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Persuasive Games: Puzzling the Sublime

December 23, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Good puzzle games are often described as addictive, elegant or deep, but in reality they can elicit deeper feelings of overwhelm, vastness and abundance, says author and game designer Ian Bogost in his latest Gamasutra column.]

I want to discuss two excellent abstract puzzle games for the iPhone: Drop7 by Area/Code and Orbital by Bitforge. But there's a problem: it's hard to talk about abstract puzzle games, particularly about why certain examples deserve to be called excellent.

Sure, we can discuss their formal properties, or their sensory aesthetics, or their interfaces. We can talk about them in terms of novelty or innovation, and we can talk about them in terms of how compelling they feel to play. But such matters seem only to scratch the surface of works like Drop7 and Orbital.

Can we talk about such games the way we talk about, say, BioShock or Pac-Man or SimCity? All of those games offer aboutness of some kind, whether through narrative, characterization, or simulation. In each, there are concrete topics that find representation in the rules and environments.

Indeed, it's hard to talk about abstract games precisely because they are not concrete. Those with more identifiably tangible themes offer some entry point for thematic interpretation.

Chess, for example, clearly draws inspiration from military conflict, not only because of its historical lineage and mechanics of capture, but also thanks to its named, carved pieces. When a knight takes a pawn, it's easy to relate the gesture to combat.

Go is somewhat harder to characterize. As philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wrote of the game, "Go pieces, in contrast [to chess], are pellets, disks, simple arithmetic units, and have only an anonymous, collective, or third-person function: 'It' makes a move. 'It' could be a man, a woman, a louse, an elephant."

Even if one can imagine a go stone as a soldier or an elephant or a Walmart, the game is still fundamentally about territory: whoever captures more of it wins.

Puzzles create more trouble. Some logical and mathematical puzzles, like the Three Utilities Puzzle have clear subjects or storylines. Others, like sudoku, do not. Most often, puzzles are entirely conceptual in form, with concreteness a mere accident of presentation.

A jigsaw puzzle might have a landscape or a hamburger imprinted on its completed surface, but that subject bears no relation to the puzzle itself. It's just a skin that facilitates the job of construction. The same is true of some manipulable puzzles, like tangrams.

Others, like peg solitaire and Rubik's Cube are entirely abstract, with no clear relation to any sort of worldly being or action.

Abstract Game Criticism

As we know well, video games have frequently inherited from the tradition of puzzles. Text and graphical adventures make use of logical puzzles, often ones that require manipulating items to unlock doors. And we have plenty of adaptations of traditional abstract board games. But it's really manipulable puzzles that have had the strongest influence on contemporary abstract games, and for good reason: spatial relations translate well. Video games are good at manipulating objects in space.

A problem arises when we try to talk about abstract puzzle games critically. The truth is, it's hard to perform thoughtful criticism on puzzles, because they don't carry meaning in the way novels or films or oil paintings do. The peg solitaire set on the table at Cracker Barrel does not function as a religious text, for example.

One approach to understanding abstract art is to treat them as metaphors or allegories. In some cases, the art helps us out by means of its title. Marcel Duchamp's cubist painting "Nude Descending a Staircase" immediately reveals the multi-perspective, superimposed forms of a human form in motion. The same goes for Piet Mondrian's famous final painting, "Broadway Boogie Woogie," which reflects the bustle of New York City.

In other cases, no such help can be gleaned from the work itself, and viewers must seek their own interpretations. Such is the case with Mondrian's "Composition with Yellow Patch," for example, which offers no interpretive handle in its title or on its canvas.

Games rarely give much away through their titles, mostly because they don't have a strong genealogical relationship with the history of painting. Still, our interpretive capacity makes it possible to read meaning in anything if we choose.

Perhaps the best-known representational interpretation of an abstract puzzle game addresses the best-known such game: Tetris. In her 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray described Tetris as "the perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans." Tetriminoes fall, like tasks to be completed, emails to be read, meetings to be attended. One must act quickly or the onslaught will quickly overwhelm. But once checked, filed, or satisfied, the process just starts all over again. There is no escape, save inevitable defeat.

Critic Markku Eskelinen pugnaciously disputes Murray's account as absurd: "Instead of studying the actual game Murray tries to interpret its supposed content, or better yet, project her favourite content on it; consequently we don't learn anything of the features that make Tetris a game."

Eskelinen points out the curiosity in reading a Soviet game as an allegory for the American work ethic, and offers that "It would be equally far beside the point if someone interpreted chess as a perfect American game because there's a constant struggle between hierarchically organized white and black communities, genders are not equal, and there's no health care for the stricken pieces."

Yet, Murray's interpretation is entirely reasonable. From the perspective of literary or art criticism, she offers something essential: evidence from the work itself. The fact that the game was made behind the Iron Curtain doesn't matter; a work escapes the context of its creation and recombines with new interpretations in myriad unexpected ways (a concept the philosopher Jacques Derrida calls dissemination). Nobody can tell you what a work "really means," provided you can mount textual evidence to show that your interpretation is sensical.

The problem with the Murray/Eskelinen approach to abstract puzzle games is that one wants the game to function only narratively, the other wants it to function only formally. Neither is exactly right without the other. The problem seems to be this: the "meaning" of an abstract puzzle game lies in a gap between its mechanics and its dynamics, rather than in one or the other.

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Glenn Storm
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A thought-provoking piece. Thank you, Ian.

"A problem arises when we try to talk about abstract puzzle games critically." Of course, this is a problem shared with Game Design, in that communicating design of such games is equally elusive; likewise for pitching such a game to investors and publishers. What I might glean from this problem is a need for a language that can specifically address abstraction in games. Such a language may exist, but as you struggle with during this article, it is just not common enough to be practical.

The elements that define the abstract puzzle game are, by definition, not tangible. However, I'd suggest that there are gameplay characteristics that are common enough to be used in game criticism and development. Rather than resorting to translation of abstract concepts to tangible ones, as Murray did; I'd be in line with Eskelinen in saying that the gameplay experience itself must be the focus of the piece if it is to be relevant to the widest end user audience. Is that easy to write? Probably not. Would a lazy effort be easy to relate to? Probably not. But, there's the challenge to remain honest and accurate; as in all journalism.

A phrase like, "Mastery of the game is always temporary", works very well in that respect, at least to my eye. It expresses the basic draw of the game and the success of its execution in that regard. "About" is simply irrelevant to that expression of the experience. A game's design typically implies a particular audience; their temperament, their interests, their level of desired difficulty, etc. I'd would imagine the audience for abstract puzzle games is familiar with abstraction, the notion of a gameplay experience devoid of explicit context, and a greater cognitive challenge, etc. To speak to that audience, I think it's very appropriate to use language that can convey the experience purely. To search for and then present an "About", in this particular case, would seem to be like picking out just the right flavor of frosting to spread over the hood of a Lexus.

Very nice piece.

Daniel Boutros
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I think you might be over-thinking this.

Puzzles, in my experience as a player, are judged on their conceptual simplicity, the enjoyment of toying within the idea, and then being able to perceive (and enjoy) the fun that simple idea can be stretched out to encompass.

I judge them as digital toys for the mind. Nothing more.

When I made a puzzle game, I tried to meet these standards and only succeeded in making something simple with long tail depth, but not communicating it well enough for the player to immediately grasp. Great puzzle design is very hard without enough testers and time to iterate. It definitely needed more time and the lesson is learned; UI is massively important and the time to iterate and polish the hell out of it, is key.

As for the argument about whether these games can be meaningful, it's entirely possible and I plan to release something in this vein. The priority from a design perspective however, must be first and foremost to make the puzzle work and remain compelling throughout. Dressing it meaningfully and having it feel cohesive is the bigger challenge.

Bart Stewart
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I also enjoyed this article.

Dragging in Derrida may have been overdoing it a tad, but the core point (as I take it) is that game designers find it hard to get a handle on abstract models for enabling fun.

This is a problem I've been trying to grapple with myself for a while now. It's just so much easier to conceive of concrete, external/functional, formalized artifacts that other forms, which highlight abstract, internal/meaning, open-ended processes, are being abandoned. And opportunities to deliver real entertainment are being lost.

As an example of this game developer preference, consider the question of "content" in a MMORPG. Suppose that a developer wants to create some new content for players to enjoy. What form is that content likely to take?

Is it likely to be something abstract -- perhaps a new system through which players can organize information about the gameworld, or clever puzzles, or the addition of depth to the crafting system, or new landscapes intended to produce an emotional response?

Or is a developer tasked with creating "new content" more likely to to imagine something concrete, such as new lootable objects, or additional weapons or armor or pieces of gear, or something that can be represented with easily trackable numbers?

I submit that the latter is much more common. Of course counterexamples can be found; the question is not whether there are exceptions, but whether as a rule developers are more likely to think of "content" in highly concrete terms. I believe the evidence shows that they are.

And I think that's a problem. While there's nothing inherently wrong with delivering new content in concrete forms, something important is being lost when that's about the *only* thing developers can conceive of when dreaming up new content. Abstract fun is fun, too!

Not only is it fun to get new objects and numbers-driven character abilities, to receive tangible, collectible, accumulatable things, it's also fun to get new processes, to get opportunities to explore intangibles like the comprehension of mathematical or logical structure (mental fun) and the apprehension of ethical/artistic or interpersonal relationships (emotional fun).

That's why this article by Ian Bogost matters. Game developers IMO are missing out on delivering the latter kinds of fun. To counteract that, there need to be more commentaries like Ian's pointing out how abstract fun is still fun, even if it takes more effort to imagine it and turn it into content.

I hope to see more such thoughtful effort applied in 2010 and beyond, and that this leads to delivering more computer entertainment that grabs the whole player by providing both concrete and abstract play.

Daniel Fernandez
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Interesting article.

I think abstract games (not only puzzle) permit to focus on the gameplay mechanics, they become more visible for the player. Abstract is also cool for developers because you can experiment with new elements, and maybe find something fun that inspire other games or even invent a new genre.

If you like abstract puzzle games, check out our iPhone game Cell & Love: The Fun of Fusion!

Allan Rowntree
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Interesting, what do you think of my not so abstract puzzle game Qbix ?