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Why the Next-Generation Will Change Games Forever
by Adrian Chmielarz on 04/23/13 08:35:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Thanks to the next-gen hardware of all kinds, we will change the way we design games. Not necessarily because we will want to, but simply because we will have to.

All thanks to a little devil I call sim-toy dissonance.

Imagine a song you love. The better the sound system you listen to the song on, the more pleasure you can get from listening to the song. Suddenly the song opens up, the bass is meatier, and you can hear the extra instruments or every word of the lyrics. It’s still the same song, but better.

When you can hear it exactly the way its creator heard it, it’s a sonic nirvana.

Sonic Nirvana

Yeah, not so much with games.

When the game mechanics (the song) stay the same, but everything else - audio, visuals, story-telling, etc. (the fidelity of the song) - gets better, the game suffers.

I call it the sim-toy dissonance. BECAUSE I CAN.

(Not that there cannot be a better term. I did ask around:)

Andy Durdin quote

I have finished two big games lately: Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider. I was surprised how much I was bothered by the gaminess aspect of these games. From that perspective, Tomb Raider was a much better experience, but still, it was not free of the gaminess pollution.

“Really, Lara? Ammo packs in old, forgotten temples don’t weird you out?”

“Really, Lara? Your skin turns bullet-proof when you’re executing finishers on barely alive enemies?”

“Really, Lara? Setting things on fire annihilates them in a manner of second?”

I enjoyed the game a lot, and to me it’s the best game of this year’s first quarter – but the gaminess did bother me a little.

I just blamed it on the fact I’ve recently got a brain rewiring, and that I cannot disable the game designer mode when I play the games of others – and I moved on.

But then a friend recommended that I played LEGO: Lord of the Rings

Lego LotR

I wasn’t quite sure about the idea, but he promised me it looked incredible in 3D, so I went for it.

Yes, it does look glorious in 3D, but I’ve noticed two much more important things:

1. The game is gamey like hell.

2. The game is deeply fun, engaging, immersive.

Not only I could not care less that the game was gamey, I have embraced it. I was both immersed and engaged, but I also giggled bringing plants to life with my magic little shovel, and felt immense pleasure smashing shit and collecting coins.

Let me run this by you again. I felt pleasure collecting coins. As you maybe know, I hate collecting coins.

I assume my “sim-toy dissonance” becomes clearer now. The more the game is a toy, the more we enjoy its gaminess. The more the game is a sim, the less we enjoy its gaminess.

I keep throwing “sim”, “toy”, “gamey” and “gaminess” around. What the hell?

I assume that the ultimate form of action-adventure gaming is a perfect VR simulation. Like in Matrix, just, you know, not evil. This is what I call a “sim”. We plug ourselves into a device, and other than the fact we know it’s all not real, it all feels real, like we’re living a different, more exciting life.

Head Plug

The "toy" is the opposite of that: an old school game that no element of which can be confused with a VR simulation, neither in gameplay nor in presentation. Toy is to sim what Rubik's Cube is to Matrix.

But hey, Matrix is not going to happen anyway for a long, long time, right?

So until that happens, we need metaphors. Every form of art uses its own set of metaphors, and gaming is no different.

For example, a death in a video game is a game metaphor for a setback. The crosshair in the middle of the screen is a game metaphor for a gunsight. Screen going red is a game metaphor for being wounded.

Bloody Screen So Real

We use game metaphors to translate life to the language of video games. This is such a vast topic, that one more time let me say that on this here blog I am focusing exclusively on single player action-adventures, the point of which is an escapist experience of adventuring in a different reality.

Now, game metaphors can be a little bit abstract (stamina meter in games is a pretty good metaphor for a real life stamina), or heavily abstract (regenerating health in a video game can be considered a symbol of courage, hope, drive or willpower).

So by “gamey” or “gaminess” I mean game metaphors that are the result of turning life into a video game. Note that this is not exactly the same thing as game mechanics. Not having to take a leak every now and then in a shooter is not game mechanics, it’s a game metaphor for a more exciting, less cumbersome life. So game mechanics are actually just a part of the dictionary we use when translating life to a game.

With this in mind, the full description of the sim-toy dissonance is: the more abstract the game metaphors get while the rest of the game goes towards trying to be a perfect sim, the less we enjoy the experience.

And in human language?

You want your game to be full of mad happy gaminess? Make sure that it’s all cohesively abstract or anti-sim. Make your heroes out of Lego blocks (e.g. Lego game series). Use a visual style that resembles a painting (e.g. Braid, Bastion). Go for the pixel art (e.g. Kentucky Route Zero).


But if you want people to buy into your next-gen high-fi action adventure? Unless you have a darned good, plausible explanation for them, drop weapon wheels, regenerating health, and the audio logs. Because no, people don’t record their most intimate moments on thirty identical voice recorders and drop them in random places. That game metaphor of discovery and knowledge is too abstract.

Old game metaphors are dying, and we’re in a desperate need of a new dictionary.

By the end of this generation, people started to notice the sim-toy dissonance. Is Nathan Drake a mass murderer? Why is no one else but me using Vigors in Columbia? How come that Serra fell, when just one squad of Gears is able to kill thousands of Locust?

We woke the public up with our mo-capped facial animations, pixel shaders and characters they care about. The public will not go back to sleep. The power of the next-generation of both software and hardware tech combined with the crazy skills of the best studios will not allow that to happen.


And if we don’t come through with new or at least heavily improved set of game metaphors, our next-gen extravaganzas will be like that rock song that sounded great in a bar, but when we bought it and played it on our home hi-fi, it turned out that the lyrics are as silly as Justin Bieber talking about Anne Frank.

It’s time.

And it’s going to be very, very hard. Before we figure this out, we’re going to live in a world of pain and misery. We won’t really know what to do just as it took movies some time to figure out what to do with the sound.

But it will happen, and it has to happen. With the next-gen, our games are only going to get better – with better writing, better visuals, better audio – and continue their journey towards being a perfect sim, blurring the line between gameplay and narrative. If our game designs do not follow, our games will suffer.

The next-generation of game design. Whether we like it or not, it is coming.

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Andreas Gschwari
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Great blog Adrian - outspoken as always and some very good points.

I think gamey games are totally ok, and the lego series has always been and outstanding experience in that regard (try Lego Star Wars - if you like the franchise, i think it beats anything Lucas Arts has done in the last 10 years).

I am not 100% sure about your take on abstract, metaphors and gamey elements in single player adventure games though - things like regenerating health etc. are elements that people simply have come to accept and see as the norm. It was an evolution from an even more illusion breaking system: health packs (hello Bioshock:Infinite - which feels very 1990s in so many ways). I believe people don't even think about regenerating health anymore. they take it as a given.

Other things, like audio logs, ammo in secret temples etc. take players out of the immersion much more rapidly though, so no argument there.

In general i think your tips and guidelines hold true. But i also believe, unfortunately (or fortunately), those of us playing games more critically will notice these things a lot more often than the average consumer.

Adrian Chmielarz
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It's odd, because it's both ...yes and no ;)

1. I agree that some gamey things became second nature to us. But the point I was trying to make was that the sim direction exposes them, and suddenly they become a problem. Am I taking this too far? We'll see soon enough, I guess.

2. I think you're right that a lot of consumers are able to ignore at least some elements of the dissonance - or at least they think they do, but subconsciously "something's off". However, I have seen it many times that non-gamers notice things that even the most progressive designers tend to ignore. A friend made this great experiment when he asked his father to play Dear Esther. From our point of view, nothing is ruining the experience, e.g. all the blockades are natural. But the father-player kept asking all these question: "Why can't I swim? What can't I pass over this little fence? Why can't I pick up a rock? Why doesn't the time of day change?". Etc. etc. This made me really think of how much we are used to the language of video games, and if it's truly a good thing.

Elliot Sharma
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@Adrian But what's the alternative? No matter how much the designer strives to emulate reality people who aren't familiar with game language will always be able to come up with such questions. The best possible explanation for such stuff would be that the narrative simply doesn't involve the character doing those actions. In the game that you're currently working on "The Vanishing of Ethan Carter", there seems to be a lot of grass and trees in the environment, someone could probably come up with questions like "Why can I climb trees?", "Why can't I touch the grass?". There will never be a perfect solution to this. It's always a compromise between the designer and the player.

Sidenote: You seem to have some insightful things to say about game design, but you should look into better articulating your thoughts. Right now you seem to be struggling to get across your thoughts in a cohesive manner.

Loren H
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I hadn't given it much thought before, but you're right in saying that health packs were "illusion breaking." Picking up a box with a red cross on it to give you health is very "gamey." However, the advantage of having those was it brought more challenge to the game, because the player had to find one in the game world rather than just getting regenerating health after a fire-fight. I guess neither option is really ideal though.

After all, regenerating health is unrealistic and also takes challenge out of the game. However, it's somewhat less intrusive than having to go pick up a health pack on the ground. I guess it also depends on the kind of game you are making too, which Adrian talks about in his blog post. I think it is perfectly valid to have both kinds of games, after all "variety is the spice of life."

That said, I think I agree with Adrian that if you're making a "sim" it shouldn't have "gamey" elements because it breaks immersion. Designers definitely have a dilemma on their hands because of the advancement in technology and what we are able to do with games now.

Adrian Chmielarz
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"But what's the alternative? [...] someone could probably come up with questions like: Why can I climb trees?" --- Sure, but the trick is both neutralizing the wish to do silly things through emotionally engaging the player in desired activities and by not allowing the player to notice the gaminess. I still remember a certain facepalm-inducing puzzle from HL2, where I had to solve an elaborate physics puzzle just to climb over a meter high wall.

"Right now you seem to be struggling to get across your thoughts in a cohesive manner" - please do remember I am not a native speaker. TBH, though, that's the first I hear that the messages of these blog posts are fuzzy and unclear. But will try harder anyway :)

Elliot Sharma
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Looking forward to see that kind of emotional engagement in your next game.

Elliot Sharma
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Lets not kid ourselves. Stories are just a set of coincidences strung together to create an illusion. Acceptance of audio logs, regenerating health, weapon wheel depends upon your ability to suspend disbelief as you are required to do while experiencing a story in ANY medium. All that said, I think we definitely do need to reduce the "gameyness" and figure out interesting ways to remove those elements but still retail player agency based on simple but deep gameplay loops. If you really think about Cinema, they use a lot of conventions that would've seemed weird a few years ago, but now they don't bother us because we've become used to those conventions.

And about Vigors, I don't see why they seem out of place. They were introduced on the same day that Booker Visits Columbia at the Fair & Raffle. As with any commercial product, it takes time to create awareness. Undertow would be very handy in day-to-day use for grabbing anything out of place. Possession is referenced numerous times as a sort of love potion to control machines. An ad for the crows says they deter hooligans, meaning it is probably like Columbia's version of pepper spray. Shock Jockey is used as an alternative power source - like a gas generator would be today. There are posters advising people to use Bucking Bronco for lifting heavy objects. The Devil's kiss is being used by the Fireman. Sure, it could've been integrated better, but that aspect wasn't completely ignored.

Adrian Chmielarz
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I killed a few hundred people in this game using Vigors, yet no one used Vigors against me. It's like being in a place where natives sell and advertise guns, but where the only one using these guns is a stranger who keeps massacring the natives while they fight back with arrows and stones.

I agree that Vigors were not completely ignored, but that made them stand out even more.

Elliot Sharma
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The Fireman and the Zealots did use a modified version of Devil's kiss and Murder of Crows. In one of the previous gameplay videos someone attacks you using murder of crows, I was looking forward to more of that. Looks like they had scrap that idea.

Andreas Gschwari
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Totally agree Adrian - a "sim" like game, where we want the player to get immersed and create an alternate "life", do something he or she can't do in the real world, will always bring these issues out a lot more quickly and prominently.

I guess with regards to health i was talking more about the "lazy" gamer, who buys every shooter and just blasts through them for the sake of it being a shooter - in that case, if you try to be inventive with health, they might notice that a lot more than the fact that replenishing health is actually something un-sim like.

I like your father-player example. I try to look at every level i am involved in from that point of view (remember Assassins Creed 1 with all the water and no swimming? that caused a lot of disconnect and it was fixed for sequels). If a level is built that suggest i can do something, but then i can't, i get very frustrated. I noticed this in Bioshock (not just with levels, but some scenes as well felt interactive but where not).

Then again: i feel it also depends on your target audience. If all you want is the CoD guys, stick with replenishing health and nobody will question it. To reach a broader audience with a true sim-like game, these things might have to go and we might have to listen to none-traditional gamers expect from the experience. What makes them get immersed into a believable world.

Elliot Sharma
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But then again giving the character all the skills in the world just because you need to have water in the environment will severally limit the kind of fiction and characters that the game can establish. Next thing you know, every video game characters is equipped with the same kind of skills and characterization with no distinguishable quality whatsoever.

Loren H
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We probably have COD to thank for regenerating health. That said, this is a very interesting article and well put.

Wylie Garvin
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I think we might have Gears of War to thank for establishing the convention of regenerating health, in 2005-2006. IIRC, the Halo series always had regenerating shields, but not health.

Health packs are just as stupid and gamey as regenerating health, with the added annoyance of having to search around to find one. Like the days of searching a Doom or Quake level to find the red key, I'm happy to leave health packs in the past.

Jamie Mann
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Actually, I think Halo's regenerating shield was the main thing which kicked off the trend towards regenerative health. It certainly encouraged the trend towards "attack-duck-recharge" tactics.

With that said, there's a few other games from that era which did similar - Getaway (2002) on the PS2 experimented with a "hud-less" UI and allowed players to fully recover health by "leaning" on walls.

Loren H
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I'm trying to think of a solution for the health pack dilemma. What would be the solution?

If we remove health packs and regenerating health completely from games, what are we left with? People dying left and right and getting frustrated? Lack of health replenishing in some fashion adds to the challenge of the game, but at some point it goes too far.

I'm reminded of the video game series Thief. In that game, they justified healing by taking potions. It fit into the game world. Yes, drinking potions is gamey, but in this case it fit into the game world and made sense. Perhaps we need game justifications for obtaining more health?

Adrian Chmielarz
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Yeah, with fantasy and sci-fi games it's easy. The problem is when you make a game about WW2 and such. Look at Assassin's Creed solution, though. With a small addition of sci-fi, you could explain the "wounds" as incoherence in the story told (i.e. no, the soldier was not really wounded during this or that firefight, so if you get wounded, that's a story-desynch that soon results in your "death").

There's many more solutions, and you can take this one step further. Hmm. Maybe that's a good theme for one of the future blog posts.

Nick Harris
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'Forza Horizon' lets you rewind at any point and resume. Rewind could apply to an FPS so that you effectively play it through once, perfectly, with permadeath.

Secondly, you can split an adventure into missions which when completed put your injured protagonist in an unseen hospital for a number of weeks, recouperating in time for the next mission. This needn't be shown, just as Movies have long since given up showing the routes by which taxis take their passengers: when they can just show them being flagged down, the destination given to the driver, the cut as they drive away, with the next scene being their arrival, perhaps at a different time of day to imply it was a long journey.

'Far Cry 2' had a largely non-intrusive HUD which made the game more immersive and its use of first aid through wince-inducing bullet removal animations and self-bandaging did quite a lot to show that your character was getting hurt. However, there are limitations on how much you can communicate about your character's injuries when you see through their eyes. There is then an argument for having a third-person point of view in order to represent melee contact, directional projectile impacts, bleeding, stumbling, limping, fainting and incapacitation which could temporarily switch to first-person when you used a weapon - like 'I am Alive', although I would prefer this if you were only allowed to lean whilst aiming as in 'Goldeneye 007' on the N64 in order to encourage strategic use of cover.

There might be other members in your AI driven "squad" who could act as medics. Whenever you got incapacitated they would assess the risk of coming to your aid, identify the location of the threat, suppress those targets and move to your position with "bounding overwatch" in as many stages as necessary, regrouping on your position and moving your body behind cover in the shadow of the direct threat at which point you would be resusitated with adrenaline, or the use of a defibrilator - although, there may be an artifact of the gamey concept of limited lives given that a medic cannot reasonably resusitate or defibrilate a person repeatedly without the heart giving out. Getting to the end of the mission and recieving "professional care" offscreen glosses over this realistic detail and it is likely that the player will forget about the heart being damaged in their protagonist, because the last mission took place on their previous gaming session and they had twenty-four hours to forget about such details.

A "possession mechanic" could allow the player to jump into the head of another member of their AI driven team, either when they become incapacitated, or whenever they feel like it. 'Driver: San Francisco' lets you jump into the minds of other road users to control their cars and avoid accidents you have set up involving the one you were previously in control of and 'Battlefield: Modern Combat' has an interesting limited line-of-sight "Hot Swap" mechanism in which you push (X) to take control of another class of warrior, or tank driver, or helicopter pilot. Some fantasy, or astral projection, or cybernetic consciousness, or mind transference (as in the film 'Xchange') explanation would be needed to establish how this was being done, but this would be an acceptable suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience-player and not something left as an unexplained genre-convention which could be regarded as dissonant.

I've been having similar thoughts about the future maturation of our medium and that there will have to be a split from the catch-all term "game" for all but puzzles and casual diversions, with the remainder aspiring to drama, but generally being marketed as an "adventure". This pronouncement may annoy some here... after all, it is Gamasutra... but I think it is better to have this supplant "game" for most of the AAA products of the industry rather than let "MMO" or "Interactive Movie" take hold. An adventure doesn't imply that the player has to conform to the restrictions of a predetermined narrative, or indicate that the form can't mix a multitude of traditional gaming genres. Indeed, it would be healthier for the longevity of the medium if it were able to offer alternative approaches to the same problem to avoid the player becoming stuck just because they lack the one specifically required skill set, whilst they are quite strong in others, as well as varying the pace (i.e. the tension of discovery of a Stealthy approach, versus the bravado and adrenalised "twitch-reactions" of a full Assault, the intellectual puzzle of Hacking otherwise closed doors... or conducting the entire operation via some robot proxy).
There may be some worth in ensuring that all sixteen temperaments are engaged by a set of different approaches, ensuring that there is "something to suit everyone", as with Keirsey:

It doesn't matter if the psychological validity of this model proves to be bunk as all you would be doing is using it to offer different ways of playing an adventure that would equally suit both Introverts and Extroverts, etc. It would be an interesting subject for a study to see what kind of correlation there might be between different genres and personality types, especially if an adventure intended to encompass a multitude of different genres to keep itself fresh.

Of course, all of this extra subtlety is for naught if you give the player a gun at the outset of their adventure. This one traditional act presupposes so much and discourages the exploration of alternative solutions as they present themselves in the adventure. By all means have one later on... indeed, allow various things to be equipped as in 'Skyrim'... but I've come to the conclusion lately that it is wrong to use (X) to Reload and (Y) to Swap Weapons as you should not necessarily have one at the start and that the gamepad's face buttons should correspond to (Yes) and (No) responses to NPC's questions and remarks, pushing the emphasis away from violence towards conversation, diplomacy, persuasion, or smack-around-the-face interrogation when no weapon is equipped and you only have your bare hands to defend yourself. Holding down the Right Bumper button would allow you to use (X) to Reload, etc. in the manner of the Alt key changing the output of the keys on the keyboard. Given that you can't reload or swap a weapon whilst firing it, having to move your forefinger off the Right Trigger is no sacrifice.

Further to this end, I don't think there should be prompts. Guns should click when empty, or have readouts built into them showing their decreasing ammo count, or you should bloody well remember how many bullets you fired from your Smith & Wesson when chasing Scorpio. In fact, by the end of Modern Warfare 3 the amount of munitions that had flown through the air and my repeated deaths and resurrections robbed an individual bullet of all dramatic weight. Even Steven Seagal films mix dialogue, car chases and brutal aikido with gun fights. So, one would like to think that the developers of the future will come to recognise that "less is more" and save up the use of weapons until all other pacifist avenues have been explored, perhaps because it was permadeath for everyone involved.

However, it is only fair that the control scheme should be both general (good for many things) and memorable (i.e. used often enough to not require prompts). If you can't remember how to reload your weapon in the midst of combat, then maybe you shouldn't have started a fight you couldn't finish. Rather than have eight different genres of game all using the gamepad slightly differently, you should only have to learn one control scheme that applies to all of them. The interface by which your character expresses themselves within this "simulation" is the most important aspect of the design as what you are forced to leave out (due to the lack of buttons on a gamepad) and ergonomic accessibility considerations of what features remain constrain the articulacy of the player's actions, affects their opinion of their character being empowered or clumsy, and limits what kinds of adventures you can reasonably undertake. However, once this is in place and the player has habituated to it, their immersion will be disrupted every time their attention is drawn to its manipulation. They will quite happily let their cerebellum take over the movement of fingers and thumbs as their higher brain is engaged with the unfolding interpersonal relationships and dramatic situations surrounding their character.

TC Weidner
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@Adrian Totally agree with your comments, scifi and fantasy have tech and magic to fall back on and allows for everything to stay "Logically immersive" ( As I like to say)

and as you state for other time periods there are other solutions, ones I personally would like to see used more than falling back on some old gamey solution. For instance one I would like to see is, in a ww2 game you basically play as a platoon. One player at a time. As one gets shot and killed or hurt bad enough to no longer function, you simply switch "into the body" of another soldier in that platoon. Suddenly being shot matters, you have more than one life to keep the game fun, but are limited to a finite amount, and so on and so on. As you state, there are many solutions out there.

Luis Guimaraes
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Simulations vs. Games? I think the next-generation of AAA games will keep moving away from both, just like the current one.

Apart from that, ludo-narrative, ludo-scientific and narrative-scientific dissonances will always be a thing. Literature and Cinema are full of dissonances, so are video games. We can still smooth the experience as much as possible, but it'll never be perfect.

For the health dilemma for instance, the designer can use multiple playable characters and let them suffer all consequences for good.

Marvin Papin
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Realism and "toonism" or a big mess with both are futile the think that matter is the gameplay. Ok, a game is a whole but since you do not enjoy due to gameplay, the rest is just nothing.

About "gamey" games, the problem is that, us, the "veterans" of games have learnt to progress into a game a different way. Like with the lessons i learnt on designing maps on Far Cry ("course maps"), the player does much enjoy the game when he found the possibilities with game mechanisms himself. There's a pretty big difference with saying "hey this is a hidden shortcut to the player" and letting him find it.

I still quote Splinter Cell, but with Double Agent and then Conviction, they wanted to make a more affordable game. So they made some modifications like light level indicator, SC1-SC2-SC3 continuous, SCDA discrete (3 levels only), SCCONV binary. And there were many other things that have changed. More lineary levels, with less space.

However, i think guiding the player will inexorably lead to "lower" understanding capabilities of games. They already nearly do not care when they are stuck, they don't know where to look for... Moreover in video games schools, they tends to encourage game designers to guide the player. I think, giving the minimum to the player and even less will make him learn lessons by himself, but it is up to gameplay and global affordance and design.

I hope i will just see good gameplay on next gen consoles. But with actual mentality of Game industy i donno if that will be possible.

Simone Tanzi
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I saw an article about that more focused on the graphic itself.
Basically from 8-bit graphic to 3d detailed cartooney graphic all was good.
Also perfect photorealism with perfet motion capture and animation was good.
Everything in between was absolutely horrifying.
the time we reach the point where characters start to seem real we become horrified by the every little discrepancy with the real thing, but for lower renditions, we don't compare them to real life.

In the case of the gameplay is something similar when it comes to immersion.
When you immerse on a big playful world of lego you accept it's basic rules and roll with it.
If you play with something too realistic you compare it to the real world and assume rules works the same way, and you feel disappointed when they don't

Ted Brown
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Had the exact same thought when watching the latest Unreal demo at GDC. I fear higher fidelity will lead to more "interactive noise": stuff we think we should be able to interact with, but can't.

To be fair, most of the demo had objects dressed in various shiny shades of metallic gray, so that didn't especially help! =)

Somebody mentioned Understanding Comics, and that's spot on. Required reading, I'd even say.

Thanks for the post!

Michael Pianta
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Using this dichotomy of sim/toy, I personally have no interest in a true sim. Well, maybe that's a bit exaggerated, but what I mean is while something like the holodeck or matrix could be cool in it's own way, it does not appeal to me in any of the ways a game does. Rather than being an ideal expression of action-adventure gaming, it obliterates it. A game as I think of it could not exist in a simulation like that.

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Enrique Dryere
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Great read! Here's my couple of pennies:

Some of the problems you describe are present in any storytelling medium and stem from two sources: inconsistency and escalation -- only the form they take are different in games. Here's what I mean:

There's an unreasonable amount of bad guys after Lara Croft.

Movie Solution:
Infinite Ammo (only theatrical reloads required)

Game Solution:
Ammo inexplicably left in mysterious barrels scattered about ruins and caves.

The real solution is to remove the problem, but we've escalated our action movies and games to a point that we're not satisfied unless the hero/heroine is mowing down bad guys like blades of Kentucky bluegrass.

In other words, the problem comes from trying to tell a semi-realistic story that is in actuality impossible to tell in any realistic fashion. This can be compounded with lazy game design, as with Bioshock Infinite's gratuitous Vigors system. They were a major facet of the world of Rapture, but in Columbia, they were a quick patch for otherwise shallow game play.

Diego R Pons
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Great points!
In addition, the "Church of Progress" keeps shoveling into our faces the notion that simulation is a good thing; where in reality, simulation doesn't necesarily make games better (unlike movies with real actors in them).

Another problem - which is also an irony - is that "gaminess" becomes even more necessary as our environments become more realistic! Interactive props and pick-ups need to be more identical and "contrasty" from the background so the player can identify them. The same with the HUD so it can be readable. Give players realistic-looking pick-ups with different shapes, integrated in the environment, and you'll be cruicified for making your game too difficult and "unreadable".
Overcoming such things become huge challenges, such as the implementation of alternate visual modes... which become gamey again.

These are problems that developers in the past probably didn't even imagine.

John Gordon
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"I assume that the ultimate form of action-adventure gaming is a perfect VR simulation."

I'm not sure why one would assume this. I want a more realistic simulation when I'm playing a simulator. But for other types of games reality often makes things more boring or tedious instead of more engaging.

warren blyth
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Heh. I can't help but overthink the "sim-toy dissonance" term.
alternate ideas:
- "realschism" or "realism schism".
Instead of an encountering an uncanny valley, you encounter a schism between acceptable game mechanics.
- maybe "realsim" would be better.
the closer you get to real, the more you need to simulate realistically.
- or maybe "the fidelity valley" or "the gamey valley"

I know the term isn't the point. but. heh.

warren blyth
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I keep thinking about a talk on motion control I attended at some conference years ago, where a speaker noted, "it is always going to be better to press X to enter a car in GTA. You shouldn't try to simulate the sequence of motions that you'd actually perform to: grab a door handle, pull the door out, punch the driver, push them into passenger seat, turn your hips and sit, open the passenger door, and throw them out"

(Though I can imagine a sort of QWOP kinect game where that is ALL you are asked to do - and it is funny to confront the player with how hard those actions prove to be).

... I think the point this speaker was making was that it made a lot of sense to pull out your sword with a the wiimote by reaching over your shoulder - because it felt cool to complicate that action. but it also feels cooler to press X and just watch a complicated car jacking take place in GTA.

This just comes to mind, because GTA strives for a higher level of realism than Zelda, yet uses simpler controls...

... Guess i"m thinking more about control metaphors than game mechanics.

* To go back to the first aid kit metaphor: I don't think people will want to perform more complicated actions to heal up (pulling out gauze, selecting proper antibiotics, etc.), just because other parts of the game are more real. If it's a game about being a doctor, you'd want more complicated actions. but if it's a game like GTA, you just want to move on to the next action sequence. In most modern games, mechanics seem to be more about pacing than realistic metaphors.

I think the reason the regenerating health bar caught on was because health packs and respawn-at-level-start deaths were just differnet ways to delay you from charging head-long through action sequences. Regenerating health keeps you focused on the current action, with a shorter delay before you can try again. i.e., regenerating a health bar is asking you to wait a couple seconds before re-entering the fray. While a health pack is asking you to change your location during a fray, or backtrack a few minutes to heal up so you can return. and respawn death is asking you to replay several minutes of frays you already completed, before you can re-try the problem fray that killed you.


* It's doubtful next gen games will need to tone down the kill count, just because it's unrealistic to perpetrate such mass murder. Killing a thousand people as Nathan Drake is a power fantasy. If that's a core problem that is bothering you, I think your gripe is more with the _goal_ of certain games than with their realism vs. game mechanics.
For example, if Lara was dealing with 20 guys, instead of 200, and shooting each of these 20 guys them just caused them to fall down and crawl away - so they could come back later for more - Would this solve your problem with the game? Next time they show up, they could be bandaged where you shot them, and taunt you with the ways they won't fall for that again. Maybe you'd get to know their names and enjoy some characterization. I'm guessing that would sound more appropriate for a cutting edge realistic game.
The problem with this solution is the game mechanics are the same: you move to new areas and shoot everything until it stops being a threat. All that is changed is a more mature approach to the power fantasy of murdering every 1 dimensional character you come across. the story and intent have changed, but the game mechanic is the same.


*i'm trying to ask if your actual concerns might be with "pacing" or "the overal goal for the game" more than with the complexity of game mechanics.

Kujel Selsuru
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If visual fidelity is making the classic "tropes" obsolete then maybe increasing the visuals is the wrong course of action and instead we should be focusing on gameplay and style instead.

Wylie Garvin
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Playing Borderlands 2 recently made me realize how much design freedom you give up when you go for a "realistic" visual treatment. You try to make a serious game that takes itself seriously, but there's still a ton of immersion-breaking possibilities where you can't climb a tree or whatever.

The Borderlands games use a cartoony cel-shaded visual treatment with bright colors, allowing them to make a goofy game with goofy mechanics, goofy characters, goofy story... this is a series that does not take itself seriously AT ALL, and is tremendously fun to play. I think the non-realistic visual style really gave them license to make wacky enemy types, wacky quest content, wacky dialogue etc.

Exhibit A: this video of shooty mcface. A very short quest that is worth an achievement/trophy.

Johnathon Swift
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What a great blog! And I agree for the most part. Looking back, I can see this as one of the reasons I enjoyed a game like Morrowind so much more than Skyrim. It was so much easier to believe and exist in that world from 2002 than it was the one from 2011. Because you worked much like everyone else did, and you had a seemingly plausible reason you were suddenly healed, or could travel from one place to another in the blink of an eye. Yet Skyrim doesn't offer any of that, you get your health back and no one else does simply because that's the way it works.

Looking back, there were metaphors for things you might want to do, in the older games. But so many developers have cut them out in the name of "streamlining". Never realizing they were undercutting their own games and their own lore by doing so. "It's mechanically similar, but more efficient, that makes it better!" which is an explanation for games that have no story, or at least have a purposefully silly one, more like a cartoon than a drama. Which is great for cartoon like stories, or indeed games without any story. Not so with others that try to tell a serious story, or perhaps lets you create your own.

Russell McDonald
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As a student studying literary theory these types of problems are very familiar. We talk about much the same problems in all genres of storytelling, literary or entertainment based.
The Fantasy Genre has only in past few years ran into a similar wall- just saying "it's magic" and moving along makes the audience feel cheated and that worlds with magic that has no limits or bounds are incomprehensible and therefore not as engaging, sometimes downright frustrating. Fortunately some of the better known and more successful authors are the ones who've made strides to overcoming said wall.

This has been accomplished by making finite and reasonable laws limiting magic- similarly so we need to involve all the gameplay mechanics inside the lore of the game- which is why we need a greater number of game designers trained as writers. Building a cohesive universe is what we do.

Anonymous Designer
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Love it! Thanks for the read.

John Trauger
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Movies suffer from this too.

Some movies are silly or over the top and invite me to shut down my critical mind and enjoy the ride.

OTOH if a movie tries to sell itself as "real" and then violates that pact with the viewer, well there you go. The problem has named itself.

This seems to boil down to properly managing expectations. If you're going to try to play it straight and "real", you better play it that way. If you're going to play it like a Godzilla film, that's OK too. Just let the player know early how you want to be perceived. This ought to include where reality will be enforced and where it won't.

From there the game has to "stay in character". You set a coherent set of rules for your world, don't break the rules or change them, unless that's a plot-point. If it's a plot point you should have geme events that yell at the player "I"M CHANGING THE RULES ON YOU!" and again it's all good.

Lego manages expectations beautifully just by being Lego. We don't expect hard-reality from legos. OTOH if Tomb Raider is striving for gritty realism, well, you might have some valid complaints about people Lara has never met hiding ammo that just happens to be perfect for her guns around an ancient temple that was lost to the mind of men before guns were invented.

Michael Stevens
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I'm not sure Audiologs are a problem in the same sense as your other examples. They're one of my favorite new tropes this gen, and I think they can be a really useful and versatile tool for planting exposition/characterization/worldbuilding without making the player stop what they're doing. It lets us use the sort of small moments that get cut from movies for run time or pacing by shifting them into dead zones.

I'm the sort of person who will not grocery shop or commute without a podcast or Radio 4 in my headphones. So the listening bit is natural. The "who would record this/why am I finding these" parts will be a smaller and smaller jump as people get used to tweeting (and I guess now Vine-ing?) throughout their day. I think it's a fairly natural thing already for some people.
There is a bit too much of that Lovecraftian "I'm going insane as I write this journa'nagl Fhtagn" going around, but that's just poor writing.

I've been designing a game where finding audio logs (though not just journals) is a core part of the experience, so I hope I haven't totally misunderstood your complaint.

Ron Dippold
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I've always thought of this as the 'David Cage Problem', though 'sim-toy dissonance' is definitely much more polite.

Steven An
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My humble opinion: Going full-sim is just not worth it. We're at the point of diminishing returns with photo-realism and HD stuff. It's expensive, there are design problems (as you've pointed out), and soon we'll realize as an industry that it's more culturally relevant and more profitable to present things stylistically and abstractly (ala. Braid, Legos, Hotline Miami, FTL, Walking Dead, etc.). And it's more fun to develop such games!

I'd much rather explore the "toy" side of things than the "sim" side. It's just not worth it.

Thomas Lee
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An interesting read! I haven't noticed the gamey stuff before.

When you were talking about health packs and odd ammo clips in old temples, I suddenly remembered the GhostBusters game. No, not the "Sanctum of Slime", but the much better "GhostBusters: The Video Game".

They chose that, instead of showing the health and ammo bar on a floating HUD, they integrated it into the back packs, which you see almost 100% of the time because by default, its a 3rd person over the shoulder perspective game.

That, to me, is a step forward, but if you were to think outside of gaming, wouldn't it be odd to have a bar that represents the entirety of your well-being shown outside for all to see?

Thank you for the article :)

Jamie Mann
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... and that's the incongruity in Dead Space's "spinal" health monitor ;)

Robert Hewson
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Thanks for the article - it was a useful way of expressing the relationship between gameplay experience and context. One way I've often thought about it is the mapping of what I've heard people call the "gameplay possibility space" to the narrative space. Story designers know that when they create a world they have to establish internally consistent rules and stick to them for it to feel cohesive. In a sense this creates the equivalent possibility space in the narrative. If you imagine your gameplay possibility space as needing to fit inside your narrative possibility space you have a useful way of conceptualizing the ideal. Some of the things mentioned above (health packs in temples, audio logs etc) are examples of the gameplay possibility space expanding beyond the narrative possibility space.

An abstract game can have a much broader narrative possibility space and so it's easier to fit the gameplay possibility space inside it. Nintendo has done this with Zelda since forever and as mentioned its the same with LEGO games. Your argumentation that more sim-like games are at the other end of the spectrum in this respect holds some weight - it's more restrictive and harder to craft a game metaphor as you call it which doesn't creep outside of the narrative context. This is why it's easier to start with mechanics and build your narrative around them, rather than the other way around. LEGO game come at it from another angle - they take a known narrative space and broaden it by transplanting it into a toy world where anything a kid can imagine is fair game.

I've always thought that one of the reasons Portal worked so well was because the gameplay possibility space was contained so neatly in the narrative space. There were no health packs or trees you couldn't climb and nothing you could do that violated the rules of the story and context.

TC Weidner
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Nice article, I agree with much that is being discussed. As a developer I tend to like cartoony art design as this allows a light hearted approach and allows the use of old school gameplay design in my games But as mentioned, if you are going for a realistic art design, and a realistic world approach and feel in a game, it does suffer if old school cartoony gameplay elements are still being used ( ie. ammo crates everywhere, healing packs,etc etc)

I do think many developers are understanding this, and more and more a realistic approach is being attempted if that is the theme of the game. Of course we still have a ways to go, in playing MMO's I always wondered where those rats hid their gold and loot that always fell out upon their death.

Craig Dolphin
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Interesting read. Personally, I prefer games that take the realistic/'sim' approach to more toonish games. But I tend to play fantasy/SF RPG's so gamey aspects are more easily overlooked than real world settings without triggering the gamification disconnect. Definitey going to be interesting to see if this really does become a bigger problem going forward.

Chris Charla
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We've seen this problem in Interactive Fiction for a while. The more text you use to create a vibrant living world, the more the player wants to use items or scenery you've described (but not implemented) to solve puzzles in ways you didn't imagine.

Lihim Sidhe
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Great article! It directly addresses that 4th wall which games have to face more than any other medium.

Essentially what I got out of it was this:

Approaching a Toy = promote style over realism

Approaching a Sim = promote realism over style

Gamasutra needs a Pin It button because I most definitely Pinned the F out of this article.

'Bloody Screen (so real)'

Raphael Alexis
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Interesting article but, in essence, nothing new.

I've been referring to the issue as "reality-approximation" in the past, "sim/toy dissonance" might not do it justice since it implies a level of polarization not inherent to the situation at hand.
I call it an issue but not a problem because I don't think it really qualifies as a problem, it is just something you get to choose - carefully.

Let's look at the medi-kit vs regenerating health thing for the sake of the argument here:

Picking up items to boost one's health back up after taking in quite a bit of lead does not sit right with real-world logic as we know it, there is no such thing in reality after all.

Miraculously regenerating any damage received to one's body in a matter of seconds is equally unrealistic in just so many ways I couldn't even begin to sum them up here.


Still, it's the two predominant ways of handling player damage models on the interface-layer. It is inherently abstract and would qualify for your "game metaphor" term.
When thinking way back, I recall some mech game, I believe it was something like "G-NOME", it had a more detailed damage model for the vehicles you'd ride, they would limp when a leg servo was hit and so on. It added to the immersion, but, when I then look at some shooter where the experience I want my player to have is that of being an elite warrior ( which the player most likely is NOT), I need to empower him in one way or another, I won't make their avatar a "realistic" one, simply because doing so would, due to interface limitations, be a futile attempt and furthermore rob my very average guy player of his "specialness".

So, instead of simulating what cannot be simulated I'll have to find ways in which to adjust the game logic to either approximate realism using whatever abstraction layer the target interface can support and then wrap it up and hand it to the player - hoping they'll realize they're holding a controller and not an M16.
The fiction accompanying the game logic should then tie the knots together, presenting a cohesive explanation as to why certain things are NOT like the real thing.

So, this isn't a challenge for future generation game designers alone, it's a challenge we always had to face, except we may need to pay more attention to what we really want to communicate through our games as the spectrum we can approximate reality in becomes wider and wider.

Another thing I've read some times here is that it's the visuals that promote realism, I cannot thing of many statements more flawed than this.
We can have superbly looking characters where every pore of their skin is actual geometry, have them loose blood and all, have their guts be spilled out of their insides and whatnot, yet, I can still watch a movie and look at real actors playing far-from-realistic characters.
It is really about what WE DECIDE, we as the designers are to take charge and define what we want in ever more detail so our production teams can create exactly what is needed and don't have to go by "make it realistic" where we actually meant "I IZ WANNA HAZ DEM BELLZ'NWHIZZLEZ! EVARIEVARE!"

Let us not forget that playing games really means indulging in a FANTASY-world that is in some way or another NOT reality nor "real".
When I'm the proverbial war-machine, I don't want a grain of sand that's gotten inbetween my gears to force me to be brought back to maintenance bay and be out of commision for the time being, no, I want to relentlessly advance and mow down all those who dare to stand in my way - unlike in real life where I - the average guy - need to keep my head low, do as I'm told and shut the f**k up if I am to keep my job and feed my family and pay my bills.

There's a reason we have a distinction between pure simulations like those used to actually simulate something ( think of flight simulators worth millions with sophisticated interface devices specifically designed to work with the simulation program ) and video-games, let's not forget that.

Just my 2ct, cheers

Raphael S. A. Alexis

Luciano Lombardi
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Great read, interesting discussion as well

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Good topic and great discussion - wish I had time to read it all before posting. :)

To me it seems to be a matter of consistency (as some pointed out).

If you are a realistic man in a realistic world, you should die from a shot to the head. But if the world and characters are represented in a cartoon fashion, for example, you have more creative freedom in this aspect (as explained in the article).

Two questions
1) I dont think I agree with the comparison in the beginning of the article. The equivalent in games for a better sound system shouldnt be a faster (or more precise) computer, or something like that? (Since in games the essence of the experience is procedural.)

2) Does this " this toy-sim spectrum" always necessarly apply to the whle experience? I mean, cant a game have cartoon graphics, but realistic behaviours? In a way this situation goes against your central premise, but it doesnt have to - it could just add to it. That is: to have cartoon-things happen in a realistic world is inconsistent, but there is no inconsistency in having realistic behaviours in cartoon worlds.

Svein-Gunnar Johansen
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I think the pursuit of realism, while interresting, is a potential dead end in game design. My full reasoning (which is somewhat lengthy):

Eric Schwarz
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With all respect, I don't think the problem you are highlighting is one of gaming metaphors no longer being sufficient to represent the games that we play, and I do not think it comes down to some fundamental problem with the language of gaming versus narrative convention.

I think it's just that there are a lot of game designers out there who do not think very hard about these problems and/or don't have the talent, drive or time to fix them. Usually, they just fall back on the "it's a game, stupid!" explanation. That explanation is not any more worthless today than it ever was.