You Can Only Use the Scissors to Cut the String

One of the things that most annoys me in a number of games is when I have a great idea that should work, but the game doesn’t have any special coding for the idea and so my great idea is null and void.  One expects this if you’ve come up with a convoluted idea that would only work in The Incredible Machine, but when it’s as simple as, “I have a knife and I want to cut that string, but no matter how I try I can’t cut the string with the knife,” is when it gets frustrating and takes you out of the game.  Most modern games don’t quite have it this bad, but there are still some situations in modern games where this happens and you start thinking in terms of gaming, rather than terms of existing.  The phrase “Of course it won’t let me do that” comes to mind.  When players utter this or similar phrases, we are now talking about the game as a separate entity, distancing ourselves from the immersion set up by the game.

Of course, there is a problem here.  The game designers who make a game have no idea who their players will be as an individual.  They can only fathom just so many combinations of possible actions.  This is where emergent gameplay comes from, as players discover unexpected ways to use the actions created by the designers.  Emergent gameplay is generally considered a good thing, but it points at the problem.  As the designers cannot predict everything that a player may want to do, they will unintentionally close off actions that, to the players, seem like a perfectly viable thing to do.  This is only natural.  If a game designer tried to make every combination of actions possible for every situation, games would never get made.  It would be unrealistic to expect a game to do everything that a player would want it to do, as the vast number of permutations would not only delay the making of the game, but also make it less accessible (owing to the games increasingly larger size on a hard disc).  This unfortunately causes a gap between the player, the game and the game designer.

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Conducting Experiments Using Inform 7

Whenever I come up with a theory about games, it’s usually my prerogative to want to try the idea out.  This helps me to get a better grasp on the subject at hand, and from there, I can better talk about the ins and outs of the theory.  I think that being able to talk about an abstract topic is fine, but it’s even better when you can point to an application of the idea.

This is from the game designer part of me.  Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of different approaches to create these experiments.  I’ve tried various programming languages (Visual Basic, C++, C#. etc. I started with QBasic), as well as game designer toolkits (RPG Maker, RPG Toolkit, Adventure Game Studio, etc. Here I started with Adventure Construction Kit, which doesn’t exist anymore).  In trying to make my experiments, I always found myself running into walls, either a lack of skill (in art or coding) or a lack of flexibility (I tended to break toolkits).

Up until recently, I had been dead set on making a graphical game experiment, ignoring the fact that I knew the daunting task of producing art for it was going to eventually defeat me.  Lately, I’ve been considering this constraint to be superfluous.  The kinds of experiments that I am interested in don’t require any pictures.  If I want to try out something relating to player interaction, I don’t need flashy buttons and high-poly models running all over the place.  If I want to work out an idea about narrative and gameplay, all I need are the narrative and gameplay in question.

Without this constraint, I can consider a whole new medium through which I can make my experiments: interactive fiction (IF).  Now, I’m not going to make a big case for IF here (For this I might recommend Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort).  I will say that IF is ideal for trying out experimental gameplay because it removes all the bells and whistles from the game and boils it down to just the interaction between game and player.  This is great for me, as my areas of research deal with this interaction, but this might not be someone interested in the use of physics in games or similar concepts that rely on the visual or spatial qualities of modern games.  Additionally, IF has the benefit of Inform 7.

Inform 7 is a programming language very different than most others.  It has a (mostly) natural language style which makes it easier to read and create a game.  What I mean by this is that I could write “The kitchen is a room.”  Inform 7 reads, understands this and makes a room called “The kitchen.”  This may sound simple, but being able to create a game using natural sentences can be very helpful to the whole process.  Writing a game in Inform 7 a bit like writing a story.  It becomes easier to formulate what to do next or what to add because the game is easy to read and is written in a way that is easier to understand.

This week, I was going to write up something on Ian Bogost’s Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, but this week I was overtaken by an interest in learning Inform 7.  Thus, I never got around to actually reading the book (well, rereading, if you count listening to the book on text-to-speech while working).  Next week, I’m going to try to get around to doing that and blogging about it.

Searching for Games Studies

I thought I would start my blogging off talking about something that I’ve just done: searching for programs where I can do games research.  This can be a daunting task.  There isn’t really a repository of games studies programs, and games studies programs disguise themselves under more traditional descriptions.  I’m going to write my first official blog post on how I went about looking for the ten programs for which I am interested in applying.  This will include actually finding the programs amongst the academic language, how I selected from a number of different programs, and how I weeded out the ones that just didn’t fit.  I hope this can be useful to some people.  As I go along the path to applying and getting accepted to schools, I’m going to be posting more about each step along the way.

First things first, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about games studies.  Although at one time, I was interested in more professional, game design programs, I’ve decided to go for games studies.  The fundamental difference is that game design is about the actual production of games, while games studies is about the theory behind games and how games work from a research standpoint.  As a result, if you’re hoping to have me talk about finding a game design program, you’re going to be out of luck.  Besides, game design programs are far easier to find than games studies programs.  For people interested in game design, I suggest you check out the Game Career Guide (http://www.gamecareerguide.com/), which will have a lot of resources for you.  People interested in games studies can also look there (it’s still useful), but it definitely caters to the professional, rather than the academic.

Second things second, I can only really speak from my perspective.  I am a person with a baccalaureate degree in English (creative writing), living in the Phoenix area.  What this means is that my search was for graduate programs.  While this post will still be useful for people looking for undergraduate programs, it is invariably aimed at graduate school.  What my perspective also means is that I do not have direct access to many games researchers.  In Phoenix, I can count on my fingers the number of games researchers who could be available to me.  I don’t even need fingers to count the number of game design communities that I know of here.  Game design communities are a valuable resource for people interested in games studies, as they are great places to study games and speak with people who make games.  They also tend to have events (such as the Boston Game Loop) that draw games theorists out of the woodwork and create forums where people will discuss games from a theoretical perspective.

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