Video games are all about exploration - about living in someone else's world for a while, learning the rules, learning the territory, and maybe taking something home with you. Ubisoft's Clint Hocking has his ideas about what that means for the medium and anyone who might set out to explore it.
Although the virtual space of a game world is perhaps most obvious, the most fundamental aspect of a game is its underlying systems - the physical laws and properties that govern that space. Exploring those systems is in a sense the scientific method in fast forward, a series of experiments in cause and effect that forms the substance of game play.
The more immediate and tangible the results to the player's experiments, the more readily the player feels progress, so the more rewarding the system feels. "It's supposed to be beautiful," Hocking said. "If you get this part wrong, the rest doesn't even matter."
As spatial exploration is less fundamental - not every game involves discovering new territory - it is of secondary, though no small, importance. Though more outwardly representational than a game system, space is not necessarily realistic. As evidenced by countless NES games and text adventures, exploration need not even take place in three dimensions.
Whereas the mechanics of a solid game system form their own reward structure, a player needs encouragement to explore a game world. Typically this means building rewards - whether materialistic or conceptual, such as a beautiful view or insight - into the game world.
This may mean a small number of significant rewards - such as the hidden caches in Doom, which serve a systematic function yet the player mostly stumbles across - or a large number of meaningless rewards, like the packages in Grand Theft Auto III, which simply make the player feel clever for finding them, thus inspiring the player to search them out.
Under a current, healthy model, a game leverages exploration by setting up a feedback loop between spacial and system exploration. Exploring the game's systems rewards the player by expanding the ability to explore space; exploring space rewards the player by expanding the ability to explore the game's systems.
Hocking brought up the alchemy system in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - a system with no real punishment. The player experiments, at no cost, to discover potions which in effect expand the areas which may be explored; exploring the game world turns up more (otherwise worthless) ingredients to use in potions - all over the place, much like the GTA packages.
At this point Hocking stepped sideways to confess his love for Activision's Spider-Man 2 game. On the surface it seems to have it all; doing heroic deeds gives the player points, which can be cashed in to increase Spidey's abilities, thus increasing his capacity to do heroic deeds.
Again like the GTA packages or Oblivion ingredients, the points are petty in themselves yet are so pervasive that they soon add up. It's an entire game based around doing heroic deeds - so why does the game not make the player feel particularly heroic?
To answer, Hocking delved into the back story of Spider-Man. Peter Parker was a high school kid, who found himself in possession of super powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. This was not the event, however, which made him Spider-Man. All it did was turn Peter into "a really tough asshole in a red mask", who used his strength for personal gain in a wrestling ring. One day he got in a snit, so he stood back and chose not to act when the wrestling promoter was robbed. The robber then went on to murder Peter's uncle.
It was at that moment, when Peter realized he could have stopped the robber if he had wanted to - that he should have - that Spider-Man was born, as was the famous quote that "with great power comes great responsibility". That idea - more than the details of the costume and the special powers - is the central premise of Spider-Man. If the game is not about responsibility, then Hocking suggested, in a sense it is a disservice to its license.
"And that's what this talk is about," Hocking said - about adding self to the above feedback loop. Exploring a game's systems and spaces should lead to the player questioning some aspect of his or her own behavior, which should in turn lead to further exploration of the game. There are any number of concepts a game might serve to study - compassion, valor, sacrifice, honor, spirituality, humility.
Using an MS Paint-edited picture of a panel from last year's GDC, Hocking drew parallels to the Last Supper in order to conclude that Chris Crawford is not Jesus, so therefore games can move us emotionally.
Not only is self-exploration possible in a video game, Hocking added, it has already been done - "twenty-two fucking years ago," in Ultima IV. This is not to say that it was done particularly well, yet by today's standards neither were the 3D dungeons.
Hocking then flashed from the rudimentary shapes of Ultima's dungeons to Wolfenstein 3D, then Doom, then finally some anonymous modern-day FPS. The title on the slide read "With Great Power Comes Great Graphics". The concepts in Ultima IV are a solid enough beginning; they simply haven't been revisited and refined to the same extent as the surface elements.
The way Ultima IV works is that every decision the player makes is associated with one or more values. Slaying a monster increases the player's valor, yet killing an innocent beast decreases the player's compassion. The system is roughly functional, and Hocking says there are rare moments where it causes him to feel something interesting - barely, the way he can sort of feel his teeth after a shot of Novocaine, yet it is there.
The problem is that there are few moments when the game puts these values into conflict - intentionally so, to the best that Hocking can determine. Rather, the game expects and wants the player to play every situation "correctly", to raise all of the values to their maximum by playing the perfect model of a human being. This is not particularly interesting, on an emotional level.
As Evan Skolnick would be quick to point out, story is conflict. For a game system to be dramatically significant, it must force the player to make difficult yet balanced choices with real consequences. Likewise, the basis for these decisions must come from within the player rather than from external factors - triggering an exploration of self.
The values in conflict must be quantitatively equivalent, in that there is no clearly "correct" path that the player is expected to take. A system such as KOTOR's spectrum of good-to-evil is not particularly inspiring, as there is no real conflict. Either you play good all the time or you play evil; there is no valid reward for being somewhere in the middle, for playing gray. There is no nuance - nothing to explore.
To contrast, Hocking suggested a Muhammad Ali game that hinges on two values: Valor - which is an aggregate of everything related to fighting ability - and humility, which is the player's identification with the public. An increase in valor and a decrease in humility could be identified as pride. Publicly taunting the opponent would increase Ali's valor, in that it would give him some psychological edge over the opponent, yet it would distance him somewhat from the public. Spending time caring for orphans would raise Ali's humility, yet would keep him from training therefore lowering his valor. The important principle is that these are separate values rather than a single continuity.
The aspect of this discussion which Hocking feels might be easiest for most people to "get wrong" is the concept of internal conflict. Going back to Spider-Man, he observes that Peter Parker's decision not to stop the robber was almost fatalistic. It was a decision Peter was unaware he was making, even as the audience was likely screaming at him, seeing his error for what it was.
In a normal form of storytelling, internal conflict is portrayed as a conflict of perspectives between the characters and the audience. This approach does not really apply to video games. Unless a game is specifically aiming to feel cheap and arbitrary, it cannot surprise the player with unforeseen or unforeseeable consequences. Players must search within themselves, decide what kind of people they are, and live with the natural consequences of the decisions they make on that basis.
"In the end of the day," Hocking concluded, "we need to realize that we are explorers, all of us."