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Zarathustran Analytics in Video Games, Part 1: Finding Identity

L.B. Jeffries

L.B. Jeffries kicks off his ambitious series on the state of gaming with the question of how a game can develop its own unique identity.

As the need for a critical language in assessing the art of video games becomes tantamount, the most logical place to start looking for such a language is by addressing the question of what defines the essence of a video game. What makes a video game different from a movie or a book? Player input. The interactive nature of video games is what defines them as different from other mediums, and thus arguably it defines what a game is about as well. The story and game design are certainly factors, but they are both portions of a whole. Despite the claims of wanting video games to have more sophisticated stories, good stories in games only solve half of the problem. You'd need to adapt the game design to the topic as well. Put another way, no amount of renaming the chess pieces on a game board after my childhood friends is going to make the game about my childhood. No amount of saying there are political overtones in your FPS title is going to change the fact that your game design is still just shooting people. Staging Hamlet in a game with giant mechs probably isn't going to capture the essence of the play (but it'd be awesome if someone tried). A game's identity is not a matter of the plot or design, it is a matter of what the player is doing.
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?

The majority of video games out now still draw their roots from very basic games. The upcoming Starcraft II is a very complex, sped up version of chess. The Baldur's Gate games, along with most fantasy RPGs, are basically recreating the D&D or GURP games in a complex visual form. Even Wolfenstein 3-D was originally just based on a World War II overhead game mixed with Ultima Underworld, basically introducing the FPS as simply a unique combination of two other games. Most video games today are still considered games because that's what their designs are based on: other games. But the game design doesn't totally control the player input, because the plot is still what defines the motivation and characters of a game. The plot and game design are therefore meant to work together, with the player input having the most priority over how the other two are shaped. That doesn't mean a game should offer absolute player freedom, it means that the three variables need to work together. Numerous games have begun to focus on new topics such as managing a household, babysitting, or taking care of a pet, reflecting this motif. In this vein, then, what are some other examples of video games whose player input reflects their topic?

What better place to start than with an experience that countless people can relate to? Although mainly a handy piece of product placement, Thule Trail still manages to draw on the universal experience of the classic road trip to create a great flash game. What makes the game interesting is not just the story setting, but how the game design reflects the elements of a road trip by de-emphasizing player input. It has relatively little replay value because just like on a road trip there isn't much variety in the outcome. You and the members of your group are heading to a rock concert across the continent and plan to drive all the way there. You'll watch as your car heads steadily west and encounter whatever random events the road throws, whether they be speeding tickets or flat tires. You'll need food, gas, and enough things to do in the car to keep everyone happy for the long journey (or else they totally bail on you). Like a real road trip, the majority of things you encounter are outside of your control, and the few things you do have command over are not always going to be enough. True, it may be based on Oregon Trail, but both were about simulating a journey and both used the elements of video games to effectively re-create that experience through the player's minimal interactive capacity.
Another great example of designers applying the player interactivity to create a new topic in games is Forumwarz, which could best be described as an RPG that takes place on the internet. Although it's still relying on an old game formula, it's adapting every part of it to the new setting of the internet. Your selection of character classes are only of narcissistic and crude web forum stereotypes. This is a point that's emphasized by the game's other stats. Your health is now your ego, which must be supplanted with anti-depressants to withstand the turmoil of constantly talking shit to people online. You spend the game posting obnoxious comments on a forum so often that everyone gives up and leaves. Dialogue is handled as choosing various responses, and all of it takes place in chat rooms. Rather than using a social experience like traveling, it relies on everyone's encounters with trolls, emo kids, and webcam whores. It creates this experience by having the player act those stereotypes out and gleefully mocking them by doing so. After all, what makes the idiocy of whining online more apparent than using the "Complain about Parents" attack? Bringing all these elements together, Forumwarz developer Robin Ward has created a game where the player interacts by being a shithead on the internet. Again, we can see the game design and story setting adapting to one another to create a new experience for the player to interact with.
Those two games are good examples both because they're free and because the average person will get their subject matter. But there are a variety of reasons for suggesting that video games may need to adapt their game design beyond D&D, Chess, or war if they intend to be elevated culturally. It's one thing to have a huge action sequence in a video game, but multiple sections of beating someone's skull in with a wrench in super HD is kind of pushing the limits of taste. At the same time, one has to question how much being a shooter actually helped a game like Bioshock's story. If they'd adapted the game design with the story itself, rather than just creating a complex shooter with audiobooks, how much could the experience have been improved? In some titles, the combat portions are even starting to be considered unnecessary, such as the growing suggestion that Mass Effect would've been better off as just a dialogue game. None of this is meant to be a criticism of these games, I enjoyed both and thought they managed themselves brilliantly. Still, in order for games to feature more mature content beyond competition, violence, and escapist fantasy, the game designs are going to have to adapt alongside the content. If a game's identity is based on what the player does in them, then both story and game design must come together to define that identity.

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