May 28th, 2006

“The great thing about video games is that they allow us to choose.”

I’ve mentioned before the video game-related art exhibit I visited a month or two back when I was in Amsterdam. I’ve mentioned also that it… well, it sucked. What I didn’t mention though is how much I love it when something uninteresting sparks cool ideas, totally by accident.

For example: The above is a paraphrased quote from this exhibit, “Next Level.” It went along with a video of graphic and more or less totally predictable footage from Grand Theft Auto. *But* what I expected to see, after reading the caption and recognizing GTA out of the corner of my eye, was footage of someone exercising their right to “choose” and playing sans violence, sans sex, sans stereotypical conformity — just exploring what is, when you get right down to it, an open world.

That fun little misunderstanding also made me think differently about another piece in the exhibit, a collection of footage of in-game suicides. After all, what is video game suicide but the most literal expression of that right to choose? Players choose not to obey the rules of game, namely to care about the objective and about winning. Instead, suicide reveals the game world that exists beyond it’s intentions — one where players have the choice of non-participation.

Almost all video games, even great ones, suffer from what could be called “game logic.” You pick up a key; you will use it to open a locked door. You find an item that looks like part of a set; you will need to complete the set before moving on. You gain access to a new area; you go there – and then to the next area, and the next. Even in more exploratory games, there is still a sense of linear play, of predetermined ends. And to succeed — in the most traditional sense — you must be willing to play by the rules.

My favorite video game moments, however, come when video game logic is cast aside, when a player refuses to obey. I played Mario 64 the year it came out — before I had a chance to develop a sense of game logic — and it was a literally life-altering experience. Every experience was an entirely new, and fantastical, discovery.

I have a tendency to wander when I game. As a result, I’ve had to ban both my brother and my fiance from ever being present when I play Ocarina of Time. They’re busy shouting, “What are you doing? You don’t have to do that,” and “The door you want opened up on the left. Aren’t you going to go through it?” Me, I’m busy hacking away at schrubs with no more treasure, climbing ladders to go places I’ve been already, tumbling across grass and achieving nothing.

Why? Because I can. Because behind the linear logic of conventional gameplay, there lies a world to be explored — a world where we can exert our presence and our right to choose more through non-participation than we ever could through winning.
P.S. My apologies for being away recently. Things have been fun, but hectic. I’m officially back in the states now though, and *fingers crossed* moving to New York City in the next few days. Hey, anyone know of an open room for a poor, internship-bound college student?

P.P.S. Do be a dear and remember Get Oral!, that far away land where you can say stuff and I can’t stop you. You could even go so far as to consider it some sort of new-wave forum, if that would make you happy. Whatever it takes. You can have anything. Except my liver. I’m not sure what that does, but I’m pretty sure I need it.

Tags: Blog

11 Responses to “Not Playing by the Rules”

  1. John H. Says:

    Whenever I play the more recent Grand Theft Autos, I typically abandon the story, jack the first cab I can find, and start doing taxi missions. I could care less if my obnoxious thug guy makes it to the top of the Liberty City underworld or whatever, leave me alone with my makeshift Crazy Taxi and I’m fairly happy.

    What you percieve as game logic is a set of subtle cues that arise out of the secret necessities of game design, among them, the need to prevent the player from getting into inescapable positions, the need to have an “arrow of progress” that leads the player from his initial state to a goal, and the need to present to the player a sense of what he can and cannot do.

    It is possible to design a game without them, but what would result would probably be pounced upon by hordes of opinionated gamers thinking it necessarily means bad design, and in a sense they’d be right: a game that tries to do without game logic would look less and less like a game the further it got from it. It might look more like, pardon the cliche, a sandbox.

  2. Scott Jon Siegel Says:

    Why don’t you ever just go through the fricking door? There’s nothing left in those bushes!

    On a more relevant note, game logic seems to exist largely on easy-to-understand metaphors, which can exist cross-generationally to create a sort of “language” for linear progression. It’s astonishing when you think of the sheer number of game titles that depend on that ultimate barrier against linearity: “the locked door.”

    The obvious answer would be to combat the classic tools of linearity — doors, keys, switches, buttons, levers — but where does that leave us? “Open-ended,” I suppose, as John H. has said. Without these metaphors we lose linearity. So how can we retain a sense of direction — and of the challenge in moving in that direction — without such tools? -sj

  3. Bonnie Says:

    So how can we retain a sense of direction "” and of the challenge in moving in that direction "” without such tools?
    Fah, I say fah on linearity and fah on caring about the pre-existing ideas of what makes “good game design.” New worlds should be about exploring and discovering virtual space, not repeating learned patterns for success. But don’t ask me to be objective on this one :-).

  4. Player1 Says:

    Having played games for 20 years now, I am unfortunately set in my understanding of game logic. However, my fiance isn’t so geek educated (not that I haven’t tried…) and so sees me playing a game, and suggests actions that I ‘know’ are impossible, but using real world logic, really aren’t that impossible. This always makes me see how limiting and limited games still are, and depresses me. It’s about the direction gaming is taking – all that current and next generation processing power going towards making that wall look even prettier, rather than letting me climb it, blow it up, or place a box near it and jump over it. And if a game DOES allow me to do this, it usually ddoes more than allow me to do this, it makes it a precondition of ‘winning’, once again removing my choice.

  5. BrainFromArous Says:

    I agree with John H; the storyline missions are the weakest part of GTA3/VC. They’re mostly frustrating, boring and nothing more than a hassle which must be endured to unlock more goodies for the sandbox.

  6. Bonnie Says:

    I guess the question is, if a game abandoned game logic and implemented a more counter-intuitive system of exploration, would people play? I mean, I personally would think it’s the shit’s pajamas (Sorry, I blame Scott for that phrase), but would your average gamer be willing to learn a new logic, or abandon logic completely?

    Also, back to the larger issue of non-participation, I’m wondering if anyone else plays the way I do (with only minimal care for linearity, getting caught up in “useless” details). My sense is that, for one reason or another, it might be one of those things that’s influenced by gender.

  7. Scott Jon Siegel Says:

    I guess the question is, if a game abandoned game logic and implemented a more counter-intuitive system of exploration, would people play?

    I would play. I think the idea of creating a new logic for game progression is super nifty, but the real question is can a game divorce itself from the pre-existing metaphors and tools of linear play?

    …I'm wondering if anyone else plays the way I do (with only minimal care for linearity, getting caught up in "useless" details). My sense is that, for one reason or another, it might be one of those things that's influenced by gender.

    It’s possible that it’s a gender thing (considering the popularity of non-linear, “do-nothing” titles like The Sims among female gamers). What’s interesting about your approach is that rather than not caring about linearity in non-linear games, you seem to not care about linearity in linear games. I usuallly react to that with impatience, which is interesting in of itself. Maybe it’s a male thing, constantly looking towards the final destination instead of enjoying the trip, if you know what I mean. -sj

  8. Player1 Says:

    I find that I most often play outside of the intended rule sets in game demos. When I only get a limited amount of content, I tend to want to explore it fully, testing its limits. Conversely, huge games with long, basically linear story arcs see me exploring the least, as I want to finish them.

    I think that this is related to the amount of time I have available. Now that I have less time than I used to as a student to explore games, my experience is more focused, and goal driven (and that goal usually aligns with the game makers’ intentions). After I have finished a game’s story arc, that is when I am most likely to wander off the beaten path and explore and generally try and subvert the ruleset. Except in driving games, where the first thing I do is to see if you can drive backwards around the track and see what happens…

  9. Gwen Says:

    The Elder Scrolls series of games all support your method of play, your character advances just by doing anything (which dictates your type of growth), and if you follow the main plot you are working towards the end of the game. In such I always avoid anything related to main plot like its the plague and kill anyone I think might further involve me in it (the main plot is a plot to get you out of their world) :D

    I’ve been noticing the constraints and linearity even in most MMORPG’s of late since the emphasis is on Leveling. You may be able to go anywhere, but you’ll only advance yourself if you go the right places for your Level. And doing anything other than Leveling will leave you behind.

    Ultima 7 and Ultima Online have been the only games I’ve played where freedom seemed possible to me.

  10. Bonnie Says:

    When I only get a limited amount of content, I tend to want to explore it fully, testing its limits. Conversely, huge games with long, basically linear story arcs see me exploring the least, as I want to finish them.
    Personally, I’m always bothered when I don’t explore thoroughly. What if I missed something cool? Even in linear games, the idea of “winning” seems somehow absurd to me (as opposed to winning in, let’s say, a multiplayer match). It’s like reading to finish a book, instead of for the enjoyment of reading. Any game I really like, I dread finishing. A clear ending forces you out of the game world, out of the environment — which, for me, is far more powerful than any linear progression.

    I've been noticing the constraints and linearity even in most MMORPG's of late since the emphasis is on Leveling.
    Another interesting topic along the same vein is the idea of social “leveling.” In a game like Second Life for example, there’s only a very loose built-in system of hierarchy (arguably, if any). Yet different social expectations and pressures set a clear precedent for what you need to “succeed,” to be an upper-level player.

  11. FerrousBuller Says:

    I remember reading a column where the writer described his ten-year-old having an absolute blast in World of Warcraft, doing stuff that had absolutely nothing to do with levelling or fighting: fishing, mining, giving stuff away to new players, etc. As games become more open-ended, then gamers will find ways to explore (and exploit) those gameworlds in ways which the developers never intended. Or more precisely, some people will enjoy the “pointless” activities more than the main gameplay or narrative.

    One of the big frustrations of games like WoW for me is I’m severely restricted in where I’m allowed to go: stray too far early in the game and you’ll get your ass soundly trounced by high-level monsters. You’re given this vast world to play in, but you’re not allowed to see all of it without doin’ the level grindin’ time. Part of why I like Oblivion’s scaled difficulty – vs fixed placements of monsters a la WoW – is that (in theory) it allows you to go anywhere in the world at any time without fear of getting your ass kicked.

    “It's like reading to finish a book, instead of for the enjoyment of reading. Any game I really like, I dread finishing. A clear ending forces you out of the game world, out of the environment "” which, for me, is far more powerful than any linear progression.”

    And yet, to continue that analogy, your approach is akin to never finishing a book in the first place: instead, you linger on favorite passages, reread certain sections, and so forth, without completing your narrative journey; you prefer to draw out your stay, even if you never see how the story ends. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you enjoy it, but it does kinda defeat the creators’ purpose in providing a narrative in the first place. :-)

    Me, I want to see how the story ends. I want to know how I save the day, how I find true love, how I live happily ever after. My time in, say, an RPG or adventure game feels “wasted” if I don’t see how it ends. But to each their own.

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