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Monthly Archives: October 2018

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I’m bound to go
Where there ain’t no snow
Where the rain don’t fall
The wind don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

The perspective I usually like to take on art is that we enjoy it because it serves some sort of emotional need for us. We all like a certain amount of joy and sorrow, a certain amount of anger and laughter, and when life can’t provide those sometimes we seek out art to fulfill those needs – or, alternately, sometimes we are overwhelmed with sorrow or anger, or some other strong and unpleasant emotion, and seek out art about and evocative of these sensations to help us make sense of what we’re feeling. This is a helpful perspective to see from, because if a work is extremely popular even though I personally dislike it I can still examine it and gain benefit from it by trying to determine what needs it serves and how it serves them. Inversely, if I like something I can also use this as a lens to examine why, and what part of me is hungry for this kind of art.

This is not to say that all art is equal and that judgment is impossible. Some ways of serving needs are irresponsible or malicious – for instance, it’s quite common to salve the wounds of an inequitable system by blaming all the world’s ills on minorities. Some ways of serving needs are also predatory, selling snake oil or risky gambles. Many things you might consume to serve an emotional need are like drinking sea water when you’re thirsty, seeming to ease the pain for mere moments before they make it come back worse than it was before. In this way, the lens of served need can be turned to also show the many harms that can be done by art, as well as its benefits.

As someone interested in games, then, I start to ask: What needs are served by most games? What needs are served by the most popular games, and what less predominant needs are served by games with smaller followings, and what needs of mine have made the games I love my particular favorites? Most games feed the need for learning and self-improvement: Whether directly, by giving the player a challenge that they can learn to tackle over time, or indirectly with some sort of simulation that recreates the sensation of self-improvement, like an experience system. Others feed a need to feel like we can change the world by making a world malleable, allowing the creation of grand projects, cathedrals and magic machines, in relatively short order. Many games also feed the need to feel that we are gathering things, accumulating wealth or other material to make ourselves feel safer. Some games feel rewarding just because they acknowledge when we do well in a way that the rest of the world does not. Sometimes games are enjoyable just because the tasks that they offer have clear-cut parameters with definite boundaries, so you know whether a task is solved or not in a way you frequently cannot in your daily life.

There’s another step, beyond noticing what needs are fed by games, and that’s then interrogating the systems that give rise to these needs. The lives people lead, and the lacks that they perceive, are going to lead them to seek out different gaming experiences that offer different things. The world we live in, and the governments and systems that organize those worlds, are going to create the needs that create the cravings that create the games. In each instance, once we identify a need that people feel a game serves, comes the next question: Is this an inherent need that is being unsatisfied by the system, or is this a need created by the system in order to sustain itself? That question might not make intuitive sense, so let’s look at the list I mentioned in the previous paragraph, one by one.

  1. The need for self-improvement and learning. This may be an innate need, but it’s also deeply tied into our society’s conception of a human being as a commodity that has worth. By getting better at something, even if it’s trivial, you are demonstrating a capacity to learn and improve, and thus your worth to the system. Do you want to improve for your own sake, or to be a better cog in the machine? It can be hard to tell.
  2. The need to have an effect on the world. This one is, interestingly, relegated almost entirely to indie games – and likely reflects as much of the needs of the creators as it does the needs of its consumers. It’s probably not a coincidence that these building games have achieved their most massive success among children, largely prevented from manifesting any substantial effect on the real world
  3. The need to accumulate material wealth. This has obvious parallels in the capitalistic systems, but it’s also rooted enough in the hunting/gathering survival instinct that one can hardly lay the blame entirely at the feet of capitalism, as much as one would like to. However, the specific model of accumulation favored by games, where everyone has the same capacity to do it and every action has a predictable result, probably serves to prop up the concept of meritocracy, which is a vapid lie.
  4. The need to have one’s accomplishments acknowledged. I think this is an innate need to be seen, but is also exacerbated by a system where excellence is supposedly recognized by financial reward, but where that reward is increasingly withheld to line the pockets of the already extremely wealthy.
  5. The need to have a distinct task. This is probably a relatively recent one. Not too long ago, everyone expected to have basically the same job for life, and could wake up each day with a certain amount of confidence about what to expect next. Though many deride repetitive and simple games as seeming like work, the kind of work they supposedly seem like is becoming rarer and rarer, and some people do miss it.

When making a game, it’s important to think a bit about who wants to play it and why. Are you making something that feeds needs created by an unjust system, something that will only serve to act as propaganda for that system? Or are you creating something to serve a need that the system has failed to serve, something that will serve as an escape? Are you justifying evil, or positing good? These lines can become very blurry.

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Difficulty has come back into fashion for video games. Many games now specifically go out of their way to cultivate a reputation as especially difficult, whereas not too long ago it was common for designers to regard any failure of the player as a failure of the game’s design. While I’m glad that we’re no longer assuming difficulty is bad or undesirable, I’m not really in favor of considering it inherently good or desirable either – and, in fact, I’m not entirely comfortable with using the word ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ as a descriptor, except in the most abstract approach to a game.

There’s a lot of different things that difficult could mean when describing a game, and a great number of them have little to nothing to do with each other. Most obviously, there’s a huge difference between games that challenge your reflexes, games that challenge your strategic ability, games that challenge your ability to solve puzzles, and games that challenge your knowledge. Though most games have more than one of these elements, they frequently only offer meaningful challenge in one of them. The difference between these starts to seem extremely relevant when you remember that, depending on the challenge proffered and who’s playing, the game may not even be possible to complete!

In addition to these different skills and abilities that can be challenged, there are different ways of challenging them: The obstacles themselves can become more difficult to navigate or the resources you have for navigating them can become scarcer such that you have less room for error, the obstacles can become more complex and numerous or failures can be punished more harshly. Even if the main skill being challenged by the game remains the same, changing how this challenge manifests can make for radically different experiences.

But that’s not all! In addition to the actual challenge of the game, there’s also the way the game presents its challenges. Part of why people responded well to the at-times punishing difficulty of Dark Souls is because the world is overtly harsh and intimidating. It’s easier to swallow getting your ass kicked when, rather than being some sort of god or legendary knight, you’re just another hapless undead. Now, you may end up becoming an undead who beats the shit out of legendary knights and gods, but that’s as much of a surprise to you as it is to anyone. The XCOM games script their tutorial missions to create the expectation that shit will go wrong and your soldiers will die, so that you know going in what the stakes and challenges are. The greatest part of making a challenging design that works is in conveying what the challenges of the game consist of – and what it means to fail at them. This is what we mean by fairness: The game establishes the parameters of its challenges and conveys those to the player effectively, and those parameters do not change.

Just using the word ‘difficult’ to describe these varied concepts creates a number of issues: When used to describe the ambitions of a nascent project, it can easily lead you astray, because there’s a lot of types of ‘difficult’ that won’t work with the rest of your concept. When selling the game, it tells the potential player nothing about what sort of challenge is being offered or how that challenge is presented. And, as a catch-all term, it obscures important components such as they conveyance of the challenge’s parameters. It’s a difficult challenging tricky term to get away from, though! In order to be more precise and avoid pitfalls of design, we may need to build an entire new vocabulary of difficulty.

It may be quite a challenge.

I’ve noticed that when I get frustrated with playing a game, there’s usually a very specific way it happens. When I play, I keep in my mind a model of how the game works, what optimal and interesting play is, and how to achieve that. I attempt to play using that model: If I succeed, then great! I’ve made progress. If I fail to execute on the approach I have in mind, that’s also fine, since I just need to try again. The point of friction, though, comes when I succeed in doing the thing I had in mind, but the thing I had in mind completely fails to work – because that means the entire mental model I had of the game is skewed somehow. There’s a desync, somewhere, between the game I’m playing and the game that actually exists. This is a dangerous moment, because now it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that the game that exists is just an inferior version of the game I’m trying to play in my head, one which fails to account for being played in the way I expect this game to be played.

This point of friction usually emerges sooner or later, to lesser or greater degree, even in games I love. With Dishonored it came when the game provided me no avenues to non-lethally disable an opponent once they were alerted to my presence (a lack thankfully rectified by its sequel). With XCOM 2 it came with the realization that flanking tactics were sometimes far more dangerous than they were worth simply because the cost of accidentally revealing an enemy unit could be so high. At some point, inevitably, the actual design of a game tends to diverge from what I believe the most beautiful, elegant, or intuitive way to play that game to be – and, being a stubborn person in certain very bizarre ways, I still try to play it in the way that I perceive it should be played, even in the face of the actual designers of the game obviously disagreeing with me.

I may be a bit of a standout in how stubborn I get about these things, but I’m hardly unique in my initial approach. Everyone has an idea of what ‘good play’ is supposed to look like in a game they play – whether it’s based on other games they’ve played, movies they’ve played with similar theming to the game, or just on the way the first couple of times they played went, very quickly they build a mental model of what’s desirable and what isn’t. Hypothetically, that model could even line up perfectly with the game’s systems – more often than not, though, there’s a disconnect here. The ‘right’ way to play the game, from the player’s perspective, is not the same as the way most likely to actually achieve success. In order to do well, they might have to do something that feels wrong, incorrect, suboptimal – that can be a bitter pill to swallow.

In this way, it pays to be aware of what baggage players are likely to bring to your game. This is why the history of similar game designs matters to your game design, because the expectations fostered by those games are going to affect how people see, understand, and play your game. This is why understanding what your art style conveys about the nature of your design is important, because people who find the style appealing are going to come in with certain expectations about the gameplay. This is why it’s important to ensure your player has some way to understand the breadth of the design, rather than just giving them one sample encounter and leaving them to infer that the rest are pretty much like that one.

When a conflict between the player’s conception of the design and the realities of the design occurs, it can only be resolved by the player changing their mental model of the game, and not everyone’s going to be interested in doing that. There’s an art of persuasion to it: The game has to, by its design and theming, forward an argument as to why its way of doing things is better than the way the player has in mind. Does it make more sense? Is it because the opponents have some special countermeasure grounded in the narrative? Generally, players are going to be more accepting of their approach not working because they haven’t accounted for other factors in the game (such as not defending adequately against a new technique) than because the game doesn’t reward, or even punishes, their approach (such as not having an old technique work when one would expect it should).

There’s a sense, as designer, that the design of the game should stand alone, should contain all the context it needs to make it make sense to the player, and that everything they learn about how to play the game should come from the game itself. Even someone who has never played a game before, though, comes to a game with some conception of how the game should be played. If you want people to learn the game, to stick with the game, then it is your job to, no matter what these preconceptions are, guide them and endeavor to reshape them to align with what the design of the game actually is.

In art, characters are designed and presented – every aspect of the character’s design was considered at some point along the way, and most have some sort of significance. Even in live-action films and theater, people are cast to embody the traits of their character: Thus, every line, every curve, every bulge, every tone of skin and voice has Significance. Every dimple, every freckle, is a Chekhov’s gun. This causes problems, though: We learn things from art, inevitably, and in most ways people’s bodies have very little to do with who they are – or, at least, have a far more complex relationship with their personality than the simple stereotypes usually mined by character artists and directors.

Much has been written about the impacts this has. The way people with more fat are frequently portrayed as unhealthy and lazy, the way darker people are frequently portrayed as criminal and unambitious, the way more feminine people are portrayed as deceptive or as hapless victims, and so forth. But even though fat people aren’t unhealthy or lazy by constitution, the dismissive inattention of doctors gives them worse health outcomes and saps their energy: Even though darker skins don’t lead to criminality, they do lead to loss of opportunities in a bigoted system, sometimes leaving crime as the only option for those whose ambition refuses to die: Even though femininity isn’t deceptive or weak, those who show it frequently have their feelings dismissed and their vulnerabilities preyed upon, so they eventually have deceit and victimhood thrust upon them. These embodied character traits end up having a cruel backhanded truth to them: The systemic disadvantages people with these bodies encounter in their lives come to become wholly aligned with their fictional representation.

So just ignore all that stuff, right? Color-blind casting, age-blind casting, body-type-blind casting, gender-blind casting, and so forth, just make everyone draw their character names from a hat. And yet, if we do that, we lose the entire visual channel of communication about who a character is, where they’re from, and what they do – because these things do affect our bodies in certain ways. If we do that, we sacrifice the ability to have conversations about how our society treats different bodies and different backgrounds, sacrifice any real discussion of our real world in favor of making every world an aspirational one where there is no background, no history, no context, only the melting pot.

To some this conflict might seem intractable. It’s very simple, though: Your characters do not have to be statistically representative samples of their respective populations. Your characters have the freedom to be from any race, body type, age, preference, and still pursue their ambitions and hobbies, and these things will have an effect on their bodies that will modify their appearance. A blacksmith will probably have strong arms regardless of sex or weight. A bicycle courier will probably have strong legs. Someone who performs a desk job all day might put on a lot of weight – then again, they might not. Someone who hikes over mountains as a hobby might be very slender – then again, they might not. All it takes to make a character design that doesn’t propagate shitty ideas about who can be what and how is to separate the improbable from the impossible. Aren’t improbable characters more interesting, anyway? Most of the things we often tend to think of as improbable really aren’t very unlikely at all, anyway, especially at the level of serendipity fiction tends to operate at.

Even a character who’s a realistic embodiment of a societal ill, though, would be far better than what we get right now: Punchlines and cardboard cutouts, characters whose only role in the story is to be exactly what we expect them to be. If you still want to make one of these archetypal characters, at that point you have a duty to at least pay some attention to the systems that make them what they are. The cruelest villains and most pitiful victims don’t emerge from nothing, but from the societies of their worlds, their oversights and acceptable losses and untouchable elites.