Monday, November 21, 2011

This is Not the Post You're Looking For

“It’s like you know you’re in the Matrix and you’re enjoying it.” – Adam Harshberger

What should games aim to be? This is a huge question. It’s the question that looms large in some designer’s minds, driving them towards the completion of an idea or the eventual creation of a new one. It’s also a question that your average player never asks explicitly, but always implicitly. It is also the question which, when answered, determines the quality of the particular game being played.

This is the difficulty with this question. It’s one of those “unanswerable” questions. Unanswerable largely because its true answer would have to be definitive, thus narrowing the scope of the subject (that is, games) to a particular aim, but also unanswerable due to the fact that the subject (that is, games) is not a static thing, but rather a subjective and somewhat metaphysical one. It is one of those questions that gets answered again and again over time, and each time more differently.

The most recent asking of this question may be embodied by Craig Lager’s mullings over the interplay (and non-play) between Game Logic vs. Choice & Consequence. In it, he posits a number of arguments based on particular games that he’s played; a noble start. These examples build a reasonable foundation for the discussion he eventually springboards into, but I feel that it strikes a point that, while being dead-on in some other land, is quite a ways out of the realm of the question he asked.

He concludes that games should aim to be “wonderfully reactive environments and AI, and stories with more greyscale and branching” and decides that “It’s important to empower us, as players, to do whatever we want in games and, essentially, to make the choices and options worthwhile by having the game react in the most interesting ways it can.” If I may paraphrase: He wants games to be more like Real Life.

But is this what games should aim to be? Should games be like Real Life? This is the actual question. Whenever we are roused to answer this question of “What should games aim to be?” we are never actually met with an answer. More often we’re met with a presupposition: "Games should aim to be like Real Life." Of course, when such a presupposition is so thoroughly and artfully placed under the mat of an impressively worded argument, we find ourselves thinking “what should games aim to be? Like Real Life” when in fact what we have just read is “Should games be like Real Life? Yes.”

Now, I’m not criticizing Craig Lager’s position or his writing, both which are above reproach. He provides real and serious examples of games that do and don’t fit his descriptions of Game Logic overriding Choice and Consequence and even goes as far as providing his readers with a defense for those games which can’t seem to find a decent compromise. What I am saying is that “This isn’t the answer you’re looking for.”
Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of spending a sizable amount of time with the Pixels or Death crew, writing about games, talking about games, and of course, playing games. Through the course of this time I’ve had the axiomatic pleasure of hearing their opinions, insights, and perspectives on each of these activities. And they are so, so different from mine. And that has been a source of some of the greatest pleasures and insights I’ve had regarding games.

In a recent discussion of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 3: Drake’s Fortune (spawned by a now infamous review of the game), friend and fellow writer Sean McGeady said something frighteningly true (following a rather self-gratifying string of sentiments from yours truly):

               “Gentlemen, None of this matters. None of this matters at all. These smoke and these mirrors…there’s so much smoke I can’t see and there’s so many mirrors of my reflection…there’s so many of me but none of it matters. Because when you’re in it, and when there’s smoke around you and you’re fumbling and cracking your head open on mirrored glass, you’re having so much fun anyway.”

You’re having so much fun, anyway.

Now, back to the question. "What should games aim to be?" To be honest, I don’t really know. What I do know though is that most answers to this question will boil down to matters of taste, and as such those answers should be taken with a grain of salt. What I also know is that the best qualified respondees to this question are those who’ve taken the time and thought to make games, because in every case, and for any question, the answer always lies in a compromise of the actual, the real, and the particulars that already exist. After all, it is those designers, those creators, who wrestle first with the big question, divide it up into its parts, and attempt to answer them, bit by bit.

What should games aim to be? That which their creator intended them to be. This is the only answer we can give to a question like this. We may want to tell them “please make us a game that is like real life” or “please make us a game that is not really like life at all, but more like a game where I am a God and my friends are but peasants,” or even “please make us a game unlike any other game I have ever played.”  But these are just statements, not answers. And these are statements that the creators themselves use to fuel their creations, which in turn are their answers to the question.

What should games aim to be? This question is still unanswerable. But perhaps the closest thing I can think of that honestly reflects my belief are these two words.

What should games aim to be? Invariably Human.