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Persuasive Games: Disjunctive Play

November 18, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In his latest feature, designer and author Bogost analyzes Jason Rohrer's fascinating new art-game Between to help define a new, indirect style of multiplayer gaming.]

Players of Jason Rohrer's previous art games Passage and Gravitation might squint at first when trying his latest title, Between - intriguingly made for Esquire Magazine as part of its 'Esquire's Best and Brightest 2008' issue.

Sure, they will recognize Rohrer's characteristic style: a preference for pixellation and visual austerity, the simple control over an abstract character, and an environment both naturalistic and man-made.

But unlike many of his earlier games, Between does not directly model a human emotion or experience in the way Passage did with mortality or Gravitation with inspiration. At least, not on first blush.

Between is a two-player game, in the way that Pong is: it cannot be played by a single player. Once connected to a counterpart over the network, players still do not see each other's progress, at least not right away.

Players are given little explicit direction beyond what objects on the screen imply: a tower of spaces for colored blocks stands at right, a wooden frame for placing blocks at center.

The player can place and move blocks of a few different kinds and then "wake" or "sleep" to move between three similar versions of the game world. Four blocks placed in the wooden frame at center construct a new block that combines their components when the player wakes, and this process of constructing new blocks quickly becomes necessary to build up the tower.

The thing is, the player can only place primary colored blocks to start (red, green blue), but many of the blocks on the tower require secondary colors (cyan, magenta, yellow) as components.

After a while, combinations of secondary color blocks appear based on what the other player has been doing with their blocks and tower, meaning that the player has limited control over a resource that he also needs to progress in the game.

The game gets hard very quickly. Part of the difficulty is a spatial relations challenge: as the tower gets bigger, the blocks require more complex components, which in turn have to be created through multiple sleep/wake cycles across the three renditions of the world.

But the real trial comes from the player's lack of control over available resources: the cyan, magenta, and yellow blocks needed to make parts of the tower have to be coerced out of the other player somehow.

Means for doing this is deliberately left out of the game: one option is for players to talk to each other and try to tease out the logic by which magic blocks appear. Another is for players to exercise patience and simply wait for the right blocks, an event that may never come to pass.

Still another is to try to manipulate the second player's blocks indirectly by attempting to create blocks on the other player's screen which, when used, might result in needed resources on one's own.

Two people playing on laptops in the same room enjoy an additional clue: as the tower builds up correctly, music begins to play with increasing detail and volume, which provides a hint about a counterpart's progress (in a brief statement accompanying the game, Rohrer discourages players from looking at each other's screens).

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Good article, I enjoyed it.

However, I feel it could have done with some conclusion as to the implications of 'Disjunctive' play.

...Then again, I am happy to draw my own conclusions. But, it's almost jarring to read an article so neutral here!

Ian Bogost
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@T H

Ha! I know what you mean. For my part, from the perspective of design, I think this is a very precious design choice, but its one that has interesting promise for a wide range of genres. From the perspective of criticism, I really appreciate that games like Between try to deal with the complex dissonance among people at a time when we're constantly being told how much we "connect."

Patrick Dugan
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Yeah I'm trying to tackle a median between these, having the players in the same room together but having the specifics of their actions, on a numerical level, not immediately apparent. Like you show visual feedback for the net-actions between the two, but it's not entirely clear how much each partner is contributing specifically, unless the two voice that. I think the challenge to inspire deeper communication is a really ripe one, and is probably the design principle to "crack" some market or other, to the extent that motivation is relevant.

Mickey Mullasan
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Thank you, that was enlightening. Although, I'm not sure whether I like the game or the explanation better. I don't think I would have arrived at the same explanation if given this game without any precept, and instead would have thought that I was missing instruction and probably would have become frustrated, thus dismissing the whole point of the piece to a single "It must be buggy and unfinished." conclusion. But that is a conditioned response that will take a few more artistic games to unlearn.

Ben Medler
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On some level I can agree with the concept of disjunctive play, there is definitely something interesting about the unknown communication/knowledge/experience space between players and humans alike. But on the other hand I really just see disjunctive play as an example of players conflicting/collaborating with the system itself. Even if the players have a hard time strategizing over how the game functions, due to cognitive load, that does not diminish the fact that the system still follows rules that can be discovered.

Additionally, Spore also offers many options to break the disjunctive play. Players can decide to not connect to the Sporepedia or only download content from buddies or specific feeds. I would be interested to know how Sporepedia actual delivers content to players who turn on unrestricted sharing, whether or not it is random or it follows some recommendation filter.

Finally, does disjunctive play just mean creating an experience where the player has little or no control over the system and other players? I think this is a viable design choice that could be taken much further especially in the realm of player identity in games, where a player has little or no control over how their identity is represented to other players.

Bart Stewart
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One of the many remarkable observations Robert Axelrod made in his study of "The Evolution of Cooperation" was that winning strategies are "clear": it's possible to discern a pattern to them.

Some of the losing strategies in Axelrod's tournaments were very complex... so complex, in fact, that they appeared to the other player to be random. The lesson Axelrod drew from this was that if the other player's actions appear to be random, then the other player is perceived to be unresponsive to your actions. At that point, you can do anything, or nothing -- it doesn't matter -- so you might as well always defect. Therefore, a winning strategy (that is, a strategy that elicits cooperation) will have among other qualities the appearance of non-randomness; there must seem to be some pattern to it.

Extending this to a game context, it would seem to me that a multiplayer game where the interactions between the players (or between the players and the gameworld) become so complex as to be perceived to be random would, at that point, become uninteresting. When the consequences of any gameplay action appear to be unpredictable, then decision-making becomes irrelevant; you're just pulling the handle on a slot machine.

Obviously a lot of people enjoy that kind of thing, but it's probably straining the definition of the word to call that a "game."

So does Between run afoul of this phenomenon that too much complexity in the consequences of a player's action eliminates the value of thoughtful play?

Or is that the entire point of Between?

(It's an interesting game that raises questions like these, if nothing else.)

Ian Bogost
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I appreciate your humble candor, and indeed I think that many, many players of Between (and indeed many of Rohrer's other games) would be less generous in their assessment. Instead they might simply call the game broken. As you suggest, art games can reveal some of our unexamined assumptions about the form of our medium, just as formal innovations in the artistic avant garde did for painting and sculpture and poetry.


I hear what you're saying about head-scratching over the system, but I think Between goes beyond that into a unique existential territory. This leads me to your last question: I think disjunction is about far more than control of the system, it's also about a feeling of separateness. That said, I agree that identity is an area ripe for exploration.

Between certainly represents an extreme case of disjunctive play, again a precious one. Spore offers a softer version, as you note, and certainly there are other imaginable variations. My understanding of Spore's content filter is very incomplete, but I do believe it uses some sort of recommendation feature, as you also suspect. In fact, if that feature is more like a collaborative filter, then its possible that the game effectively dials down disjunction -- unless it dials it up.

Ian Bogost
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Interesting connection. As I said above in another reply, I think many players will conclude that the rules of interaction in Between are unmappable to the point of seeming random. They are not really random, of course, but the sensation of hopelessness arises. The thing is: as you suspect, that's the sensation the game intends to provoke! Many players will find it disingenuous, and indeed the design is very risky. Then again, that's part of the rhetoric of the game too: a game published by Esquire, accompanying a sometimes unreasonably personal portrait of the artist, about the perplexity of the self... egads.

But, as you also suggest, at the very least Between makes an interesting provocation about how two (or more) people can interact in a game. So even if one dislikes the extreme case of Between, there's still something to learn from it. Still, I think there's much there to like, even if its a kind of liking that runs contrary to the way we normally enjoy games.

Raymond Grier
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I find therr are 2 problems with most multiplayer gaming in terms of the interaction that it is supposed to be providing between players:

1) now-a-days most of my friends aren't interested in meeting at one spot to play console games in the same room,

2) Most online multiplayer games actually lack the communicative aspect of the interaction so the player may as well just play against an AI, the difference is often unnoticable (if the AI is reasonable)

These observations mark a serious unnoticed problem within what has become a big part of the industry, especially online gaming

Altug Isigan
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This game seems to be an experiment on Martin Buber's thoughts on dialogue and existence.

Also, we should keep in mind that Hegel, Lacan, Levinas and Buber etc. speak about "immediate" encounters with "others", while in video games we first need to survive an encounter with our own representation (a mix of audio-video and controls). Only after being introduced with "ourselves", we can advance into relations with the representations of "others".

I don't know of games that experimented with the disjunction between the player and his representation in the game world.

Jacob Corum
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Philosophy and video's like they were made for each other. Probably not coincidentally either.

The problem with this idea is that, much like in reality, it is much easier to achieve disjunctive cooperation than it is to achieve conjunctive play. The lack of communication alone is enough to create a disjunctive game. I've played this game twice and each time the other player had dropped out before even completing the first two rows. I think because there is a natural rift between humans in real life simulating that rift is a simple matter.

Connecting two people is an entirely different matter. Two unite two entities as towards one goal is a beautiful thing and I feel this act is one of the strengths of video games.

Joseph Osborn
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Well done!

I don't have a lot to add, but my reading of this game is that the towers that are being built are metaphors for the two parties' relationship. Given Otherness, our only knowledge of our relationship with an Other is our own conception of that connection and its strength. The fact that each party gets its own tower to build, I think, mirrors our own impressions in a relationship that we are cooperating, but our inputs are different. Sometimes we can build it in our own mind only, and sometimes we need something from the Other, and sometimes our actions influence the Other's conception of the relationship as well.

I don't think it's such an out-there claim to make, since it's clear that as the players understand the mechanisms of the game and their own social interaction better, two strangers will form a kind of close relationship along with their big towers.

Alex Kaka
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