When Game-Like Is Enough

As a systems designer, I’m very focused on ensuring that not only is there a core mechanic in a game that the player becomes intimate with but also being cognizant of tertiary mechanics and that they strengthen the message that’s being conveyed in the game.  Mechanic is the message, as some would say.  If there is no game mechanic, then there is no game.  That’s something that I used to believe in.  However, that’s all starting to unravel as more ‘games’ are demonstrating that meaning can also be conveyed with things that are just game-like.  Should these things even be called Games, with the capital ‘G’?  Or just interactive experiences?  I don’t think it really matters so long as we recognize that these types of experiences share a common toolbox of things to play around with—this language of games that we’re still deciphering.

In games, there are actually a limited number of tools you can use to engage with the audience.  A short list includes:

  • Setting
  • Perspective (camera, what’s seen and from where)
  • Movement
  • Control
  • Mechanics and expression of mechanics (challenge)
  • Challenge
  • Information control

And of course, how all these things come together creates:

  • Context

This is definitely not a complete or absolute list, but an example of the limited ways game designers can interact with a player—this language of games.  You can argue that it’s still a lot more than a book or movie, but there are still challenges with constraint.  Like how a traditional game with a stellar core mechanic can become encumbered by too many weak or tertiary related elements, enabling the game-like to carry significant meaning requires that all the above elements don’t just create a coherent sentence but the best damn sentence you’ve ever read in your life.  If this is the language, the words and grammar, that is being used to express then it needs to be used well.  A lot of games are just barely legible.

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A traditional game, to me, means that it has a mechanic that can easily be described—turned into a kind of mathematical notation.  The game, through its levels, then tests the player in their understanding of the mechanic.  One of the unique aspects of ‘full’ games is that they enable its audience to reach a state of flow. Being in flow and understand a game by executing and expressing the mechanic successful through its level is an ultimately sublime experience that cannot be achieved in any other medium.  The clever aha! moment that you have when you realize how to use a special power up or way to manipulate some blocks will always, and only, be in a dynamic game system.

On the other side of the spectrum is passive mediums that we’re all very familiar with.  What these works provide that traditional games have not are the greater range of emotions other than the sublime or complete understanding.  On a formal level, a game’s mechanics rarely ever make us feel anything.  It’s the setup and context of the mechanic that adds meaning and can create more complex emotional moments than sublime or mastery.  Shadow of the Colossus will always be one of the best examples that demonstrates how passive elements in the game are put together, creating context, lends itself to form emotion around a mechanic.  The way in which these passive elements (setting, decor, ambiance, symbolism) work in tandem with active elements (mechanics, bosses, repetition) in SotC is striking because although you can derive the mathematical notation for the mechanic you realize that the mechanic’s formula is insufficient in describing the experience.  The context and mixture of all these elements work with and for each other, strengthening each other’s foundations, like a grand orchestra of instruments playing a masterfully written piece of music.  SotC is one of the few larger games to do this successfully.

Occupying this middle ground between passive and active, games like KRZ naturally subvert our understanding of what games are and meant to be.  Unlike SotC, KRZ does not have a strong mechanic and can’t be considered a traditional game (can’t get that math notation out of it).  However, like SoTC, the way KRZ uses its passive elements is skillful and produces an amazing effect—it uses the language of games to produce great sentences.  Ultimately, the context that KRZ creates is one of subversion.  It takes the players’ understanding of games and flips it on its head to force players to reevaluate/reconsider/rethink/refeel their experience—I’ll argue that these re-alizations happen instantaneously without further outside investigation, reflection, or research because much of the subversion happens after a single interaction.

An example of this mind-blowing 2D to 3D revelation.

The best example of this one-click subversion is its use of 2D/3D expectations.  While the game looks like it is a 2D experience, it’s in fact built in 3D.  The beginning of the game tricks users into thinking it’s 2D by providing player movement that seems to only take place in a single plane with minimal layering and parallax.  Furthermore, the camera is static while your character moves, further masking the scene’s true depth.  KRZ then pulls the rug from underneath you and suddenly rotates the world.  The camera is actually rotating around a scene (or vice versa)  where the scene’s various game assets are carefully placed as if they were crafted to be traversed in a fully 3D manner.  The game is 3D from the very start, but because of the static camera, masking of depth, and seemingly straight forward character movement we never know and oftentimes forget that the game is 3D until it is revealed to us again.

Rotation and circular movement become an important concept in KRZ.  The first time the camera rotates like this is when the player is controlling a train dolly’s direction in a circular track hub.  Each time the player clicks on a lever, the camera rotates to signify a new route.  Elements in the background and foreground shift, oftentimes with set pieces that are heavy with symbolism.  This kind of circular movement happens again later in the game but this time the avatars are on foot and walking around a central pivot point.

Driving around the never ending Route Zero.

Like an expertly crafted novel or film, these various types of metaphors in language or camera movement are also used in KRZ.  While the camera surely rotates about a pivot point somewhere in the scene, the player also partakes in other types of circular movement.  When players finally reach the mysterious highway Zero, or just The Zero, it presents itself as an endless loop.  Depending on where the player starts in the loop and when the player decides to backtrack, the exits of the highway change.  As a piece of interaction, it’s fairly opaque in how to navigate the Zero other than memorization.  However, within the context of the game the player understands that The Zero is other-wordly and does not behave like anything in reality.  Like a good magical realist novel, the other-wordly is plainly accepted and forces the player to move outside of traditional systems thinking that is associated with games to a a more experiential way of thought.

By themselves, removed from context, the few elements I’ve mentioned in KRZ are totally meaningless and wouldn’t impress anyone who plays games.  So who cares if the camera orbits a center point?  Why is it important that you drive around in circles so damn often?  In truth, they’re not that important.  These things could have been skinned in entirely different ways.  Maybe the camera never cares about circling.  Perhaps the Zero is just a straight road with stops repeating themselves.  What’s important is that these game-like elements are skinned with more purpose that many other games.  As mentioned, these are like the repeated motifs in novels and films and because they are being used in such a way they have additional meaning.  There is a reason for this focus on circles.  At least, I hope there is… we’ll just have to wait for the rest of the episodes to drop.

The traditional way mechanics are defined as being meaningful are when these learned actions are supported by narrative elements or even subverted somehow in parts of the game.  The mastery of the mechanic or the change in perception of how or what the mechanic is used for adds meaning.  However, now we’re seeing examples of game-like mechanics also carrying their weight in meaning.  This is not to say that game-like mechanics is all you need.  KRZ, like the many examples of thoughtfully crafted movies and novels, uses many elements in a way that support each other to great effect.  It’s this kind of attention to detail that allows the game-like to gain significant meaning and is why we should not discount games without the traditional/core mechanics to be any lesser in value.

As ‘games’ become easier to make, we’ll see more of these experiments from experts in other narrative fields like literature and film.  I’ve already spoken about Brother , how it was made by a filmmaker and added a level of attention and subtlety that I’ve rarely seen in games.  Games are entering an interesting phase of existence.  Whether or not we are formal and call some of these examples ‘games’ is another can of worms.

For the time being, I enjoy experiencing them the same way I experience any other medium.  Even if the interactions are shallow compared to traditional games, the interactions in these game-like experiences are certainly adding to the experience.