Recently I began writing my MFA thesis paper at Ohio State. This post will work as a casual version of my thesis introduction.
Games are huge is an understatement. Everyone I know plays games in some form or another, video games, board games, sports, etc. Game-like qualities have found themselves in apps, school, and websites thanks to the gamification revolution. The popularity of games as a pastime and storytelling medium and its unique characteristics make it a prime candidate for alternative modes of storytelling. What characteristics are unique to games as a medium? How do these traits help establish the medium? What can they do for the player?
The "cut" is arguably the most import attribute of film. The story in a movie is told through the cuts (Mamet). A shot of a man screaming cutting to a shot of a mouse is a very different story than a shot of a man screaming and cutting to a dark figure lurking in the corner. Unique attributes like this are found in all sorts of visual mediums. Comics, for example, is comprised of juxtaposed images similar to film, however, the time between the frames can vary, unlike film which is shown at a standard rate. Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics states that a major difference between film and comics is the “space” in which the image occupies (McCloud). A film (and most video games) occupy the same space, perhaps a screen or a monitor, and comic frames “occupy a different space.” If comics and film have specific traits unique to their medium, what are the traits unique to games and video games as a medium?
Video games share many of the same visual traits found in film. Lighting, camera, tone, and pacing are all part of film and modern video games. Even genre tropes have been successfully transferred to video games. Sci-fi games like Mass Effect have created vast science fiction worlds that use many of the traits found in science fiction films, traits like aliens and space exploration. The game Alien: Isolation has successfully adapted an existing film universe into a video game while keeping the same tone and style of the films (strict movie to game adaptations often fail, however).
That’s not to say film and games contain exactly the same traits as a medium. Although they share many characteristics, there are many things film does that wouldn’t work in a game and vice versa. Film has an established language that the viewer understands. In Star Wars, the soft radial wipe has a different meaning than the traditional cut. It usually signifies the passage of time and a location change. In the film Mean Streets, a wobbly camera, a long take, and inconsistent lighting show that Harvey Keitel’s character is intoxicated. This effect uses the strength of film as a medium, camera, color, and the cut. This effect could be recreated in a video game visually, however, it doesn’t use the strength of games as a medium. The strength of games lies in the agency of the player. The interactive quality of a game and the rules or systems in the game that allow for interaction are the major differences that distinguish games as its own medium, these are called a game’s mechanics. Instead of camera effects to describe inebriation, the same message could be told in the interaction with the character. In a board game, maybe there’s a punishment added to the dice roll or some other handicap given to the player. In a video game, perhaps the usual way of controlling the character isn’t as precise compared to when the character is sober. In a video game, using the point of control over the character to describe a physical or emotional state is stronger than simply showing the player. The traditional film rule of “show, don’t tell” can be extrapolated to games as “play, don’t show” (Fine). “In a film or a book, if the characters take the left-hand door, then they will always take the left-hand door, no matter how many times you re-watch or re-read; but in a game, you can take the right-hand door instead. Instead of being nice, you can be nasty; instead of being cautious, you can be gung-ho; and you can see what happens.” In games, it’s often better to convey meaning through gameplay and player interaction. I'll be looking at deeper definitions of game mechanics in a later blog post.
If visuals, audio, and the cut are unique characteristics of film, then what are traits unique to games? Obviously the answer is interaction via the game's mechanics. The player's control over the game, the agency allowed to the player, sets games apart as a medium. How can this characteristic of game mechanics be designed to influence the mood or perception of a story in the same way the cut or visual effects do for film? Games I believe that do this are Braid, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, and various game in the indie scene. We'll look at these game more closely in a future post. The common theme, however, is the game's mechanics help to share the message of the game.
As part of my MFA degree, I also need to do a creative project. That's the main reason for this contextualized research, to inform that project. If mechanics determine how a player can interact with the game state, and if the mechanics are designed in a way that shifts the player’s perception away from how they traditionally see and experience the world, in what ways will this altered view contribute to the player’s understanding of different states of mind in the character or story being portrayed in the game? With this question in mind, the story won’t be like traditional narratives told in film and books. Instead, the conflict and resolution will be in how the player interacts with the game and the changes in the player’s perception of this conflict.
For the project, I intend to explore the design process for game mechanics so players can experience a metaphorical representation of onset dementia through interaction. Players will have two very distinct comparisons of reality: their everyday reality outside of the game world and the reality created in the game that is driven by dementia and rules of the game. The goal of this project is not to recreate the dementia experience for players with healthy minds, but instead to offer a glimpse into the emotional conflicts and confusion that are an everyday part of the disease.
The goal of this research is to show how games, with their distinct characteristic of mechanics, can inform the player of the game’s message. Game mechanics can be the main conduit for the story’s message. In some cases, mechanics can provide better insight into altered realities, in this case, dementia. This research will work to show game’s strength as a storytelling medium and provide an example of how mechanics can be designed to add meaning to a player’s interaction. I hope this project will serve as a model for myself and other game designers in the future to adapt mental and emotional states to the medium of games.
Thanks for reading this long-winded post. If anything is confusing I'd love to clarify!
References for this post
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
On Directing Film by David Mamet
Mass Effect by Bioware
Alien (1979) directed by Ridley Scott
Alien Isolation by Creative Assembly
Braid by Number None
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice by Ninja Theory