August 2, 2008 4:00 PM | Simon Carless
[Last week's UK conference had some pretty GSW-worthy stuff flecked into it, so we'll be printing full versions of a couple of Simon Parkin and Gamasutra editors' write-ups of the sessions - starting out with some razor-sharp deconstruction from Braid's Jon Blow, for which the audio/slides are now available on his blog.]
In an inspiring talk at the Develop Conference in Brighton, Braid creator Jonathan Blow has been discussing how developers can "produce great games that will change people's lives", given the fact that, in today's market, "mainstream games are conflicted works".
Blow, who is a former programming columnist for Game Developer magazine and a sought-after consultant in the game biz, as well as the creator of IGF prize-winning Xbox Live Arcade title Braid, addressed the conference on "...how to build games that are important - that address the human condition but are still good games."
The creator started by asking what the problems are that act as obstacles to this aim? He noted: "Mainstream games are conflicted works. People can sense this. Games don’t resonate if the work is disharmonious. How can we remove this conflict that’s built into our games, and what is it?"
The Rise Of The Art Game
Blow started by referencing 'art games' as a genre. Often created by one person, they cost very little or nothing to make - and he suggested that they're not just little independent games, but they have a purpose. Often they are trying to communicate a theme emotionally or intellectually – not via the plot or characters, but via the framework that makes up the game.
One notable example is The Marriage by current Sims Studio head Rod Humble. The abstract game has you manipulating shapes and colors and "understanding your play session as it unfolds in front of you", but essentially, you play as the force of attraction.
This title helped to inspired other abstract play experiences that can be projected onto - for example Gravitation by Jason Rohrer. According to Blow: "Changing the design elements changes the metaphorical meaning of any game experience. Adding and subtracting the rules, you can move from any game to any game."
But what's the difference between this and more mainstream titles? Blow suggested that when we sit down and try to design a mainstream game, we start with story, setting and characters. Then developers create a gameplay system that will be fun to lay the story and setting on to.
As he noted: "Gameplay elements have meanings outside of the visual and linear; the meaning of the gameplay rules is often in conflict within the visual meanings from the linear meanings, which results in a game becoming conflicted."
Resolving The Conflict In Mainstream Games
In fact, the Braid creator suggested, game elements (for example story and gameplay meaning) work against each other, resulting in a conflicted product: "We are a young medium because we’ve yet to come to understand this."
He then listed out some specific examples - noting that they are commercially successful products, so these issues are not inhibiting success for the games in question:
- BioShock: there's a 'Little Sister problem' in altruism versus balance. Blow noted that there's only a marginal difference in the rewards you receive, no matter whether you choose to rescue or kill the Little Sisters. The game mechanics are telling you that it doesn’t matter which way you choose. So effectively, the game says that the Little Sister doesn’t matter, while the plot says that it does matter." He suggested that "...this is disingenuous [and] robs the game of its emotional impact and potential."
- Grand Theft Auto IV: Blow commented that girlfriends (and boyfriends) all have ‘benefits’ for befriending them. However, one character does not - Kate. The game rules tell you that you have no future with Kate (as she gives you no gameplay benefit) but, in the plot, the writers make Kate a romantic interest - a person pivotal to the story. So the game designer is saying 'don’t care about this person', but the game scriptwriter is saying 'do care about this person.'
- Half-Life 2: You often end up in an sealed-off area with your in-game companion Alyx Vance, and when you kill enough enemies you can move on to the next arena. Alyx will open these doors when you’ve cleared the room. Finally, opening a locked door gives you in-game rewards. Blow notes: "In other words, doors are the obstacles keeping you from the good stuff." In the game, the writers want you to feel close to Alyx, so you have short cut-scenes, and story elements happen as the doors are being opened. In this case, the game designer has taught you to get through the doors quickly so you can get your hands on the goodies - while the scriptwriters want to use this opportunity for you to get to know Alyx. The gameplay is well designed, and so is the fiction, but "...they fit together disingenuously."
Possible Solutions For Dissonance
So how can these conflicts be solved? How about having no story? This isn't an option, because story-based titles are the games that everyone buys.
Blow asked: "Why aren’t we building $10 million versions of Pac-Man? Maybe it’s because of tradition – as our computational abilities have increased, our aspirations have raised to movies."
So perhaps the challenge for the future is to scale up the art games whose narrative is implicit, rather than explicit, he argued.
What's an ideal solution for existing AAA titles, then? Blow suggested that 'tight coupling', where "...we do our best to eliminate conflicts" between story and dynamical meanings, is the best way to deal with such issues. Of course, he agrees: "These conflicts will happen because of the way that games are constructed".
But in Blow's world, a game where the story and gameplay fits together much more closely would help mainstream games become much less conflicted - and the expansion of the art game concept may lead to whole new avenues of less conflicted creativity.