Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Tricky Synthesis

Recently there have been a few games that have had elements of shocking excellence, things which make the players gape openly. These are not usually what you expect - not core game elements.

For example, Civ IV's theme music "Baba Yetu". Civ IV is the only game I've ever played that made me wish it took longer to load levels. Another musical example is "Still Alive" from Portal.

Not all of these superlative elements are music. Sometimes it's a breathtaking plot twist, as in Second Sight. Sometimes it's a level, like Lungfishopolis in Psychonauts. It can be a visual, or a character, or even just a sound.

As to music...

Listened to without their game, Baba Yetu and Still Alive are both quite good. But you don't get that jaw-dropping impressiveness.

What multiplied their effect was the expectation that came with them. The context.

Baba Yetu comes before you even get to your first turn in Civ IV. But you're all primed for Civ IV. You have a clear image in your head of what the game is going to be like, and it's significantly improved by the satellite view of the earth spinning gently beneath you. The song can be considered completely part of the pregame experience: there are no seams, nothing feels forced.

Still Alive comes after the game, and is almost exactly the opposite. You're coming down off of a huge high, and the song is perfectly suited for that gentle finish. Again, it is a flawlessly integrated element.

Lungfishopolis is so entertaining because it turns the normal situation on its head in a brilliant manner that fits in with the game so well that there are no seams.

It's not often that you hit one of these superlatives that isn't a seamless part of the game. I can't think of any examples. So I think it's pretty clear that being seamlessly integrated is one of the requirements to be superlative.

So far, I've used experiences that most gamers are familiar with. But this sort of thing is not limited to excellent games. Even poor or non-artistic games can have elements that surprise you with how catchy or insightful they are.

For example, the Bubble Bobble theme. The map scale of Sid Meier's Railroads. Shadow Watch's mission selection phase.

No matter what game I look at, I find some element that seems to be a flawless part of the main play. An element that just clicks, that enables the player to feel exactly what he is supposed to feel at this point in this game. It makes sense that there will always be one element that fits better than the rest.

It's just something I noticed. I think it might be possible to do this on purpose, or at least increase your chances of having it happen. It's sort of related to immersion, I think, but at this point I'm pretty much just feeling my way through the theory.

Any way you cut it, it is clear that a game is not simply gameplay. And, in fact, even gameplay is not a lump of rules, but a delicate ecology in which some elements tend to fit (be fit?) better than others at different times.

Look back at some games you have played recently. What elements seemed most flawlessly integrated? What elements made you feel exactly what you felt you should be feeling right then? On the other side, what elements broke your experience up a bit?

I have a sneaking suspicion that people will frequently post the same thing on both sides. I know some people really liked God of War's "open the door" mechanic, and I didn't. To me, it is flawed, to them, not so much. Perhaps because we expected different things...

Anyway, what do you see when you look at games?


Patrick said...

How about the voice acting of the narrator in Myth I and II? That was defining for me.

The Planescape:Torment theme song as well.

In DEFCON its probably the information that prints before you start, where it lists symptoms of different levels of radiation exposure, or the number of megadeaths associated with different targets.

Craig Perko said...

That reminds me of the fallout cartoon man...

Peter Bessman said...

I have many a musical suggestion to offer. The classic Mario soundtrack is so perfectly integrated into the game play. In the modern era, ditto for Halo, and especially it's epic opener.

I note that there is a synergistic effect. Would this music have the same impact sans association with a great game? As you observe, probably not. But without music, the game itself would have less of an impact. I'm inclined to believe this is evidence of the power of synergy.

Perhaps, then, these other non-musical elements you point out are also marked by synergy. A certain play mechanic that would be not so enjoyable on its own is perfect for a particular game --- and vice versa, a game is enhanced by that play mechanic.

Craig Perko said...

I agree, but I'm not sure it's even a particular game. I think that many of these elements are only great in a particular moment of a particular game.

I don't think Baba Yetu would be nearly as impressive if it popped up regularly in the background. I think it's impressive not because of the game that it is in, but because of the particular moment in the particular game.

I think there's got to be a method to trying for this sort of thing. Something better than "try hard to make sure all your elements work together in the right way at the right time."

Peter Bessman said...

Yes, that makes perfect sense. Consider the bonus levels in various games, such as Sonic 2, which, while immensely fun, would probably become rapidly un-fun if distributed at the wrong time and/or in the wrong quantity.

I think you are very much on to something. I have a musical background, so pardon the constant references to that form of art, but I notice that the same sort of concept applies to that domain, only IMO, it's much easier to achieve this tricky synthesis. The perfect transition, a flawless hook, and other such aspects of a great song strike me as easier to come by because there are fewer conceptual dimensions to worry about. It's all just music, and at that, a single blob of a few minutes in length that merely requires listening.

A game, on the other hand, requires the active participation of the user, which means that experience is self modifying. And if it's a video game in question, then there are many more components in the presentation --- music being among them --- that must be considered whenever a new aspect of the experience is introduced. Basically, everything needs to work with everything else, and there's a lot of things to keep track of in a non-trivial game.

I've got a vague notion of a heuristic approach to this, something akin to a hierarchical greedy algorithm. Say you have a play mechanic A that could be considered the main mechanic, and periodically, it triggers mechanic B. If this is our entire universe of discourse, than it's trivial to observe that if B is the best possible choice in the context of A, then B is the best possible choice, period. Perhaps we could then say that any new mechanic, C, that is spawned by B simply needs to be the best possible choice in the context of B, and that since B is the best possible choice in the context of A, this chain of optimality will ensure that C is the best possible choice in full generality.

If this pans out, and if you're also able to somehow consider all the aspects of your game in a hierarchical fashion, than perhaps this approach could earn you dividends. Of course, talk is cheap, so I'll to play with this a bit.

And good lord, I apologize for writing this much. I lack the time for brevity.

Craig Perko said...

The issue with heuristic approaches isn't that they are wrong or simple, but that they are repetitive. I think it's notable that most of these kinds of things are not repeated. The only exception is level music, but I suspect that may be made excellent backwards: by association with good experiences rather than by being a seamless part of an excellent experience.

This can't be entirely true, though... I need to put a lot more thought into things.