Gameplay Contract.

Deus Ex - Invisible War 01
“Modify your behaviour.”

The request of The Omar, the cyborg black marketeers of Deus Ex: Invisible War, is made when you throw something at them, repeatedly. It’s a little strange to hear this retort each and every time you throw a lamp, or cup at their heads but if you are constantly bombarding them with junk and getting the same reaction is the problem with the game or the manner in which the you are playing it? Might it actually be sensible to do as you have been asked and modify your behaviour?

Reading Sande Chen’s article on Gamasutra (Towards More Meaningful Games) and especially the comments, started me thinking on the role the of both the player and the design in crafting a game narrative. Do players have a responsibility to abide by certain guidelines and accept certain restrictions in order to get the most from a game narrative? In essence should there be some implicit gameplay contract between player and designer?

Something akin to:

“Provided I act in a manner consistent with my character and their role in the world and accept certain limitations on my freedom, you will ensure that I am engaged, entertained and that all my actions have meaningful consequences.”

With films there’s a tacit acceptance of certain conventions and strictures of the format in the name of entertainment. Audiences will accept montages, flashback, slow-motion and even split screen if it aids the telling of the story. All too often it feels like games are seen as simulations over entertainment, instead of accepting certain restrictions both players and developers are more concerned with authentic simulation.

A simulation can be entertaining; but entertainment is not simulation. It’s simply not possible for a game to be good at everything, or to be able to respond meaningfully to every possible player action, unless those actions are heavily, often artificially, restricted.

All games feature boundaries, and the more realistic or simulation based the game the more obvious those boundaries can become. They have even become clichéd, the doors than can’t be opened, or the invisible walls. Players should be encourage to explore the possibilities of the content that does exists, but if they go off and try and explore an area that is far from where they need to be, or start to act in a manner that is out of context with the situation should the onus be on the developer to anticipate that action and cater to it? Should a player baulk at a brief lose of direct control if it actually serves to improve their emotional engagement?

Suspension of disbelief is an active thing, it requires that those who want to achieve it consciously turn off their more critical faculties in the service of entertainment. Sometimes in order to be effectively engaged we need to be looking in a certain direction or behaving in a certain manner. Is this why some are more willing than others to overlook the  sometimes odd conventions of a game like Metal Gear Solid, because they have made an implicit agreement with the game to accept it’s idiosyncrasies in the name of entertainment?

So might players not owe it to themselves be more forgiving, to enter into a contract with the designer whereby they will except some necessary restrictions in return for an enjoyable engaging experience?

3 thoughts on “Gameplay Contract.

  1. I think your error is in comparing games with film in the first place. It’s a very easy mistake to make but it is a mistake nonetheless. Films have never had to be concerned with making characters look and move like they would in real life because they are already real people. They can focus on telling the narrative and presenting it to a passive audience.

    Games are another matter altogether. Before you can even begin to tell a story you need to create a world that is believable. This is why games are so focused on simulation; because if they get this step wrong, there’s no point going forward. Because the audience is no longer passive, the conventions of film no longer apply.

    With regards to the boundaries, there simply isn’t enough time or resources to create a fully explorable world. This is one of the limitations gamers have accepted for years, and it’s one of those things that isn’t at all noticeable unless it’s done poorly. Games, as simulations, will most often have an objective that they nudge the player towards; removing many of these boundaries would be counter productive to advancement.

  2. Generally I’m remiss to compare games to films for a lot of reasons, I make the comparision here simply because films are an entertainment medium that has learnt to treat that capacity to entertain above all else. The same comparision could be made to literature or theatre, any mature entertainment medium.

    All of those have developed a specific language and structure that serves entertainment, and that requires a degree of acceptance on the part of the audience. I accept the limitations of the page, the confines of the stage. Entertainment does not require simulation. Believability doesn’t explcitly mean recreation of reality.

    As I said, a simulation can be entertaining; but entertainment is not simulation. An animated feature can provoke an emotional response but animation is not simulation, it is an impression of the real, a highlighted exagerated version of reality.

    But really neither simulation nor passivity are the issue, the issue is about shared authorship and how that share is divided. If I want to be entertained then don’t I have as much of a requirement to act responsibly as the designer has to create a plausible and engaging world, directly simulated or not?

    I’m an incredibly active audience member during a session of Dungeons & Dragons but I try not to act in a manner inconsistent with my character because I’m there to be entertained and forcing my Game Master to come up with convolution solutions to my out of context actions isn’t particularly entertaining for either of us.

  3. In one sense the boundaries of a film are much narrower than that of a game, because you the only possibility you can experience is the one that actually transpires, so the universe the film is set in doesn’t have to be any bigger than the path taken by the characters (except in sequels or the audience’s imagination).

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