Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Interesting Parallels Between Characters and Environments

I have been taking rather extensive notes on my current thoughts regarding the project I have embarked on completing, but there is one idea that seems to stick out in poignancy that would like to write about here. That idea is the comparison between characters and environments.

Most video games today are extremely environment-centric. The game's content is broken up into spaces called "levels," or the game takes place in one large, cohesive space which is called an "open world." Game development teams have level designers and environmental artists; the level designer plays a major role in determining how the player interacts with the game while the environmental artist plays a major role in how the game reveals itself to the player. For pretty much any game of any genre (platformers, RPGs, point-and-click adventure, racing, first person shooter, real time strategy) the most essential mechanism of control and interaction intends to move the player through 2D or 3D spaces. This mechanism is so universal that controllers are built around it; analog sticks, d-pads, and arrow keys are all abstracted controls that are designed specifically to maneuver an object in geometric space. Players explore and interact with the environment.

I decided early on to not focus on a player interacting with a plot; it felt to aimless and if it were made to not be so the results would be odd and definitely not what I am currently looking for (though perhaps interesting to use in a game or two that justifies the idea). Rather, my attempts at subversion focus on characters; as Chris Crawford talked about games simply being about things, and if they wanted to evolve further emotional and narrative depth they would have to be about people. But what is to be done with characters? They are simplifications of people; all the meat and none of the fat. Looking at how games have handled characters in the past, chess plays the role archetype. In chess, there exist several unique types of pieces each with their own attributes. Each could be labeled by letter, number, color, or symbol and the player would have just as fine a time enjoying the possibilities to be found in the rule set. But instead, the traditions labels each piece with a character. The piece which takes the smallest steps, is most abundant, and whose loss is not to be cried over is given the character of the pawn. The most important piece on the board, that which if killed ends the game, and yet is not very powerful in its own right, is given the character of the king. And that most powerful and influential piece, second in importance to the king, is given the character of the queen. And so on. Good usage of characters in games shows a connection between characteristics and function.

But is this going far enough? Compelling, rounded characters are not static entities. They change and they grow. If a game connects character and function, and yet character changes, must not function change as well in proportional fashion? Maybe I am getting at something; maybe I am not.

If a game is to focus specifically on characters, what would it look like? Well, there are many games that seem to focus specifically on environments and I have already explained what that looks like. Players explore and interact with the environment as their primary action; I shudder to think how much time I have wasted in my lifetime commanding my avatar to walk forward and to watch them march on and on as the artificial hours of game time pass away.  What if a player were to explore and interact with the characters as their primary action? What would that game look like? Would not that be a true "social" game?

How do humans explore environments? They use their limbs, in cooperation with physic laws, to maneuver through it. Is this the same way environments are explored in games? Of course not; homes are not filled with VR gerbil balls and full-body touch sensation suits or neuro-communicative computers; they are filled with game-pads, keyboards, and mice. The technology to build the simulation is either unreasonable for the average man to own or completely non-existent. Instead, technology allows for the creation of not simulation, but rather abstraction. When controlling a character in a video game, one experiences an abstraction of exploring a space. Developers have become extremely good at creating these abstractions and making them interesting to interact with.

The majority of work done in an attempt at improving the connection between game and narrative via interaction falls under its own weight; it has all favored simulation over abstraction. Of course though, simulation is far closer to actual human experience and thus is far easier to visualize. What about a game that allowed the player to explore and interact with characters through some sort of abstract mechanics?

To bring this idea into fruition; that is my goal.

(And dialogue wheels/trees are not the form of abstraction I am looking for).

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