Against Overdetermination

Something that’s interesting to me in making this new game, The Artist is Present, is about reacting to the extreme overdetermination of video games generally. That is, video games are in some sense “made” of rules, but there are a great many rules that are pretty much always included. Too many rules are always included.

One idea may be that those fundamental, common rules are a bit like the DNA of games – without those kinds of rules it won’t be a game. Or maybe, god forbid, it just won’t be fun (though I should say that that’s a pretty legitimate concern… remains unclear to me why I would play something I didn’t at least enjoy or get something out of – unlike my current game).

But another idea is just that games are overdetermined for less than great reasons. That there has been a kind of symbiosis between players and makers that has led to a whole lot of unquestioned assumptions that are now pretty much gospel. In making the current game I’ve both consciously and unconsciously been making a game that rejects some of the really basic stuff. And I’d say it rejects some of the kind of “social norms” of video game rules, as opposed to, say, some aesthetic norms and so on.

A conscious rejection is that this is a game about waiting, effectively sacrilege in a video game context. Generally speaking, making a player wait even a tiny bit really pisses them off and that’s something you don’t want to do. There are various games that toy with this element of play, from Narthex to Desert Bus to The Killer. They have different perspectives and reasons for their approach. In Narthex we see the leveraging of waiting as a form of adding mystique to an outcome (something that’s important in my game). In Desert Bus it’s largely about farce and abuse. In The Killer it’s about building an emotional pitch. These are all interesting things to do – and none of these games are fun. But aren’t you glad they exist? I’ll have more to say about the waiting in my game later on (when it’s actually done).

A funny unconscious rejection I experience today during some playtesting is that this is a game in which the avatar is utterly unspecial, from abilities to aesthetics. There’s almost nothing you can do that the other museum patrons can’t. And each time the game is loaded, the avatar’s representation is generated afresh with exactly the same algorithm as everyone else. This means that you look just like one of the museum patrons (you could even have a doppelganger, depending on the way the virtual die are rolled). Combine that with the queuing and you end up with a kind of novel experience: I was queuing and queuing and at some point realised I didn’t know who I was. That is, I looked at the screen, saw a bunch of people, and couldn’t tell which one was me.

It felt surprisingly powerful, and although it might be tempting to put it down as a usability problem, I think it seems important. Not knowing who you are is an excellent experience to have.

8 September 2011
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