Thursday, April 12, 2007

Doing, Making, Saying and Thinking

Well, it's been a long time coming, but I think I'm finally ready to get into the real heart of the matter.

How can video games be more expressive as art forms?

I would like to show that we can expand our notions of what interaction entails in video games. There are many unexplored ways to express ideas through gaming and make gaming more meaningful.

What you have control over, and the form that that control takes, affects two things: how you experience a narrative, and how developers can express ideas to a player.

The form of interaction enables a player to ask questions about themselves and what the game is trying to tell them. If the player’s interaction takes the form of ____(control over movement, behavior, plot direction, which character to use, etc), then questions could be: How does it feel to ____. How does the story change when I _____ differently? What is my reason for ____ing? Or, as Nico puts it, “It’s not about saying ‘what would it be like to be in someone else’s shoes?' It’s about saying ‘now that I’m in these shoes, what do I do with them?’” The way the player answers such questions, or the degree to which the answers are left open ended, is how video games can express subjective and specific messages to players, either directly or through metaphor and allegory.

It is my belief that just about all stories require a certain kind of participation. We enjoy hearing stories because we project ourselves onto the characters and into events in the stories. The appeal of nearly all fiction and entertainment is escapism and fantasy fulfillment. We imagine ourselves in the world of stories we read about, watch and listen to.

Different types of stories appeal to people differently because they cater to different fantasies.

Action/adventure tends to cater to the fantasies of being in control of exciting situations, performing acts of violence, feeling "alive" by way of adrenaline rushes and risk taking. If you enjoy watching the Governator shoot a bunch of identityless drug runners, you probably enjoy the idea of committing acts of violence without the guilt of being responsible for emotional trauma that such acts would cause in real life (there's nothing wrong with this, btw).

The majority of video games come in the form of action/adventure. There's nothing wrong with action/adventure, but it's near exclusivity in games limits the way a game can be expressive by limiting the types of questions a game can force a player to ask and the way a player interacts with the story.

Horror seems to fulfill the desire to be in a scary or otherwise traumatic experience and survive. Confronting deep rooted fears and being able to survive them and punish those who would inflict them upon you is enjoyable. There's a cathartic pleasure in experiencing things that are uncomfortable, granted you won't be permanently injured.

The reason people project themselves onto characters in a romance seems pretty clear. It's fun to be in a romantic relationship. It's more rewarding when it takes some work, bla bla bla. Having a relationship work is fun.

It’s a little harder to explain why we like drama, but I think it has to do with voyeurism and a really simple fascination with how the lives of other people differ from our own. Watching other people make decisions and go through events gives insight into other people’s minds and into our own. It makes us ask the question “how would I deal with that situation?”

I think it’s a good idea to analyze this because it’s important to see how different story types target different fantasies and change their form to fulfill them. This is what video games should be doing more of and aren’t. In order to effectively express something in games, we should be looking at what it is about a story we think people are going to want to engage in and make control over that the main vehicle of the game’s interaction.

Video games as a medium should be extremely capable of fulfilling these fantasies. Rather than participating in a story indirectly, through projection, players participate directly through the games interactive aspect.

In fact, gaming has fulfilled the fantasy of committing non-emotional acts of violence better than most shoot-em-ups have. I think this is because they allow for more choice. More than most, the action genre isn't about voyeurism and watching someone else’s choices. It's about pretending you are Ahnold. FPS's have done this better than any violent film. They actually let you choose who to shoot and what to do. What they lack now is the desire to use this experience to ask the player questions and make them think. Some games have tried to do this, but I think using the interaction to ask questions should be more of a primary focus of a game. The interaction should be a means as well as an end, not just an end. (sniff sniff, I smell Kant...)

Horror has been fulfilled much more poorly, and romance almost not at all. At least in the States. Action/adventure encompasses nearly the entire gaming repertoire, including children's games. I think the reason for this is that the fantasies of horror and romance are more time consuming to fulfill and require more dedication. The fantasy of shooting something can be fulfilled in a matter of seconds or less, and can be done so over and over and over for as long as a person is still entertained. The fantasy of surviving something traumatic requires much more time. First danger has to be established in some believable, palpable way, then some sort of survival must be achieved in order to complete the fantasy. Resident Evil attempts to do this by utilizing atmosphere , surprising zombies (band name) and guns. Atmosphere presents the danger, zombies/surprise makes it palpable, guns create resolution. It’s not entirely effective since I think there's too much resolution and not enough danger. There’s too much killing of zombies and not enough fear of being eaten. Horror movies work because most of the movie is establishing danger, killing off identifiable people one after another to give you the sense of "oh man, everyone I projected myself onto is dying, I could die in this imaginary world!" and only at the end letting the last person/people survive. A good horror game should take the appealing part of the genre, being placed in trauma and escaping it, and make the game about controlling that.

While talking about this, Nico and I came up with what we think is a good idea for a horror game.

Romance takes forever. In order to fulfill the fantasy, you have to make a relationship. The more complicated it is, the more believable it is, the more it fulfills the fantasy. Part of the appeal is the struggle to get what you want (the other person). The more time it takes, the harder it is, the more rewarding it feels when you get it (them). Dating games that I've seen, particularly dating sims, tend to try to fulfill it too quickly, too shallowly, and appeal too much to the physical aspect of a relationship. For a dating game to be worth playing, it would have to use player participation to immerse a person in the experience of forming a relationship, not just a means to expositorily get from "unlikely meeting" to "first kiss". So how could interaction enhance our appreciation for such a fantasy?

Again, Nico and I think we're clever and have come up with an idea.

When it comes to drama, I think we are too short sighted in trying to come up with game formats. I thought about mentioning GTA or Metal Gear as examples of drama done fairly well, but then I decided that that wasn't true. In action stories, the behavior that we get invested in is the violence, the running around, the action. But in a drama that is simply not the case, and we shouldn't be trying to let a person participate in a drama by having them run around and control where the person goes. Like romance, much of what draws us to drama is dialogue and story events. The interaction should reflect that, giving some control, or at least influence, primarily over the story events and dialogue. The best example of this sort of idea that I can come up with off the top of my head is Black and White, where your decisions affect the appearance and behavior of the game continuously. I imagine an effective drama game doing something similar, having a player make constant decisions and being motivated by being able to see different results from different decisions. The game wouldn’t be about getting the character through the plot, but letting the player determine the plot.

I think video games are thought of as low brow entertainment by lots of people because they have done a very good job of appealing to a very limited set of fantasies. The exceptions, games like The Sims, Katamari, Guitar Hero, Second Life and Hotel Dusk, seem to have felt the pressure to be widely appealing and easily accessible, limiting their expressive potential. One of the few games that I think has really broken the mold, and done a good job of not compromising, is Riven. But that doesn't mean games have to be either artistic or entertaining! Games, like all media, have the potential to be both. We just have to think outside the box a little more.


Now this game idea is one that Nico and I are pretty excited about. Partly because it sounds like lots of fun and would be a new type of game, but also because it shows what could happen if the notion of what a game is supposed to be like was tweaked just a little.

Nico and I suggest a horror MMORPG. You may say "...thats really not a very novel idea." Well, bite me, yea it is. Here's why.

Like I've said, games have a pretty high tendency to focus on action and adventure. Even survival horror games like Resident Evil, which claim to emphasize staying alive over shooting everything, are still pretty much about shooting everything. That's not what horror movies are about. Horror is about being scared, feeling victimized, embracing trauma, and living through it.

This game that we've devised would put a player in an MMO world of spooky, creepy and otherwise frightening surroundings full of critters and dangers. And it would not give you the ability to defend yourself. Not to any substantial degree. Maybe you could kill little monsters that bug you, but basically you'd be in constant danger of being killed by all the horrors

There would be safe spots, camps and outposts, where you and other players could meet each other and mingle without being threatened. You could form groups and go exploring together.

In fact, the game would be set up such that you have to have a group.

If you go outside the camp, you would be able to make your way around for a while, running from things, hiding, fighting back against small assailants, but it would be impossible to go very far without help. With friends you could actually survive. But not by killing monsters. A monster would have the ability to kill everyone if you tried to just attack it. No, your friends are there to cooperate to lure monsters away, gain access to places that a single person couldn't (stand on each other's shoulders to get up high, use your combined strength to move things, etc) and to just help each other. A wounded person could require help from his/her comrades to be carried to a safe place to recuperate, whereas they would only be able to crawl and be devoured if alone.

Experience, we figure, would be gained not by killing monsters, but by actually exploring places you've never been, or where nobody's been, and by collecting information about the world. I like the idea of there being a plot, a reason all this is happening, that none of the players know. By finding pieces of paper, computer files, whatever, that provide the community with info, you gain experience and skill points. When you take back info to a camp, that camp could have an archive of all the info that's been found. New info would give more exp than info already found by someone else.

The thing that Nico seems to be really excited about is the idea of a class system based in the modern world. Skill points could be given to things like medical knowledge, physical prowess, or specific abilities like psychological analysis, military experience, cpr or dissection. I see people being doctors, therapists, cooks and the like, who would be able to heal the wounded, have more physical strength, calm down people who are getting too stressed, or (one of my favorite) examine a fallen creature for discovery experience. Just like being a cleric, or sorcerer or whatever in D&D, a good party that survives the dangers of this world needs to use its different members' abilities to meet challenges. With the right people, you could even kill something, on occasion.

I think this is a really cool idea because it makes use of the notion that the fun of the game is putting yourself in danger and somehow getting out of it. The fun in the game is exploring and finding out what's out there. Immersion is the main motivation. The heavy focus on exploration and attention to environment leaves a lot of room open for expression. An interesting story and complicated artwork would really fit in a game like this, and enhance all of the gameplay, rather than detract from it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Romantic Comedy

In the spirit of taking an alternative view as to what interaction can be, Nico and I came up with this idea for a romance game. The idea behind it is that the appeal of romance and romantic comedies is the fulfillment of a relationship fantasy. The parts of romantic stories that we enjoy have nothing to do with adventure or action, but entirely to do with social interaction. Therefore, that's what a game of this type should do.

The game would allow the player to choose from one of, lets say, a dozen people from different walks of life, who each start the game in some preset place in a small town environment. You walk around and find one of the other players, and try to start a relationship with them.

Interaction would take the form of making decisions about where to go with the person and what to say to them. Each recipient of the player's interaction has something of a plotline attached to them that the player discovers as they play, hopefully ending with some sort of romantic fulfillment.

Sounds sort of boring. Also sounds like every dating sim ever. But, I think if you give the interaction enough variation, it could end up being something really exciting and really different.

I imagine dialogue working this way: Each character has a number, lets say 1000, of established sentences that they can say at any point in any conversation. A player enters text via a keyboard, and gets a list of sentences that contain those words. Sort of like predicted text in a cell phone.
"i like you" yields
[ I think I like you! ]
I like it when you do that.
I can't believe I liked you!
Do you like the place I took you to?

The player selects a sentence, selects one of three or so tones that the sentence should be said in, and the computer recipient reacts differently depending on what's said, what tone it's said in, and what mood they're in.

The plotline for each computer character could also differ depending on what the player says and how they play the game. Either there would be certain elements of the plot that only get revealed when conversations go a certain way, or there could be multiple avenues for each plot to go (the first seems more feasible to me).

The game ends when you piss the person off so much, or when the conversations don't go anywhere, and the person leaves to their home, or wherever they go, and they won't take your calls or talk to you. There would be no "Game Over" screen, just the inability to continue the relationship with that person. If that happens, the player has to go find someone else.

I see this sort of game having lots of opportunities for expression. For example, not every character would have the same things that are available to them to say. You could have characters with different dialects, different vocabularies, different levels of education, different interests, and all are reflected in what is available to the player to say. Certain people might not work well with others, making the game more challenging if you pick two mismatched people to try and make the relationship work.

Plotlines could also contain commentary on social behavior. I had the idea that one character could be older and have an Auschwitz tattoo on his/her arm. If the player mentions something about this, you get added insight into the tattoo bearer's story, even an addition to their story. However, not all playable characters would have dialogue relating to such a thing, so depending on who you pick, you won't be able to access that part of the other person's story, and maybe not have as good a chance of having a relationship with them.

What I like best about this idea is that it takes control of a different aspect of a story and gives a good deal of free control over it. Rather than assuming that control over a character means telling them where to go, this idea shows the potential to control a person by telling them what to say and how to think.