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