Monday, January 9, 2012

Goals, Games, and Stories

Writing a blog post on Microsoft Word makes me feel like I’m writing a paper of some sort, so all of this formal language keeps coming into my head. Even writing this sentence in MSWord is a bit weird, but if I don’t remind myself that this is for the blog, I’ll continue to write as if I had some thesis to prove (laugh track.)

But anyway, I was going to talk about The Sims. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and I think that he hit the nail on the head when he complained that it was Taylorist. I’m not the expert on Taylorism, but it’s generally a philosophy that dominated workplaces a few decades ago by emphasizing repeated motions and compartmentalized processes that maximize efficiency at a given task. Think McDonalds—its “killer feature” being that it made food much more efficiently by using an assembly-line process in which every person does a single task. Yum!

Now, in particular, it went across that same line of reasoning a lot of us may have about the game—we obsess over making our characters eat breakfast and go to work, forgetting that we’re asking them to do the most mundane things that we’re generally avoiding by playing video games. Of course the catch is that we generally don’t operate the same way in real life—eating breakfast, going to work and engaging in seemingly rote self-improvement are generally situated in something other than a single-minded numbers game. I admit, however, I’ve fallen into that trap, and I think many others have; where the idea of self-improvement escapes any sort of idea of life and mindfulness and we suddenly hope to sit down for a few hours and mindlessly repeat some rote task while increasing some theoretical gauge or meter. And, yes, it’s a horrible way to think about life.

And this is where I think The Sims truly fell short of being a great game despite its being one of the most popular of all time. By the way, I’m only talking about the first one, I haven’t played the sequels. But I digress; a truly great game constantly demands that we make decisions of strategic depth—this means that the challenges are always somewhat novel and that there are few (if any) stretches of performing the same task repeatedly. Nor is it even that such repetition makes a game potentially boring, but rather the horrible serotonin trap that can come out of it. There are those times where I can keep getting a little kick of happiness from repeating some action and getting some minimal amount of feedback. When I give one of my Sims a promotion at work or an extra skill-point, there is a slight jolt of satisfaction that reinforces the sense of reward that will come when I pass the next tiny milestone.

What’s important to me about this dichotomy between the rote and the novel isn’t so much what it says for creating a game with great gameplay, but what it means for creating a game that offers a true narrative experience. As I’ve said before (though maybe not on this particular blog), what separates games from other mass media (if you consider games a mass medium—hard to say when such a popular thing is only taken seriously by a narrow demographic) is that it doesn’t offer any sort of real storytelling. Yes, there are backstories, cutscenes, characters, allusions and motifs within games, but most of these things are cosmetic and not at the core of the experience; even the occasional deeper theme that pervades gameplay only scratches the surface of what a real story will deeply penetrate.

As I write this I am in the passenger seat of a car, riding down a stretch of highway connecting Boston to New York, anticipating the sights of big buildings upon my eventual entry into the FDR drive. I’m listening to “Kids” by Kelli Ali—a song with lyrics that semantically mean little more than noise to my rational mind—but the ambience and percussion behind the vocalist’s low and breath-like voice brings about a feeling of mystery. It is the opposite of what Taylorism, rationalism, utilitarianism, classical economics, score cards and every other measurement that’s been mistaken for reality stands for. The soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist—but one that I wouldn’t want to exist anyway; a movie that maybe one day I can borrow a few scenes from but leave the rest in the unprocessed ether of the unstructured and the uninterpreted.

This is, of course, the instinct that art and storytelling invoke in us. Nobody gives a shit how many midichlorians Luke Skywalker gains between A New Hope and Return of the Jedi and when I watch Mad Men, I’m hardly thinking about Peggy Olsen’s iron march of progress (though it goes without saying that I’m rooting for her—she’s one of the only decent people at the agency.) But they do have something in common with even the most stereotypical video games, they have goals; that is, goals of a certain nature. We see change over time, infer motives in characters and follow a journey. It’s just that this journey is of an entirely different nature than that which is stamped, filed, indexed, briefed, de-briefed and numbered; it’s one in which the path matters more than the destination—what more mathematical types would call “path dependent.” At its core, it refuses to acknowledge gain without loss, pleasure without pain, joy without melancholy—a far cry from the one-track “pursuit of happiness” (as defined by what the game tells you it is) that The Sims beckons us to.

This isn’t to say that games never offer anything similar to this experience. We can satisfy the simple desire to see interesting things happen by turning up the difficulty a notch higher than we usually would, modifying the game, or (a la The Sims) treating the game like a dollhouse in which we create dramas. A medium is a means of transportation: sound through air, a signal through a telephone wire, meaning through language, a story through a novel, a vision through a painting; so at its core, this “dollhouse” idea is how the process of storytelling operates on some very deep and fundamental level—the reflection of our mind, our environment and our shared cultural discourse off a medium.

But the tools for this kind of exploration are currently insufficient for an experience that even comes close to what I can experience by turning on a movie, opening a book or listening to a song. I want to imagine a game in which people can experience this exploratory mode of play with the full spectrum of behaviors, desires, motives, personalities, webs of causality, empathy, mystery and dramatic weight that we see in stories. Perhaps game isn’t the right word—“game” in the more academic sense of the word meaning known probabilities and mathematically defined sets of outcomes. Whatever I may want to call them, it’s time to embrace the notion of goals, motives and desires that can be understood but not classified—they need to be open-ended; a catalyst rather than some suffocating essence that defines the experience. Motives are as fundamental to both stories and games as symbols are to both narratives and maps; a narrative being an open-ended set of ideas and symbols rather than a strictly delimited abstraction.

Parts of this post, such as those bits about exploration vs. destination, felt so obvious and banal, but that isn’t what’s most important to take away. What’s important is to make this distinction in a way that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Goals, motives and desires are at the core of both the most rote gameplay and the most beautiful poetic landscapes—but in making a new kind of “game”, we must embrace it in a different way while still preserving the core ideas behind gameplay. There really is an area between story and game.

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