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Archive for August 23rd, 2010

If I ever get a custom license plate, I think that’s what it would have on it.  42A113 is vague enough that it reads a bit like a “real” license plate, but for someone with an eye to detail and some geek knowledge, it’s a couple of fun references.  Mixing the two shows my druthers as a reader and animation nerd, and might even suggest some interesting similarities between them.

I tend to believe that good stories function in similar ways.  If there are layers of detail to be plumbed, especially if there are subtle interconnections between details, a story can reward those with better memory, larger vocabulary and greater experience.  Allusions to other works can be valuable as well, though pushing in the direction of “pop culture” like WoW does at times can be a bit… distracting.  Still, a passing reference to Plato in a sci-fi novel makes me smile.  It also suggests that a story is part of a greater whole of the human experience, rather than a universe in a bottle.  (Which, to be fair, isn’t always the point, so these elements must be carefully used… or guarded against.)

It’s all about connections.  I believe that education is best when it teaches students to connect disparate bits of data and find reasons for why things are the way they are.  It’s a foundation of critical thinking (you need to have the facts and see how they interact) and creativity (mashing ideas up in new ways is the backbone of creativity).  There’s a physiological basis for this notion as well; neurons in the human brain build connections to other neurons, and it’s that vast web of interconnections that makes the brain so powerful.  The more we learn and connect, the more we are capable of learning.

One big problem is one of vocabulary.  If you don’t know the basic building blocks of an idea, it won’t make much sense.  Much has been made of the supposed Cambridge experiment where readers manage to understand words even if the internal letters are scrambled.  This writer thinks it’s poppycock, and I agree. (Fun bonus article from a Cambridge researcher.)  Even if it were a legitimate study, however, I submit that people can only read those words well because they already know what those words are supposed to look like.  If you didn’t know what supercilious meant, or that it was even a word in the first place, scrambling it even simply like this would just throw you off completely:

His superlicious gaze made her uncomfortable

I can just imagine the internal reaction:  “Wait, what?  Is that supposed to be ‘superluscious’?  What a stupid portmanteau.  This writer is worse than Stephanie Meyer.

Readers need to know what the words they are reading are in their proper form and what they mean before they can see them “through” scrambling or incompetent typos.  I saw this on Facebook, for example:

“I don’t loose things. I place them somewhere safe which later alludes me.”

Grurgle.  Not only do we have the trendy-but-idiotic misuse of the word “loose”, but “allude” is very different from “elude”.  I can read it just fine and know what is meant because I know the real words, but it comes across as an incompetent stab at fortune cookie wisdom.  Don’t use fancy words if you don’t know how to spell them.

On another hand, jargon can be terribly opaque.  My wife and sister have occasionally read my walls of text here at the TTT repository of blather, and more than once, they have told me afterward that they liked the parts they understood, but that they just didn’t understand some of the terms or phrases I use.  They are both intelligent.  My wife has read a lot of books, and my sister is an English major who reads almost as much as I did growing up.  (Hint:  WAY more than the average nerd.)  Both of them are familiar with my gamer… ness, and my somewhat expansive vocabulary.  They have learned to understand me in most settings, but here, where discussion so often meanders into game design territory, they lose bits and pieces of the logic.  They just haven’t learned the gamer vocabulary, and they don’t have the experience with games that I have.

Similarly, I’ve written up game design proposals that tend to cobble together ideas from various inspirations.  In a sort of metatextual shorthand, I’ll often cite those other games in the proposal, in lieu of writing out a paragraph of explanation, counting on fellow gamers to understand.  A quick referral to “4X gaming” makes a lot of sense to an old school Master of Magic fan, but to someone outside the industry and outside that particular niche of “old school strategy gamer”, that can come across as “something even dirtier and contemptible than hardcore pornography”.  Communication can be very difficult without the proper framework and fundamental elements of discussion.

Oft times, this sort of shorthand is very useful, cutting down on unnecessary repetition, pedantry and blather, but it can also be a real barrier to clearly expressing ideas.  The sort of  “quick pitch” five second summary of ideas that makes some game pitches function out of the gates simply won’t work if your audience doesn’t understand the references.   (That’s a great article on pitching games, by the way.  Know your audience!)

Inside jokes and clever allusions are great if you can tuck them away in an otherwise superficial narrative, but if you don’t have at least some common ground, the allusions themselves aren’t going to carry the conversation very well.  It’s possible to communicate largely with allusion and jargon, or so Captain Picard would have us believe, but it’s not simple, and it’s rife with potential for miscommunication.

So, as I am wont to do, I want to take this into game design.  Sure, literary tools are important for writing and reading, but the principles of good design that lead to those tools being used properly carries over to proper tool usage in game design, both when we’re using words as tools in games and also when we’re using game mechanics.

Game terminology can be difficult to explain, especially if you’re trying to write for a non-gamer audience.  Not only do we have weird terms like “frag” and “gank”, but we also have acronymitis, with things like DPS, FTW, MMO, FPS, RPG, BFG and so on.  A simple phrase like “DPS, watch your threat so you don’t steal aggro!” can be utterly incomprehensible.  Sometimes context helps, but I do feel bad for my wife sometimes, muddling through my denser articles here.  It would only be worse to spring a game design proposal or technical art article on her.

Then again, something like this bit of scientific fluff is nigh impenetrable to someone in, say, marketing (and a real scientific paper would be even more troublesome).  Marketers, in return, have all sorts of weaselspeak at their command.  They might employ it to different ends, to be sure… but if communication is the goal (not always the case in marketing), sometimes it’s easy to get lost without really meaning to.

As for game design itself, one of the biggest things that we as designers need to do is teach the player the “verbs” in the vocabulary of our game.  “Verbs” in this context are those actions that the players can use in the game world.  Naturally, then, “nouns” are those things that players can act on and influence.  Until players know what they can do and what things they can do it to, the game can be frustrating.  Clear communication about how to use the tools in the game sandbox is vital to making a game work.  There is certainly a balance to be struck between playing Galactic Civilizations without a manual or help file, and this sort of overcompensation… but players really need to understand what the game does, especially if the game vocabulary changes over time.  (Say, by adding a double jump or picking up a new weapon.)

I’d suggest this video for another take on the teaching experience, by the way.  Aquaria is a sweet little game, but it has too many hidden functions.  When the narrator notes that most players will probably need a walkthrough file, to me, it sounds like an admission of failure (though it’s fair to note, as the narrator does, that it can be a design choice, for better or worse).  It’s one thing to hide a lot of nouns, feeding the Explorer and Achiever niches, but when the game has hidden verbs, it can get very frustrating or even impossible.

A game, in some ways, is a conversation between the designer and the player.  They meet somewhere in the middle to share authorship of the play experience, and it’s vital that they understand each other… even if they wind up arguing in different directions.  If there is no shared language, however, that conversation can never take place.

Something like Braid might have allusions to previous games, like Super Mario Brothers, but it also has to function on its own if someone doesn’t have that in their “gamer vocabulary”.  It’s a fine line to walk sometimes, but it’s worth the effort it takes to make the gamer/designer conversation as clear as possible.  Talking past each other just results in frustration and other assorted PR nightmares.

Once you have the basics down, you can start slipping in the clever allusions, references and in-jokes as appropriate, like spices into a fine soup.  (See?  Metaphors, similes and allegories are almost inevitable in conversation; we build from things we know into things we don’t know.  It’s perfectly natural.)  Peeling back the layers of a story and its details, or a game and its subtle interactions between verbs and nouns, can be very satisfying.  I believe that the best stories and games foster this sort of depth, and gently entice the consumer deeper, even as they continue to move forward.  Might that not be one form of “immersion”, for that matter?

That said, it’s worth remembering that immersion can also mean obliviousness.  One would hope that there’s something there worth being immersed in, something worth learning whilst having fun.  With luck and care, the game designer/player conversation can be something more than mere Ferengi acquisition covered in Klingon aggression.

Oh, and this is what the 42 is about, and this is what the A113 is about.  I should probably get a Pizza Planet truck to put the plate on.

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