Among other ways to think about games, one that I rarely hear spoken of is their capacity as attention engines. Among the many social and emotional needs we have as human beings is our desire to be heard – even more than to say anything specific, we just yearn to be able to jam a flag into the dirt for people to see. Having someone listen to you, even passively, can be hugely rewarding, emotionally and even intellectually, as you feel connected with the world.
Before most games, we had ELIZA. ELIZA is a simple chatbot made to emulate a psychotherapist, one who answers every question with a question. “What are you thinking of?” “How did that make you feel?” “Why do you say that?” Despite being created with an almost parodic intent, to show the superficiality of human-machine communication, people felt a genuine connection with ELIZA, and sometimes even a degree of therapeutic benefit. Now, in 2017, there are lots of ways to be listened to by machines. Most of us have a machine in our pocket who will answer our questions as best as it is able, and will listen and respond to anything we say no matter how inane – though, perhaps, not in a very satisfactory way. Still, unsatisfactory answers are not necessarily too different from what we’ve come to expect from genuine human social contact either.
A lot of what we want from games is for them to just respond to what we say to them. a game lives or dies on its ability to react to us, to listen to what we are trying to say. Because real artificial intelligence is a very long way away still, our methods of communication are usually greatly restrained in games to enable them to react in a satisfying way. A game’s controls are the language we use to speak to it: Frustration ensues when a game misunderstands what we are trying to communicate, or when it doesn’t allow us to communicate the thing that we desperately want to. We describe these sorts of problems as control issues, which I suppose says as much about us as it does about them.
This is what people really want a lot of the time when they ask for non-linearity. They don’t care about replay value and they don’t care about getting the sex scene for the character they like, they just want the sensation that they are being listened to. They want the video game equivalent of someone nodding along and saying “Mm, wow. Interesting. Huh. I see.” That those multiple branching paths and endings and romantic partners are available is chiefly valuable because it reifies that sensation, makes it feel solid and responsive – that there is, indeed, someone listening. And, perhaps, there was, 18 months earlier, a designer who listened to them by way of the player proxy voice who lives in his head, who he designs for.
A little while back the game Passpartout: The Starving Artist became a small-scale hit. Passpartout is a game where, playing as the titular starving artist, you paint using an extremely simple art program, and passersby choose to either buy your paintings or not, occasionally giving explanations as to what they like or don’t like about the picture. Now, the engine for evaluating these paintings is seemingly pretty simple, apparently rewarding the artist more frequently for time spent than for technical skill, but it serves its purpose, effectively convincing the player that the game is paying attention to what they are creating, that they’re not just creating into a void – which it all too often feels like artists are.
Unfortunately, Passpartout is quite similar to a prototype made by Jon Blow called Painter. He released this prototype for free on his site, and in talking about it he described it as a failed prototype because it failed to realize his vision of a strategy game where you create paintings to appeal to different gallery owners and curators and achieve success. Some statements made on Twitter suggest that he was dismayed that a game so similar to his failure could be a success – but there was no actual reason for the Painter prototype to be a failure except that it failed to achieve the vision he’d had in mind. The element of trying to appeal to tastes was never actually very interesting. What’s interesting was making a painting and having it be seen and acknowledged, of being told that something you’d made had worth. All the judging algorithm had to do was make it so the game could reasonably successfully determine which you’d worked hard on and which you’d hastily crapped out and evaluate them appropriately, just to ensure that you knew it was paying attention.
This may seem fake or trivial, but this loop of the player communicating something and the game responding is the core of what a game is. It doesn’t need to be a real or detailed response, it just has to be real enough to show the player that someone, or something, is listening.