Eric Wolpaw (the writer of Portal) has described a game as consisting of a delta of player input, plot, and game design that comes together to form the game experience. It’s a good analogy because just as when a triangle that has one large side forces the other two to conform, so too do games twist their attributes in response to one another. So in order to divide these different definitions, it’s best to just identify which part of the delta of narrative, player, or game is the foundation while the other two rest upon it. As far as the terminology goes, rather than re-invent the wheel it’s best to just rip it off something else: books. Out of all cultural forms of art, the act of imagining what people look, sound, and act like while reading somewhat resembles player input in video games. Besides, the narrative terms for how a book engages you (first-person, third, etc.) are already used in video games to describe their own methods of engagement anyways. FPS, remember?
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There has been a great deal of criticism over the silent protagonist in video games recently and for good reason: they’re suddenly everywhere. Out of the top ranking games of 2007, almost all of them involve playing characters who don’t speak. Gordon Freeman from Half-Life never utters a word. Master Chief hardly speaks, and Link does little more than grunt. It’s tempting to dismiss the feature as simply a cop-out on the part of the creators, and yet there are certainly games that have used the device effectively. Why does the connection of not letting a player’s character speak work in some games and in others supposedly break-down?
At the 2008 Game Developer’s Conference, during Ken Levine’s lecture about plot in games, an audience member stood up and complained that they hadn’t wanted to kill Andrew Ryan in Bioshock. Disregarding the fact that killing Ryan was a brilliant commentary on extremist ideologies and questioning authority, it begs the greater question of whether or not this was even a problem. Bioshock would’ve been a much weaker game if it hadn’t been for that scene, and Ken Levine himself has admitted that after the third act the game’s story pretty much goes downhill. So given that the Andrew Ryan uncontrollable sequence was the best part of Bioshock in terms of the story, what are you supposed to say to someone who didn’t like it? At what point do you stop and say, “No, this is what you should be doing and if you don’t like it then stop playing”? What are the merits of forcing a player to do something in video games because that’s what the story says to do?
Operating on the principle that a game’s identity comes from the player input which itself is defined by both story and game design, the next stage of creating a critical method for video games is isolating those three variables. We’ll start with the most familiar to the medium of video games: the game design. Making an attempt at objectivity, we’ll examine the subject by looking at games with very shallow game design and ones with very complex design. What is the result of either? Steve Gaynor, in his blog, notes that a lot of people just don’t have the time to learn how to play a game and be competitive. Keep in mind that that’s not just referring to online play, it can be as simple as the player being unable to actually finish a game without a lot of work. At the same time, complex design can instill both a sense of achievement and allow for greater depth of player input. A game with deep design will allow a player to customize their own approach and make the game experience an individual one.
To begin, what are the benefits of having a complex, deep game design?
So what then do we have the player do? How does that relate to the plot and game design as they apply to a game’s identity?