Back during the first tentative steps of video game academia there was an unpleasant clash over how important the story in a video game really is. It’s hard to really establish a definitive stance on the argument because every game has a unique relationship with its narrative elements. Sometimes there are lucrative goals and engaging plot decisions for the player, sometimes story just adds context to an otherwise purely skill based game. Jesper Juul’s book half-real is a very large discussion about rules and the kinds of games they produce. Linear rules, open rules, how these can be grouped or organized to produce certain types of behavior, and how they can be grouped to produce certain kinds of stories. Using a neat division between emergent and progressive gameplay, Juul outlines the relationship a player has with either system and how narrative is intertwined with each. Considering the nature of his work with Popcap games such as the Bejeweled series, it goes without saying that the majority of the text is discussing emergent rule systems.
It’s a sort of weird tradition with game academics to throw out an elaborate definition of what a game is when they’re doing a book like this. As the indie and experimental scene continues to grind apart any attempts to concretely hammer down the concept, accepting the definition in an article has more to do with the sake of argument than actually expecting it to universally work. Juul defines a game as, “A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable.” (36) As Juul notes in one of many large graphs, there are now dozens of things that could be broadly defined as a game, but his definition might better be termed as the definition of an ‘emergent game’. (44)
Very early in the book Juul draws the distinction between an emergent design (a number of simple rules combining to form interesting variations) and a progressive design (separate challenges presented serially). (5) He gives a simple test to tell which one you’re playing: if the gamefaq is a walkthrough, it’s a progression system. If it’s a strategy guide, it’s an emergent system. (71) Part of the reason this schism should exist is that the term ‘game’ has already changed meaning over the years. In one section of the book he shows the earliest definition of a game from years ago and shows how it has changed into modern times. (30) The reason for this is that games, unlike film or books, are uniquely trans-media. You can play a game outside with a ball, a deck of cards, a board, dice, or on a computer. (48) It is possible to make a game where you can see and observe everything there is to know about the game (such as basketball) or you can make one where your understanding is imperfect. As a consequence it keeps changing from media to media. This is the second way Juul differentiates these two design aesthetics. In Space Invaders, you know everything about the gameplay. Aliens come down, you shoot, getting hit means you lose. There are no surprises, there is no black box hiding everything from the player. In poker, you only know what’s in your hand. There are plenty of surprises in every game. (59)
This is an ongoing argument in the gaming community. Clint Hocking’s advocates designing games where the information state is perfect for the player. He freely explains how the buddy system works in Far Cry 2 because in his game there really isn’t any such thing as a spoiler. You’re supposed to know everything that’s going on because unlike a progressive design, the player must have a fuller degree of control for an emergent experience. They should understand the consequence of their actions and what the machine is thinking. As Juul explains, “For emergence, the game is the whole of the sum of its parts.” (78)
What’s interesting about these distinctions between design aesthetics is Juul’s contention that the narrative is always interchangeable for them. That is, “games that are formally equivalent can be experienced completely differently.” Or put another way, “any game can potentially be read as an allegory of something else.” (133) He uses Tic-Tac-Toe as an example by changing the game’s depiction from X’s and O’s to a number grid. (52) The numbers are re-arranged and the player is told to pick three numbers that add up to 15. It plays the exact same way as Tic-Tac-Toe because of the number arrangement; all you have to do is get three in a row. Yet the game is now experienced completely differently because of the adding element, usually resulting in people disliking it. That’s why any argument that narrative trumps design is ultimately going to fail. As Juul notes, peel off the plot and art of any game and its skeleton, its core being, is still a mathematical series of rules. If your foundation is not solid, the rest will fall apart.
Juul then broadly defines what constitutes an algorithmic process or game design rule. It must end after a certain number of steps. Each step must be precisely defined. It can have zero or more inputs, but it must have one or more outputs. It must also be effective. A cookbook, to give an example, is not an algorithm because of the imprecise measurements and moments. Unlike an abstract concept, “an algorithm can work because it requires no understanding of the domain and because it only reacts to very selected aspects of the world – the state system.” (63) A state system is just the game’s current status based on the rules, defined by having a beginning and being altered by input from the player. The location of your pieces on a board game at any given time, for example. The point is, “a rule includes a specification of what aspects of the game and game context are relevant to the rule.
The rules of relevance are a place where rules and narrative meet in that learning a game also means learning to ignore the purely decorative aspects of plot. This is part of the process of information reduction.” (63) This is also what a game designer refers to as ‘chunking’. The more a player becomes familiar with a game, the more they tune out the visuals and just focus on interacting with the rules. Juul cites Quake III as an example of this, pointing out that most hardcore players turn the detail level as low as possible to ensure the game runs quickly. They don’t care what the game looks like or is about anymore. (139)
From Quake III
The narrative sections of the book mostly dismiss progressive games and instead focus on the growing genres that merge the two design aesthetics. The book was written in 2005 and as a consequence Juul must focus on Grand Theft Auto III and The Sims for many of these points. As noted above, both games create a broad series of rules and choices that the player can make. This creates a game world, one whose visuals, sound, and interactions are all communicating a sense of space to the player. (163) The most crucial role of fiction is to cue the player into understanding the rules. (189) In order to ensure that the game remains interesting, the space must have a wide variety of different rules that do not overlap. He refers to this as ‘orthogonal unit differentiation’ or put much, much more simply: every unit has a strength and weakness. The key is to make sure there are a number of different non-overlapping axes that the units can be placed along rather than just one axis such as “strength”. (108) Doing one activity in two different contexts should be possible and should produce different outcomes. For example, doing a plot mission in GTA III produces an outcome different from if the player was just driving around smashing things, even if they are in the same location. These emergent systems present a fictional world, one the player accepts because the rules create an abstract and changing process. (170)
This eventually leads to the portions of the book that focus extensively on narrative. The problem for Juul is that if you’re willing to accept that a game is always functionally just an expression of its rules then you are not going to be able to create certain kinds of stories. He notes, “The goal has to be one that the player would conceivably want to attain….Superficially, it would seem that the player is only attached to the outcome on the level of the rules, and as such, it would be irrelevant whether the goal of the game is to commit suicide or to save the universe.” (161) Technically, there are several hilarious games that present just such a goal today. As a consequence, Juul points out that it would be difficult to make a tragic game because that conflicts with a player’s sense of the win-state. You could make the rules focus on achieving a tragic conclusion, but who would want to play such a thing? Juul writes, “While a clear valorization (goal) and emotional attachment to the outcome afford the player an opportunity to succeed, they also mean that the player can fail miserably.” (199)
Reading half-real several years after its creation, it’s interesting to see the different ways people have tackled the problem he outlines at the end of the book on narrative. Having a game be about anything other than victory is hard because you have to get the player to actively want the goal themselves. Various attempts like Passage or The Path continue to push this notion but the results are usually mixed. You either confound the player or shorten the play-time so that the investment does not seem like such a waste. An AAA game like The Darkness is arguably the most successful game to present a tragedy but it does so by presenting a conflicted win-state. Other titles that have tried to present conflicted win-state ending like Fallout 3 have mostly been criticized for them. In the end, the issues that Juul pointed out several years ago are still being struggled with in video games today.