Intentionality vs. Improvisation (Edge GDC Article)

March 25, 2009 § 1 Comment

This post is in direct relation to the following article:

GDC: Stop “Punishing the Player”

The reason why I am taking the time to comment here, on this particular article, is that it links strongly to my review of The Path and opinions stated in the 4Player article I submitted recently.

Clint Hocking has raised some very interesting points regarding player immersion in games. I actually spent over half an hour composing a more thorough response to the article on the Edge website but realised just how complicated the topic is. So I fell back; I regrouped; I gathered my thoughts on the subject.

What I seem to gather from the article, and from Clint, is the belief that by forcing the player into situations where they are given limited resources and are told to achieve certain objectives, it encourages a mentality where the game is not something to be experienced, but something to be beaten. This reduces the player’s immersion and denigrates the user’s experience of the game because the game becomes something abstract – a set of rules to be exploited in order to reach certain victory conditions.

He argues that Far Cry 2 rewards the player’s innovation, by allowing him greater scope for creativity, and that, by refraining to tell the player what to do, how to approach a situation or in what order to do things, it stops the game from becoming an exercises in domination and mastery.

I personally think he underestimates the amount of options available to the player in Call of Duty 4 and overestimates the amount of freedom and creativity the player is given in Far Cry 2.

First off, many of the situations encountered in Call of Duty 4 give the player more than one way of doing things, so it is not as linear an experience as Clint indicates. Further, Call of Duty 4 has a check point system which saves the player’s progress between important choke points in missions, so you do have opportunities to try alternate strategies without being punished.

Far Cry 2 has a non-linear structure: meaning that the player virtually has total control over how to approach a situation. Further, the player can complete missions in any order he or she wants and they are usually only given a very vague central objective which must be accomplished – for example, assassinate such-and-such and return to the contact point. You are still being told what to do; you are still having to devise strategies based around the player’s understanding of “clear game dynamics, formulating meaningful plans to achieve goals using the information and resources provided by the game.”

The dividing criterion here, seems to be one of scope.

All games, by their very nature, require goals which need to be attained for the player to succeed; all games end when the player has achieved those goals. You can’t get around this principle law of game design. Games are played to be completed in the same way puzzles are. You can’t have a puzzle that goes on endlessly forever; there must be a point in which the player masters the puzzle and the game ends.

“While intentional play is a beautiful and wondrous thing, it is grounded in … domination. When we strive to understand a game to bend it to our will, we arrive at mastery. And when we master a game, we destroy it.” This is true, but it is also the nature of what games are by definition.

The thing is, I also know what Clint is opaquely hinting at in his article, and that is the concept of free-play.

Free play, is what children do in their sandboxes with their model soldiers and Barbie dolls. This kind of play can be seen exhibited in the new Grand Theft Auto games, The Sims and, to be fair, Far Cry 2 (to some extent). This kind of play is purely improvisational, with no formal goals or objectives; it’s just an environment in which the player makes up their own games on the fly, their own goals – their own rules. Now, the big question: are these games?

Conventionally, I would have a hard time saying yes to that question. And yet, if they are not games, what are they? Are they simulations? Possibly. I think the least that can be said about them is that they fulfil the most loosest possible definition of what a game is. They are sandboxes for play.

What we end up with are two different definitions of what it is to ‘play’ a game, two different variations of the term ‘to play’. Clint is obviously advocating one variation over the other – perhaps improvisational play could be considered ‘purer’ than intentional play? Who knows. What I do know is that both versions are both valid and can co-exist peacefully. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other, as I think there are advantages and drawbacks to each. One thing’s for certain, this kind of discussion is only going to grow larger and more complicated in years to come.

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§ One Response to Intentionality vs. Improvisation (Edge GDC Article)

  • Hunting.Targ says:

    First of all, CGTs for a well-written, insightful examination of the difference between “objective-play” and “free-play”.
    The distinction Clint tries to make appears to be about First-Person games as a genre, not computer/console games as a collective category. If he means that First-Person shooter/quest/role-playing games are ‘imposing’, as in the game dictates what you have to accomplish, that tends to be the nature of the beast. Look at the prototypical Doom and Wolfenstien. Pretty simple. Blow $#!^ up, move through the complex. The tactical challenges were sometimes intense (maneuvering, puzzle-solving, etc.), but the FLOW OF THE GAME WAS LINEAR.
    Your point about free-play being a ‘sandbox’ environment makes a great deal of sense, although you seemed to fail to make a distinction between such an environment/construct and a -simulation-. A sandbox is, in real-world terms, a controlled environment where things can be tested under conditions that are favorable, or at least non-punitive; JROTC and school clubs are examples of this environment, where failure is not final. A simulation, again in real-world terminology, is something that strives to accurately model real-world conditions, and enforces realistic consequences for failure. Simulations are almost never fun, because the subject in a simulation is being taught by the simulation to strive to avoid failure, rather than being casually permitted, or sometimes even encouraged, to experience it and learn from it. (Anyone ever played Falcon AT on General?!)
    I have been using computers since the 80’s, and have played some games that became enshrined as classics, and many that faded into obscurity. I have played games that seemed insanely hard but were fun, and games that were absurdly easy and boring, and nearly everything betwixt the two. Where gaming and gamers are concerned, I would like to offer 3 definitions.
    Fun: The emotional thrill arising from the sensory and mental stimulation of grappling with a new challenge or situation.
    Entertainment: The emotional gratification arising from an experience of sustained novelty or immersion.
    Satisfaction: The experience of gratifying the need for praise and achievement by successfully facing challenge, negotiating demanding situations or environments, and/or overcoming obstacles or hardships.
    It should be clear, after reading these definitions carefully, how a game can be fun and entertaining, but not satisfying.

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