Discord and Rhyme: Playing By the Rules

Matt Turano | 13 Aug 2008 21:00
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

One of the feats that games like Half-Life and BioShock accomplish so gracefully is to present their entire experience inside the context of the gameplay without ever removing us from the action and thus disrupting the imaginative play. The childhood equivalent of good mimicry spoiled was playing with that one kid who just didn't get it; you're all set for a round of Steve Austin vs. Maskatron, and he insists on being the Fonz. Or you're smokin' along with your three-story Death Star Wedge o' Destruction playset complete with detachable trash compactor, foam garbage, and green plastic dianoga, and this kid thinks he can credibly squeeze all five members of G-Force into the party. As if that weren't enough, his favorite was Tiny. Not Mark, or Keyop, or even that arrogant smartass Jason, for cryin' out loud. Tiny. Clearly, some people are beyond help.

In an interactive medium like gaming, development is a two-way process in which the finest creators are facilitators of individual expression, rather than enforcers of arbitrary rules that give little consideration to the personality and preferences of the end-user. Rules should empower the player by providing structure and feedback, which is why even relatively simple fare like Geometry Wars Galaxies and Space Invaders Extreme offer such compelling experiences; their rules - shoot a bunch of stuff, don't die - consistently uphold the player's choice and skill as the games' raisons d'etre, providing multiple paths to success and only one - annihilation - to failure.

Other than puzzles, far too many games invert that equation by offering hundreds of ways to fail and only one to succeed; they often require absurd solutions to mundane real-world problems that otherwise might have been resolved by more creative means had these games not been designed to play the player instead of the other way around. As a result, these titles languish on my shelves in a non-negotiable state of disuse, gathering dust and irrelevance in equal measure, since the most engaging games across all media employ rules which enable creative participation rather than distance the player from his own imaginative involvement.

Whether engaged in a marathon session of face-editing at the outset of Oblivion, or decorating our Sim's house, or even cooking a pleasant meal, some of life's most gratifying experiences are those that we fashion ourselves. By extension, the best game designers aren't those who grab you by the throat and run you through their predetermined frenzied paces, or set you to a gratuitously arduous task in a world rife with inconsistent, illogical dynamics. Instead, the best designers are those who take you by the hand and consistently amaze, not simply by showing what they can do, but by showing what you can do, and by skillfully forging the illusion the player is the most indispensable element in their game.

Matt Turano is full of sound and fury, signifying corn chips.

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