Friday, September 5, 2008
Midwifery in the Living Room
One of the widely unrecognized features of video games as a medium is that they are essentially about learning. Fragging noobs isn't on the SATs, or anything; it's more that playing video games is a matter of the player's uptake of the rules of the game-world, which differ substantially from game to game and are disclosed only gradually within the context of a particular playthrough.
Because the player doesn't know the laws of the game-world prior to picking up the controller, effective game design is a matter communicating the salient features of the game-world to her. However, because games are an interactive medium, the designers need to teach these rules through the player's actions. While there are stop-gaps available when it comes to laying out the basic properties of the environment, for the most part the player must learn the rules of the game by doing things themselves-- experimenting and exploring. The player discovers which parts of the colossus she can climb, what differentiates breakable-pile-of-rubble A from unbreakable-pile-of-rubble-B, and which combination of button presses best decimates hordes of spider ninjas by trying things out and ferreting our the different wrinkles of the world's behavior.
Designing a game in such a way that this process is gratifying to the player strikes me as one of the most fundamental aspects of game design as a craft. There are many different factors that have to be balanced against one another: since the player's sense of earned satisfaction when they have solved a difficult problem posed by the world is what makes gameplay compelling, teaching the rules cannot be too obvious. (You make things too blunt and you lose those “aha” moments that make games like Zelda or Braid feel so worthwhile.) You also need to limit the character's actions sometimes to focus their attention on a particular feature of the environment essential to the rule you intend to get across, and this can feel arbitrary from the player's perspective. And of course you can alienate the player by designing unfair challenges which humiliate the player's reasonable efforts to solve them. If you listen to the commentary for the game Portal, one is impressed by how much fine-grained attention to detail is needful in order to make the player's acquisition of rules rewarding.
In an excellent 1up FM podcast interview earlier this week, Rod Humble of EA described this pedagogical back-and-forth between the player and designer as a kind of dialogue, and explicitly cited Socratic dialogue as a kind of design ideal. I've been tempted to appeal to this comparison for a while now, because I have this feeling that there's an aspect of midwifery to the way a well-crafted game draws its solutions out of you. Even though the designer creates all the rules, it is almost as if the game itself is this third thing that stands apart from both player and designer; the designer's role is to engage the player's critical thinking in such a way that they find their way to it. Doing so is a matter of collaboration in a shared project, rather than the authoritarian imposition of an authorial viewpoint on the player's behavior.
Even though games lag far behind other forms of art in terms of their achievement of emotional and intellectual depth, I do think the maieutic quality of games as a medium offers all kind of artistic possibilities. I'm cheered by the existence of designers like Humble who have such an avowed confidence in the potential-- even philosophical potential-- of games as an art form. I'm not sure myself. But we're beginning to see works that give grounds for optimism.