Tuesday, September 8, 2009

VGA 6-4 ~ The Exploration of a Nuclear Gaming Family

One of the most fundamental topics of debate for gamers these days is the competition that arises from the interactivity of a videogame. When I say competition, I’m describing the often divisive means by which we enjoy what we’re playing. Whether it’s listening to how people individually handle this on a podcast, how our friends play their games, or even what we recognize when we sit down in front of a screen for ourselves, there is a constant effect of what the player will often cite as a ‘disconnect’; a point at which the player’s own will rebels against the title they’re playing. In some ways, it’s actually ironic, as the interactive nature that a game provides often drives the player apart from the game itself---no matter how much they may be enjoying it, hence competition. As the game allows us to exercise free will, we almost always attempt to 'destroy the creators', even if it's only subconsciously.

The innate will to ‘buck our titles’ is also what often drives the discourse on topics such as ‘emergent gameplay’ and can even extend right into the authorship argument as well (both of which are significantly relevant to this post). This leads me to question just how far a game can actively explore its own content without leaving the player themselves behind. Keep in mind that this isn’t limited to narrative based games either (nor should it be); I’m simply questioning the means by which the developer’s design can run analogous to the player’s own enjoyment of it.

One of the many examples that I can provide here is the often complained about lack of social commentary. Any game that might attempt make an incisive statement about our culture is often hushed by the various layers of development (marketing, business, technical limitations, etc.). Due to those filters, gamers will often go out of their way to stretch and idealize the definitions for terms such as ‘design’ and ‘art’. By demonizing any detrimental factors that contribute to a game’s development however, the ‘big picture’ tends to resemble a world where nothing is being perpetuated but conflict---unproductive conflict at that.

A recent example for this is how a title such as Portal got away with the collective acclaim it did, which was due to factors such as its short length appealing the modern gamer that’s often pressed for time in addition to its achievement at making a direct and darkly humorous commentary on gaming culture itself. So, coming back to my original question---is there room for a game to explore beyond its own subculture, and if so, how will it happen? Basically, where does the player’s own exploration end and the game’s begin?

The answer to this question certainly doesn’t have a simple and direct answer. This is because once 'wild subjectivity' enters the picture, the ability to grasp answers in any set pattern becomes amorphous. I welcomed this challenge however, and went around bugging random people about it. It typically boiled down to a question of a certain line that the gamer may or may not be willing to cross. As close as this lies to simply being an opinion, I wouldn’t consider the two exactly the same, not by any means. This is because an opinion can only form the foundation for what someone will do with their actions. Games by their very nature are interactive experiences to which the player must navigate by active input. Since there's usually no general continuity between any one person’s life and the game they’re playing (i.e. the number of police actual officers that actually play Resident Evil), the experience tends to default towards the fact that the player and the game are as separate as can be (once again, an automatic disconnect from the game). This creates at least three solid issues for what games can do to explore those subjective lines I just mentioned:

1: Ludic Perception - Since the gamer usually has no personal or meaningful frame of reference for the game that they’re playing, they will generally have to meet the title halfway somehow, not only in terms of believability or whatnot, but any fictional world they wish to connect with.

2: Technical Professionalism/Artistic Endevors - Developers have to aim at an audience, and will often need to use subject matter that they may have some unfamiliarity with. This is why people such as Motosoda Mori are hired to offer input on games such as Metal Gear. A game has an unbelievable task for hosting a certain degree of realism while at the same time needing to distort things in order to create a meaningful universe for itself.

3: Double-Edged Design - A game starts out being nurtured and built up by its respective developer, but once it reaches the hands of the player, a whole new phase of development is enacted from that point on. A single person is set to task for internalizing what often takes years of expertise to craft. In that task somewhere lies what we really take away from title in the end.

The Selfish Meme Theory

I - Stance of Mechanics, Constrict the Complex

Nothing more than rule sets, the mechanics for a videogame form a crucial foundation in the makeup of its architecture. It is not however, the end-all-be-all for what makes a title really stand on its own. Certainly some titles have gotten away with it, but that was when the medium was busy formulating its own humble beginnings (it’s the difference between a cave serving as shelter 100,000 years ago and a house serving as shelter now). Mechanically based games are almost a mere novelty now at best, and that's because games themselves have changed drastically in the past twenty years (which is opposed to the wacknuts clamoring for innovation left and right now). The designs have grown from those archaic beginnings though, and we’re now left facing the mess one must contend with when they're cursed with the sophistication of design itself. A common problem is mediating the balance between sophistication and convoluted. There’s nothing wrong if a title needs complex game mechanics, but the extent to which some games get lost in their delivery of play seems to be increasing if anything. The only reason I can attribute this towards is the drive for developers to experiment with the rapidly evolving technology. There’s nothing wrong with that, but they have to be willing take the lashes for any stumblings they make.

Meme Content: Technology

II - Stance of Professionalism, Exert the Expertise

Keeping the last stance in mind, gamers have to be willing to admit when a game is at fault and when they’re at fault themselves. At the end of the day, there is a big difference between the player and developer, and it lies in skill. Designers don’t often take the initiative on their own skill though. The quantity over quality argument can be applied here, as a large group of skilled individuals doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great game. I'm highly suspicious of this area and would hypothesize that there absolutely has to be a drop off point for the excessive use of skill as a mere influential resource (which is opposed to it being used as a 'power'), as a large number of developers will remain just that and nothing more. Making more room for singular minds is something that will allow developers to stretch their talent past boundaries without worrying about compromising another’s idea. With that said, I’d love to see numbers on the sizing of various development studios and their respective titles. I think the industry has reached or is approaching the point where the development process of a game actively makes 'power' out to be a malicious force, and that's just wrong to me in many cases.

Meme Content: Design Dissonance

III - Stance of Memetics, Minimize the Money

Despite the imperfection of memetics matching their biological counterpart (genetics), it is still an effective model for examining cultural ideas (pretending memes don't have their place is just silly you dogmatic elitists). The game industry is nothing more than a subculture, which by definition memes have their place within. Now, one of the largest problems with memetics in general is the instability at which they propagate. This counts two-fold for games as the pattern and rate of social learning in games is in itself distorted. In otherwords, the rate of what we interpret to be a quality game often changes drastically when we find mechanics we like, even if it’s across multiple titles (e.g think how Resident Evil 4 influenced Gears of War both mechanically and thematically).

As a result, influences such as consumer markets and business models take up a nice slice of the pie, so developers are only responding to pressure in some cases (hell, it's only natural). However, there is much to be said for how some of the larger studios delegate their projects. An example would be Dead Space, which as an above average new IP, got its admirable 'fifteen minutes of fame' last year. As much of a breath of fresh as it was, its muscle as a creative variant is questionable (especially when compared to my prior two examples of RE4 and GoW).The reason there isn’t more diversity in our industry is because we've made it quite clear that we don’t want it right now. We’re still willing to toss money at studios we constantly acknowledge as money monsters. When it comes to hitting them where it counts, our own intellectual vanity gets the best of us. We often fall right back into the consumer-groove of things and as the 'minorities' we relinquish whatever little power we have whenever we do things such as:

1 - Succumb to simply not playing games because we’re not getting what we want. This usually drives us to another venue of titles. (consumerism)
2 - Separating our own lives in any way from how we play our games (the aforementioned intellectual vanity)
3 - Simply attempting to force games to fit an otherwise hectic lifestyle and then damning them when they don’t make the transition (being a silly college student for example).

Not only does the list go on, but the selfish memes extends to every corner of the games industry and they all encompass some degree of potential and worth; they’re just buried amongst ideas run rampant. The silly college kid whining about how he or she may not have time to play the JRPG anymore may indeed contribute to a qualitative idea that will benefit shorter titles, but once they wrap that idea in a flag---the idea will fall on deaf ears. Those who wish to cast off such debates out of angst and weary agitation are just as guilty, as they neglect an otherwise worthwhile discussion out of 'personal cerebral righteousness'. The idea that only cares about itself is what defines these memes and gamers should be ready to destroy rather than embrace them left and right. Hell, at the very least we need to start questioning 90% of them with extreme scrutiny.

Meme Content: Consumer Manipulation (to be glib I'd like to say 'self-brainwashing' instead of manipulation)

I’ve often heard (and used) the cliché metaphor of games being the child our time, but I’ll take it one step further and designate it parental units as well (i.e. gaming audience; paternal, development; maternal). It’s almost a common occurrence in the West now to have a child grow up with single parents. Why should we metaphorically pass that legacy on to something like our premiere entertainment medium?

Developer Explore // Choice of the ‘Mother’
Maternal Line: At what point do developers compromise their vision to feed their audience?

One of the most immediate dangers I see in exploring traditional content with a game would be the offense it could possibly cause. Beyond the games industry is a big world, full of religion, ideologies, and perspectives that govern how we’re all able to get along on this floating rock. When someone is opinionated or determined on exploring any of these issues, there will always be an instance where a group of people will have their toes stepped on. Games haven’t even generally begun the exploration in the sense I’m describing, but titles have already been lambasted by audiences that get caught in some sort of crossfire (see Loco Roco, Resident Evil 5, Shadow Complex,etc.) My own opinion of this would be to welcome the chaos caused by this sort of thing. There’s no way to avoid upsetting people and timidly adhering to the general value systems of this world just creates a playing ground that nobody (or even worse, very few) really benefits from. The insight gained from certain types of conflict is usually worth more than the avoidance of it.

Another hardship that developers face is the outright difficulty of just throwing game design into situations that may deal with ‘sensitively modest’ material. The first example that jumps to mind would be a World War II game, but with the player controlling a detainee in a concentration camp. When we have the player actively resisting things like torture and abuse in a stark and unstylized manner, the definition for ‘enjoyment’ loses its general meaning. This brings in to question of how gamers needing to broaden their own definition for what they expect games to do for them, but that’s something that I know will have to slowly evolve through time. Of all the impossibilities in this industry, that happening overnight is definitely an absolute one.

For games to move beyond more common barriers however, they will have to first acknowledge them. This definitely starts with the designers. I myself have no frame of reference here, but I know exactly what I’d have to observe in order to gain further insight on the matter; the inner workings of design teams. How they function, operate, fraternize, etc., it all matters at this juncture ("all the pieces matter". Some studios for example, love to boast how many people they have working on a single title, but from what I’ve seen, the more people…the worse off a game risks turning out. I’m not advocating elitism, merely unity. Any argument for excessive technical force has its limits. A singular vision in the development of a game gets compromised more and more with each person that is allowed influence on it. When the titles stop veering off in multiple tangents of enjoyable mechanics, snappy dialogue, and stylized visuals, there won’t be so much misconstruction in what could seen now as design dissonance (e.g. this could sufficiently dwindle the population of people still whining about a game’s writing for example). It no doubt varies between games, but where are the lines that developers draw when crafting titles for their audience? Hell if I know.

Player Explore // Choice of the ‘Father’
Paternal Line: The submission of the player’s free will

Sometimes, gamers are so caught up in what they want games to do for them, they forget what they’re actually getting from the title (and take note that I’m being friendly with that ‘sometimes’). It’s nearly mandatory now for a gamer to slip out of sync with the game at some point. That may very well be a pretentious statement on my part (what the hell isn't here?), but let’s consider how many of us skip cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid, don’t bother with the scans in Metroid Prime, or even spend the majority of our time playing games that require an internet connection. Playing a game to one’s own rules (rather than the ones the game typically sets out for you) can be a very slippery slope to experience the hobby on. On one hand you’ve got the individual take on a game, as there’s no law that dictates how we’re meant to play them. However, when one takes their opinion that stems from a stanchly distorted view of a game, trouble begins. I don’t envy designers in creating worlds that must aggressively beat the player’s ego down in order to prove themselves, it’s a horrible practice. We don’t mind damning mechanics such at QTE, but we rarely dole out enough praise for when it actually works (the Krauser fight in RE4 for instance).

Submitting ourselves as gamers even more so to what developers craft is a major step in determining the industry’s future. It’s something we have to find pleasure within, to submit the amount control we have in favor of a cathartic turnaround. Our voice, impact, and opinion from a game is always ours, but how far should our own will permeate (or ruin) the experience? This is something with much gravitas, considering how the industry is still very much reliant on both technology and business. Gamers have gained grown in both of those categories as well, so we now have more influence than necessary in facilities such as online forums, blogs, and user reviews (it's the only reason 'I exist'). Let it be known that exalting developers unfairly is an onus we bear as well; putting too much blind focus on the fact that developers are the ones behind the curtain (as well as the existence of the curtain itself) serves more as a detriment than benefit.

Game Explore // Choice of the ‘Child’
Child’s Line: The suppressed drive to desire meaning

When both developers and their audiences find a happy marriage, the titles will immediately begin to show it. The motifs and themes of every single title will begin to blossom more, be it the quaint design of Everyday Shooter (a singular title crafted over the course of a few months by Jonathan Mak) or the esoteric heights of the last Xenosaga title (an fascinatingly ambitious JRPG franchise that was absolutely crushed by its own grand tale, forcing it to end three games early). I always think the game should come first, not the gamer. That may be a fundamental design point many will contend with me on, but it simply makes more sense to strip away some of the current 'power' that drives a game’s growth. We should never be the customer that’s always right, but an audience in the truest sense of the word.

Something people have also soured themselves on is how games borrow from other mediums, particularly film. I definitely think there’s a line to draw between different outlets of our entertainment media, but they’re all in the same family. Isolating any one from the rest nearly dooms whatever potential it may have as a piece of the larger puzzle.

The variance for what a game can say is not something I’m ready to argue against, but it is something I will acknowledge at the very least. There’s room for games to exist as they are now, as they were ten years ago, and where they'll be at in ten years. I’m just abrasively knocking things down to make room for where they can go next. A key component for that expansion is contingent on how players perceive the worth of a videogame for themselves. When we’re truly willing to move beyond fun, things will evolve significantly. Whether it’s immersion, engagement, or whatever other term you need to help validate the transition, the fact remains that beyond fun lies meaning.

For an entertainment platform so innovative and universally appealing, we seem almost determined to undermine its strengths in the most creative ways (e.g. the tired console wars that still exist). Is the barrier for moving forward impenetrable (I don’t buy that it’s inevitable) or is that just more feral cynicism on my part? I don’t think we should be so against a sort of teenage generation of games; intolerable young adults that are overly angry at the world, of which the only solace provided is their potential as adults. Games need to be far more angry, sad, and downright ‘horrible’ to survive now; willing to upset people as long as a message is there to be heard. At this point however, it’s even debatable on the amount of confidence most titles are even possible of possessing. Does the stance of a game simply being a product invalidate my entire argument here? Perhaps time will answer that. Either way, I don't think I'll have to worry about shutting up for a long...long...long time.