Sunday, December 11, 2011

GAME DESIGN: The Dramaturgy of the Playground...

The Dramaturgy of the Playground – or why we can display the life of Anne Frank within a ‘game’

Games have become objects of interest not only for players, business, but also for scholars from the fields of ludology and narratology. But to be able to talk about the ‘nature of the player experience’ it is vital to understand the ‘nature of games’ as well as the ‘nature of game development’. Thus questions shall be raised like: ‘Can a game make you cry?’, ‘How do we use chaos in the dramaturgy of the playground?’ or ‘Are we willing or able to produce true interactive stories?’.

Still games are perceived as objects to play with, therefore placing a high value on the mechanics of the gameplay structure, so they provide a product which offers the emotional experience of fun. And unfortunately that approach has crippled the evolution of emotional game design over the last decade.

First we must understand that the term “games“ leads to a severe misinterpretation about the true nature of the object, because games can be more than things to play with: They are a new media form of their own (Cf. Bhatty, 1999). Thus like film, literature, theatre or TV games can be used to provide narrative interactive experiences.
Using this approach we will understand why game mechanics – though they are important for the game design and therefore for the player experience – are ‘just’ a structural element, like the montage in a film. But the narrative conflict of the interactive experience is the driving force of that approach and therefore dictates the necessities of the dramaturgy to be designed.

To bring true interactive story telling to life, the game designer must be capable of administering ‘chaos’. The ‘chaos paradigm’ (Cf. Bhatty, 1999) describes the conflicting forces of unstable and over the time expanding elements, while the ‘alpha-plot’ is the tool to control that time of native chaos in an interactive story. We shall the examples in games like FarCry (2004) or SACRED (2004).
It is vital to understand that absolute dramaturgical control in interactivity is an illusion, but using the adequate methods of ‘directing the experience’ the designer is able to provide the input of impulses to lead the player through the interactive experience. But while the player may be able to choose space or time of his actions or inactions (within the provided limits of the playground defined by the game designer), the reception of the experience of the designer-defined ‘alpha-plot’ is always linear, after all.
Using the ‘Uncertainty principle’ of space and time during an interactive game experience we shall see, that each player experiences a very personal and individual story – the projection of the ‘alpha-plot.

Unfortunately for the advancement of the interactive arts game developers have been unable to do or unwilling to do what would be necessary to create more emotional experiences, focussing more and more on ‘selling’ fun only. But like the other media forms game developers can create more emotions than just being happy when mastering the next structural challenge (Cf. Koster, 2005). That it has been possible before, we can see in the few exceptions where developers were able or willing to create emotional experiences, like Wing Commander III (1994) or Heavy Rain (2010).

To be able to create emotions in the player we need a development process which allows the production of true interactive story telling, even if this means that the player won’t see and experience every part of the developed content. Of course this requires new and economic approaches of the development process, starting from the usage of collective libraries of adjustable assets to the vital need to provide more creative freedom for the leading role of the game designer – or the game director as the author prefers the new role of the game designer as author, executive producer and director in a non-matrix development environment (Cf. Bhatty, 2007).

But to be able to go this way, we need to strengthen the importance of the story in the media form called game. Story isn’t something that shall be ‘pulled over’ an existing game mechanic – it is the driving element that influences every aspect of the game, ranging from art, character development and interactive musical score.
And like Koster (2005) showed how Tetris can be ‘dressed’ to become a game of mass murder during the holocaust – a point which proves that not the gameplay mechanics must be allowed to dictate terms of the narrative experience - , the author shall point out, how game directors will be able to provide an emotional experience on every theme and motif with the adequate ethical approach, even when displaying the life of Anne Frank.

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