Friday, July 07, 2006

Existential Disclaimers

A lot of the confusion about what games are/could be/should be comes from treating games as their plots or backstory. This turns them into texts, which means the world and his wife can swarm over them with their cool, cruel text-deconstructin' irons. This, in my book, tends to be theory about theory. In his actual and excellent book A Theory Of Fun, Raph Koster pointed out that games just aren't their plots. The brouhaha about killing pedestrians in Carmaggedon was lost on the kids playing it, who realised it was actually Pacman, not a homicidal highway hecatomb - the game was the gameplay, not the backstory.

I posted on Clive Thompson's Collision Detection in response to his article on True Crime: New York City. Oh lord, here I am, quoting myself. Does that qualify me as a sock puppet? Can I attempt astroturfing now?

I have a quibble with how much we can read into such games - not so much what the paying (hopefully) punters will make of them, that's their affair and rationalising every potential player response is like Casaubon's Key To All Mythologies - endless as a scheme for joining the stars. I'm more concerned with how the developers are arriving at these particular gameplay settings and solutions. Developers are asking themselves purely practical questions: What's going to work? Which Existential Disclaimer Narrative is going to let us put the player in gameplay-worthy situations? What current genres can we dresss the gameplay up as?

I don't dispute that games are some sort of barometer for social themes, memes, trends, what have you, but I'm dubious that they directly reflect anything other than developer/publisher pragmatism. Simply put, it's easier for developers to furnish the player with a convincing homicidal monster than a plausible girlfriend.

Quotable Superstars like Molyneux and Miyamoto aside, developers and publishers just have to get the damn things made, on time, on budget. I'd suggest that the dictates of production incline gameplay towards a simplistic worldview. Being risk-averse doesn't necessarily reflect social conservatism. It's just so much easier to submerge the player and (more importantly) the hidden menu system of the gamplay in the simplistic moral world of the lone avenger than one where the protagonist has to negotiate, socialise, weigh motivations, navigate ambiguity or ambivalence. Menus can't stand ambivalence - they require valence, great big discrete binary blobs of it
Not entirely sure what I was trying to corral together here, but I'm sure there'll be more of it.

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