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.

Sequels: Continuing the Story.

Sequels focused on continuing a story started in the original can be uniquely challenging. Freed of the need to introduce world and characters the focus shifts to expanding the world, and a deeper exploration of the central themes. Providing a bigger context, a broader canvas, on which to explore the escalating consequences of the actions of the characters.

In The Godfather Part II we see Michael Corleone attempting to expand the operations of the family, while dealing with the choices made previously by himself and his father Vito. The continuing themes of family and respect are weaved throughout along with several references both direct and metaphorical to events from the first film; the final scenes strongly echoing the ending of the original in both tone and content.

“… if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.”

The goal of such a sequel is one of expansion and escalation, the problems are larger, the stakes higher; to put it another way everything is “Bigger, Better, More Badass”.

This is seen in numerous game sequels, players are provided with larger locations to visit, more powerful tools to wield, and tougher challenges to face. The problems are bigger and so are the solutions.

In Half-Life the initial goal is to escape the Black Mesa Research Facility, there are detours, and the eventual goal becomes something greater but the story is essentially confined to Black Mesa. Escape from the facility comes only at the conclusion. From the very first moments of Half-Life 2 it’s explicitly clear that you will no longer be restricted to the confines of Black Mesa, the world has expanded and you are no longer solely concerned with self-preservation.

The Half-Life series also serves to highlight an inherent character development problem with game sequels. By the conclusion of the original game the player character will have faced and surmounted numerous challenges, often learning new skills and acquired tools and weapons along the way. They end the game a more competent more powerful character than they began it. In order to repeat this sense of character development and progression in the sequel players will be stripped of their acquired skills and abilities. Just how many times does Gordon Freeman have to lose his weapons, just so that they can be carefully portioned back out?

What purpose is served by developing a character when they are fated to lose all progression the next time they appear? Would audiences have accepted The Godfather Part 2 if Michael Corleone was no longer the Don but had to earn that position all over again?

One way to mitigate this is to treat sequels in an episodic fashion with only the most basic of story elements carried forward into each subsequent title. The Tomb Raider games use this approach, until their recent revival, each title was a self contained story with only the barest links to the previous games. Such an approach allows for recurring characters and themes to provide a sense of continuity, while not requiring an extensive knowledge of the back story that might be off putting to new players.

Some sequels sidestep the issue by developing the story around a different protagonist. While avoiding the previous problems such games still need to spent time reestablishing the rules and underlying context for the world. Attempts are often made to tie the actions of the new protagonist to those of their predecessor, such as in Fallout 2. In these cases the overarching storyline is not so much that of either protagonist but the world itself.

“My ancestor could beat up your ancestor.”

An interesting twist on this is the approach taken by System Shock 2, and more recently F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, that of a new protagonist but a returning antagonist. Set some forty two years after the events on Citadel Station System Shock 2 features a new blank slate avatar who once again has to deal with the machinations of SHODAN. The story of System Shock is not really the story of the player at all, it is her story. This bring us back to a variation on the original problem; does SHODAN’s reappearance in System Shock 2 serve to invalidate the actions of the mysterious hacker, the player character of the original System Shock? The SHODAN found on Tau Ceti V only exists because of your actions in the original game but doesn’t her very survival call into question the value of your original success?

The beginning of Alien 3 changes the entire tenor of the final sequences of Aliens, as going back and watching it again we know that some of those characters are destined to die. Is the assumption that players are unlikely to revisit the original game so anything is fair, even turning what was once a  success into a failure?

The structure of games based on progression from a state of powerlessness to a state of empowerment seems at odds with the desire to continue a story arc; any progression in the first game is immediately negated for the start of the sequel in order for the cycle to begin anew.


Aristotle understood the power of suspense, of tension. The unknown is vital for both good drama and good games. Without some degree of uncertainty regarding events there is little tension, little drama. Though often the overall outcome is not where this uncertainty lies. In a single-player games we know that if we keep playing for long enough we will succeed; in drama either the protagonist is successful (Comedy) or not (Tragedy). The tension is in how these events come to pass. It comes from the unknown, the anticipated, tension is not about the the “what is” it is about the “what might be”.

In film everything exists within the confines of the frame, it is “truth 24 frames per second”. This is at once both liberating and restrictive. Extraneous information can be edited out, but vital information can also be obscured. Tension is inherent in this ability to reveal and obscure vital information over time, this fine line between freedom and restriction.

If film is a sequence of images over time, then games are a sequence of spaces over time. The boundaries of games are not defined by the viewpoint of the camera so much as by the physical or logical boundaries of the space in which all action occurs.

When it comes to evoking drama and tension in both a narrative and ludic sense, the ability to not reveal everything at once is vital. When we are able to achieve that we gain the support of the most impressive of human faculties, imagination. It fills in the blanks, the events beyond the frames of the film, or the world beyond and between the defined game spaces.

Nowhere is this application of tension more important than the humble doorway. A close door is pregnant with possibilities. Beyond may be something beneficial or something harmful, something disturbing or something wondrous. We can imagine what is beyond but we never know until we actually pass through the doorway. Standing there we feel a sense of anticipation. The space beyond the door is unknown, and therefore liable to provoke fear. However soon that space will be known all we have to do is cross the threshold. There is a battle waging within us between fear and excitement. There is tension.

At the heart of tension there is this dichotomy between fear and excitement. We naturally fear the unknown, but the potential of conquering that unknown, of gaining new knowledge and new experiences is exciting.

The levels, the physical environments, of a game are a manifestation of interactivity. We take an action and elicit a response within that environment, even if it is as simple as taking a step forward. Faced with a closed doorway that ability to interact with the world in a direct manner is of profound importance. With one simple action we can dispel the unknown and conquer our fear.

Closed doorways provided tension because they often require that you open them in order to proceed. There is no choice, if you do no open the doorway you cannot proceed. So is choice in opposition to tension?

Consider an open space, a hub like layout. Open spaces provoke apprehension as they provide choices. The greater the number of possible directions we can take the more we fear choosing a specific one, we may miss something. Our ability to make choices is exciting, reinforces our agency and thus our understanding of what is possible within the world. It is also frightening as it forces a decision upon us, it is rife with the potential to make the “wrong” selection, either in terms of missing some narrative element or of choosing a sub-optimal strategy.

Good level design requires an understanding of the balance between the known and the unknown, the actual and the possible. An ability to provide the player with just enough information to be both excited and fearful; to know what do do if not always how; to promote tension and uncertainty. The levels of a game are where the core gameplay occurs, where player choices take form, where player intent becomes character action. Good play, like good drama, requires uncertainty, tension. Good level design is as much about the space the player does not inhabit as the space they do. Tension exists in these void spaces, these undefined areas.

System Shock 2: The Motion Picture.

Despite a history of decidedly average game to film translations, I believe there are some properties that could successfully make the transition, provided they were treated in a manner appropriate to the subject matter. At the risk of being branded a heretic I believe that System Shock 2 is such a title that has interesting film potential.

For anybody who has never played it the premise is fairly straightforward, you wake up alone on an board a space ship to find the crew have been killed and turned into zombies and worse. It eventually gets a little more complicated but that’s the core premise. The inclusion of the, arguably insane artificial intelligence SHODAN (Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network) adds some additional flavour but the basic premise of System Shock 2 is not the reason for its cinematic potential. For that we need to look at the manner in which the story is presented.

System Shock 2 02
A less than standard procedure.

Developed through audio logs left behind by the crew, as well as the occasional ghost of anybody who died in particularly dramatic circumstances, the events leading up to the player’s awakening are told in a piecemeal and subjective fashion. This could translate well to film provided it didn’t play out using a traditional linear format. Instead the audio logs could act as framing devices for flashback sequences, much like the diary in The Prestige. As the protagonist awoke and began to explore their environment each log they found would lead into a flashback showing the events described. As often more than one log references a single event the film could develop in a manner similar to Rashomon with each event being show from multiple perspectives and coloured by each participants personal prejudices. The objective “truth” of what happened never being made explicit. This is not something that is dealt with in to any extent in the game, and I wonder if it might have benefited from a more ambiguous narrative delivery.

Together these flashbacks would combined to form a collage depicting the events leading up to the start of the film. As some characters are still alive at the start of the film, their logs would continue to describe events that took place only a few hours or minutes before the protagonist found them. The final climax of the protagonist fore-shadowed by the climatic failures that lead they to that point.

It’s a potentially complex film, and one that would require careful editing as well as a degree of active participation on the part of the audience in order to form a coherent narrative of both the past and the present; considering the source material that seems only fitting.

System Shock 2 is not likely to see a film release, but rumours abound that its spiritual successor BioShock is. It will be interesting to see how it is handled, though I do suspect it will utilise a traditional linear structure, possibly with a flashback or two to fill in the history of Rapture. If that is the case it will be a waste of potential.

The best game stories are one that are (Or at least make pretensions to be) non-linear, and any reinterpretation of them in another medium would be well advised to make use of whatever non-linear techniques are available.