[16 February 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Ralph Koster coined the term ‘game grammar’ to describe the basic systems that the average gamer becomes familiar with and relies on when trying a new game. The skills involved in moving in a 3-D space, the way interactive objects behave (as opposed to static ones), and just a fundamental grasp of game stats are all things a player learns and then relies on when trying new games. Indeed, as the smoke clears and the initial skirmishes of the console war settle into the long march Nintendo’s victory is being attributed to the fact that they invented a console which excels at teaching these mechanics to new gamers. Far from being simply casual, Nintendo has instead created a system that is playable by people who have never touched a video game in their life but would like to. Although there is still some contention on figuring out what this newfound audience wants to play, it occurred to me that perhaps we could begin work on bridge games that might draw them into the more complex genres. Lacking the ability to actually make said games, I thought I’d opt for the next best thing and try to explain the basics of gameplay to someone who has only played Wii Sports at this point in their development.
Moving in 3-D Spaces: In a video game you’re typically in charge of both your avatar and the camera observing him. You’re welcome to think of yourself as the “director & actor” but that’s kind of meta. Being able to maintain a decent angle on your character that lets you see the most information is the best camera angle, so it’s better to imagine that you’re a very bad cinematographer and a very good stuntman. Some games simplify this by making themselves a “First-Person” game in which your camera is lodged in your character’s skull, but those get tricky because you have to precisely aim the camera at the person you want to kill. Left analog stick controls your movement, right analog stick controls your camera. You’re always going to be pressing or moving your character in most games, so navigating in 3-D Spaces is mostly learning when it’s time to change your view.
Taking Damage: In order to help connect you to your surroundings and develop a meaningful relationship with the things in a video game, designer often make it so they can kill you. Activities that can kill you often correspond to their real life counterparts and thanks to several advances in animating these moments will often gratuitously resemble them. If the character you are moving around is slapped with a brick, this will adversely affect their health just like it would affect yours if this happened in real life. Unlike real life, you will typically be able to absorb a large but still finite amount of visually accurate injuries.
Health: Rather than correspond to a medically or physiologically sound concept of health, games tend to think of health like a pizza. Taking damage means a certain number of slices are taken away. Yet also like pizza, slices can be replaced very easily and generically since it’s all just pizza anyways. When the pizza is gone, you will be forced to revert back to a moment in the game when you still had some pizza. Various games will allow you to replenish your pizza through items in-game that you either step on or go to a “menu” to use. Newer games, realizing that this is very troublesome for new gamers, have made it so your pizza will just grow back.
Missions: The purpose or goal of a game can vary wildly and may involve paying attention to the plot. A group of high-profile Existentialists initiated a Humanist Ontological Movement back in the early 90’s to break the nihilistic pain worshippers that came from the elitest arcade scene. These people sought to apply an outside logic to the meaningless chaos of beeping and pixels that constituted most video games. Adopting a narrative structure similar to our own psychological need to think of things as stories, these games created “missions” that the player would perform and then receive the existential leap of being released of their mortal coil and experiencing life free of all purpose, all non-purpose, and only being one with the divine urge of both purpose and fulfilling that obligation to the universe.
Game Items: Objects in games can typically be broken down into three categories: objects you can’t affect, objects you can pick-up, and fire barrels. An object you can’t affect will often be very deceptive and unlike taking damage, does not reflect its real life counterpart. The average tree in a video game, for example, can survive numerous grenades and heavy machine gun fire. These objects must, like death, be accepted as a part of the game. Objects you can pick up typically glow. Depending on the ease that the developers are attempting, these objects will either glow brighter than a Christmas tree or only blink when you’re looking at them. Fire Barrels are part of an international conspiracy by the game developing community to protest oil and fuel industries. In order to maximize profits and encourage people to not drive their cars by staying home and gaming, all things gasoline are highly dangerous and this subconsciously makes the player become filled with dread whenever they near a gas station.
Sandbox Games: Not to be outdone, the nihilist arcade groups reorganized themselves into a sect of agrarian evangelical anthropromorphists and created the sandbox genre out of which the human spirit can “truly grow and prosper”. In these games the play is often confronted with a huge array of options and is encouraged to pursue them all until they discover the one “true path” to full growth and expression by following the plot missions. Their motto, “The right to die in a game is the right to succeed”, can often be found dispersed throughout their works.
Experience Points: A Japanese sect of neo-confucianists who believe in life as a series of diegetic levels created a type of role playing game in which your engagement with dull day to day tasks provides the ability for you to go on greater and more exciting missions involving the plot.
As you can see, there really is nothing at all to playing the more advanced games in the medium. So long as you understand the cultural trends and values going on, you should be able to start pwew pwewing in no time! If anything, part of what makes games so fun is that the player input allows you to assign your own values to the game. One person’s love interest is another person’s baggage, one person’s epic plot is another person’s skipped cutscene. As The New Yorkers write-up on Cliff Bleszinski illustrated to many readers, the meaning in games is often personally derived instead of broadcasted by an arbitrary author. While Cliff made a mission that was about going home to a place that doesn’t really exist anymore, many just players chainsawed apart another alien in co-op mode. How you play games is a part of how that meaning is derived, how you learn that play is an intrinsic part of the experience. That’s both what makes video games so profound and yet still capable of entertaining the most basic impulses and desires. It’s a good thing too, or else some batshit critic could just post a bunch of nonsense and act like he was making a point.