Contextual Specification.

When it comes to the creation of the common ground in which play occurs, the boundaries themselves can either be embedded or emergent.

Embedded boundaries are those defined prior to, and separate from, the act of play itself. They are the rules of the game and the narrative overlaid on those rules. These elements define what is possible and provide an underlying context.

Emergent boundaries are those that exist only during play, they include the actions of the player (though these are limited by the embedded rules), and the perceptions and biases the player brings to the narrative.

The embedded boundaries define the range of possible actions and motivations, the emergent boundaries define the precise actions and the motivations assigned to them by the player. Embedded boundaries provide the scope, emergent boundaries the specific shape.

Emergent boundaries are unique to each player and each play session, emergent boundaries form the fabula out of the entire possibility space of the game and its associated narrative. It is not possible for a designer to control these emergent boundaries they can only use the embedded boundaries to shape and influence the possible form of each player’s fabula.

The rules through which a designer controls and regulates the player’s interaction with a game directly influence the play experience but without context such abstract rules are meaningless. They can define what is possible but they cannot influence the meaning a player takes from a game. In order for rules to convey an emotion or idea, they need some narrative assigned to them.

The rules establish what actions are possible, the verbs, adverbs and nouns available to the player and their interactions. The narrative provides a fictional explanation for these actions as well as providing concrete instances of the nouns. The concept that “on contact blue objects remove red objects ” is a rule but the notion that “blue objects are water” and “red objects are blood” is part of the narrative. Additional elements of narrative can be layered on top leading to the concept that “water cleans blood”. The rules of the game have not changed from the original interaction of blue and red objects but now the action of using blue objects on red objects has been imbued with a much richer meaning.

The more narrative elements that are used to define the context the more specific the game becomes, and more pared down the range of potential meanings. The number of games that feature blue objects and red objects is huge, when the interaction between them is define the number of games that still fit that definition is reduced, this process of specification continues with each additional layer of narrative that is added.

Consider the the rule that “grey objects change their properties over time” this is a valid dynamic that is true of many objects, even now you are likely adding a context to that relationship to better understand it. If I contextualise “grey objects” as “weapons” then the range of valid possible examples are limited, though the relationship could still describe many situations from a weapon that can only function under certain circumstances, such as the “Hammer Of Dawn” from Gears Of War, to weapons that degrade in usability over time, such as those in Far Cry 2.

This process of specification is what takes a game from a collection of mechanics and dynamics to an experience with the potential to engage and enthrall. The embedded boundaries put in place by the designer can only take this specification so far. At that point the emergent boundaries defined by the player take it from the contextualised actions of the game itself to the unique personal experience of play.

Abstract concepts can be powerful but are difficult to appreciate without specific examples. In a game with little narrative context players will assign their own. They will personify game objects and assign motivations to their actions, becoming confused and frustrated if future actions do not fit these self assigned motivations.

This is an important consideration as player expectation is shaped as much, if not more, by their own perceptions and beliefs as it by any narrative context provided by the game itself.

Whenever any narrative element is layered onto a game mechanic not only does it strip out all other potential meanings it also bring with it a wealth of meaning both explicit or implied. These implied meanings are the most difficult to contend with, as they are part of the emergent boundaries defined by the player and are  often highly subjective.

The entire concept of ludonarrative dissonance exists because the implied context and meaning of abstract game mechanics are not taken into consideration. The embedded narrative context assigned to a specific game mechanic at the low level is in conflict with the narrative context layered onto the game at a higher level. What players have been led to believe about a game mechanic from its basic context with all its implied meaning, is being contradicted by the narrative presented at a higher level. The embedded boundaries of the game are operating in opposition to the emergent boundaries defined by the player; the common ground has broken down. The designer has not taken into consideration the implied meanings and associations that a specific context provokes.

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One Comment

  • It can be hard to follow your thought process without examples to give a frame of reference early on. So the embedded boundary is what the game puts on you, the emergent boundary is the one the player applies to themselves?

    I suppose the key is creating the illusion of an emergent boundary, giving the player a sense that they have generated the goals and meanings while they line up with the embedded system. The smoke & mirrors, the coercion, lies in keeping the player from never really picking up on the walls in the garden.

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