Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fairy Tales

I've been thinking, and I've come to the realization that most of our games are very childish.

I don't mean that in a bad way. I mean that most of our games are based around achieving the same kind of experience that we had as children, hearing fairy tales. A game is often trying to get that same sense of excited wonder... except, of course, we're adults now.

Sure, there are games that arguably aren't trying for that. I don't know that match-three games or go are trying for it. I don't see how football tries for it.

But the kinds of games I like to play - RPGs, shooters, weird indie games - they all have the same smell as a fairy tale. Not just the stories, but the gameplay itself is like a fairy tale on crack. In a fairy tale, the hero would get his father's sword, or the mightiest armor in the land, or whatever. In our video game fairy tales, that just happens over and over and over... but it's fundamentally the same basic event. Similarly, our endless fights are the same basic events as the fewer fights of fairy tales.

For a while, I've been basically, unconsciously, trying to figure out how to make a game more like a fairy tale. Make the fights more unique, the pacing more... like when we were young.

But let's look at what the experience I'm talking about is. What is the experience of a child hearing a fairy tale?

There are several elements at work, but one of them is that, at least if you used to be me, kids don't let tales die. You hear the story, but then you spend a long time thinking about it. Going over it. Admiring it. Perhaps thinking about different ways it could have turned out. If you were me, you spent more time doing that than the story could possibly have taken to tell.

This was not during the story, though. During the story, you'd be too busy listening (or reading) and imagining. If the story was broken up over several days, the intervening hours could be sheer pain waiting for more story, even if the story really wasn't very good in the first place.

Another element is that feeling of newness. These days, a story has to be really spectacularly interesting to get a flicker of that old feeling. I've just seen too many elves firing arrows at too many orcs.

But here's the thing... I picked up some fairy tales from other cultures. Japan, middle Europe, and the classic "Arabian Nights". Reading these fairy tales gives me that feeling, even though they aren't any more complex than, say, Rapunzel's or Loki's stories.

As far as I can tell, those are the two main components, and that started me thinking.

It's a fragile situation. Over the years, I've started to read differently. The stories I read these days try to make up in length what they lack in newness - not their fault, exactly, I just have seen a lot of stuff. But this has made me read in a very different way, a way not suitable to fairy tales.

I find that, reading these foreign fairy tales, the effect is strongest if I slow way, way down. Even read aloud, or pretend someone is reading it aloud. And then, when I reach the end of one or two tales, I stop. I find that they whirl around in my mind for hours, just like they did twenty years ago.

Looking at it, games are the same way as the books I normally read.

So... what if we decided to treat it like a fairy tale?

I was playing Persona 3: Fez. It's a rather spectacular game, but I'll never finish it. It's toooooooooo looooooonnnnnnnnnnnnggggggggggggggggg. The ideas are excellent and rather fresh for me (since I haven't played much of the other Persona games), so it starts off by hitting the right "fairytale notes".

But they bloat it up with gameplay.

"Ahhhh! What is this fool saying? Gameplay is what a game IS!"

Well, yes, but there's such a thing as too much. A steak is nice. A whole cow is not, even though it contains many steaks and is more deeply complex.

If you think of gameplay like food, then playing Persona 3 is like sitting down to dinner at a sushi restaurant. It's great, a lot of subtleties. Except that the chef keeps serving you sushi and sake and won't let you leave. Hour after hour.

How much sushi can you eat?

Apparently, I'll eat sushi for 43 hours.

But that's not what I want. And although the story is fairytale-ish, the actual experience certainly isn't. The fairytale-ish experience would be that the sushi chef shows you a hundred platters of sushi, but you can only taste three of them... They taste so good that you can't forget, and you can't help but stay awake at night, wondering how the other rolls might have tasted.

For a child hearing a fairy tale, there is a kind of half-comprehension. There are big ideas, they are fascinating and interesting, but there's also this feeling that there's a lot more to it, a lot more you can't quite see... but maybe if you think about it for a while, or maybe if you hear the next fairy tale...

To me, a game is a fairy tale PLUS the ruminating you do afterwards. Except that instead of hearing the fairy tale and then ruminating, you're asked to ruminate while you hear the fairy tale. That's not right!

In the end, what this ends up doing to me is the "endless restart syndrome", which I'm sure you're all familiar with. I'll play the game for a few hours, then I'll restart as a different character. I'm ruminating on the experience of the game... except that I haven't finished the game, haven't even seen the depths the gameplay can reach.

I'm really, really bad about this. I've played Oblivion for at least a hundred hours since it's release, but I've never played any character for more than fifteen - usually five or six. It's gotten to the point where I generally decide to ignore whole chunks of potential, just so I can finish the game. IE, I'll decide to play as a wizard and never, ever even think about how the game might have gone if I was a warrior or a thief.

This isn't good. That's like reading a fairy tale and saying, "okay, let's skip all the parts about Mordor so I can finish the damn thing."

In the past, I've been very hesitant about my opinions on length of play and replay value. I've always felt, in my heart, that short games (6-15 hours) with high replay value are better than long games... even if the long games also have high replay value.

I've always been a bit hesitant to say so, because a lot of people seem to hate the idea. They want to be able to play the game once, get everything there is to get out of it, and then throw it in the trash. And I could never place my finger on exactly why that's such a shitty way to do it. I always blamed it on artistic aspirations on my part, even though that didn't quite fit the bill.

The reason I want short games with high replay values is because I want to ruminate on them. I want assisted rumination: once I've finished the game, I want to be able to say, "wow, that was cool... let's see that again, from a slightly different angle."

With a long game, I don't get ruminations, either assisted or the more ordinary kind. There's simply too much, and too much of it is bland. I might say, "woo, that boss was cool!", but I'm not going to sit in bed unable to sleep because I can't forget that boss.

With short games, I do. Katamari Damacy... it's kept me awake. I've also had dreams about it, which is really how I judge whether a game is a classic or not. If I dream about it or it keeps me awake, I can write a truthful review: This was a triumph. I'm making a note here: "huge success". It's hard to overstate my satisfaction.

Perhaps it's just me. Perhaps there's nobody else out there who feels the same way.

But I want short games full of fascinating ideas.

Stop force-feeding me!


D. said...

That's actually an interesting point that I hadn't noticed before, re: the disposable nature of games.

Do you think that the current trend towards Achievements facilitates this view?

Craig Perko said...

I think XBox-Live Achievements are not at all related for or against this theory. They're primarily community elements... not much use at making a game seem more new or more deep or more ruminatable.

Also, this theory is, at the moment, extremely one-player... so "community" hasn't been worked into it yet.

Ryan said...

Was it you that doesn't like roguelikes? They're practically the epitome of short gameplay and ruminations!

Ellipsis said...

This is something I've thought about before. In fact, it's something I thought about while I was playing Oblivion - I actually did accumulate a couple hundred hours on one save file and complete everything with one character, but in the end I felt that it was strange that the game let me do so.

Oblivion has a ton of quests, but it's also got a series of major story arcs, including the main story and the story arc for each of the guilds. The thing is, the process of becoming archmage is a complete story in itself - that's something that makes for a eternal fame for your character. It's kind of silly that after becoming archmage I can then go to the fighters guild and start off as a "grunt" again, with the same character, and work my way up to be head of that guild, too!

Oblivion could have been structured differently with the same quests - it could have been designed such that your character chooses the path they take, and stick to it. Once your character completes a major story arc, the game ends. It doesn't have to forbid you from continuing to play, it just has to treat you like the archmage, meaning that the fighter's guild recruiter will just laugh if you offer to carry a weapons shipment to the orc infested mine for them. If you want to play the fighter's guild quest, you start over with a fresh character.

I think there's something to be said for such gameplay, especially since it heightens the sense of possibilities. Once you've completed everything in a game, that's it, but if you're making choices with permanent effects, then you know things could have gone differently at various points...

Craig Perko said...

ryan: It's me you're thinking of, although my opinion's been simplified...

In high school and college, I loved Roguelikes. But now I don't, for the same reason that I no longer read Cinderella: I'm too familiar with it.

Ellipsis: Yeah, that's pretty much what I think, too.

Olick said...

I think there's virtue in both styles of game. And it may be useful to see it as two extremes.

Short, replayable games (roguelikes, arcade games, Warcraft 3 matches?) are opposite of long games(Oblivion, most Jrpg's, Pokemon, World of Warcraft) that, I think, are better suited to add more content on when you've completed the game, extending the game ideas and the universe, rather than extending these ideas by having another playthrough.

I think, actually, I dislike the idea of a long game with replayability. Like if I played a game for 50-70 hours, then in order to 'play everything' I have to repeat that time, I'm annoyed and I give up. It was definitely like that in WoW back when I played. I would have loved to play a class different from my main for dungeon running, to experience it from a different angle, and probably to gather more gear. However, when I was leveling up, after I got through the period where I was fascinated with the basic changes class-to-class, I was annoyed. I already know these areas. I already know the quests, and the basic NPC ideas, and was no longer exploring. This didn't interest me.

I love in-depth stories, because of how they can draw me in, and give me a high level of knowledge and understanding of the topic. In a game, this is equivalent to building the best characters, or collecting all the items, or following through every sub-quest path, or conquering the high-end difficult challenges the game's designers have built.

I feel that, in games with a fairy tale-like scenario, there are not many short gaming experiences. Most short gaming experiences come through arcade games and competitive games, and the rumination is largely the competitive meta-game, which.. while it may be fascinated rumination, it is probably not the same mood you are looking for.

Craig Perko said...

Well, you're talking about SHORT games, on the order of five minutes of gameplay per iteration. I'm really talking about "short" games - six to fifteen hours.

That's plenty of time to tell as deep and complex a story as you would like, especially if we structure it differently than most modern games. I mean, I can read all of The Hobbit in that length of time. So it's not really "short".

It's just that we've gotten so used to REALLY REALLY LONG games.

DmL said...

I have to say this is very thoughtful and I completely agree. It's another thing I've been reaching for in all my works. Mystery is a big part of it. You have to get that "there's more to this" sense.

Consider that playing Oblivion start to finish is like trying to read a Wizard of Oz novel which is ten times it's usual length. There aren't really any new ideas or characters, the world can't change much (by it's nature)... but we can go into shocking detail about when horses won't run, the time of day the shopkeepers head home, wake, eat. The exact placement of the physical walls surrounding the country... as well as getting to know the inner workings of every society (secret or otherwise) in the country. This is more like a real-life replacement than a fairy-tale, which is nice, because it's at least freshER, (if not fresh) than real life because we haven't been living in Cyrodill for the last 30 years (but we have been briefly visiting similar places during that time). But Cyrodill is just as mundane as real-life.

There's something like 15+ Oz books, and even though they explore some of the same territory they do it with new ideas and new characters and years between the stories (in realtime and in storytime). Each book is rather short, but the entire corpus ends up being pretty daunting taken all at once. To me this smacks of episodic games.

Through it all we get a real sense of the character of a place, but it's boundaries are never defined.

In Oblivion, we understand the character of the place - namely it's pretty much got none, and the boundaries are always smacking us in the face.

This is one of the reasons that Shadow of the Collosus was so powerful for me. It left you wanting more, and the edges of the world were constantly obfuscated, with ledges and knolls just out of reach, but even when you understood the physical extent of the world, the character of the place extended back and forward in time (connecting vaguely to another similarly themed mythos).

This sense of wonder is extremely important to the human mind and heart.

The episodic nature of good myths (like taking breaks in a single play session, or waiting for the next installment) makes the player pace his exposure/play-time (not pace the story!) and extends and amplifies this elusive and needful extra-game/story experience!

PS. I've been posting as Davey recently... sorry for the delete.

Craig Perko said...

dml: I agree, of course.

I love episodic content, because it seems to flip this switch in the designers. They go, "oh, I don't have to put everything in. I can just put a little in, and leave some for later."

Which means, in fact, that they put in the good stuff and leave the crap out.

Strangely, when it comes time for the next episode, they find there's still just as much good stuff to put in... they never seem to have to fall back on the crap...

Mory said...

You must love Pikmin. (Assuming you've played it, that is.)