Thursday, November 20, 2008

MIGS (Post 4 of N): Jon Blow closing keynote

Jon got a massive turnout for the closing keynote of the show. I took some notes, but didn't post till now as thurs/fri were pretty busy and then in transit. Anyhow, In rough form, here they are:

"A fundamental conflict in contemporary game design”

Inspiration to be found for those of us to think about problems

Goals: To touch people, to change there lives.

Other media have no problem doing this.

Today we limit ourselves to 'If it was profound  to you, it was from a game designer standpoint, not an emotional standpoint.'

Things that we do as a matter of course that prevent us from reaching those goals.

How do you make something important, profound, meaningful?

It musn't be.. Fake unimportant meaningless.

Two ways to be important to people. By expression. By introduction of activity.

Story games (fable, half life 2, GTA)

Activity games (Madden, Wii sports, Pacman, Go)

Developers are always trying to make better stories.

Academics are working on dynamic story techniques.

Fallout 3, far cry 2, attempting dynamic story.

Story games are inherently conflicted.

People can sense a conflicted work. It wont strike them deeply. Disharmouious. It won’t resonate. How can we remove the conflict?

Conflict 1: story meaning vs dynamical meaning.

Dynamical meaning.

Art games (very small)

Communicating via behavior and perceptual primitives.

The Marriage by rod humble.

“Here’s what Rod’s marriage feels like”

Gravitation by Jason Rohrer

Expressing “real life” themes through rules of interactivity.


Stares become ice blocks/ideas become concrete projects

Blocks preven you reaching child – projects interfere with family.

(bug) (weird interpretation)

Imagine I introduce a new element:

Ice block score decrease changes with a powerup. (stops counter)

What does this freeze mean in this game that is a metaphor for work/life balance.

More rules added, less pure interpretation, more of a mishmash

By adding/subtracting rules you travel a continuum. The resulting game will always have some meaning.

In the games industry we ignore this interpretation

Extend this to any game

Any time we stet up a system of behavior

“dynamical system”

…that system communicates something to the player, whether intentional or not.

This is the dynamical meaning.

(see Ian Bogosts “procedural rhetoric”, doesn’t need to be rhetorical or procedural)

Gravitaiton has thematic elements but does not tell a story.

Conflict 1:

Story meaning vs dynamical.

Mainstream designers not thinking about dynamical meaning. Rather implmenting story and basic gameplay mechanic that is “fun”. The story and fun mechanics have separate meanings that often clash.

Like having a scoring of film “happy carnival music" through a funeral scene.

We have happy carny music over every funeral…

How does this manifest in some popular games?

Altruism vs balance.

Bioshock: Rules showed very small token difference in ADAM whether or not you saved the girls.

GTA4: “I like Kate”. No, I don’t. The game rules expressed to me that I don’t care about her.

HL2: Alex relationship vs game progress.

We want to prevent these games from  seeming fake.

How to resolve these conflicts?

-          Don’t use story

-          Don’t use dynamical meaning

-          Make dynamical meaning match story.

A)     Don’t use story

Story gives you “interesting mental stuff

What happens next, people doing things, Themes, moods

Can we supply interesting mental stuff that doesn’t come from story?

Whereas Rohrer-style games are hard, anyone can write a story?

How could we scale Gravitiation up?

"Any dumbass can write a story from a game, and if you look at our games, a lot of dumbasses do"

The trend will always be toward the easiest things to throw money at (known quantity)

B) Don’t use dynamucal meaning

-          Technically impossible. It’s automatic

-          You could navigate to 0. So this devolves to case C.

C) “Tight coupling” (Bogost) or elemintate conflicts.

Like pressing bubbles out of wallpaper.

“change aspects of story that don’t fit story, vice versa (gameplay)

Designers not trained to consider dynamical meaning.

AAA production models do not support this. (late gameplay changes are very expenseive!)

2) Conflict 2: challenge vs progression.

We base most mainstream games on story, and also challenge.

Why challenge? It’s viscreral, fun, etc, but more fundamentally.

Challenge communicates to you that your interaction 'means something’ that it is important or necessary.

Story needs to occur, challenge is a friction preventing you from getting there.

Story is a reward

Challenge is about withholding that reqard until we deserve it.

Leads to dramatic presentation of non-difficulty ‘God of War, Fable 2 – seems like there’s a challenge – dramatic presentation of stuff that isn’t difficult.

Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment.

The Arrow can’t go to zero

“like “suspension of disbelief”

But for games and importance.

A reason to exist.

Without ANY challenge, that suspension is hard to maintain.

Faux challenge is unlikely to impact someone deeply, to change the player’s life.

Challenge is a precious thing: we can do it much more derictly that other media. We waste this. [Note: Braid makes a good case for this, doesn't it. The difficulty of some of the later puzzles really made the reward of progress that much sweeter; to me anyhow]

Challenge substitutes

Not difficult, but interesting.

“invitation-style” alternatives.

Open Problem: how to make game meaningfully response to player’s choices, without blocking progress.

Conflict 3: Intreactivity vs pre-baked delivery.

Trying to create Drama or Crafted Impact.

Required careful pacing and framing


Interactivity sabotages delivery.

You don’t know where the player came from, or what he just did.

Deus Ex spoof from “old man murray”

Interactivity sabotates structure!

Chehkov's Gun

“if you say in the first chapter that there’s a rifle hanging on the wall, then in chapter 2,3 it better go off”

Economy of audience attention.

Sideeffect of foresshadowing and justification

In a good story, it’s not random out of context gun.

Requires and intense preprocess.

Story is a filtered presentation of events that have already happened. ß games haven’t already happened.

Why is the gun there? What’s the history, etc.

Drama manager – “intelligent dramama manager? Yeah, show me… Can never match a human drama manager. A human drama manager can never match a human writing a pre-baked story.

Character animation analogy: Pre-baked CGI vs Live Physics {<-- ooh, good point!]

Recap: story telling techniques we suck at:




Potetic adjustment

Tone adjustment

Vocal emphasis

Body language



Dynamic stories are

Pretend stories

Poorly structured

Poorly delivered

Will always be awkward second fiddle to linear media. Not a good core value proposition for our medium.

Don’t use story. At least as not as a core value prop. We said this was hard

What does story provide people, can we provide it in a different way?

Why not pursue examples from other forms? Music, sculpture, painting, etc.

Art games are a good place to start. How afar can we go in this direction?

To try completely, we art game authors must abandon “the message model of meaning”

The message model of meaning is insufficient

"The moral of the story is”

High school: Taught to read works and say what they are about.

Gamers get mad at art games. Inherently pretentious. Being condescended to. This is often true! If the message model of meaning is applied, whe the works are created. Trivializes meaning. (high school 5 paragraph essay)

[Frank Lanz quote, I missed part of it, so my apologies for perhaps butchering it...]

"...meaning which is less specific, less concrete and deliberate, harder to define, harder to pin down, trancends the author reader conduit model of message styles. "

Message model author is at least a little deluded. The true meaning of a game is multidimensional and fuzzy. … more complex than what you set out to build.

"if I understand it, it can’t be that important."

Instead, what if I build something that readhes beyond the eduge of my understanding and we all explore it together. They will have a play experience that is very deep and very precious and meaningful.

So what does Freeze mean? I don't know, but I think I'll stop here.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting these notes Kim.

That stories are post-hoc constructions is an exceptionally good point that dovetails nicely with Randy's Smiths idea of interactivity as closure.

When communicating, people tend not to think about the vast expanses of time/actions that they're excluding or abstracting.

Similarly, game designers don't seem to think much about just how repetitive their verbs are, and just how undramatic that is in the sense other media would consider drama.

This reminds me of a project I've been planning to do for quite a while: Stripping short stories and poems down to just the verbs to see what's there. A quick glance down "The Raven" leaves a pile of verbs that looks like either an art game or a collection of casual games, but probably not the kind of thing I'd play for fun.

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