Philosophy of Game Design - Part Four

Robert Yang | 19 Oct 2010 12:06
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Or look at Beyond Good & Evil, a single-player game about the personal conflicts inherent in photojournalism. Throughout the game you receive points for photographing rare creatures - but at one point in the game, one of these rare creatures is about to devour your NPC friend. Do you rescue your friend, or do you take a quick snapshot first, to score valuable points? In photojournalism missions during times of war, to what degree is the journalist embedded in the conflict?


It is questionable whether IO Interactive or Ubisoft designed these games with such larger points in mind. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't; in the end, it's irrelevant. What matters is that the player extrapolated that meaning from the game through their interaction with a system of gameplay mechanics. In this way, proceduralism isn't just a philosophy of game design, but also a philosophy of play and interpretation, which represents a significant shift from how we used to look at games in Part 1.

But some designers see proceduralism as a dead end, as more of the same structured gameplay of commercial titles instead of an interpretive shift that allows a deeper range of artistic expression. The vanguard of these designers is generally considered to be a developer couple known as Tale of Tales, who argues for a radical new genre of videogames:

Notgames borrow some elements from videogames - control schemes, approaches to real-time 3D graphics - but otherwise seek to break free of the rules and mechanics that constrain games today. It argues that rules and mechanics create gameplay loops of repeated actions, thus allowing mastery, but why craft an experience that is intentionally repetitive? When we notice how repetitive a mechanic is, we call it grinding. But in this view, almost all mechanics are a form of grinding, so why try to hide it?

Instead, notgames seek to replace this perpetual grinding with emotional abstraction like mood, tone and theme, which often relies heavily on audio and visual direction. Here, good (not)games don't rely on mechanics; rather, they rely on simple exploration of an artfully realized psychological space. Tale of Tales' The Graveyard and Dan Pinchbeck's Dear Esther are two seminal works in this approach.

Many designers dislike this genre and criticize its relative lack of a canon and overemphasis on theory, that it talks too much talk and needs to walk the walk. Other designers (like me) are cautiously optimistic but aren't exactly sure how to make a game that isn't a game, and are waiting for Tale of Tales and other notgames practitioners to articulate something more concrete.

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