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Talking about the idea of games as experiences, where it works and how it can fail, and where we are and where we may go.

Game Developer, Staff

August 27, 2009

5 Min Read

 A recent class in digital design and storytelling brought my attention to an article posted a while back. It was titled ‘the Watery Pachinko Machine of Doom' (WPMD) and was conceived by a committee. It has some very interesting ideas, and while it's very multiplayer focused, I believe it's very applicable to all games today. You will probably be fine if you read the first 2 pages, here is the link.

In this post I'm going to talk about some of the main points made early in the article. First I'm going to talk about the idea of games as experiences, and then I'm going to move on to talk about where it works and how it can fail with an example. I will finish up talking about where we are and where we may go.

Games as experiences

Perhaps the most interesting and important point that the designers made was the whole point of their meeting and writing of the article.  They attempted to determine how games and story intersect. They came to the conclusion that the problem was with the question, games weren't supposed to be some sort of playable story.

Their revolutionary idea was that games were not stories or sandboxes, but mediated experiences (something in-between). Game designers aren't story tellers (sorry Bioware and Kojima) but experience creators or maybe story facilitators.

When approaching games from the experience standpoint things make more sense. Take look at the most popular franchises. The Sims, Pokémon, Madden, they are all experiences; the experience of a group of people living in a house, the experience of controlling monsters, the experience of controlling a football game. Look at the popularity of reality TV, look at all the children scared of monsters under the bed, look at all those football fans. In these games there is story but the story is written by the player and driven by the player's experiences.

However you need to not only provide an experience you also need to provide a good experience. I don't want the experience of being a bag boy at the super market. You could make a game about any experience but if you could choose between 'being a bag boy' or a Tommy-ism (a mix of ninjas, pirates, zombies, cyborgs, giant robots, particle cannons, chainsaws, nanotechnology, psionics, kung-fu, ect... )  What would you choose?

Experience execution

Creating a good experience is also in the execution. There are many ways you can destroy a good experience, notably if things don't feel right. Everyone has played a console port that feels weird or a game with mechanics that are complicated or too difficult. It's like if you had an action hero who wasn't very action-y or didn't do very action things.

The best illustration of this is in Fallout 3. If you have tried playing that game with stealth it's a weird experience. The game was kind of good but the stealth was wonky. In MGS4 you have a camo index, in Deus Ex, you know that darkness conceals you and crouch walking is silent. There is no stealth training or indication in Fallout 3. Do you know how detection works in fallout 3? It's a complex series of equations that has me lost.

Fallout 3 stealth wasn't fun. When I made a new character and invested NO points in stealth, guess what happened? The game was awesome. I stopped being J.C. Denton and started being Clint Eastwood (a younger Clint Eastwood, like Good, Bad, and the Ugly). I changed the experience to one that was more interesting and better fit the game I was playing (so why did they include stealth in the first place? For the sleight of hand tasks such as stealing? Then why not call it sleight of hand and let people gamble in poker games and use sleight of hand to cheat?).

Pachnik-yes or pachink-no?

 To avoid confusion; a linear-narrative experience is roughly defined as a game that has only one story and one way to progress. It's more likely to have cut scenes instead of conversation trees. A mediated experience is one that has its rules and the player is guided though but there isn't a linear path that must be followed. It's more likely the player is choosing how or what objective to complete instead of completing a story. Games probably aren't completely one or the other, are closer to being either linear or mediated (or even a sandbox).

So are we playing pachinko yet? Well the article ‘WPMD' is much more than what I've described and I'm going to continue to offer analysis of that article later. As far as games being treated as experiences? Closer to yes. Some games are still treated like a linear-narrative experience instead of a mediated experience.  But other games, like Left 4 Dead and Fallout 3 are much more focused on creating a mediated experience than a single story.

Metal Gear Solid 4 and Bioshock are great games that provide good experiences. However, due to their linear-narrative nature they also control much of the player's actions. Controlling the player's actions doesn't make a game bad, but it doesn't play on the strengths of what video games can be. In a way they are getting closer to interactive stories similar to Dear Esther and The Graveyard. Those aren't bad experiences either, but ultimately I will only play MGS4 a couple of times (only to unlock stuff), or Bioshock maybe twice.

With reselling of games and game rental places like Gamefly, linear-narrative experiences are going to be rental only. Even if games go to digital distribution players will look for the games that can provide a good mediated experience again and again over a good linear-narrative experience once, especially if they cost 50$ (or even worse we head into a ‘narratocalyse' of expensive, linear stories supplemented with upgrades, achievements, grinding, unlocking, or other illusions of accomplishment) .

In all likelihood that is an impossible scenario. Even narrative driven developers like Bioware are looking for ways to deliver an experience without having the pitfall of a linear-narrative. More recent titles like Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age promise to deliver multiple experiences depending on how you play the game itself. In a way the future of story driven design will become story facilitation.

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