Monday, 16 May 2011

Finding videogame's true voice

Introduction
The main gist of this post is that we are not using the full narrative capability of video games. I believe we fail to take into account certain aspects that lie at the core of making artistic creations powerful and thus miss out on crucial strengths of the video game medium. To get to the core of these strengths, I will first have a look at other media (specifically film and literature), and then explore what lessons that can be applied to video games. What I end up with is a way of thinking that use basic elements of the film and literature experience, yet is quite different from these.

It is very easy to look at other form of media, see what they do well, and then try and copy this. I think this is a big problem for video games. Whenever a game focusing on a narrative-oriented experience is made, it is instantly compared to other media and judged according to their strengths. For instance it is very common praise to call video games cinematic, or to concentrate critique on their plot structure. Obviously, I do not think this is the right approach. Instead I think we need to take a step back, and consider what it is really in these other media that makes them work. We must then explore in what ways these concepts can (and if they can!) be applied to video games.

My suggestion for this "magical essence", which I will outline in this article, are empty spaces. The bits that require the audience's participation and imagination. Basically, the part of art that require us to be human.


The power of imagination

First of all let us take a look at literature. For this "The fall of the house of Usher" by Edgar Allen Poe will be used as an example:

"I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. "

This is an excerpt of a quite lengthy passage where the narrator describes the House of Usher as he approaches it. Even though it says a lot, it gives us very scarce information of how the house actually looked like. The focus is instead on the feelings and actions of the protagonist. The text tells us the response that the imagery evokes in the narrator and based on that it urges us to make up our own mental image of the scene. This is typical for literature. Descriptions are usually sparse and instead emotions and events are used as to paint a scene for the reader. A lot of responsibility is shouldered on the audience, certain knowledge is assumed and this (which I think is especially important to highlight) without the author losing any artistic control.

Next, let us consider movies. Normally one would think of movies as being very exact in their portrayal of a story, almost like a window to an alternate reality. However upon a bit of analysis it is clear that this is not the case. Film requires us to make non-trivial connections between sequences and invites us to read the minds of the actors. The Kuleshov Effect makes a clear case for this. Just watch the following video yourself and consider how your interpretation of the face changes depending on the context in which it is shown:



As we see a character on screen, we are meant to start imagining what that person might be feeling. Whenever a cut is made, it forces us to make up a casual relationship between the juxtaposed events. This can easily become quite complex as this short clip from the famous Odessa stairs sequence show:



Somehow we are able to make sense of this cacophony of imagery, constantly making connections between clips, weaving our own coherent narrative inside our minds. Just as books require readers to fill in the sensory details of a scene, a film forces the viewer to imagine the emotions and casual relationships portrayed. Both literature and film heavily depend upon the audience's imaginative interpretation and will lose its impact without it. I would even say that the greater this gap of imagination is, the more room for interpretation, the more powerful and artful the work becomes. By this I do not mean that the more obscure art is, the better it becomes. Rather, the ability to leave plenty of gaps for the audience to fill, without making the work incomprehensible and meaningless, is what makes great artists and great works of art.


Filling a gap
Even though this audience participation required in books and movies might not be obvious at first, it does not feel that strange once you realize it. It is quite easy to see that we make up worlds in our head when reading or that we construct a fluent narrative from edited imagery when watching movies. But viewed from the perspective of somebody who encounters this for the first time, I would say that is far from evident. It is really quite weird that we can count on the audience to build up whole scenes in their heads. This based on almost purely emotionally descriptive content. Dialog in literature is a great example of this, where the spoken words are alone at conveying the look, actions and sometimes even emotions of the characters involved. There are tons of background knowledge required to makes sense of this, and it would be extremely hard to teach computers the same tricks.

I bring this up mainly because I want to show that, even though all of this is now part of our everyday life, it is far from self-evident truths. For instance, film editing took a while before it was properly figured out, and its complex usages even longer. This should hint us that whatever there is left to figure out about the videogame media, we should not expect it to be self-evident or even seem like it would work when first encountered.

Another important reason for bringing this up is to show that all of these gap-filling has a retroactive aspect. For instance when connecting clips in a film, the whole meaning (ie the action that the clips portray) come together afterwards. Yet to us it seems like a continuous experience and in a way we actually inject false memories of an imagined event. This is basically how animation work, where we first see an object in one position, then in another, not until both event are experienced making our brain interpret the entirety as if motion occurred. However, we never experience it like that; we simple see it as a motion of an object from one point to another and do not notice the mental effort required.

This is even more evident in literature where descriptions of objects can come far after they were first introduced. Even though this may seem like a jarring discrepancy, it pose no problem to us and we can meld these new facts with the earlier event portrayed. For example, if we remember a tale the early happenings exist in our mental images with the detailed characters shaped during the full read-through. They are no longer the unknown entities they were when we read the passage for the first tine.

What this tells us is that we should not be afraid of giving the audience incomplete information or experiences. Not only does this "removal of facts" not pose a problem, but it actually seem essential in creating a powerful experience. It is actually as if something "magical" happens when we are forced to complete the work ourselves.

Side note:
Split-brain persons show a very extreme example of our human urge to, often unconsciously, fill these sort of gaps. For example, outlined here are some experiments where the subject effortlessly made up details from incomplete information without conscious knowledge about it. I think it clearly shows how the brain is hard-wired for this kind of behavior and that it is essential to what makes us human. This visual illusion found here also show how eager we are to create casual relationships, and how the context makes us change how these are made.


In search of the void
It is now time to take a deeper look into games and to search for an equivalent of the "gap filling" concepts found in literature and films. Instead of meeting this head on, I think it is important to discuss what it is that is especially distinct and descriptive (and thus not requiring the audience's interpretation) in games. I would say these things are:

  • Details of the world. Not only are games extremely clear on what a scene looks like, they often allow it to be exploration and makes it possible to very closely examine the various parts of the world. This is something that is especially true for 3D games, where players can view objects from almost any angle they please.

  • The fluidity and coherence of actions. As players are in direct control of the protagonist, there is never any doubt of what events are taking place. Because of the interactive nature of video games, a constant feedback loop of actions and consequences are required, forcing the events taking place to be exact. Video games are all about right here and right now.
Side note: I am aware that the above might not be strictly true for all game types and is more fitting for real-time 3D games. Although this should not disqualify any further conclusions, it might be preferable to think of the following discussion as focus on 3d video games in particular.

The above points mean that if we want to leave room for imagination in games, it cannot be the scene building from literature nor the connecting of events in film. With the level of detail of the world provided, little is left to the imagination. And the fluent events demanded leave very little room for players to fill in their minds. So what other gaps are there to be filled? To find this out, we need to take a look at a core feature of video games: interactivity.

So what exactly does interactivity encompass? I like Chris Crawford's definition (from this book):

"A cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listen, thinks and speaks."


What I like about this wording is that it makes it clear that interaction is not all about a user providing input. It is also about considering and then reacting to this input, and that the same applies for both sides (meaning both the human and computer). When it comes to finding opportunities for adding gaps of imagination, these are all of course on the humans side. Also note that the gaps might take place at any of steps: listening, thinking or speaking. With this in mind, I will make an attempt at some gap finding.

So where in this interactive cycle does there exist room for the imagination? The most obvious place is of course the "listening" (meaning any input). Even though we get a clear view of how the world looks like, there are still things left for our us to craft in our minds. This is something that is already present in some games and comes in the form of "environmental storytelling". Through exploration players can pull information from the world, gather details on past events and imagine emotional states of the world. Bioshock is a good example of this, where much of the attitudes and history of the sunken city can be found out purely by, the interactive process, of exploring the environment.

However, environments are lifeless entities, and while they can portray the aftermath of actions, they do not give us any feeling of agency. This greatly lessens the impact and diversity of imaginative gap-filling players can make. To take this to the next level, it is quite obvious that we need to included simulations of conscious beings. This allows us to construct mental "theories of mind", something that greatly increases the possibilities of expression. The problem is that we simply cannot do this with current technology, except at a very rudimentary level. While our techniques for facial expression is constantly getting better and better (L.A. Noir is a good example), this is only meant for prerecorded usage. When it comes to real-time procedural generation of expressive characters, we are at an extremely primitive stage. Because of this I believe that this can be very interesting to explore in the future, but not something that can be used right now.

So what else can be done? With expressive characters in real-time not an option, we must turn focus onto the actions themselves instead. As stated above, the events in video games do not leave any room for interpretation. But there still room for the imagination here though. What actions to make and why the are made.

Constrained role-playing
Imagination of the what and why of actions probably sounds a bit strange and needs some explanation. When players take control of an avatar in a video game, they are free to do what they please as long as it is accordance to the rules of the game world. This freedom might seem as the kind of gap that can be used to mimic the "magic" from literature and film. However not in the way actions are normally implemented: very specific and unambiguous. I reason so because there are two major problem with this approach.

The first is a technical one, namely is that it is pretty much impossible to give the player access the space of possible actions for any given situation. This means that there will always be events that the player can think of, but will be unable to carry then out. This limits the ability to role-play and might also leave, according to the player, the most intuitive and plausible action unavailable, breaking up flow and presence. The second problem is that the more events are added to aid role-playing, the harder it is to have artistic control, making the experience into an open-world simulation instead. As both of these problems work against one another, I think we have gotten pretty much as far as we can using this kind of design.

My suggestion for solving this problem is to have a limited number of actions available, but to lure players into imagining that the actual action performed was exactly the one they wanted to do. A very simple example of this can be found in games Samarost and Windowsill where the player can never in advance know what a mouse click will result in, yet when the action occurs it feels very intentional. This imagined motivation does not have to occur on a such low level though, and can include larger segments of the game. An example of this is The Path, where players are thrown into strange environment and forced to make up their own reasons for being there. Often this is something that is built up over a long time, yet greatly shapes how you view your entire session. I am not saying that these games are doing it the right way, only that they incorporate rudimentary versions of the ideas I am talking about, and hence can give one a basic hint of where to start from.

I bet that many will think of this concept as cheating. How can tricking the player be a proper design choice? If the whole interactive experience is an illusion, how can it carry any meaning? I argue that the same is true for other media. The events that you think happen on in film are in fact illusory too. Not only in the way that they merely consist of acting, set pieces and post production effects, but that many of the actions perceived was never filmed at all. They were instead conjured in the mind, by interpreting visual and auditory stimuli. The same is true for literature, were most of the mental images are never found in the text. Despite of this we do not describe the experiences these media give us as meaningless tricks.

Why "motivational imagination" sounds so strange has to do with the nature of interaction. When we watch a movie or read a book, this is passive experience where data only flow as input. But in the cycle of interaction, we are also part of creating output data. So when we create gaps of imagination for this kind of art work, we are unable to see it as a one-way stream of information, but have to include ourselves into it as well. The upside of it all, besides the solving the problem of role-playing, is that it fits neatly into same kind of concept that gaps in literature and film build upon. First of all, it contains a retroactive aspect to it, as players will need to digest a certain amount of data before settling on a certain motivation. It also forces us to make up a theory of mind, not for a fictional character, but for ourselves, inversely figuring out how we could come to a certain conclusion.

With this hypothesis I am not urging people to create games that are extremely linear and only require a single input. I still believe that we can have a wide palette of interaction choices, but that we might not want to be too specific about the exact actions that ought to occur. This is actually very closely related to the concept of player-avatar-symbiosis that have been discussed in an earlier post on this blog. I also do not believe that this takes away anything from the experience, but only adds to it, just like the same line of thinking does to other media.

End notes
This is far from a full theory at this point, and "environmental storytelling" and "imagined motivation" are most likely not the only imaginative gaps that can be used in games. Because of this I would be very interested in getting feedback and to hear your response on this work.

I would also like to point out that all of this awfully untested. It would be really interesting to see some Kuleshov-like experiments on the concept and see what kind of results can be made. It might be the case that this hypothesis does not work at all, or it might that it lead to wonderful and totally unexpected insights.

I also want to add that not all kind of experiences can be created like this. The same goes for literature and movies too, where leaving too much up to the audience simply does not work. Non-fictional books is one thing that comes to mind. Still, that is not a reason to not try this out. Before we try out all options that the video game medium provide, we will have no idea what can be accomplished with it.


Additional Notes: In Scott McCloud's book "Understanding comics" two similar "imaginary gaps" are explored in the medium of comics. One is the literal gaps between panels, that forces the audience to complete the missing information implied to be between. This is very much like what is found in books and movies, as it forces the reader to use external knowledge and also comes with a retrospective aspect. The second gap is one of cartoon symbolism, where simply drawn characters often can be more expressive than detailed ones. Again this requires quite a bit of interpretation from the audience.
I think this shows that the features discussed in film and book, apply to other media as well, making me more confident that they ought to play a big role in video games too.


Acknowledgments: This essay has been greatly inspired this post by Michael of Tale of Tales. If not for him I would probably have never started thinking in this direction and none of the above would have been written.


24 comments:

  1. Nice post as always. I do disagree with the idea of implementation your concept on the example of samorost - i never felt that samorost is even a game itself. It's more of a "toy" - you click somewhere, something happens. It's fun?funny the first time. Then i forget about it. But maybe it can be done in a more meaningful way.
    As for the whole concept of gaps - i've being thinking about this for a long time. First noticed the role imagination plays in video games after trying to analyze the differences between some of my older favorite games and newer ones. And found out that older, less technologically advanced games, often feel more "realistic" and "alive" than the new advanced games. For example, first Silent Hill still feels more "scary" than the newer ones, because of constant inability to understand what is what. Is it rust? Is it blood? Is it a "child" monster or is it something much more alien? Is it just dark down there, or there is it an endless drop? Stuff like this always make your imagination make the game even scarier than it is. And i'm not even telling about how Akira's music made you imagine things that aren't there.
    I also thought of an idea, partially influenced by a few tricks you guys did in Penumbra: ep 2. Basically, playing with players memory and imagination by placing him from time to time in "didn't it already happen", "wasn't the character different before?", "was this here before?" situations. Sad that this concept works much better in dreams than in real gaming:)

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  2. When you say "we" are you refering to Frictional Games, the modern gaming industry or gaming as a whole?

    Japanese developers have been on top of these ideas and techniques for decades now. It's only modern american developers that have lost crucial development principals.

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  3. Anonymous:
    All of my examples are meant to be very simplistic versions just to give a hint. I am not saying that "these games are doing it right!!!", only that these games give you an idea of the kind design I am talking about.

    And yeah I totally agree on the Silent Hill stuff. My favorite part was when monsters emerged from the darkness and you had a very hard time making out how they looked liked.

    It is that sort of feeling I would like to see applied to actions in a game as well.


    Suibriel:
    While there sure are interesting Japanese games, I have not come across any that really utilize these kind of concept. Perhaps I am missing some important works, so please enlighten me! :)

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  4. The Sombrero Kid17 May 2011 at 10:23

    My concern about this is that this would seem to require a higher brain imaginative process, in film specifically, the animation process is taken on by lower level thought processes, the type of imagination you describe in books is a higher level thought process and subsequently, you as a user are very aware of the process, I would be extremely reluctant to engage a users imagination regarding any of the actions they are personally preforming, as, I believe, it would be very damaging to the immersion.

    One of the main things I admire about Frictional Games, is the way they engage the users imagination in deciphering how the world works and in events outside the visual range of the player, that is where I feel this kind of thing is strongest in games.

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  5. I love reading your thoughts and I like that you so often are looking at the most basic building blocks of interactive media and trying to understand it on a deep level - I find it very interesting and think you have some quite insightful thoughts.

    Here's an idea for a 'gap'- looking back up at Chris Crawford's definition it might come under the player's 'thinking' stage, if anything. So, I've noticed that the degree to which a player figures out the mechanics with which elements in world respond to their own actions affects how immersed and real these responding elements feel. Less is more here; if a player has fully figured out the mechanics then they will no longer respect this in-game entity they're interacting with since they know how to 'game the system' and it will have lost all of its mystique which the entity can otherwise build up. This can be seen quite clearly when fighting monsters (especially bosses) which have sequences and patterns which they operate under, but once a player has figured those out the thrill is gone to a large extent and they will just trot out the necessary steps to beat it without engaging with the monster with their brains. I think horror games are scary then when the monsters and the way the world responds to them aren't understood. From having watched Amnesia playthroughs I think that was often the case for your monsters, especially since the water monsters, for example, only featured in such a small section so they wouldn't have time to get figured out and with your other monsters the player couldn't really look at them long so that added to their mystery, as well as the seemingly random paths they wandered on. If you give players the space to fill in these gaps of mechanics a gameworld operates under which they don't understand I think something greater will be conjured up there minds than what a game designer can otherwise reasonably achieve.

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  6. Matthew:
    Very nice suggestion! I totally agree that a game works the absolutely best as a narrative medium, when the rules remain obscure and up for interpretation. We have seen this in Amnesia, especially regarding sanity mechanics and AI. It works the best when people are ignorant of the underlying rules and just make up their own interpretations, often making things more complex and exciting than what they really are.

    Now the problem is that this kinds of gap, is something that does can not handle close scrutiny. In literature, film, etc you can know the exact details of went into it, yet it does not loose its magic. This would not apply to "mechanical imagination" where it would be more like magic trick, and the effect would go away once you understand the mechanics behind the curtain. It might be possible to sidestep this issue trough emergent complexity (like fractals), but I think that is very hard (if not impossible) to implemented in a generic manner.

    That is not to say that this make it unusable. I think it is an excellent tool and that it should be used. But I do not think that it has the same type of strength or robustness that the imaginative gap that we see in other media, and because of this, I do not think it is THE solution to adding more imagination in games. It is most likely a big part of it though.

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  7. The Sombrero Kid:
    Yeah it might be a problem that "motivational imagination" might just require too much from the user, and that it does not come a fluently as for other media. But since it is pretty untested except for some rudimentary implementations (that I mentioned), I think we cannot say at this point.

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  8. The Sombrero Kid17 May 2011 at 11:37

    I agree it's too early to say & needs investigating. I think the thing with the "mechanical imagination" is that it works by misdirecting the user, there are many film narative techniques which are similar and also loose their "magic", the film Fallen is a good example although the sixth sense or any film with a twist applys. The thing that all of these have in common is that they misdirect the user, there are other places in Frictional Games where you let the users immagination define the world and it is either in concert with your intentions or is left undefined by the designer, in cases like this the magic is never really lost.

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  9. Slightly unrelated, but connected to the topic. I think there is a close relation between our physical actions to our mental state, which means for example, that if we are in an everyday situation that we are used to, we can do an action that we have been doing since childhood (i.e. walking or running, picking up something, throwing something), without much problem. Then when we are thrown out of our comfort zone, get in danger etc., the actions are taken over by our instincts and we run. However, when the situation is so out of hand that we can not handle it any more, we are suddenly unable to even do the simple things we have been used to - stumble and fall when walking, run into things etc.

    Those moments are present in both books and movies. Question is, how can we ever mimic that kind of thing in games. It sometimes happens in the beginning, when you are not yet familiar with the mechanics, so that you press the wrong key, or miss the key for drawing your weapon, or suddenly forget the button to reload your weapon and you keep clicking with an empty magazine. Once you play for a certain time, that disappears, and that is something that gamers generally want - we want to get to the point where we don't have to think about which button to press to perform an action. How do you give players an illusion that they have mastered the mechanics, so that they don't mark the game as unplayable, yet you are at the same time able to throw them off by temporarily convincing them that they lost control or haven't learned it in the first place. Line between greatness and frustration is really really thin at this point imo.

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  10. Perun:
    "Imagined motivation" could actually make this work. Instead of the rigid input->action structure that we are so used to, it would instead used a more dynamic and ambiguous one. This could easily be fit into changing how actions are made depending on the game's state. So if you are in a tense situation, you could fumble, etc. And because the system does not have locked down an exact mapping at its core, there should not be any frustration or feeling of not having control along with it.

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  11. Perhaps one difficulty for gaps in games is that games are based so strongly in player intention. If you are watching a movie, you can interpret liberally by just allowing yourself to watch and understand the events on screen. But in a game, you drive the action at nearly all points and everything must be examined for its usefulness, the most explicit level of plot, in order to continue the game. It sometimes feels like expressing an interesting story in a game is like expressing an interesting story within the most typical actions of your job.

    Do you think this focus on usefulness is a perspective to try to break out of, or just a reflection that we haven't explored storytelling enough?

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  12. The approach that you present towards constrained interaction is a very interesting one. Though I don't think it is necessary to make the player feel as though they are the protagonist. If the player were to be a minor part of the character's decision process than it could help flesh-out the player character a bit, rather than only using the player character as a physical surrogate for the player's interaction and motives.

    A good example is Indigo Prophecy; when Tyler Miles examines the body, he notices the fact that the dead-man still has his wallet in possession. Whereas when Carla Valenti examines the body, she specifically looks for the physical evidence that can be ascertained. Although the action required by the player is the same, the actions that they execute are very different and provide an insight into the characters.

    There is also a very interesting blog post by Justin Kvearne that I think has particular relevance;
    http://gropingtheelephant.com/blog/?p=2010

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  13. @Douglas

    I think that the player's intention can be honed if the game-play isn't totally dedicated to fulfilling the player's lust to solve problems or kill baddies. That way the objects of the game are not examined objectively, but with genuine human interest.

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  14. Douglas:
    Lance pretty much said this, but I feel it is worth repeating:

    I think there is a really strong bias in game interaction as being extremely functional and system-like. Playing a game is almost like operating a machinery or similar. The game teaches us that we need to do the right action at the right time or else we will fail. This also makes us used to all actions being extremely deterministic. In this sort of environment, making the player imagine their motivations does not makes sense.

    In order for it to make sense we have to have video game where the actions are not so stale. The focus of the players is no longer to give the protagonist direct orders, but to immerse themselves and become a symbiotic part of the protagonist.

    Lance Burkett:
    Read that blog post and agree that storytelling games should focus on having the player viewing them as an "emotional entity" rather than a system.

    I think one of the biggest hurdles for this is the fail-state. Whenever the players can do actions that the game tell them are incorrect, by explicitly stating so, dying or whatnot, they will come into a mind-frame of searching for the correct actions. The more we can get rid of incorrect input, the more this opens up for more role-playing and feeling of presence in a living world (and not a mechanical system).

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  15. I decided to intervene here because I truly think this is a very good essay on what video games lack and what should be their future

    as art. I have read numerous of your posts however one thing that puzzles me is that the nature of the "gap" you are talking about

    always assumes a rudimentary, technical form (like the motion example you gave above). I think that this gap ought to take a bigger

    form then these trifle perceptive deceptions.
    I want to add three things you left out:

    1- The wideness of the gap : how much room to different interpretation the conveyed "gap" leaves, the great value of works of art

    like Kubrick's 2001 a Space odyssey lies in part in the incredible amount of meanings and thoughts the film conveys in such a small

    space as a movie.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001:_A_Space_Odyssey_%28film%29

    2-The seamlessness of the experience: and I think this is where games like "The Path" utterly fail. When a media appears to be

    over-thought and obviously calling the player to interpret the experience, the events lose much of their appeal and power.The

    interpretations shouldn't be obvious but rather the process of a well thought out rationale, putting the puzzle pieces together to

    form a coherent whole, and that without ever hinting at the user to do so.
    I find that lynchean cinema excels in this particular field. Eraserhead might be an interesting watch.

    3- The nature of the message conveyed: I have read in a blog entry before that you dismissed the "message" instead going "depth" and

    that using a rather inappropriate "snowboarding" analogy. Well I beg to differ, the message conveyed is primordial. For example a

    film which tries to convey a rather straightforward and simple message like the joy of riding a bicycle cannot be compared with a

    film that tries to portray, say, the Oedipus complex (see Kubrick's The shining).

    And I must add something that you guys seem to have forgotten : art isn't for everyone, it isn't "entertainment"(although the two

    can go together). Art requires initiation and conscious dissection of the work at hand and cannot be consumed passively with chips

    and popcorn.
    To cloture my thoughts I would like to add a germane example which illustrates the points mentioned above. So let's take two movies

    : ghost in the shell and the matrix.
    While the two essentially try to convey the same meaning, they do so in very different manners. GITS tries to give a rich and

    elusive experience, one which will be unique to each of it's watchers while The Matrix dumbs down the whole experience, making it

    more palpable and less of a headache to figure out however taking most of the appeal GITS had. For me there is no doubt which one is

    superior but I'd bet that most audiences would differ upon their first watch.

    All in all I wish you guys good luck, I thoroughly enjoyed amnesia and think highly of it( although the story didn't have the depth

    I was expecting), don't disappoint us in the next release.

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  16. Sorry for the odd formatting not sure why this happened

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  17. I agree in some points with the Anonymous before me.

    But, let me start at the beginning.

    1. The Gap.
    I feel that we need to describe it in more detail. An empty paper (or screen) is the ultimate gap, but obviously that's not what we're talking about, as it doesn't do much storytelling and it doesn't really provide an experience.
    So, the gap has to have what Thomas referred to as context. Remember, we want to tell a story, create a profound experience, convey our thoughts, our philosophy of life, our view of the world. So the gap cannot exist without the parts that are given - the context. These help shape our imaginary world. But please note: the gap is *always* there. We, as artists, can never outperform nature as far as the level of detail is concerned. The key point is to know how to use the gap.

    2. The forms of the gap.
    If your presentation is stylized, than the gap (or at least one of it's faces) becomes fairly obvious, most likely because it emerges from the form of the presentation. Take stylized comics. The drawing itself provides opportunities for reader-side interpretation. But, there's more to it. If you aim for realism, at first it appears that the gap gets smaller until it closes of. WRONG! It just goes into background, it's presence becomes more subtle. This might make it hard to figure out how to use it, but in fact, this subtlety makes it even more powerful.
    As I've said, we can never outperform nature in the amount of details we can offer, and that fact alone provides enough opportunity for the reader/viewer/player to insert or project his/hers own experience into the work. The question is, how to trick their brains into doing that?

    (continued...)

    ReplyDelete
  18. 3. The ingredients.
    Well, first, we have to keep it consistent and believable, whatever that means in the context of the imaginary world. This is the framework, the bare bones that are necessary to create an interest in this fabricated world, in the sense that it feels plausible. Second, we (the creators) have an agenda: we want to tell a story and/or convey an idea or two, so we want control. But (especially in the case of video games), we also want to make the player feel as if the story is happening to him/her, and not as if it's being told to them.
    A bit conflicting, right? Well, therein lies the problem.
    So we need to stop and think about how we want to *design the experience*. We need to think about tradeoffs, and about ways to compensate. We need to decide where to sacrifice freedom for the story arc. We need to find out what is the best way to tell each *aspect* of the story. Something can be told through interaction with the player, something can be constructed around the player, and a lot of it can hide behind a whole bunch of subtle hints and details. Thomas, you said it yourself, exploring the world can reveal the effects of past events, events which were never told/shown/presented. And therein lies one edge of the gap. The player will fill it by shaping his/hers own previous experience or world view into the context provided by the overall story and gameplay experience. Remember City 17, when in some of the back allies you come to a playground with see-saws and swings, and you find a little doll that some kid dropped. That was a sad moment. You might have missed it, or you might have failed to see it's significance, but it was there, telling a very vague story about a misfortune of a (maybe once happy) family (see, it makes me insert my own ideas even now). God lives in the details.
    Remember Portal? Decomposing facility, writings on the walls. A story that's in fact never really told, and yet it just unfolds itself as you play through. Or take Amnesia: often enough there's nothing but a sound of a distant monster, or footsteps, or something, and yet we all freak out. Of course, the goal is to really plan it out, and push it to the limits.
    Then there's the other end of the gap - the one you talked about. How to trick the player into thinking that he/she has freedom when in fact it is limited. I think it is connected with the context that emerges from both the background details and the story arc.
    (continues...)

    ReplyDelete
  19. But, that serves only to set the mood. What we need is more powerful and adaptive mechanics. Mostly now, the mechanics are too generic. We fear that if the interaction mechanics are inconsistent throughout the game, the game might feel confusing. But, IMO, sometimes it's OK to adapt them to a new situation, especially if it feels natural. Just give the player enough hints, but subtle hits. Subtlety is the key. How to create this kind of mechanics. Well, they have to be designed to allow for a change from the start (Just like applications!), and IMO they shouldn't aim to replicate the real world, but to simulate it, and only accurately enough as required by the specific situation, only as much as it takes to make it believable. Imagine that: besides a level designer, a sound designer, a texture artist, there would be an interaction designer.
    But, wait there's more. Never underestimate the power of human(oid) characters, player included. If they could be made more realistic, they would greatly improve the experience. They are rarely realistic enough in today's games. The most important aspects are: their fictional personality, the voice acting, the facial animation, and general animation; more or less in that order. They are never given much thought. An NPC dies, you just hear and dying sound (often times a relatively generic one), rag-doll physics takes over, and that's it. Hell, ad some randomness to it. Pick a random NPC to get only wounded instead. Make it scream in pain, call for help. Show fear on it's face. Make another one scream his name. This can be simulated, especially if it happens only few times in the entire game. Or take the control from the player for a few seconds. Make him/her turn after a sound. Make him/her jump away from a snake. Or simulate some event to make the player believe that it was only luck that kept him/her alive. For example, present the player with a challenge, and detect if he/she is trying to so overcome it. If so, tune it so that it feels on edge, but there is little real danger. If not, just kill the player to teach him/her a lesson. Trow a boulder or something.

    That's about it for now. I probably wanted to say something else, but it escaped me...

    ReplyDelete
  20. Damned spam filter!
    Here's (3) again:

    3. The ingredients.
    Well, first, we have to keep it consistent and believable, whatever that means in the context of the imaginary world. This is the framework, the bare bones that are necessary to create an interest in this fabricated world, in the sense that it feels plausible. Second, we (the creators) have an agenda: we want to tell a story and/or convey an idea or two, so we want control. But (especially in the case of video games), we also want to make the player feel as if the story is happening to him/her, and not as if it's being told to them.
    A bit conflicting, right? Well, therein lies the problem.
    So we need to stop and think about how we want to *design the experience*. We need to think about tradeoffs, and about ways to compensate. We need to decide where to sacrifice freedom for the story arc. We need to find out what is the best way to tell each *aspect* of the story. Something can be told through interaction with the player, something can be constructed around the player, and a lot of it can hide behind a whole bunch of subtle hints and details. Thomas, you said it yourself, exploring the world can reveal the effects of past events, events which were never told/shown/presented. And therein lies one edge of the gap. The player will fill it by shaping his/hers own previous experience or world view into the context provided by the overall story and gameplay experience. Remember City 17, when in some of the back allies you come to a playground with see-saws and swings, and you find a little doll that some kid dropped. That was a sad moment. You might have missed it, or you might have failed to see it's significance, but it was there, telling a very vague story about a misfortune of a (maybe once happy) family (see, it makes me insert my own ideas even now). God lives in the details.
    Remember Portal? Decomposing facility, writings on the walls. A story that's in fact never really told, and yet it just unfolds itself as you play through. Or take Amnesia: often enough there's nothing but a sound of a distant monster, or footsteps, or something, and yet we all freak out. Of course, the goal is to really plan it out, and push it to the limits.
    Then there's the other end of the gap - the one you talked about. How to trick the player into thinking that he/she has freedom when in fact it is limited. I think it is connected with the context that emerges from both the background details and the story arc.

    (continues at the previous post)

    ReplyDelete
  21. One element almost every game lacks is consequence. I just finished playing through Amnesia (thanks for the OnLive release!), and as someone with aspergers (I see things very technically) I very early on saw a raging flaw with the game that broke the experience for me: There is absolutely no consequence for your actions. Up until the first time I was killed I played the game exactly as indented -- because dying (and the creatures) were an unknown. But upon death, I simply got re-spawned at the start of the area. From that point on I simply ran through the game with no fear. If an enemy was in front of me and I had a wide enough gap, I simply ran around it -- and if need be, jumped to another map and jumped back. The only time I 'hid' was when it was absolutely required. Same with games like the elder scrolls series. It has some element of consequence, but it is VERY weak due to death being meaningless. Think about it in real life terms. If everyone lived forever, then there really can't be any "special moments" because the things and people you care about will always be there. Games (especially like Amnesia) should make dying final. If you die, the game is done. No restore. Yes it makes the game much much harder, but it also DRASTICALLY changes the mindset of the player, altering their play style completely.

    This fact is played with in inverse form with the Grand Theft Auto series. People really enjoy the game because it simulates the real world, with absolutely no consequence for your actions, allowing you to 'go wild', and not go to jail for life afterwards. If GTA had a fantasy or scifi theme, with aliens or sword&shield instead of police - I'm pretty sure it would have done poorly. Just imagine it in your head and you'll see what I mean.

    ReplyDelete
  22. LIMBO seems to have been designed with this philosophy. There is a lot left to the imagination when it comes to backstory, motivations, the environment, etc. Even the ending is open to interpretation. (And it may be one of the biggest reasons behind its success.)

    ReplyDelete
  23. http://segmentedreality.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/imagination-anyone/

    This is my response to this blog post. :D

    ReplyDelete
  24. Good article, Lance. I think that GADA is just one of those unreachable ideals towards which we strive towards, like perfect AI or perfectly photo-realistic graphics. We will never be able to get *there* but trying to may improve the games that we make.

    ReplyDelete

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