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Introducing, the language of games

Where I attempt to clarify the true nature of the medium of videogames and why storytelling should always play a subtle supporting role in good game design.

Kamruz Moslemi, Blogger

May 6, 2011

27 Min Read

Videogames, and its origin, the activity of play, is a form of entertainment which due to its close relation to preconditioned human behaviour have always had a clear purpose. That purpose is to be an enjoyable activity by stimulating certain parts of the human brain function by way of pretend rules and situation. In short these are activities that instill and stimulate by way of simulation.

Since not just videogames but the activity known as play has from the onset had such a clear purpose the study of it should be imperative to form a better understanding of how the medium is best utilized to achieve set goals.

The main agenda of a storyteller is to tell a good story, and in that regard the videogame medium can seem attractive. Storytellers have often looked at this medium and regarded it as a vehicle for their storytelling agenda. They would think that this is an interactive medium, so here they can tell an interactive tale, here they can make the audience be the main character in the story being told.

Moviemakers have similarly looked at the videogame medium and seen it as an interesting outlet for their agenda, and attempted to adapt it to the language of cinema in order to enable a scenario where the audience is put inside an interactive movie.

These ongoing efforts certainly seem like valid enough endeavours from the point of view of storytellers and moviemakers as they have stories to narrate, and movies to make and seek outlets for these. But it is important to note that whenever you approach this medium with these foreign purposes you are not deigning to design a game. Instead you are aiming to design a story and tell it through a game, or make a movie and have it take place inside a game.

It is certainly possible to engage people through storytelling and interactive cinema by using this medium as just another outlet, but such an approach is disregarding the core competence, the essence, the very purpose of this medium which is composed of elements whose efficient combination will here produce an experience far more potent than what can ever be achieved by these foreign and impotent techniques.

The unique identifying dynamics of the videogame medium is why storytelling and cinematic aspirations often play such a marginal role in the most revered highlights of this medium. This explains why videogames have from conception and to this day continue to thrive and be loved despite the correct lamenting remarks by outside observers of the medium who claim that that products of this medium feature but the poorest of plots, clumsiest of stories, basest of characters and most amateurish writing, and how these need somehow be fixed, yet never seemingly are. True, all very true, but none of these points of contention ever made for a worse experience in the revered titles in question, and there is a good reason for that. In truth storytelling is but a mere forgettable speck in the face of more important factors that form the core competencies of this medium and whose skillful utilization help elevate a title above everything else and nestle it into a seat of prestige.

The abstract language of videogames:

Due to the nature of activities such as playing videogames, or indeed the nature of playing in general, the core appeal of such an endeavour is often something that is somewhat abstract and lends itself poorly to be articulated into words by means of familiar concepts. So it is that most people project known, easy to understand and easily relatable quantities upon their articulation of this experience, thus letting trivial parts act as a false proxy for their feelings.

Meanwhile what is being ignoring is the truth behind what makes a play experience so appealing. This medium’s true purpose of establishing appeal by using graphics, sounds and gameplay mechanics and rules in a simulation to stimulate and evoke certain natural predispositions in the human brain and arouse certain emotions is hard to express in words.
This faux stimulation of psyche through simulated play is the central pillar that lies at the very centre of the medium, and this is its most potent delivery mechanism of unparalleled and unforgettable experiences which only this medium can provide. The part or parts of the human psyche that a videogame is stimulating from which their main appeal is derived is the emotive agenda of the given title.

The play activity is something inherent to complex animals and while play might seem like random frivolity at first glance it is important to note that in nature the activity of play usually has a purpose and an emotive agenda. For an example when lion cubs play this seemingly frivolous activity is stimulating their hunting instincts, which is where the fun is derived, so the emotive agenda of this play is to stimulate hunting instincts and its purpose is to hone the hunting skills that will soon be useful to their survival.

Humans are conditioned to be drawn to the activity of play because we are similarly facilitated with instincts to indulge in them for certain advantageous reasons. Alas, man is a complex animal and so we have taken the simple idea of play to the next level. Typical for the species we humans have taken the natural activity of play and by removing from it all purpose adapted it to a product of pure self indulgence. Such as man is a beast prone to building tools to better aid his agenda we have constructed the ultimate expression of our instinctive disposition for play by way of the technological construct of videogames.

Anatomy of emotive agendas:

The medium of games due to its by now very impressive graphical, mechanical and audio capabilities allows for a very broad range of emotive agendas to be realized.  These range from the very basic ones that stimulate our most basic predispositions, such as in competitive multiplayer games all the way to agendas that are so complex and vague that they are hard to pin down.

I’ve often seen people describe God of War as being a game about an angry guy who brutishly rips apart in equal parts gods and beasts from the Greek mythos on a journey for vengeance. This is it, the standard articulation for what that title offers, a tale about an avenger with anger issues. What an absolute rubbish articulation of the main appeal, of the essence of God War’s main emotive agenda.

Here people are just drawing upon the most superficial surface coating narrative component that has been thinly layered upon the fundamental core of what makes God of War the fine product of the videogame medium that it is. This is a simple case of people taking the easiest route of summing a game up by its thin plot veil, which in the medium of games is but a superficial veneer below which all the crucial components that really make or break a game resides.

Once the thin layer of decorative storytelling and characterization components have been stripped away we see laid bare what the game God of War is really about. This is a game that uses a combination of visuals, sounds, music and mechanics designed to evoke a certain emotion in the player. The emotion of aggression, of each landing of the combo chain hitting with such purposeful impact, rumble and animation so as to get your heart rate up, and trigger natural aggression responses in your brain.

God of War is a game designed to manipulate you into becoming tense just through use of visuals, mechanic and audio design, and at the same time letting you continually express that anger by acting as an artificial outlet for your artificial aggression through simulated brutality. God of War behaves not unlike catharsis for the player’s aggression instincts, which is why playing it is so satisfying; it is an outlet for the part of you predisposed to violence and aggressive behavior, a part which is grown blunt by neglect in modern man. Man is a beast with violent tendencies which are made obsolete by life in modern society, but that does not meant that he cannot draw upon these tendencies in a most superficial and safe ways by proxy of simulation. Much in the same way where sports fans draw upon their predispositions for grouping and subsequent power struggles called wars by proxy of favourite teams and their competitive events.

This is the essence of this medium, to manipulate player emotion by using the tools unique to the medium, gameplay mechanics, or rules of play, these heightened with its most friendly and compatible companions such as symbolic visual and evocative audio design. The process of wrapping all of these native techniques of the medium to form a cohesive whole that realizes the desired emotive agenda a is a discipline called game design.

The role of storytelling in games:

Whenever game makers attempt to stir emotion in players by using other companion devices, such as storytelling, they are failing the potential of the medium because storytelling does not fit in well with how this medium best operates upon its audience. Storytelling is trying to engage by way of narrative but games engage by way of their emotive agenda which is something achieved by an entirely other set of elements. In videogames the stimulative impact of storytelling is subtle and stifled when put next to methods native to the medium. Storytelling is thus an awkward and unnatural way of trying to stimulate players because it is so far removed from the essential components of the medium. Storytelling has however been forced on top of videogames for so long that it is largely an expected quantity, so it is important to understand what the most effective role it can play in the game design process.

Fitting any type of story on top of the mechanical, visual and audio design of a game like God of War is not going to change the evocative nature of the game. This is because the evocative nature of the game stems from the game design, while the storytelling veneer is but decorative. At worst you could try to fit an incongruous storytelling veneer atop the emotive essence of a game and give the end product a disjointed feel.

When analyzed by itself the storytelling in God of war is quite base, the characters are wafer thin archetypes and things seemingly happen because they need to, not because they make any sense, thus the whole thing comes off as somewhat amateurish in the storytelling department. Yet, despite the crudeness of the thin storytelling veneer God of War is a game lauded for being best in class in this medium.

This is by virtue of the fact that the creators of God of War arranged their priorities in a manner appropriate for the medium. Thus despite its crudeness the storytelling in god of War is quite an exquisite fit for the structure of the potent game design. The awkward bits of exposition only ever shows up at sparse intervals for brief periods to set up the next locale that the player is going to visit, and then all expositional bloat is pushed out of view so that the game can focus on working on its emotive agenda through pure game design, because that is where it is best realized.

There is a reason why I specifically chose God of War as an example when hundreds of other titles could have just as easily served as an example. For one anyone who would argue in favour of that title’s storytelling quality either needs to read up on their classics or they are merely projecting the satisfying experience that they had with the game upon the storytelling, which at best plays a trivial role in the whole endeavour. Secondly, God of War is a game whose emotive agenda is very easy to identify, extract and analyze.

This is a challenging game designed to stimulate players natural predisposition for wanting to overcome and the mostly male predisposition to violence. This title is meant to stimulate the part of us that finds thrill in the challenge of beating the odds which are stacked against us, and who finds pleasure in aggression. Because the desire to overcome adversity, the desire for competition in various forms and social shapes is such an integral part of the human animal there are whole hosts of genres designed specifically to evoke it in various forms and shapes. These span a spectrum going from simple puzzle games all the way to online shooters.

The strength of the videogame medium is the breath with which they can go about evoking the same emotive responses by utilizing the tools at their disposal differently. Take the recent game Bayonetta for an example, this is a game that falls within the same genre as God of War, it too is a combo action game. But consider how different the experience of playing it feels as opposed to God of War. Whereas God of War uses symbolism and design on the brutal end of the spectrum, meant to instill a certain mood of rage in the player Bayonetta instead strives for frivolity. Every part of what makes Bayonetta from the visuals, to the music, to the animations, to the mechanical design to the storytelling strives towards frivolity.

Thus the whole experience is awash in an over the top, carefree, fun and frivolous mood that makes you want to smile while playing it whereas God of War continually strives to channel aggression and vindictive release.

So despite Bayonetta having an utterly insane and at most times incomprehensible plot where things seemingly happen for the sake of spectacle, and God of War having the most base revenge plot imaginable they are nevertheless two very lauded efforts in this medium. Why is that exactly?

The answer is simple, in both titles the natural parts which form the essence of the medium are all expertly crafted and work in harmony towards the greater emotive goal. In terms of the thin trivial storytelling veneer that was drawn atop of both titles, well here the game makers also did their jobs right by making sure that they at least were congruous with the ultimate emotive agenda of the game.

The wafer thin character of Kratos is just an avatar for the emotive agenda of the game, even his design with his permanent scowl, primal stature and a voice prone to shouting are just symbolic devices designed to be congruous with the emotive agenda of the game, to stir aggression, and act as an outlet for it. The obstacles in the game are made to be very challenging and require great skill to overcome, and their visual design appropriately convey symbolism of aggression and power. The cruel visual spectacle of execution that players are rewarded with upon overcoming a particular challenge communicates satisfaction and achieves the game’s agenda much better than it would have been by any storytelling artifice.
Similarly the design of the character of Bayonetta with her boisterous, frivolous and fun loving nature in addition to the hodgepodge enemy, sound and visual design also perfectly reflects the end of spectrum upon which the makers of that game’s emotive agenda fell upon.

In God of War even moments that storytelling fans can pluck out and put upon a pedestal as having been touching, such as the instance near the end where Kratos is required to protect his family from an onslaught of enemies as a symbolic gesture of defiance is only made effective because it is mostly realized through great game design.

Anyone who has played the title knows how painful that scenario is, and I do not mean painful in terms of emotional impact derived from storytelling, no, I mean painful in terms of how infuriatingly challenging the encounter is to survive. It that sense all the emotive impact comes from the fact that surviving the encounter feels like a triumph against a great and unfair threat, a rise in adrenalin, reflexes and concentration followed by the sweet release of overcoming great adversity. This is the emotive agenda of that encounter and the reason why it feels so good to finally beat the challenge has little to do with the storytelling setup and everything to do with how the mechanics, design and music come together to form that encounter. The storytelling setup here merely acted as a symbolic extension for the underlying agenda, acting it out in a way that is easier comprehensible to the consciousness of players.

It is important to note that perhaps that sequence started its life as a simple plot point, as someone saying, wouldn’t it be cool if we had Kratos protect his family from an onslaught here. But what actually gave meaning and potency to the encounter was the game design and the emotive agenda that was subsequently built around the simple plot point. If this had just been a scripted sequence it would never have amounted to anything worthy of discussion.

The breath of emotive agendas in this medium runs deep:

There are countless examples of videogames who set off with a goal to evoke a certain mood, to trigger certain emotive responses in their player, even very complex ones, and manage exactly that almost completely without the help of cheap, foreign and intrusive devices such as storytelling.

Take the Silent Hill games for an example, these set out with the goal to evoke in players an unsettling sensation, a skin crawling feeling that is not easily identifiable as being fun, but the experience of being unsettled is interesting when it is by way of controlled simulation and this Silent Hill manages by using the tools that best fit the videogame medium, by way of symbolic visual and evocative audio design. Anyone who has attempted to play the Silent Hill games alone in the dark knows how effectively these tools are used in the first three games to manipulate the player.

Take for an example the fog and pervasive darkness reducing visibility, obscuring what is near and thereby manipulating a person’s fear response of the unknown, letting the player subconscious run wild imagining what might be there, just out of view, even when the player consciously knows that there is actually little to take note of there. The design arsenal of Silent Hill’s creators runs from how the visuals of the world and monsters are deliberately designed to be abstract, yet act as clear symbolic triggers in the subconscious of the player all the way to how Akihiro Yamaoka’s industrial noise music tracks heightens tension and unsettles just by suddenly being played loudly.

Take the following instances from the second iteration in the series for great examples of how the game manages to unsettle by game design alone. Remember the hole in the wall, the tiny one that you had to chose to put the character’s arm into in order to retrieve the key. The visual symbolism setting up that effortless action which only required you to choose yes and watch what happens very effectively achieved the goal of unsettling the psyche of the player. It is a irksome concept to stick your hand into a hole, not knowing what is there, especially in a place as unsettling as that. Despite the act being done is completely virtual it still manages to unsettle due to emphatic association taking place in the player’s subconscious.

Remember the parts where you reached a dead end and had the option of having your character jump, plummeting into a dark abyss?

Remember the prison hallway where you could hear a loud, but innocuous sound repeating, as if from some strange creature?

Remember seeing the glowing form of Pyramid head just standing there and looking at you from across the bars, waiting for you to enter into that room?

What about Silent Hill 3 then, remember the mirror room? Remember how uncomfortable it was to be stuck there and how much you wanted to get out?

These are the signs of genius game design, stimulating by way of simulation, by way of expert game design alone. Storytelling could have done nothing to render those setups any more potent, but attempting to rely on that intrusive technique certainly could have gotten in the way if it had been attempted.

Of course there is a story there being told in the Silent Hill games as well, one which the creators cleverly chose to relegate to the backseat, instead letting the most crucial and effective devices of this medium take center stage for the largest duration of the player’s time with the title. Here once again Team Silent, in addition to letting the story take a backseat and be concentrated to brief sparse sequences also made the effort to make sure it is congruous to the emotive goal of the title.

Take the sequence in Silent Hill 2 where after James learns the truth about his wife and how when the player exits the hotel room they find the hotel having changed from a functioning comfortable looking place into a dilapidated burned down alternate version of its former self, complete with a gloomy change to the soundtrack.

Storytelling twists such as this are often used by game makers in a misconstrued attempt at surprising the player, but these usually end up lacking impact and thus seem impotent. The storytelling crowd often interpret this as being a failure on part of the writing, but in reality such devices fail because videogames deliver impactive twists by other means.

Let us consider the genius of Silent Hill 2 here once again as after the impotent revelation had been delivered and one’s reaction is, “okay”, and one exits the room to find the hotel having changed, one also finds that the emotive agenda of the game has changed with it as well. Here you find the true twist of the game, the potent emotive twist that validates the storytelling twist.

The desolate visuals and audio cues here change from unsettling the player to instead triggering a depressive feeling in the player. This the emotive agenda achieves much more effectively than the grand storytelling twist alone did just moments before. This is the craft of expert game designers at work, the emotive responses are triggered through potent game design, while the storytelling is kept minimal and congruous to the agenda of the overall game design.

Consider now ICO which is another game that manages to manipulate complex emotional responses in the player with almost no aid of intrusive storytelling devices. Here the serene visuals of the castle, the haunting atmosphere that is conveyed through visual and audio design in addition to use of visual symbolism once again take center stage in the developer’s efforts in trying to reach their emotive goal. What an exemplary trick of Fumito Ueda it was to force players to lead the waifish Yorda around by holding her hand, it is one of the most refined genius moments in the history of game design. Why you ask? Because Fumito Ueda managed to stimulate the player’s natural sympathy and protective dispositions with almost no aid of storytelling, he just used the language of videogames to achieve what many storytellers have attempted and failed to do in this medium with their forced traditional and foreign techniques.

To further examine games that manage to successfully deliver their emotive agenda and manipulate the player with no aid of storytelling at all we should look no further than the title Rez. Rez is a rail shooter which employs a very abstract visual style and the emotive agenda of its creators are equally abstract. Panzer Dragoon is also a rail shooter, but one which, despite featuring very similar gameplay manages to feel very different because its emotive agenda is different. One struggles to define the motive agenda of Rez, Tetsuya Mizuguchi chose to call it synesthesia, but it is clear, whatever it was, that the creators were successful in its implementation. Playing Rez instills players with a very unique sensation, a sort of trancelike mesmer state where gameplay, sound blend together in a strange frantic rhythm.

Patapon is another game that instills a similar rhythmic mesmer into its players, one so strong that one finds one’s pattern of speech to have been impacted by it a good while after having quite the game.

Tetris is a game designed to activate certain neurotic responses in the player that will have people regard untidiness to be displeasing and prompts one to find satisfaction in bringing order to it, or just finding joy in organizing things in a manner that is intuitively understood to be a neat.

Katamari Damacy exploits the triggering of some similar neurotic responses in the player in conjunction with some others to very different effect.

The Sims is a game that succeeds by acting as a digital outlet for certain human tendencies, in this case these tendencies are primarily active in women and are not unlike the ones that make playing with dolls such a traditional pastime for toddlers, and Sims is the digital version of that, with more added in top of its emotive aspirations to amount to a breakout hit, especially among women.

Sometimes one can take a look at a game, or particular genre and wonder why anyone would find playing them entertaining. Sometimes these questions are asked because the process of playing the game might involve the player performing lengthy repetitious actions that resemble tedious busywork. But the mysteries of a lack of apparent appeal lasts only so long as one does not analyze the emotive agendas working their stimulative influence on the players behind the scenes. Once analyzed one can often easily identify the most potent emotive stimuli at work.

To take an example let us consider one of the most mainstream RPG’s enjoyed by millions in Japan, the Dragon Quest games. This series of games have had an unchanged core structure in the more than two decades of their existence. Their design requiring a large commitment of time used to performed very repetitive, mostly effortless actions in order to grind and level up as a prerequisite for progress might seem like more work than fun. But there is a reason why these type of games, and their online MMO varieties draw such a vast active userbase.

The stimulative function of their emotive agenda is where one can find their appeal, the steady comfortable and dependable progression offered in terms of level progress for time invested where the next level is always kept in sight and the increase in strength making enemies weaker is understood by the human psyche as being substantial advancement in rank despite the knowledge that there are stronger monsters yet waiting in the next dungeon.

Here the enjoyment is derived from the perpetual cycle of steady progress in rank which is something that human psyche is designed to find desirable and is unrelated to the end goal of beating the strongest foe in the game and finishing the game. This is why these sort of games are such lengthy endeavors that feel as if to go on for perpetuity and while many complain about the length this familiar perpetuity of constant promotive progress is why so many draw so much enjoyment out of these games.

Finishing thoughts on the medium:

The breadth of emotive stimuli found in the activity of play, and the purely simulative subset found in the medium videogames runs so deep that several pages could be dedicated to just analyzing and identifying them, and perhaps doing so would be of immense importance to prospective game makers. This could be of great use because currently these qualities are only understood in a mostly intuitive way which has allowed for much misplaced priorities to creep into the game making process.

When taking a cross section of the industry one is witness, among the more potent efforts, to much effort being dedicated to improving mostly superficial subjects based on misunderstandings having lead people to conclude that more attention paid to these aspects will equal a better experience for the player while in reality they are quite inconsequential in the face of bigger things.

Some of these things making their rounds in the industry are concerns regarding quality of writing, better characterizations, better narrative flow, the mechanic of choice in story progression, cinematic aspirations and misunderstandings of the concept and importance of immersion, just to mention but a few.

Among these there is a recurring theme relating to concepts falling under the umbrella of storytelling. Good storytelling and good game design are two things existing in separate realities. Each school of thought attempts to engage the audience in vastly different ways, but the end goal is ultimately the same, to stimulate and manipulate emotion. Due to storytelling being so ubiquitous in our culture it is easy to see why the knee-jerk reaction to player engagement is to achieve it through better storytelling, better characters, better narrative, more choice in dialogue and more freedom in story progression. After all there are very clearly defined best practices long set in place to show how to manipulate emotion through storytelling.

Of course then attempting to engage the player through storytelling is the way a storyteller would deign to go about it, because that is what they understand,that is their purpose, and that purpose is fixed wither they would be trying to tell stories in the medium of cinema or literature, so why should it be different when they choose videogames as their vehicle.

Alas, storytelling is not a natural way to engage audience emotion in the medium of videogames and the reason why is a very complicated issue, but let me just say this. The medium of Videogames as we know it reached mass availability and appeal in the 1970’s with the emergence of the first home console systems. This means that this medium has legitimately existed for 40 years now. Ask yourself how long it took from the moment that the medium of cinema became available to the masses until filmmakers figured out the art of best engaging audiences through the language of cinema? Sure, with the advancement of technology the art has been evolving and refined for decades, but by the 1920’s filmmakers settled upon the fundamental basics of the language of cinema, and these have not changed significantly since.

So why is it that we are here 40 years later, in an advanced technological age which accelerates advancement to ludicrous speeds beyond what was the norm in the 1920’s and yet people are still wrangling with this medium to try and retrofit good storytelling into playing a bigger part in the medium in ways that are not unnatural, awkward and which do not come off as being amateurish when compared to the other, more ancient mediums?


Could it be that storytelling is not the most natural, the most fit way to engage audiences in this medium? Could it be that all this focus and energy being spent is going to waste and game makers are missing the forest for the trees on the issue of audience engagement? Could this be the reason why all video game to movie adaptations are predestined to fail is because what makes a videogame special and what makes a movie special are not translatable across the mediums? I certainly have always thought so.

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