The Same Game

Raph Koster has an interesting post covering many of the major game releases of 2007. The gist of his argument, as I see it, is that underneath their graphics and storytelling, games like God of War 2, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4 and so on are all more or less the same game.

On one level, this is another round in the long-running debate between formalist game critics (the “ludologists”) and game critics who are more interested in interpretation, in the hermeneutical and phenomenological dimensions of games (e.g., what games mean and how we experience a given game). The formalists concentrate on the underlying structure of play in a game, the interpretative critics work with the content. From the latter perspective, the difference between Mass Effect and God of War 2 is huge. They’re in different genres, they work with very different imagery, the protagonist figures are extremely different, the delivery of and emphasis on narrative diverges significantly. From the former perspective, they are in fact fairly similar. There’s a few structural variations: in Mass Effect, you have a few points of interactive decision making that God of War 2 doesn’t offer (how to develop your character, whether to pursue side quests) and the actual mechanics of combat in God of War 2 are a bit more tightly scripted and don’t have the variable of squadmates to worry about. (Not that you think too much about your allies in Mass Effect, given the lamentable inclination of your squadmates to fire at walls rather than enemies.)

I don’t think it makes any sense to choose stridently between these perspectives. It would be stupid to simply look past the content and experience of playing either game to some underlying structure that’s somehow more real or important. But the similarity in structure is real, and like Raph, I suspect that’s becoming a very serious cul-de-sac for the future of digital games as a cultural form, on several levels.

For one, for all that digital games are a huge cultural and economic force, that’s partly a consequence of a relatively small group of consumers spending a huge amount of money on a lot of product. Those consumers are extremely literate about the conventions of game design, but that literacy is locking games into a forced path of forward evolution. It’s rather like an extremely tight symbiosis, two organisms that are utterly dependent upon one another within a very constrained ecological niche. Any environmental disruption and you wonder at whether either of them will survive. Digital games could use a push towards ecological generalism, towards adaptability and technodiversity.

The interesting problem is the direction of that push. I actually feel as if we’re almost already at the point where new underlying structures of play may establish themselves because of the increasing commercial viability of casual games. If digital games become more ubiquitious, and more of those games are either based on familiar non-digital templates (board games, card games, physical games) or don’t require a long experience with the grammar of gameplay, then the market for games will widen considerably.

However, I’m also interested in what could happen within the more inbred creative world of the games that Raph writes about. I can see two plausible changes that would help let some air and light into that room.

The first would be a richer range of genres and a deeper skill with storytelling. My response to Richard Bartle’s recent question about why so many games are built around fantasy (and a very narrow form of Tolkienesque fantasy to boot) is that this is a largely contingent, accidental development at its roots, having to do with the transition from pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons to early digital games. That beginning has hardened into a path-dependent rule of design, but all it takes for change to become possible is one major commercial success in a new genre. (Say, for example, the impact of Grand Theft Auto in clearing the way for crime- and gangster-related titles.) Bioshock was a fairly good demonstration of what might be possible if game designers concentrate on visual creativity and an imaginative approach to genre.

I am more pessimistic about storytelling, however. The truth is that almost none of the current generation of game designers are good storytellers. Even the best of games rarely rise to the level of being proficiently derivative narrative engines. Look at Mass Effect, a game whose storytelling has been widely complimented. The main plot is pretty much a Science Fiction 101 space-operatic mash-up. Galactic civilization, many alien races, ancient progenitors, even more ancient menace which periodically swats down galactic civilization, humanity struggling to claim its place in the stars. It’s more a platform for character development and for interactive participation, which is what the plot mostly needs to be in a game of this type. As such, it’s great. Write it out as a novel and it seems like fairly thin gruel. Even the side plots are thinly disguised homages to very specific SF stories: at one point, for example, you get Aliens combined with Speaker for the Dead. If digital games are going to tell really interesting stories, their designers are going to need to bring people capable of telling those stories into the process of production.

The other direction where there could be some kind of evolution in games-for-gamers would be towards more emergent or “sandbox” kinds of gameplay. Designers like to claim that their games already accomodate this kind of design, but that’s largely wrong or misleading most of the time. This is one reason that Assassin’s Creed disappointed a lot of gamers. They expected it to be a very open-ended environment filled with NPCs who had autonomous-agent AI, where the player decided when and how to carry out his objectives. In the end, it was a fairly scripted game with a lot of repetition. Bioshock seems to me to be a good example of where this kind of element is really lacking. It’s set in a huge, interesting world, but the player is riding the amusement-park rails the entire time. Any time you might want to get out and explore, there’s a conveniently impassable obstacle. I personally find it frustrating to be fighting enemies who seem to be able to come and go in a way that I cannot. Bioshock at least tries to help with the suspension of disbelief in one direction (the Little Sisters and Big Daddies have methods of travel that you cannot imitate, for good reason) but it still doesn’t explain how everyone else is either able to move freely through environments that you cannot traverse, or mysteriously appears from nowhere.

Moreover, Bioshock only offers you one major branching decision (whether or not to brutally harvest the genetic power of the Little Sisters). If Bioshock were either a genuinely compelling story or a meaningfully open-ended environment, there would be a lot more going on after the major twist in the storyline. (Spoiler warning!) I found myself very intensely engaged in hating Andrew Ryan right up to the confrontation with him. The revelation of how the main character had been manipulated, and of his secret nature, was also emotionally involving. But after that point, the amusement park locks down tightly. In a novel, this would be the point of dramatic choice. In an open-ended interactive environment, it might also be the point where the player would look for other options, other ways to do things. The original Deus Ex still remains one of the few games I can think of where the player can make a dramatic and emergent choice at a number of branching paths and find to his shock that the game allows that to happen. There’s one key moment in the game where you learn how you’re being manipulated and a key character tells you have no choice but to accept it. I remember saving the game and then with some irritation saying, “Ok, I’m just going to kill this guy”, knowing that the game wouldn’t allow it. I was stunned when in fact I was allowed to do it.

I know why most designers don’t let players climb off the amusement park ride and peek behind the scenery. If you’re effectively designing every aspect of the game environment by hand, with creative precision, the labor-time that’s involved in allowing players to wander is very demanding. If you automate the generation of the overall visual environment, it quickly becomes generic and boring, like the interminable and repetitive dungeons of the game Daggerfall. This is a technical problem, but it’s also an indictment of the extent to which designers are afraid to let go or lose control over the experience of players. At least some games need to be reimagined as toolkits: this is what makes The Sims (1 and 2) such an astonishing commercial success. At the very least, designers need to recognize where the content of play creates an intense desire to explore interactive branches in the structure of the game. Bioshock wraps a straitjacket around the player at exactly the moment where the narrative most intensely stimulates the desire to run free and wild, to escape. That may be the aesthetic intent (to reinforce the degree to which your character has been controlled by others) but that ultimately makes for both a frustrating story and a frustrating game.

The main intellectual and critical issue around games for me remains: why aren’t they so much more than they are? In several directions, the far horizons of possibility are both visible and attainable.

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8 Responses to The Same Game

  1. engelcox says:

    What do you think of the impact that rhythm games are having on the industry, Tim? The rise of Guitar Hero, and now Rock Band, seems to me to be a bright shining light that is opening gaming up to new people and possibilities. Like the Wii, right after it was introduced, I’m hearing stories of people playing these games together in the same room rather than mano a machino.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Definitely. We have a friend who has zero interest in digital games who basically has to be pried loose from our copy of Rock Band, which I think is great news for the industry (and fun for gamers as well).

    But game designers may well be the last to understand this lesson. Look at how few designers have actually shown any interest in the design direction laid out by the Sims, after all.

  3. Doug says:

    Paging Greg Costikyan? These look like his issues…

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah. Greg is really smart and dedicatedly persistent about trying to get this message across.

  5. Tom Scudder says:

    So what the heck ever happened to Spore, anyway?

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, jeepers, I’ve been wondering the same thing. Haven’t heard a peep of hype about it for a while.

  7. mskorpe1 says:

    The last news release they had was October 2007—and I suspect they’d be hyping it if anything new had come out since then.

  8. elemund says:

    Partly, I think he’s cheating: the batch of games he’s looking at is intentionally pretty similar, and he does a pretty good job of ignoring the differences between them.

    I do feel a little bit of the same thing–that games these days feel the same more than they used to–but I don’t think it’s because they’ve become inbred trying to appeal to the same tiny crowd. Genres and conventions within genres are pretty established by now–jump with A in 3rd person games, move with the left stick and aim with the right in 1st person games, and so on–but it seems to me that when they change it’s in the direction of streamlining and the lowest common denominator and away from obscurity and complexity. Look at how quickly and universally Halo’s health recovery got adopted, for instance.

    As for why games aren’t more open-ended–and I’ll freely admit this is my professional bias speaking–I think it’s because fewer games are built from the ground up by programmers these days. It’s kind of odd, really. Part of it is that producers and lead designers increasingly come from level design or outside; part of it is probably a feeling that the job of programmers is to put together Engines, and what designers do with them is really none of our business.

    It’s also hard. People bounce back slowly after failures (how many years between Trespasser and Half-Life 2?) and learn the wrong lessons from successes (GTA succeeded because it had prostitutes!)

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