Games as a tool of self-discovery

Thoughts on game design


It starts with the problem and desire. At the heart of the system is the person with their interests, needs and aspirations. You learn, work, play, develop, create and try to find your place in this world, in society. Mankind explores the world and creates tools for survival and development.

At the moment, the overall direction of the relationship between man and organizations that help to get the goods or services is transferred from the principle of “producer-buyer-seller” to the principle of “brand-audience”. It should be noted, that not everyone wants or can really establish a permanent two-way communication with people. There are methods, tools and all the stuff needed, but sometimes it can’t be used properly. Though this principle shouldn’t work in some areas.

The audience is made up of engaged people. Now we’re often motivated by a desire to stand out, to get something unique as convenient as possible. And, of course, the giant leap further and higher is important. The unique experience or “unique” experience?

Games and experience

Now let’s talk about video games. What are the most important directions? We see the rise of VR technology, hardware is constantly improving. In my opinion, a game should remain a game. This is especially important at this stage, when interactive entertainment is emerging as a truly important cultural phenomenon, just like it happened with cinema back in the day. Therefore, videogames must take their place in the world, so as cinema needs to continue to evolve in its unique direction. Mixing them can lead to sad consequences. When we call the game “cinematic”, we underestimate the level of one realm relative to another. Sometimes it’s useful to use the experience of other industries and authors, but not in a straight fashion.

Videogames can provide us with a truly unique experience. For books, music and movies this unique experience is a question of perception or interpretation for each person, when events and situations are the same. But games can generate very different events each time you play, let’s not forget about this.

Linear games (Half Life, Max Payne, Uncharted) take a lot from films and inherently are built on top of the movie experience, become roller-coaster rides. They don’t generate unique events for each player but bet on individual’s perception, flamboyance and interaction with the virtual environment. People are attracted to the interaction with the environment or other players within the virtual world.

Open world games, and “sandboxes” (Grand Theft Auto V, TES Skyrim, Far Cry 4, Minecraft) expand possibilities for interaction with the world and bring some variety. Players can create something different and leave more personal impact on the environment, which in turn responds to the player’s actions. Therefore, these games have become popular and have some of the biggest audiences. It is clear why this type of games prevails today, but not many are really able to meet expectations and more often annoy people, thus reducing the common interest.

So what’s next?

Games should be strengthened at several levels for people — from entertainment to self-knowledge.

Game of the future — a tool of self-discovery

And some of today’s games can operate at these levels, there are great projects, but yet they mostly use a means of cinema, enhancing the effect using interactivity, which is very good for only the initial stage of the industry development. There are already games with a systemic approach to the design, that give players the opportunity to make a choice on certain branches, with multiple endings, sometimes of quite a number of options comparing to linear games. Of course, the idea of a systemic approach is not new. Designers such as Warren Spector (Deus Ex, Thief) or Sid Meier (Civilization) have been trying to do systemic games for a long time.

It’s important not to discard the previous achievements, but develop them. People are working on systems and projects of progressive game design. For example, the system of passions. From replaceable and movable blocks forms a narrative that is almost completely dependent on the decisions of the player. But without a compelling storyline and dramatic events this approach will certainly fail. Players won’t be emotionally engaged. Their interest and inspiration will be lost.

I think we should go further. All events, tasks/ missions/ quests have to be built as a system with replaceable blocks and randomly selected events within a certain total plot using dynamic templates to create interesting situations, but always fully retain the element of surprise.

In the recent shown excerpt from Uncharted 4, what if Nate won’t hold on the rope during the pursuit, but is alive? Can we allow the player to choose their own course of action and catch up with Sam to save him, cope with a difficult situation?

Another rough and emotionally difficult example. Suppose the events unfold in a big city with a totalitarian government, where the main character is wanted by the police and other forces with orders to “find and destroy”. Our goal is to find kidnapped beloved wife. At the very beginning of the game we try to escape from pursuers. During the chase pursuers on the armored car accidentally destroy a small house where the family lives. Parents die, the child survives or, perhaps, only the father remains alive or just the mother of the child, depending on how the collision occurred. There is a pattern here — an armored car should crash into the house, but the rest is calculated dynamically, and the result is saved to memory. Further in the course of the story, we again have to hide from the police. We find ourselves in an abandoned building, under heavy fire. On the ground floor we find the very child whose parents died, he wandered into the house, wanted to spend the night there. We can save him, hide so that bullets won’t get the boy. In other variation only the father survived, so we meet him on the roof of the building, he tries to commit suicide, and we can save him or not, it’s the player who decides. If the woman is the only survived, we’ll meet her in another place, she joins the resistance against the authorities and will take revenge for the death of her family. And we can help her. On the other hand, if we choose a different path during the chase in the beginning, the house would not be demolished, everyone is alive. Or maybe the house would not collapse immediately, then the whole family survives, so later we meet them in the dark lane by the bonfire. Again, we can help them. The firefight in the abandoned building in such a case would occur even without important characters, and end up with destruction of the entire structure, in which case the player will have to quickly get out of there.

Interaction of blocks inside the system

Our main goal in this example — to save a loved one. All the other side quests are not marked on the map, they can occur at times using certain patterns of events, but for each player it happens differently. Random events and side missions are also built from blocks, depending on the outcome of the events in other systems. We can’t predict all the possible options, it all depends on the player’s actions. Accordingly, we cannot make cutscenes, imitating films, but we can preserve the spectacle and emotional involvement, leaving all decisions to the player. The overall storyline with only important characters should be built to keep concentration of events with the ability to explore the world of the game. At the same time, each important character has its own problems, their aspirations and desires.

We can’t predict all the possible options, it all depends on the player’s actions

We can achieve the final goal in number of ways. Yet the character with which we associate ourselves, has the background and knowledge gained before. He knows where we should start searching for his wife, but then everything depends on us. By the end of the story we can find and rescue her. It may turn out that she was kidnapped by the mentally ill son of the governor. How and why he did it becomes clear in the course of the search. Then we can escape from the city with main character’s wife. But we can also raise a revolt in the city, rescue many other abducted women and their children from captivity. You can even take control of the city or give the authority to someone suitable whom we met on the course of the story. All variations are difficult to predict, but a lot can happen, including very sad consequences.

The ending is not selected from several linear options, but instead is based on all previously committed player’s actions. The end of the story is built on the basis of patterns (wife saved, seized power), but depends on a huge number of factors that lead to unique result for each player. Thus, the ending is based on the modifiers — the decisions taken and is made up of blocks. System is scalable, eventually more variations will be added with the increasing possibilities of technologies.

Deus Ex Human Revolution. Eidos Montreal

The multiplayer version of the game with such system will depend on the original idea. If this is a co-op mode, then we have to give players the opportunity to improve their team skills, the story itself should be based on the path of a group of characters, and the generated events must be the same for each player in the group. In deathmatch the system will add depth to the interaction with the environment. And if we want a mix of singleplayer campaign and multiplayer, the system must use combining patterns — one player enters the story of another player, then a small branch forms with results affecting the final of the singleplayer story.

In terms of the cost and the economic feasibility, how can we realize all this variability? How much do you need to spend on all of this?! In fact, the development of a large linear game costs more. It’s even more expensive if there are branches in the narrative with sets of choices. Because everything has to work out in advance, all the objects, all the situations and all communications. Yes, the player is making something for himself or herself, but this is not enough, because the events for every player are the same and created by large teams of developers. With the progressive approach we can lower the cost, at least avoid the constant increase of expenses, because the system itself will generate a large part of events and narrative from pre-made blocks. So it is necessary to create this system and building blocks for it, but then everything else depends on the player.

Conclusion

When creating a game we should strive not only to entertain and put inside our own opinions. Game should be the tool that helps a person to be a co-author of their experience, to develop in the directions that he or she had not seen for themselves before.