Simulation and gameplay

As the graphics of computer games continue to improve, my desire to explore their strange new worlds increases. Sadly, however, contemporary gameplay design often does not allow us to actually enjoy the simulations that the developers so painstakingly build.

Games have become ever more realistic, ever better at simulating living breathing worlds. They look and feel and sound convincing. The only aspect that is lagging behind is interaction. Game interactions feel rigid and artificial compared to the environments they happen in. Which is a pity since it seems like it would be an easy problem to fix. It can be as simple as not demanding too much effort or skill from a player, as Endless Ocean shows. Or just allowing players to walk around without doing any missions and making that interesting, as happens in Grand Theft Auto.

In many contemporary computer games, however, game structures are starting to clash with the graphics and the sounds and even the A.I. and other simulation aspects. Soon gameplay itself will be the cause of the dreaded uncanny valley: the thing that makes you stop suspending your disbelief, the thing that makes you stop playing.

Hardcore reviews of softcore games

I enjoy playing Endless Ocean. Not as much as reading a good novel or attending a nice opera. But more than any game that has been published in the last few years. I realize that this tells me more about the quality of those other games than it does of that of Endless Ocean.

Eurogamer’s review of Endless Ocean once again shows how inadequate games journalists are in reviewing games that are different. Within the context of a hardcore games publication, it probably makes sense to almost exclusively talk about the gameplay. And I think that anybody who judges Endless Ocean on its gameplay would arrive at the same low score (6). But is gameplay really the only thing that matters in a contemporary game? Have we come this far, developed all this technology, spent all these millions, just for some mechanic?

Perhaps Eurogamer’s audience consists exclusively of hardcore gamers. And Eurogamer may feel an obligation to view everything through the eyes of a hardcore gamer. Even if the majority of people who end up buying and playing the games they review do not fit in this category. But this is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you only talk about games from a hardcore perspective, other players will simply not be interested in what you’re saying. Or they would have to be as cynical as yours truly and scan for the word “boring” as an indication of a game that they might like.

Endless Ocean

Meanwhile the majority of gamers have no place to go. Mainstream magazines don’t have the space. And specialist magazines cater to the small hard core exclusively. With the ever-expanding reach of the games medium, the need for a non-hardcore games press becomes more and more urgent. The audience is ready. The publishers are ready. The developers are ready. But the press is lagging behind. This is holding back the industry because we all still care about what the press says. Even if we think that they only half-know what they are talking about. And even if we know that game reviews and game sales are two entirely different things. We still care. For one thing, press has an enormous effect on a publisher’s greenlighting process.

It’s amusing to hear Eurogamer express the exact same sentiment about Endless Ocean as I have felt when playing Bioshock or Portal or Zelda or Mario or World of Warcraft:

After sitting for minutes at a time, gently shaking the Wii remote to and fro over a digital rendition of a Red Gurnard or Bigeye Trevally, you do have to ask what you are doing with your life. As a hobby, brass-rubbing makes more sense.

Brass-rubbing. Or pretending to run around as a space marine in a science station on an alien planet? Or hitting endless series of excessively large insects on the head so that a number in the corner of your screen would increase? Or making a little dwarf jump from one platform to another so that he can jump on another and sometimes on another character’s head?

When a game makes you feel that you are wasting your time, is when you stop playing. But the point where this happens, is very different for different people.

It seems to me that hardcore gamers are well aware of the futility of the games that they play. But they want the game’s design to continuously distract them from this fact. It is the purest form of escapism: a game that absorbs you completely and doesn’t allow your brain any time to reflect on what you’re doing. Eurogamer literally complains about the fact that the designers of Endless Ocean are too gentle in this respect.

But what if you like being treated gently? What if you don’t hate your life and you don’t want to be knocked unconscious by your entertainment? What if you just want to relax in front of the television set, doing not much of anything, spending some time with your family, experiencing a story or looking at pretty moving pictures?

Eurogamer talks about a games’ pull, about it being compelling, about goals and gathering and collecting, incentives and rewards, and mini-games. But is this really why people play Endless Ocean? Why they like playing it? Reviews of games like this need to go a bit deeper. Or somewhere else. Just saying that the hardcore gamer will not like Endless Ocean -which is essentially what the Eurogamer review does- is not very informative or helpful.

And it’s not like they don’t realize this:

It’s an honest relief to play something that doesn’t shout in your ear, set any time limits, or feature a single explosion; a game whose raison d’ĂȘtre is just beauty and peace. Playing this game is almost like taking a holiday from gaming.

It’s that they don’t appreciate it. And apparently don’t care that other people do.

Interview on Gamasutra

There’s an interview with us about The Path on Gamasutra.

The Path grew from wanting to tell stories about ephemeral things, like footsteps on dry leaves on a moonless night, being in the dark and wondering what you are afraid of, is there anything to be afraid of? What scares you most is in your own mind. I was most interested in that aspect.

Telling stories about growing from a girl to a woman and different ways of dealing with men and dealing with darkness outside, darkness inside.

Read the whole thing here.

The meanings of games

It is possible to imagine the history of computer games as follows.

Many games have been well respected throughout the ages.

Games have been around for as long as humans have been. And while they have probably always had some educational function, humans mostly played games because they were fun. Games have a connotation of frivolity and even triviality. Nevertheless, the elegance of their abstract systems has been admired by many throughout the ages.

The first computer games were built by scientists.
Has anything changed since then?

When computers made their appearance, they were big, bulky and very serious machines who could do superhuman work. For some of the more ludic minds that built them, this seriousness must have been too hard to resist as a challenge. So they made a game for this machine. The irony of using such an expensive and serious device to play a trivial game must have been hilarious at the time.

Donkey Kong
Who really cared about the princess?

As it turned out very quickly however, and especially when computers became smaller and cheaper, the contradiction was only superficial. In fact, the logic by which the computer did its work and the structure of the rulesets of games were eerily similar. At some point, it may have seemed as if computers were invented for creating and playing games. Game rules and programming languages form a happy marriage.

Ultima IV
The complex structure of games can generate a kind of immersion,
not unlike the one offered by fiction novels.

When computers became more sophisticated, computer games followed suit. Spreadsheets, databases, complex algorithms all became part of game design. To the further glory of the elegance of abstract systems.

What the game looked like didn’t matter much. As long as we could make out the black pawns from the white ones, we could interact with the machine. Playing a game was about this interaction, about becoming part of the structure of the game, of the abstraction. With exhilarating effect.

Prince of Persia
As the characters and situations presented in games become more
believable, our emotional involvement with them increases.

As computers developed better and better ways to present images and sounds with ever more detail, game designers obviously implemented them in their games. There is no harm in replacing the green pixel with a cartoon character and the beeps with actual music. As technology kept evolving and computers got faster, the graphics and sounds used for the representation of games became ever more sophisticated.

The combination of rules-driven interaction and realistic graphics,
may seem a tad ridiculous to the outsider.

The quality of computer game graphics and sound will soon be on par with painting, photography and film.

The people who were playing the old pixelly games of the past are now playing games with fancy graphics and elaborate musical scores. It doesn’t bother them. They can still get their kick out of the abstract systems. Those have not changed much.

Tomb Raider
Sometimes, the narrative elements of a game start leading a life of their own.

But the “eye candy” also attracted another audience. People who couldn’t care less about green pixels and computer bleeps in the past now swarm towards games like bees to honey. Do they enjoy interacting with the sophisticated rulesets of games? Probably. But I doubt if they deeply understand the mathematical elegance of becoming one with the abstract system. Instead, they enjoy how a character talks, they enjoy walking through a beautiful landscape. They enjoy the stories and the music. For them, the choice is not between a board game and a computer game. The choice is between a movie and a computer game, or a book and a computer game.

Game designers should probably not write stories.

And this is where things fall apart. And where the conflict between gamers and the rest of the world comes from. The stories and characters and themes that attract those swarms of bees are largely still the product of the same kinds of minds that build the abstract rulesets and mathematical constructions. The problem is that these people, unlike most of the avatars they create, are not superhuman. While their algorithms may be of an unparalleled refined elegance, their stories and their pictures and theirs sounds are lacking. Not in terms of quality (they either hire talent or build better machines for that) but in terms of content.

Nuclear explosion
Beauty in the eye of the beholder.

When you ignore the sophistication of the rulesets, most games are about nothing at best, and about really attrocious things at worst. Not because all engineers are nazis or sexists. No, because they are scientists. Scientists are objective. They make no moral judgements. They just want to make things work. Disregarding the consequences. Their sense of aesthetics is extremely formal. They don’t judge. They don’t express opinions. And that makes them bad artists. They have no story to tell. And if they had, they wouldn’t know how. Their creativity lies elsewhere.

The Night Journey
What will happen when artists start creating games?

When more and more people start playing games for very different reasons than the original gamers, it is only logical that the teams who create those games start changing as well. I’m very curious to see what kinds of games will come out of that. Games that are not designed by engineers but by artists, games where the graphics, sound and meaning are the basis of the design and not just the pretty packaging of an abstract system.

People love playing games.

This is not just economically sane or simply logical. It is an ethical necessity. When most people play games for their content and not for their mechanics, it is of vital importance that this content is carefully considered. We cannot simply assume that the player will understand that the muscular hero and the armored vehicles and the neverending bloodshed is just a metaphor for an intricately elegant system underneath. We need to realize that the audience interprets these things as stories, and not just as dressing.

When numbers mix with people, terrible things can happen.

The games that are being produced today have an intense expressive power. But nobody seems to be controlling what these games are saying. The stories and characters flow out of the game design naturally. But that game design is riddled with morally problematic concepts. Mathematics is not ethical. It doesn’t need to be. But we know very well what happens when humans start thinking in abstract systems and lose sight of the practical realities of life…

Games are fine. There is no need to dress them up.

When game logic is presented as a story, we get racism, sexism, violence, determinism, power struggle, etc. Horrible horrible stories. Very limited stories. With game technology’s increasing sophistication in representation comes a moral obligation to design games around stories, and not the other way around. Because people experience them as stories, and not as abstract systems. This heavy responsibility rests on the shoulders of game developers.

There is hope

Quote from a Letter To The Editor of Gamasutra on GameSetWatch:

I am so impressed by the excellence of your website and your enormous technical and creative skills, but am shocked by the underlying assumptions of your games. They revolve around win/lose, zero sum, might makes right thinking, and a tooth and claw view of nature, while there’s a whole new effort out there to raise consciousness on new paradigms for conceptualizing life.
I encourage you to use your considerable talents to change and evolve people’s views, to create games which engage people’s moral awareness, and connect with our highest aspirations, rather than repeat the ordinary win/lose thinking and pessimistic assumptions which can be seen everywhere.

Hope Benne, Professor of History at Salem State College.

While the author seems to be keen on replacing one fanatical doctrine with another, I do think she has a point. It is time that we start paying attention to the content of our games. Contemporary games have become so much more than just games. And we shouldn’t be surprised that non-gamers don’t even see or appreciate the game aspect of their design. They see stories and themes and ideas. It’s about time that we, designers, do so as well.

There will always be a place for games. And the odd Tamagotchi will probably affect society at large. But when it comes to learning about life and enjoying its depth and complexity, we need something else.


Manetgna: Three Magi
“The Adoration of the Magi” by Andrea Mantegna

Drie koningen found on Flickr
Photograph by Sint-Katelijne-Waver, found on Flickr.

Happy to see some children are still enjoying the celebration of the Three Kings. It’s a tradition that is slowly being replaced here by the better marketed Halloween. I used to do it as a kid: on January 6th, three friends would dress up as the wise men, we’d make a turning star on a stick and go from door to door, singing a song. People would give us money or candy. There’s also a special pie with a bean in it. And the kid who gets the piece with the bean, gets to be the black king. We’d hold a wine cork in a flame and rub it on his or her face, making it black.

The Kiss available for download

The Kiss: Incorporator

We have made the remake of our 2001 project “The Kiss: Incorporator” available for download. This version was made for an exhibition in the Flemish Parliament, curated by Muhka’s Edwin Carels.

“The Kiss: Incorporator” is made with a 3D scan of our naked bodies, kissing. The errors produced by the scanning technology expecting to find a single body, form an essential part of the piece. The result is a single mesh of two painfully stitched together naked human bodies, welded together in an eternal, devouring kiss. “The Kiss-Incorporator” allows you to navigate the cavernous “ocean of blood” inside of this mesh, through a threedimensial soundscape of industrial and natural sound loops and towards the single eternally beating machine-heart, shared by both bodies.

This project was conceived before we had even thought about making games. It was very much a part of our romantic episode with Entropy8Zuper! The body scans that were the basis for the mesh in the piece, were part of a session we did for another piece, entitled Eden.Garden, which was commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and is now gathering dust on their server. It featured Auriea and I in the roles of Eve and Adam, hence the attire, or lack thereof.

Get The Kiss here!