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COG I: Good Game, Long Thought (4/conclusion)

Caram on Games (COG) is an occasional ramble in which I discuss computer gaming, gaming culture and how I perceive them, in an attempt to talk about a medium that I've always been passionate about, or at least enjoyed. Every part is an exploration of thoughts, meaning that it comes together as it is written- so while they may meander for a while, a point will eventually be reached. Maybe. After a lot of words, and sometimes numbers. You have been warned- there will be a lot of waffle and fewer pictures than befits a visual medium. Now you've been warned twice. Enjoy!

Let's start with the basics:


What makes a good game?

This question has as many answers as there are ways to make a game, and most of them are subjective, dependent on how the individual gamer experiences their play, how deeply they are willing to delve into the details surrounding a game and how much time this will take, expectations towards gameplay and stortytelling, the studio and publisher, familiarity with methods of non-linear stories… This answer becomes more complicated from a publication and development perspective, as it includes many business aspects that the individual consumer does not need to consider- and as an individual consumer, I won't, save the consideration that I won't spend money on a game only to discover I need to spend more money to actually finish it.

But I can answer this question for myself, in three parts:

01. But Can You Actually Eat That Sweetroll

02. Would you Kindly Knock?

03. In-game-novation. Kind of. 

04. Leaving the Labyrinth

After many words, it is time to leave this monstrous mental meander and summarise a semblance of sense from the tumbling thoughts transcribed therein, anteceded by alliterative aplomb. 

If you've made it this far into this anachronism of reflection, thank you for reading- I do hope that if not it did not inform, it at least entertained, or gave you some food for thought. This section will attempt to extract what I consider the main ideas I recognise in the previous ones- having thought long, I like to come out with a distilled result, so as not to have to read through all the waffle if I return to it. 

If you were wondering, I'm trying to answer the question for myself, rather than write a comprehensive overview I don't feel I am the right person to write. There are huge gaps in my knowledge of gaming, and though I can make educated guesses, I know next to nothing about game development. I have not owned a console since the original Game Boy and I play on a 10 year old Mac, the TARDIS, which most harder core gamers will snigger at in contempt, as it is a platform known for being crappy at games- and ten years old. I love my silver Tardis, though.

However, playing on a Mac also means that I had to learn how to deal with emulators and virtual machines like Wine and Crossover, a thing or two about how a game is put together as software to be able to mod them. I don't have the luxury of many tools available on PC for benchmarking, performance or production purposes, which means I have to find workarounds most of the time. That it's ten years old also limits me somewhat in the selection of titles it will run, although the Tardis has surprised me more than once. Currently, I am playing as many indie games as I can get my hands on, as they usually don't have the stellar system requirements of a Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and offer gameplay experiences I would have missed out on otherwise. Having less choice also means I spend a bit more time with the choices I do have, wringing every last drop of enjoyment from those games I do enjoy. Unfortunately, it also means that I have not played the Witcher 3, which is, from what I have seen, the current culmination of 30-or-so years of game development. 

My intention with this exploration was to establish a set of criteria that are not related too closely to the narrative a game is telling, as good writing makes everything better but is only a part of the tale, or to graphical presentation, as shiny graphics are shiny, to arrive at something that can be applied to a wide swathe of games. I know that most reviewers have their own set of scales and weights to somehow quantify quality, and while I don't intend to start reviewing games professionally anytime soon, I wanted to think about a set of my own, as I do enjoy thinking about games and writing reviews about them. I also wanted to keep the thought process behind my scale to be as transparent as possible. The easiest way to do that was to make the thought process public as it unfolded. 

Getting back to the summary at hand, however, let's get to it:

01. But Can You Actually Eat That Sweetroll

Mostly deals with the overall design and promise of game worlds and gameplay systems that make it worth spending time in them. It cites Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Skyrim, Subnautica as examples and compares how each game engenders a set of expectations and how these affect the perception of the game. 

It outlines my first criterium for a good game: that it be an experience specific to every player that allows for a subjective experience within gameplay and the emergence of individual player stories in those game worlds. This includes player choice, effect, or lack thereof on the story the game is telling, and different ways for them to approach gameplay, character development and story progression. 

Terms derived:

  • Suggested Freedom, as a way to describe a world that initially seems to offer many freedoms and interactions, and how it delivers on those promises (I can eat a sweetroll, but it doesn't do anything); 
  • Emergent Play, which describes the possiblities to perform non-scripted actions independent of narrative within a game world to develop the players personal narrative within the world (Does the game constantly tell what to do next and restrict me to that, or does it give me the freedom to develop my own playstyle?); 
  • Situational Agency, which I use to describe the gameplay options available to a player in individual situations (Can I sneak, speak to, kill or ignore this, or is there an entirely different path by that?). 
Upon re-reading, this is a very vague criterium when presented without a methodology to measure the degree of player freedom and design choices. Every game experience is subjective to the player, whether it is Pacman, Farmville or Cyberpunk 2077. However, if it is possible to quantify, or provide a qualitative description, based on a set of indicators within games, it may prove to be a valuable measure. The three terms might serve as a basis for that measurement. A differentiation between games that involve the gamer in a linear narrative with gameplay breaks, and games that allow a subjective experience in shaping a (linear) narrative seems appropriate.

02. Would you Kindly Knock?

Discusses the interactional and technical coherence of game worlds, the relation between narrative development and gameplay as well as interdependent gameplay systems and their effect on the tangibility of those worlds. It cites Skyrim, Bioshock, Don't Starve as examples. A tangent discusses Moore's Law, technological developments in computing, FLOPS, to lead into a discussion of bugs that affect gameplay. 

Terms derived:

  • Coherence in the internal logic of a world and technical reliability are valuable criteria that allow for ongoing analysis, though they do require attention and exploration. When it comes to technical reliability, a simple test is "Do I need to use the debug console for the game to run as expected? Do some actions require a reload? Are there glitches that are so glaring that they break the game? Does it crash due to bad optimisation? Is the game being maintained by the developers?". 
  • Interactional coherence is not as obvious a measurement, but question to ask are "Do the same rules apply in all in-game locations?" "Does the gameplay match the narrative, or run counter to it?" "Do exceptions reinforce the rules of the game world?" "Do items act as designed?". While it is not the most tangible of criteria, as it is qualitative, rather than quantitative, it nevertheless should provide an interesting metric to assess the overall quality of a game world.

03. In-game-novation. Kind of. 

Explores innovations in gameplay, and lack thereof, ludic narratives, UI and UX, and the promises of franchises. It cites Tomb Raider 2013, the Fallout series and Kingdom: New Lands as examples. It ends by presenting a series of games I return to, and the reasons I do, concluding that it has little to do with the narrative of the game and everything with challenging skill and accessibility, in addition to systems that support repeated personal storytelling in the game, or arcade challenges that provide gratification. Finally, this part establishes that games should be "fun", without establishing a definition of "fun". 

UI is relatively simple to assess- Eyeball Mark One is a tried and proven method, unless technical evaluation is the goal. Interactions over time will determine quality, fluidity and accessibility of the UX, with points subtracted for cutscenes. Extra points will be added for the ability to modify and extend a game beyond the publishers original presentation.

When looking at franchises, especially long-running ones, we are faced with a situation in which expectation meets the desire of the development team to innovate and develop a formula, applying new technologies to gameplay and narrative storytelling. It also meets publishing expectations, which may lead to a decline in quality over time. Franchises (or long-running IP's with several iterations) can be viewed through the lens of version numbers, rather than evaluated as an individual products- The Elder Scrolls 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, etc, allowing the game to be assessed for itself, but also to test it for continuity and innovation. Sports franchises, longer-term narrative franchises with established gameplay elements fall into this category. This type of IP also allows insight into technological progress over time.

Terms derived:

  • Ease-of-Use: is the UI easy to use and appropriate to the gameplay? Is the information on display relevant, and are relevant interactions easily accessible? Is the UI integrated into the game world, or is it an information overlay? Is it possible to customise by changing key-bindings? Is it possible to hide UI elements to better appreciate the sights? Are the graphics appropriate to the subject matter? These are a series of checkboxes- the more are ticked, the better. 
  • Integration of Gameplay and Narrative Does the gameplay effectively convey the narrative, or are they at odds with each other? Are variations, twists and climaxes shown, or are they a playable experience (alternatively: Is it an interactive story, in which gameplay bits connect a story told through cutscenes, or does the story unfold mostly in gameplay?)
  • Innovation Does a game implement new forms of storytelling, either in the gameplay or in the narrative? If the game does not innovate, is it a solid construction that uses existing methods in an effective manner? 
  • Arcade Mode does the game include post-game content if it's a narrative game? Are there scored challenges, minigames or combat arenas that extend longevity? This only applies to games that are large enough to warrant such a question, and is added value above all, but nevertheless a consideration
  • Fun is a thing. Yes, it is. 
  • Continuity of Quality is a criterium that can be applied both to franchises and authors. If a previous standard has been established, does the current product meet that standard, surpass it, or fall below it? 

Something Ends…

The title does say conclusion. So, having arrived at the point where this thought branches off  in too many directions for one title to contain, do I feel like I've answered my own question? 

The answer is that I cheated, and didn't, at the same time. I believe I've played enough games to know a good one when I play it, so all the formal criteria above are mainly academic explorations and tools for a more detailed critique that is not entirely based on my subjective impressions. In the process of writing, I came to realise that I do strongly consider games an art form, but do not base that on graphics, or sound, but rather on the experience conveyed through my interactions with the game. 

Art is always a product that is sold, advertised and bought, with variations in the capital used for the transaction. As such, it is important to consider the value one ascribes to a work of art, whether experiencing it is worth the entrance fee. The artistic innovation in gaming can be based on immediately tangible criteria, such as graphics, sound and gameplay, but, like with any work of art, it gains value and meaning upon reflection. Games are unique in that they demand this reflection as they are being experienced- they are not a static, unchangeable expression of the authors view, but rather an invitation to a discussion with varying degrees of thoroughness. 

It is often said what sets games apart from other art forms is that they allow the audience to actively interact with them and shape their experience with the art. Having dabbled in games and art, I cannot confirm this. A few examples: Forum theatre, which involves the audience in shaping a narrative, has been around since Plato and Aristotle. Any image perceived is automatically shaped by the viewers background and experience, becomes malleable in what details are received. Many narratively focused games use methods of storytelling and interaction based on Choose Your Own Adventure Novels and tabletop RPG rulesets. Computer games, or interactive narratives, are however the only way to tell an interactive story in a screen-based medium, and experience it solo. 

In my opinion, the difference lies in the medium, not the method, and the ease of immersion in seeing and playing a game on screen allows: the medium- a piece of software running on a computer- uses methods derived from more traditional art forms and allows one person to combine various artistic disciplines passively and actively to shape their experience with the artwork. The interactivity matters, of course, but it is not the unique differentiator for a game. It is not even the only art form to combine various media to reach its full effect: talk to a theatre director, or a filmmaker, and they will say the same thing about their chosen  medium. Which leads me to this thought: playing a story-driven computer game is an improv performance played out on a digital stage. This can be applied to almost any game longer than one screen, even something as systemic as Endless Space. 

Improv theatre generally does not have a script, but it can be structured around the exploration of certain situations, themes and topics. Limitations can be applied to the actions that can be performed. Even the "Yes, and…" rule applies: "Yes, and I will go into the dark, foreboding tower, and yes, I will face the horrible monster of doom, yes and I will crawl through the sewers to get there and yes, I believe that this red health potion will heal me." Sometimes, the performance asks that you assume a character, through whose eyes you will be living a vicarious adventure, other games are built as a vessel for the simulation of a personal experience: In any game I have played, except for puzzle games, I have assumed the role of someone who was not me and performed a variation of their story through decisions based on my spontaneous reaction to the situation I was thrust into by the game, most of which I would not like to put my corporeal body through.

This is most visible outwardly when watching a Let's Play, which combines elements of performance, documentary, reality television and travelogue, knowing that you could be playing this yourself.* Reading through comments, there are many suggestions on alternate approaches, missed details, or joy at the fact that you are watching someone confirm decisions made during a playthrough. If this were literary criticism, I would be talking about alternate readings and in-depth analysis, but as we are talking about gaming, they are different styles of gameplay. If I can watch someone play out a completely different path or style within a game I have played, it is a good indicator for what I would consider narrative and interactional quality and quantity. 

But this, after all the writing that has preceded this paragraph, is what makes a good game for me: the degree of creative freedom to which it allows the exploration of its topic, whether the topic is shooting up monsties on an alien planet, navigating the intricacies of the morality and mores of a game world, living through the horror of a city under siege or pushing around number 2 blocks. A computer game is a stage and a screen at the same time when played: it is watched, yet requires interactions and performance to unfold. It is also the co-star on the stage, Player One being the star of the show, and the ways in which Game and Player One can react to each other define the quality of the performance- or gaming experience.** 

If I were to choose to represent this graphically, I would go for an axis graph with an X and a Y axis, and place a point somewhere on that graph, rather than use an absolute score. Even if a number feels more concrete, and describes something in relation to the minimum zero, I find it difficult to evaluate things without setting them in relation to other data points, and making these visible. A graph seems appropriate, as it allows me to juxtapose up to 4 data points and determine where on the graph I would place my impressions.

And that's about it for this long thought. We've circumnavigated a vast, meandering, labyrinthine topic, and at the exit, looking out of my window, I see sunlight shining through. And into the sun is where I will go today. Thanks for bearing with me. 

*How games, as a medium, have affected other media and art forms, not to mention societal attitudes is another long, but separate discussion, as is the culture that surrounds computer games. 
** This is probably not a definition I would have applied two decades ago, but considering that one of the goals of making games has always been to build and simulate functioning parallel an imaginary universes, it's one that I find can be applied more and more frequently. 


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