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Persuasive Games: From Aberrance to Aesthetics
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Persuasive Games: From Aberrance to Aesthetics

August 2, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

The argument from technological progress is invoked more often, but it's actually related to the argument from historical aberrance: in fact, it offers precisely the opposite position. The reformist aberrantist claims that games are what they will become; the conservative aberrantist claims that they are what they already were.

For the conservative aberrantist, the answers lie in the past, and we must remain true to them at the top of our designs in order to achieve the full potential of games. And for the reformist aberrantist, the answers lie in the future, and we must innovate at the infrastructural level in order to realize that potential.

Individually, both conservative arguments that invoke historical aberrance and reformist arguments that appeal to technological progress have an arresting force on creativity. Both claim that there is one true path, extending in opposite directions.

But worse yet, the conservative position on historical aberrance sometimes combines with the reformist position on technological progress to produce a kind of Janus looking forward and back, embodying two seemingly incompatible positions simultaneously.

Consider Cook and Koster's positions. On the one hand, they suggest that single-player and narrative games are undesirable or doomed because they diverge from what games "really are:" multi-party systems. But on the other hand, infrastructures like social networks and mobile devices act as correctives for these purported abnormalities.

Facebook forces games to become multiparty again, and iPhones force them to become leaner and more systemic. We get the progressivism of technological progress along with the conservatism of multiplayer systems.


Instead of aberrance or progress, consider an alternative: games and their creators have different aesthetics. Not just different conceptions of what it means to create beauty or pleasure, but different underlying principles and styles that motivate the creation of specific works.

Let's consider an example that characterizes the complaints of historical aberration with which I began. I'll choose Heavy Rain, because it serves as a useful lens for both purported anomalies: narrativity and solitude.

Heavy Rain

First, following Cook's rejoinder, we could critique Heavy Rain for abandoning the power and magic of systems of behavior in order to create a simple, sometimes broken branching narrative story.

Many critiques of the title amount to the usual gripe about story in games: the tale Heavy Rain tells is a rigid structure unsusceptible to the numerous reasonable alternatives that may occur to a player, but which the game disallows or makes unavailable. If you were looking for an experience in any medium about either the structure of family life after a tragedy or about the logical process of criminal investigation, I bet Heavy Rain wouldn't be your first choice.

From the perspective of a folk-games system-design purist, Heavy Rain zooms in too far, giving the player control only over a specific set of choices made by a particular cast of characters in a single situation. A more systemic design would perhaps focus on the various tactics a father or a journalist or a criminal or a detective might employ given a variety of different personal investments, demons, conflicts, and resources. By some measures, that would be a better ludic rendition of the themes of Heavy Rain. A better game, as it were, one that doesn't fall into the trap of cinema envy.

The problem is, that's not what Heavy Rain is. The game is not an attempt to find the most efficient means to produce the largest combinatorial possibility space for strategic resolution.

If you ask me, it's not even primarily a cinematic game about detective work or parental tragedy; instead, as I've argued before in this column, it's a game that rejects the cinematic tradition of editing in favor of duration, producing dramatic, lingering moments that prolong sensations and emotions. The zoomed-in detail and fine-grain control emphasize these moments by "mimicking the attitude of characters' actions," as Stephen Totilo puts it.

More simply put, Heavy Rain has a particular aesthetic, a set of creative principles and effects that make it the sort of game it is.

Second, following Koster's retort, we could fault Heavy Rain for replacing human storytellers and listeners -- who are good at making rapid judgments and improvisations based on different actions and their possible outcomes -- and replacing them with a much coarser narrative simulation system that operates only according to the limited interpretations possible by a computer.

Why play a narrative that promises to react to different choices, only to be faced with massive limitations on the choices the game provides and on the game's possible reactions to those choices? By this reasoning, games like Heavy Rain and LA Noire are always doomed to be less interesting than their theatrical, filmic, or literary brethren, which would allow real people to characterize and perform human relationships.

Cook neatly summarizes this objection: "I think it may be the silent assumption that authored AI agents are more meaningful than two kids and a ball. For me, the humans win out."

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