Meaningful Actions.

I like Chess, I would even go as far as to say I think it is a mechanically perfect game. The strength of Chess is that there are no redundant actions, there are no actions without consequences. Achieving a checkmate is not only dependant on the final move but on every preceding move, right back to the opening. Any change in that sequence of moves by either player will result in a radically different outcome.

Every move in Chess is meaningful because every move irreversibly changes the state of the game world and which subsequent moves are possible; all actions have consequences.

Redundant actions are those that are not meaningful, those for which there are no consequences, such actions are literally a waste of time, as nothing is gained from performing them.

The concept, that every action should be meaningful and have consequences, is one that has seemingly been abandoned, or at the very least greatly diminished, in recent years. Often for the purposes of increasing accessibility or pacing, and usually in games that feature some degree of authored narrative.

Consider Far Cry 2, the mechanic of respawning hostiles at checkpoints is implemented to prevent the world from ever becoming safe and thus damaging its representation of a country in the grip of civil war, yet the mechanic causes some actions to become redundant, meaningless. The core mechanic of the first person shooter genre is that of shooting hostile characters. This usually requires a degree of skill and comes at the cost of some form of ammunition. Even ignoring the cultural connotations of the act killing a hostile character is rich with mechanical meaning. They will no longer be around to threaten the player in the future, which leads to a change in the play style of the player over time, as areas of the game world shift from hostility to safety. Additionally the expenditure of ammunition is meaningful, as the quantity of ammunition used in killing one hostile will cause changes in the manner in which subsequent hostiles can be dealt with.

Upon encountering a hostile checkpoints in Far Cry 2 both elements of meaning inherent in that core shooting mechanic become redundant.

Respawning enemies prevent a change in future behaviour as areas do not become less hostile over time. The act of killing does not change the overall state of the game world or the future play style of the player, therefore in this sense the act of killing itself is rendered largely meaningless, there are  no long term consequences. It is in fact more beneficial to avoid enemies as it is to kill them, especially as time is very rarely a factor. The decision to engage these hostile in direct combat is a redundant one. Ammunition can be recovered from the bodies of dead hostiles, so the actual expenditure of ammunition is only meaningful when more is expended that is recovered a  generally rare occurrence, made even more so because some checkpoints contain stockpiles of ammunition.

In a strictly mechanical sense the act of attacking checkpoints in Far Cry 2 is meaningless beyond the immediate short term.  It’s possible that this was an intentional inclusion designed to be representative of a country in the grip of civil war where death is largely meaningless.  I’m willing to give Ubisoft Montreal the benefit of the doubt given the various subtexts at work in Far Cry 2, however this doesn’t excuse the dozens of other games that also include redundant and meaningless game mechanics.

The infinitely respawning hostiles in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, when killing a hundred hostiles has no consequence the act of killing itself becomes meaningless; war can be won simply by continuous forward motion. Dialogue trees in Mass Effect or Fallout 3, when two different options lead to the same outcome the choice between them is meaningless. Vita Chambers in BioShock, when you are eternally reborn any actions taken to mitigate health lose are meaningless.

These mechanics were implemented because they served to increase tension, constrain options or improve pacing, in short they were included to help maintain a specific aesthetic experience; often a narrative focused one. Yet it’s worth noting that almost all the examples I’ve cited have been criticised for in some way being unrealistic. The expectation is that actions have consequences, that choices are meaningful, when this fails to occur the artificiality is made painfully obvious.

Narrative plots are built around the immutability of fate, events occur in a specific manner for dramatic purpose. If an event is included in the plot it serves a purpose, even red herrings exist serve the purpose of being a red herring; nothing is wasted, nothing is redundant.

Games are built around providing choices and feeding back the consequences of those choices. Choices are included if they have some consequence that influence the developing act of play. If choices are included that don’t have consequences they are redundant  and a waste of time on the player of both player and designer.

In order to be meaningful narratives and games depend on the portrayal of both actions and consequences.

All too often when games seek to include some form of narrative the inflexible nature of heavily plotted stories is given prominence over the flexible nature of gameplay choices. As in the examples cited this can lead to redundant choices being included simply because choices must exist in a game but the focus on the plot means those choices cannot have consequences that might move the narrative away from what has been prescribed by the original author.

That actions have consequences and thus carry meaning is something we all learn in childhood. So when presented with a choice its naturally expect there to be a consequence, otherwise why be given the choice at all?

The future of narrative games is not based around more directly authored experiences but around narratives that make use of the fundamental nature of games to present choices that have consequences, and to ensure that those consequences contain both a mechanical and a narrative component.

Despite some first steps made in this direction, Masq being a particularly interesting if limited example, there is still some way to go. Until then maybe it’s time those interested in narrative in games start to look for guidance from Chess as much as Chaucer.

Exploring the Territory.

Games are about the exploration of space, both in the physical sense of exploring a virtual environment, and the abstract sense of exploring the possibility space provided by the game; the mechanics available and the dynamics that develop from them.

In both cases there are two distinct types of explorable territory: functional and logical. The first type are locations that provide some form of functionality and this is the more common type of territory, in fact without any functional territory there would be no game. The second type of territory is found less frequently, and in some games doesn’t exist at all, these are locations that don’t provide a specific function but that exists simply because of logical or contextual consistency; such space should exist so it does.

Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is made up almost exclusively of functional territory. No matter where you go there is always something happening, some purpose to the location, a function to perform. You are funneled through functional territory with little scope for exploration beyond a limited number of rooms outside the critical path.

Thief: The Dark Project 01
“I once caught a Burrick this small!”

Thief: The Dark Project on the other hand is a title made up of large areas of logical territory. There are some locations that must be visited to complete the objectives required for each level, but these are the minority. Levels in The Dark Project are build to represent real – or at least plausible locations – they are castles with kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms. Some of these locations may contain loot to steal or non-player characters to interact with but few of which are critical to completing the game. Certain locations may even be entirely devoid of anything beyond the physical world geometry itself.

Logical territory in the physical game world is there to encourage exploration, it does not serve a purpose in terms of completing the game but can be used to provide narrative context. Consider the many mise-en-scène moments in BioShock they generally don’t occur in areas you are required to visit, but in areas off the beaten track, areas whose existence nevertheless makes sense in the context of the world.

Functional and logical locations also exists in the abstract, in the territory that defines the possibility space of a game. Function territory in this sense are the mechanics that are required to actually play the game on a basic level. Logical territory is those mechanics that serve as support to the core systems; they exist for verisimilitude, or player self expression, or they are derived from logical interactions of functional mechanics; they are not vital to the completion of the game.

Quake III Arena is a game whose mechanics are full of functional territory. Movement controls are limited to those that have a direct impact on the game and each weapon has only one function. The exception to this being the ability to rocket or grenade jump (using the concussive force from an explosion to increase your natural jumping height). This is a logical mechanic, not in the sense that it actually makes any rational sense in terms of actual explosions, but in that it is a mechanic developed from the logical dynamic relationships of “rockets cause explosions”, and “explosions impart movement forces upon player characters”.

Again, The Dark Project is an example of a game that makes heavy use of logical territory in its possibility space. The mechanics of movement, and basic interaction with objects in the world all exist in the functional territory of the game. Without such basic skills it would be impossible to progress. Beyond this functional territory there are a range of possibilities that exist because they make sense in terms of the world fiction (the bow and the various elemental arrows) or because they are based off logical interactions between other mechanics in the world (water arrows used to clean blood stains off the floor). Exploration of this logical territory is not required for progression but doing so provides a variety of options that can be used to supplement the central mechanics.

The extent to which games make use of logical territory is an indication of the extent to which the games allow for explorative play. Play that exists not because it fulfills a purpose, rather because it is a logical extension of the existing mechanics.

Each game has a different distribution of functional and logical territory, sometimes this distribution can change over time. Locations that initially only existed to serve the narrative can later take on specific purposes in the game. This can be seen in Far Cry 2 where the numerous towns and buildings throughout the world can switch between logical and functional territory depending on the current mission. A fortified settlement can be a momentary distraction one moment and a vital mission location the next.

A focus on functional territory, in both the physical and abstract sense, leads to experiences that are often described as ‘linear’; there is little room for exploration. What these games do offer is a much more focused experience. When each location, each mechanic, is included for a clear reason that territory can be tuned to provide the desired emotional and psychological response; the intense action of Modern Warfare or the skill focused purity of Quake III Arena.

A focus on logical territory leads to ‘free-form’, experimental, experiences where there is a greater scope for exploration and player expression. The more logical territory that exists the more redundancy is present, and thus the more likely two different players are to have a different exploratory experience. The downside is that such games can’t reliably provide the form of emotional of psychological impact that experiences based on more prescribed functional territory can. The very fact players can ‘take them or leave them’ means designers have little control of the exact circumstances by which you encounter and explore logical territory.

Functional territory defines the landmarks on the explorable terrain, while logical territory is everything in between. Without the former there would be no game, without the latter what game there is would lack variety and context.

Restricted Interactivity.

A core property of games as is that of interactivity, digital games especially so. Computers are interactive, therefore computer games are interactive, but does interactivity operate on a binary scale? Is something either interactive or not? If it’s not a binary scale does a game require a certain degree of interactivity?

One title that has been criticised for not being enough of a game, (not interactive enough?) is Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. The sequel to the critically acclaimed point-and-click adventure game The Longest Journey, Dreamfall has been criticised for including too few elements of actual interactivity. In essence the game involves an extensive use of non-interactive cut-scenes, linked by periods of environmental exploration and brief tactically unsophisticated combat. By a number of metrics there is very little “game” in Dreamfall and what does exist is not particularly well implemented. However I contend that none of that matters, Dreamfall is a form of electronic entertainment that provides an experience that could not be implemented in another medium and remain as engaging or affecting. The worlds of Stark and Arcadia and the people that inhabit them, could be described in a novel or represented in a film but neither form could make them feel like an actual place in the way that they can in a digital game.

Cinematic… But not a film.

Dreamfall it is too interactive to be a film, therefore gaming has as much right to claim it as anything else.

All games afford a some degree of interactivity, it make no sense to put a threshold on the degree of interactivity a game is required to offer. The level of interactivity provided by a game like Grand Theft Auto III is something unique to the field of games and something that should be encouraged. But the specific style of highly scripted experience provided by Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is just as vital to the evolution of games; they are simply at different ends of a wide spectrum of interactivity. Though potentially less interactive than Grand Theft Auto III, Modern Warfare is still too interactive to be a film. It must be a game because it can’t be anything else.

Similar arguments occur when it comes to the role of story and narrative within a game, such as during the GDC panel on “The Future Of Story In Game Design”. As interesting as such discussions can be, I believe that they are fundamentally counter-productive. I personally see a role for narrative in games, and am interested in the potential new techniques for storytelling made available by games. However I would never claim that all titles must aspire to developing a narrative, any more than I would demand that all films should be in black and white, or that all literature should be written in iambic pentameter.

Discussions about the role of story in game design should be limited to the specifics of whether it is something a particular title should be concerned with or not. Of course there is a role for author created narratives in the vast continuum that is games but not necessarily in every title, and not to the same extent in those titles that do choose to include such narratives.

Gaming should be an inclusive form, there’s as much room for the simulated as the imaginary, for the narrative as the ludic.

The worst fate that can befall any medium, at such a relatively early stage in it’s development, is to have arbitrary restrictions imposed upon its growth.