Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mario Says...

Yesterday's postmortem was great: I took four pages of notes, which is something of a record. None of the presenters were boring, although some were obviously uncomfortable. I'll probably mention some of that stuff later, but right now I want to talk Mario.

I work for a start-up, which means three of us in one big room rather than any kind of normal office environment. This also means that all of us get to see whatever game someone is playing on the TV today, although they play with headphones on.

For a while now the game du jour has been Mario Galaxies. I'm sure most of you have played at least some of it, but let me describe a very different experience than the ones you've had.

I've seen most of Mario Galaxies second-hand, with the only sound being the relentless chiming of the wiimote. My soundtrack is whatever I listen to personally.

I was very impressed, which I'll talk about in a minute, but this led me to actually try to play the game. I knew I'd made a mistake as soon Mario opened his mouth with the most asinine, squeeky "SUUUUUUUUUUUUUUPAAAAAAAAAAA MAAAARIO GALAXYYYYYYYYYY!" ever.

A lot of people have commented on how this game is pretty much the ultimate in "back-seat playing", because the second player has enough to do to keep him interested without actually requiring him to jump and spin and all the rest of that really complicated Mario shit that makes me lose.

The two players are actually playing completely different games, and so it's obvious that their experiences are completely different. I can't speak to the exact experience of a second player, but the experience of a spectator is different again.

To me, watching intermittently with only my own music, the game was not a Mario game. There was no brutally cheerful music or childish storyline: there was a man exploring a universe of endlessly unique puzzles and creatures. If we're talking about mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics, then I was only getting the dynamics and a few aesthetics. The mechanics - jumping, dying, frustration - were being performed by someone else. The aesthetics - kiddie music, dumb sound effects - were also largely absent.

The dynamics were in full force, though: romping through a huge variety of wonderfully unique levels.

Watching Mario Galaxy was exactly like watching Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Or, hell, the movie Dark Crystal, if I could shout at the characters.

Playing it proves to be a massive letdown for me, because suddenly I have to deal with the mechanics and the aesthetics, both of which I dislike immensely. This isn't to say they are bad, they're just not to my taste.

It got me to thinking, though. Although the game's monsters are silly and the graphic design is all bright colors and childish melodramatics, that doesn't really come through much when all you're doing is watching. Ico's and Mario's dynamics have the same feel to them, even though their graphical design couldn't be more opposite.

The sound effects, on the other hand, are impossible to ignore. I think that if you substituted Mario's sounds into Ico's game, you would suddenly have a childish, silly game.

Perhaps it's just the level of immersion. Maybe if you were in VR, with the game world all you could see in every dimension, maybe then the tone of the graphical design would have a more significant effect. Maybe it's just a fundamental difference between how we (I?) process sound and vision.

Anyway, that's really very secondary to the basic idea. To me, dynamics are and will always be the most important part of a game. Aesthetics and rules are important to some extent, but only as (A) hooks to get people playing and (B) rails to guide the dynamics.

But when you're making a computer game, it's easy to let the rules and the aesthetics rule the roost. They are what you are actually making, after all. Mario can jump four feet, eight feet when he upgrades. Mario has a red hat and speaks like a parody of Italy on helium.

What that contributes to the dynamic of the game is not always (or even often) directly related to what the designers might wish contributed. It's common for a designer to add what I consider very heavy-handed mechanics and aesthetics to a game to try to "force" the issue.

I find a lot of forced mechanics in tabletop games. For example, in AD&D, they have a ton of weird little nitpicky rules about how far you can run, how far you can shoot, whether you get stunned, what your exact saving throw is...

To me, those rules shouldn't really be there. They are cement rails: you're stuck following the path they build, even though most of the time that path is NOT the right one for the content you're using. That isn't to say that complex, nitpicky rules shouldn't exist. It's simply to say that complex, nitpicky rules should serve the dynamic, not try to force it.

Similarly, a lot of computer games have a really forced aesthetic. A good example is Bioshock, where the aesthetic was really the only thing in the game. Bioshock's dynamics were not terribly good, but they certainly weren't a "fear for your life in this subaquatic hellhole!" It was more "march forward killing shit, occasionally hack a toy". It gradually converted to "spend a lot more bullets to kill shit than is at all reasonable". These were not good dynamics, and they were not in line with the aesthetics, either.

Similarly, Mario's goofy, childish sound and graphics aren't even tangential to the exploration dynamic. They're just completely unrelated. There really isn't anything childish or goofy about the dynamic: forge through a thousand unique, hostile worlds killing most anything that moves, trying desperately to rescue your kidnapped girlfriend and coincidentally save the universe.

Okay, maybe a little escapist. But not exactly a bright, cheery set of actions.

Apparently, not everyone sees these as forced. I think these people think about things differently than me. To me, if your aesthetic and your mechanics aren't working towards a unified dynamic, why bother?

I have no idea whether I'm being clear or not...


GBGames said...

Maybe I'm new to the term in terms of game design/development, but what do you mean by "dynamic" specifically? It seems you have a specific definition in mind, but I can't seem to find anything written about dynamic, or at least I can't find anything outside of game theory and math, which I don't think is what you're referring to.

Craig Perko said...

The idea is here:

But, fundamentally, it means exactly what is says in the dictionary:

1. An interactive system or process, especially one involving competing or conflicting forces.

Basically, mechanics and aesthetics are static. You build rules. You build graphics and sound. Dynamics are what happen when you set everything in motion.

Olick said...

So you.. don't like the sounds, or how the game plays, but you like seeing someone play the areas since it is visually impressive, and fun to see all the different challenges?

Craig Perko said...

Well, it's not really how visually impressive it looks. It's the way that it plays when I'm not the one falling off the planet. Frankly, the graphic design of the game is kind of childish, too. But the way the planets are arranged and the way Mario progresses through them and what he does on the way...