Being, not doing.

Michaël Samyn, June 4, 2012

I’m beginning to disagree with something we wrote in the Realtime Art Manifesto in 2006. Namely to “Make the activity that the user spends most time doing the most interesting one in the game”.

Well, I don’t actually disagree with the sentiment, but more with the phrasing, or with my interpretation of it. That phrase was written mostly in response to the mind-numbing repetitive actions many games force you to do, and to the requirement in other games, to walk long distances from one event to another, without anything interesting happening on the way.

The mistake I made was to believe that what you do in a videogame is the most important thing. Possibly influenced by Chris Crawford who seems to believe that the more verbs there are in a game, the better the game is. And despite of the small amount of actions that the player can do in most games (typically to run, to jump, to shoot, and that’s it), the games industry mostly agrees with Crawford on this point: it’s all about what you do, about the action, about inter-activity. They just see no harm in repetition.

We’ve always contrasted “being” with “seeing” in favor of being in a videogame. This in relation to an aesthetic approach that favors a multi-sensory feeling of realism over photo-realistic graphics. But I’m starting to think we should also contrast “being” with “doing”.

I’ll admit slightly embarrassed that this realization really hit me when trying to understand why Journey, Dear Esther and Proteus are more widely critically recognized than our own work, despite of sharing many philosophical points and even being influenced by our work (at least in the case of Journey). When Dan Pinchbeck complained about picking flowers in The Path, my initial response was simply “Well, you’re doing it wrong. You’re one of those typical gamers who ruins the experience for himself.” but then I started thinking “Is there any way I can help such players to do it right?

And the key can be found in Dan’s own piece “Dear Esther“, but also in “Journey” and “Proteus“. There is practically nothing to do in neither of the three (as somebody pointed out recently). Once in a while something happens in the game world but most of the time, you’re just moving around. This activity is so low in intensity that it allows and encourages the player to enjoy the environment. And this is actually how you’re supposed to play our games too. And how I play them. And how I’m sure many people do. But for some stupid reason, we have always put these things to do in our games, even if we don’t particularly care about doing them. I think we were just afraid to leave the player to their own devices.

It started with our very first project “8“. We cared mostly about the world and the characters and the atmosphere. When we realized that the sort of puzzles we came up with were rather trite, we just outsourced the game design and hired Chris Bateman to help us. He came up with a wonderful concept that we would have implemented had we found the funding for the production. But in hindsight, I guess I’m glad we didn’t. The new version of 8 that Auriea is now working on, is actually much better. There’s no puzzles in it at all. And indeed, most of the time, you’re just going places.

Both Journey and Dear Esther have a single goal. Very literally a point that you are walking towards. The path towards this goal is so long, however, that the player stops obsessing over it (which is always the thing that ruins the experience). Once in a while seeing the light in the distance reminds you of some vague reason why you are in this world, and then you stop thinking about it (there’s not much to think about: it’s a mystery). Even the puzzles in Journey, while they do feel a bit out of place, are quickly forgotten through the visual splendor and the narrative progression that they unlock. The emotions brought on by the aesthetic experience wipe away any game-specific emotions the player might have had.

I guess The Graveyard is the only game of ours with a similar structure. In The Path there’s flowers to pick, memories to collect through interactions with objects, and a sort of boss rounds even when encountering wolves. In Fatale, you have to extinguish all these lights. It’s symbolic sure, but it’s also a lot of work for the player.

We have this fascination with objects. We like stuff. We are interested in how people relate to objects, in how dear some objects are to people, in how people attribute meaning to objects. In our most object-centric game, Vanitas, I clearly remember thinking of all sorts of interactions we could do with these objects. Luckily there was no time to implement these, so we just made a box with stuff in it.

In Bientôt l’été, there’s also a bunch of objects. And you collect them. And now I’m thinking that this is wrong. I can feel how it is really demanding for the player to focus on the object itself, or the text, when doing the “collect” activity. Somehow, the action dominates everything else. So you end up collecting, collecting anything, just picking stuff up, without paying much attention to what the objects are, or reading the text, or taking in the atmosphere of the environment. You’re too busy doing. There’s no time for being.

It seems appropriate to collect things along the shore of the sea, much like it seems appropriate for a dead man to extinguish candles on his way to heaven, or a young girl to pick flowers in the woods. But maybe it’s wrong. Maybe such an activity, or activity as such, distracts from really dealing with the situation you’re in, from really taking it all in, and letting your emotional responses bloom. In real life, grown ups don’t collect shells, in favor of enjoying the experience of wind and noise and light and landscape. Even in The Path, I know I should ignore the flowers in order to get the nice experience of feeling lost in the woods.

But for many others, this is not so easy. If it’s a game, we are eager to do things, we want to inter-act. So if as a designer you don’t want players to do these things, don’t include them in your design. We applied this idea in The Endless Forest: if you don’t want people to fight in your mmo, don’t put in combat, if you don’t want verbal abuse, don’t put in chat (or even readable names), if you don’t want competition, don’t put in puzzles. But somewhere along the line we must have felt that certain activities are perhaps ok. That perhaps it was necessary for people to do things. Or they would be bored.

But doing things can be as boring is not doing anything. It all depends on the context. It’s the nouns and the adjectives that make the difference, not the verbs. It’s not about doing, it’s about being. So now I need to find it in my heart to remove the collecting feature from Bienôt l’été. I’ve felt that it was wrong for some time now. And I have been tweaking it to make it feel better. But now I realize that it is the very fact that you’re doing something, or at least doing so much of something, that is wrong. I need to create more time for doing nothing. And not be afraid that players might be bored.

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