I am Vincent Brooks.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for the ending of Catherine.

Catherine, Atlus’s 2011\12 visual novel puzzle game amalgamation is a game I’ve seen cited as “one of the most sexist” games made and another example of “the weird Japanese and their games about sex”. I don’t have much interest getting into the racism and ethnocentrism of that second comment, but the idea that Catherine is sexist is something I’ve struggled with. It was one of my favourite games of 2012 but the reasons for that are uncomfortable.

There’s a bunch of fairly obvious reasons why Catherine can be considered sexist: objectification; heteronormative representations; and transphobia are just a few of the many justifiable criticisms… Put like that I wonder where I can really go with this argument, so I’ll just stick with my personal experience.

Vincent’s ability to avoid making a decision hit a little too close to home.

The basic conceit of the relationships portrayed in Catherine rely on played out tropes: the “shrew”; the “infantilised seductress”; and the “commitment-phobic man”. As common as those tropes are in contemporary fiction it’s rare – at least in my experience – for the underlying cultural factors behind the “commitment-phobic man” trope to be examined.

I’m in my early thirties, in a long-term relationship that I’ve no desire to see end; however, I have defined feelings about marriage and children, I am uninterested in either. All those are facts about my current life experience and Vincent is the only character I’ve inhabited in a video game that has represented any of those facets of my own psychology.

Vincent is uncertain, fearful and troubled by thoughts of “what might be” because he’s a product of a society that holds up Catherine not as a person in her own right but an object for men to strive toward; she’s the beautiful woman as status symbol, her “capture” a validation of a man’s masculinity and success. It’s a horrible, insidious cultural force and one men are suffocated by practically from birth. At the same time we are also bombarded with messages about the importance of being a husband and a father, again reinforced by the notions of such things as markers of masculinity and success.

Throughout ours teens and twenties these messages are all but impossible to ignore, unsurprising given that so much media created for men in that age range is generally horrible, being based around the concepts of “sex as a competition” and the importance of being an “alpha male”.

By the time we reach our thirties we’re expected to have adopted one of those frequently contradictory mindsets and have “settled down”, either to a life of marriage and children, or one of “sexual conquests” and bachelorhood.

Life doesn’t really work like that, by the time I reached my late twenties I saw all the bullshit cultural messaging for what it was, but with so few alternative representations to relate to I felt stuck. Vincent at the start of Catherine reminded me powerfully of what that felt like. While his friends all made their decisions and went down one of the two opposing paths of masculinity (though its notable that those two paths didn’t bring happiness and success, instead the truth was messy and complicated as it is wont to be), he didn’t know who he was or what he wanted.

As I played Catherine I strove to be honest at every juncture, I tried to be polite to Catherine without leading her on, and where I was granted the option I tried to be honest with Katherine, and yet still found myself justifying lying to her: “It’s the best thing for her.” “Nothing really happened so there’s nothing to tell her.” I was succumbing to all the cultural programming I had become so convinced I’d seen through.

In the end despite maintaining that I wasn’t interested I opened the sexy photos from Catherine and complimented her on them, again justifying that behaviour was easy: “I’m just being polite”. “I shouldn’t shame her for being comfortable with her sexuality.”

The truth was that, despite my protestations, I was and still am infected by the toxic notions of beautiful women as status symbols. I wanted to be successful, I wanted Catherine to like me because that made me feel good, but I didn’t want to abandon Katherine either.

In the end the game revealed that Catherine was a succubus, and that given my actions I would end up with her in the underworld, an outcome I had been convinced I wouldn’t get because I was just being a “nice guy”. I felt cheated somewhat, Catherine hadn’t been real and all my actions had been essentially for nothing; no matter what the game said I felt like I’d got the bad ending.

Of course Catherine wasn’t really who she appeared to be, the notion of this perfect sexual fantasy object who will appear from nowhere and fill your life with excitement and mark you out as a successful masculine man is a myth. Sadly it’s a myth that’s insidious and omnipresent, it’s practically everywhere you look in contemporary western culture. Being beautiful is a mark of success for women, “possessing” that beauty is a mark of success for men.

Catherine was a myth and secretly chasing that myth, while desperately telling myself otherwise, led nowhere. My final moments with Catherine were unsettling because in those moments I realised how strongly the cultural messages of masculinity still exist inside my own mind despite what I might tell myself.

Catherine is sexist, you could almost says it’s sexism incarnate. It’s an embodiment of the conflicting and contradictory cultural messages men are bombarded with, and it helped me realised how much sway they still hold over me.

Catherine is a mirror held up to my own prejudices and beliefs, because Vincent is exactly as sexist as I am, and that’s a hard thing to admit.

Mechanical Definitions.

At a low enough level all game mechanics are the same, we press a button, move a stick, and something happens. Action and Outcome. Process and Result. Context is what allows us to determine if we are moving a ship through space or a counter across a board context is provided by the narrative of the game.

If a plot is conceptually a “to do list” of events, then the rules of a game define the game’s systemic plot, what actions are possible and when. Using this metaphor game mechanics are the constituent, atomic, elements of a game plot, so what are the constituent elements of a narrative plot? Sentences? Dialogue? Games are often compared to film, and a line of dialogue, an individual frame, these are potentially the atomic elements of film?

As a method of conveying meaning, what is the role of any line of dialogue, any scene?

  1. To move the story forward.
  2. To provide information.
  3. To characterise.

Nothing is wasted. Everything that is present should be important, and everything important should be present. If a character walks a certain way, it should provide information, characterise and move the story forward, or at least two of three. Shouldn’t the same hold for any game mechanic? How do we define a specific game mechanic precisely enough to determine if it meets any of these three criteria?

“Shoot this Grunt” is that the mechanic? Or is the mechanic: “Move yourself in the world so that you are Aiming at this character and press the Fire button”?

If an individual mechanic is to be an atomic element then surely the latter is too complex? It is several discrete actions: Move, Aim and Fire. In Halo: Combat Evolved it requires moving two sticks independently then pulling a trigger. It also has to occur at the correct time. But then so does a line of dialogue, a particular scene. If they occur at the wrong time they make no sense.

Events in the wrong context hold incorrect meaning.

Is it actually sensible to try and examine game mechanics devoid of context? Should a game mechanic be considered an action within a context? Not: “Press this button to increase this number”, which increases some arbitrary number in the underlying simulation of the game but: “Increasing my Strength”? Should it be even more high level, an abstract: “Improve\Change my Character”?

If game mechanics should carry meaning at which level should that meaning exist? Or does it exist at each level? Is meaning implicit in action or is it, as I’ve discussed previously, tied to context? Context might inform whether we are moving a ship through space or a counter across a board, but does the action itself hold meaning free of this context?

Is it the responsible of the narrative context, to move the story forward, provide information and characterise or is it possible for mechanics to do that separate from their context?

Contextual Specification – Examples.

Through unintentional irony, L.B Jeffries has helped me prove my assertion that:  “Abstract concept can be powerful but are difficult to appreciate without specific examples.” I’d like to claim that I had intended for my previous post to be overly abstract so as to prove a point, but unfortunately it was merely the result of poor editing. Therefore I’m going to continue with some specific examples of embedded and emergent boundaries and their effects on the experience of play.

The overarching context of Far Cry 2 is that of being a mercenary in a war torn African nation. The embedded boundaries of the game present this fictional setting, imposing limits on both logical and physical exploration; where the player is free to go and the actions they are free to take. A part of these embedded boundaries are the mechanics handling the implementation of the buddy system. This includes not only the logical rules explaining buddy behaviour and interaction but also the textures, models, animations and audio lines related to each buddy. All of these are elements embedded in the game, crafted by the designers and artists; immutable. Though different players can meet and interact with different buddy characters the rules governing those interactions and the assets used to present them are selected from a predefined range of possibilities.

The road less traveled…

When I play Far Cry 2 I am bringing, often unintentionally, a set of subjective emergent boundaries with me. My interactions with the character of Nasreen Davar might have relied on the predefined rules and assets that are embedded elements of the game, however my reaction to her was influenced heavily by my own perceptions and beliefs. My personal play experience was still within the confines of that defined by the embedded boundaries (as is the experience of everybody who plays the game), but the specifics of that experience were further shaped by the emergent boundaries I had erected. The motivations I assigned to Nasreen and other characters was not something hardwired into the mechanics of the game, it was an emergent conceit born of my interpretation of the provided fictional context.

Nowhere in the game rules is there anything that explicitly defines a scene of implied rape, however during my time that particular portion of the game it was something I was very conscious of. Nasreen had been contextualised as a female mercenary and through interactions with me had been deemed by the game, and myself, to be my buddy. When she was taken away the embedded boundaries restricted the actions that were available to rescuing her or escaping on my own, but my  own emergent boundaries restricted those two options even further to the singular activity of ensuring she was safe.

The emergent boundaries served to reinforce the embedded boundaries.

A further example of this form of reinforcement can be seen in the way that Far Cry 2 handled physical movement. Though a lot of the country is reachable by road there are various checkpoints on these roads that when approached will cause you to get be fired upon by the mercenaries guarding them. In the abstract: “certain locations on the map have clusters of respawning objects based around them.” As with my previous examples this abstract concept could apply to many situations, however in this case the locations are contextualised as checkpoints and the respawning objects as hostile mercenaries.

Far Cry 2‘s world is one at war, knowing this I came to the game with certain assumptions, certain emergent boundaries. One of which was that as the primary means of travel roads would be guarded and therefore dangerous. Entering the world I naturally tested this assumption, and finding it to be accurate I made it a point to avoid roads as much as possible. Doing so I found I was not attacked as frequently and I would often find diamonds, tapes, and alternate routes to important locations that I would have missed had I not gone off the beaten track.

The context of the game caused me to make certain assumptions, which were reinforced by the mechanics of the game, leading to a change in my play experience.

Emergent behaviours are ones influenced more by players own emergent boundaries than the embedded boundaries provided by the game.

That’ll be expensive… Or not…

This process of reinforcement is not always the case however, consider Grand Theft Auto IV. The context of the game is that of a Serbian immigrant, Niko Bellic, arriving in America ostensibly to meet his successful cousin Roman. It’s clear from the moment you meet him that Roman is not exactly living the “American Dream” and money is a problem. Throughout the game the need for money is brought up as a motivation on numerous occasions often being the driving reason for Niko’s willing participation in criminal activities. For each of these activities Niko is rewarded with a resource which is contextualised as money, specifically American dollars. These are all embedded elements of the game.

Understanding the concept of money, and having a fair idea of how much a dollar is worth on average I was willing to accept being paid certain amounts for certain tasks. However within what felt like an unnaturally short period of time I had earned enough to buy a much better apartment than my current safe house, and live a significantly more affluent lifestyle. Despite this the game still made a point of encouraging me to take on missions to earn money.  The embedded boundaries of the game were in conflict with the emergent boundaries formed from my understanding of the concept of money and the relative worth of the dollar.

My emergent boundaries were undermining the embedded boundaries, there was a conflict, a dissonance between what the game was explicitly telling me was important and what it was implying was important.

I stopped caring about money as a motivation, and subsequently stopped caring about Niko Bellic as a character because his stated motivations were transparent falsehoods, he clearly didn’t need the money.

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.

Narrative Context.

On several occasions I’ve recounted events that took place while I was playing a game. I’ve described in detail the actions I took and the consequences of those actions, as well as explaining my motivations and emotional reaction to such events:

Jumping out I threw a Molotov at the pursuing vehicle. The Molotov hit the driver setting him on fire and killing him almost instantly. Ducking behind my dune buggy I drew my silenced MP-5 and after a brief game of cat and mouse around some nearby trees I was able to to finish off the second mercenary with a burst to the chest. While I’d been otherwise occupied the fire from my Molotov had ignited their vehicle and as I watched it started to spread toward mine. I sprinted back in an attempt to reach it and drive away before it too could catch fire. I was forced to turn away at the last moment as, already damaged from the initial crash, it exploded, taking a significant portion of my health with it and leaving me standing in the middle of nowhere.

Despite being an accurate description of the events as I perceived them, none of those things occurred in any discernible, measurable way. What actually happen in that period of time was that I moved my mouse in a specific sequence and pressed certain keys in a specific order in reaction to the changing images on my monitor and sound emitted by my speakers.

Somehow I had become so invested in the fictional context constructed by the game that it overrode my logical faculties. The events occurring within its fictional world temporarily became my own reality.

The described sequence of events, my story of that encounter, is unique to me and it existed in an intangible non-space defined by the feedback systems of the game and my understanding and perception of the context of my actions.

I’ve already discussed the concept of games as systems of communication, and fundamental to effective communication is the establishment of a common ground between all participants. Without a common ground, a shared context, even rudimentary communication is difficult and effective communication is impossible.

This concept of communication is not unique to games. Every work of fiction exists for the audience in this non-space bounded by the intersection of the text itself, ripe as it is with the intent of the author, and the mind of the audience, with all its associated preconceptions and prejudices. The form of this common ground and the story describing an individual’s path through it are unique to each individual and each reading. Though the boundaries of this common ground defined by the text itself are immutable those defined by the audience are inherently subjective and flexible.

When reading a book the reader mentally explores this common ground and through this exploration discovers the intended plot. Although this predefined sequence of events will be identical for every reader their individual emotional connection and response to it will be entirely based on the subjective elements they have brought with them.

The act of reading is the act of discovering each person’s individual subjective story. The process Corvus Elrod describes as the construction of the fabula.

If this description of reading as a process of exploration sounds familiar it should. The act of play is the act of exploring a bounded possibility space. The process of exploration forming a personal story within the common grounded formed by the game itself and our own beliefs and values. The fundamental differences between this form of exploration in a game and in other media is that player action has the capacity to change the landscape of this common ground, this possibility space.

Though the audience of a film, or the reader of a novel, is free to explore the common ground and the boundaries defined by the author, those boundaries are absolute and predefined. Events occur in a specific sequence regardless of any action taken on the part of the audience. We are free to scream at the girl to not go up the stairs because the killer is waiting but we know it will have no affect on the outcome. The aspects of the common ground open to exploration are those related to our interpretation of events and motivations, and our emotional reaction to those events. Such works of fiction allow us to explore ourselves through our reaction to the fictional context.

This is not true of games. The events I  described above were not a predefined sequence of occurrences structured by an author, but an emergent sequence of events caused by a confluence of in game circumstances only some of which were under my control.

Game designers cannot directly affect the experience the player has in the game. Their role is that of influencing and shaping the possible experiences, and designing the context for play. Each player’s fabula is one of an infinite number that exist within the bounded possibility space defined by the mechanics and dynamics of the game and the players own personality. Such works allow us to explore ourselves and also the rules and systems governing the possibility space, the game, itself.

Rules and mechanics exists only in the abstract, though they implicitly provided for exploration and discovery, stripped of all context their ability to convey meaning is greatly reduced. Consider the story described above stripped of context and reduced to the basic mechanical elements:

“Verb”  I “Verb” a “Noun” at the pursuing “Noun”. The “Noun” hit the “Noun” setting him “Adjective” and “Verb” him almost instantly. “Verb” behind my “Noun” I “Verb” my “Noun” and after a brief game of cat and mouse around some nearby “Nouns” I was able to to finish off the second “Noun” with a “Verb” to the “Noun”.

Even that almost meaningless story still relies on some context. The story constructed through the exploration of an entirely context free possibility space is a list of mechanical inputs and outputs. In order for any game to hold meaning, and thus compel us to suspend our disbelief and allow it to become our temporary reality, it requires the effective establishment of a context for actions. The bounded possibility space needs to become a bounded narrative space.

So how does a game designer go about establishing this bounded narrative space, this common ground? How do they maintain effective and meaningful communication?

Blowing in the wind…

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Flower.

“It’s like running barefoot through a meadow!”

That was my initial impression of Flower formed after a minute of play. It feels as true now as it did then. Flower is an instantly gratifying experience based on very simply concepts, the pleasure of flight and the sensation of bringing something to life. In a recent interview conducted by Michael Abbott, thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen described it as the “anti-Grand Theft Auto” a goal at which it succeeds admirably.

At the heart of Flower is a means of progression that involves quite simply doing whatever is the most pleasurable thing you can at any moment. Movement inside the game is controlled by physical movement of the SIXAXIS. Simply moving the controller around in a fashion mimicking flight is loaded with the the potential to amuse and entertain in much the same way spreading your arms and pretending to fly around the room is; who hasn’t tried that when they’ve thought nobody could see them?

Soaring across the world you soon realise that flying past a closed flower causes it to burst open with a sound and visual effect that is at once subtle yet pleasing, it’s an action that is clearly good because everything about the aesthetic experience reinforces its positive nature. Automatically you try and find the next closed flower so you can experience that sensation again.

After you’ve found and opened a few flowers the camera pulls back and you witness a rush of colour into the world – a similar effect used in de Blob and Prince Of Persia – this eruption of colour is clearly a welcome event and one you want to witness again. Therefore just as with the first flower you open, you want to have that sensation again, your immediate desire is to bring more colour to the environment. How do you do that? By flying around and finding more flowers of course, by doing the only things you can do, which also happen to be the things you most want to do.

This is the basic formula for the first few stages of the game, what you want to do and what you need to do are in sync and so without really considering your actions, you do what is required. Until something goes wrong …

When it happens it feels like the worst thing that could happen, not only because it clearly looks unpleasant, not only because you feel you’ve caused it; though some part of you realises it was inevitable. It’s the worst thing that could happen because for the first time you don’t really understand what you’ve got to do anymore. So you just keep flying because, despite the loss of colour and lack of purpose, that is still something that feels like a positive act.

The next stage is jarring and actively unpleasant, it requires a degree of precision not found previously and though you cannot die, the shock of failure stings because the effect it is so different from what you’ve come to expect; it’s a diminishing experience not a rewarding one.  You don’t want to carry on because this stage is not like those that came before it’s hostile and dark, and sad.

I nearly stopped playing at this point, I was no longer comfortable, it felt wrong and I didn’t want to be there. Flower had provided me with a mechanic that was inherently pleasurable and then taken it away in a manner that made me long for its return. It had succeed in showing me something I liked and then taken it away right before my eyes. In the space of a few seconds it had successfully conveyed a sense of destruction and loss that the more explicit Fallout 3 had required dozens of hours to evoke. All I wanted was to return everything to the way it was before. Once again the one thing I needed to do, find a way to restore the world to its former beauty, was exactly what I needed to do.

Pushing through to the next stage can feel like a chore, for every minor victory you gain the world around you remains a forbidding, dark place. Once you reach that final stage it dawns on you what you have to do, and everything from there to the conclusion seems to go in a rush of flight and colour. Filled with a sense of righteous indignation you soar through the streets crashing into anything that doesn’t belong. The music building as you get nearer and nearer to the centre of the city, the crescendo of sound echoing the beating of your heart as you rush headlong for the tangled mass of blackened metal, bursting it apart and allowing the colour to flood back in.

Flower is a simple game with a simple premise, it is also a game that so many others can learn from. It doesn’t need explicit objectives, or a map screen, or a voice in your ear urging you in a specific direction. It ensures you do what is required by making what is necessary exactly what you want to be doing.

Of course you’ll play Flower why wouldn’t you? It’s exactly what you want to do, even if maybe you don’t know it yet.

Exploring Meaning.

In order to consider and analyse the explorative form of games it is necessary to present the game mechanics, the logical game space, in some visual manner. The interconnected nature of objects and actions, nouns and verbs, within a game can make any attempt at a complete representation of the entire possibility space prohibitively complex; therefore some degree of simplification is required at least in order to establish a conceptual framework on which to build.

As a first step towards such a visualisation I have started with the previously discussed example of BioShock. Restricting interactions to only those specifically related to the relationship between the player and the Big Daddy leads to a version of the graph depicted below (Click through for a slightly larger version).


This should be understandable to anybody familiar with BioShock. I have intentionally left out a number of mechanics and relationships in order to focus on one specific aspect of the game and see if examining this in isolation can help to gain an understanding of the way in which the game communicates meaning. I have chosen to focus on this aspect in particular, as it directly involves the Little Sisters and Big Daddies who could be considered the emotional, conceptual core of the game.

With a little thought this graph could be expanded to include all the major interactions available to a player in BioShock. Weapons function in a similar fashion to Plasmids, except with Ammunition available either from the environment itself or through the expenditure of Money found in the environment; both such items can also be found on defeated Enemies. Using the existing graph as a starting point it should be fairly straightforward to create a similar graph for the relationship between the Player, their Weapons and their Enemies.

What purpose is served by representing the gameplay of BioShock in this fashion? Before I answer that I would like to compare this graph with a similar one created for Beyond Good & Evil.

Beyond Good & Evil
Beyond Good & Evil

The range of objects and interactions in Beyond Good & Evil is such that, although still simplified this second graph is very nearly complete. The main missing elements are the ability to interact with characters within the world, the special-case mini-games and the ability to use Credits to upgrade your “dai-jo” Staff and purchase tools to improve your ability to locate Creatures and Pearls. A basic understanding of the game should be enough to understand how such elements would modify the existing graph.

Even in this simplified form, it’s possible to see some similarities in these two superficially dissimilar games. As a core part of their mechanics both involve the collection and expenditure of resources: Adam and Eve in the case of BioShock; Credits and Pearls for Beyond Good & Evil.

If we consider the way in which the player interacts with these resources and how they flow through the game space we can generate a graph something like the following for BioShock.

BioShock - Resource Loop
BioShock – Resource Loop

Excluding Weapons for a moment the core resource in BioShock is that of Adam. It is used to purchase or upgrade Plasmids which are then used in combat to defeat Big Daddies and thereby gain access to Little Sisters who provide a degree of Adam which starts the cycle afresh. There are other interactions available and other uses for Adam, each of those introduces a modification to the core resource cycle either by increasing the Player’s direct abilities in combat or allowing them to gain access to more resources which in turn are used to increase their combat effectiveness.

The core resource cycle, the core play, of BioShock revolves around engaging in combat for the singular purpose of becoming better at engaging in combat in the future. There is no other use for the resources available other than either directly or indirectly influencing your combat effectiveness. It is effectively a closed cycle, a treadmill.

Compare this to the core resource cycle for Beyond Good & Evil.

Beyond Good & Evil - Resource Loop
Beyond Good & Evil – Resource Loop

The main methods for acquiring Credits and Pearls in Beyond Good & Evil are combat or using your Camera to take picture of Creatures in the world. The former provides a relatively low number of credits, the latter a variable number of Credits (approximately 200 – 2000, though always significantly more that could be gained through combat) for each unique Creature. In addition after every ten photos taken you will earn a new Pearl. Additionally some Creatures, specifically Boss or Mini-Boss characters, will drop a Pearl, finally Credits themselves can also be used to purchase Pearls.

In the world of Beyond Good & Evil Pearls are contextualised as a black market currency – despite apparently being almost everywhere – and only one location will allow you to purchase anything with them: Mammago Garage. Here you can use Pearls to upgrade your Hovercraft which allows you to unlock new areas of the environment in which to explore, find new styles of play, and expand the narrative.

Everything in Beyond Good & Evil revolves around locating Pearls, which themselves only have one use, that of increasing your ability to explore both its world and its narrative. Though the Hovercraft can be used to defeat some Bosses and acquire Pearls that is not its primary function. The resources in Beyond Good & Evil are used for something other than directly gaining more resources, the core resource cycle could be considered an open cycle.

Because acquisition of resource is at the core of both games it seems valid to use the resource cycle of each game to analyse what they appears to be saying, their meaning.

In terms of the game mechanics it could be said that:

  • BioShock‘s meaning is that acquisition of wealth or power is only important in so far as it can allow for the continued acquisition of wealth and power.
  • Beyond Good & Evil‘s meaning is that the acquisition of wealth is only important in terms of the freedom it provides.

Though based on a simplified representation of the game space it is still an interesting first step in an analysis of the inherent meaning of particular game mechanics and game systems.

Mechanical Exploration.

Warning: This post contains mechanical spoilers for Gravity Bone. If you don’t believe that’s possible and have yet to play the game I assume no responsibility…

In the comments to my previous article on the difference between literature, film and games, Chade questioned my use of the term explorative to describe games. He made two points and I’d like to address them both here:

1. Exploration typically implies that there is some sort of euclidean property in the game space such that strategies can be labelled “near” and “far”, and that “near” strategies are easier to see and reach than “far” ones. I don’t think this is a very accurate statement.

During play there are certain mechanics, certain abilities, that you are aware of and can use immediately and other mechanics that exist in the game space but of which you are unaware or unable to use at the current moment. Consider BioShock, during play you might have the Electrobolt Plasmid and be aware of the way it interacts with pools of water. The ability to electrocute enemies standing in pools is a visible strategy but if the conditions are not right (No Adam, no enemies, no water pools) you still cannot use that ability. It is visible but inaccessible, it is a mechanic you are aware of but one that is far from your current state. As well as Plasmids you might also have a pistol, and if you have enough ammunition you can use it immediately. It is a strategy that is both visible and accessible, it is near to your current state. As you navigate, explore the possibility space of BioShock your distance, in terms of resources and time investment required from particular strategies changes.

Chade’s second point seemed concerned with the differences between fixed and dynamic elements of a game:

2. Exploration typically implies that the player is in control of his movement around the possibility space. This completely understates the importance of the interactions between the game’s various components. In reality, the player is not able to grasp all the possible strategies available to him, and he is not able accurately predict the consequences of his.

If you visit a new city and choose to explore it, you might gain as much pleasure from the local colour, the people and interactions you witness, as you do from the architecture and layout of the city itself. Exploring the workings of dynamic systems is just as meaningful as exploring a fixed location. If that city is in a foreign country where you are new to the culture and social mores you could well find that certain behaviour has an unexpected impact on people you meet. Exploring how this might be the case, how different actions lead to different consequences is part of the appeal of exploration. Watching how people go about their lives in a culture you are new to is a form of exploration even if you have no control over how events play out.

There are numerous reasons why game are pleasurable, spectacle, or the simple joy of taking an action and seeing a response are two of the more easily identifiable ones. In mechanical terms a lot of that pleasure is derived from the self-guided exploration of the possibility space, we play with the system, the simulation, to see where the boundaries are, see how it works. The mental image we build up of the rules of the system and what they mean is unique to each of us. It is shaped, guided, influenced by the designed rules of the game but it cannot be directly controlled by such. Because our experience of game mechanics is a mental process of exploration and discovery it is entirely possible for that mental process, our own mechanical fabula, to be changed by external knowledge of the system. It is possible to have mechanics spoilt.

Mechanical exploration is a process of learning, we can be told the answer and the process of learning will still hold some of its appeal. However the reason for and experience of that learning process has been dramatically altered.

Consider Gravity Bone, I’ve heard a lot of people encouraged others to play this game and I second those recommendations, with one caveat. I would never tell anybody how long the game is. The reason for this is that doing so alters the explorative experience of the game mechanics; which I am about to do now.

During the game you are given tools to use which map to the number keys much like many other games. The number keys 1, 2 and 4 are used but 3 is not. When you play the game you see this and logically assume that you will get a new item that is assigned to the number 3; this never happens. Knowing that there is nothing new after we get the the item assigned to number 4 is not a story spoiler as it tells us nothing about the plot of Gravity Bone. What it is is a mechanical – or more specifically an interface – spoiler. If you do not know you have all the items you will expect more, you will believe there is still some area in the logical possibility space of the game that remains unexplored. Knowing that you never get further items changes the possibility space of the game as you are no longer expecting something else. You are unable to find this out on your own and the nature of your exploration has been radically altered, maybe without you even realising.

Let us return to that foreign city. Imagine you have a guide book with you, you can reference it to find out exactly what you’ll see around a particular corner. Does that change what is around the corner? No. Does it change the physical sensations of walking around the corner and witnessing it with your own senses? No. Does it change the nature of your exploration of the city? Undoubtedly; you have not found something new and formed a new connection between it and other parts of the city, you have located something you already knew about. That is a significant change in experience but it is one that happens so frequently that I wonder if any of us realise what we have missed.

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.