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
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.
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."
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".
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.