Narrative is a space.
This is not unique to games. Books divide their pages to deliver their contexts and thoughts and actions; a canvas can be carved and pushed with color or shape to create forms; the audio-visual harmony of a film weaves continuity by captured associations. Every medium has a way of engaging us - pulling us into another perspective and leaving us dizzy when the curtain falls or the credits roll or the last page is turned. When we leave this space, we sit back and remember there was a world around us; we struggle to synthesize the space of our fresh experience with the everyday mundanity of the world around us. Meaning is created. We comment about novelty or production values of the space. Sometimes we can only sit back and remember our journey.
The virtual space of video games is a complicated space indeed. It exists in the hardware of a computer, the scripts of a software executable, the colors and sounds from a screen - and, of course, in the imagination or understanding of a player's mind. And the medium at large has no consensus on what to do with it. Pages and web-pages of theory can come out every year - never penetrating some creators while deeply influencing others. Textbooks can be written about technical nuances that never touch the all important je ne sais quoi of what that tech is meant to make; a new designer might dream up their masterpiece that can never be feasible. It's a mess - an explosion - the wild west - a liberating new sphere. The minds and perspectives trying to leverage this space have come to countless results in the last fifty years.
So why do we need systemic games? What can their depths of interaction do for a medium that's gotten by on looking good and being fun? What can their mutability and complexity offer us in a world of trade-show sizzle-reels and indie developers with shoe-string budgets? What can their unique experiences and nuanced possibilities offer us in an industry driven mostly by investor-funded products aimed at men from 18 to 35?
What can making games with this kind of thinking do that games can't do already?
Systemic games can change the landscape. They can structure our experiences, give life to our games, and leverage the space in a way that's unique to the virtuality. They can give us a vocabulary the tools as creators to draw in more people and tell more nuanced stories. Systemic games can define the medium.
Parts already dictate the structure of games.
They're built in structures meant to alleviate production difficulties by breaking things down. A story is broken down to scenes, a pillar of gameplay down to objects, a person down to behaviors. Games with different scopes and different designers approach this differently - from grab-bags of ideas to planned iterations for "finding the fun." But what's the most common result? Blockbusters with enough features to detract from themselves more than they add. Games that are not quite the sum of their parts, but still pretty enjoyable. Sequels that add more and bog down the experience.
Games need to be cohesive to make an effective experience. Market forces are at play - demanding "more" for a game's value, and thus minimalism is a rare sight. Scripted dialogue, bottled landscapes, and checklist secrets - every thing in virtuality is limited, either by the time to craft it or the memory to render it. Somehow, it all needs to come together artfully, and most of the time without compromising the perceived boundlessness of the experience or the immersive qualities of the world. Exercising a judicious balance between good enough and enough good is a challenge engaged by every game studio, and blending disparate elements from disparate disciplines can be as hard for larger teams as it is for individuals - especially in a world and a tech field so defined by reductionist thinking. How can a systemic structure help this? How can it make this all work?
A cohesive game requires a cohesive design.
Systemic thinking does see games by parts as all games must do - but requires defining the relationships between parts early to discover essential elements. A designer may start with an interesting part, an abstract whole, or even a vague idea of interactions - but if these are designed foremost in relation to each other, their utility can be recognized before they are implemented. Following this, minimalism is natural. A part that does not serve the gampelay loop is non-essential. A gamepaly loop that does not support the whole - the theme - does not need to be made. Resources are saved, distractions can be shaved off - and if investors demand more, you know just where to put it.
And what is the result of tight-fitted components working in a cohesive structure? Cohesive loops. Elements interact sensibly in this carefully constructed possibility space, and what the player can do, if designed right, is intuitive. Parts multiply with one-another, create allowance for inquisitiveness and creativity, and work together in over the short and long term as a focused subject matter in service of designed, relevant values. Any gameplay or narrative that emerges grows under the guidance of considered elements.
The result of cohesive loops is a greater cohesive whole. When the parts and loops of a game are working together to make an experience and a narrative, the player can internalize it easier, become immersed in it, and make it part of them. Meaning can be gained from context and interaction. Distracting features and wasted resources can be minimized. Designing a game systemically can be minimalist, elegant - and convey rich themes through the medium without cut-scenes or guided sequences that remove player agency.
But what else are games missing besides tight cohesion?
Games lack life. They are inherently static.
A digital object does not move unless it is allowed to. A digital plant does not grow unless that growth is modeled. A digital person does not talk unless prompted by scripts.
Players quickly become savvy enough to notice their games are dead, to compliment elements of dynamism - worlds that really "feel alive" - even if the illusion is surface-deep or a natural product of rendering fidelity. Just as often, static limitations are treated as traditions. Concessions to style or timing that are necessary to show off a dazzling sequence or authored narrative. Players stay politely on rails to suspend their disbelief for a good story or a bit of fun, even if the characters act like mannequins and the stage never changes. In the same way a theme park ride does not act without an audience, many games do not live without the user - but why do we celebrate static games when their medium can be so alive?
Systemic games can give life by being on their own. Their parts still work together in ways that are designed - often instrumental - but of their own accordance, with a bit of dignity. And by leveraging the dynamism of interactive parts, living systems can emerge for more than instrumentality; the careful composition of natural systems can give a sense of place and living quality to a virtual world that players seek. Trees become forests, people become cities, and things happen when nobody watches - to a technically reasonable degree. As a trade-off, they reduce player self-importance, but imbue meaning intrinsically, incidentally, through agency. "Do, don't show, don't tell." What else is the medium for?
In games, nature is a stage.
At best, it is a resonant stage; a convincing source of trepidation or introspection where a certain deepness may be felt - where scripted patterns go unseen enough to give rise to unexpected encounters and sensory discoveries. At worst, it is an engine for exploitation - where every entity is part of a checklist - where all life is a resource - where creatures are reduced to entertainment, caves reduced to coffers, and plants or cliffs to walls and frames. Too often does wistful iconography mingle with colonialist cultural substrate - resulting in ironic depictions of the "wild" that are well-meaning, but hollow - that denigrate the life that inhabits it and asks you to participate in - exercise - abject self-supremacy. With no voice of its own, nature is subsumed by the context we build around it. "The wild" becomes as technical and static as the computers we use to build it or the scripts we write to render it. It is engineered by engineers. With care and attention, it could be represented, respected, or even greatly meaningful to those who interact with it. We need more systemic games to imbue interactivity and meaning to the natural parts of the world we have reduced to so less than the sum of its parts.
In games, people are puppets.
They stand still, they watch, and they mimic their daily roles. Some are destined for greatness - for budgeted purpose - and others for endlessly repeated quips or player-facilitated fates. When forced down a tunnel, this artificiality can be masqueraded by cinematics and reduced exposure, but in broader games or in slower ones, it is apparent how far behind these entities are - these empty automatons. We need systemic games to explore what is possible not with puppets, but with people - and explore other methods of storytelling involving that enhance the self-interactivity and humanity of virtual worlds and their citizenss instead of compromising them.
In games, time is a special effect.
That battle in the background will rage until it is told to stop. That old lady in the village will always wait until you help her. Your father will remain lost until you find him. Real time does not allow these things. Game time will stand still until it is allowed to do otherwise. Until it becomes a system, something that interacts with every part of the game, it will pass around things and never through them and the world will remain dead - all in the sake of the player's will. When time becomes meaningful, events become meaningful. They become contingent, their results are unique, unexpected, and sometimes tragic - a threat to authorial intent, but an insistent component of human experience. A well-built systemic game need not balloon the results of passing time, but allow the elements that act within it to behave in interesting ways, where emergent narrative can be formed by doing nothing at all. We need more systemic games to give meaning to time, even at the cost of well-penned stories and pre-destined self-importance.
In games, the only voices are our own
Systemic games are needed to give dignity to the natural world, give meaning to our representations of people, and pull time and its passage - its comedies and its tragedies - into our experiences and into our lives. Taking care to represent the living beyond authorial instrumentality can be enriching, explorative, and radically novel. It could open a door to entirely new contexts of the human experience that we've never been able to capture before.
So why do we delegate a medium with potential for life to dead worlds and playable movies? Perhaps we could do nothing else. Games grew up in decades defined by consumption, exploitation, and increasing environmental duress. They are built by engineers for engineers. They're dominated by men, by whiteness, and by corporations. What did we expect?
And how can we change this?
Systemic games can split the field wide open. Wild diversity must be harnessed to drive the potential of the medium forwards and pull it out of its niche.
This new kind of game can foster diversity.
Systemic games create experiences for diverse play. A multiplicative possibility space can be designed - targeted - but open to the individual and their identity. Through harnessing the uncertain, the emergent and holistic meaning of interconnected parts, systemic games allow the integration and self-discovery of the individual and their place among the world. It's paradoxical. By lessening the pre-destined self-importance of the player, their actions become more meaningful, more effective. By allowing a cohesive world to live, more accessible engagement options become available. More types of people can participate or bring themselves into a game through their own values. Games become available, personal, and inviting in a way they couldn't be through directed narrative. They become an engine of self-discovery that turns away no one, but more strongly surrounds a cohesive and living thematic pillar.
With new players and new developers, systemic games can deepen the field of games and forever reinvent the landscape. This can already be seen in the roiling indie sphere, where new kinds of interactivity and new kinds of worlds turn up at every corner of the web - growing and intermixing in the open or underground. It is impossible to know them all. On the subject of diversity - fears of "indiepocalypse", 'too many games', and other privileged labels for the increasing accessibility of game development have given way to countless interpretations of how to use the medium's space. This radical diversity is a popped bubble, an unstable creative sphere, but explosively innovative. It could soon split apart the homogenized stagnation of the AAA sphere, where rigid authored experiences soak up the majority of the industry's cash flow. And while more and more games are made, their diversity is instructive and inspirational to new people. The medium will continue to grow, affect people, attract study, and permeate the public consciousness. It will address itself and the political climate from countless voices. Games will continue to evolve. They will finally give voice to the full range of human condition.
What does this mean?
Virtual space is a complicated new medium indeed, but systemic games can re-invent it. Whether by providing a good structure for cohesive games, encouraging a living virtuality for exploring humanity and the natural world, or acting as a platform for experimentation and revolutionary accessibility in the creative sphere, systemic games are a powerful way of exploring the raw potential of video games and pulling the field into the future.
While exploring wholes and interactive parts may be an antidote for many larger issues than how best to make a computer game - this paradigm shift may be exactly what we need to make an earnest impact as creators and address our craft as more than the sum of its parts.