Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Level With Me by Robert Yang

[An old post I wrote in immediate response to Level With Me, but didn't get round to posting at the time.]

Robert Yang has posted his conclusion to Level With Me: a series of discussions with seven sideline game designers culminating in the collaborative development of a Portal 2 mod. The regular drip-feed of articles has now come to an end and we can experience the resulting piece first-hand and first-person.
  1. Read the entire discussion series on Rock, Paper, Shotgun here.
  2. Play the Portal 2 mod here.
  3. Read the concluding words here.
Yang's interpretation of the whole exercise holds a mirror up to a deep-seated approach to game design and interpretation. It reminds us how much power we wield, yet how much we still have to learn about our craft.

Yang draws the conclusion that we place too much importance on the cold, mechanical structuralism of game design. That we reduce our creativity to systems and formulas when there is so much more to be derived. I think that this is true of many designers, although your average journalists and consumers also seem to be a further step behind (through willing restraint or otherwise) and generally lack the vocabulary and critical eye required to deconstruct games on even this mechanical level. This is to be expected and by no means frowned upon; a layman will always use layman's terms after all.

But Yang urges us onwards and upwards to a higher level of game reading, one in which mechanics, art, sound and structure combine to produce meaning. It is this meaning that the games industry seems painfully unaware of (or worse: indifferent towards). Those involved in development owe it to themselves, the medium and the consumers to read games more closely, to never take conventions for granted, and to examine the underlying messages these texts communicate. Words on a page are worth more than mere ink and paper.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Nuggets of Wisdom: the Joy of Discovery

Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid and The Witness, recently spoke about what he thinks modern Japanese games tend to do badly.

They don't just give you a simple situation and let you work it out. They explicitly tell you what to do and then say "It's not hard, don't be worried, go ahead, you try now". You know? And then you try and you do it and half-way, when you're in the middle of doing it, it stops you and it says "Now remember: during the next part rotate the block to the right!".
Once you've done that it eliminates the joy of discovery which, as I've said, is something I really value. I really value that click that happens in your head between you see something and you don't quite understand it and then suddenly you do understand it. And that is a fundamental part of human existence in the world, is that kind of mental growth, that kind of expanding my sphere of understanding the world around me. And when you build an entire game that's "I tell you what to do then you do it", OK you're not going to lose the player, but you've prevented that player from having any of joy of discovery at all, and I don't want to play games that are like that.

Of course, this flaw is not exclusive among Japanese games. Many Western games fall into the same pitfalls in their relentless quest to ensure games are seen 'the way they're meant to be seen' and the player is reduced to little more than a kind of 'God of the gaps' role. Japanese games do tend to be a little more heavy-handed in their approach, though (Ghost Trick springs to mind as a recent example).

I strongly recommend you listen to the full interview with Jonathan Blow.