Communicating Intent.

My previous post was vague and though some of that was intended to promote comment and discussion, I feel I may have been unintentionally cryptic in both the post itself and my comments. It was not my aim to imply any order of worth to each of the forms of media mentioned, and I also feel it was remiss of me to not mention some other forms.

Since I made my initial post Corvus Elrod has presented his own take on my position which is at once divergent from my own and highly interesting in its own right.

As for the comments , I thank you all for adding you voice to the discussion. A few people seemed to have seen the direction in which I was going, most specifically moromete, SR, and Roger Travis.

Dan Bruno and Chris brought up something I found quite amusing, they mentioned how sports games in particular are representations of the sports themselves. This is true, but the sports they represent are games, and the explorative nature is true of the game itself and therefore true of the virtual recreation of the game.

That covered, I now offer an elaboration and clarification of my original post.

The defining feature of any media, any art form, is the means by which it communicates meaning.

A work of literature can represent an idea or concept, it can even explore that idea from several different and conflicting perspectives. In addition we can explore the work by researching the life of the author and the cultural and historical context in which it was written. Literature has the capacity to present representations and allow exploration. These elements are its function, they are what it does. This is separate from its form, separate from its means of communicating meaning

All works of literature regardless of purpose or quality use written language to communicate their intent. The method by which they represent, or allow exploration, is by describing concepts and events through the medium of the written word. Their form is descriptive.

The function of music is often the same as that of literature, to communicate a particular concept or idea; even if that idea is as straightforward as evoking  joy. Through the selection of particular notes, and melodies, played with particular instruments music can express complex ideas and evoke powerful emotions through association and allusion. The form of music is expressive.

Much of what is true for literature and music is also true for other media, other art forms. Their function is to communicate meaning and this can be done through representation or exploration. External to the works themselves the manner in which we approach them can be an exploration. The differences between literature, music, film and games is the form they take. The means by which their function is realised.

Film uses a combination of many different elements to create a representation of an idea or event. Dialogue, action, set design, lighting, cinematography these are just a selection of  aspects of film. They combine to create a portrayal of an event that communicates meaning. However realistic or plausible the event is, and even if the footage is of an actual event, the choices made regarding editing and musical accompaniment transform it from an actual event to a subjective representation of an event. The form of film is representative.

Like film, games use a combination of different elements to create a representation of an idea or event. Unlike film they allow interaction with that event, they allow you to potentially change the outcome of that event, thereby altering the context and the meaning that might be communicated. They allow an exploration of possibilities within a bounded context. Games are systems of rules, when we play we are exploring the possibilities that exist within the logical and physical world defined by those rules. The form of games is explorative.

The central concept of both The Art of War and Rome: Total War is an examination the different levels of military strategy. The former is a work of literature, the means by which it communicates its intent is through description of certain tenants of warfare. The latter is a game, the means by which it communicates its intent is by providing you with agency within a simulated environment. You are given the means to explore the effects of your choices and to develop strategies and gain an understanding of the underlying tenants of successfully waging war.

A particular concept or theme is not exclusively tied to presentation in one form. Honor is not a concept that can only be portrayed by literature. Each medium uses a different form to present its central theme, its core idea.

That is a fundamental difference. The same concepts and themes can be examined by any and all media but the manner in which they are presented, the form they take, is inherently different. This difference in form leads to different aspects being highlighted or given prominence in different media. The rules and traditional that are applicable for one form of media do not always translate to another form.

A matter of character.

A cast from all walks of life: young and old; rich and poor; the law abiding, the lawless, and those somewhere in between; prostitutes, thieves, murderers and lawyers. Characters that are exaggerations yet still human and all the more memorable for it. Crime, violence and a think vein of social satire, not to mention racial controversy.

I’m not actually talking about Grand Theft Auto IV, rather the works of Charles Dickens. Even a century after his death Dickens philosophy and style is alive throughout contemporary western media, either via straight adaptations of his work, or through his clear influence on the extensive ensemble cast and interconnecting stories and motivations of shows like The Wire.

Amongst his numerous skills as an author Dickens is probably most remember for his vast wealth of imaginative, memorable and ultimately believable characters. The majority of his stories hang on the actions and motivations of the characters within them, a philosophy game writers would do well to consider.

Most game stories are still about things, objects, the magical plot “MacGuffins”. How often is your primary motivation in a game to locate an object, usually in several pieces each one in a different “corner of the world”?  What memorable stories in other medium have depended as heavily on an object as most game stories do? There are some but the most memorable stories are those about characters. Objects exist in all stories often as symbols or tokens. But those symbols have no power of their own, they mean something to, or are a representation of an aspect of, a particular character.

Steven Gaynor recently wrote an essay where he concluded that: “The greatest aspiration of a game designer is merely to set the stage.” That’s a very solid definition of the goal game designers should be striving for, to create a context in which player actions have meaning. But in a play the stage is a composite entity. There is the physical stage itself, there are the props, and there are the characters.

Games are about action and interaction, and the current technology for interacting with characters is still far from the fluid natural responsivness such a character focus really calls for. Often interactions between players and characters are limited to a set number of choices picked from a dialogue tree or similar. Maybe this is a case of thinking about things the wrong way round?

What I say is important, but what I do is really what people will remember. I can say I’m a friend as much as I like but unless I show that to be true it’s just words. Maybe a player’s actions should take a higher priority in terms of character interaction than a player’s dialogue choices?

Consider a game world full of interesting characters with differing allegiances and motivations. The Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto IV, or the Coketown of Hard Times. Into this world you, the player, are thrust. You have agency within the contextual confines of the world; you can act as you feel is appropriate. Your relationship with the characters in the world is then defined by your actions. If you act in opposition to the goals of one character then they and those aligned with them will grow to resent you. Work in support of the goals of another and they will grow to like you, possibly even help you. The choices you make aren’t limited to those predefined by the story, but by the verbs most appropriate to the situation you are in, your actions are contextualised by the other characters in the world and their perception of you; we are defined by our enemies.

The characters themselves would make decisions on which actions to take next based on the state of the world and their own motivations, potentially using a form of Goal Orientated Action Planning to determine their future plans. Trust, friendship, and betrayal, might potentially be emergent behaviours from such a system. Working in alignment with one character for a long time and then doing something in opposition might make sense to you but be treated as a betrayal by them.

In such a situation your actions would be limited by the boundaries of the simulated world and not by the means of direct character interaction available to you. It might even be better to create such a system without dialogue, a world where actions really do speak louder than words. Imagine being a photo journalist in a war zone where you don’t speak the language, your only interactions with those around you would be through the pictures your take and their reaction to, and interpretation of, them.

It might even be more interesting if the players role in the world was not that of protagonist, or antagonist, and in fact they were simply a supporting character. Then a narrative puppet master could adjust the thematic elements of the world to fit the protagonist’s impressions of the character. Becoming more light and warm if you are friendly towards them, or darker and more oppressive, if you are in conflict.

Characters are what make good stories, not objects. Dickens understood this, as did Agatha Christie, as does Francis Ford Coppola. Believable characters in games are hard, actions are easier, so why not define character through actions?