I don’t really remember not having exposure to computer and video games. I remember sitting in this very room, watching my brother trying, with all his might, to knock out an opponent in Punch Out!! on his Nintendo Entertainment System. I must have been around five or six. By the time I was nine, I was online. I played Wolfenstein 3D and knew it as a “Doom Clone,” a term I would have to shift to “First Person Shooter,” many years later. Most of my game choices were centred around my brother’s choices, demos I played on the cd accompanying PC Powerplay, or what SNES games were available at the (surprisingly well-stocked) local video rental store.
Most of the time, my overbearing older brother would take the spotlight, and I would watch over his shoulder silently, before I would choose to play. Sometimes, as we grew older, he would encourage me to play a new game with him, by us taking turns. Unfortunately, I was in year twelve and he at University, so the amount of time each of us had to play the games was incredibly unbalanced; so, again, I would sit and watch him, occasionally suggesting the solution to a puzzle.
It always fascinated me how certain games would engage each of us. When I was younger, I had a tendency to enjoy story-driven games, such as SquareSoft’s “Chrono Trigger,” or adventure games with witty dialogue and fairly non-threatening gameplay. My brother, like many of the young male gamers I have known, preferred games where he could show off his speed and skill. Naively, he longed to become a Game Tester, to be paid to play; and I longed to create those captivating characters and settings, which I thought would be done by becoming a Character Artist (I now know that the artist only visualises them, the rest is done by a designer). I placed myself on a career path to set me up to work in computers or art, hopefully both.
At the close of year twelve, I knew I wanted to enrol in a course that offered 3D Animation. Multimedia Design offered this and a lot more, and, at the time, it also offered a double degree with theatre as a major- an interest of mine, which I had always been told I was talented at. By the time I finished my double degree, I had learnt that it was not the role of artist that I wanted, but rather that of the Designer/Writer. I wrote a couple one-act plays, read as much as I could about game design, and joined a small team as a game writer, sound recorder, and 2D artist; this would ultimately land me a job at Interzone Games as a Designer. Joining Interzone allowed me to mix with a number of inspiring people, as well as people who I found to have very set ideas on what made a good game, ideas that were not universal in their truth.
I still often feel young and inexperienced, ill qualified to stand up and tell my colleagues that we should do things a certain way. Attending “Games Connect Asia Pacific,” I heard many of my ideas and understandings about the game design process being spoken about by designers more successful than any at Interzone. I found myself getting extremely frustrated at the “big questions,” and “intelligent epiphanies,” made by many of the important industry individuals. I heard talks based on research that seemed to state the obvious; I heard questions asked that seemed to stump the audience, questions I felt I had the beginning of an answer for. But a beginning is not enough.
My original interest laid in what makes an individual or group enjoy playing certain games. For my final paper in Ann McGuire’s “New Media Narratives,” class, I reviewed a number of different motivational models, and compared their effectiveness for suggesting what would make a game appealing and playable in the long-term. My personal research continued over the year I was working in the industry, keeping an eye on new research and controversial events.
Most of the research seems to be done either in the fields of psychology or computer science. Most of the narrative and writing is drawn from film. However, in film, there is only the static text, and the audience. Perhaps a Mind F*k film could be regarded as what Espen Aarseth would term an Ergodic text, but essentially, the audience is a voyeur; the work is all internal, they are not a part of the production (E. J. Aarseth).
I noted that in games, the player is both audience AND actor. The player not only watches the story unfold, they are given the sense that the story is theirs. A Gamer plays a game character, just as an Actor plays a character in a play or film. The comparison continues when you regard that without the player providing a cue for the game, it is stuck and static (in some games, a passive reaction is given a negative treatment, and the player-character dies). This is referenced in the film, eXistenZ.
This led me to want to explore the aspects of theatre and theatrical genre and theory that could be applied to games. Gonzalo Frasca wrote a paper on adapting into videogame design some of the elements of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed for his Masters; Frasca’s main interest, unlike mine, is creating games for critical thinking and social change: so-called, “Serious Games”(Frasca “Videogames of the Oppressed: Videogames as a Means of Critical Thinking and Debate”). Additionally, Lee Sheldon discusses theatre and theatrical conventions in his book on Game Storytelling, talking about the Fourth Wall and Willing Suspension of Disbelief (Sheldon). Sheldon appeared to me to be on the right path, however I needed to take the next step, and look further into the very structure of effective game narratives.
While I was looking into narrative structure, it came to my attention that today’s Role-Playing Games (“RPGs”) take their structure from “Dungeons and Dragons,” which itself was based on JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. It is known that this follows what is often termed, “The Hero’s Journey,” so, curious, I began reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Campbell). From this, I was inspired to look further into the concept of Katharsis, the significant driving force in Greek Tragedy, and revived by Shakespeare (Aristotle). If it is true that both audience and actor involved in a Greek Tragedy experiences a form of spiritual cleansing from a false indulgence in a character flaw that leads to bad actions, is it not possible that a Gamer, as both audience and actor within a game, would experience Katharsis also?
Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty involves a manifesto that not only likens theatre to dreams for the purpose of Katharsis, it also attacks another component of Aristotelian tragedy- Mimesis (Artaud). Artaud desired to have theatre separate itself from the trend of actor-audience divide and instead make use of the audience member’s physical presence; one way he proposes to do this is through stripping away the audience member’s ability to hide as a passive spectator on the side of the stage. Unlike Brecht, Artaud is not interested in an empowered Spec-Actor, but is instead interested in surrounding the audience in the performance, by fully immersing them in the spectacle; they stop being a passive voyeur such as a movie-goer, and start being an actor as well as audience, responding entirely to this spectacle. Artaud does not act against stories, myths, epic tales or the like; Artaud wants to take the window through the Fourth Wall, and smash it. He wanted to allow the play to bleed into reality, and reality to bleed into the play: a convention observable in Greek Tragedies.
For my creative piece, I will design, and hopefully build, a short game that illustrates the fruit of my research. Ideally, I will build this game in the simplest manner possible, using Valve Software’s “Hammer” world editor (very user-friendly, better than what I was using at Interzone), and as many pre-made art assets as possible. Valve is very supportive of the Mod community, love to hear from their fans, and they also employ a writing team- so any potential communication with them will likely be fruitful (ValveCorporation). I also intend on referring to a number of online game research pages, both for additional material and contrasting arguments (E. Aarseth; Bogost; Frasca “Ludogoloy.Org”).
My aim is to provide an explanation and illustration of why certain devices “work,” so that future writers and designers don’t just try to blindly copy a successful game, and instead will have a kind of toolkit to with which to refer to in their work. As an actor as well as a writer, when I’d written plays, I always made sure that each character I wrote would be interesting and appealing to myself as an actor. I want to bring this to whatever game I work on, and I want to feel this more in the games I play. I don’t want the player to feel as though they are watching someone else play through, and they have to “grind” through while the dialogue and character develop and explore a narrative that either seems hollow or epic yet unengaging. The time of memory shortages on game disks forcing the Designer to choose between dialogue, gameplay, or art, is over.
Aarseth, Espen. “Game Studies”. 2001. (December 2008). <http://gamestudies.org/>.
Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext : Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Malcom Heath. London: Penguin Books, 1996.
Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and Its Double : Essays. New Paris Editions. London: Calder, 1970.
Bogost, Ian. “Bogost.Com”. 2007. (27 Feb 2009). <http://www.bogost.com/>.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd. ed. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Pr., 1968.
Frasca, Gonzalo. “Ludogoloy.Org”. 2001. (November 10, 2008). <http://www.ludology.org/>.
Frasca, Gonzalo. “Videogames of the Oppressed: Videogames as a Means of Critical Thinking and Debate.” M.Sc. dissertation, 2001.
Sheldon, Lee. Character Development and Storytelling in Games. Boston, MA: Thomson Course Technology, 2004.
ValveCorporation. “Valve”. 2009. <http://www.valvesoftware.com/>.