Continuous Meaning.

As has been discussed previously it makes no sense to analyse a game mechanic devoid of the context in  which it occurs. At an abstract level Jump is a mechanic that exists in many games from Super Mario Galaxy to Mirror’s Edge or Far Cry 2. The context within which each mechanic is performed is what imbues an otherwise similar action with a different meaning. The Jump mechanic in Mirror’s Edge is not possessed of the same layers of meaning as the Jump mechanic in Far Cry 2. Neither is a Jump performed at one point in Far Cry 2 as meaningful as a Jump performed at another point; the circumstances surrounding the mechanic have changed.

The specific context in which a mechanic exists is always in flux, previous actions influence the context of future actions.

If I am standing in the desert in a far corner of the world with nobody in sight then Jump has a decidedly different meaning than it would if I was in the middle of a frantic fire fight in the capital city.

It’s natural to expect that the more meaningful a mechanic, the more obvious, and potentially dramatic, the reaction it provokes. If I am alone and I start to Jump the action is not very meaningful at all, so little to no response is expected. If I am in combat in an object rich environment and I Jump the action is rich with meaning. Consequently I respect the world to response in an equally meaningful manner; enemies will change their attack patterns, objects will move if I knock them over, I will land on other objects if my Jump enables me to reach them.

The same actions performed in different contexts should lead to different, but contextually appropriately responses.

Some mechanics are, by their very nature, more inherently meaningful than others. Shoot, is a mechanic full of cultural and psychological implications that imbue it with much richer layers of meaning than those associated with Jump. However if I Shoot when standing alone in the middle of the desert I still expect to elicit very little response, despite Shoot being more symbolically meaningful. This is because a lot of the meaning associated with Shoot is dependant on there being other objects around to act upon. Shoot is inherently more meaningful than Jump but only in certain circumstances. Shooting when in combat in the middle of a city is an action where a dramatic response is expected.

The meaning of a particular mechanic is governed not only by the inherent symbolism and cultural associations of that action (Shooting is symbolically and culturally more meaningful than Jumping) but also the specific context in which each action occurs.

An example of this can be seen in a very specific manner in Mirror’s Edge. The movement options available are highly dependant on the current speed at which you are moving, which is turn is influenced by the previous moves you have performed. No action occurs in isolation as every previous action has some influence on the current context and therefore your range of possible actions and the potential responses to them.

Because all actions alter the state of the game world in some fashion, the context of future actions is determined by the previous actions that led to the current state of the game world. This means all actions that alter the context of the game world, in affect any and all actions, are meaningful as they have an impact on future actions.

All actions are meaningful if they alter the context of future actions.

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?

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).

BioShock

BioShock

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.

Different Vocabularies.

Games can be thought of as a language of communication by which the player communicates their intent through the use of nouns (Objects) and adverb-verb pairs (Actions) and the game responds by changing the adjectives (Properties) describing the nouns.

The grammar of the game defines the type of sentences that have meaning within the current context; which nouns are valid with which adverb-pairs. This grammar is flexible to the extent that the rules governing interactions are able to change over the course of a game. However as I’ve discussed previously too much deviation from the core grammar can lead to multi-modal gameplay requiring players to learn an entirely new set of interactions for specific sections of the game.

Even if the rules of grammar remain generally inflexible within each game this doesn’t mean that all games have the same basic grammatical structure. Some games are rich with objects which can be interact with, or feature a deeper vocabulary with a greater range of valid interactions. Others might have a limited range of nouns and adverb-verb pairs but what they lack in depth their make up for in clarity, an action that is valid between two objects will always be valid, the outcomes predictable.

Consider Deus Ex, this is a game with both a rich and deep vocabulary. There are dozens of objects within the world that can be interacted with, interactions that are rarely limited to single use actions. An example of this is the “Fire Extinguisher”, in addition to the obvious use of putting out objects that are “On Fire” it can also be used on “Characters” within the world to “Stun” them. If “Shot” the “Fire Extinguishers” can even “Stun” the player themselves. Games with a rich and deep vocabulary present players with a variety of methods for overcoming challenges as there is often redundancy and overlap in which objects can perform what actions or provoke which property changes in other objects. With such a deep vocabulary players can explore and exploit this to achieve their goals using different tactics.

Prince Of Persia on the other hand is a noun poor game with a limited vocabulary. Each object has a specific and unique verb attached to it, “Pillars” exist only to be “Climbed”, “Light Seeds” exist solely to be “Collected”. Though this specification of purpose means there is little room for the player to explore the possibility space of the game, it does eliminate redundancy and ambiguity. When objects only have single uses players can be sure that, provided they understand the interactions available, they will be met with few unexpected situations. They can be confidant in the validity of any plans they make, the challenge coming from their ability to execute them.

Languages can also be direct or indirect. Direct languages are ones where the actions directly affect objects and change their properties. Indirect languages are ones where the actions affect the world itself, or lead to the creation of new objects, which in turn affect changes in the properties of other objects. The world itself can be thought of as a specific object in indirect languages.

In the previous example of the “Fire Extinguisher” it would be more accurate to say that the “Fire Extinguisher Creates a Gas Cloud” and that the “Gas Cloud Stuns the Character”. Games that are object rich tend to be indirect and feature a heavy degree of simulation as otherwise each individual action would need to be hard-coded into the system.

Games based on a direct language can feel more focused, all the interactions between objects are directly and specifically implemented. This provides the designer much tighter control over what the player is able to do, where and when. When all interactions are specifically designed it means that any events that occur within the game are ones initiated directly by the player or by the game in response to the player; usually through the actions of opposing characters. This is in contrast to an indirect language where interactions can occur outside the player’s control. A “Fire” object can ignite another object which can in turn ignite others leading to a chain reaction of actions and reactions.

Games with deep, indirect and noun rich vocabularies offer a wide range of options to the player, a number of ways in which they can communicate their intent. This leads to lots of possibilities self expression and emergent gameplay at the expense of robustness and authorial control

Shallow, direct and noun poor vocabularies lead to more tightly authored games, where all possible player actions are accounted for. Such games are often highly crafted experiences, even though there are a limited number of options available each one has been given specific attention. This leads to a more focused game with less freedom but also less unpredictable or unexpected behaviour.