Posted by: Tj'ièn | January 10, 2010

Childish mechanics

In my previous article ‘raising questions’ I wondered if games can be more mature, in a sense that they deliver a more mature experience, rather then displaying ‘mature’ content. I believe that maturity has a lot to do with responsibility, as we grow up we become more responsible for ourselves and for others.

What I discovered is that games tend to take a lot of responsibility away from the player. The goals of the player tell the player what to do and the rewards and punishments tell the player if he is doing a good job. There is almost no responsibility left for the player to create the experience and therefore the experience doesn’t feel very mature. For some reason game players seem to enjoy this and games have become better and better in providing these childish mechanics. I too, contribute to these childish ways of doing, and I do not think there is anything wrong with providing this way of entertainment, but I am curious if it can be different.

So my previous article ended with the question if mature games have to get rid of these mechanics that supposedly are so connected to good games.

Now in this article I will be looking at the biggest offenders. What elements of a game take away the most responsibility of the player? And, if we think or apply them differently, are we then getting closer to a more mature game? Or maybe we can’t call it a game any more?

Goals

There are not many things so bound to each other the games and goals. Goals – by definition – tell the player what to do, or at least what to strive for. The goal of the game takes away the biggest responsibility of the player for creating the experience. If a game has no predetermined goal, can we still speak of a game? And if the player is responsible of the creating his own goals, will he enjoy the experience?

In my article ‘scale of authorship’ I talk about the player as an author of the actual experience. The more the player is an author, the more toy-like the game becomes. When the player has to create its own goals, what is left of the game? It becomes an interactive playground, a toy.

We now have a problem that if the game provides a goal it is childish and if it doesn’t provide a goal it is not a game anymore. It seems that a mature game is impossible. But somehow I refuse to believe that. One solution to this problem is what Fumito Ueda -in all his brilliance- has done with his games and that is to provide a goal, but then let the player question it. Why am I doing this? What is the purpose of this all? This makes the whole experience a lot more mature, making the player think about the actions that he is undertaking.

Explicit values

Other elements in games that take away responsibility from the player are explicit values. Values are connected to goals and they provide feedback for the player if he is gradually progressing towards the goal, or if he’s not. Explicit values are judgmental and they can take a lot of forms; score, rewards, gauges, sound effects, time, etc. All these values somehow communicate that the player is doing a good job or a bad job. These values are the ‘pat on the shoulder’ or the ‘slap in the face’.

We have become so dependent on feedback that it is highly seems highly uncomfortable playing a game without feedback, without explicit value. Imagine playing a game where there was no positive or negative feedback when you killed a character in the game world. Would you do it again? If there were no signs that you did a good job, what would be the reason to do it again?

The problem here is that explicit values and feedback provide a sense of progression and acknowledgement that the player will feel lost without it. There should be a way of making the player responsible for this. Maybe the solution to this lies in the word artificial. Artificial ways of progression are detached of what you are doing in the game world but are attached to the game’s goal. But there are natural ways for the player to know whether he is progressing, by crossing distance or about fading time for example. If I’m taking a walk down the block, I get a natural sense of progression with every step. My view changes and I’m crossing distance without getting told that I’m doing a great job.

So one way to make games more mature is to eliminate the artificial ways of providing explicit values and allow natural ways of feedback to shine through. Again, Fumito Ueda has nailed it in his games, especially ICO, as there is almost no artificial feedback what so ever.

Wysiwyg

What you see is what you get. A lot of games make it really obvious what is there world. They leave no place for the player imagination. And it does not matter if a game is set in a photorealistic environment or a cartoon-like environment. The world is what it is, objects that should be of interest are highlighted, interaction possibilities are explained and everything is obvious and makes sense.

There is little or no room for the player to imagine why certain things are like they are, meaning is almost always created by the game, instead of the player. The more the game leaves open for interpretation, the more the player becomes responsible of creating the world that he inhabits.

Again, Fumito Ueda’s games capture this perfectly by creating a believable but completely mysterious world. Nothing is explicitly explained and meaning of buildings and structures are formed in the player’s head, making the experience more personal and more mature.

Fumito Ueda leads the way

I have been praising Fumito Ueda a lot in this and previous article, as I think he has knowingly or unknowingly led the way of making mature games. There are others that are crossing the same territory, like the friendly people at Tales of tales or Jenova Chen with games as Flow and Flower. But somehow Fumito Ueda’s games still feel the most game like, without crossing over to interactive toy territory.

For me this short thinking exercise, together with Fumito Ueda’s games proofs that it is entirely possible to create mature games. It shall be one of my goals to create a mature game in the future, if only to add another example.

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