Mechanics = Meaning

A friend asked me if I knew many games that use gameplay mechanics as part of the message. What started out as a quick list is now a full blog post. Here are a few games, in alphabetical order, that I think effectively use game mechanics to deliver some kind of artistic or literary message.

The only criteria for this list is that all these videogames only work as games and wouldn't be able to be converted into other art forms without losing its message. These are narratives that must be videogames to work.

BioShock is considered by some as a turning point for gaming. Its narrative transcends the game and comments on both the medium itself as well as the player. I'll always remember it as a groundbreaking narrative that made me question every game I had played prior. Gameplay, and by extension, videogames themselves, are crucial to BioShock's narrative. Yes, a movie set in the BioShock universe could be great, but the videogame's narrative would lose its significance outside of the medium.

(Skip to 0:40)

BioShock Infinite's narrative is arguably better and might even be richer and more varied, but I found it lacked the transcendence (and therefor some of the significance) of its older brother. It's still an awesome game and a great example of world creation. It also holds many other virtues, but its narrative just doesn't hinge on the fact that it's a videogame, so I can't really include it in this list.

Braid by Jonathan Blow is one of the most successful and well-received indie games and was the first indie game to be incredibly successful. During talks and conferences, he often discusses innovative and non-traditional gameplay theories. Braid's narrative punch is delivered through one of its primary gameplay mechanics, making it impossible to be delivered through any other medium. It also happens to be really fun. (http://braid-game.com/)

Image from Steam

Dys4ia is an autobiographical game by Anna Anthropy (http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/591565). The game depicts her transgender transformation in a distinctively videogame way. Most scenes are mini games and act as metaphors for her experience with gender therapy.

Anna published a book called Rise of the Videogame Zinester to incite people to design expressive and meaningful videogames that represent minorities. I found it very helpful when planning my own game about Acadian culture.

Image from indiegamemag.com

Façade's experimental story design just can't exist anywhere other than in a videogame. I discuss it in another article: http://www.fringfrangblog.com/2013/03/dynamic-stories.html

image from download.cnet.com

Journey's multiplayer function deconstructs modern online play. Instead of blowing each other's heads off, players help each other or even regenerate their scarves when in close proximity. I've never seen such consistently patient and helpful online players in any other game. It's the most personal and, dare I say, real connection I've had with multiplayer videogames, and it's been with completely random players from who knows where. It's not something you can read or watch; you have to experience Journey first-hand. It's game design at its best.

Image from giantbomb.com

Papo &  Yo is another autobiographical game, this time by Montreal-based Minority Media. It's the last game I beat since the game was recently released on Steam (http://store.steampowered.com/app/227080). It was a PS3-exclusive until earlier this month.

It's an allegorical game about the creative director's abusive father during his childhood. Just like in literature, all gameplay elements are allegorical and effectively convey the tragic narrative through gameplay. I'd be lying if I said the game didn't strike a few deep chords. It's definitely one of the most personal games out there and worth buying to experience and support this type of game creation. I'm not sure if this experience is non-translatable to other mediums, but the fact that it does what many believe videogames can't will get it a spot on this list for now.

Passage is one of Jason Rohrer's art games. Rohrer's art games are characterized by their simplicity: the graphics, sound, and gameplay are all very basic. Passage deconstructs traditional horizontal progression games to illustrate the passage of life and how certain choices can limit or benefit you using gameplay mechanics as metaphors. It's one of the most distilled examples of game mechanics creating meaning that I can think of. It's Rohrer's art games as well as a few others (such as Rod Humble's The Marriage) that really illustrated to me the basic idea of mechanics as metaphor. For a simplistic five-minute game, it packs quite the emotional punch. The game is available for free here:  http://hcsoftware.sourceforge.net/passage/.

Image from the game's website

It was while reading a critical reading of Spec Ops: The Line that I realized how much videogames could pull from literary studies. That's not to say the game is like a book. Although Spec Ops: The Line can be studied from a literary lens, this is always done in relation to it being a videogame. Much like cinema has its own tools to convey meaning, so too does videogames. This is a relatively new way of thinking, and Spec Ops: The Line is definitely a great example of this new wave.

The author of the critique refers to the game as a post-BioShock game. From what I understand, this means that its narrative examines the relation between the game, the player, and the world much like BioShock's did. The critical reading, while quite long, was really interesting and gave me much insight in how videogames can matter in the real world: https://gumroad.com/l/fsdz. There's an interesting 3-part article on Rock Paper Shotgun with the writers of The Line and Far Cry 3 discussing many interesting things: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/04/09/fire-away-spec-ops-far-cry-3-writers-on-criticizing-fps/

Portal might have been the first time I was genuinely surprised by a videogame story. Without revealing anything, the game flips the player's expectations at certain points. The entire game consists of puzzles, and this cannot be effectively translated to another medium. I haven't thought about its narrative as much as some of the other games on this list, so I'll have to finish my analysis here. It (along with Half-Life 2) deserve more reflection. In the meanwhile, here's an interesting article on Portal's narrative: http://www.playtime-arts.com/portal-and-the-meta-narrative-maker/

Image from rockpapershotgun.com
More on the subject: http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/mechanics-as-metaphor-part-1


Divertissement contre art

Qu'est-ce qui rend un jeu bon?

Depuis que je m'intéresse aux art games, j'analyse des jeux d'une perspective littéraire, comme je le fais des films et des romans. Ce style d'analyse s'oppose à la façon que je voyais les jeux vidéo auparavant : un jeu réussi s'il est amusant et bien équilibré.

Il semble avoir deux façons d'évaluer la qualité de jeux vidéo, soit par les mécanismes (divertissement), soit par l'art (littéraire). J'emploie le mot « art » ici pour signifie les qualités des art games. Wikipedia propose une bonne définition :

Un art game est... un jeu vidéo conçu pour mettre l'accent sur l'art ou pour provoquer une réaction chez le joueur... et ces jeux sont le résultat de l'intention artistique de celui qui présente son œuvre. (Traduction)

Je sais que tous jeux vidéo contiennent de l'art et que la signification des jeux est subjective; toutefois, il y a une différence en la façon que sont conçus les jeux pour divertir et les jeux pour véhiculer un message. Ce sont de différents types de jeux : un n'est pas mieux que l'autre.

Jeux divertissants

Un jeu est composé de mécanismes. Un jeu bien conçu finira d'habitude par être un jeu amusant et divertissant. Selon grand nombre de personnes, un bon jeu doit être un jeu amusant : c'est la manière traditionnelle que nous décidons si un jeu est bon ou pas.

Super Mario Bros. et Super Mario 64 sont très amusants grâce à leurs mécanismes, qui étaient révolutionnaires et très bien conçus pour leur temps. La série Uncharted est un bel exemple d'un jeu conçu pour divertir, et la série réussit à offrir de l'excitation. Après battre un jeu comme Uncharted ou Mario, le joueur est satisfait. Ces jeux ne mènent pas normalement à une réflexion sur la vie, mais ce n'est pas le but du jeu.

Les jeux multijoueurs les plus populaires sont aussi en cette catégorie. Mon jeu de tir en ligne préféré est Counter-Strike en raison du gameplay équilibré et compétitif. Il y a une raison pour laquelle League of Legends est si populaire, et non seulement le fait que le jeu est gratuit. La popularité de StarCraft en Corée est presque incroyable. Il y a toute une communauté esports qui s'est formée autour de ces jeux puisqu'ils sont les meilleurs en terme de mécanismes et de compétition. Je simplifie peut-être cette catégorie, mais l'ultime but de ces jeux est pareil : le divertissement équilibré.

Art Games

Pour une mini leçon sur comment les jeux vidéo vont au délà du divertissement, je vous invite de regarder cette émission d'Extra Credits de Penny Arcade : http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/beyond-fun.

Si je discutais de jeux comme To the Moon ou Journey, je ne soulignerais pas leurs qualités amusantes ou équilibrées. En fait, les mécanismes présents dans les art games sont souvent très minimalistes, comme c'est le cas dans Huch, September 12, Cow Clicker et Darfur is Dying. C'est la capacité du jeu de faire le joueur vivre une expérience et de lui pousser à penser qui compte vraiment. Des mécanismes minimalistes peuvent même être préférables : par exemple, Passage et Gravitation, des art games de Jason Rohrer, profitent des mécanismes simples que l'on doit interpréter comme métaphores (http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/mechanics-as-metaphor-part-1).

Spec Ops: The Line

Le dernier jeu auquel j'ai joué qui méritait une étude littéraire est Spec Ops : The Line. J'avais appris de sources fiables que je jeu en valait la peine pour son message, mais que le gameplay n'était pas si bon. Ce jeu était même le meilleur jeu de 2012 selon Yahzee, et ce que ce critique amer dit en expliquant sa sélection souligne bien la dualité dans l'analyse des jeux vidéo dont je parle :

Et merci f***ing beaucoup Yager Development. Maintenant, j'ai besoin de continuer à jouer des jeux à propos du militaire moderne au cas où ils sont en fait la chose la plus excitante sur le plan de la narration des jeux vidéo en f***ing longtemps! C'est mon jeu préféré de 2012, mais pas nécessairement parce que c'est le meilleur jeu en terme de mécanismes; plutôt, c'est le jeu qui mérite le mieux d'être f***ing joué. (Traduction) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6V6MI1ZSRfg)

Tuer pour soi c'est commettre un meurtre. Tuer pour son gouvernement c'est être un héro. Tuer pour le divertissement c'est innocent.

Spec Ops : The Line est un jeu important, mais pas un jeu amusant. En discutant du jeu, il faut considérer le contexte social, les clichés du genre shooter et son étude des troubles de personnalité liés à la guerre. Comme le dit bien la critique de PC Gamer, c'est « un jeu de tir ordinaire qui en a beaucoup à dire ». Extra Credits a même dédié deux émissions au jeu : http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/spec-ops-the-line-part-1 (pouvez-vous dire que j'adore Extra Credits?). Je ne vais pas oublier ce jeu, peu importe si les mécanismes ne sont pas très bons. En ce cas, les mauvais mécanismes renforcent le message (comme discuté dans le vidéo de Extra Credits).

Le meilleur des deux mondes

Il y a des jeux vidéo de ces deux catégories que j'aime bien; toutefois, ces qualités ne sont pas incompatibles. Parfois, un jeu vidéo est satisfaisant et offre un défi tout en méritant l'étude et la critique littéraire. BioShock Infinite, mis sur le marché la semaine passée, est un bon exemple : je me suis amusé en jouant, mais j'ai eu autant (si pas plus) de plaisir en l'analysant et en discutant de son récit et sa signifiance.

Anecdote : en discutant du jeu avec un ami, il m'a dit qu'il n'aurait jamais joué le jeu s'il n’était pas divertissant, alors que je l'aurais certainement encore joué. J'ai même lu un article en ligne qui affirmait que le jeu serait meilleur sans les mécanismes de shooter. Ça dépend de ce que l'on cherche en un jeu.

Quoique Braid est souvent décrit comme un excellent art game, je sais que son succès se doit également au fait que le jeu est très amusant. Je considère aussi Portal et le premier BioShock comme un bon mélange de ces deux types de jeux vidéo. En se fiant à ces exemples, les jeux qui réussissent bien au côté du divertissement et au côté de l'art sont une formule pour le succès.

Le problème des genres (encore!)

Est-ce que Call of Duty est un meilleur jeu que Spec Ops : The Line? Les critiques professionnelles montrent que oui. Les ventes montrent sans doute la même chose.

Comme j'ai discuté dans mon dernier article, les genres et classifications traditionnelles de jeux vidéo ne font pas mention du contenu même des jeux. En terme de mécanismes, Call of Duty est meilleur que SO:TL : les critiques en disent autant. Toutefois, il n'y a pas vraiment de conventions pour la qualité artistique (littéraire) des jeux vidéo. Ainsi, beaucoup de joueurs ne joueront point à SO:TL puisqu'il est classé comme un jeu shooter médiocre. Ils ne sauront pas que le jeu surpasse de loin des jeux comme Call of Duty en termes de qualité artistique. Malheureusement, le pointage des critiques ne le montrera pas.

Si un jeu n'est pas amusant, il ne peut pas être bon, n'est-ce pas? Faux.


Entertainment vs. Art

What Makes a Game Good?

Since I've started following art games, I've been analysing games with a literary lens, much like I would movies or novels. This contrasts with how I used to view games: a game succeeded when it was fun and well-balanced.

There seems to be two ways to evaluate the quality of videogames: mechanically (fun) and artistically (literary). I use the word "artistic" here to describe the qualities of art games. Here's how Wikipedia defines them:

An art game is ... a video game designed to emphasize art or whose structure is intended to produce some kind of reaction in its audience... and they are the result of artistic intent by the party offering the piece for consideration.

I know that every videogame contains art, and that the meaning of each game is subjective, but there is a difference in the way that games for fun and games made to convey a message are designed. It's just a different type of videogame, and one is not better than the other.

It's like there exists a spectrum with purely entertaining games at one end and videogames as artistic expression on the other.

Fun Games

Games are made up of game mechanics. A well-designed game usually translates to a fun, entertaining game. For many, a good game is necessarily a fun game; it's the way we traditionally decide if a game is good or not.

Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario 64 are incredibly fun because their mechanics were revolutionary and superbly designed for their time. The Uncharted series is a prime example of a game built to be fun, and the series succeeds at delivering spectacle. At the end of a game like Uncharted or Mario, the player is satisfied. You're not always left questioning life or anything, but that's not the game's point.

The most popular multiplayer games fall into this category. My online shooter of choice is Counter-Strike for its balanced competitive gameplay. There's a reason why League of Legends is so popular, and it's not only because it's free-to-play. StarCraft's popularity in Korea is almost unbelievable. There is a whole esport community that has developed around these games because mechanically and competitively, they're as good as it gets. I'm simplifying this category, but their end goal remains the same: fine-tuned fun.

Art Games

For a briefing on how videogames are moving beyond fun, I invite you to watch this episode of Penny Arcade's Extra Credits: http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/beyond-fun.

If I were to discuss a game like To the Moon or Journey, I wouldn't be raving about how fun it is or how balanced the mechanics are. Often, mechanics in art games are very minimal, such as Hush, September 12, Cow Clicker, or Darfur Is Dying. It's the way that it makes the gamer feel and what it makes them contemplate that really matters. Minimal mechanics can even be preferable: Jason Rohrer's art games Gravitation and Passage benefit from having  simple mechanics that can then be interpreted as metaphors (http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/mechanics-as-metaphor-part-1).

Spec Ops: The Line

The most recent game I played that fits the bill is Spec Ops: The Line. I learned from trusted videogame sources that it's worth playing for the message, but that the gameplay was not so good. It was even Yahzee's game of the year, and what this especially bitter critic says while discussing why this game is his favorite of 2012 highlights this duality within videogames:

"And thanks a f***ing bunch Yager Development, cause now I have to keep playing modern military shooters just in case they turn out to be the most exciting thing to happen in videogame narratives for f***ing years! It's my game of 2012 not necessarily for being the best game functionally, but for being the game that most f***ing deserves being played." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6V6MI1ZSRfg)

To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.

Spec Ops: The Line is a substantial game, but not a fun one. When discussing it, you must consider the social context in which it was made, the clichés of the shooter genre, and its study of war-related mental issues. The PC Gamer review sums it up well: "A generic shooter with lots to say." Extra Credits even dedicated two episodes to the game: http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/spec-ops-the-line-part-1 (can you tell  I really like Extra Credits?). It's not one I'll soon forget, and the mediocre gameplay isn't going to stop that. In this case, it even strengthens the game's message (as discussed in the Extra Credits videos).

The Best of Both Worlds

While I love many videogames for either their mechanical or artistic side, these two qualities are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, a videogame will be satisfying and challenging all the while meriting literary study and critique. Last week's BioShock Infinite is a great example: while I had a lot of fun playing it, I had as much (if not more) fun analysing and discuss its plot and significance.

A fun anecdote: while discussing the game with a friend, he stated that he wouldn't play the game if it weren't fun, whereas I would definitely have. I've even read an online article stating that the game would be better without the shooter mechanics. I guess it all depends on what you're looking for in a game.

While Braid is often cited as an excellent art game, I know it's success is equally due to its great gameplay. I would also consider Portal and the original BioShock as a blend of these two game types. Judging from these examples, games that somehow manage to excel in both mechanics and artistry are a recipe for success.

The Genre Problem (Again!)

Is Call of Duty better than Spec Ops: The Line? Professional reviewers definitely thinks so. Their sales most definitely tell a similar story.

As I discussed in my last blog post, traditional videogame genres and classifications all but ignore the actual content of videogames. Mechanically, Call of Duty is better than SO:TL, and the reviews scores show this. However, there is no real conventions when it comes to the artistic merit of videogames. Thus, many gamers will pass up on SO:TL for being a generic shooter while ignoring the fact that it kicks Call of Duty's butt under a literary lens. Unfortunately, review scores will not reflect this.

If it's not fun, it can't be good, right? Wrong.