Monday 29 May 2017

On What Games Are

My brother asked me a very interesting question last time I came to visit. He’s an author, and we were talking about why we do what we do.

“If you had to pick two games to demonstrate - to someone who’d never seen video games before - what games are to you, what would they be?”

Originally he asked me to do it in one game, but I couldn't describe the entire medium in one example. Trying to do it in two was much more interesting. You can't describe an entire medium in two examples, but the process of trying to do so is very telling about your perspective as a developer.

I’m going to talk about the two games I chose, but this piece is only partly about the games and why I chose them. It’s also about why the question is interesting in the first place. Eventually it’s a question about Ian Bogost and whether or not games can tell stories.

But I digress.

After a bit of deliberation I settled on Tetris and Wii Sports Tennis. That is, specifically the tennis mini-game within Wii Sports on the Nintendo Wii. My explanation is as follows:


Tetris is a game built up of systems, and the game wears these on its sleeve. Blocks fall step by step over time. They can be rotated and slotted together. It’s got a blank-slate start state, a very obvious end state, and between this start and end the systems look after themselves. That is, Tetris shows mechanics in action because there is nothing going on in Tetris that isn’t presented as-is at the start of the game.

It’s what arises as a consequence of these very obvious systems that makes the game exciting.

Tetris is a game where the player is given a task and simply asked to do it. What excites me about Tetris is why the player would want to take part in this block-stacking task that should, at first glance, be mundane and mechanical.

The emotional driver to keep on playing is the screen that will never quite stay clean. As you play the game board gets messy. Gaps between the blocks immortalise every mistake and every compromise you have made. You know how to clean up the gaps. You want to clean up your errors. But in your attempts to do so you make new mistakes and new compromises, always leaving gaps that need more cleaning up.

Tetris gives you a reason to care. It’s cold and mechanical and made entirely out of computer logic systems. Yet you care about that task because of the emotional desire created by those very same systems.

Wii Sports Tennis

Wii Sports Tennis lies at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is a game that makes sense not because its systems present themselves to you but because you already know what tennis is.

It is full of colour and sound and characters and animations which hide what its systems are actually doing. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s going on under the hood. There is only the vaguest connection between your arm motions and how they are interpreted by the game.

There is arguably little skill involved. You cannot master the perfect shot. But neither do you need to. That’s not what the game is about.

Wii Sports Tennis works because of make-believe. Sure, you can sit in an armchair and aimlessly flail your WiiMote from side to side, but you lose the joy of the experience. Wii Sports Tennis works because you get into the spirit of it. It works because you pretend that you’re a real tennis-player, with a real tennis racquet, and even though it’s immediately obvious that neither of these things are true you get into it anyway.

The fact that it takes all its visual cues from televised pro-level tennis and makes them into a colourful cartoon mirrors the disconnect between a real tennis racquet and a WiiMote. It prompts the player not worry that it is not the real thing, and instead embrace the whimsy and comedy of playing make-believe with friends.

It is a game which stokes the imagination, which provides an excuse to perform and express oneself. In doing so it asks you the player to co-operate, to give it some slack not being the real thing. The game asks you to be actively involved in making the illusion work.

Wii Sports Tennis is a tool for joyous, expressive experiences, but it only works because the players invest themselves into it. It is the job of the game developer to use audio, visuals, hardware and theme to make players want to pitch in.

So why does this matter?

Two games, two sides of a spectrum. One mechanical and one hand-wavy. One game that provides you its entire experience up-front, one the game that gives you a prompt and asks you to fill in the gaps. One game that is about winning, like we do in sport, one a game that is about make-believe, like we do as children.

There were so many aspects of video games I didn’t cover with these two games. I didn’t talk about meaningful decisions, or interlocking mechanics, or systems versus narrative. I didn’t talk about the difference between single-player and multiplayer, even though I picked games that crossed that divide. They weren't the concepts I would be excited to convey to an outsider.

That’s part of what makes my brother's question interesting. You can’t pick every single game so you have to choose the games that feel like they span that gap the best they can. You’re forced to neglect certain areas of the medium. At the same time, you choose a select few axes of differentiation. These reflect the concepts in game design that you are excited to explore.

For me the big concept I wanted to demonstrate about games was about answering the question “why should I care?” I chose one where the motivation to care came entirely from the game as a digital artefact. I chose another where the motivation to care came from the world outside the screen.

"Why should I care?" is a question I’ve been trying to answer during my whole time in the games industry. How do I make iPhone owners care about another colour-matching puzzler? How do I make people desire to fight each other over a touchscreen? Why would someone remain emotionally invested in a codebreaking challenge that, at first glance, looks like a novelty?

My best answers to that question have, so far, been about what the player as an individual brings to the table. This is what Wii Sports Tennis demonstrates in stark contrast to Tetris - as if Tetris is the default, and Wii Sports Tennis is the subversive twist that shows what games could become.

Obviously, given the nature of much of my work, individual expression is a big thing for me. I’ve long been making games where I get players to make the experience their own, be it through cheating, open-ended puzzles, improvisation, or performing. And while local mutliplayer has always been a big part of my work, “local multiplayer” has never been a question I’ve been trying to solve. I've always seen it as just a great tool for enabling player expression.

These are the issues that matter to me. They are the issues that excite me and the ones I want to express to someone else if they need to know what this medium means to me as a creator. Well, they’re the ones that excite me right now anyway.

Time, Place and Narrative

I know my two games would have been different five years ago because I was a different game designer. I would hope that my answers will still be different five years from now, as I always want to be inspired by new experiences and to ask new questions.

What we care about and why we care is linked to who we are right now. It is a fragment of ourselves stuck in a moment of time, and for each of us it is different. I posed the same question to my game developer friends on Facebook, and no two developers covered the same games or the same ideas.

At the start of this piece I said I was going to talk about Ian Bogost. For those of you who don’t know of the article written by the veteran designer, the brief version is that he believes that game developers should stop trying to tell stories. The article’s been doing the rounds and has attracted disapproval from numerous figures across the world of game development. The medium is, according to Bogost, yet to produce a complex and mature narrative work and the medium at large would be better to focus on the unique features of games as a medium - of systems and interaction. This, he argues, is the unique opportunity that the games medium provides.

What Games Are, he says, is "the aesthetic form of everyday objects."

Personally, I feel like Bogost is largely right about how the medium has evolved, and how the predominant forms of storytelling in games have eschewed interactivity for traditional media. He neglects to consider examples such as Telltale's The Walking Dead, where the magic of the storytelling is that it directly confronts the player with questions.

But most of all I see no reason we cannot make great work that takes lessons from the novel and the movie and uses them directly in a new medium. Why not? It’s like saying games can't draw directly from theatre. It doesn’t matter what media we use to get there, as long as the end product is meaningful to us.

Why should What Games Are be the aesthetic form of everyday objects? Why can't What Games Are be a way of people connecting, or a way of experiencing a story from the inside?

I would challenge Bogost to say that games are not "the aesthetic form of everyday objects," but in fact that this view is what excites him about the medium. I would challenge his detractors not to see his article as a dismissal of their work but as a prompt to prove him wrong: why are you really excited by games as a narrative medium? Why does it matter to you, as a creator, if games tell stories, how games tell stories, and why games tell stories? Those are genuinely important questions to ask.

I would challenge everyone that claiming What Games Are is a source of pointless arguments, but exploring What Games Are To You is a source of inspiration and creative development.

What Games Are To You

Some creators believe that narrative is super-duper exciting. Of them, some think games are an exciting new narrative medium ripe with opportunity. Conversely, some think games just are not good enough at doing narrative yet and need to rethink their processes.

Some creators believe that systems are super-duper exciting. Among them, there’s creators who feel that narrative should not be used at the expense of systems. There are also those who think that the really worthwhile stories are those generated by the systems themselves.

There’s also creators like myself. Personally, I’m super-duper excited by play as a sensory/emotional experience. I see the power of both narrative and systems as tools for prompting people to create the real experience for themselves.

All these viewpoints are correct. None of them are higher than the others.

There is no right or wrong in creating games, or in striving to make something special in any medium. There really is room for everything. There is nothing to be gained by arguing about what games should not be.

Everyone has a unique pair of games that tell the story of What Games Are To Them. 

So be proud and excited about that which excites you. You are a wonderful snowflake and so is everyone else!

At the same time, there is no benefit in dismissing that which excites other people. If you stop to see things from their perspective you may find yourself excited by the very same ideas.