What sort of Printer are you?
This post is about creating a compelling, immersive experience within videogames. But not all videogames are the same, right? A useful analogy is The Printer - some printers do books, some do T-shirts, some do posters, some print on coffee mugs, so on and so on. They are all printers, but using different technologies and processes to achieve different ends. So keep in mind, this post isn't relevant to every type of game design. The type of Printer (haha Yes! a pun!) I'm speaking to here is the sort who wants to print books, not funny T-shirts. Although, for the sake of full disclosure, I must admit I love funny T-shirts...
[yes, Printers don't write the books, it's an analogy, people - they tear when stretched too far]
2nd Person Singular
The English language novel written in the 2nd person is almost as rare as the Snipe. There might be a million reasons for this (other cultures have lots of 2nders, an important point we'll come back to), but one of the most important is the difficulty of Identification. For any work of art to succeed, the observer must identify with it. But what does that mean? Before we jump into Identification, let's look at the 2nd person and gaming.
Videogames (at least the "book" type, what we might call deep games) are by their nature 2nd person - The player is the "you" to whom everything is directed. There are exceptions (Civilization is definitely more 3rd person - camera angle aside) but generally games are directed at a "you". "You" must rescue the princess, "You" must defeat the alien horde, "You" must drink old coffee and stare at the wall because "you" couldn't find the right red balloon (sorry couldn't resist). You might have to take on a persona to be the "you", but you get my point. =)
So, your team has produced an AAA title with kick-ass gameplay, gorgeous environments, Oscar-worthy voice acting, and a narrative that branches like a century old Oak tree. The player as avatar can act like anyone from Gandhi to Hitler and anything in between. Further, you've only got one avatar, it's Nameless Guy, who never speaks except for grunts of pain and the obligatory "huuh" jump grunt. A recipe for Platinum, right? Then famous Game Designer/Blogger Dirk Daring writes that he found your game utter crap, lacking emotional depth and realistic characterization - and the masses cry "Boo" to your pride and joy, its Metacritic rating is less than Snooki's IQ, and you're hoping that having worked on this project hasn't nuked your career. What the hell went wrong? Well, it's all "your" fault! Now let's discuss Identification...
His Kung Fu is strong...
Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) was a theorist Literary, Rhetorical, Psychological, and Philosophical. Today, his work is probably used most by Rhetorical scholars, in applications from traditional political speeches to postmodern film. His body of work is so rich and varied that I could write entire books about the application of each of his major ideas to videogame design. Right now, I want to concentrate on a brief exploration of his concept of Identification and its relevance to the theory of game design. There are several sites within the Burkean corpus which explicate the concept of Identification, so rather than belabor you with an exhaustive bibliography, I'll just tell you to google him for further research. This Cliff's Notes* version of Identification is taken from Burke's Counter-Statement:
For in the last analysis, any reader surrounds each word and each act in a work of art with a unique set of his own previous experiences (and therefore a unique set of imponderable emotional reactions), communication existing in the "margin of overlap" between the writer's experience and the reader's. And while it is dialectically true that two people of totally different experiences must totally fail to communicate, it is also true that there are no such two people, the "margin of overlap" always being considerable (due, if nothing else, to the fact that man's biological functions are uniform).
Perfection does not exist!
The idea is pretty simple: the more you have in common with someone, the more powerfully you can communicate with them - the less, well, the less so; there is however, a basic level of human solidarity and thus a basic level of communication. For our purposes, let's consider "designing an experience" to be a subset of communication. The idea of Identification means that when we design an experience, we can expect most players to have a certain baseline reaction to it, but we can never predict the exact nature of their full emotional response. The greatest example of this phenomenon in modern gaming must be the original BioShock, and most specifically the Little Sisters.
Lots, like millions, of players enjoyed BioShock because they felt a strong emotional reaction to the ominous environment and the moral morass contained within. Except that for hundreds of thousands of others, there was no moral morass: most famously, Clint Hocking coined the term "ludonarrative dissonance" to describe his disappointment. Mr. Hocking dissembled a bit by stating that the game was great, except where it wasn't. Lots of bloggers were quick (more or less) to agree. Was the game a failure in some way? Not at all. The problem wasn't a lack of ludo-narrative options, it was a lack of Identification on the part of some players. So how do you design against that? You can't.
Mentioned above was the fact that other cultures have many more novels written in the 2nd person - I'm going make a big leap and say that (modern) English literature is different because the English speaking population is radically heterogeneous compared to every other major language group in the world. Take the Western gaming market, i.e. USA, Canada and Europe, and you've got such a diversity of cultures, and thus a diversity of experiences, that widespread Identification is basically impossible. Hannah Montana seems immensely popular in the context of the American tweener market, but obviously she's not nearly as big a fish in relation to the entire Western music or TV industries (see U2 or the NFL). Teenage girls and creepy middle aged dudes Identify with Mylie, but not so much everybody else.
The Mona Lisa doesn't do it for everybody, so don't expect your game to either.
Identification is powerful - just look at the glut of 'realistic' military shooters currently dominating the market. Millions of people (Ok, mostly doods) can Identify with the role of badass soldier kicking butt - not through direct experience but through thousands of indirect experiences (film, TV, childhood toys, etc.). In this sense, Identification is related to the concept of 'suspension of disbelief' - despite 'ludonarrative' gaps, players still find real excitement in the dance of pixels because they can and do put themselves within the game world. If the thrill of the fake kill and the agony of the non-death had no emotional pull, the game wouldn't get played...
For Western market games that wish to engage players in more complex ways, like Fallout 3 or Fable II, the designers must take into account the variegated nature of Identification - regardless of what specific design choices are made, some players will love the game, and some will hate it, and there can be no single magic formula for getting more of the former than the latter. But the first and most important choice may be this: do we want the player to Identify with an experience (being a badass soldier), or with a character (Sam Fisher). Based on the history of Videogames so far, it's pretty damn hard to do either well, and even harder to do both.
Thanks for taking the time to read this ramble!