On Invisibility

Thanks to friend Chris Remo for republishing this essay on the Gamasutra network.

When one is moved by an artist's work, it's sometimes said that the piece 'speaks' to you. Unlike art, games let you speak back to them, and in return, they reply. If the act of playing a video game is akin to carrying on a conversation, then it is the designer of the game with whom the player is conversing, via the game's systems.

In a strange way then, the designer of a video game is himself present as an entity within the work: as the "computer"-- the sum of the mechanics with which the player interacts. The designer is in the value of the shop items you barter for, the speed and cunning your rival racers exhibit, the accuracy of your opponent's guns and the resiliency with which they shrug off your shots, the order of operations with which you must complete a puzzle. The designer determines whether you win or lose, as well as how you play the game. In a sense, the designer resides within the inner workings of all the game's moving parts.

It's a wildly abstract and strangely mediated presence in the work: unlike a writer who puts his own views into words for the audience to read or hear, or the painter who visualizes an image, creates it and presents it to the world, a game designer's role is to express meaning and experiential tenor via potential: what the player may or may not do, as opposed to exactly what he will see, in what order, under which conditions. This potential creates opportunity-- the opportunity for the player to wield a palette of expressive inputs, in turn drawing out responses from the system, which finally results in an end-user experience that, while composed of a finite set of components, is nonetheless a unique snowflake, distinct from any other player's.

One overlapping consideration of games and the arts is the degree to which the artist or designer reveals evidence of his hand in the final work. In fine art, the role of the artist's hand has long been manipulated and debated: ancient Greek sculptors and Renaissance painters burnished their statuary and delicately glazed their oils to disguise any evidence of the creator's involvement, attempting to create idealized but naturalistic images-- windows to another moment in reality, realistic representations of things otherwise unseeable in an age before photography. Impressionist artists, followed by the Abstract Expressionists, embraced the artist's presence in the form of raw daubs and splashes of paint, drifting away from or outright opposing representational art in the age of photographic reproduction. Minimalists and Pop artists sought in response to remove the artist's hand from the equation through industrial fabrication techniques and impersonal commercial printing methods, returning the focus to the image itself, as a way of questioning the validity of personal and emotional artistic themes in the modern age.

The designer's presence in a video game might be similarly modulated, to a variety of ends. If a designer lives in the rules of the gameworld, then it is the player's conscious knowledge of the game's ruleset that exposes evidence of his hand.

Take for instance a game like Tetris. Tetris is almost nothing but its rules: its presentation is the starkest visualization of its current system state; it features no fictional wrapper or personified elements; any meaning it exudes or emotions it fosters are expressed entirely through the player's dialogue with its intensely spare ruleset. The game might speak to any number of themes-- anxiety, Sisyphisian futility, the randomness of an uncaring universe-- and it does so only through an abstract, concrete and wholly transparent set of rules. The player is fully conscious of the game's rules and is in dialogue only with them-- and thereby with the designer, Alexey Pajitnov-- at all times when playing Tetris. While the game's presentation is artistically minimalist, the design itself is integrally formalist. But whereas formalism in the fine arts is meant to exclude the artist's persona from interpretation of the work, a formalist video game consists only of its exposed ruleset, and thereby functions purely as a dialogue with the designer of those rules. Embracing this abstract formalist approach requires the designer to let go of naturalistic simulation, but allows the most direct connection between designer and player: a pure conduit for ideas to be expressed through rules and states.

Alternately, the designer's hand is least evident when players are wholly unconscious of the gameworld's underlying ruleset. I don't mean here abstract formalist designs wherein the mechanics are intentionally obscured-- in that case, "the player cannot easily obtain knowledge of the rules" is simply another rule. Rather, I refer to "immersive simulations"-- games that attempt to utilize the rules of our own world as fully as possible, presenting clearly discernible affordances and supplying the player with appropriate inputs to interact with the gameworld as he might the real world. Theoretically, the ultimate node on this design progression might be the experience of The Matrix or Star Trek's holodeck-- a simulated world that for all intents and purposes functions identically to our own, and with which the player may interact fludily and unconsciously. This approach to game design bears most in common with Renaissance artists' attempts to precisely model reality through painting, to much the same ends: an illusionistically convincing work which might 'trick' the viewer into mistaking the frame (of the painting or the monitor) for a window into an alternate viewpoint on our own reality.

However, where Renaissance artists needed to model our world visually, designers of immersive simulations strive to model our world functionally. This utilization of an underlying ruleset that is unconsciously understood by the player allows the work of the designer to remain invisible, setting up the game as a more perfect stage for others' endeavors-- the player's self-expression, and the writer's and visual artist's craft-- as well as presenting a more perfectly transparent lens through which the game's alternate reality may be viewed. Every time the player is confronted with overt rules that they must acknowledge consciously, the lens is smudged, the stage eroded; at every point that the functionality of a simulated experience deviates jarringly from the natural world's, the designer's hand is exposed to the player, drawing attention away from the world as a believable place, and onto the limitations of an artificial set of concrete rules dictated by the designer.

Clearly the theoretically ideal, VR version of 'being there' is impossible with current technology, and may never become a reality at all. But using the concept of perfectly invisible simulation as a lens for examining player immersion in current games, how do common design conventions of today unintentionally draw the designer's hand into the fore, resulting in more mediated or artificial experiences?

One common pitfall might be an over-reliance on a Hollywood-derived linear progression structure, which in turn confronts the player with a succession of mechanical conditions they must fulfill to proceed. If I, as a player, must defeat the boss, or pull the bathysphere lever, or slide down the flagpole to progress from level 1 to level 2, then I understand the world in a limited, artificial way. Space doesn't exist as a line, nor are our lives composed of a linear sequence of deterministic events; when our gameworlds are arranged this way, the player must be challenged to satisfy their arbitrary win conditions, which in turn requires that they understand the limited rules which constrain the experience. The designer's role is dictatorial, telling the player "here are the conditions that I've decided you must satisfy." The player's inputs test against these pre-determined conditions until they are fulfilled, at which point the designer allows the player to progress. Within this structure, the designer's hand looks something like the following:

Creating games without a linear progression structure, and therefore without overt, challenge-based gating goals, allows the player to inhabit the space with a rhythm that better mirrors their own life's than a movie's pacing, as opposed to focusing on artificial pinchpoints that cinch the gameworld's possibility space into a straight line.

Another offending convention might be a question of where the game's control scheme lives. In character-driven games, the player's inputs most commonly reside in the controller itself, requiring the player to memorize which button does what. The simple fact that the player can only perform actions which are mapped to controller buttons confronts them with the limitations of their role within the world; the player-character is not a 'real person' but a tiny bundle of verbs wandering around the world. Run, jump, punch, shoot, gas, brake, and occasionally a more nuanced context action when they stand in the right spot-- this is the extent of the player's agency. More pointedly, having to memorize button mapping is a ruleset itself, and one that pulls players out of the experience. "How do I jump?" "What does the B button do?" These are concerns that distract from the experience of being there.

Alternatively, the game's control scheme might live largely within the simulation itself. If the player's possible interactions lived within the objects in the gameworld instead of within the control pad, the player's range of interactions would only be limited by the extent to which the designer supported them, as opposed to the number of buttons on the controller. Likewise, the more interactions that are drawn out of the gameworld itself, as opposed to being fired into it by the player, the more immersed the player is in the experience of being there, as opposed to the mastery of an ornate control scheme. This control philosophy does not support many games that rely on quick reflexes and life-or-death situations, but perhaps that isn't such a bad thing. One need only look at the success of The Sims and extrapolate its control philosophy outward: each object in the world is filled with unique interactions, resulting in seemingly endless possibilities spread out before the player.

A related convention that unduly exposes a game's underlying mechanics results from our need to communicate the player-character's physical state to the player. In many genre games, the player must know his character's current level of health, stamina, and so forth. In real life, one is simply aware of their own physical state; however, since games must communicate relevant information almost entirely through the visuals, we end up with health bars, numerical hitpoint readouts, and pulsing red screen overlays to communicate physical state. The player then is less concerned with their character being 'hurt' or 'in pain' as with their being 'damaged,' like a car or a toy. The rules become transparent: when I lose all my hitpoints I die; when I use a health kit I recover a certain percentage of my hitpoints; I am a box of numbers, as opposed to a real person in a real place.

Similar to the prior point, the hitpoint problem presents a limitation native to game genres which rely on combat and life-or-death situations as their core conflicts, as opposed to implying an insurmountable limitation of the medium as a whole. If I am not in danger of being shot, stabbed, bitten or crushed, then I am free to relate to my player-character in human terms instead of numerical status, thus remaining unconscious of the designer's hand.

All this isn't to say that downplaying the designer's hand is an inherently superior design philosophy; clearly, many of us connect deeply with the conscious interaction between player and machine. But as our industry rides a wave of visual fidelity ever forward, our reliance on game genres tied to the assimilation of concrete rulesets only deepens the schism between player expectations and simulational veracity. It's been posited that games are poised to enter a golden age-- a renaissance, one might say-- and as designers, we might do well to step out of the spotlight, stop obscuring the lens into our simulated worlds, and embrace the virtues of invisibility.

[I'd like to thank Clint Hocking, whose presentation I-fi: Immersive Fidelity in Games informed my thinking.]


Justin Keverne said...

As an argument against the explicit reliance on genre conventions I agree, but is an invisible designer really what we want? Explicit boundaries and points at which we butt up against the rules of the system are not always appealing but how far should the designer remove themselves? At which point does stepping out of the spotlight become leaving the theatre?

Isn't the appeal of the Holodeck that it can take you to places and let you do things you can't normally? Is not some part of that making the dangerous exciting, but not fatal; making the impossible possible? Doesn’t that require artificial restrictions?

Is a world devoid of explicit rules really fun or do we play specifically to have a mediated experience?

If I go to a park alone and empty handed, I can entertain myself and have fun but ultimately that fun is meaningless without some context. Give me objects to interact with, people to play with, or rules to abide by and my play becomes a mediated experience, a game, with a very specific and unique kind of fun.

Restrictions enhance creativity is that any less true of a player's own creativity? Our freedom is defined as much by what we cannot do as what we can.

Scott Juster said...

Excellent, thought-provoking post.

I agree that games still have a ways to go before the holodeck ideal is achieved. And even if we can resolve the issues such as arbitrary health statistics, constricting narratives, and disconnected control functions, we'll still have to deal with Professor Moriarty and holo-rights. ;-)

I hope that the future of games has room for both the "invisible" and the "integrally formalist" developer. Both formats are appealing and valuable to the medium.

christopher hyde said...

Much like Justin, I actually think that limitations in games are sometimes a good thing. A designer imposing limitation isn't necessarily only holding up their hand in a "stop" gesture--they might just as easily be pointing in the direction of fun and/or meaning. I do enjoy sandbox games a lot myself and like to be able to impose much of my own personality and character on my worlds, but at times I think that being given direction by the designer can be a very beneficial angle. I guess that rather than seeing a designer who imposes conditions as being a dictator, I often see them more as the archetypal benevolent philosopher king or queen, someone whose wise decisions in creating the world I'm in is guided by a smart insight in just what their subjects might want to do. To be sure, designers can also at times be petty tyrants--but I try and steer clear of games dominated by design choices like that.

All in all this is a smart piece with a lot of fruitful food for thought. I definitely do not totally agree, but then what fun would that be? Props for the Carl Andre too, though I'll always wonder if he really pushed Ana Mendieta out that window.

Steve gaynor said...

To Chris and Justin: there are of course considerations in regards to making sure players are aware of the relevant points of any gameworld, as believable a simulation as it may be-- of the designer pointing towards interesting interactivity, as Chris describes. I'm thinking more of the larger frame-- consider games with rules existing within the simulated world, as opposed to the world itself taking the form of a game. There's a useful distinction I'd say between the designer pointing towards things the player may do, as opposed to mandating things they must do.

As to the question of Carl and Ana, I think he did.

Iroquois Pliskin said...


This is smartly written and elegantly argued.

I had, like, a dozen thoughts about the ideas you raise here, so I wrote a blog post about it.

The basic idea I raise there, which I'll also front here, is that I think you put too much stress on the idea that we need to make a choice: games are about the designer's point of view, or they're about the player's self-expression. But I think the way games (and all arts, really) express content is inherently collaborative. The way games represent things that they construct this system of rules, and they don't actually express something until the player comes along and interacts with that system. But I think it's always a collaboration, and it permits of more artificiality that you seem to think is productive.

Steve gaynor said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response here and in your blog, Iroquois. As you note, I'm expressing a specific view on game design. One very real danger that must be avoided is focusing so intently on a single view that it ends up the only one you can see.

On the other hand, I think it's easy to be reductionist in thinking about an approach like the one I'm talking through: I don't see design necessarily as a binary choice between the player's expression and the designer's (nor art as a binary choice between expressing the artist or expressing nature); my concern is more of balance and structure. As you note, this all ties into my desire for games to express the feeling of 'being there.' And I believe that an invisible ruleset coupled with an unfettered world structure best allows the authored setting and characters-- the "there"-- to take center stage, while the lack of overt rules allows the player to concentrate on the "being," as opposed to winning or progressing. It's the individual player's presence that drives the final experience-- what he does, how he explores, which characters he interacts with, and so forth. This is that collaborative final product that dovetails with your cited passages on Cezanne: the gameworld only exists at all as the way the player experiences it, persisting 'undivided in several minds;' but in the ideal I point toward, the player's participatory interpretation is of the contents and possibilities of the gameworld itself, instead of the arbitrary rules that govern it. And while we both note that I don't think it's the only way forward, I do think that it has value.

Nelsormensch said...

Great post Steve, there's a lot here to think about.

In the context of other games (since my knowledge of visual art is minimal at best), maybe there are some similarities between what you're envisioning and what's possible with a good tabletop RPG.

If the GM chooses, they can provide a world with realistic events and NPCs with independent motivations. The players are able to engage with these things in whatever fashion they choose. There may be certain events they GM had in mind, but it's still ultimate the players decision how they'll engage with them, if at all.

But it's vital (and I think this is the aspect of game design that you're calling out) that the GM/designer not railroad the player(s) into any one specific mode of interaction.

Of course, with tabletop games it's a lot easier, since the designer is right there at the table and can improvise if the players start poking at things that weren't expected. This kind of fidelity in games is a lot harder to achieve. Is that a design obstacle to what you're describing and what ways can we start to address it?

Steve gaynor said...

re: Nelsormensch, I think that your comparison is absolutely on target. All I'm really describing is a gameworld that acts the way you'd expect it to, filled with interesting people and places and things to do which you may or may not choose to engage with. As to your specific point about a GM, I think that that element of realtime human adaptability is a huge boon for tabletop games; the content creators of video games are much like GMs, but their job is to predict ahead of time for all the possibilities that players may encounter, as opposed to reacting during the play session.

DanJW said...

Excellent article Steve. It seems to be a fresh way of viewing the Ludology/Narrativism debate of a few years back, but in a much more useful way.

It also made me think of the 'rumble-pack', and the mistake Sony made in removing it from the Sixaxis. Vibration seem to be a much more subconcious form of feedback, and really draws a player into the experience without breaking immersion.

Finally, perhaps one of the definincg characteristics of the ever-elusive "hardcore gamer" is the ability to become immersed in a game -despite- obvious mechanics. For example PC RPG enthusiasts become incredibly invested in the game-world even with a keyboard-full of overlays displaying statistics and quest objectives. In this way perhaps they are similar to art gallery peers who have learned to spend long periods of time 'drinking in' a particular painting in order to experience it on a subjective level.

GracefulDave said...

Fleshing out the limits of a world is called learning. It's just learning from the perspective of a child, not an adult. We are the kid putting everything we can find in its mouth until we know what it does. This is exactly how a human interacts within a world when they are trying to discover how it works. It's very natural, however, I agree it's not the be-all-end-all of how we CAN interact in a world. But then your world needs to work the way we've already learned it works i.e. its the world we already know.

The controller question is interesting, but ultimately superficial. As with any interface beyond maybe the mind/body, learning is required before mastery can be achieved. I don't see how this can be avoided. However, it doesn't really have to be because Heidegger was right!


I am still very interested in a "renaissance" in game design. I won't argue that any stage that the fine arts have gone through is better or worse than the other, I won't even posit an arrow of progression, but I will say that change is good.