I read a lovely article on the blog for Frictional Games. The argument in the article is that gameplay and narrative are detrimental to meaning in interactive experiences. The terms gameplay, narrative, and meaning are carefully defined, and the argument is important and compelling. However one element of this was troubling which is the intertwining of experience with meaning. All media produce experiences, particularly entertainment produces experiences. The majority of games, though not the games that Frictional is espousing, are entertainment.
Frictional games are interested in horror, which is visceral, so a focus on experience is natural. However, by placing experience foremost, it is easy to fall into the trap of non-interactive media, which is provide a very carefully, precisely crafted experience. In these situations, the meaning is crafted by the author, and we get criticism that hearkens back to auteur theory. This is one of Roger Ebert’s main critiques of games, that because it is interactive, the player can interfere with the author’s precise vision. This is not what is being argued in the article, however, there is something more to meaning in games than experience, which is not clearly stated.
If meaning is not authorial intent, then what is it? Games are unique in that they are systems that a player can interact with. I argue that the meaning is produced by the player’s comparison of the system in the game with the outside. The game can be about an adventure story, and the player could compare it against any other story; the game could be about failed relationships, and the player can compare it against personal experience; or the game could be about moral dilemmas, and the player could compare it against their own personal morality. With games, as in any other medium, meaning is not inherent: it is representative, and it requires interpretation and participation in order for it to work.
I finished Assassin’s Creed 2 not too long ago, and just recently a friend lent me Prototype. Both games have been very enjoyable, especially from the perspective of free navigation of space and the development of an increasingly diverse and complex arsenal of player abilities. In terms of play, the difference that stood out to me the most between the two games is how progress is implemented within the narrative of the story world. Progress in Assassin’s Creed 2 (AC2) is entirely diegetic, whereas progress in Prototype is almost entirely extradiegetic. I found the diegetic development in AC2 to be extremely rewarding, but the choose-your-own ability system in Protoype is also compelling for different reasons. The approaches offer the conflicting goals of narrative integration versus configurability. What approaches could we employ to integrate the desirable features of both systems?
Progress in AC2 is diegetic. This means that the protagonist Ezio gains a new ability when it is granted by the story. The player has no control over what abilities are learned, but each ability is integrated into what is happening in the story world. For example: Ezio gains use of the hidden blade when it is given to him, Ezio learns how to use special maneuvers with other weapons when the player purchases a lesson and Ezio is taught. Every new maneuver (with only a couple exceptions) learned is given by the plot, so the player has no control over the development of progress, it is entirely controlled by the designer. A major positive of this is that challenges are presented to the player explicitly to draw the use of the new skills. Very rarely is the player up against an adversary or obstacle for which there is no way around.
Prototype takes a very oppositional stance: Almost every new ability learned is through an interface in the menu. When the player has accumulated enough of the game’s currency, new skills may be purchased and used immediately. Skills are unlocked as the plot wears on, but typically (or at the very least, in my experience), there are many more skills available than can be purchased. This allows the player to control the repertoire of abilities that the protagonist, Alex Mercer, can use. The player may have a preference for one power over another, and focus development of new abilities on that preferred power. This is empowering to the player to be able to customize and develop the skills usable in the game. However, a tradeoff is that there is no story world explanation as to why Alex develops his newfound abilities. A consequence of this is that there is also very little in-game instruction as to how to use the abilities. Because of the design, a tutorial system would be awkward to develop: The player will not necessarily want to sit through five tutorials one after another after purchasing five new abilities. Because the player can learn abilities anywhere and at any time, there is no way to make sure that there is a suitable way of explaining the abilities after the player learns them. The result (again, for me) is that Alex has a mess of abilities and the player has no way to clearly understand how and when they can be used.
Diegetic progression is useful for both the purposes of instruction and also for the sake of making the player’s progression seem meaningful in the story world. However, diegetic progression often leads to restrictive development of gameplay. It seems like there should be some form of compromising between diegetic progression and character customizability. I would argue that quest based ability gains would be a good way to mediate between these. Another possibility is to use a clear training system, much like in Okami, to let the player learn new abilities, but also be able to practice them at leisure.
I’ve created a more or less permanent section for Painter on the website. That will get the latest updates to the Painter program and include more documentation. Painter still does not have a UI, but that is in the pipeline and should appear relatively soon.