien for me, with my background in cinema: it is the only form of criticism relying both on what the critic hasn’t experienced himself and on an object that will appear differently for each player. The videogame critic has to write about an object so fluid that nobody else (not even him) will encounter it again the same way he did. 
Sure, seeing a movie in the (usually) respectful ambiance of an almost empty morning press screening is clearly different from seeing the same movie the night of the premiere in a crowded frantic theater, or as seeing it in the comfort of your own sofa, but we’re more or less able to abstract the physical context of our encounter with a movie and concentrate our criticism on the moving images themselves, even if we know that this context contributed to our appreciation. And sure, every individual brings his own experience to an artwork, but in traditional art forms, these subjectivities still confront the same immutable object made by the artist; an artwork may exist only once it’s interpreted, and therefore the same object may produce different artworks (like I wrote before, my Citizen Kane is not your Citizen Kane), but every spectator should be able to describe the same physical object that sustains each of their unique interpretation. Indeed, an interpretation is only as good as its capacity to properly encompass the whole of an artist’s work, in the most coherent way possible, so it’s not an entirely subjective process.