Friday, November 1, 2013

Blips: Talking It Out

Source: Talking to the Player: How Cultural Currents Shape and Level Design
Author: Matthias Worch
Site: You Got Red On You

The influence of film on games has been a recurring discussion point for years, so I really appreciate designer Matthias Worch's 2013 GDC talk that steps back and looks through a wider lens at game design as it relates to oral tradition and print culture. There is a lot of nuance to Worch's presentation, so if this topic seems interesting, I highly recommend watching the whole thing above, but I'll do my best to break down some of the ideas I found most intriguing.

Principally, Worch describes video game playing as a conversation between the player and the game (the code). He describes what he sees as certain flaws in commercial (for entertainment) game design by drawing parallels to conversations between people. Imagine you're talking with someone, having an engaging exchange of ideas over a certain amount of time, and then after you make a great point, the other person totally ignores what you said and begins speaking about a different topic altogether. You try to interrupt and put the conversation back on track, but it's like talking to a wall, and no matter how hard you try, you've lost all agency in the dialogue. Worch says that this is like when a video game unexpectedly takes certain expected player inputs away, more or less breaking the social contract that you felt had been established. I know I've definitely played games where a non-interactive cutscene was triggered when I would have loved to play that part of the game instead. Whether or not these moments "work" or not is all in the transitions: how the conversation shifts from one topic to the next. No one likes to be interrupted.

Worch also boils down certain game design traits as rooted in oral tradition, and others in print culture, with his two primary examples being Skyrim and Final Fantasy XIII respectively. The points of comparison have to do with how much a game elicits stories unique to a player's experience with the game or if it elicits stories about how the game was written and sequences that all players got to see. These categories should be used as guideposts, not exclusive labels though, since every game has elements derived from both oral tradition and print culture. In fact, the ensuing dialogue between when a game is more open and when it is more prescribed is what gives a game's gameplay it's unique feel. Increasingly, the genre categorizations of print culture seem to loose relevance in favor of classifying games by "type of play." This is something I'm going to try and keep in mind as I write more and more reviews.

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