Wednesday, September 17, 2008
How Game Design is like Architecture
When I was talking about Too Human last week I tried to make this point that game design is more craft than art. I've been thinking on this idea for a while now, and I'm going to try to make some sense of it by comparing games to another art form, architecture.
Some kinds of art have a basic functional aspect. Because buildings, as objects, have this function of providing shelter from the elements and serving all these other practical needs, there are certain constraints on their form that precede any expressive capacity. You have to make sure no water pours thorough the roof, and that it doesn't fall down. Windows are probably a must, along with doors.
In functional media like architecture, the craft consists in finding elegant responses to the engineering challenges posed by the role of buildings in our lives. So if you're in Manhattan and you need to maximize the floor-space-to-ground-rent ratio, the steel-frame skyscraper is a graceful solution to this problem. When you get into more specialized spaces, you have to account for the fact that people will be viewing art, listening to music, or watching topless women dance in your edifice and build to suit. Because we've been constructing buildings since the dawn of man, most of these basic design problems have been ironed out long ago.
This isn't to say that architecture is mere craftsmanship, and the visual aesthetic appropriate to buildings mere ornamentation. The form we impose on our living spaces reflects, like other arts, our ideals concerning human culture-- our ambitions, our obsessions, the whole form of our common life. (John Ruskin wrote this great piece in which he said that the predominance of wrought-iron fences told you everything you needed to know about the degradation of Victorian England at the hands of industry.) Architects are often consciously guided by their convictions about beauty, or domesticity, or the cultural logic of late capitalism. Sometimes the demands of function go by the wayside, but the pursuit of significance is generally constrained by the need to keep the weather out.
I think the demands of interaction make games an intrinsically functional medium too. One of the things that makes games different from most other media is that they are intrinsically objects you have to interact with. You do things to them, they do things back to you. It's how they work. Some other forms of art are like this to some degree-- even paintings have this way of drawing your eye along a certain path through the scene. But in video games it's more extreme; you have to do something to them if you want any art to happen.
This is why I think that the craft of game design-- by which i mean mostly this whole business of finding elegant solutions to the problems posed by interaction-- is so important, maybe even predominant, compared to the more artistic or expressive aspects of game design. Before a game can set about saying something interesting-- narratively or otherwise-- it has to hold the roof up. Producing a non-buggy code is only the first hurdle (though I'm assured it consumes great proportions of development time). There are a suite of basic questions: How am I going to optimize the real estate offered by the controller so that the player can get around in the world with ease? How do I convey the mission-critical gameplay information-- her life, her ammo, the map, whatever-- to the player? What do you do about the camera? How long does the player need to play at a stretch, and when do they get to save their progress? Coming up with good answers to these questions is a prerequisite to doing anything else, and since we haven't been making games for millenia, and the basic structure of games is incredibly diverse, we still see many games with shaky foundations.
A great many games-- like Too Human-- are the story of innovative ideas dashed by the neglect of craft. I wanted to love Dead Rising (open-world zombie apocalypse set in a mall? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes), but the save points were so far apart and the hordes of zombies so thick that I could barely make any progress. The suicidal pathfinding AI made escort missions nearly impossible. Aiming guns introduced a barely usable first-person perspective. I know a lot of people made it past these issues and ended up loving the game, but for me I could never get past the obstacles posed by these design problems. (As a fan of the Metal Gear Solid series, I am capable of overlooking a litany of insane design choices; I don't even want to imagine what it was like to play MGS3 without the Subsistence camera.)
In a post last week, Michael Abbott compared the new game Spore to the iPod, which “put an immaculately designed and easy to use system in the hands of people and let them have fun with it,” and I think this is high praise indeed. Well-designed games make us forget the technical impediments to the enjoyment of art, and this is more than half the battle.