Sunday, December 29, 2013

Specificity and Privacy

The expression "there is nothing new under the sun" is so old, it's from the Bible. It's something I happen to believe; the expression I mean. Having worked on games for a number of years now I'm surprised-but-not-really how often the Quest for Originality rears its head in everything from design discussions to publisher evaluations to marketing meetings and so on. I think this quest is as pointless as Don Quixote's tilting at windmills.

Here is a formula for originality: To make something original,
1) Choose a concept at random.
2) Repeat step 1 and mix, or stop.

That's it. Try it! as a fun thought experiment almost guaranteeing a "not been done before" result, fast. Puzzle game about a love triangle between triangles? Shooter about extraterrestrial dolphins harpooning humans? Why not? Original ideas are as easy as Mad Libs, and like Mad Libs they can be funny. But like anything that can be reduced to a formula (not even chemicals, as Breaking Bad attests), this type of originality feels cheap. It is original in the negative sense -- gimmicky, novel for its own sake, contrived, and so on.

I think when we speak of originality what we're really searching for, what we really want, is specificity. Specificity is a form of depth, and all games want depth. Specificity is depth of subject matter. A game that explores a particular subject in detail comes across as original in the positive sense. Rich, imaginative, a labor of love, and so on.

* * *
Specificity is inherently challenging because it means you have to explore a topic to a level of detail that is not obvious, and it's difficult to know more about a topic than anybody else.

I just finished reading Journey to the Centre of the Earth to one of my kids and was struck by the specificity of the story. Towns and mountains in Iceland, ancient scientists, types of rocks and minerals, all named and described in detail, lending the book an air of authority as well as its distinct tone. The science may be total nonsense, but you wouldn't know it just from reading, and it doesn't even matter either way because it's a work of fiction. Unless you're Neil deGrass Tyson or whatever you're probably not going to have trouble suspending your disbelief as you read, because the specificity of the work is thorough and convincing.

I think this year's critically acclaimed Gone Home is successful in a similar way, by telling a specific story in a specific time and place. The details are well-grounded, giving the game a sense of richness, and making the environment feel convincing. If you played it I bet you spent a while scanning the VHS tape library as I did. Specific names of things are so valuable! Everything needs a name and a little story. Gone Home is arguably not an original game in the conventional sense, in that the core play experience -- everything from the setting (an old house) to what you do in the game (walk around examining things from a first-person viewpoint) are not out of the ordinary. However, the degree to which the game is invested in its specific ideas is unusual, so even though there are dozens of first-person games with terrific exploration sequences, Gone Home is one of very few where that is the entire focus.

To give a real-world example, an old friend of mine knows in intricate detail the history and all the routes of the MUNI bus system in San Francisco. It's a set of knowledge that seems very bland on the surface but I envy it because it's so specific. If Teddy made games he could probably make an amazing game about managing a municipal bus system (he and I played tons of SimCity and Aerobiz back in the day, besides). A game about managing a municipal bus system sounds pretty awful at face value, but then, so does a game about being a customs officer stamping passports, and yet Papers, Please was one of the best, most interesting games of this past year.

Games made by fewer people I think can have a higher chance of being more specific because there are fewer people on the team to challenge the specificity, to rationalize it out of existence. I'm talking about the little things like Journey to the Centre of the Earth's Icelandic locales. What if the reader doesn't know how to pronounce Snæfellsjökull...? Jules Verne decided to give his reader the benefit of the doubt on dealing with that one. But on larger teams, or teams of any size where this there's creative conflict, there's always going to be the temptation to omit, to compromise, to concede, when it comes to the specific details, to file down all those sharp edges. This may be better for a smooth and pleasant development process but it may be worse for the sake of the game's specificity, and therefore for the sake of the game.

Specificity typically requires research, the more the better (and preferably not limited to Wikipedia because everyone uses Wikipedia). The research can be of a real-world subject or in service of a fictional one. Game of Thrones is a work of fantasy fiction, but its level of detail, from superficial things like clothes and food to subdermal things like character motivations, makes it feel fresh and distinct. It takes place in its own made-up world yet it feels very well researched.

The only other good source of specificity is personal experience. To me the emphasis here is on the personal, or in other words, the private. There are some rare cases like the game Papo and Yo, in which a team can rally around one individual's personal experience and make an interesting game about it. But I also think some of the most interesting aspects of personal experience are unrelatable and truly private, and that this is often why art gets made. If I were to just tell you about the most meaningful experiences of my life, or if I tried to make a game unambiguously and autobiographically about it, it would be the worst, just the most banal cliché bullshit, and you would rightfully think less of me as a person for it. My personal experience is not more significant than yours, and does not warrant sharing.

At the same time, that personal experience is all I have. I remember moments from it constantly despite having almost never documented them and almost never told any of them to anyone including my closest family, friends, and colleagues. I channel those moments in the games I work on, channel them so much and so consciously like you wouldn't believe, and you'd never know it because none of the games I've ever worked on seem to have anything to do with me. The key for me is that I keep it to myself. The only way I can make my work personal is to keep private what's personal about it. We relinquish so much privacy these days that I think there is a sense of strength to be gained from consciously holding onto some, only ever hinting at it. Put another way, the less you know about me, the more interesting I am, the more interesting my stories. This of course is not true of everyone. There is no formula, and this is not advice.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Stitching Process

Wouldn't it be nice if all games formed around some strong, clear, inspired thematic core -- a Vision, with a capital V! -- and the great ideas kept sprouting from that seed. I think there's a misconception among some game players that games are made this way. I think they rarely are, not even the good ones.

Game development feels more to me like an archeological dig where all you've got to go on is a hunch. You start digging and maybe you find something, but you probably won't, not at first. You start to second-guess what it is you're even looking for. Maybe you find something exciting along the way, but it's only exciting to you, and you're part of a team looking for something else. Maybe you're hell bent on finding this one specific thing to the detriment of other valuable discoveries along the way. In time, what you find down there probably isn't as perfect as the image you had in your head, but it's something.

Games, I think, are often put together from a bunch of dusty old pieces, not all of which fit. You probably find too many pieces in your search. Apart from all the skill and craft involved in unearthing the pieces without ruining them, there is art in identifying which pieces are the ones that can form a whole, and in connecting them with care.

Part of the reason an archaeological analogy works for me is I don't believe in new ideas. Everything has been done, done well, better than I (at least) could ever do it. Thankfully, though, memories are short and tastes change with time. Synthesize some good old ideas at the right time and people call you original. The paradox is that in uncovering old things, you discover new things.

When I work on a game I always think I know what I'm looking for. Accepting that what I'm looking for may not be the right thing, may not be what we find, may not even be what we end up looking for, is a nonstop process.

In time, if you're lucky, you get to the point where you've unearthed most of the pieces and what remains is putting them together. Finally, you're getting somewhere. The work is cut out and just needs to get done. But it's here, relatively late in development, when some of the most important creative decisions get made, through synthesis, through omission, and through connection.

To convolute my archeological analogy: You're not just unearthing something, you're not just piecing it together. You're bringing it to life. It's a Frankenstein's Monster type of process. So then, once the pieces are splayed out, there's still a need for some good stitching to tie it all together into something recognizable as a distinct entity, preferably one that isn't an abomination but rather something that seems like it ought to belong in this world.

I find that writing provides one of the lowest-cost, highest-efficiency forms of stitching together disparate game elements.

In a simple mathematical model, you can form a line between any two points in space. In real-world situations, writing I think is the key to linking any two otherwise-unrelated things. I practiced this in college. Taking English lit classes, I faced the same challenge as every other student: What could I possibly say about this book that my professor (rather, the teacher's assistant) hadn't heard before a thousand times? A solution I eventually discovered consists of three steps:

  1. Open assigned reading to one page at random, and note the first passage that catches your eye.
  2. Open assigned reading to another page at random, and note the next such passage.
  3. Write essay arguing there exists a meaningful connection between those two passages.

I tried this several times as an experiment when I was concerned that I had no original ideas about what to write. I felt cynical and like a total hack when I did it, all the more so when the work inevitably yielded better grades than essays I put a lot more thought and effort into. But then I thought about it more.

Meaning does not inherently exist. Meaning is manufactured, produced, contrived, any number of ugly words. There are nicer words. Meaning is felt, experienced, inferred. But deep down at the heart of it that shit is made up. Fiction. Narrative. In the case of media, the meaning of a work may initially be created by the author, but in the end it is shaped by the audience. As audiences, we have a strong capacity to sense when a work is cohesive and when a meaning can be found in it, and we like to experience that discovery through passive participation in the work if not through active exploration. Our brains do their pattern-matching thing and we take pleasure from finding hidden connections, from realizing the greater scheme of the work, the grander more intricate design. Meaningful work is impressive work.

So to tie this back to game development: To me it is often not sufficient for a game mechanic to be fun or interesting in itself. It needs to be meaningful somehow -- I want to be able to find meaning in it, to connect it to some aspect of my own life experience (or someone else's), to see why it exists as an abstraction of some deeper truth, and to really understand why it's part of the game I'm playing. And so, when dealing with a bunch of disparate mechanics or ideas, all of which are no doubt cool yet not all of which are cohesively connected or inherently meaningful, I believe there's still a chance to integrate them meaningfully -- to stitch them together -- using words, if only as a starting point.

To give you an example from Bastion, that game has a system called the Shrine, in which you can modify the game difficulty to suit your preference. This system was not the Shrine until rather late in development (for a long time it was the Bestiary) but the underlying idea was always that we wanted a difficulty system that didn't put a blind choice before the player at the start of the game, and instead let you tune the game's challenge in a granular way, beyond the opaque and judgmental easy/normal/hard choice given by many games. So, after much wracking of minds, from a writing perspective we found that a promising angle on it was to structure it around religion. After all, the difficulty effects were global, somewhat magical, and somewhat strange. To engage with our difficulty system was to test one's faith in one's abilities, so a religious metaphor just made sense. What's more, it served to deepen an aspect of the world's backstory (involving a cultural dispute between neighboring nations), which in turn deepened the plot.

I think everyone on the team was happy with how this system came together, and it's one of the best specific examples we have to show for when our collaborative process goes well. More personally, I like what the Shrine system did for the game, and not just mechanically. I like how we were able to make it fit. And I appreciate that, if not for the Shrine system, Bastion would not have broached the subject of religion at all, which I know was a meaningful part of the game for some people (at least some of whom have written to me or talked to me about it). The desire to include a difficulty system created an opportunity to instill meaning into the system, by stitching it onto the rest of the game.

* * *

You're probably familiar with the term "to retcon". It's a pejorative term, frowned on by audiences, referring to the act of retroactively creating continuity where none existed. We see retconning as a sort of public embarrassment, a collapse of the fourth fall, as with the infamous midichlorians example from the Star Wars prequel. However, much like how I came to accept that my college English tactics were effective, I've come to accept retconning as an important part of game development. As much as I'd love for all meaning in a work to flourish from some pure and artful place, from some never-changing point of origin, I'll take it where I can get it. That means always searching for opportunities to create continuity where none exists, or strengthen continuity where a hint of it is detected if only by coincidence.

Ideally all this is done behind a curtain, so that when the finished work is presented, it feels like it has Vision. There is no hint of retconning from the audience's point of view, and indeed, no retconning could have possibly occurred with Vision such as this! So, I'm all about retconning, because I want everything to fit and that's only possible once all the pieces are there, late in development. Retconning is a way of executing on ideas, and early on in a project when all you have are ideas, they can be more frustrating than anything else. All throughout development I like looking for those vestigial little pieces of game, whether it's a conspicuous art asset or a design contrivance or a limitation of the engine or a story trope or anything really, and I'll try to connect them to the game's center of gravity, so that in the end, the finished work gives the impression that it knew what it wanted to be all along.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Discovery and Mastery

It's been more than a year since I posted here. Here are some of the reasons:
- I was busy
- I was lazy
- I was between projects
- I was playing a lot of Dota 2 in my spare time (see above)
- The more time went by the more I felt I needed to say something profound if I posted again

Two things have changed:
- I'm playing less Dota 2 as too many other games need playing
- My guilt at neglecting this space superseded the imperative to say something profound

So here we are.

Exposition is something I feel I've talked about a lot because, if you look past its colloquial definition as "the part of a story where plot details are explained", it's a lens through which you can look at the entire start-to-finish structure of a game.

Exposition is a tool used for reconciling the mechanical, systemic, and narrative components of a game, as it's the method through which these components may be sequenced in some interesting, appropriate fashion for the player.

When used properly, exposition creates motivation in the player. Interesting details expose themselves, raising questions about other interesting details, creating for the player an unspoken promise that the revelations will continue. One way of looking at the game designer's responsibility is, he or she must extend this expository sequence for as long as appropriate and no longer. The result is a game that is engaging from start to finish and leaves the player with a sense of satisfaction at the end.

All games are played to the point at which the player loses interest. An ending is just an invitation for the player to lose interest at what's likely an appropriate time.

Not all games need to be finite and it seems to me the vast majority are not. If a game is to be endless for some reason then I think it's important for the player's sense of mastery over the game to also feel unreachable. If it could be measured over time, mastery ought to look like the geometric concept of an asymptote – it should be possible to approach mastery, but never quite reach it. The reason I played Dota 2 all last year, the reason I played fighting games for years and years, is because they do this.

Mastery is not the goal of all games. Some games are experiential, contemplative. They don't offer challenge in a traditional sense. I admire games that do this well, such as the recently released Proteus or last year's Journey. These games tend to focus on creating a sense of discovery. In the absence of mechanical complexity or challenges, they need to compel the player through some other thing, through discovering the limits of the world or discovering interesting intersections between different game systems. Even The Walking Dead is a form of this – it's about the emotional experience of making difficult moral decisions and moving forward with the consequences of those decisions.

So then: either a game compels its player to fully master it, or fully discover it, or possibly both. My absolute favorite games, and the kinds of games I want to work on, do both.

From a certain point of view the terms are somewhat interchangeable. When I feel as though I've seen everything there is to see in Proteus, it could be said that I've "mastered" the game. When I feel I've reached the limits of my reflexes and mental capacity playing Dota 2, when I think I know all there is to know about it even though I may be wrong, I think I've "discovered" everything there is to discover about Dota 2.

That said, I think "mastery" tends to be applied to mechanical and goal-oriented aspects of play, to competitive games or games with goals and challenges, while "discovery" tends to be applied to experiential, narrative aspects. Going forward I will use these terms to denote these respective meanings.

I think it's fair to think that if a player fully masters a game before it's finished then the player is more likely to get bored and quit if that mastery occurs before the game has ended, if it has an ending.

A player may also quit early if the gap between overcoming the challenges at stake exceeds his or her curiosity at what lies beyond those challenges.

In such cases there is no real exposition left in the mechanics or systems. The player "gets it" and there's nothing left to learn. Maybe the game should have ended before the player reached this point, or more likely, the mechanics and systems themselves were underdeveloped in some way or the game wasn't tuned appropriately and the player was unable to find sufficient challenge there.

I think depth is secretly desired by everyone who plays games no matter their interest level, because depth and engagement are very closely linked.

Say a player has become bored of a game's mechanics and systems, having seen all there is to see, or at least believing this to be the case. One way the player may remain engaged in spite of this failure on the game's part is through the narrative. To me this is the main reason narrative belongs in games, as a sort of safety net for the gameplay, because it's very difficult for gameplay to be perfectly tuned and engaging for all players at all times. When the gameplay falters at its job, the narrative can be there to compel the player onward: "Well I just want to see what happens next."

The narrative of course also can fail, just as easily and just as hard as the gameplay.

This is why thinking of a game's structure as a single expository track I think is useful. Concepts of all kinds can be separated and ordered, ensuring that something interesting continually happens on some recurring yet slightly unpredictable interval. Applied properly, this method can be used to create a strong sense of discovery from start to finish and leave the player satisfied yet wanting more, because the experience was a good one. Dark Souls and its predecessor Demon's Souls are good examples of this. Those games are one big enigma, maddening intricate puzzles begging to be cracked.

Exposition is its own worst enemy. The stigma that comes with the term comes from how often exposition is abused. Exposition can be abused in mechanics, systems, and narrative. Often this abuse occurs as the consequence of didactic design or on-the-nose writing.

When a game explicitly tries to teach you everything about how to play it, through forced or heavy-handed tutorials and other interruptions, it is denying you the opportunity to discover what's interesting about the play experience on your own. Ever play a game and think "just let me play" when it's all cutscenes and pop-ups reiterating over and over? The game is being condescending to you and wasting your time. It's a disappointing feeling.

It would be nice if all games were fully discoverable. At least when it comes to today's console and PC games and their dozens of possible inputs, that simply isn't possible sometimes, and some amount of teaching is necessary. Following the rules of appropriate exposition, the best way to teach is to teach as quickly and concisely as possible, and teach only those things fundamental to the player's ability to make progress, at the time when those things must be understood. No sooner, no later. Getting this right is hard.

Knowing that teaching and discovery stand in direct opposition, and that discovery is a much more desirable sensation than "being taught something", can be useful as a means of forcing yourself to reduce teaching to an absolute minimum and leave as much as possible to the player.

The last point I want to make here is that when you think of exposition holistically, as the player's path through the entire experience, then you discover opportunities for using exposition in interesting, unconventional ways.

Maybe when there's a bit of necessary teaching to be done, you figure out a way to give it narrative context, as with World of Goo's excellent Sign Painter signs – tutorials written from the perspective of a mysterious character.

Maybe there's a really interesting but advanced play mechanic you're dying for the player to know about. Rather than just spell it out in a forced tutorial where the mechanic is plainly shown but can't really be appreciated, maybe you can provide more situations in which that mechanic stands a chance of being discovered naturally, thus providing the player the satisfaction of having figured it out.

We live in a time when achieving a sense of discovery or mastery seems virtually impossible. Our personal accomplishments are inconsequential in comparison to those of many other people who have worked much harder for much longer to achieve similar things a long time ago. Our discovery of things is often coupled with a sense of ignorance at having not discovered them sooner. The best some people can hope for in these regards is writing "first" on a comment thread on a news story on the Internet – that's the modern-day equivalent of a frontier. As such, I and many others look to games to provide us with some of these feelings. Games might as well do the job.