A podcast with some background details…

Back during the press tour, Michael Abbott invited me to come onto the Brainy Gamer Podcast, and the resulting episode is now live. It's got some inside-baseball stuff that hasn't been talked about in the press coverage. So that's something. See also the previous episodes with Manveer Heir and Matthew Burns.


  1. On the matter of “art games”: I don’t like the term at all. Actually, I don’t like the idea at all.

    On the most basic level, what does an “art game” do differently from a non-“art game” that makes it artistic? Or to phrase it differently: What does a non-“art game” do so wrong that it can’t be considered an art game?

    Does an art game somehow try to portray a certain message or philosophy where “normal” games do not? And what does that mean? Are there some kinds of unique emotions which only get evoked by art games? Can art games claim exclusivity on trying to get emotional reactions from the player? Or what is it? I dare to say all of that is bullshit.

    Even games which are made purely for entertainment usually strive for something to get across to the player, even if it’s just a message encoded in emotions like joy, anger, or fear. Or are a bunch of philosophical texts or ideas somehow worth more “artistic $” than an emotion?

    Or maybe it is the “fact” that typical “art games” usually do something in a new way, or at least with an unconventional twist on old gameplay or old ideas? Then why call them “art games” instead of “experimental games”?

    I guess I just think that the term “art game” is a somewhat derogatory term towards “normal” games, or even a kind of eccentric term for people who are full of it (no offense to anyone who might read this), which is an idea that doesn’t sit well in my mind.

    • Well, I can’t agree with any of this, as I do feel kind of derogatorily toward most “normal” games. I do not like them enough to want to play them, for example! Part of this is probably an age/experience thing. Once I got older than about age 32, I just wasn’t interested in the things most games do, any more. I don’t think I am an exceptional case.

      • I understand that – I have no interest in playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare42 either, but does that mean for you that those games are not an art of some form? Even if all they do is give you some cheap thrills.

        I think most artists do the same: They have some medium (paintings, music, literature, film, games etc.) and try to get something across to whomever might experience their work; An emotion, a range of ideas, a line of thought, or whatever. Including the guys behind the two Call of Duty studios, at least the ones who actually make the game as opposed to the guys at the top who insist on pushing out one of these games once a year because it increases the weight of their wallets.

        I think that this process is what makes whatever comes out of it art. To make the audience see something that you see, or feel something that you want them to feel. It doesn’t have to be good art that appeals to anyone (who knows how many objectively bland or bad paintings are out there), but it’s still art, isn’t it?

        Why do you disagree exactly, if it’s not just personal preference?

        • Simon (the Sorcerer)

          So, Travis, you think that Call of Duty is art? Die Hard is art? A twilight book is art? Simpsons is art? Justin Bieber is art music? I think you need to rethink your perspective on art and art games as well. To me, most “normal games” are made purely for entertainment and do not “try to get something across”. Your definition for art (about emotion, range of ideas, etc.) isn’t all bad, but it applies to too many things, like entertainment products. I’m not too sure about a better definition though and i agree “art game” is a term difficult to judge, but in my eyes most products centered about entertainment are not art, while something like Braid, The Witness, Myst, Blueberry Garden and maybe the Path, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Beethoven’s music or literature like Goethe have an artistic depth to them. They are interpretable. Still, it’s hard to define, i don’t claim to have all the answers, and there is still good art and bad art. Maybe Call of Duty is just bad art, it focuses on primitive emotions. Maybe we’ve both got it wrong. Maybe noone knows for sure.

          • Yes, I actually gave this some deeper thoughts today while mowing the lawn (I’m not kidding, these kinds of chores are good for thinking), and I think I need to narrow down the definition of what I perceive as art a little bit.

          • Don’t narrow your definition too far. What you said isn’t necessarily untrue. Any creative process is artistic in nature, and there are undoubtedly artistic choices made in the creation of *all games. The choices of “time of day” and “weather” for a Call of Duty level are made to create a particular emotion in the player, and the choices for that level probably fit into a wider framework or flow that the designers want the player to experience over the course of the game. And all that ties in with the music and story. Those are artistic endeavors.

            Perhaps it’s a question of whether those artistic endeavors ultimately carry meaning to the player. Choices like “weather” and “color” might be considered artistic short-hand–they bypass meaning and go straight for the emotion.

            And the emotional reaction to a technique is lessened with exposure to it. A night mission in Call of Duty 5 isn’t going to have the same impact that it might have had in **Call of Duty 4.

            * Maybe just most.
            ** A game I love, though I’ve been questioning my reasons why lately. :)

          • Giving a definition to what is and isn’t art is a tough thing to do. What should fall into the boundaries of discussion? If someone develops a mathematical theory could that be art?

            If I had to give one characteristic defining art, however, it would be that art is done for its own sake. On the topic of Justin Bieber’s music, that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t solely for the purpose of making money. If his music wasn’t popular and making millions of dollars he would be off doing normal teenager stuff. Call of Duty wouldn’t get a new game every year if it wasn’t as popular as it is. As a result, I wouldn’t say either one of these things are art.

            I guess it all comes down to the idea of selling out. Are you doing it because you want to? Or are you doing it because you’re going to make money?

  2. I posted my (rambling) thoughts on the podcast at Michael’s blog, so I won’t talk about it here, but since the term “art game” has come up, my own thoughts on that topic:

    I think that the term “art game” is a lousy term just because it lacks specificity and doesn’t do a very good job—in whatever individual game we’re addressing—communicating its meaning in a way that other people will understand. Problematic terms like “art game” (or “gamification” is another one) are guaranteed to be misinterpreted, and that has a lot of problems attached to it. For example, it means a lot of people will go into an “art game” with the wrong set of expectations or that people seeking to make an “art game” will not understand what it is they are trying to do. There are consequences to giving specific names to ANYTHING. (See political parties, for example.)

    But I do think that there is a general something that the term “art game” attempts (poorly) to communicate that isn’t leveraged as much as it should be. I don’t think that this is an attempt to judge all other games as “games for low brow idiots” or anything of that sort. It’s just a distinction. Some people have a more purist philosophy and think games should be simple games with a “core loop” and a score–space invaders, asteroids, pac-man, etc. They are, after all, called “games” and not “story time”–so the arguments often go. But there is nothing wrong with being unsatisfied with that. If we are at a place where we have the technology to build compelling interactive experiences that are less about core loops, scores, and prizes; but instead can drive people to contemplate, reflect, reconsider, introspect–not just in the context of the game, but to take what they have gained away from the experience, not unlike a stirring book or film.

    I think we can do that, and I think there is some level of distinction between that and making 2,000 zombie heads explode for an arbitrary trophy that has no function outside of a pissing contest.

    In short, the term itself is problematic, but there is something to the notion.

  3. I stop the audio when you where like “How do i say this without spoiling the game”… so yeah.
    Never mind that tough…


    Why do all tech guy got really quiet when this came out?


    Ignacio worked for Nvidia, right? Do you guys think this is possible?
    I don’t understand this, but really smart people are scared and really smart people are mad as hell! Why? Because is fake, is a scam or because is real?

    • Did you read Gnotch’s posts on his blog about this? It looks like they talk about it in this video, but I don’t know whether they address his explanations, which made a lot of sense to me as someone who is not a programmer.

  4. I understand your problem with the distinction, but I think that it also has implications for how you view the term ‘art’. It seems to have a negative association. In the interview, you talk about art galleries, but painting, sculpting, and the sort of things that end up in galleries are part of crafts that have not enjoyed mainstream success for the better part of a century. Thus, most of the people who study those things will always be referencing work which is not a part of public knowledge anymore. What I’m saying is that I don’t believe the term ‘art’ naturally implies exclusivity. In fact, I would say that your explanation of what you are trying to do with your games (expressing something that is important to you) is one of the most basic definitions of art. And I absolutely think that Braid spoke to the human condition.

    The term ‘art game’ has only become necessary because of its antithesis. As video games have enjoyed greater success as an industry, there is the inevitable increase in products which are produced to turn a profit, not to share a vision. Games produced by market research, focus testing, sales numbers, et cetera. The same distinction exists in film and books. It is especially rigid in film, where big name directors like Michael Bay make high budget summer blockbusters, where people dismiss plot holes and other issues because the movie is ‘just for fun.’ At the same time, there are the film festival movies, the ones that list awards on the DVD cover, and often try to experiment, or are simply less concerned with accessibility. There are things in between, but you get the idea. Novels are the same. Go to a grocery store and pick up a Dean Koontz book, which has nothing that sets it apart from a hundred other books, and could be read by a third grader, then go to the literature section of a bookstore and try to read David Foster Wallace, who seems to purposefully try to be unreadable. [not implying that less accessibility is good, just showing that there is a definite distinction between mass consumption work like genre fiction, and what is generally viewed as ‘literary’, and publishers market according to that distinction)

    The only thing that makes video games unique in this regard is that they are leaving their infancy during the height of mass consumer culture, and so we see increasing levels of sophistication in the art form at the same time as we see a rush for large companies to make accessible titles designed to sell as many copies as possible.

    This is why art games and independent games go together. And frankly, I find the term extremely satisfying, coming as it does after Roger Ebert’s pretentious and curmudgeonly statements about the nature of video games.

    For the record, I’m not dismissing high-budget games. I play plenty of those, and they are way better than a lot of the stuff that has been coming out of Hollywood lately. But I do take exception to the negative implications attached to the word ‘art’.

    • For the record, I got slightly confused, thinking that the first comment listed was part of Jonathan’s post. But I think most of what I said addresses the interview itself.

  5. When I was listening to this podcast, I kept wondering how you went about documenting all the aspects and ideas of the game–translating them from your mind to ‘paper.’ The stuff I’ve found and read about game design documentation is kind of unsatisfying thus far. So I guess I’m just curious what your overall philosophy is about design documentation, or any relevant thoughts surrounding that. For example, I’m interested in what you think should and should not be documented, methodologies and software you use (linear word processing, mind-mapping, wikis, knowledge management systems/ontologies), how much time/energy you should expend on it, etc.

    Obviously, documentation is a function of project type, complexity and team-size. Personally, I find it preferable to document heavily to help solidify potentially slippery concepts and the interrelationships involved in my own mind despite complexity or team-size for any given project. But sometimes I think it can be a bit overboard and a waste of time. In that instance, I’m reminded of your programming aesthetics lecture and the necessity to optimize for years of your life spent on game projects.

    Anyway, if you feel inclined to impart some wisdom on this subject, that would be awesome.

    • I don’t really document anything, except when I have ideas that I know I won’t be able to implement for a long time (and even then, I only write down vague notes).

      This works because I am typing my own code to make the design ideas happen! If on a team where the designer and the programmer are different, then yeah, you kind of have to document things to some extent. I have never been in that position as a designer, though.

  6. Very interesting interview. It’s nice to hear what you think is wrong with adventure games from a design perspective. I’m curious if you think your approach to adventure games would work for a lot of games since it sounds like clear puzzles is actually a story element and not decoupled from the premise.

  7. “I don’t know what art is, but I know it when I see it.” — lots of people, probably

    I thought of that after listening to the podcast and reading the comments here. It’s like, you might struggle to define exactly what “art game” means, but if you were given a list of game titles you’d probably be able to identify the ones you think fit that term without much effort.

    And, being a subjective thing, the author’s view can be different to a player’s view.

    It’s a pretty vague term, really, but it comes out of players and journalists and designers seeing something in game A that is different to game B, and wanting to talk about it. Vague as it is, most people know what you mean when you say it. If you think of it as a spectrum, from games made with entirely non-artistic intentions to games made with only artistic intentions, then people get that “art game” means something close enough to the art end that its intentions aren’t ambiguous (I suspect that it’s much more difficult to intuitively sniff out games at the other end of the spectrum).

    And having artistic intentions makes a game harder to create. Regardless of the final result, if you set out to make something that is artistic, or literary, or that speaks to the human condition, or has deep meaning, or whatever you want to call it, it takes at least as much effort, skill, and time to implement well as the “graphics engine” / “gameplay” / “art and music” / “playtesting”. It’s a big overhead, and isn’t something you can google to find research papers and Best Practices for (and if something like that were available I wonder if it might not be more Syd Field than John Carmack).

    I’m thinking through this as I’m typing it so none of the above is rigorous, or perhaps even meaningful, but I wanted to get it clear in my head so at least it’s… actually it’s not any clearer in my head, either. Damn.


  8. Jon, you mentioned something in one of the interviews: players get fatigued from relentless gameplay, and this is at least one of the reasons The Witness has a story.

    In your lecture on social games, you condemned dressing up formal actions with narrative in order to make the player more interested in them. I strongly agreed with this sentiment.

    Do you see any conflict here? You once sung the praises of “Everyday Genius: Squarelogic”, which uses a story-less structure to present somewhat Witness-like puzzles. Didn’t you like that structure?

    • You can cook a really good steak, but maybe the meal is better if there is some peppercorn sauce, or if the steak comes with a bit of salad. That’s part of the art of being a chef. There’s nothing wrong with doing these things to make the meal better — but of course that’s different from serving the guest a lousy steak and using the peppercorn sauce and salad to try and make the meal edible to begin with.

      I do like that structure (of Squarelogic). It’s just that this is a different game and my sense is that the way this one works, sometimes the mind needs a rest. I think the core puzzle solving stuff of The Witness is very much worth playing, but I think it also gets better for most players if it is paced a little bit and mixed in with some variety. This is not about fooling the player in any way, it is just about making things smoother and more expansive.

      [Plus for me, the narrative is an integral part of what the game is, and it really needs to be there. I would be disappointed if the story stuff got cut. So the observations in the podcast are really about how I am finding the right sense in which to mix the story stuff with the gameplay stuff.]

      • I understand your using that steak metaphor but I find it a little unfair. A steak on its own can indeed be ok but we know that it’s an unhealthy meal without that salad. In the case of video games, we know that the meat can stand deliciously and healthily on its own. And we have a long history of disguising lousy steaks.

        I believe that nothing called “story” can truly become an integral part of what a game is. I was moved toward this belief in part by your ideas about dynamical meaning.

        Games with story is more like steak with ice cream. They can be delicious and make for a lovely evening but not if they’re on the same plate. It saddens me to see passionate people spend their time on things like Heavy Rain (which would be passable ice cream covered with horrible steak sprinkes) and Limbo (a nice steak made in an ice cream factory). I think we are in need of more gameplay-only games. It’s been a while since The Marriage and Gravitation, and no-one’s picked up the little red ball.

        You don’t have any obligations towards me – I don’t like arguments on the internet either. If you think it’d be better for The Witness to speak for itself, I’d completely understand.

        • Well what does “story” mean? If it means something with a multi-act structure and a plot of things that happened, then The Witness doesn’t have a story. If it just means some language that is talking about some things, then The Witness does. It’s unclear.

          If you’re saying that talking about things verbally in a narrative way just cannot have any legitimate place in video games, then I have to strongly disagree. (Actually one of the games I am thinking about after The Witness is sort of super-narrative-heavy… we’ll see.)

  9. Game = A + B

    A is a version of the game with the bare minimum of content required for the gameplay to be experienced. With all the animations and locations cut down to the choppy cuboids required to communicate their shape. With the sound effects including the voice acting and music reduced to nothing, unless it’s a rhythm game or a game that uses sound to feed back on what is happening. Obviously, with there are no cutscenes of any kind.

    B is everything else – the things superfluous to the gameplay. I was excited to hear about your shadow-based puzzles. For so long games have had these intricate (from an engineering standpoint) graphical effects that have never fed back on the gameplay. In other words, shadows have almost always been part of B.

    That is my definition of story. It is broad but meaningful. When someone is reading a game, in their head they sort stuff into two piles: “the system” and “everything else”.

    The system is unchanging and the player knows it. Except in adventure and adventure-like games. In those games, the story *does* change the gameplay. The verbs that they player is expected to use to progress are always different. The sensibilities of storytelling get blended with gameplay, leading to an inconsistent and therefore unfair system.

    Nowadays the player is assured that cutscenes, music cues, and audio logs won’t have any impact on the gameplay. Then we have Quick Time Events, where the situation is laughingly reversed: the player is assured that this small amount of gameplay won’t have much effect on the story.

    So games have gotten more sly about using story – the’ve been more closely interweaved but the difference has become clearer. This divisibility is part of the reason I say games need to leave story behind.

    • I don’t think things can be divided into A + B, in general, in a meaningful way. When making Braid, I for a while had a main character sprite in there that had no animation. One day I added animation, and the game was instantly better, a *lot* better. It’s not just non-system-affecting cosmetics — the game actually becomes more playable in a tangible way when your brain sees the shape of the guy responding to your commands.

      • I know the feeling you’re talking about when you use the word “better”. I think the feeling is to do with continuity.

        So, Tim has a mathematically-pleasing, gameplay-affecting acceleration gradient. That means that there may be a frame or two during which he hasn’t really moved and you want him to move. Adding animation (where, during the first frames, Tim raises his leg or something) is a sign that Tim shall move, that he’s trying to move. In this case, that animation is a part of A.

        This property of animation is taken to an interesting conclusion in fighting games, especially Street Fighter 3. In that game, each fighter has strong idiosyncrasies. I don’t mean their bullshit backstories, I mean the vibrant way they move – Q’s lurching, Elena’s weaving, Hugo’s swaying and swatting. If you were to remove the bitmaps and play the game with coloured hitboxes, it would be harder because, for example, the continuity of Q lifting up his leg for a kick is helpful in quite a sophisticated way.

        But, Street Fighter 3 still has a B part. The victory animations, the backgrounds, that backstory. And the all-important character art – well, we’re agreed that we need to know where Q’s leg is in order to play. But do we he need the buttons on that trenchcoat? The glowing eyes? The hat? The colours? It’s mostly B material.

        In the case of Braid, Tim’s suit, gender, and hair colour do not help us play the game. Their purpose is that we look at them at some point and say something like “hey, so Time is a city slicker/privileged middle class male/redhead who was bullied in school”. Story stuff.

        The line between A and B is nuanced, but I think it’s unavoidable. Game creators may or may not be able to draw it – but game players are utilitarian creatures!

        When you’re trying to perform a task, your mind wants to know what is relevant to you and what is irrelevant. If the task is difficult, you can’t be thinking about narrative contexts or character connections. This is why, abominably, storytellers inevitably make game behavior more dull. Some aren’t even ashamed of doing so – Fatale and Dear Esther have a black hole where their gameplay should be, for all that they are passionate and thematically bold.

        • That’s a pretty interesting stance, and I can admire it for its purity. Games-as-gameplay only, filtering out anything that might be games-as-experience, games-as-art, games-as-creativity, and so on.

          In my head I’m seeing a world of Atari 2600 games, but with 40 years of a purely gameplay arms-race, instead of 40 years of the largely aesthetics arms-race we got.

          I don’t understand how the examples of Marriage and Gravitation fit this ideal. Marriage has a page of text you’re meant to read before playing, so you understand what it’s about (story), and I’d have thought Gravitation is more like Dear Esther than what it sounds like you’re talking about (they’re both games-as-experience, with minimal gameplay).

          This might be too much of a generalization, but I think that it’s the gameplay that makes a game fun, and the other things (aesthetics, story, creativity) that makes a game memorable. The short-term and long-term qualities, and it’s the combination that defines the experience–and ideally they’ll all be thematically linked. I want games that put a 10 in every box, or that at least strive for it.

        • Chris Bateman supports the approach to game design you describe, and summarized it:

          “Game design isn’t imagining a fun game and then specifying it, it’s imagining players in a situation and uncovering how to make that fun.”

          So, the fun does not come first. The fun is a piece of candy that you use to lure people into the experience you want them to have. I’m sorry, but I find this philosophy disgusting.

          The impetus toward fun has brought us abstract wonders – and some highly memorable touches that don’t have kowtow to stories.

          The “fling” move in Portal.
          Setting up complex chains in Intelligent Qube.
          Mario’s jumping and running mechanics.
          “Stargates” in The Game of Life.

          It’s worth noticing that these are not memorable moments, but powerful features of interesting systems. With the exception of Portal, none of these games will put a ten in every box.

          There are, of course, memorable pieces of story in games too. But I believe that if we look at the associated games critically, we see that in the composure of a story always leads to compromises in gameplay. Jon descibes this here.

          In the case of The Marriage, I don’t think the essay is entirely necessary.

          In the case of Gravitation, I think you have (understandably) misunderstood it. When you play it a couple of times, you realize the level design is shockingly intricate. I recommend setting yourself a goal of 100 points. To accomplish this, there are (at least) two strategic decisions you will need to identify and make. One of those decisions has brought tears to my eyes.

          By the way, if you’re not yet sick of my soapboxing, you can read some of my reviews by clicking my name.

          • > “Game design isn’t imagining a fun game and then specifying it, it’s
            >imagining players in a situation and uncovering how to make that fun.”
            > –Chris Bateman

            That’s not my view at all. Well, my view is that it doesn’t matter whether you start with a gameplay idea or a experience idea; what matters is only the result.

            > It’s worth noticing that these are not memorable moments, but
            > powerful features of interesting systems. With the exception of Portal,
            > none of these games will put a ten in every box.

            Not all games need or benefit from more than just the gameplay, and I don’t mean to imply otherwise. For example, I wouldn’t press for the addition of story in Tetris.

            But consider Super Mario Bros for a moment; imagine that same 10-for-gameplay game if it also had 10-for-story or 10-for-experience, where all the elements are in thematic harmony. That would be something. This is obviously a problem if, as you suggest, gameplay is always compromised by the inclusion of non-gameplay aspects. So maybe that’s the crux of this issue.

            Portal and Braid come immediately to mind, as examples of 10-for-gameplay games that are also high achievers in the -for-story or -for-experience columns. Whether those inclusions hurt the gameplay is hard to say–perhaps a case could be made–but that certainly wasn’t my impression.

            > In the case of Gravitation… (snip)
            > One of those decisions has brought tears to my eyes.

            Oh, we were talking about different games. Ignore what I said previously.

            But in-game decisions that lead to an emotional responce are more story/experience/meaning than gameplay. So if Rohrer’s Gravitation is an example of what you’re batting for, then I misinterpreted your position.

            In the lecture you linked to, Jon talks about the conflict between gameplay and story when they are brought together without an understanding of the relationship. There’s no suggestion that they can’t live together, only that it is a design challenge. Here’s a quote (feels a little odd quoting Jon on his own website, but anyway):

            “The story and these fun game mechanics have separate meanings. Those meanings will often clash unless we work very, very hard to make them coexist.” –Jonathan Blow

  10. Yep, good news: I’m not against emotionally provocative games. I’m strongly in favour of games exploring new subject matter, inspiring new emotions, what ever else. But I think that all the efforts in these directions will be in vain unless we speak the language of video games.

    The “B” part of games is not part of the language of video games – Gravitation has no B part whatsoever.

    In Portal, the B-part was essentially just Glados’ one-liners. Which were funny, but, you know… they don’t have much to do with the gameplay. If you wanted to appreciate their humour you had to stop what you were doing/thinking for a moment, so they were a distraction. And being one liners, they were pretty isolated objects.

    Portal 2 is helpful here. Its story was all about amplifying those one liners. It still has elegant and fascinating puzzles, but there are long stretches of depressingly basic flings across story-infused environments, stupid path-following (like Dear Esther, and under a daft time limit). Even during the puzzles you spend some time watching the writers and animators masturbate. And during that time you might think “this is cool, but puzzle solving is cooler” – that shows you the true nature of these sequences.

    Braid is my favourite game of all time, so it is hard to talk about making it better. Its approach to story is very special, so forgive me for getting even more verbose than I have been before.

    Braid is not an adventure game. Its story and its gameplay are not the same thing. But the story continually refers to the gameplay – this is highly unusual.

    It is the norm in games that cutscenes have no reference to gameplay at all. So two guys trapped in Silent Hill will converse about everything except the zombies they regularly get mauled by. And heaven forfend that the jRPG characters use a phoenix down on their dead friend.

    So it’s a lovely surprise when something happens in cutscenes that could also happen in the game. When Chell puts a Portal on the moon. When The Prince uses the sands of time to take back his flirting with Princess Farah. When Yuna does this.

    Another wonderful example that also works as an excellently sly tutorial is The opening scene of the Lost Vikings.

    All these stories are unusual in that they show some deference to the system of the game. Braid is a revolutionary game because its every aspect shows nothing less than love for its system, because its system is so, so interesting.

    So: Braid’s story is made out of moments like those above. The events and feelings in the story are all intertwined with the system. The story loves the system.

    I trust that Jon have the same in The Witness. And I wish, my god how I wish, that more games’ stories would express this love for their systems.

    I’ve been working on a game for the last two years. I was going to do a similar thing to Braid – have titles and maybe a couple of characters’ soliloquies set up symbols, events, feelings that stem from the system in some way. But there is a way in which the story can express even more love and deference to the system than Braid’s story did.

    Like Humphrey Bogart, if story really loves gameplay then he will leave her. Gameplay has her own life to live, and for all that she feels she is dependent on story, she has made a life for herself and their affair could tear that life apart. Loving story means hating herself.

    If mechanics have to change themselves in any way in order to coexist with some story, then that is a compromise.

  11. So, we’re essentially talking about the same thing; what you call “only A” is what I call “thematic harmony”.

    I was confused by the reductionist-sounding examples from your earlier post, which had me trying to imagine games without music or color or form or any sort of “story”, except where absolutely necessary. Our points of contention might be just a question of degree, and the worth of persuing crafted-story in games.

    Jon’s “Conflicts” talk explains the problem with crafted-story in games, and it’s a deep and difficult problem without a doubt. But I do want game designers to search for solutions, because allowing an audience to actively participate (or role-play) in a crafted story is something video games might have the potential to do better than any other medium (audience-participation theater might be the only other avenue). It might ultimately take something approaching genuine AI to make it work in video games, without conflict, but it would be disappointing to pass on that potential without fully exploring it first.

    And the industry is going to make those games anyway, so designers might as well take the problem seriously.

    This is a bit of a digression, but crafted-story problem is something I’ve been thinking about since listening to Jon’s Conflicts talk. Jon described this as a conflict between the meaning of the story and the meaning of the gameplay. I’m thinking about in a slightly different way. This idea isn’t fully formed yet, but here’s the gist:

    I think of it as a conflict between the wants of the player and the wants of the character being played by the player.

    Consider any game you’ve played: any time your wants have been in step with what the crafter of the story intends the character to want at any given moment, you’ve felt no conflict–no disconnect. When the wants are unaligned, the player experiences a disconnect from game.

    An example from Half-Life 2; in the zombie town levels there’s a path that Gordon, the character, wants to take, and if the player also follows that path he or she enjoys a conflict-free experience. But if the player wants to escape over a fence–which the gameplay rules seem to allow, given that you can stack stuff to that height–the player headbutts an invisible wall.

    Film directors have it easy. Actors want to know what the character wants, and they instinctively align themselves as best they can. We don’t have that in games, because the player doesn’t get to read through the script as many times as they need to before being asked to play the role.

    This is very closely related to the game-mechanics conflict, in that the player’s motivations are aligned with the character’s motivations when the game mechanics are in harmony with the story.

    This idea applies naturally to all types of games, and you find that as you reduce story and player freedom the conflict fades away (or more specifically, the alignment becomes more tightly constrained).

    Colin McRae Rally, for example, has less conflict than Grand Theft Auto because the player is more likely to be motivated to do what the character is motivated to do (win the race). But because there is still some freedom (you can drive the wrong way) there remains potential for the player to experience conflict (your co-driver turns from believable companion to broken android, only able to repeat “wrong way” over and over). The old-school fix was to not allow the player to drive the wrong way, but the potential for motivational difference still exists so all this does is change the nature of the disconnect (from weird co-driver behavior to weird world or weird vehicle behavior). The correct fix is to allow the driver to drive the wrong way and have the co-driver react to it as naturally as he reacts to driving the right way.

    Telling the player their motivations beforehand isn’t enough. You can’t, for example, have the co-driver turn to you, as the timer counts down, and say “if we don’t win this one we won’t get the money to save the orphans from eviction!”. Because the forces acting on the wants of a player come from more places than just the game’s story. The player’s wants must be enforced by the gameplay mechanics, or the range of “supported wants” expanded.

    Remove freedom and story entirely, as in a pure puzzle game like Tetris, the potential for conflicted wants is gone. The player is the character. This end of the scale is fun, but for a game to be memorable too it has to venture out of this cave and explore the world.


  12. Maybe thematic harmony is the same thing. Being in harmony with a theme sounds good. So long as it’s not also about being in harmony with a complete other form of media!

    Just to clarify – I don’t necessarily think that Final Fantasy 10 or the sands of time or the lost vikings are good games, or that they have good stories. I was just using them to illustrate how good games writers will refer to the game’s system. My point is that if deference is the behaviour of a good game writer, then the behaviour of a great game writer is complete deference i.e. writing nothing at all and leaving everything to the system.

    I agree quite strongly with what you’re saying there about player desires. I would put it another way though.

    In the case of Gordon Freeman, I do feel a mismatch between his intentions and mine – but it has nothing to do with the level design, which I think is impeccable.

    Expanding “supported wants” is not necessarily a good thing – there’s a great lecture here about the virtues of minimalist game design, which is opposed to that kind of expansion.

    All games constrain – even Super Scribblenauts. And it is by putting severe constraints on me that Gravitation, Braid, and Portal were able to communicate with me. I wish that Noby Noby Boy would constrain me more – if it directed my hand, I’d be able to learn about its system more easily.

    Back to intention misalignment. The one I see is Gordon Freeman wanting to save the (fictional) world, and me just wanting to have fun. Half Life 2’s level design is sympathetic to that – can you imagine Ravenhome being put together with “saving the world” in mind? I don’t think it was. I hope you’ll see what I mean when I say this is another stupidity that comes out of storytellers!

    I am a card-carrying Kosterian. I believe that “forces acting on the wants of a player” come from one place: their desire to learn about a system. If they play along with the game’s story, it’s because they want to learn about the system. If they undermine the story, it’s because they want to learn about the system. If they move, it’s because they want to learn about the system. If they keep still, etc.

    The purpose of being in this universe is to pursue truth. The purpose of being in a game’s universe is also to pursue truth. Story tellers try to make you believe otherwise – they believe that the purpose of being in a game’s universe is to play along with their story.

  13. > Expanding “supported wants” is not necessarily a good thing

    I agree that it’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s something you have to take on a case by case basis. If you’re a car game, for example, and you allow the player to steer the car, then I don’t think you can get away with not supporting driving wherever the player might want to drive. The big invisible walls used to limit the player in Driver: San Francisco are a recent example.

    I suppose a case could be made, within the “desire to learn about the system” framework that you mentioned, that once the player has felt out those limits that their “wants” will then tent to instinctively align with the character’s/designer’s wants–the first time you try to cut across a lawn the wants are completely unaligned, but through a brief period of iteration the wants will tend towards alignment, and you won’t even think about cutting across the lawn again.

    But I worry about that first time, and all the times afterwards that you accidentally meet this invisible wall. They take you out of the role you’re playing. So I would still favor expansion of the allowable wants in this case.

    With the HL2 fence example, expansion isn’t necessary. In a game where you play as a human, if you see a chain-link fence then you should be able to climb over. If, as a game designer, you really don’t want to offer a path branch at that point, then just don’t make the fence chain-link. And if it’s not a chain-link fence but looks scalable with a bit of object stacking, then if you really don’t want to branch the path you need only limit the number of stackable objects the player has available.

    I don’t mind constraint, so long as it makes sense within the “implied story” of the game. Thematic harmony.

    I will watch that lecture. It sounds interesting.


  14. Oh sure, certainly you need to be respectful of the player wanting to experiment. When I was talking about “wants” I thought we meant entirely new features. What I see as a bad thing is if people introduce entirely new things to a game just because. You see a lot of games crammed full of toys that go nowhere, and as a result are balanced to complete dullness. And you compare that to a Treasure game, where every gameplay element gets a loving focus.

    Invisible walls are stupid, but I don’t believe it’s because of story. I would say it’s because they are a big inconsistency. “Usually if my way is visually cleared then I can just go. So what gives?” The player thinks. The walls are not a gameplay elements (with some exceptions, including an execrable maze in the last level of Kingdom Hearts). All they do is show you how vain the visual designers could be, as in “if the area I can explore is only this big, then why are you making it look bigger?”

  15. Yet another node in the expanding graph that is my growing fascination with video games since stumbling upon Michael Abbot’s blog. I started listening to this episode of The Brainy Gamer Podcast today, and your discussion of the underlying philosophy for The Witness struck me pretty hard. I’m reading into this a bit, but after reading through some of your rants, e.g., on how consciousness affects the brain’s purported computational decision-making system, The Witness might be a kind of watershed experience for some (i.e., me) when it’s released. That’s grandiose, so I’d like to briefly explain.

    I took a very long route to attaining an undergrad math degree at the age of 39. I’ve often been asked what I want to do with it, and I’m perplexed to provide a satisfyingly concise answer. I usually say something like, “I want to find the intersection of computation, math, physics, philosophy, games, and writing.” Lots of games legitimately fit into this, given the generality of the terms, but what I’ve been gnashing about is a way to communicate wonderment viscerally, provide tools for users to engage in a small-scope simulacrum of what philosophers (to include scientists, mathematicians, “normal” philosophers, deep thinkers independent of field) engage.

    I’m not close yet. Have to stop being distracted by, among other things, all the great work other people are doing. But in the way Kafka wasn’t really writing about entomology, I gather that Braid and The Witness aren’t really about platforming or puzzle mechanics.

    This comment sounds clumsy to me, but I’m going to hope it makes some sense nonetheless.



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