"Game design" is a broad concept, and there are as many definitions of it out there as there are game designers. This year's GDC certainly attempted to cover a lot of ground on the topic. There were round tables and tutorials covering puzzle design, 3D fantasy world design, community design for large-scale online worlds, and more. There were numerous lectures to choose from in the GDC's Game Design track, including ones on level design, character design, console game design, dramatic writing, online casino game design, metagames, designing design tools, and more. Added to these were design-related sessions in other tracks -- like the tutorial on artifical life, and the "Visual Storytelling through Lighting" presentation in the Visual Arts track. Hal Barwood's primer for aspiring writers attracted a room full of people interested in virtual storytelling, and half a dozen lectures featured the word "story" in one form or another.
All in all, this was a good deal more than a mere mortal could hope to digest, even if fully dedicated to the task. Having worked as a writer, physicist, and coder (but not as a game designer), and with my curiosity subject to the harsh realities of GDC parallel class scheduling, I decided from the outset to focus on what, to me, seems to be the most interesting and promising approach to game design: the attempt to remove the notion of "storytelling" from games, or at least redefine it for this medium. The most vocal people exploring alternatives to classic game design included speakers Doug Church, Marc LeBlanc, Zach Simpson and Warren Spector.
Doug Church's presentation, "Abdicating Authorship," probably aimed the closest to the heart of the storytelling issue, especially when he stated:
desire to create traditional narrative and exercise authorial control
over the gaming world often inhibits the player's ability to involve themselves in
the game world."
Church is trying to determine what games can accomplish through the features presumed to be unique to this new medium called "interactive gaming". He reviewed examples of old and new media that clearly distinguish between the author presenting a more-or-less static work, and the "out of the loop" recipient that perceives and interprets the author's work. Church concluded that "revelation of the [game] designer's intent is not interactivity".
Dismissing multimedia authoring approaches that simply extend text to hypertext, Church said that he expects these efforts to yield little beyond the rediscovery of multiform narrative (that is, multiple points of view). In his presentation, he reviewed computer games by genre, showing one or two games as examples of each genre. He pointed out that most adventure games and RPGs have, between puzzle solving and player movement, driven the replay of story elements and rarely empowered the player with true choice. Action games (e.g. sports and racing games) offer an experience dominated by ability, which requires an "in the loop" player. Being entirely driven by player actions and player skill, it is very difficult provide any kind of dramatic structure in these games.
Church referenced to Marc LeBlanc's 1999 GDC discussion of feedback loops, which said that designers could "keep the race close" for players by implementing a feedback loop. In all honesty, I feel this has little to do with traditional dramatic structure, which is based on modulating tension for the audience, not by assuring a constant level of it. As an alternative to external intervention (where the game is designed to quietly cheat to keep the game tense for the player, thus invalidating player decisions), an in-game feedback loop is certainly a good example of implementing the desired dynamics within the game simulation. For a racing game, this could be some kind of forward-pointing device that could be used to knock racers ahead of the player off the track (but that would naturally be useless if the player was leading in the race).
Of course, there are also the deathmatch/FPS action games -- a la Quake. In the past, John Carmack has described his view of game design as creating a virtual "amusement park". (Don Carson's analogy between games and theme parks is similiar in this respect -- see Part 1 and Part 2 of his environmental storytelling articles here on Gamasutra.) Church admitted that the shooters have, so far, spearheaded interactivity, but he also observed that little progress has been made to date beyond bare contests of reflex and resource management, which allow for little more than killing. He voiced the fear that maybe this is already the limit of interactivity possible with current technology.
Here, as in many other discussions, it seemed to me that game designers may not have looked closely enough at the reasons for the comparative success of shooter games, be it early shooting gallery movies or state-of-the-art first- and third-person shooters. The possibility of conflict and violence being the heart of, and cheapest way to, dramatic action has been made before. But somehow I suspect that a good deal of credit or blame has to be put on how these games make use of player hardware. The mouse and keyboard are narrow-bandwidth user interfaces, offering as a means of real-time expression only 2D aiming and button pushing. This inevitably limits the amount of meaningful interaction, at least for games that focus on player immersion. It remains to be seen whether voice recognition and voice-over-network technology will extend the man-machine interface sufficiently to open new venues, or whether better immersion will require new controllers and devices. Certainly no fancy hardware is needed for us to question whether today's emphasis on point-and-click interaction inhibits metaphors beyond "shoot this". (As a sidenote, one presentation on "armed games" tried to make a case for empowering the player with a virtual (empty) hand, trading the ability to grasp, carry, and place objects for a weapon glued to our palms.)
The genre Church focused on last was simulation and strategy games. Certainly this genre has the simulation machinery required for interactive experience, and a time scale that permits the versatile use of mouse and keyboard interfaces. Between Sim City and The Sims, this is a large spectrum of games, reaching all the way to virtual pets. "The Sims" are certainly closer relatives to "Creatures", or even Tamagotchis, than Darwin's theory of evolution might suggest. As attendees pointed out, our fascination with The Sims might well be connected to our childhood attraction to toys: dolls onto which children of all ages can project their own lives, memories, and personalities.
As Doug Church also pointed out, the shortcuts, "done quick" demos and walkthroughs available on the web are a lesson in humility for every designer. The ways players exploit deficiencies in a simulation are themselves metagames, which players often undertake when they feel subjected to the external control by a game's "author". It is a natural consequence of game designs that offer exploration, but not manipulation, of the virtual environment. Exploring the rules is just a logical extension of game play.
Having been a professional storyteller for many years, I found it amazing that I had fewer problems abandoning the notion of an "author" in game design than many others. It seems that many designers are struggling to get rid of the harness that comes with the notion of narrative game play. The attempts to redefine "narrative" seem unsuccessful. Church suggested that players involved in a deathmatch might create stories by learning the levels, but I think in this case he's mistaking cognitive mapping for narrative.
To me, statements like "the designer 'authors' the rules, while the player 'authors' the real story" try to evade a simple conclusion: interactive games are about control. They are about control over the input device, the initiation of events, and the state of the environment. The player battles for control against the game designer (the designer is the opponent by proxy -- he sets the stage and defines the simulation rules). Player and designer are rarely cooperative partners; rather, they are natural enemies pitted against each other. The game designer who strives for storytelling and authorship is the "dungeon keeper" for his customers, entertaining perhaps, but still a tyrant. During the discussion of Church's presentation, someone in the audience suspected as much: the game designer is indeed a planner and a schemer, who is "plotting" against the player.
Game designers might want to consider the possibility that there might be little future for narrative in cyberspace. They are caught between deathmatches as interactivity devoid of meaning, multi-branch storytelling, and aspirations for creating a Holodeck experience. Doug Church himself saw little appeal in the possibility that the voyeurism, inertia and passivity which made TV a success will also dominate the much more powerful medium of computer games.