Okay, here goes nothing. Games can tell stories, they can elicit responses, emotions, they can give us all sorts of experiences. There is no doubt games can include art and often do, but what about the games design itself, how does that manage to be artistic? How can the mechanics of a game themselves affect us, how can interactivity itself be used to affect us? Everyone has their own answer to this question, as far as I can see here is where we need to found a new (well, fairly new) discipline. The answer to those questions isn’t simple; the answer is an entire new field of study, an entire new subject to research. All games designers are always answering this question in their own way, there are whole disciplines actually contained in this larger one. While books have been written on the subject and it’s the theme of countless blogs, I’ve yet to see a truly compelling account of the new field of study as a whole. Setting aside theories on how to actually make games that can affect us, what are the different tools we have available, at the most abstract? What paradigms can we work within? I’ve come up with a list of things only games can do, the classic examples of what we can do with interactive media. There may well be some I’ve missed (hopefully!), though it is intended to be as all-encompassing as possible. Here we go!
We build a world full of different individual things to see and the player goes off and explores it, discovering things in whatever order he or she pleases. We get the feeling of being immersed in a world, surrounded by..whatever. This paradigm often centers around the concept of space (see my Beauty in Games article). This is basically equivalent to installation art pieces. Examples: Dear Esther, The Elder Scrolls Series, Metroid, Zelda, Shadow of The Colossus, Dwarf Fortress’ Adventure Mode
The player creates something themselves and sees how it fares with the world we’ve designed. What are the consequences for certain design choices, and so on. This works if the creations have autonomy or not, the creation can be a roleplayed character (perhaps just a choice in and of itself) or even a civilization. Examples: Spore, Black & White, Any “Sim” Game, Bioware RPGs, Dwarf Fortress’ Fortress Mode
The player talks and the game talks back. Conversations with characters with personalities of their own, the game can teach the player things or vice versa. This involves some form of expression from the player, be it the simplest verbs, picking responses from a list of actually being able to type in his or her own replies. This is the classic step forward from the traditional Art-Person Dialogue (which tends to be rather one way) Examples: Grim Fandango, Starship Titanic, Ico, Bioware RPGs
The player gets to destroy the world we’ve made. How the world reacts to this, how it dies (how easy it is) is how it feels for this to happen. This one is used rather a lot. Examples: Shadow of The Colossus, Metal Gear Solid 3, Black and White, any game involving killing people, also games that involve making things like the Sim games and Dwarf Fortress’ Fortress Mode
The player takes on a role in a story that is being told. The player is now like a character in a play, able to perform his or her own lines, get caught up in the narrative and all the different needs of other characters and plot elements while they write their own part. Traditionally the player is given a role with no real freedom, though recently this has been reappraised. Arguably emergent strategy games such as Civilization and Dwarf Fortress accomplish this too. Examples: Dragon Age, Fallout, Deus Ex, Half-Life 2, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Dwarf Fortress’ Fortress mode?
The player is set a challenge to overcome, yadda yadda, we all know this one. It’s about beating the game, beating the challenge, or being beaten. Examples: Almost every game ever made, notably: Super Mario Bros, the FPS genre, Portal, World of Goo, Shadow of the Colossus (in the inverse, interestingly) and so on and so on (both of Dwarf Fortress’ Modes)
There we are, I’ve got six. Seven is cooler number, but I’ve got six. What have we learnt from this? Well, Dwarf Fortress is amazing, clearly. The only paradigm it is not an exemplar for, is Dialogue. There is actually a rudimentary dialogue system in the game but it’s hardly worth mentioning. If there is one paradigm I’m missing (I can’t think of a word to pin it down) its the actual what-it-feels-like-to-play-this-game paradigm of controller mappings. Flight/Spaceship simulators that spread out the controls on your keyboard like a control board and use force-feedback joysticks, or the system in Heavy Rain where you are forced to play finger-twister to accomplish awkward acts. It’s basically the paradigm the Wii lives off. If you have a name for this paradigm, send it on a postcard to BBC Televisio- wait no, just comment on this page. 21st Century and all that.