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Video games are not a monolithic medium
by Moses Wolfenstein on 02/12/12 07:32:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Video games are not a monolithic medium. I've said this before and I'll probably have to keep on saying it for at least a few years. In the meantime I've been wanting to get a blog post up to point people to when any of the myriad issues that come back to this simple fact pop up. This is that post.

It's that time of the year again when the games industry blogs are filled with content from the DICE talks. One of these years I'm going to have attend that conference because a lot of interesting things definitely come out of it. That said, one of the things that seems to happen a lot at DICE (and GDC for that matter) is a talk from a well known developer in which strong claims are made about what video games should and should not be.

This year, that talk was by David Jaffe, and it echoed what seems to be an increasingly common "anti-story in games" sentiment among a certain crowd of developers. As reported over on Gamasutra, Jaffe is specifically against games where story telling plays a major role in the design process stating that this approach, "is a bad idea, waste of resources, of time and money, and worst, I think that it has stuffed the progress of video games, to our own peril."

Essentially, Jaffe is advocating vociferously for the elevation of what Ian Bogost has called "The proceduralist style", and an abandonment of what I've referred to previously as big narrative games. Like Dan CookTadhg Kelly, and Eskil Steenberg , Jaffe is advocating an approach to the future of game design that works to free itself from design constraints imposed by more traditional story telling media. I actually agree with these author/developers that video games as a medium have a very unique capacity to take advantage of procedural techniques to offer the player an opportunity to create their own emergent narrative. However, I think that this line of thinking becomes dogmatic when it asserts that designer driven narrative approaches that lean on traditions of story telling drawn from films and novels should be excised from the game industry.

It all comes back to the fact that video games are not a monolithic medium. Like any other medium, there are many different types of artifacts that can be developed with video games as a tool. In this respect it is just as senseless to assert that games should only support emergent narrative as it is to say that all movies should be action films or all books should be philosophical treatises. Many things can be done with the medium and there are different audiences for different forms and genres of games just as with every other medium.

In this respect, it is not for designers to decree what all games should or should not be. Video games are, after all, just lines of code and the hard media they're encoded on without players to play them. As with all other media, forms and genres are contested spaces in which the creators, audience, producers, and even pundits negotiate what sorts of things should and should not be made. Any given designer as artist certainly has the right to design the games they believe should exist, but as with any other art form it will depend on how the audience receives the form of game that will determine whether games of that genre are elevated or deprecated.

Beyond this general criteria of games as an artistic medium, claims that all video games should conform to specific forms are even more outrageous due to the very nature of video games as a medium. Video games are an inherently eclectic medium that can well be defined in relation to the concept of bricolage. While video games are not literally composed of materials found on hand, like comic books, board games, or installation art they rely on the fusion of multiple media into a new hybrid medium.*

In terms of assertions about what forms games should or should not take, their hybrid nature has fairly strong consequences. While video games are not games if they don't have a set of rules bounding a system that the player interacts with, without elements like art, music, and text  the player has no means of receiving information to interact with the system. Designers will of course make choices about which of these different media will be leveraged in order for the player to receive feedback. However, the very fact that all of these various media are available as substrates from which games can be made makes any dogmatic assertion about what games should be fundamentally unsustainable.

As a medium video games can be used to create things as diverse as Tetris, Super Mario Brothers, Portal, Psychonauts, World of Warcraft, and Farmville. The distance between these different types of games is immense, but all of them have enjoyed tremendous success among various audiences, and each has shaped the larger landscape of what games can be. I believe the future of game design will only add to this plurality because at the end of the day, video games are not a monolothic medium.

 

* This is also incidentally one of the reasons I have asserted previously that video games are inherently postmodern.



Reposted from moseswolfenstein.com


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Comments


Darren Tomlyn
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I suggest you read my blog...



http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DarrenTomlyn/20110311/6174/Content
s_NEW.php



The problem with the term 'medium' is that it represents something that is used to enable something else - and for most people within the entertainment industry, what a medium is used to enable is very specific:



Art, especially forms of art.



And the reason why this is a problem here, is simple:



Games, (along with puzzles and competitions), are NOT forms of art.



The reason why they are not forms of art, is simple:



They exist to enable a DIFFERENT application of DIFFERENT behaviour, that is merely COMPATIBLE with other forms of art and the media they use. Nearly everything we create is defined by its functionality - and something cannot be a form of art if it does not have art itself AS it's function.



In other words, games, puzzles and competitions can use art itself as a medium, to enable and promote such applications of behaviour to happen - (though, for games especially, most forms of art being used (pictures/music etc.) are a condition of any recognised medium itself - e.g. computers/boards/cards etc. - (which may be recognised as a work of sculpture, like any other tangible thing we create)).



Game != art



An individual game = a work of art (subjective)

Moses Wolfenstein
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Hi Darren,



I'll definitely give your blog a read, but I will mention up front that I disagree with you on the principle that games are not art. Certainly not all games are art just as not all textual or cinematic artifacts are art, but from my perspective many many video games (and particularly single player games) are pretty well classified as art. I'm fine with disagreeing on this point though, and generally welcome dissenting viewpoints.



Thanks for the comment.

-Moses

Darren Tomlyn
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@moses



You have to read my blog (all the way to the end, so far) - since your perspective of art is probably based on the same, inconsistent, understanding of the word art for what it represents when used in different ways.



What defines something as a work of art is completely separate from what defines something as a game. Just because they are compatible does not mean they are the same thing.



The word art itself represents the creative process, from a very specific perspective, therefore anything and everything we create CAN be seen as a work of art - the result of such a process. But since nearly everything we create is defined by a completely different and separate function - (including games, puzzles and competitions) - they cannot be DEFINED as art.



ONLY when something has been created with the function of BEING a work of art, can it be defined as such - and forms of art are based upon the main ways in which that can happen, from pictures to acting to music etc..



Although games can USE such forms of art in order to exist, they do not have to, and even if they do - any such art used is already defined and labelled independently of games in the first place, AS forms of art - (film/animation etc.).



As I said - art is part of the media for games, not the other way round - viewing a game as a work of art FOR THE FORMS OF ART IT POSSESSES, therefore has nothing to do with it being a game whatsoever - and is simply a condition of the medium used - (a computer/board/card etc.).



Art = creative story-telling

Game = structured, competitive story-writing



Games may exist because of such art - but not the other way round!*



*Of course, you may be watching a game being played (by others), and subjectively apply the word art upon what you perceive in such an activity - but what makes it art is still not what makes it a game, or vice-versa.



Game, art, puzzle and competition are, demonstrably, used as separate, individual words, that are merely related by the type of concept they represent - as applications of behaviour - which is why they are all used in a similar manner, (as nouns, ultimately).



The problem we have is simple:



Recognising that these words do, in fact, represent such a concept, and therefore how and why they are different, but related, based upon their use.



Because this hasn't happened, however, we're (well, you're) all getting confused between games and puzzles and competitions - (and even art).



(Based on a reply you've made below: "gamebooks" are mislabelled - they are simply mazes in literary form - i.e. puzzles - as is the equivalent in other, different forms, using different media. Again - it's all about the behaviour such activities enable from those taking part, that matters for their definition, and interacting with stories being told is what the word puzzle represents, not game, otherwise ALL puzzles would be called games, making the word puzzle superfluous, which is not consistent with how either word is used in general).

Glenn McMath
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Hey Darren,

We debated similar things in the comments for another blog post a while back. I read a bit of your blog (though I admit I didn't get very far... your articles are LONG), and while I can appreciate that your views are very well thought out and constructed, I have to disagree with you (again) on your assertion that videogames cannot be art.



While your statements based upon clear definitions of existing terms seem logical and sound, I think that the terms you have chosen (or more accurately, your rigid adherence to them) cause your arguments to unravel. I believe this because I personally think that the term videogame (supposedly a compound word) is a misnomer, and it is upon this misnomer that you build the bulk of your argument.



While I think there are works that exist which fit the rigid definition of a capital V capital G Video-Game, there are as many if not more that fall outside of the characteristics of a game (and likewise don't land within the confines of a puzzle or competition). This is most likely because throughout most of the history of videogames, there were no rigid definitions to which creators felt the need to adhere. As an example, strictly linear "games" such as adventure games, which often allow for only one application of one behaviour to "succeed," and exist almost purely to tell a story. While it is true that most of these games include puzzles, the puzzles are not always (or I would say often) the focus of the game. More to the point, experimental games like The Path hint at a direction that could be explored in an interactive medium, where there are environments and narratives to explore, but not puzzles to solve, or win conditions, or others to compete with. In short, I believe that there is potential for interactive works to exist to function as art, and that their interactivity would enhance, not detract from, that experience.



I should re-state that I do respect your opinions for being well constructed, and encourage you to elaborate upon them, even if I may disagree.





Moses:

This was an excellent article and I could not agree with it more. The only thing that frustrates me in philosophical discussions about videogames is how narrow minded and absolute people are in their beliefs about the medium. I have no problem with people (especially those as talented as David Jaffe) speaking on the sorts of games they enjoy playing or creating and the merits of those games, but I cannot understand their desire to put constraints and boundaries on a medium so young and with so much left to explore. As far as I see it, any rigid definition of videogames must be delivered hand in hand with the concession that interesting frontiers exist beyond those newly constructed walls.

Darren Tomlyn
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@Glenn



It appears I must repeat another sentence I've written time and time again:



The words GAME (and puzzle) and ART are used to represent DIFFERENT applications of DIFFERENT behaviour (things that happen) that are ONLY EVER COMPATIBLE, when applied by DIFFERENT people!



A SPECIFIC game or a puzzle is a work of art based on the behaviour of its CREATOR(S). A game is a game, (or a puzzle is a puzzle), based on the behaviour of its PLAYER(S).



What DEFINES a game has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with it being a work of art - or vice-versa!



If that were not the case - the words game and art would be used the same way, because they'd represent the same thing!



But last time I checked, the Mona Lisa was not considered to be a game! (Etc.).



To try and say otherwise is to break the very rules of the language we are using...



Media are primarily the objects we use to enable such behaviour to take place, or the ways in which such information (stories) can be told. Again, unfortunately, people have confused such media with their application. The ONLY medium that is relevant to the subject here, is a COMPUTER - which is consistent with how the word game is used elsewhere. ANY and ALL forms of art such media can enable and support, (the types of stories they tell), is merely a condition of such media and therefore has no place in the definition or labelling of types of game (or puzzle). Boards, cards, computers, balls, dice etc. are the relevant media for games - not pictures, music, animation, video etc..



The ONLY reason we're having problems is because people are not recognising and understanding how to use the English language properly, in a manner that is consistent with it's rules.



For games to be art must mean that EVERYTHING WE CREATE, regardless of its function, must also be art - in which case, the word art becomes meaningless.



(Last time I checked, a microwave oven (etc.) was not art in itself, or a medium for art, either - merely an object produced by art, that is then labelled and defined by a different function).



This is all about getting confused between cause and effect - in a very basic, fundamental way - which is a massive problem.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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A game has one corner-stone that is fixed: A game is interactive.

Games deal in experience (like Movies can) but through interaction.



Story-TELLING is inherrently interaction less, it is a bad fit for a GAME-design. Elements of story-telling are certainly not wrong to be incorporated, but what I think Jaffe is opposing (like I am) is the -focus- on story-telling as a corner-stone of a game.



Mass Effect is certainly not a bad experience, but its not the best -game-

In ME gameplay often takes a backseat to story-telling.

Guerric Hache
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Does it matter that it is not a "good game," though? Maybe deep down, it's a good piece of interactive fiction instead. Clearly, there is a market for it, and clearly it can do certain things that film can't as a storytelling medium. Is false advertising the problem here?

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"Is false advertising the problem here?"



Yes pretty much.

If something I buy has the words "Role Playing Game" on it, I'd like it to be a game, not an interactive movie, or an audiobook.



Look at it like this. If a movie was released (a movie being a feature film) in which the camera is pointed at a book and every 5 minutes the page is changed, would it be a good movie?

Film deals with (moving) visuals and (sometimes) sound. If you have a movie in which all that is displayed is a static picture of a flower while Bach plays in the background, you are "doing film wrong".



The same can be applied to games. A game with minimal interaction is not a game, its something else.

Semantics are sufficiently important here to draw the distinction.



But you see, MassEffect wouldn't have sold as well if it was marketed as an interactive movie/fiction/experience.



In essence what I'm advocating here is



- Narrative THROUGH gameplay for games.

- Narrative THROUGH storytelling for everything else.



Games are a unique medium and we should not dilute its meaning.



We already have perfectly fine and working terms for all the other things, like interactive movies, interactive audiobooks, interactive books (chose your own adventure), why blend them into "game" and pretend as if they are the same?

Hakim Boukellif
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I don't really agree with the notion of existing terms being sufficient if "game" couldn't be used.



If you remember the FMV games that cursed the early to mid nineties: those are pretty much "interactive movies" in their most pure and simple form. Yet if you were to compare those to something like Mass Effect and then to videogames in general, I think you'll find ME to be closer to the game side of the spectrum than the interactive movie side.



So then, where is the cut-off line that separates games from interactive movies? And what terminology do we use to properly convey the fundamental differences between Mass Effect and, say, Star Trek: BORG and overlap with "proper" games, while still making it clear that it's not a game?

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"Yet if you were to compare those to something like Mass Effect and then to videogames in general, I think you'll find ME to be closer to the game side of the spectrum than the interactive movie side."



I never said that ME is not a game, i just suggested it sells better branded as one and it is one, but a not very good one because of it uses story-telling as a narrative device.



Incidentally, Star Trek:Borg is classified as an "interactive movie/computer game and audiobook" on wikipedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek:_Borg



As to your question



"So then, where is the cut-off line that separates games from interactive movies? And what terminology do we use to properly convey the fundamental differences between Mass Effect and, say, Star Trek: BORG and overlap with "proper" games, while still making it clear that it's not a game?"



Like I already stated, narrative -through- gameplay is the cut-off point, that in of itself is the fundamental difference in games as a medium.

The heavier a game relies on story-telling the less of a game it is, the more it relies on gameplay the better a game it is.



Clicking a dialogue-choice in a cinematic conversation is hardly gameplay, its a choose your own adventure book.



I am not advocating a hard cut-off, a rigorous division of media, there will always be bleed-over.

I am advocating understanding what the medium is and what its purpose is compared to other media.

In my opinion games as a medium is not just a loose blend of video, audio, story and interaction, its more than the sum of its parts.

Hakim Boukellif
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"Like I already stated, narrative -through- gameplay is the cut-off point, that in of itself is the fundamental difference in games as a medium.

The heavier a game relies on story-telling the less of a game it is, the more it relies on gameplay the better a game it is."



But that's still ambiguous. Just like not everything can be conveyed through just visuals and sounds, which is why most movies still have dialogue, not everything can be conveyed through gameplay. So once the narrative reaches a certain level of complexity (which doesn't even have to be that high), you are going to have to resort to methods outside of gameplay to some extent.



So then, it becomes a matter of balance between gameplay and storytelling, but as long as these two aspects can't be objectively compared in a meaningful way, the distinction between a game and what you would say is not a game exists in this fuzzy space and is ultimately meaningless, as they still share the same medium.



"I am advocating understanding what the medium is and what its purpose is compared to other media. "



What a strange thing to say. Media don't have any specific purpose beyond conveying "something". Of course, if there's something you want to convey, you should consider what medium would be the most effective based on what separates it from other media. And if that happens to be some midway point between a game and a movie or novel, that shouldn't be a problem. Perhaps that shouldn't be called a "game" then, but right now we lack the vocabulary to describe it in a way that's not overly specific (e.g. "visual novel", "interactive movie")

Jason Wilson
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I find it funny that you say "A game has one corner-stone that is fixed: A game is interactive.", yet the things you define as not games are "interactive movies, interactive audiobooks, interactive books (chose your own adventure)".



In my opinion, interactive movies, interactive audiobooks, and interactive books are in fact games, because they are in fact interactive.

Moses Wolfenstein
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It's worth noting that Choose Your Own Adventure is a specific brand of a thing called a gamebook.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"What a strange thing to say. Media don't have any specific purpose beyond conveying "something"."



I'm sorry, purpose was definitely the wrong word to use, blame it on english not being my native language.

The line should have red:

"I am advocating understanding what the medium is and what -separates- it compared to other media."



And there is the crux of the matter, and you even spelled it out yourself:



"Of course, if there's something you want to convey, you should consider what medium would be the most effective based on what separates it from other media."



If i want to convey a purely story-driven (not narrative-driven mind you) experience, wouldn't a more traditional medium (like film) be preferable to a game?



I look at certain games and I ask myself sometimes

"Why am I playing this? All i want is to watch the cutscenes to get the story, the gameplay just gets in the way."



I fully understand that I am essentially arguing semantics here, but I find the semantics to be important in this case.



"And if that happens to be some midway point between a game and a movie or novel, that shouldn't be a problem. Perhaps that shouldn't be called a "game" then, but right now we lack the vocabulary to describe it in a way that's not overly specific (e.g. "visual novel", "interactive movie")"



If we don't have the vocabulary to describe -yet- then we shouldn't even try and just treat them as the same? (I mean in that paragraph you essentially acknowledge they are not the same)

This just muddles language and makes it harder for people to understand eachother.

If I say I'm a game-designer I actually mean that I design Interactive Audiobooks because interactive audiobooks are games?

We already have enough communication-problems in game-design with the language being as vague as it is and -this topic- shows the problems perfectly.



We can't even agree to what games really are, how can we meaninfully talk about them?

Steven An
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If false advertising is all you're complaining about, boy, get over it.

Darren Tomlyn
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@Aleksander



I suggest you also read my blog:



http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DarrenTomlyn/20110311/6174/Content
s_NEW.php

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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@Steven

Thank you for just dismissing my argument instead of adding to the discussion.

Hakim Boukellif
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"If i want to convey a purely story-driven (not narrative-driven mind you) experience, wouldn't a more traditional medium (like film) be preferable to a game?"



Not necessarily. What traditional medium can be used to create an audiovisual experience that that doesn't come with severe time restraints or a high barrier of entry that games do not necessarily have? What traditional medium allow the reader/watcher/whatever to experience the story through multiple routes? There's choose-your-own-adventure books, but they're too inconvenient and impractical for anything but simple stories with shallow scenario trees. Other than that, no traditional medium can be elegantly combined with game elements.



I'd like to bring attention to the Sakura Wars series of games. They're not entirely unique any more, but they're still the most prominent example of this kind of game. Anyway, for the most part, a SW game plays like a visual novel with some light lovesim elements (essentially a fancy choose-your-own-adventure book). However, it also occasionally turns into a simulation RPG. These two parts aren't entirely distinct, however: not only does the story told in the VN part lead to the events in the SRPG part and back again, but the players's actions in the VN part affect the SRPG part and vice versa. It's an interesting experience that you can only get in this medium.



"If we don't have the vocabulary to describe -yet- then we shouldn't even try and just treat them as the same? (I mean in that paragraph you essentially acknowledge they are not the same)"



The problem is that the distinction is fuzzy at best so there's no way to really separate them either. There's also the fact that they undeniably use the same medium, which, for better or for worse, has been called "videogames".

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"Not necessarily. What traditional medium can be used to create an audiovisual experience that that doesn't come with severe time restraints or a high barrier of entry that games do not necessarily have?"



I'm unsure what you mean by this, but I am guessing you are referring to the gameplay-session length compared to the total playtime.



So my answer would be: a TV-Series.

It has (optimally) a long over-arching plot but is told in episodic format (example: Lost, BSG, etc.)



I would also like to add that games have an -increased- barrier of entry to any other traditional medium as they need interaction from the consumer.

Its why older people do not play games, especially ones that require twitch-reflexes. My dad for example would love the story in MassEffect, but he won't put up with the combat and shooty-stuff.



"What traditional medium allow the reader/watcher/whatever to experience the story through multiple routes? There's choose-your-own-adventure books, but they're too inconvenient and impractical for anything but simple stories with shallow scenario trees. Other than that, no traditional medium can be elegantly combined with game elements."



Well my argument is that if a "game" is just non-linear story-telling, its nothing more than an choose-your-own-adventure book on the PC. After all, a novel is a novel, no matter if its printed or digitized.

Just because you added -more- scenarios and trees (due to technological difference of PC/printed book), doesn't make it something different from a "gamebook".



Gamebook, thats actually an interesting term I didn't know.

Its not a book -game- but a gamebook, and I'm actually surprisingly OK with that term.



Sadly I don't know the Sakura Wars games, so I can not comment on them. But my example would be Final Fantasy.

I agree here with Robert Chang further down:



"Things like cinematics and reading expository scripts can belong to a game, but it's separate from the game. The unit operations of a game is its own emergent narrative, while the scripted narrative acts on this emergent experience or "proceduralist style," which are not exactly the same thing, but I'm using it as a similar idea."



This fits Final Fantasy (and many other games) to a T.



I'm going to take my chances at sounding repetitive, but (video)games (as a medium) are, or at least should be, more than the sum of their parts.

And designers should strive to connect the core of games, gameplay, with narrative/story.

Hakim Boukellif
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"I would also like to add that games have an -increased- barrier of entry to any other traditional medium as they need interaction from the consumer."



Maybe I should have been more clear on this, but when I mentioned "barrier of entry", I was referring to the barrier of entry from the creator's perspective, not the consumer's. I think you'll agree that from that perspective, movies and TV series have a pretty high barrier of entry, even low-budget ones. While the same is true if you want to make something like Mass Effect or a recent Final Fantasy, it's not for games in general, especially not nowadays.





"Well my argument is that if a "game" is just non-linear story-telling, its nothing more than an choose-your-own-adventure book on the PC. After all, a novel is a novel, no matter if its printed or digitized. "



Indeed, that's true. However, a book and a text file on a computer are essentially the same thing in different form (in fact, most modern books are essentially just text files printed on a codex). A collection of programming and text, image and sound assets bundled together to form a whole is implemented in a very different way from a book with cross-references on every other page and should not be considered as using the same medium.



But that's not even the biggest issue here. Most videogames exist somewhere within the space between Planetarian and Tetris. And until someone puts a line there separating the games from the non-games that everyone can agree with, the only objective way to identify a game is by looking at the implementation method.





"I'm going to take my chances at sounding repetitive, but (video)games (as a medium) are, or at least should be, more than the sum of their parts."



I agree, but doesn't that contradict your quote from Robert Chang?

Glenn McMath
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@Aleksander and Hakim



You both bring up valid points. Hope you don't mind me throwing my two cents into the mix. In the end I think that videogames were developed too long without a concrete definition to put one on them now. The way I like to think about this wonderful mess is that it is all contained within a very broad catch-all medium that doesn't really have a name yet, but for now let's just call it "interactive works." Videogames exist within there as something you could call a sub-medium or type, as do interactive fiction, and all the other forms you both mentioned.

I feel (as Aleksander pointed out) that it is worth defining what these different types are, but not in the problematic way (that Hakim recognized as such) of drawing boundaries around them. When you try to draw lines between two different entities that share elements, you can argue for a year as to where that line should be and still never reach a consensus.

I think it's more productive to define these different elements at their core rather than their boundary. Leave the edges fuzzy, and recognize when something exists between multiple types of interactive works. This is more productive than insisting that the things we create must fit neatly into one box or another as there are often times benefits to unique combinations of interactive elements.

As Guerric pointed out, if something is good, does it matter if it's a pure game, or halfway between a game and interactive fiction, or a game and a movie? If it's compelling and serves the purpose for which it was created, does it have to be one or the other? I would say no. Of course some people will prefer things that exist near the center of the territory we could call "Video-Games" and that's fine.



Some of my favourite videogames are Video-Games ;)

Steven An
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OK let me try to be a bit more constructive here: Language is always imperfect. It's a fundamental over-simplification of reality. So I personally don't care much to argue about semantics, because reasoning with words often leads to a dead end for something as huge and complex as the medium of "video games" - or whatever you wanna call that thing I put in my Xbox. I find it far more productive to reason about BRANDS. I actually could not play more than a few hours of Mass Effect 2 - I found the game play to be bland and the story did not appeal to me at all. So that taught me a lesson: Don't buy BioWare games anymore. Luckily I only lost $10 to it (Amazon sale ftw).



So, yes, companies will always play games with words and you will often not agree with what they say about their games. Hell I even thought BioShock was pretty shit in the game play department - so I'm gonna be a little cautious about BioShock: Infinite (Irrational's past games have been great gameplay-wise, so I haven't written them off yet).



Stop worrying about words and just play/make what ya like.

Steven An
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@Hakim - yeah, I do agree it's probably more productive to define words for the elements that games might have rather than categorizing the whole work. Even then, of course, the definitions will always be fuzzy (for example, how does one rigidly define "emergent game play" in a way that doesn't just cover all interactivity?), but I feel it's more manageable than putting games into categories like "interactive movie" or whatever. Is "To the Moon" an interactive movie? It sure has elements of it, but it has some casual puzzle elements as well.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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Agreed to this.



It's no strange thing that designers would value their designed systems over the rest of stuff.

While I do not like fluff stories, to just dismiss narrative? Look at Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Not super complex games, but the mechanics and game design had very good narrative and emotional content, which is something "game" designers have a tendency to kick off to other mediums.

Mark Nelson
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This is sort of a minor point, but seems to be coming up more: with all due respect to Bogost, it seems strange to credit him with (or blame him for) the idea of mechanics-oriented game design!



A mechanics/systems-first design style has been common for decades, especially in the indie sphere, and is one of the ways that indies, in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, differentiated themselves from big-asset / big-story AAA games that they felt they couldn't afford to compete with on their own terms.



Bogost's "proceduralist style" is one very specific kind of mechanics usage, referring to art-games, newsgames, and the like, that use provocative skinning or metaphor around a core logic to make a point or engage in some sort of expression about, say, marriage or food safety or terrorism.



But I think what Jaffe is advocating for is more the classic mechanics-first design style, less like Rod Humble's "The Marriage" (a proceduralist game in Bogost's sense), and more like World of Goo or Master of Orion (games where mechanics innovation is a more prominent design value than story).

Eric Schwarz
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Agreed. I don't think Jaffe is interested in excising narrative from games entirely, because it can't be done. What he's against is the focus on a very specific kind of storytelling which is both content-heavy (lots of cutscenes, dialogue, scripted sequences etc.) and limiting to the potential of the game (can't put a ray gun in World War II without transforming the game's setting).



I am a huge advocate of doing things with game mechanics and systems if you can rather than with cutscenes. A game telling a story through mechanics is always far more effective than any tear-jerking cinematic sequences farmed out to Square-Enix (no offense to their animators, of course!). That doesn't mean that cutscenes don't have their place (especially in introducing the player to certain settings or characters), but they should never be a stand-in for what you can do in-game.



Take a look at just about any modern shooter (Gears of War, Halo, etc.) and you will find plenty of sequences that could have easily been done within gameplay itself, but wasn't for... uhm, some reason? If a game is about shooting, or fighting, or whatever, then why not let the player shoot and/or fight? If you need to tell a story while doing so, do it with the mechanics!



The older SNES JPRGs did a lot of this, like unwinnable boss fights or conversations occurring mid-battle... why doesn't this work for modern games anymore? It's more engaging, doesn't break the consistency and rules of the game world, and is probably a hell of a lot cheaper to produce as well! Plus, it's far more flexible to the development pipeline, as making a change to a single dialogue line can be done in a manner of seconds instead of days.

Moses Wolfenstein
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Thanks for calling me out on this Mark. I didn't intend for this to read in a manner that attributed the creation of mechanics-oriented game design to Bogost. Obviously the history of game design (not just video game design) owes a lot to mechanics-oriented practices.



On reflection I've definitely overreached in my use of the term here focusing a little too much on the "expression is found primarily in the player's experience as it results from interaction with the game's mechanics and dynamics" part of Ian's definition. He is clearly referring to a smaller movement of games than that phrase alone captures. I grabbed onto it because he was at least speaking in terms of art movements, and statements like the recent one by Jaffe have all the characteristics of an artist offering a manifesto on the direction of the medium.



For my own angle on all of this, I think it's really worth fundamentally distinguishing between the morass of AAA development practices that includes the use of big-assets and big-story from all games that could be developing by including story as a central part of the design process. When we don't do this, we wind up with a false binary where games are either story driven high budget AAA titles drowning in the usual risk averse production quandaries, or mechanics driven titles that only support emergent player narratives.



For my own, I think there's a lot of room for various drivers in the design and development of different types of games for different audiences.

Evan Combs
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Eric, you don't tell a story with mechanics. What you are thinking of is telling the story during gameplay instead of a cutscene. Having a conversation during battle is not a mechanic, it is no different than a cutscene except that it happens during gameplay instead of outside of gameplay.



I get what you are trying to say, but calling it "telling a story through mechanics" is misleading to what you mean.

Moses Wolfenstein
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@Eric, I'm not sure that your reading isn't more generous than what Jaffe intended at least based on the reporting I've seen. Like k s further down comment you talk about methods that put more of the storytelling into the game play (methods I'm a huge fan of incidentally), but these are still what Manveer has called designer driven narratives. I see Jaffe's call (and those of many others) as being a more extreme call that advocates against even less expository scripted events.



Thanks for the comment.

-Moses

Eric Schwarz
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@Evans



Fair enough, bad example. However, you can still do storytelling through mechanics, or at the very least very tightly interwoven with mechanics. Consider Space Siege and how much of the game and story revolve around upgrading yourself with mechanical bits and pieces - augmentations give you more effective bonuses, but you also sacrifice your humanity in the process. The dialogue and story change to a degree to adapt to this. On another level, Braid subverts our expectations about platform games as a genre (left to right gameplay, hero saves damsel in distress) and in doing so is able to make an interesting, if perhaps vague and shallow statement.



@Moses:



In light of the interview posted at http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/6704/david_jaffe_and_the_la
nguage_of_.php I think I'm pretty in line with Jaffe's thoughts, but either way, it's what one takes away from it that's important.

Robert Chang
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@Evan



I think September 12 is a game that told its story through mechanics. And something like Pong tells its story through mechanics. Pong doesn't have a set in stone story, it's an emergent narrative that the player creates as the player plays the game. Each round creates its unique narrative strictly out of its mechanics alone.



Story doesn't always follow what we see in movies and novels, game narrative can be as simple as "I moved the paddle to the left, the ball hit the paddle and bounced around the wall, the ball moved past the AI paddle, I gain a point." The entertainment comes from the player's ability to manipulate the emergent narrative.

k s
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I'm of the opinion that video games can have story but it must not over shadow gameplay. A great many modern games focus too much on story (or multiplayer but that's a little off topic) with lots of cut scenes and pausing the gameplay to tell us something we can get while playing the game.



Fable 3 did a very good job of this at one point when you (the hero) and Walter (I think that was the old mentor's name) where making your way through a cave inhabited by the Darkness (the true enemy of the game's plot) and Walter is talking pretty much the whole way. Lion Head didn't have to do a cut scene to tell us about Walter or his claustrophobia, they told us while we played.



Cut scenes are fine once in a while but not constantly but I've long found stories in games more engaging if I'm at least doing something while they're being told. Assassin's Creed Revelations does this too at times, Ezio will walk with an apprentice assassin discussing a mission and then work with the apprentice to complete said mission. The only cut scene in these sequences is after completing the mission and then they are brief and too the point, without all the hollywood stylings.



I guess my point is either tell the story in parallel to the gameplay (without or at least less cut scenes) or make the story part of the gameplay.

Moses Wolfenstein
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The examples you mention of Fable 3 and AC: Revelations are interesting ones in relation to this larger question. Both of those games still have a strong developer driven narrative, and if I don't miss the mark they fall under the category of games that Jaffe is criticizing. The techniques used in those moments definitely inject the player into the exposition more effectively, but they still rely on exposition and what Manveer Heir has coined "designer driven narrative." As I believe I made clear in my post, I strongly believe that there's a place for this sort of thing in video games.



Thanks for the comment.

-Moses

Luis Guimaraes
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Well, KS just said everything I wanted, so just to add here a 5-minute exemple of the thing done right:



http://www.kongregate.com/games/Pixelante/immortall

k s
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@Luis An interesting interactive poem.

Luis Guimaraes
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Sure it is. Very short and simple, yet so well done in the approach of narrative. You can game the narrative in order to change the ending too.

Jason Wilson
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I'd just like to say that "only the darkside deals in absolutes". We should never say what a game can't be, or how a game can't be created. We may have preferences as to how we approach games, but to prescribe that as the ONLY way a game can and should be made is foolish. If we attempt to do this as an industry, we will deny ourselves and our players of a great amount of wonderful experiences that exist outside our worldview.

Steven An
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Completely 100% agreed. I love "To the Moon". I love "Tetris". I love "Portal". They are all so different but all have their own unique experiences to offer. To limit ourselves to what video games "should be" is so anti-creative.

Robert Chang
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What an excellently written intelligent blog post. I gotta find a way to subscribe to blogs on here.



Anyways, I think this argument is the narratologist and the ludologist argument first presented by Gonzalo Frasca. And from what I can understand, the argument for the ludologist approach to design is that traditional narrative in games is separate from the game itself. The game is its system operation, which creates emergent experiences. The traditional story telling is something else that either glues unit operations or wraps around it.



Things like cinematics and reading expository scripts can belong to a game, but it's separate from the game. The unit operations of a game is its own emergent narrative, while the scripted narrative acts on this emergent experience or "proceduralist style," which are not exactly the same thing, but I'm using it as a similar idea.



Well, I'm just a freelance writer interested in this topic, so my understanding might not actually represent the arguments presented, but this is just my personal perspective on the matter.

Altug Isigan
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Nice comments Robert. I especially like the one about September 12 and Pong. I see it very similar.

Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Moses,



The main issue that I have with your line of argument here is that it conflates the sorts of things that myself, David and Dan say with "there is only one game", which none of us do. In so doing you set up a false opposition of anything not-story as "monolithic", implying that therefore the only source of rounded artistry in games can be story. It's a neat syllogism, but not one that any of us so-called monoliths actually subscribe to.



Our point is rather this: Videogames have ground rules as a medium, just like films and music and all the others. There are certain boundaries to the form (which I call creative constants, but others may call global constraints or laws perhaps) that dictate not what you are allowed to do, nor a societal definition of game. They are physical boundaries that influence whether the game will be played or not.



Just as plot is necessary for most people to enjoy movies (and why most people cannot really get down with the Koyaanisqatsis of this world), fun is necessary for most people to enjoy games. It's not a philosophical or ideological position either: It's measurable. When the game is not fun, players tend to drift away from it. They don't finish it, don't pay attention to the story that much and so on. They may not mean to, forgetting to play and coming back later trying to remember where they were etc, but it is as it is.



So the sort of position that I advocate, and I suspect others are similar, is that that's a reality of play. And so if we want to be artists within our medium (and we do) then that's one of the boundaries that we simply have to accept in order to become productive artists. It means some stuff just won't work as well as others, and that's often a matter of technique and execution. It also means that some stuff works more easily for us than others because we already have the player in a "playing" state.



Thanks for the article.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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" fun is necessary for most people to enjoy games. "



And fun can be derived in many ways. Being suprised by discovery, immersive landcapes with fitting music and so on. Because you weren't talking about laughing out loud kind of fun right? Oh and Planescape torment had really shitty gameplay parts that dragged on really long and weren't fun at all. But I slogged through them because the whole damned game was so good, the payoff at the other areas of the game was enough.



The way Planescape torment delivers its world and experience would not have become better as a book or movie either. Even though the meat of the game is in writing and different dialogue options, the pacing, the navigation around the world and the possibilities really do add something.

Tadhg Kelly
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I don't, as some others do, get into the territory of saying there are 25 kinds of fun or 900 variations because that all leads toward self-justification (i.e. "if I can change the meaning of fun then my boring project is now legitimate"), which game developers and academics are very fond of.



I have a very specific meaning for fun, which is: "the joy of winning while mastering fair game dynamics". (And by winning here, to be clear, we mean both competitive victories and creative achievement. Minecraft is as much about wins as Quake.). I.e. all games are either interesting dynamic systems to be played and overcome, or walked away from. Without variation.



That jives with some of your examples, but not with others. For example travelling just to travel is not fun. It's a busywork activity between areas which can be juiced up to be fun (random encounters for example) but by itself is not. It be interesting for other reasons, such as marvelling at the beauty of the game or empathising with the world, and those are all legitimate.



They also, however, fade if the activity itself is not fun. Driving around in GTA is more interesting than in LA Noire because the police react to your craziness in one, but not in the other. LA Noire's city is arguably more flavourful and beautiful, but schlepping around in it for 5-10 minutes gets tired after a little while. Whereas in GTA is stays fresh for much longer.



Fun is a cruel mistress.

Steven An
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You are talking about statistics. We can discuss how much of our market will like a certain style of game. I am totally willing to admit that "To the Moon" probably made a lot less money than WoW or FarmVille, and I'd be happy to discuss why that is. I'd also be happy to compare your personal tastes and my personal tastes to that of the market - and how that changes with various markets.



So what you're really saying is, "Here are some guidelines if you want to make money." You're not talking about the medium in general - that is far larger than what makes big money, and that holds much bigger surprises as well.

Moses Wolfenstein
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Hi Tadhg,



Thanks for getting in the mix over here. I may have set up a bit of a false dichotomy in my framing of this piece, but I hope I don't come off as indicating that story is the only source of rounded artistry in games. That would actually be a position that falls in line with the same approach that I'm critiquing here only holding story up as the banner of the one true way to drive artistry in games which would be patently ridiculous. What I'm trying to advance is the notion that it doesn't make sense to exclude games that employ storytelling/designer driven narrative in advancing what the medium should be. I'm definitely not labeling any designers as "monoliths", but rather brought you, David, and Dan in because you've each advocated (to various degrees) the idea that designer driven narrative doesn't belong in video games. From my perspective there many different types of video games including ones that employ traditions of storytelling from other media, and that there's nothing wrong with that so long as there's an audience for it.



That said, there are a couple of other issues that spiral around this topic that I think are productive to plumb. One is this question of fun. I disagree with you on fun as the equivalent construct for games that plot is for movies, and also that fun is measurable. Fun is just too fuzzy a construct, and games as a medium are definitely capable of offering meaningful experiences that players would not characterize as fun. I might offer rules as the parallel structural element for games that plot is for films, as you definitely can't have a game without rules.



As for measuring, if players drift away from a game it's a measurement of their engagement with the game. You might be using engagement as a proxy for fun, but the only objective measurements you can actually take (measurements of time) can point to engagement but don't actually tell you whether the player is having fun, or even why they're spending that time the way they are. Even your fairly well bounded definition of fun runs into these measurement issues in that you can measure things like endorphins and brain activity (if you have your players in a lab condition) as a way of tracking on that joyful part, but fun is still a level of abstraction further out than joyful feelings which can be derived from a lot of different things.



Hence to determine whether a game (or any other activity) is fun pretty much requires qualitative data which is basically by definition not measurable. As a researcher who uses qualitative methods all the time I believe that they're invaluable in both understanding phenomena and guiding design, but they're fundamentally more subjective in nature.



I think this is why folks like Raph Koster and Tracy Fullerton use the construct of play rather than fun much of the time when talking about games. Play can be fun, but it can also be inflected with other types of emotive qualities. Play as a phenomenon also actually has some quantifiable aspects including engagement and even learning.



Thanks for the comment,

-Moses

Bart Stewart
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The interactivity that makes games the unique entertainment/art form they are comes from enabling player agency in a secondary reality. My impression is that Jaffe opposes mechanics that take away player agency in order to tell a story. Cutscenes are the best-known examples of this, but modern games have this thing they do now where agency is taken away from the player during gameplay to force the player's character to do something. Examples would be making the player character have a conversation with an NPC or watch a "Whoa!" moment setpiece. Even the "slow down time for a few seconds to watch an explosion in slow-motion" gimmick is a mild example of taking away player agency for a form of storytelling.



If that's as far as the argument goes, I agree with it. Taking away player agency to do storytelling ignores the feature that makes computer games what they are. But if the argument is "games should stop trying to tell stories," then I disagree because there are ways to include story without breaking the fourth wall (or is it the fifth wall?) of interactivity.



I don't know if most gamers in 2012 appreciate just how revolutionary the 1998 game Half-Life was. Not only did it have contiguous areas instead of arbirtrarily enclosed levels, it used scripted scenes to convey story information without wresting control of the protagonist from the player. This use of scripting is so common now that it's not even noticed, but in 1998 it was astonishing and wonderful -- it proved that you could have interactivity *and* story.



It's still possible, I think.

Ken Kinnison
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Yes yes yes, a thousand times yes.


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