Saying Something

An attempt to inject some reason back into the question of “meaning” in videogames, plus an example of a hugely-popular game that’s already done it.

Over on his blog, my pretentious and dim colleague Sean Vanaman wrote a post claiming that videogames, like anything else, need to first decide what it is they’re about. It’s a similar sentiment to what Chris Remo posted last November on the Idle Thumbs blog and later revised and expanded on Gamasutra as “Looking for Meaning in Games”. And Chris’s posts were inspired in part by a keynote address by Chris Hecker advising game developers to first take a step back and ask themselves: “why am I doing this?”

It’s not a brand-new topic, and we’re going to be seeing more and more of it. In fact, all of the academic or esoteric or tedious and rambling essays about storytelling, or emergent narrative, or authorial control, or world building — even the ones I disagree with — are all basically getting at the same question: how can we push games forward as a medium?

The Great Debate That Shouldn’t Be

“Pushing games forward as a medium” seems like one of those vague, completely innocuous goals that absolutely nobody could object to. But thanks to the symbiotic (parasitic?) relationship between videogames and the internet, even a goal like that can become bafflingly contentious.

Even taking into account all the varying opinions on how to do that, exactly, there are the people insisting that it’s not even a good idea. “Games are an entirely new thing that operate on an entirely new set of rules.” (Or alternatively, that games predate traditional media and therefore aren’t subject to the same rules). That all leads to a rejection of any mention of Hollywood, followed by comments about “redefining the nature of ‘fun'” and then to a claim as ludicrous as “games are not media.”

Except the problem with that is that games are media. You can go on panels and stamp your feet and insist that the inherent beauty of game design has been corrupted by movies and comics and television, and that everything we need to know we can learn from Chess and Go. That doesn’t change the fact that people have been using games to tell stories ever since Colossal Cave Adventure back in 1976, and people have been buying those games since a few years afterwards. Telling them that they’re doing it all wrong, that the answer is all in enabling the player, or building virtual worlds, or the perennial “if you want to tell stories, you should be making movies, not games:” none of that changes the basic fact that there are plenty of us who want to make and want to play games that “work” like traditional media. It doesn’t add to or promote meaningful discussion; it’s noise. It’s the equivalent of the old joke about the guy who goes to the doctor and says “it hurts when I do this” and the doctor replies “then don’t do that,” except it’s not funny.

On top of that, whenever you talk about “meaning” in videogames, there’s always an outcry from the folks who insist that games don’t need to mean anything. I believe that that’s partly because trying to “redefine the nature of fun” and “develop new models of meaning” so often results in attempts that are dry, tedious, pretentious, and/or amateurish. If they result in anything at all, instead of just existing as pontifications on a blog or message board somewhere. That leads to the response, “what’s wrong with just being fun?”

And the answer is that there’s nothing wrong with that. And “meaning” shouldn’t have to take the form of a tedious high-concept game, or writing that seems pulled straight from a high school poetry journal. But even if it’s not particularly profound, there has to be something else, something that’s currently missing. There are plenty of us who are tired of seeing a medium with the potential of interactive entertainment keep getting relegated to just a “diversion” or “hobby.” As Chris Remo puts it:

[Games] do the “fun” thing well, and they frequently give me a lot to think about, but they rarely speak to me the same way a wonderful novel, film, or album does. I don’t as frequently feel that I’ve genuinely realized something about myself or my world in the same way I do when I read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, watch “Mad Men,” or listen to The Who’s Quadrophenia.

I’d name-check different works of art, but I’m all on board with the sentiment. I’ve spent hours and hours playing games, and those moments of connection are few and far between. I’ve spent hours playing excellent games that do everything they set out to do, and yet I walk away feeling like I haven’t really accomplished anything, or learned anything. I’ve seen games that come so close to getting it right, but then stumble in one way or another. There’s nothing wrong with a “diversion,” but there has to be a way to make something more.


Chris ends his post with the conclusion “Intent seems like a great first step,” and I’d agree. I’d disagree with Sean that the question is “what is this game about?” since that’s too easily confused with a plot or story. Is Super Mario Bros “about” a plumber trying to save a princess? Plus it starts to break down when you try to apply it to games that have a consistent vision but don’t try to tell a story: to use Sean’s example, what is Team Fortress 2 about? Or Bejeweled?

The Chris Hecker talk referenced by Chris Remo’s article pulls the question back to “Why are you making this game?” That’s got its own problems, since that’s too easily answered with “because my company is paying me to” or “because the last one made a buttload of money.” That’s not just being flippant, either: that’s a mindset that’s pervasive at game companies, especially as the self-proclaimed “AAA” franchises price themselves out of the range of original IP. It’s also a question that’s so easily-answered a developer can be placated into thinking he’s solved the problem without doing anything. “Why am I making another match-three puzzle game? Because they’re fun, they’re accessible, and this one has [RPG elements/bombs/a wise-cracking companion/tits].”

I think the two questions developers should be asking themselves are:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. Why am I using a game to say it, instead of some other medium?

It’s still not perfect: what is Plants vs Zombies trying to say? But I think it’s pretty close. And I prefer it because it emphasizes a key point that’s not getting enough attention: videogames, like all media, are a form of communication.

The Message

Both Plants vs Zombies and Team Fortress 2 are beautifully-designed games: clear, purposeful and (until the TF2 upgrades came along) balanced. They both have impeccable art direction, music and sound design that work perfectly in conjunction with the game design, accomplishing exactly what they need to do (and in the case of TF2, more than it needs to do).

But, you know: so what? None of that is the element that makes those games stand out, the thing that makes me feel like I’ve actually accomplished something after playing them. Game design is indeed an art in and of itself, but it’s not “meaningful” except on an academic level. Art and music can be appreciated on their own, but in a game they’re “meaningful” because they’re used in conjunction with something else: if the only thing appealing about a game is its art or its music, you’d be better off just buying the soundtrack or the super collector’s edition art book.

No, the most important thing that those games have in common is that they’re funny. You can’t play them without getting a sense of the developers behind them. They’ve communicated with you; they’ve “said something.” What is that “something,” exactly? It’s kind of hard to define in an elevator pitch or even a blog post, which is why it’s a good thing they chose to use a game to say it.

And it needn’t be anything earth-shakingly profound or mind-numbingly tedious, either. It can be as simple as “I think this is funny.” I know that the Sam & Max and Strong Bad games aren’t intended to say anything other than “These are funny characters,” and they’re not intended to ask any questions more thought-provoking than “GET IT?!?” But I think that sense that there’s a real, identifiable voice behind them is key.

Of course, communication doesn’t have to be one-way. The people who are insisting that games are a completely new thing separate from traditional media, that they’re not about communicating a message but enabling the player, that we should remove the developer from direct interaction and instead be allowing players to develop their own “meaning” — I think they’re wrong, but they started out on the right track. That’s why the second question is so important: you aren’t just delivering a message, you’re delivering a message via an interactive medium.

Practically, interactive game development has so much inherent complexity that the statement “if you just want to tell stories, you should write a book or make a movie” isn’t just an insult along the lines of “your kind’s not welcome here.” It’s actually good advice: it’s a lot easier to write a book or make a movie, if only because we have a much better idea of how those work. But I’m not letting the “keep Hollywood out of our games!” types off the hook so quickly: just because something’s difficult to do, doesn’t mean that it can’t or shouldn’t be done, or that the medium is inherently unsuited to it. I’ve seen plenty of examples of stories that are more engaging, characters that become more “real,” or concepts that hit closer to home because they were presented interactively. There’s still huge amount of untapped potential for games to convey a message in a way that traditional media can’t.

And that’s not just a theory; it’s already been done. And it’s not just the province of pretentious, experimental indie games, but for the best-selling PC series of all time.

Like “The Sims,” But Funny

Years ago, when I was working for a small independent developer, we were asked to put together a pitch for a game that emphasized interpersonal interaction and relationships over combat. It was described by the publisher as “Like The Sims, but funny.” That should’ve been the first warning sign, because anyone who doesn’t get that The Sims is funny is someone you probably don’t want to have final creative control over your project.

To be fair, this was back around 2001 or so, after The Sims had gotten to be well-known but before it became such a behemoth. So it’s understandable that people didn’t quite “get it” yet. And, to be fair, the game has lost much of the “magic” of the early versions as it’s gotten larger and more complex (and more valuable as a franchise), while still being a fine game and still keeping most of the essence of the original intact.

But the original was a lot more funny and innovative than people give it credit for. And more importantly, it said something. It had a real voice.

Most of that voice was in Simlish, a practical design decision (we can’t possibly record an indefinite amount of dialogue!) that ended up defining so much of the experience of the game. It implied that these characters exist in a world of their own. It’s a subtle meta-commentary on human conversations: we may believe we’re being profound, but to anyone else it just sounds like gibberish. And it keeps the focus of the game’s strategy on time management instead of story-building or puzzle-solving: it doesn’t matter what the characters are saying, it just matters that they’re socializing.

One of the biggest aspects of the strategy game is the build/buy mode: you buy things that make it easier for the Sims to manage their time during the day. They could’ve made this work just like the shop in an RPG, since it serves basically the same purpose: kill monsters to get loot to buy things which make it easier to kill more valuable monsters. But instead, they made it a fundamental part of the game, and in a way that made it meaningful. It’s not just a strategy game anymore, it’s a satire on suburbia. The text for each item is cleverly written to mimic that of catalogs. The music is a dry parody of shopping center muzak to reinforce the whole joke that you’ve become obsessed with conspicuous consumption. And now, players are encouraged to spend real money to buy virtual items in an interface that’s much like the in-game version. I haven’t yet decided whether that’s a tragic turn of events, or a brilliant continuation of the satire from the game into the real world.

There are plenty of other bits of comedy throughout, most of them brought about by taking a design decision and then turning it into a chance for expression. Sims jump up and spin in the air to change clothes presumably because it was easier than having the whole thing animated, but it’s become one of the iconic aspects of the game. There are moments of slapstick scattered throughout, because everything a Sim does has to have both a failure state and a success state (and the failure is usually funnier). The TV broadcasts give the sound and music guys plenty of opportunities to continue the parody and satire, because Sims have to spend a good bit of time in front of a TV or radio to raise their fun levels.

And the “emergent narrative” promise was way overblown, but the concept of the game does allow for weird situations you simply wouldn’t get from a non-interactive medium. You can end up with a woman who plays roshambo with the Grim Reaper to save the soul of her cheating husband, only to end up starting a fire and having the resurrected husband start dancing on her grave. And it allows for more unstable people to come up with near-genius experiments like forcing an overweight hydrophobe to swim through a pool to get to food.

But these aren’t just player-driven content, and they’re not intended to be. For all the talk about emergent narratives and enabling the player in The Sims — and both are valid design goals, not just marketing — the developers aren’t just sitting back and creating sandboxes for the player to create her own content. They’re saying something.

  1. What are they trying to say? That if you abstract human life and social behavior far enough, it becomes a funny satire on how our goals in life can be reduced to simple time management and consumerism.
  2. Why are they using a game to say it? Because the message is driven home more clearly if you’re the one deciding whether going to the bathroom is important enough to put off asking your girlfriend to marry you or sitting down and writing The Great American Novel for one more night. And because it’s when the player throws his own wants and needs into the mix that the abstraction becomes meaningful.

Which is pretty heady stuff for a game that’s about watching computer people pee themselves.