Straight thinking?

I have talked about this subject before, about what games are, and could be (and how that might give some options for the MMO space), but there was an interesting article on Gamasutra this week, that I just had to link. In an article called 'The Contradiction of Linearity', Michaƫl Samyn of Tales of Tales, outlines some thoughts on where games have come from, and what they could be, and what he would like to see them become.

It makes for an interesting read, and read the comments too for some interesting dialog from the author...personally, I don't think my thoughts on the matter have changed that much. I still think that many fall into the trap of over thinking this particular debate. Computer games are a fantastic medium, because they can be so many different things to so many people.

Samyn himself goes on, in the comments, to label fact that the genre is know as computer games as an 'unfortunate heritage'. Which implied, to me at least in the context of his article, that the linear nature of progression was always a bad thing that the genre would be better off without (maybe more charitably, he is simply saying that the linear nature imposes restrictions on our artistic nature). Now personally I think that misses the point slightly, in that, sure it could be true from one perspective, but the beauty of such an interactive medium, is that a game can be many things. From a generic AAA shooter, through an iPad puzzle game, a hidden item browser game through to an art house production like The Path. From the most structured of linear experiences, like say, any Halo title, to the open form freedom of Minecraft, from Flower through Plants vs Zombies to Assassins Creed. From a sports title to a flight sim, they are all games, and all valid expressions of the medium.

..saying effectively that game-play itself might end up optional in some way moves us away from being actual 'computer games', and then they would be 'computer ....', well, actually I am not sure what you would call it. I guess it would depend on the author. Might be 'computer art' or 'computer interactive experiences' but to be a 'computer game' you have to keep the 'game' part.

They could well be a valid form of expression however, and might have to leverage peoples expectations of games, or interest in games, to gain a foothold in the public imagination, but I am not sure they would actually be games then...

He adds in one of the comments to the post:

When we start treating videogames as a medium, the content will define the quality of the experience more than the form. What is the challenge of reading book? Of listening to music?

I'm not advocating randomness! I want to increase the role of the author in the creation of videogames. We need to figure out how we want to satisfy our players. And our players will need to learn how to optimize their experience with our productions.

I don't have the answers. I'm only suggesting that we start looking for some. And the only way to do that is to get our hands dirty and dive in. This is a case where our imagination is indeed the limit: there is no way we can imagine these types of videogames. We have to make them to see.

Now to me, that is already happening! I would argue that there are many game creators doing just that already. What it won't do is fit into one slim, or narrow, definition, of what games 'should be'...because games will always be different things to different people. Some will for sure have deep cultural resonance, and even more so in the future, but by the same token, some will be just what they are supposed to, that help us idle away some time and escape from reality for a little while.

It is though a very interesting discussion. Like I said at the top, personally it 'overthinks' the subject a little for my tastes...but debate is what sparks thought, and that drives our imaginations one way or another, so thinking about the questions is always a good thing!


Tomkins said…
interesting read. Sounds a little pretentious to me, but I am not a game designer! I can't imagine a game where you could skip the game to do the story, but I remember a few I wish had that feature for all the wrong reasons!!
Anonymous said…
Wee bit pretentious on his part I think. When he goes into how we can’t design / build the sort of thing that he’s talking about now because we can’t conceive of how such a thing should work, he kinda lost my interest.

He goes to great lengths to separate what he’s talking about from the term “game”. This is good, because it isn’t one. A game is typically defined by its rules and an outcome. It seems that what he’s describing is more of an interactive entertainment where the participant guides the story in the direction they would like it to go.

I have a whole shelf of pick-your-path books that I could send to him if he’d like. They were quite the rage for a while, but then fell out of favor because … shocker … most people who wanted to read a book just wanted to follow the story to its conclusion.

One could argue that aspects of the vision he’s talking about are included in things like Second Life or the Elder Scrolls series which have a more open feel to the world. But those do not have universal appeal either. Even as much as I like to explore and just have fun with things, one of the digs I’ve had against Elder Scrolls is that I didn’t like feeling that there was no objective to the game at times.

My kids like to play the ATV games on Playstation in open play mode. They used to love it when I would complete some challenge and unlock a new field to play on. But even then after 20 minutes or so they’d get bored with it. Once they’d figured out how to jump over all the stuff they could find, it wasn’t fun anymore.

I think the major failing in his “vision” is that he loses sight of the fact that most people do not play video games because they want to experience something … they want to play something. They want to be challenged. If all they wanted to do was experience a world, they could watch Avatar or read Tolkein or even just walk outside.

In the end, it seems to me that if his vision were realized, it would be like spending the budget of a blockbuster summer movie on an art house film. It would be loved by the critics and the few people who could appreciate the artistry. But it would lose money faster than GM and would be considered a major failure from a business perspective.

Now, I would agree with part of his premise that right now there is too much linearity in game designs. A game design where I have to finish “Section 4” to get to “Section 5” doesn’t feel as rich. For instance in Starcraft II, you must complete certain missions to move the story forward. Why couldn’t they have written it such that if you failed a mission, the story still moved, but just in a different direction? But I don’t think that getting there requires that we define an entire new genre of interactive entertainment. It just requires some designers who are willing to say "Ok, what happens if they don't beat the Zerg to the artifact?" And then build that option too.
Giger said…
I think that is an artist type wishing everyone else was also a artist. Will never happen for the same reasons that indie ad art house cinema makes a tiny fraction of the money that a mainstream movie makes, and that is because being artistic for arts sake is a minority interest and the vast majority of us just want to be entertained. Who is this guy to tell us that we 'don't get it'?
Craig Morrison said…
@karl3d your last point, it is usually simply a matter of time and complexity. For every problem or choice that is presented that could have multiple consequences, you end up with way more content required for each path you create. It is like a pyramid in reverse, the more you branch from a first point it then expands out. So most games stick to a more linear approach (or save any 'consequences', and I use that term loosely, for ending, or setting up a sequel) and stick to a central path or story.

The more 'paths' you create the more resource and time you require...

...also, although I personally don't support this argument as much, you run into the train of thought that says you shouldn't make content people won't necessarily see. So if for example you can make 50 hours of content in your game, the spreadsheet producer will say you should make all 50 hours playable for everyone, rather than saying it would actually be a 20 hour experience that could be played through several times (it is seen as a waste by many, as a majority of players only play through once)

...then, lastly, you also have designer egos and ambitions. Many designers aspire to movie director type of reputations, and want to tell a specific story, not an open one.

So there are quite a few reasons why you don't always see those genuine choices portrayed.
Anonymous said…
I totally get that Craig. In most projects time is the most constrained resource we have. And deciding what features to include and exclude is a hard decision to make.

Even in the corporate software world (where I work) I see that. Someone will come up and say "Hey, we have the data to create these 50 reports..." But the reality is that our clients will only use about 6 of them. And that time spent on those extra 44 reports could be better spent somewhere else.

One of the thoughts I had when reading the original post was that it would be great to ignore the NPC trying to get me to help them and walk off over the hill to see what's there. But it also would mean that someone had to create something for me to discover. Sure you could create code to auto-generate it, but it won't be as detailed and interesting as something handcrafted by a level designer.

And while such work may appeal to the Explorer type of gamer, the rest of the players would probably be a bit (or more than a bit) pissed that they had to wait an extra year and a half because you were creating stuff that only a small fraction of the community would ever see.