Thursday, April 2, 2009

GDC 09: Just Remember All Caps When You Spell the Man Name

Time has conspired with the internet to make my efforts at reportage gratuitous. You see, my favorite talk at the GDC this year was given by CLINT HOCKING, the creative director of the intermittently brilliant Far Cry 2 and the man responsible for the term Ludonarrative Dissonance. If you've read his blog you know he's a frighteningly clearheaded man when it comes to thinking about games, so much so that he's forged the (admittedly florid but nonetheless indispensable) critical vocabulary. I loved his talk, and I'm wholly dedicated to hashing it out here, but in the intervening time Chris Remo has posted a crisp and accurate recap on Gamasutra. Furthermore: Hocking, that articulate and witty sonuvabitch, has put the entire talk and slides up on his site. Which means: not only can you read a professional synopsis, but you can also recreate the talk itself, complete with powerpoint jokes (a GDC staple), in the comfort of your own home. Thereby cutting out needlessly loquacious middlemen like myself. Alls I can promise you: I have an angle towards the end.

Hocking began by revisiting the idea of intentionality, a concept he introduced in a talk given to the GDC in 2006. “Intentional Play” is when the player uses their knowledge of a game's mechanics and systems in order to achieve set goals. Hocking cited an example from his previous game, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, to illustrate intentional play at work: in the clip, the player drew on a suite of interconnected gameplay systems, objects, and behaviors-- sticky cameras, traps, enemy AI -- in order to blow an enemy soldier down an elevator shaft.

Hocking went on to break down the idea of intentionality a little further. Intentional play has two elements: “composition” and “execution.” Composition is the planning-element of an action and execution is the active realization of that plan. Hocking used the example of travel to illustrate the differences between different sorts of intentional behavior-- travelling by car requires little composition and a lot of execution, while travelling by plane requires a lot of composition and little execution. To take an example from games, a stealth game is composition-heavy and a linear shooter game is execution-heavy. The former requires meticulous planning and the latter requires rapid action and reaction.

He explained that the development team initially conceived Far Cry 2 in the vein of Splinter Cell: the game would facilitate a high level of composition-centric intentionality on the part of the player. When faced with the task of eliminating an enemy encampment, they expected the player to utilize their understanding of a host of gameplay systems-- fire propagation, scouting, weather, the day/night cycle, enemy AI, weapon loadouts, and so on-- in order to orchestrate an assault.

As development on Far Cry 2 progressed, however, Hocking found that some of these systems really didn't work out the way he hoped. Originally there was a complex enemy morale system and a more fulsome reputation mechanic in place, but the developers eventually eliminated them.

But the developers discovered a funny thing: as they eliminated these systems, and the balance between composition and execution tilted away from the composition-heavy game they had originally envisioned, the game became more and more fun. That is, the developers found that the game was at its best when the players carefully-laid-out plans went haywire and they were forced to reformulate a strategy on the fly.

Hocking explained this change in the fundamental design as a shift from a game that facilitated “intentional” play to a game that inspired “improvisational” play. This game was neither a composition-heavy game ala Splinter Cell or an execution-heavy game ala Call of Duty: what was happening, Hocking says, is that the player was being compelled to periodically bounce back and forth between the “composition” and “execution” phases. This experience-- being forced to recompose on the fly and under uncertain conditions-- was what made the gameplay fun and memorable.

Improvisational play, Hocking says, is intentional but also formless and dynamic. He described the Big Daddy fights in Bioshock as another model instance of improvisational play: because the helmeted behemoths aren't initially hostile, the player has the chance to formulate a plan and lay some traps before initiating combat. Once the battle begins, however, it usually isn't possible to defeat the big daddies in one go-- the whole place goes bitchcakes as the daddy stomps and roars, and you're compelled to retreat and regroup and find ammo and devise a new plan. This is improvisational play.

On the design side, the key to creating this type of dynamic play in Far Cry 2 was inflicting random, small losses on the player in order to divert them back into the composition phase. Inflicting randomized major losses would frustrate the player, but injecting small incremental setbacks-- like the wounds, malaria attacks, and weapon jams in Far Cry 2-- into the gameplay provides just enough putshback to force the player to revise their strategy. The buddy system, which saved the player from death and allowed them a long period of time to regroup, was implemented as a way to raise the player's tolerance for failure when these incremental punishment systems kicked in at a particularly fateful moment.

So that's what the man said, roughly. I have two things I want to say.

First, this talk was a pretty brilliant explanation of what occurs when Far Cry 2 works. People who love Far Cry 2 love it because it provides all these emergent stories that happen when their plans go haywire: “I was up on a ridge opposite a village and I was sniping dudes, as is my wont, when someone in the town opposite began mortaring my position and so then I had to bounce right in order to miss the falling ordinance which worked fine except the mortar shells set the grass on fire and while I was evading the shrapnel and the fire a bunch of dudes had run out of the town and were on the open plain below and they're peppering me with gunfire and it was now too late to thin their ranks with the rifle so I scampered down the ridge with bullets whizzing past me, I'm throwing grenades every which way and I spot this jeep on the west side of town and I jump into it and I'm madly barreling away as enemies jumped into their own jeeps for pursuit.” (Okay, you kind of had to be there)

The problem with Far Cry 2 is that this kind of memorable scenario doesn't happen enough. I found that certain strategies-- basically, getting a good elevated viewpoint and using the sniper rifle-- worked really really well (distance really blunts the disruptive force of the malaria attacks and weapon jams), and once I had discovered a winning gameplan I was loath to abandon that strategy. Because the mission-structure was essentially uniform throughout the game (assault this enemyladen camp x times), developing a bankable approach tends to ruin the game; the moments of pleasurable uncertainty are fewer and far between. The game gave the player the tools they needed to circumvent the effects of random incremental failures, and it suffered as a result.

Which takes me to a second point. To me, the most interesting point of his entire speech was this point he made about improvisational play at the very end: he said that improvisational play was a way to break the structure of dominance inherent in intentional play. As soon as we, the players, understand the deeper systems behind the game we seek to master them, subject them to our intentions. And when we seek to dominate and master a thing, we destroy it. We deprive it of its beauty.

This lust for mastery is one of the things that sets video games off from the other arts: we'd never say we “beat” a novel or a movie, but we feel comfortable using this kind of terminology to describe the kind of experience we have with a game. We feel that games are a contest with the designer; the systems and dynamics of the gameplay aren't there to be enjoyed or treasured but to be overcome.

Hocking suggested that improvisational play offers a different model for player-game interaction. When we're continually forced to improvise-- when we never quite dominate the system of rules that structures our experience-- we're having a different kind of experience, one that's not a contest for power: the game becomes a field for the player to exercise a kind of grace.

I thought this last point about understanding, power, and dominance was so interesting that I worked up the courage to ask Will Wright about it after one of this panels. Tomorrow, I'll tell you what he told me.


Brian said...

I think this theory could have been really well-applied to Mirror's Edge too.

When it became necessary to perfect a run-jump-run, kick some dude, run some more, it was less fun and more of a chore.

When it was all about barreling through and seemingly making it up as you went along, but somehow pulling it off -- essentially with the grace you mention -- oh man, it was bliss.

Unknown said...

I think you make a great point, Brian, although I felt like striving for perfection was great fun in the right circumstances (see: enemy-free time trials).

"We feel that games are a contest with the designer; the systems and dynamics of the gameplay aren't there to be enjoyed or treasured but to be overcome."

I think this touches on one of the reasons the new Prince of Persia is deemed a failure. I suppose some people aren't willing to let go of their competitive streak in favor of immersing themselves and partaking in the game's simulation -- as opposed to defeating it.

Nels Anderson said...

I think that's part of the reason why I find degenerative, dominance-based gameplay so distressing- it's robbing the player (or is least heavily discouraging them) from a chance to do something substantive and meaningful and replacing it with one-upmanship. When we create a game that tries to dominate the player, that makes the entire "conversation" a challenge to the player to turn the tables and dominate the game instead.

In his talk, Clint mention that we still need to work on dismissing this notion of games being all about devastating and dominating players (unless it's deliberate and explicit, a la Ninja Gaiden). This was a great point and it still more of an issue than most people realize.

Great summary. Also, the juxtaposition between loquacious and bitchcakes is sublime.

Anonymous said...

Good looking on the MF Doom reference.

I really appreciate your second point. I just started playing FC2 last week, the first few times I played it was all wonderous discovery and a real sense of tension. But the last few nights those sensations have peaked and I'm spiraling down to the 'mastery' zone. The fun was starting to lag a bit, but then a dude threw a grenade at me... and now I read that they will eventually mortar you position.

These little uncertainty inducing adjustments to the combat mechanics, staggered out over time, will hopefully keep my interest up, as I reaaaalllyy wanna kill that frikin Jackal.

"...All bets off! The Villain got the dice rigged..."

Kirk Battle said...

Isn't he describing the ethic of a roguelike? I've been playing Spelunky for a while now and the whole time I keep thinking that my relationship with it is just like Far Cry 2. The game randomly generates levels and I just play to get caught up in random action. There's no winning, no dominating the game, so your relationship shifts back to just discipline and skill.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@L.Beez: it's funny you mention it 'cause Jonathan Blow mentioned Spelunky during the question period. I think this idea of structured unpredictability in game design is a really interesting one. I think it has this way of pushing us out of our normal ways of optimizing our behavior and it has this way of getting you back into the flow of the game and its mechanics.

Ben Abraham said...

A few weeks after the game came out, I asked Clint via email about the whole "degenerate weapon strategies" and in particular how shotgun's are basically useless. His reply was along the lines of 'Yeah, we couldn't really do much about that because the distances in engagement are so long'.

I wonder if some of the alternative weapons were better, more feasible options for the player, if that would have solved your problem IP.

powerpoint backgrounds said...

For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.

write my essay for me said...

Who wants a stylus. You have to get em and put em away, and you lose em. Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus.