Game Idea #46

After some time, I’ve come up with a new game idea. This time it is an experimental game about perspective… here it comes:

Game Idea #46

Cubism

This multiplayer online game starts by presenting an object or human according to rules of classic perspective. However, as more players join the game, the number of vantage points multiplies and starts to “deform” the object/human that the individual player sees. Stylewise, the object/human starts to turn into some sort of cubist painting. As players navigate around the object/human, the changes in the vantage points are reflected onto the representation of both object/human and environment, which turns gameplay into the shaping of an interactive cubist sculpture-world that morphs in real-time.

The game has two experimental goals: On one hand, it is a technological experiment, challenging the capacities of current game engines and graphics programmers; on the other hand it is an experiment on reception, challenging the ways in which players “view” 3D representations, and their notion of interaction.

Interaction and Time

[This article has also been published on gamasutra.]

Discourse Time and Objective Time

Player input is not part of a game’s ongoing discourse until it has been processed and given back through audio-visual or tactile output. In that sense, a player is bound to the narration of his own actions by the game discourse. Only when his decisions are given back to him  can he articulate these, and make sense of them in the context of the rest of the game universe that is being narrated to him.

Based on this understanding of the relation between the player’s activity and the game’s discourse, we may distinguish between two concurrent time frames during gameplay:

1) On one hand, we have the discourse time of the game, that is, the pace and order in which the game narrates the events that take place in the game world.

2) On the other hand, we have the player, living in the objective time of the real world, whose input, unless processed and given back, is not part of this ongoing game discourse. 

These two time frames are mediated through the video game medium: Input and output devices, “throughput”, memory, processors etc.

Putting Time Frames Against Each Other

In terms of perception, interpretation and reaction to screen events, players are subject to the pace of the discourse.

Games with increasing speed in the narration of events are an example in which designers put the discourse time of the game against the objective time of players. At some point the player will simply not be able to cope anymore with the speed in which the discourse narrates the events, and the player will have difficulties to respond to the narrated feedback of the choices he makes in his own objective time: the blocks in Tetris, or the chain of balls in Zuma will move to quick to cope with.

Such games are designed so that they arrive at a point at which the illusion of real-time starts to get distorted due to the impossibility of synchronization between the actions of the player in objective time, and the representation of events in discourse time. But the distortion will set in in small portions, hence being unnoticed for large parts of the game, and reach its peak just short before defeat, which, due to the immersion that has been achieved already, will feel like a climax to the action, and not the extreme incompatibility between the two time frames, that it actually has become.

Sometimes Time is On Our Side

While in a lot of arcade games designers prefer to put time frames againts each other, in many other games, designers allow the players to adjust the discourse time to their pace in objective time.

In games like The Sims, Railroad Tycoon or Sim City, we may slow down the pace of the discourse to a level that we feel is convenient to carry out our actions without feeling we miss out something from the ongoing discourse, or we are even allowed to bring all events, except our own actions as players, to a halt. In such a state of halt, the discourse would only narrate the player’s actions, and the rest of the game world would stand still.

On the other hand, the same type of games allow us to increase the pace of the discourse in order to quickly go through sequences of the game that we believe do not require any of our modifications: When all family members are put to bed, The Sims goes over to high speed mode, until one of the familiy members wakes up, or until we feel the need to modify something. In Railroad Tycoon it happens that during a recession there is nothing else to do than to wait until the economy gets back on track, so we just can “skip” this part in high speed, until we have enough funds to start carrying out operations again.

The Virtues of Delay

Whereas many games stick with a “real-time” representation of player input, we observe that even games that care to maintain this illusion, make effective use of delay. For example in The Sims, the orders we give to in-game characters under our control, are not carried out immediately, and it is often the case that due to orders given in quick succession, we will create a pipeline of these. In other words, my order to prepare breakfast  may started to be carried out by the in-game character minutes after I’ve given it, or I may cancel it before it is being carried out. Combined with the pace of the ongoing discourse about the actual events that take place in the household, this strategy of delay, creates grounds for interesting gameplay, forcing the player to constantly review previous decisions in the light of the actual situation. The game, again, puts effectively against each other the events that have been carried out in two different time frames.

Another very successful example, with much more implications in regard to the relation between the players objective time, discourse time and delay is Braid. Just like in The Sims, previous decisions become the subject of actual gameplay, but the depth of the re-writing of previous decisions growing immensely.

Conclusion: Beyond the Interaction Paradigm

The dominant convention in the game industry is to use the medium’s capacities in order to create a number of illusions: The illusion of immediacy, the illusion of agency, the illusion of real-time gameplay, the illusion of interaction. In other words: most games will be designed in a way that fosters the feeling that our actions as players happen here and now, that our use of controllers and interfaces in objective time feels identical to their audio-visual and tactile representations in the ongoing game discourse, that as players we forget that mediation takes places, and that we can immerse ourselves into the game with the help of all these.

In our current understanding about games, the word interaction stands for this type of experience.

However, I tried to show that there is more to it than just here and now. Thinking beyond the interaction paradigm that earns us game developers our daily bread may allow us to discover more about the possibilities of the video game medium.

Top 5 Member blogs @ Gamasutra

I’m happy that my latest blog on Gamasutra made into the top 5 list of standout member blogs of the week!

I wrote about Games That Can’t Be Won, and you can check out the other standout blogs of the week here.

Narrative Design and Audio-Visual Style in Games

These are the slides of a lecture on narrative design and audio-visual style that I presented last year in December at the METU Informatics Institute Game Aestethics course. I hope you enjoy it!

Anempathetic Game Design

Using games to raise critical awareness is an issue that finds more and more interest among scholars and game designers. Using games in a radically different way was an idea that has been also discussed during the ludology-narratology debate, in particular by Gonzalo Frasca.  Frasca would later develop a group of games that felt quite different from “conventional” games, among them September 12.  Ian Bogost was another designer and scholar going into this direction, and together with Frasca they were influential in creating Newsgaming as a form of critical play. Ever since we have seen games that have been radically different in their content and form when compared to mainstream games. And finally, in 2009, Mary Flanagan devoted a whole book on the matter, outlining the various perspectives that are out there and pointing at the possibilities in using games to raise critical social awareness.

In this article I want to explore whether we can borrow a term from audio-visual analyses in order to enrich the conceptual basis of critical play and radical game design. The term that I want to have a look at is anempathy.

Empathetic and Anempathetic

In his book Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, french film critic and composer Michel Chion (1994) makes a distinction between two types of musical score in the cinema: Empathetic and anempathetic.

Empathetic Music

In Chion’s words, “music can directly express its participation in the feeling of the scene, by taking on the scene’s rhythm, tone, and phrasing; obviously such music participates in cultural codes for things like sadness, happiness, and movement. In this case we can speak of empathetic music, from the word empathy, the ability to feel the feelings of others.” (1994: 8) This is music “whose mode matches with the mood or rhythm of the action onscreen.” (1994: 222)

 
Anempathetic Music

On the other hand“, continues Chion, “music can also exhibit conspicous indifference to the situation, by progressing in a steady, undaunted, and ineluctable manner: the scene takes place against this very backdrop of ‘indifference’.” However, “this juxtaposition of scene with indifferent music has the effect of not freezing emotion but rather of intensifying it, by inscribing it on a cosmic background. I call this second kind of music anempathetic (with the privative a-). […] the frivolity and naivete reinforce the individual emotion of the character and the spectator, even as [this] music pretends not to notice it.” (1994: 8) This is sound “that seems to exhibit conspicous indifference to what is going on in the plot, creating a strong sense of the tragic.” (1994: 221)

The question I ask at this point is whether we cannot speak of rule design that functions in this way, i.e is it possible to speak of empathetic or anempathetic game rules and systems?

Empathetic and Anempathetic Game Design

I  call empathetic those games whose rule designs and systems are geared towards participation into established cultural codes rather than challenging these codes in a radical way. These are designs that frame their subject within “common-sense” categories. Such designs would be often culturally one-sided (or even biased), appealing to the sentiment of ‘mainstream’ lifestyles in their way of abstracting and representing the simulations of their worlds. And in quite some cases they would be built around concepts and values borrowed from reactionary rhethoric.

On the other hand, in anempathetic games we’d see the intention of breaking interpretative practices based on common-sense by using figurative devices in the form of game mechanics that exhibit a conspicous indifference against the ongoing plot, thereby not freezing our emotions, but rather intensifying them, which creates a strong sense of the tragic. We are forced into a different perspective which creates a rupture in common-sense. The position we took as a subject and felt ‘natural’ to us before we started to play the games, is suddenly exposed to ourselves: our initial inner stance feels awkward now, its ‘normality’ can no longer be maintained. We are forced to think differently, and if we should give up, we are faced with our own insincerity: we don’t want to think outside of the box. These are games that remind one of her conscience.

Conclusion

Command & Conquer: Generals – Iraq is empathetic; September 12 is anemphatetic.

New Article on Pacing and Rhythm in Games

I’ve put up a new article on pacing and rhythm in games. The article is titled Tense and Tension in Games.

I hope you’ll like it. Don’t forget to leave your comment!

This is not a bite

Belgian painter René Magritte is known for his paintings which are questioning the relationship between images, language and reality. One of his most famous paintings in that regard is often known as Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe, or “This is not a pipe”.

The Betrayal of Images - Rene Magritte (1953)

The Betrayal of Images - Rene Magritte (1953)

This painting became the basis for a book which was published in 1973 by french philosopher Michel Foucault. The book carried the title “This is not a pipe”. But this wasn’t the first time that Foucault referred to Magritte. One of Foucault’s most famous books carried the name Les Mots et les Choses  (meaning ‘Words and Things’, but the book is known in the english speaking world as “The Order of Things”). This was also the name of one of Rene Magritte’s former exhibitions in New York.

To depict is not to put something forward, says the header of the final chapter of the book. “A day will come”, says Foucault in the last sentence, “and the endlessly repeating image, together with the name it carries, will lose its identity. Campbell, Campbell, Campbell, Campbell.”

What is it that makes me think so much about play in this?

Bite, bite, bite, bite.