Part 4 of 4
In this week’s article we continue our in depth examination of the internal concepts our system of Dramaturgy, by asking an important question:
How do you classify a Game?
or in other words
How do we distinguish one game from another and just as importantly how do you relate it to others?
Its no secret that our current organization of Genres in games is broken. This article will try and examine the core problems of this messy convention and provide tools to think about the problems in new ways.
The fundamental issue with our contemporary Genre Labeling is the absolute lack of meaningful clarity. Such clarity is important because categorization has intrinsic importance and meaning. We categorize objects in order to interrelate them with other objects, or more simply to we do it in order to THINK about them.
When a system of categorization is muddled and unclear the thinking surrounded what is being categorized becomes just as unclear. What we use to categorize games with is what we implicitly say is the most important parts of the medium and right now our system says the most important thing about a game is how the camera works and whether or not it has guns.
Players an’t tell anything from a normal label like “Shooter”. Spec Ops the Line and Borderlands 2 are both “Shooters” under modern classification, When in reality the only things the two games have in common is that they both have guns in them and were both made with the Unreal Engine.
How can we fix this?
To even begin we need to take a look at the fundamental components of what makes one game different from others. We must take a look at the concepts of Idiom and Design Goals.
An Idiom is somethings core description. It takes several steps beyond Genre. If Genre is what city a game lives in its Idiom is its full mailing address with zip code. In this series’ formal system, Idiom is comprised of three major components, THEME, AESTHETICS, AND FORM.Understanding Idiomatics allows us to break down the fundamental goals behind a design and gives a foundation for evaluating all of the dramatic elements of a game as serving or hindering those goals.
As described above The Idiom of a work is its core description, it is the sum total of its Theme, Aesthetic Elements, and Form. Idiomatics is the process of breaking down and classifying these elements of a work. The term Idiom normally refers to a figure of speech or a word or phrase that lacks clear translations into other language but it can also refer to a distinct artistic character, like the Idiom of Bach, Futurism, or Tarantino. In this system Game’s Idiom is the set of qualities to definitively identify it. Those qualities are a game’s Theme, Aesthetic, and Form. This type of evaluation lets you identify a game in a very complete language that is separate from discussing its quality.
This breakdown of Theme, Aesthetic, and Form is already present in our everyday descriptions of media. Even before going into the formal definitions of these terms we can demonstrate that they represent the standard way we describe works. For example:
When describing any work, in any medium we gravitate towards identifying them with those three key elements. And with that understanding we can begin to formally define these elements.
Theme is what the game is about, it is the central subject, concept or topic of a game. It is not to be confused with core goal emotions or messages of a game. It is the objective subject matter.
Aesthetic is the core stylistic elements that make up a game, this is what you are talking about when you are discussing genres or visual styles. It is the objective list of the games visual, mechanical, musical and various stylistic qualities. For games specifically this is where we can formally discuss a games mechanics using the Mechanics <> Dynamics <> Aesthetics system that Leblanc created. An in depth examination of how Aesthetics can be used to define genre and how it relates to Lebanc and company’s paper can be found in the Extra Credits Episode: The Aesthetics of Play. But for this article we will be going much more indepth in the next concept.
Form is the boundries a works inhabits in order to exist. Defining Form in video games is a difficult problem. Not only do games lack the various conventions and limitations that standardize Forms in mediums like television and film. But the inherent nature of Video Game’s creates almost unprecedented formal dimensions beyond just size/length and method of delivery. Those dimension are Interactivity and Linearity. To cope with this radical addition we need new terms to represent the spectrum these strange facets.
This graph is a tool to evaluate the spectrum of Form Types that Games are able to take. This allows us to describe and categorize these properties of games without resorting to strict divisions. The three main form types that represent the bounds of this spectrum are:
Linears: are games that are static in their format and progression. In this form type there exist no formal deviations in the experience either systematic or player controlled. Strict examples of this Form Type are games with rigid predetermined progression sequences
Examples of games with definitive linear forms are: Half Life 2, Halo, and Final Fantasy VII
Non-Linears: are games that are non-static and non-interactive in their format. In this form type event structure is never predetermined but the player has no way of influencing it. In a strict Non-linear the sequence of progression are entirely determined by the game’s systems. This is not to be confused with decisions like play order or gameplay choices. Many open world games allow the player to choose the order of how interact with the content but may not allow them to meaningfully affect the contents structure as they do with interactives. Stricter examples of this form type are regularly procedural games that randomly generate levels and scenarios every time they are played.
Examples of games with definitive non-linear forms are: Minecraft, Nethack, and Tetris
Interactives: are games with formats that are player determined. In this strict form type all of the structure of a game’s format is determined by the actions and decisions of the player. While conceptually Interactivity seems like is should be an independent axis of description, in practice a game with a strict interactive format is exactly between linear and non-linear in its variability. A strict Interactive requires both linear and non-linear elements for the player to use and react to in order to work.
Examples of games with definitive Interactive forms are: Heavy Rain, Planescape Torment, Mass Effect.
The above categories are only the extremes of this system of analysis, each game will have its own proportions of elements from each type. And using those proportions we can place them onto the form graph.
By evaluating all of the elements of a Game’s Theme, Aesthetic, and Form we are able to create a clear description of its Idiom. Understanding a Game’s Idiom is a vital step in deconstruct the meaning of the design decisions of the authors. A Games Idiom is a representation of its Identity, once that Identity is fully understood you are able to begin evaluating one of the most important concepts in both criticism and creation, Intent.
The Design Goals are the Core Visions the creators had for a Game. They are the emotions, messages, and ideal experiences that the designers wish to create/evoke for their players. They are the guiding perspectives that all the decisions of a game’s design should be informed by.
When a production has clear design goals it inevitably shows through. One just has to look at interviews with the creators of games like Journey or Gone home to see the power a clear vision can bring to a game.
Understanding or at least attempting to infer a Game’s Design Goals is essential to meaningful Criticism. One of the main goals of formal criticism is to understand and articulate the fundamental elements of the subject work. The core intentions of the author’s shape ever single proceeding decision in the creative process whether they fully understand those intentions or not. By understanding these intentions we can effectively judge and discuss the effectiveness of the design the authors create. Strong adherence to Goals over the production of a game creates a sense of cohesion and organic unity within its parts.
The Goals of a Game deeply impact every single facet of the end result. Like every other concept the content of the goals are less important to the evaluation than how effectively that content is portrayed. A game can be about anything at all from Space Marines to the ordinary struggle of life to both at the same time. Good Dramaturgy is about ensuring effective communication between the creators and their audience.The foundation of Good Dramaturgy is having a clear idea of what you want to communicate.
By approaching how we catagorize games more clearly we can begin to think about them more clearly.
At this stage in their development Video Games are unarguably an Artistic Medium. The next step is treating it like one. Expanding our available systems of Formal Analysis is an important endeavor for Critics and Creators alike. It will allow us to more thoroughly discuss and understand our Medium in a way that cultivates innovation and progressive improvement.
The Tools outlined in this series of articles are meant to be treated as such. Dramaturgy is a system that focuses on evaluating the emotional effectiveness of a Game and by extension how well it communicates its messages with those emotions. Systems Like Hunicke, Leblanc, Zubek’s MDA are still vitally important to draw the fuller picture of a given work and the picture of Games as a Whole.
Now that we have established all of the Elements of our Formal System of Dramaturgy we can begin demonstrating its use in Criticism. Over the next several months I will be publishing game analysis and personal game prototypes to show the practical applications of this system of thought.
Evan Hill can be contacted at:
Special Thanks to:
Alan Emrich (Victory Point Games)
Jeffery Yohalem (Ubisoft)
Brian Kindregan (Blizzard)
Gavin Jurgens-Fyhrie (Blizzard/Snail Games)
Justin Dye (Blizzard)
Michael Shaneman (GameGeist.com)
And to all of the other people who helped me edit and refine my ideas for this series over the past few months.