The holiday break is over, and I'm back from visiting my family and old friends in Florida.

When we were over at a friend's apartment, Zuma was up on the 360. I'd never played it before, and most everyone gave it a try. It's a PopCap game in strict puzzler mode: a line of multi-colored balls is rolling down a winding ravine, and the player must shoot more balls into the line to make like-colored connect-threes, destroying the group. The goal is time-based, to slow the approach of the line of balls, thus preventing them from reaching the endpoint of the ravine which results in a game over. Eventually the player destroys all the balls on the screen, passing the level and moving on to the next. As a newbie just getting into the mechanics, I had fun, but clearly didn't grasp the more nuanced strategies that drive the game.

My friend Lara, on the other hand, is an expert at the game. She owns the registered version on her home computer, and has put dozens of hours into the 360 version. What interested me wasn't necessarily her ability to breeze through the early levels of the game, but the way she addressed the elements of the onscreen conflict. She'd adopted a set of terminology that personified the groups of balls, and inserted herself into the equation as the opposing force in the conflict between "her" and the "guys" (like-colored groups) onscreen. When she was trying to destroy a certain set of like-colored ball, she would address it in a combative fashion ("I'm going to kill that guy," "Fuck you/fuck that guy,") and when she would destroy a set of like-colored balls, she would say she'd "killed that guy." When she missed a shot, causing her to lose ground in the conflict, she'd make pained sounds ("ow," "ouch!") or say that the "guy" in question was "hurting" or "killing" her.

I found it funny, but also really fascinating. Here is a puzzle game, the most abstract, non-representational genre of video game. The only actors onscreen are generic colored balls, and a stone frog that dispenses more balls onto the field.* But my friend had, presumably unconsciously, found a way to personify and insert herself into the events depicted, despite the lack of evidence for the designers having any intention of implying a human conflict through the content of the game. I assume that Lara's interpretation built naturally over the dozens of hours she's put into the game, as a function of "seeing through" the game-- not having to concentrate on learning and tracking the game's mechanics, allowing one's unconscious to occupy itself with constructing unique strategies, or re-interpreting the events onscreen in new ways.

I also assume that, in such an abstract game with such a simple goalset, this reinterpretation is a necessary motivating factor to keep the player going past the point where the experience plateaus, and they've absorbed all the depth that the game has to offer. Lara reconfigured the events onscreen into something more visceral and immediate than "balls rolling down a ramp," mentally placing herself as an actor in a physical conflict against these hostile "guys," allowing her to extend the period in which she could remain engaged with the game.

"Seeing through the game" is something that occurs in high-level, usually competitive play, such as with one-on-one fighting games. One of the things I found interesting about Lara's interpretation of Zuma is how, in seeing through, she constructed an interpretation with no basis in the designer's demonstrable authorial intent. Authorial intent is a concept central to some arms of narrative criticism in the film and literature worlds, but not one I'd ever considered in relation to games. The player has free reign to mentally build his own interpretation of a game's theme, as Lara did, or to tangibly circumvent the designer's intent through play, by devising and executing his own objectives within the gameworld's mechanical constraints, but outside its designed progression behaviors.

Most games that I play are difficult to thematically reinterpret as they're generally quite complex, specific and concrete ("Sam Fisher is an NSA agent who must prevent terrorists from carrying out their plans by using covert actions.") But PopCap style games, highly abstracted and simple in concept, are a fascinating platform for player reinterpretation, an aspect of the genre I'd never considered until I went home to Florida for Christmas.

*the holes that the balls advance towards also feature skull-emblazoned hatches, but I wouldn't classify them as "actors."

No comments: