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Why Doesn’t Anything Mean Anything?: Thoughts on Resource Balancing in Games

A few meditations on using rudimentary mechanics and UI elements to deal with big, serious intense philosophical sorts of things.

Why Doesn’t Anything Mean Anything?: Thoughts on Resource Balancing in Games

I’d imagine that relatively few of us, if asked, would cite accountancy as a passion. That’s not to suggest that accountancy is inherently un-fun, or even that many of us don’t find a surprisingly deep-seated pleasure in performing it well – merely that it doesn’t spring to mind as an activity we enjoy, or a skill we cultivate. Especially for gamers, in a time when the blockbuster scene is dominated by fast-paced photorealistic shoot-‘ems-up and the indie scene produces medium-bending experiences like Dear Esther, it might seem odd to stop and say, “You know? Making sure certain numbers are smaller or larger than other numbers in a finite amount of numbers is really what I want to spend my time on!” All jokes about Eve Online aside, accounting is not the primary mechanic that drives excitement in games.

Yet the realization creeps and creeps, breathing over your shoulder (or more likely, over the upper-left hand corner of your screen) until you find yourself face-to-face with the tragic realization that yes, you often derive fun from crunching numbers. I suppose there’s a degree of selection bias involved; after all, video games are generally a digital affair, and since computers depend so intrinsically on the logical relationships of values for their syntax and semantics, it’s only to be expected that games would share the same dependency. Perhaps the surprise is in how bold the fact can be, despite the fact that people rarely recognize it in those terms. FPS players learn to make instinctual decisions about balancing the quantifiable factors of firepower, and tailor their tactics to that balance: I can choose a weapon with long range and high damage, but a low clip size and long reload time, or a machine gun with short range and low damage-per-shot, but a huge clip and relatively little reloading time. If you play any driving game, no doubt you scroll through a roster of cars trying to find the most advantageous relationship between handling, acceleration and pure speed. Even sports games often attempt to quantify skills and abilities for individual players on a team: this player is a great kicker but an abysmal receiver, this one can’t move quickly but will hold the line against all odds. In fact, the chances are decent that no matter what kind of video game you’re playing, you’ve had to make these kinds of decisions, even if it comes down to nothing but the simplest of brute physical facts: you can only carry so much loot, because objects have weight.

The Sims would probably be the most citable example of turning this essential mechanic into a lens for understanding human concerns. It is exceptionally reductive, in framing the Sims as relatively simple input-output systems; there’s a certain startling (indeed, oddly accusatory) determinism in the idea that yes, if you’re physically healthy and have a few friends and aren’t standing in a puddle of your own urine, you’re probably pretty happy. Still, it’s fun – working to optimize happiness, or utterly confounding the system by building a tiny doorless room full of fireplaces and wooden chairs. It’s got an amusing anthropomorphic UI, but ultimately, it’s a numbers game, and a darn pleasant one.

It also created some astoundingly vivid memories for me. I can recall dealing with one particular Sim who, by accident or design, had found himself in a particularly black mood. I was queuing up a series of fairly rational actions, trying to wean him off the teat of misery, but he was sucking so insistently that all my gentle firmness came to nothing. I would plan an action queue of happiness-inducing activities – food, sleep, fun – and no sooner had I done so than my Sim would willfully disregard my plan and go watch TV. I ultimately found myself in a baffled depression of my own: what was going on with this Sim? For some reason, he was breaking what I believed to be the rules of the system. He was immune to a rational prioritization of happiness. In so doing, he was also teaching me that sometimes, agents have entirely different conceptions of rules and relationships in a system, and that can have serious consequences on the expressions of a system in the world.

Those rule systems, which are given to us as a priori fact, go a long way towards defining the truth of a game world. Just the choice of values and the statements of rules can carry an intense gravity to them. There are certain assumptions about RPG worlds, for instance, which arise from the relationship between strength stats, carrying capacity, and item weight: the mere existence of those numerical values and their relationships communicates to a player that in this world, collecting items is possible, important, and powerful. The notion can have a darker timbre in different games; the existence of stats and figures on different guns, for instance, implicitly suggests that killing other players is possible, important, and powerful, and that there are ways to optimize your killing ability, and that you should spend time doing so. These sorts of implications are generally marginal, rather than focal, but this doesn’t make them less present. There’s a reason that The Sims didn’t have a value for, say, greenness; the game enforced the judgment that greenness is not essential to the happiness of a (more or less) human being. The presence of other values suggests the enforcement of corresponding judgments.

It seems, as such, something of a waste to consider how often number-crunching is applied to arguably valueless systems. Gamers might rack up hours of number-play in determining a build for a character, choosing certain guns for certain maps, choosing certain cars for certain tracks – and tons of us spend some time with our eyes on a health bar of some kind. But can we get back to what The Sims suggested we might do? Can we use the balancing of values to model human behavior, or the human condition more deeply? I want that feeling I got from my Sim: that I was operating in a world where someone had fundamentally different judgments about what was valuable, what was possible, and what was right. Especially with an increasing interest in marginal voices and the need to include them, we might do worse than beginning by exercising a little bit of fictional empathy, forcing ourselves to make decisions according to values essentially different from our own.

The first game I really began designing in earnest was a game about a vampire in Florence during the Thirty Years’ War, a Catholic nobleman who was trying to find a cure for his vampirism. However, his compulsion for a cure had a very specific motivation: namely, his desire to return to a moral, Catholic lifestyle. The action of the game was in exploring the plague-stricken city of Florence, solving problems and searching for a cure, but the real meat of it, mechanically speaking, was the faith meter. The player would have a health meter, depleted by physical injuries; by not feeding; by standing near crucifixes; by praying; by any of the other vampire stereotypes; and it could be replenished by eating raw meat and feeding on people. The faith meter, on the other hand, was as basic a representation I could imagine of a person’s measured, rational understanding that the universe was good, God existed, and life was worth living. It would be depleted by eating raw meat; by feeding on people; and by standing within a certain radius of depressing or sinful events; or it could be replenished by standing near crucifixes; by praying; by upholding medieval Catholic values; by viewing the beauty of a sunrise. The story of the game was about a Catholic, struggling desperately to live as a Catholic while it became nearly impossible to do so; the story of playing the game was balancing these two meters, trying to solve the riddle of vampirism without succumbing to either wasting away bodily or falling into a fatal, rabid depression.

I wanted a player to have to make a choice – when and how is it worth it to boost one meter and not the other? what do I do when a single action affects me positively and negatively at the same time? – and I wanted that choice to be based on an abstract. More specifically, I wanted a player to feel as though the concrete (eating food, sustaining injury) was as valuable and necessary as the abstract (having faith, being at peace with the world); that for some people, certain judgments and values can be as ruthlessly binding as the need for nutrition is for all of us. As an atheist with a Catholic background, I’m often frustrated and baffled by meeting people who have simply never considered whether or not God exists. I wanted to make a game about understanding that experience, living in a world utterly inconsistent with my own understanding of it, and the understanding maintained by my friends without any religious background. I wanted the player to have to understand a different set of values which dictated basic truths. Life took me in a different direction, and the game never got far beyond the planning stages and the beginnings of a level, but the idea has never left me. Why not just…put it all out there? “Fuck it!” I wanted to tell the player. “It’s an incredibly complicated abstract concept which many people are afraid of ever addressing seriously, and it’s a value represented by a cartoonish red rectangle. Figure it out!”

Why don’t we do that more often? We understand that games and their interfaces are representational, so why do we care exactly how representational? Sometimes, the truth is best stated as bluntly and brashly as the form allows. Especially when we’re dealing with serious issues about form and content – hegemonic power, the definitions of what is and isn’t a game, and the very real question of what we’re all doing making and playing games and carrying on as though that’s important to the human condition – it may be worthwhile to take a step back and try to simplify. Strip down the vocabulary and think in terms as simple as you can: these things are important, but they are in conflict with each other, and I want to try and resolve this conflict. I live in a world, and it is bound by strictures which are invisible to others and essential to my own experience. It isn’t always necessary to make a massive first-person shooter with eloquent voice-acted disquisitions on philosophy to discuss philosophical issues, and indeed, it’s often better not to. Sometimes, choosing the right numbers to crunch gets the job done just as well.

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