The Philosophical Basis of Exploration Cues in Game Design

Republished from The GameSaver, whose purpose it is to use objective philosophical analysis to save the video game industry from imploding.

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…it’s your game. You decide how you want to play, I mean, we’re not the ones who are going to tell you how to play...” – Mathieu Ferland, senior producer at Ubisoft Montreal, describing the design philosophy of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.

Obviously you can’t instruct people on how to enjoy art.” – Lisa Foiles, video game commentator (and former “All That” star) stating what she believes to be a truism relevant to a gamer’s choosing how (and whether) to explore a game world.

Together, these two quotations represent a malignant viewpoint stretching from video game designer to video game player. The second quote comes from one of Kotaku’s (few) intellectual features now roughly a year old. It is the perfect encapsulation of the average person’s view of art. Because this view is so widespread, what I am about to say is tragically controversial: there is an objectively correct way to read books, watch movies, view paintings, and play games.

It is the artists themselves who are responsible for this confusion. Right now games schizophrenically tear themselves apart, desiring to be both primarily games and primarily art, though no such thing is possible. This is evident even in the naming of the medium. They are called “games,” but games are meant to be played, not experienced as art (for intelligibility’s sake, I will generally use the terms “game” and “player,” though these are technically inaccurate when describing someone interacting with a “game” qua art). 

As I have noted before, art is “either-or,” not “both-and.” An artwork must orient all of its constituent parts toward one goal: the physical expression of a metaphysical abstraction. This is easier to understand than it sounds. It simply means that everything that goes into a piece of art must be evaluated only as a means of conveying how the artist views the world and man. 

If an artist allows other considerations above an aspect’s utility in artistic expression, even if only once, he utterly destroys the cohesion of his work. It ceases to be art because it has surrendered being art firstUncharted 2 exemplifies this. One can play it as a game, spending his time looking compulsively in every area for extra treasure, or one can interact with it as art, going from place to place, advancing the action in an integrated way. 

One cannot do both. If the player scours obsessively for secrets and treasures, he completely breaks the pacing of the game, greatly diminishing its impact, and if he plays for the story, for the artistic, narrative aspect of the game, few things can ruin his experience as immensely as flawed pacing. 

Why this is so requires an epistemological explanation. Epistemology simply means “the theory of knowledge,” or, “how you know that you know.” The Objectivist view, to which I subscribe, is that the only things that qualify as knowledge are direct perception (“seeing is believing”*) and non-contradictory conception based on direct perception (rational thought). 

Anticipating the player’s direct perception (what he is seeing) and logical conception (what he is thinking, assuming he is rational) is crucial in game design. The implementation of pacing, while not strictly perceptual level, deals with a lower level of conception closer to direct perception than does the player’s experience of the total artwork. In other words, there is less integration of sense-percepts (what the player has seen) and concepts (what the player has thought) involved in recognizing stimuli than there is in what that stimuli made possible: the player’s thinking about the narrative as an integrated whole due to his experiencing it as connected thanks to his timely progression. 

In order to properly experience a game as art, the player must observe all of the events of the narrative while he can still easily recall them, which allows him to make the connections between them that give an artwork its intellectually satisfying nature. To be able to do this, the player must complete a game within a certain (and unspecifiable) time-window. This is because all minds, as well as all things, are finite, and so the player’s capacity to remember is finite also. 

A quick validation of this claim is as follows: first, take the law of identity (A=A) as our premise. The law of identity says that a thing is what it is. This means that any existent (i.e., thing that exists) is a specific existent: itself. Since infinity designates no specific quantity, then, it can designate no actual existent, and can only be used validly as a theoretical concept in mathematics. 

Now, since the human consciousness is an actual, and self-evident, existent, it must also be finite, including in its capacity. As a result, humans can only keep so many things in their minds at once, and because of this we use noises called “words” to designate the essential characteristics (read: most important attributes) of certain entities (read: existents, including all of their attributes). This allows us to keep an immense context in our minds via simplification (which does not imply distortion or obfuscation), by which I mean that when one hears, for instance, the declaration “the tree fell on the man,” one has an immediate grasp of what is being said, even though describing all of the attributes of the objects “tree” and “man,” and of the action “fell,” would take a lifetime. 

Such are the benefits of definitions by essentials, and essentials (or essences) are the most fundamental attributes of an entity, and by most fundamental I mean most responsible for all other attributes of an entity. Thus Aristotle’s famous definition of man as “rational animal.” Those two words alone give anyone just enough information to be able to distinguish what a person is referencing (a human), from all other types of entities currently known to man. There is no other thing known that is both an animal and rational, hence no more need, or should, be said (remember that a word is a tool for condensing, so anything superfluous in its definition is harmful). 

The preceding two paragraphs represent a whirlwind overview of Ayn Rand’s theory of concepts, but they explain in essential terms why and how the proper enjoyment of art rests on the nature of the human mode of cognition and necessitates a ruthlessly precise structure in both matter and form, content and speed, plot and pacing. 

Pacing is important in all art, and depends upon the human mode of acquiring knowledge. In movies and plays, pacing is done automatically for the viewer. In books and games, it is not. In these two media, where the one experiencing the art exerts ultimate control, it is the task of the artist to use appropriate language or visuals to communicate his intention to the reader or gamer, respectively. In novels, this takes the form of flowing, fast-paced, or choppy syntax. In video games, it takes the form of obstacles, inviting pathways, contextual incentives and disincentives for exploration, or, if necessary, and only if necessary, overt directions. 

If a game is designed with exploration in mind, then searching will not break the game, or rather, the story of the game, but if a game is not, as most are not, then its orientations will contradict, and are in fact irreconcilable. The conflict of being encouraged simultaneously to explore and to advance the story, when these are divergent paths, creates, and is the result of, the mindset that art is subjective, and while the choice to play a title either as a game or as art is subjective, the fact that trying to do one precludes the other is not. When I play a game, I try to do everything, to the point where it makes me sick. But whereas in a game like Demon’s Souls this will not ruin the story, in a game like Uncharted it will.

A similar problem subsumed under the “must see everything” mentality is the one of taking the player out of the experience. Checking every invisible wall in Final Fantasy XIII and testing every closed door in Mass Effect are tantamount to constantly directing one’s eyes to the left and right edges of a widescreen movie to see all of the extra picture one is getting. Sure, the viewer sees more, but he is constantly taking himself out of focus, out of the requisite immersion that it takes to appreciate art. 

Part of the task of the game designer is to implement subtle cues that tip off the player’s subconscious to the fact that going a certain way is a dead end, while doing his best not to let the game’s environment bring that knowledge to the foreground of the player’s awareness. Hiding treasures and secrets is a great idea, for a game. For art, hidden treasures do the exact opposite of what good level and environmental design does; they alert the player to the boundaries, to his limits, all artificial and contrived, when video games qua stories are about feeling like one is playing volitionally in a realm in which every detail has been crafted to suggest possibilities. 

The purpose of the player’s surroundings is to make him feel as if he could do anything, but that he wants to do what the game prescribes. The atmosphere of a game is about making one feel like he naturally chose to do what the game would have made him do anyway. Good design never gives him a reason to test the boundaries. The good game is the one in which the player never realized any invisible walls existed at all. 

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*This colloquialism is accurate so long as one remembers that he “believes” (i.e., has knowledge of) only exactly what he sees, not what he thinks he sees, as in illusions. Additionally, “sees” in this context designates the activity of all five senses, not merely sight. 

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Posted on May 26, 2011, in Blog, Feature, Opinion and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I agree that there is an objectively correct way to play games, or watch films. By definition art requires decoding. Certainly this is dependent upon what the gamer wishes to ‘get out of’ the game.

    One reason I always enjoyed the Tomb Raider games as much as I did was that the game encouraged exploration. In order to progress it was necessary to scour every inch of the location, as any right-thinking archaeologist/grave-robber would have to do themselves. In this way the game pulled off the trick of advancing the story whilst keeping you interested in seeing every inch of the game that they had programmed. Not many games could have you scaling an incidental cliff just to see if you could reach the top, whilst retaining the feeling that you were doing was still relevant to furthering the plot.

    It’s not so simple in other games, where trying to solve every subquest can seem like a timeout from the narrative, but if the game is sufficiently well made and just downright enjoyable, most of us are willing to take the hit.

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