Active and Passive Expression

Source: UNKNOWN — found here on IMGUR and Reddit

Here we go with another heady topic so buckle your seatbelts, pull up your socks and remember your SAT/GRE words because here’s another theory… a GAME Theo — yeah… I’ll stop that.

In deciding what to write about this week I remembered a conversation I had with William, a friend, and independent developer. You might know him online as Zap. We were talking about expressiveness in games. What I realized is the games I was focusing on were not of the “Magic Pengel” (Taito) variety. (Magic Pengel: The Quest for Color, is a PlayStation 2 game where you draw monsters that come alive and fight in pokemon-style battles)

The games I was thinking of were titles like Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo), Jet Set Radio Future (Smilebit) and Spiderman on PS4 (Insomniac). If I were to best describe it in as few words as possible, I would say this:

“Games like Magic Pengel are Actively Expressive. Games like Super Mario Odyssey are Passively Expressive.”

What do these modes of expression entail? And what does expression mean in this context? Let’s first tackle expression or expressiveness. Simply put, expression is a matter of conveyance. Conveyance is the ease of presenting ideas. To use an, admittedly dumb, example let’s compare a rock to language (Ok I know… just stick with me here).

A rock is not expressive. It’s a rock. It will just continue being a rock and be a rock until it erodes is broken or the heat death of the universe arrives. Rock = not expressive.

Language, on the other hand, is a system organically created for the sole purpose of expressing ideas. It’s how the thoughts from my brain are able to come out through my fingers, into keys, across the internet to your device and into your brain. On a sliding scale to absolutely unexpressive to absolutely expressive, a rock gets a zero and language gets a perfect 10/10 (9.9/10 if you’re a picky linguist but we’re not going to get into that for this humble article).

So somewhere, games fit in the middle. They are art so they’re pretty high on the expressiveness scale as they convey ideas an concepts to their players. However, when I talk about expressiveness I’m not focused on how well they are expressing the developers’ ideas. I’m talking about how well they express the players’. This… is where things get dicey in game-theory-land. Let’s go back to our more obvious example of an expressive game with “Magic Pengel”.


If you haven’t played this game, I feel bad for you. I loved it as a child but I’m not sure how you could really get your hands on it nowadays as it was a smaller title that was published over 10 years ago. However, even without playing it, we know that it is expressive and actively expressive due to its main mechanic… drawing monsters.

The ability to draw and create in-game creatures that fight and do battle makes it expressive in the way that art is expressive. In the way that making a painting or drawing has the ability to convey ideas, making a monster and doing battle with it also has artistic merit and expressive value.

In the case of the aforementioned games like Odyssey, Jet Set Radio and Spiderman opportunities for players to express themselves aren’t as direct. There are some mechanics that are actively expressive… namely character customization in spiderman and Odyssey, the only thing you can do is change Mario or Spiderman’s outfits. Given the limited options what you can express is equally limited. And the information that can be gleaned from that limited expression is even fuzzier and indirect than if you had the ability to create something artistically from scratch.

If we’re going to speak to the expressive qualities of these “passive” games, we’ll have to compare them to non-traditional arts in the performance space. Dance, martial arts and acrobatics have expressive qualities. However, these kinds of acts are usually presented in their most polished states as non-spontaneous acts. The examples I gave certainly have contexts where they spontaneously happened or happen un-choreographed (Freestyle dance or acrobatics, or a sparring match outside of presentation drills in the case of martial arts). However when they are choreographed or strongly guided we do not consider them any less expressive of a medium. This is because they still require a non-negligible amount of mechanical articulation to pull off. And this articulation can vary even within a limited choreography and this variance of mechanical articulation is what primarily gives these mediums their expressiveness even when choreographed.

Source: Wallpaper Cave — Spiderman PS4

And this is what makes games like Super Mario Odyssey, Jet Set Radio Spiderman, SSX, and (nearly) any Tony Hawk skating game passively expressive. Their mechanical components have been polished to the point that there is significant articulating variance between certain actions. Underneath the choreography of level challenges and “collectathons,” we see a variance in play along that allows the player to express themselves. Not as a painter, composer, or choreographer but similar to a martial artist, acrobat or dancer following a routine.

But what do you think? Am I on to something or is web swinging as Spiderman just not expressive? Feel free to let me know in the comments or on Twitter @ThatOwlGuy