We’re currently working on a game called Human Orbit. As a team, we’ve been putting a lot of effort into simulating human interactions and emotions. The idea is to arrive at a place where the NPCs interact with each other in ways that cause real human drama. We want the player to be invested in that relationship, or that crime, or that breakdown. I want moments to arise, procedurally and faux-naturally, that establish a direct and meaningful connection with the player.
If we were film directors, our goal would be pretty commonplace. When applied to game development it becomes quite a claim; some would even say we’ve set the bar too high.
If I’m honest with myself, I know I’ve had more emotional reactions to film, literature or music than I’ve ever had in gaming. When I speak to others they often admit to similar feelings. We look to the work and writing of other developers, but find a lack of understanding throughout the entire industry in how we can make these moments. All we’re left to work with is a handful of our direct meaningful experiences in gaming. I think about this and feel uneasy. Why does the game industry seem so far behind?
We can no longer use the excuse that we are a young medium; we are nearing half a century old. For comparison, half a century into the establishment of film, Hollywood was entering its Golden Age.
A few years back, I stumbled into studying fine art. It’s a topic that elicits either enthusiasm or eye rolling (in our experience, this depends on how middle class you are). Although the fine art industry has its own problems, I’ve always considered it the closest thing creators have to a research branch. It’s a discipline that has spent a considerable amount of time dedicated to the problem of how best to manipulate emotion. The Renaissance painters had their theories on reflecting the divine; the Victorian Romantics, their focus on Awe and the sublime. The Expressionists, the Post-Modernists… each and every art movement had their eyes on the human experience. More than that, they documented and dissected these human experiences and produced reams of written theory regarding very specific elements of it.
A lot of this theory is nonsense of course, but a lot has also stood the test of time and has been used to understand and create meaningful and powerful works. You’ll find the ideas and theories have leaked into other disciplines like film, architecture, animation, marketing, and propaganda – only to mutate and be picked back up by the fine arts. Why then is game development set aside from this loop?
A firm favourite at university was the work of Roland Barthes. Whilst grieving for his recently deceased mother and rifling through old photographs, Barthes hit upon the intriguing idea of the studium and the punctum. Initially applied to photography, his ideas quickly became required reading at many universities regardless of medium.
The studium is quite a subtle idea, but in brief I would put forward that it consists of anything affecting the interpretation of a piece. For a game this would include the characters, the music, the gameplay and genre. It would include the culture the game is made and consumed in. It would even include things far beyond the developers’ control, like the political beliefs of the players.
The punctum is what Barthes called “that wounding detail [whose] mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value”. It’s those little details that the viewer’s subjective mind focuses on that gives the scene its emotional charge.
It’s those little details we want to craft. Details that pierce the players so that the game becomes more than just a way to pass time, but instead becomes a memorable experience.
The studium is ultimately always coded, the punctum is not… Nothing surprising, then, if sometimes, despite its clarity, the puctum should be revealed only after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it.
– Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
We think we’ve identified three broad areas that constitute a player’s interpretation of a game, and therefore its studium. The first is pretty clear-cut: this would be the game’s narrative, its art style, the game world – pretty much everything we understand as belonging to the game itself. Secondly, if we’re talking about the interpretation of a game, then the culture that game is made and consumed in plays a large part. This area would include everything external that affects a game’s interpretation – so we have nationality, press coverage, confirmation bias, society, political beliefs of the player, etc. These two aspects are pretty well understood and laid out in Barthes’ writing.
However, games have a third area, one that can safely be ignored in any other medium: the actual play mechanics of the game. If we understand video games as an inherently interactive medium, then game mechanics are the developers’ tool to directly and indirectly control the players’ interactions. How you manipulate your player within the game world will obviously affect their interpretation.
So then, we seem to have three major elements to consider when developing those “piercing moments”: the game space, the cultural context and the mechanics.
With this it seems we can classify the various punctum that occur in-game. Of course, any “wounding” moment in a game will be subjective; but let’s try to give some examples from real-world games. The elation you feel when you get that rare loot drop in Diablo? Pure mechanics. Remember the first moment you come across Rapture in Bioshock? If it affected you, that punctum seems to come direct from the game world. The meaningful choices offered you in The Witcher games? Game world/Mechanic.
Can this sort of thinking be useful in such a complex craft as game development? We know that in developing Human Orbit, thinking about events in this way is helping us to narrow down not just what they are, but how best to implement them.
When we as developers say that we want games to have a bigger impact on the player, when we aim for that “piercing” moment, or say we would like stronger emotional content in games, we need to understand what we mean.
A painter can handle his brush, but he does more than just paint a scene with it. He also understands how a viewer is affected by his use of colour, his composition. As developers we have to think not just of 2D space like the painter, but also of 3D space, of time, sound, and narrative. On top of that, we have to construct a whole invisible “machine” to enable the player to interact with our work. It’s difficult but we have shown ourselves capable of handling these tools, our paintbrushes, expertly.
Why is it then we seem to barely understand what our colours are?