The Theory and Philosophy of Game Design

What, fundamentally, is the defining factor of human existence? What is it that makes us fundamentally unique? Well excluding the philosophical and ideological bag of worms that is religion and the various interpretations of the spiritual and the soul, we must turn our attention to the notion of language.

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Language, above all other things, defines the notion of us to us. Language is the thing that pulls away the fog of animal behavior and gives clarity and sentience. We take the real world around us, something unknowable and groundless to our interior consciousness and bring it into the fold via systems of metaphorization and symbols. This is the fundamental notion behind a form of linguistic science called semiotics. Our consciousness is built around mimetic symbol creation. Words, images that help us define a concept are signs and symbols that reference and contextualize an indefinable constant separated from us in the real world. Language, the ordered use of these symbols to create logic, understanding and interpretation, acts as the bridge between the unknowable exterior world and our inner consciousness. We understand the concept of time because time is a lingual expression of a conceptual constant. We understand the delineation between you, I, and us because we define the notions of personal and group identity as separate, discreet things. Without language, without the inherent notion of definition that identifies, the concept is beyond comprehension or rational thought. It is literally blank space in our minds. Language is fundamentally essential.

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But now, to explain how this whole definition of the importance of language works, contextualizes and defines within the context of games, we need to step back and look at the paragraph above from an hermeneutic (the science of interpretation) point of view. What you read above is a philosophical text on the importance of language. But what is philosophy? Philosophy, for the purpose of this argument, is a conceptual interpretation of the universe, our world and our place within it. While disconnected from politics or religion, philosophy has the same root etymology as them. They are all, fundamentally, ideological constructs. They are systems of belief we use broadly to interpret our surroundings. Philosophy, is a system of faith. We must deny personal opinions in order to apply philosophy to our lives, less we create paradox or schism between the beliefs and the actions of the individual. For the purpose of this essay, we need to take the concept above and translate it from philosophy to theory. Theory is, while rooted in philosophy, a completely different animal from it. Theory is not acceptance of concept without question, a suspension of disbelief if you will. It is instead a purification of concepts and ideas within philosophy by excising the ideological roots. It dereifies and secularizes the text. But why? Well it’s about specificity. The purpose of theory is to take these concepts attributed to philosophy and use it to deconstruct and examine texts, movies, games and so on from different angles so that something important may be revealed about it. For a rather extreme example of the adaptation of philosophy to theory, let’s look at Marxism. What happens when we take the philosophy and politics of the proletariat and anti-capitalism and whatnot, amputate its limiting ideological viewpoint and apply its basic ideas to game design? Well something interesting becomes apparent in how you see the interaction between players and game mechanics. How the players must function within limited and constricted systems of control set out by the developers and how this constriction of gameplay freedom limits both sides; the player from an interactive point of view and the developer from a creative and conceptual point of view. Now as Theory, Marxism makes no effort to inspire and compel people to rebel against these game structures. But the simple application of it as theory to how we play games makes a present, but not necessarily noticed or commented on, facet of game design and the players’ and developers’ places within it clearly visible for us to see.

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But how do we take this philosophy of language and transmute it into theory for us to apply to game design? Well we need to take this understanding of language and expand our understanding of what language is? Language is not only the words that come out of our mouths. It is any form of expression that allows us to define or understand the world on our own terms. There is a reason why people call it body language, you know. But that’s merely the first step. We need to go deeper, in a sense. Game mechanics are a form of language that we use to express ourselves and our identities within the game space provided by the developers.

This language of games is inherently a mimetic reduction of our real world ability to interact with it. Meaning, what we can do in game is a drastic simplification and reflection of our real world ability to express ourselves. Look at the keyboard you use to control a game. W, A, S, D, I for inventory, space for jump, ctrl for crouch. It is an incredible amount of reduction we see going on. It takes our interpretation of action and bodily movement and applies them to keys. These keys, these letters cease to be mere letters, representational symbols used to construct more complex language and instead becomes hieroglyphics, cuneiform, symbols in which entire sentences, speeches, systems of language are expressed in its entirety. Even the notion of dialogue trees are a simplification of our own language, limiting our personal freedom of expression and turning it into a discreet system of actionable nodes. Why becomes a simple yes or no. Preference or opinion becomes basic good and evil.

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But why can we engross ourselves in simplistic language systems of buttons, while we rail and fight against systems that seem to expand the language of control and interaction with stuff like Motion control and gesture recognition systems such as the wiimote and the Kinect. Well, because the language of control has not been expanded, it has merely been overlaid on top of our real world language systems. Word commands, motion and gesture control, are still a limited and reduced form of our systems of expression. But since we are using complex systems to control simplistic ones, the disconnect is more apparent than with a basic controller or keyboard and disconnect between player and game becomes more apparent.

But how? How is a controller more effective than these simple system overlays? Because, the abstraction of control leads to greater suspension of sensory disbelief and thus, paradoxically, greater connection between player and game. I have no idea how this works, or why, but I know that it is a concrete fact. It’s why we feel that a car is part of us when really we are controlling it with a wheel, 2-3 pedals, and a gearshift stick. So as far as I know, it is simply because it is.

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But is a fascinating and incredible process of linguistic translation if you look at it closely. The translation of our personal identity to game space is quite profound. The linguistic contextualization of the self, expressed through physical and linguistic terms, which applies itself to hieroglyphic systems of control (button presses) which in turn then translates into larger expression, the mimetic replication of actionable expression within the game space. We have literally gone from the subtle and fine tuned to the blunt and basic within a few short steps.

But how does this help us see or interpret games in a new light? Well it just shows us how simple and constricting our current methods of game mechanics are. It is, almost literally, like translating a complex text or novel into a new language that consists only of vowels and the occasional hand waving, or rather attempting to recite Shakespeare in a method that could be understood by a caveman. Because game space is still currently a linguistic down step from complex to the brutally simple, it gives us room to conceptualize and theorize new ways of looking at game space and how to expand and introduce complexity to its various systems of interaction and control.

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So if we expand this language of control we get different gradations of freedom. We have linear, guided artificial constructions of games such as Gears of War, Max Payne and Uncharted, to the wider range of player interaction and freedom but within a tight linear construction found in games such as Halo, Dead Space and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath. From the pockets of player interactive freedom along a linear path of games such as Dishonored, Hitman and Deus Ex, to the focused immersive simulation of games such as STALKER, System Shock, Wing Commander, FreeSpace and the upcoming Star Citizen (and to a lesser extent, Shenmue and Yakuza). And then we have open world games with varying levels of gameplay freedom such as GTA, Just Cause, Fallout and Skyrim.

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But in the end we still have a constricted and limited language of control. The open world games are limited in their ability to function within it. There is a single design core which gamers cannot explore outside of even with openness of environment. The linear games are so constricted in their mechanics that they are functionally useless outside of being shallow (this does not mean stupid, merely its content is completely surface and few deeper mechanics can exist within, just to clarify) entertainment. The open minis sandboxes of Dishonored and Hitman are still guided and controlled experiences, a limitation of language. What we can learn from these games is how to introduce players who are used to linear constricted systems of control to more open mechanic systems without overwhelming them or causing a form of uncanny valley where they realize the disconnect between them and the character they control.

Even the immersive simulations, games such as STALKER, are beautiful failures in a sense. Not only do their transcription of language systems (control schemes, sorry for the obtuse language) end up being so complex and unintuitive that it scares away potential players, but they attempt and fail to accomplish what they set out to do. The immersive simulation is an attempt to expand the language of gameplay control and mechanics, but this expansion is meaningless if the gameplay content is constricted and limited. It may be an expansion of complication of language, but it still a restriction of its use. What is the point of using language to express yourself deeply and eloquently but you could only do so within a limited subject matter, such as talking about cheese. You can say brilliant and amazing things, but in the end you’re still just talking about cheese.

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So what’s the next step beyond the immersive sim? Well, there is one answer. Total mimetic recreation of systems of expression, language and experience. I call this, in reference to its predecessor, the total simulation. Not merely a functional recreation of a space and a purpose within it, but the total and complete mimetic recreation of existence and its experiences within a fictional context. Imagine the total recreation of a science fiction universe. What if all the thrilling, dark placed and adventures you could go on were merely an option you could choose to follow. What if you wanted to be a simple trader, or pilot, or pirate or soldier, not the trope of the ‘great hero and savior,’ (though this path is optional) so many games employ to engage you. And what if you’re lack of interest in these roles were not a total and discreet abandonment in the game universe? What if other characters wanted to be pilots and adventurers alongside your different life path? And not only that what if survival were important. You had to eat, drink fight to stay alive because your death is permanent but not forgotten. People tend to call this a roguelike game, but in reality it is a realistic game. What about the maintaining of your bloodline? Who do you connect and pass on your lineage to? Because when you die, you die. And you don’t simply reload the last checkpoint. And what if your interactions had lasting effects on the universe on social behavior of communities? If you raid a colony, will they move, hide or defend themselves when you come back? In this case, the universe really is your oyster.

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But this isn’t possible is it? The complexity involved in its creation and interaction is far too much for our current level of computing to contend with. Well yes, but not for long. Remember that every day our potential computing power constantly increases. What is and isn’t possible is not a matter of if but when. And for our systems of control and expression and its relation to the freedom of gameplay mechanics? Well… I don’t know actually? While reductionist control overlays such as motion control exist they are still problematic and too basic for us to use without sensory rejection. So are we still limited to our button presses and mouse movements? Maybe. Maybe, someday someone will creative total consciousness immersion technology, or VR controls where our methods of self-expression are directly translated into the game. Maybe the holodeck concept. Where our reality is subverted and replaced with that of the total simulation. I can’t say for certain, but I do know that sooner or later there will be an answer. But until then games will continue to be things that can act within a limited set of possibilities and affects. They will remain, above all else, just toys.

So. What do you guys think about how our methods of control and mechanics limit our ability to truly express ourselves within games?