Persuasive Games: Puzzling the Sublime
December 23, 2009 Page 3 of 3
Can we say that Drop7 and Orbital are "about" something? And if so what? Here it is useful to return to Murray's interpretation of Tetris.
One might find a similar mathematical sublimity at work in Tetris, after all. Each block alters the topology of the playfield, the player must alter that topology to continue the game, and chance dictates what pieces might be available to consummate the geometrical promises made earlier.
But Drop7 and Orbital differ from Tetris in an important way: they are turn-based, not continuous. The player must always intervene to make the next move, offering an opportunity to reflect on the enormity of the task, a requirement of sublimity.
When Murray reads Tetris as a work about the Sisyphean toil of work, she refers not to the game's dynamics of mathematical sublimity, but to the temporal dynamics of its operation. And time, as it happens, is precisely the formal explanation Eskelinen's offers after his rebuff of Murray's narrativism.
Office work is generally not a variety of sublimity like the rapidly branching parallel worlds of Drop7 and Orbital, but it is often an experience of time's arrow, of unstoppable progression, with or without progress.
In Tetris, the method of play disrupts access to the sublime. But in Drop7 and Orbital, the player's pondering of and reaction to sublimity is enhanced by the mode of action. Arrested between each move, it is possible to allegorize that sensation, taking it as the subject of the game.
For example, Drop7 offers an experience of dread and smallness in the face of unpredictability -- not only of the future (the disc to be placed), but also of the past (the unrevealed grey discs). Such an experience feels much like that of, say, personal choice. Should one contribute to the Red Cross? Convert to Islam? Take a mistress?
To be sure, the surface and model of Drop7 do not feel like this at all, but the experience of mathematical sublimity are alike in both cases.
In this respect, one might argue that Drop7 is more about moral choice than are games like Fable or BioShock. The latter titles may simulate the actions of decision, but just like Tetris does for work, they do not capture the theme of choice through dynamics.
Orbital can be seen to build on this theme, but in a different direction. Absent chance, Orbital's subject revolves around placement. Even given the full knowledge of the physical dynamics of the universe (a subject that finds its way into the visual theme of the game), the human player is still too fallible to succeed at such placement over time. Even the master will be found wanting; after all, the current global high score for Orbital is under 200 points.
This interpretation of these games, one among many, cannot be gleaned from game mechanics, nor from the dynamics those mechanics produce. Instead, they take form in the allegorical exhaust of player sensations between the two.
Puzzling the Sublime
Good puzzle games can do many things. But to call them good based on properties of addictiveness or depth or elegance -- the common values used to judge titles like Tetris and Drop7 and Orbital -- is to say that abstract games can only exert cold, formal effect on their players. The sublime is just the opposite of cold formalism: a feeling of overwhelm, of vastness, of abundance.
The sublime helps us see the limits of our own reason, showing us the instability and immensity of the world. Surely such a theme hasn't been exhausted by a few games about blocks and numbers and shapes, just as it hasn't been captured by a few games about war or sacrifice or loss.
The role of the mathematical sublime in puzzle games should give us pause about our goals as creators and critics. We look for masterpieces in games by comparing them to familiar works of representational art, like film, painting, and literature. But the sublime is found elsewhere: in architecture, in nature, in weather. Perhaps we should look to these sources for inspiration too.
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