Exploring Deeper Meaning In Games

This post aims to be a deeper look at my earlier rant about meaning, narrative (plot) and gameplay. After considering feedback and thinking about it some more I would now like to write a more constructive text. In this post I will outline some steps and ways of thinking that I think are needed in order to achieve deeper and more varied meaning in games. “Deeper meaning” is of course a highly subjective thing, but what I mean is simply games where the core is not just about a gameplay mechanic, showing entertaining gore or similar. Instead, the focus should be on exploring something other than pure “fun”.

Meaning should come first

Instead of starting out with a gameplay mechanic, one should find some other kind of meaning to have at the core. Note, that “meaning” does not have to be something hard to understand or extremely profound. “The joys of snowboarding” is one kind of meaning and “What is it like to be homeless?” is another. Note the difference in meanings here, one is pretty mainstream while the other is not. Also note that I would consider both of these meanings “deep” as they do not concentrate on the gameplay directly.

I think having this kind of meaning can be crucial in order to create a good work, and many (all?) great films and books are based around it. For example, take books like Animal Farm and Grapes of Wrath, both of which are very compelling stories and also have a strong meanings. The meaning that lie at the core of these works is what is essential though and not the plot. Grapes of Wrath tries to describe the problems poor farmers had when they where forced to move to California. Animal Farm is at one level about corruption in governments after revolutions and at another a fairly accurate description of the Russian revolution. The important thing is that the plots are not what is essential in these books. Instead the plots are merely vessels in order to bring forward the meaning and have been written to do so in the most effective manner. Without the strong meaning at the core, the novels would have never been written. The engaging stories has grown directly from their respective meanings.

It is worth noting that just because a meaning lies at the core, a game does not have to turn out different from how they normally are today. For example, the “The joys of snowboarding” could be made into an ordinary game like SSX or something more experimental like Stoked Rider (that does not contain goals, scores, etc). What is essential though is that the meaning is never sacrificed for other features. If a score is added to the “joys of snowboarding” game then it should increase the meaning and if doesn’t, it should be discarded! Ignoring this cause problems in many games, some of which have been discussed here.

Fun does not need to be in focus

When designing a way to bring forward the meaning, one should use all tricks that are available to the medium and not feel forced that everything must be fun gameplay mechanics. Focusing on having some kind of entertaining activity at the core of the game tend to take away the meaning and instead let the mechanic take over. A recent example of this would be combat and upgrading in Dead Space that takes away quite bit of the Alien/Event Horizon-like atmosphere ( which I assume is what the designers where after).

When designing our upcoming game Amnesia we first focused on having a core gameplay which the rest of the game could be built upon. However, every type of gameplay we tried out weakened our core meaning of creating a scary and disturbing atmosphere. It was not until we just let go of the concept that something “fun” needs to lie at the core that we really felt the project coming together.

It’s not all about events

What drives the meaning in books like Animal Farm is basically a string of plot events. This is because linear media, like books and movies, are pretty much all about plots and therefore events is the most common way to bring forward a meaning. However, this is not true for games, where we have interactivity, non-linearity and generated content to work with as well!

I think many game designers look too much at books and films, and mimics their ways of communicating a message. Instead I think that one way to move forward is to look at the meaning and then figure out the best way to convey it. (Of course this also means that one must have a meaning from the start…)

Consider portraying a dangerous neighborhood. In a linear media a character might be mugged when walking in the area, and in that way conveying that it is a bad place by using a plot event. In a game this could be done through interaction instead. For instance, NPC:s can give more hostile answers to questions asked, showing certain objects will make people stare with greedy eyes, etc. These kinds of interactions all enhance the meaning that is portrayed and makes the mugging event irrelevant.

What I wanted to show with the previous example is that instead of a scripted event, interaction with the world can provide the same kind of meaning. It is also worth pointing out that some games (Fallout comes into mind) already use this method, but I would like to see used more often. Also, it is very important to be aware of this possibility and not just assume that an event is important for the story. There are bound to be many plot events in a story that could be changed this way. One should not focus on having everything as interactivity though; the method to be used should always be the one which best conveys the intended meaning.

Winning is not everything

All ancient games like go and backgammon are at the core about one thing: winning. This is something that seem to have followed ever since and most games rely on some mechanic where the player either succeeds or fails. While it suits some types of games, it can devastate the experience in others and it also sets up a sort of barrier on who can play the game. Many games effectively say: “Either you complete this task or you won’t proceed!”. There seems to be some kind of common knowledge that this type of mechanic is a must in order for a creation to be called a game and if the player cannot loose the game is pointless.

I believe it is time to stop thinking in terms of “beating a game” and instead focus creating an experience for the player. For example, I have discussed chase sequences in a previous post and the main problems with these is that they loose their impact when replayed. There is a very simple solution to this problem: make sure they are only played once! I think it is possible to still create tension even if it is predetermined whether the protagonist dies or not. It is all about immersing oneself and it works great for films and books. Another way is to continue the game regardless if the player wins or looses, changing the game accordingly. Both of these methods are implemented in Heavy Rain and while I have not tried the game, reviews seem to show that it works quite well. Also note that it is possible to fool the player into believing that there are grave consequences if failing in certain sequences. As long as there is some rare occasions where it really does matter, the player will never be sure if the current situation is “for real” or not. This approach makes it easier for the designer as large amounts of narrative permutations does need to be supported.

This thinking can be applied to just about any sequence that is supposed to have tension. Every time “game over” is shown immersion is broken and the player is pulled out of the game world. One can give the experience more flow by skipping the old notion of “trial and error” and instead make sure that the game always progresses. At the same time the game is made accessible to more people and not just hard-core gamers.

As a final note on the “win or loose” topic I want to add that this is of course not true for every type of game. But I do think that designers should carefully consider if a trial and error mechanic is really needed and if it might not be for the best to skip it.

Existing for existence itself

The interactions performed in games are almost always connected to some kind of gameplay mechanic. Often just about all the actions available in a game are relevant to the core rule system and actions are not often present only because of their intrinsic value. I think this is something that needs change and would like to show why by considering how graphics has evolved in games.

In the first games, all graphics had some kind of relevance to the gameplay (e.g. Pong). However, as technology advanced graphics where added just to enhance atmosphere and for the viewing pleasure of the player. Today very little of a game’s graphics are there strictly for gameplay and are mostly there to make the game attractive. The same has not been true for interaction and there has been very little improvement. Often when more “superfluous” interactions have been added, they have still gotten some kind of gameplay connection (like eating various food items in System Shock 2).

Notable exceptions are for instance Max Payne where sinks, driers, etc can be turned on in a public toilet. Another examples is Half-life 2 where many of the objects have physical properties, allowing interaction, but no relevance to the gameplay. While these interactions add a lot to immersion they are pretty simple and I think more complex actions could and should be added.

Consider a game where a male protagonist has a child following him and certain actions can make the child sad or happy. The mood of the child has no impact on the gameplay, but would just be a mean for the player to connect to the father-child relationship. Some might argue that adding some gameplay relevance would make the impact of a happy/sad child stronger, but I think this is false. First of all, gameplay comes with balancing issues and instead of focusing on making the child believable and on creating a certain experience, one might end up focusing on making it all work gameplay wise instead – in the end decreasing the impact. Secondly, adding a gameplay mechanic easily make the player focus on the underlying rules instead of evoking feelings. Because of this, only having the happy/sad boy interaction for its own sake can make it a more emotional experience.

Just as adding nice graphics, for no other reason than their beauty, can make a game more compelling and attract more people, adding gameplay wise “meaningless” interactions could help make the game medium reach new places.

End notes

I do not want to stop games from being made as they are now. Neither do I want all future games to have deep meanings. However, I would like to see games that take the medium to new places and explore deeper subjects . I would like to see games that can provoke deep thought and feel as something other than “pure entertainment”. As I mentioned in the earlier post on this subject, the current state of games, where the core experience is almost always be about hero induced genocide, is just sad. There needs to be some change to this or else a lot of potential will go to waste!