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Problem Machine: Abstraction Layer

What is the interaction between abstract graphics and their narrative context? When does an abstraction become a representation? If 'The Marriage' had been titled 'The Bar Fight' player interpretations would have been very different.


Video games are, at their most fundamental level, a collection of numbers. Anyone who's done any programming has seen this in action, of course, and had a direct hand in what those numbers are and what they represent. There are numbers to store data values and there are numbers to tell those other numbers to do things and somehow it all comes together to make a simulation of reality, which is a real "holy shit we're in the future" moment for someone who has any kind of perspective.

So: We use these huge sets of numbers to build elaborate fictional worlds, as painter uses pigments or a writer characters. At some point, by putting enough of them together and feeding them into a system that causes them to interact with each other, we create meaning.

It's difficult to really comprehend this process in its totality. I have the same problem thinking about visual art: One pencil stroke, then another, and another, and forms begin to emerge. It cleaves closer and closer to its eventual shape. But it will never BE the thing it represents.

Nevertheless, no one questions the ability of a simulated bowl of cereal to make us actually hungry

(This is, incidentally, one of several reasons why I have serious problems with lawmakers making possession or creation of any given kind of art a criminal act, since the boundaries of where something becomes a representation are by their nature so blurry.)

It's worthwhile, I think, to question the nature of this representation and how far it extends. How has the history of representationality in games progressed? Many of the earliest games relied on graphics which were highly or totally abstract and used text, either in-game or external, to explain to the player what they were meant to represent.

An extremely interesting and more recent example is Rod Humble's The Marriage. The Marriage uses completely abstract graphics (almost), squares and circles of different colors, alongside gameplay mechanics as a medium of expression. It's a game that gets mentioned a lot by game designers because it's an example of how one can express something of emotional significance purely through mechanics.

But is it? The fact is, on closer observation it doesn't express itself purely through mechanics.

If "The Marriage" had been titled "The Bar Fight" player interpretations would have been very different indeed.

Yeah, you better run!

You see, the title provides the context that makes the mechanics meaningful. Without that title, many players might still have imagined a marriage as a metaphor for the gameplay elements, but many others would likely have referred to some other life experience. The ratio of the latter would almost certainly go up if one then chose to recolor the squares so that they used less stereotypically masculine and feminine colors. Don't get me wrong here, The Marriage is an excellent example of the evocative power of game mechanics, but it isn't nearly as pure an example as many like to present it to be. Context is established via extra-gameplay means, but that context is minimal very much in the style of older games when more representational graphics were less feasible.

So there's two things I'd like to say about this.

First, I think it really says a lot about the potential of abstraction, when it comes to emotional evocation, that The Marriage is able to express facets of a relationship that would be otherwise difficult to put into words. Abstraction has the advantages of allowing interactions and relationships which would be difficult to represent with a pure representational approach to graphics, while also forcing the player to interface with the game at a more intimate level of consciousness in order to parse those graphics.

What caption do you think would be appropriate here?

Second, I don't think that expressing meaning through gameplay, or at least emotional meaning, is really feasible in a realm of complete abstraction. The meanings of gameplay elements are interpreted by the player on the basis of the context embracing them. Pointing and clicking on things to make them disappear could potentially be wrapped in a number of contextual meanings, but in most games it's shooting dudes.

The point is, it's a long and difficult to distinguish trail between abstraction and representation, and neither far end of the scale is necessarily feasible nor desirable. At the end of pure abstraction, we live in a land where cause follows effect but there's no understanding of what effects are good or bad or why to do or not do a given thing. At the end of pure representation, you're, uh, basically sitting in your chair reading a blog post. A blog post about how you're sitting in a chair reading a blog post, and so forth. Pure representation is covered pretty well by reality.

Now, while it's all well and good to have preferences, it's naive to believe that a more literal simulation is somehow inherently more meaningful than an abstract one– or to believe the reverse. Nevertheless, we see people arguing for both of those sides in game design discourse. It's kind of a strange thing to debate in the first place: should a work of art not be judged on the results it achieves rather than the methodology it uses to achieve those results?

Which is why I am now unveiling my newest invention, the peripheral that will finally allow us to invent video games which make the audience cry... the Pube Yanker 3000!

To clarify the above, I don't intend to demean the value of non-conventional approaches, merely to state that the value of non-conventional approaches is in their ability to achieve non-conventional results, to drive non-conventional evocations and ideas. While intentionally avoiding convention is often the first step to creating something really special, there is no inherent value to non-conventionality.

The question is, the question remains, the question has always been: What are you trying to achieve with your game, and what degree of contextual literalism or abstraction achieves that most effectively?

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