One of the first surprises I encountered when I started making games in college was that there is, apparently, a division of philosophy in the game development community between “Ludologists” and “Narratologists”. The debate started as part of game studies, but at RPI it had grown into a disagreement not only about how games should be analyzed but how they should be built. The basic idea (as I was introduced to it) is that developers in the Ludologist camp believe in developing games in their abstract form, starting with mechanics and adding an appropriate story on to explain those mechanics later, if at all. Narratologists, on the other hand, believe in starting with the game’s narrative and building mechanics specifically to convey the story that you are trying to tell.
It turns out these ideals are more or less the logical estension of the real meaning of the terms, which, acording to Wikipedia is:
The narratological view is that games should be understood as novel forms of narrative and can thus be studied using theories of narrative (Murray, 1997; Atkins, 2003). The ludological position is that games should be understood on their own terms. Ludologists have proposed that the study of games should concern the analysis of the abstract and formal systems they describe. In other words, the focus of game studies should be on the rules of a game, not on the representational elements which are only incidental (Aarseth, 2001; Eskelinen, 2001; Eskelinen, 2004).
To me, the whole debate is ridiculous. The really interesting thing about games, from Chess to Dragon Age, is not the way in which they represent a narrative OR the “abstract and formal systems they describe”, but rather the interplay between the narrative and the game’s mechanics. If study of a game using both methodologies creates results that can be used to better understand game development, then why not put both in your toolbelt?
I guess my lesson here is that you absolutely need to keep an open mind about game development, and in the spirit of that I am going to list some cool thoughts and concepts from each camp that caught my eye and made me think.
You can study the game, but you can also study the player.
The rules on paper (or hard coded into the machine as it were) are something that can be studied as a stand alone entity, but you can also study how players “learn and negotiate” those rules as they go (Jesper Juul, Half-Real, which I kind of want to read now). This line of thought can carry you into the study of cheating and modding, both of which constitute re-negotiation of rules. It also highlights the point that there is a difference between what the “official rules” (manual, code) allow, what the developers allow, and what the community allows.
For example, a community might tolerate certain hacks or cheats that the developers would like to see removed from the game. This happened a lot with the Game Cube’s version of Phantasy Star Online, where you could quite easily exploit an annoying NPC behavior into allowing you to duplicate items in your inventory. Basically, all NPCs did this annoying thing where they made a beeline for you when you walked near them. They would get in front of you and block your movement like a pokemon trainer lying in wait, only they weren’t trying to talk to you, they just wanted to get in your way. If you lured one over to one of the vendors, you could end up with two menus open at once, which ultimately enabled you to drop an item and deposit it in your bank account at the same time.
Duping rare items was frowned upon in general by both players and developers, but a lot of players duped weapon upgrades and health items just out of spite for that annoying NPC, and while it drove developers up a wall, the player community didn’t care very much. You could only hold so many of those items at a time, anyway.
Modding is interesting in that some mods are developer-sanctioned (Valve’s Source SDK or modded, player-hosted servers) while others (pretty much any freelancer mod) are done without developer permission by editing the game files. The extent to which this type of behavior is acceptable can vary with time. For example, players were only allowed to create maps for Valve’s Left 4 Dead games after an update (well after the game’s release) that included mapmaking tools for them. To the disappointment of many fans, myself included, it did not include the ability to develop full game mods as Valve’s Half-Life 2 SDK had. Likewise, the developers of Freelancer embraced their modding community a lot more after the game had aged beyond the point where it was a potential money-maker. Some mods (Left 4 Dead’s Cold Stream) began as community projects and were eventually included as official DLC. Some game mods (counterstrike) even become fully fledged games in their own right. Compare to the literary phenomenon of fan fiction and parody (Shades of Gray, Wicked).
Players will imagine what you don’t show them explicitly
One of the interesting results of this tendency of the player to imagine is that sometimes their imaginations get a little carried away with them. This can result in wild myths, tall tales and speculation rising up around your game. For example, though Master Chief and Cortana (Halo) are not ever explicitly stated to have a romantic relationship, the fan base can be somewhat rabid about this pairing. They may not be able to find conclusive proof on the subject, but their suspicion is fueled by the nature of the banter between Cortana and the Chief, as well as their behavior toward each other.
Players of Pokemon Red and Blue also started a rumor that how hard or frequently you tapped the A button when you used a pokeball had some bearing over whether or not you would successfully catch the pokemon you used it on. This was probably caused by the rhythmic wiggling of the pokemon as it struggled to break free of its containment. For a while there was a rumor going around that each of the survivors in Left 4 Dead had some slight advantage over the others. One could jump higher, another took less damage, the third ran faster and the fourth was slightly more accurate. All of this was based around the perception the players had about what the game world was like and their paranoia or fantasy about the mechanical or narrative details that the developers had chosen to hide for them.
When the developer does it on purpose, what you have is Engineered Mythology. There is a great video about it here called “Who Burried Paul” by a guy named Brian Moriarty, who I think is a great speaker. This concept will probably feature in a future blog post, but I love talking about it so I’ll give you the short version. Basically, Engineered Mythology happens when the developer creates mystery and gives it flavor. The players then attempt to solve the mystery using the flavor as a guide.
For an example of the first, take a look at Left 4 Dead’s AI director.
When the Left 4 Dead games were originally released, Valve kept information about the AI director pretty seriously under wraps. It was a great marketing strategy. They made a huge deal out of how this revolutionary new technology was used to direct the user experience by controlling spawns and manipulating the players like some kind of sick puppet-master. The mystery was: How does the director work? The flavor was: It’s a sick puppet master that controls everything based on how the player’s actions make it ‘feel’. The result was that to this day, even though the AI director is more well understood by the player base than it ever has been, rumors old and new spring up all the time about what types of actions “please” the director and how it rewards or punishes the players for different activities. In the last 5 years, the AI director has become something of a superstition for players. You may not believe that the Director will give you a grenade launcher if you all use your health packs on other players- but you’re sure as hell going to do it anyway. And you might throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder while you are at it.
I didn’t even know this was a thing, but along the way of writing this post I bumped in to a concept called “Ludic Interface” which is essentially the concept of creating user interfaces that are themselves playful. Game makers and interface designers suggest “Ludic” interfaces as an alternative to the standard mouse and keyboard. The Kinect, or any Rock Band controller might be considered a good example of this, though the one wikipedia chooses to use to highlight the concept is this:
I would argue that many Augmented Reality applications also fall into this category (such as the RFID Tarot Table, pictured above, or the unique Play Station game Eye of Judgment) as well as other more mainstream user interface devices such as the Kinect and the Wii remote. I would have to say that in the end it is not really the interface device itself that makes a “ludic interface”, but rather how that device is used. For example, my Saitek joystick is technically just a keyboard with a different form factor. Likewise a wii remote used as a classic NES controller isn’t very “ludic”, whereas shaking the remote to charge your lightsaber’s batteries in No More Heroes is playful in the way that the wikipedia article describes “Giant Joystick” to be (namely that the “haptic properties” of the device used and the theme of the game compliment each other to create “erotic connotations”).
If you want to experiment with some of this yourself, check out this MaKey MaKey kit, available through Think Geek, that lets you build your own usb controller out of some really bizarre stuff:
Observation vs. Participation
This might actually blur the lines between a narrative and ludological analysis of games, but that is precisely why I think it is so important not to keep the two concepts locked in isolation. One of the key concepts that I get excited about when I look at games as a narrative tool, is the idea that while most other forms of story telling focus around a viewer who observes, games focus around a user or player who participates. This means that rather than simply bearing witness (whether in the mind as in novels or through the eyes as in art and film) to the events of a story, the user or player can participate in them with their actions.
Participation is one of the aspects of games that is frequently brought up in debates about the relationship between video games and violent crimes, specifically for this reason. In a novel or film, you can convey something like the difficulty of an impossible choice through sympathy, but by allowing the user to participate in the narrative elements of a story, a game allows you to empathize with that choice by telling you to make it for yourself. It forces you to assume responsibility for the actions of the player characters in the game and the decisions that they make because they are in fact your own decisions. The relationship between the game and the player is not fully understood, but I think it is clear that as developers we should look at it as our task to take advantage of this aspect of our games to do something positive -regardless of what the supreme court says about the correlation between violent games and violent crime.
For an example, Mechwarrior 4: Vengeance had multiple endings. The choice that lead up to the story branch was a difficult one, but as a result of my decision I get very emotional when I watch this first video, as memories from the time I spent with those characters flood back to me. When I watch the second video, however, I feel nothing at all. It isn’t my world. I never got to be THAT version of Ian. It’s just a glimpse of what might have been.
(SPOILER ALERT - Mechwarrior 4: Vengeance - Ending)