In the Blog

The Ontology of Video Game Design

April 23rd, 2008     by Catherine Hayday     Comments

Or “you can’t get ye flask”.

I’m in the middle of moving, so while I box my worldly possessions, I’m putting up some excerpts from Randy Smith’s column in the May 2008 issue of Edge Magazine.

It’s an excellent article, and if it wasn’t a bit too long (and a bit too legally dodgey) I’d post it here wholesale. It’s a then-and-now analysis on the dominant paradigms of video game design (and, y’know, life).

Randy makes his comparisons to Ultima V, but I kept thinking of hours spent playing King’s Quest, and its unguided, open-ended world mantra of “take anything that isn’t nailed down”. (As well as the many unforeseeable consequences. Oh god the consequences… “People who play King’s Quest should expect their characters to die rather frequently”).

It’s just one example of some damn interesting conversations happening around what’s going on in videogames, who’s playing them, and where they’re going. And that’s not even counting the conversations happening in my house.

From Randy Smith’s “The Tyranny of Fun, and of Lord Blackthorn”, Edge Magazine, May 2008.

“Am I the only one who gets really worked up about the fact that choice and consequence are out of vogue? … Ultima V had a 50-page manual that didn’t teach you how to play the game. It afforded crucial tips like “Britannia has undergone a great transformation from totalitarian monarchy to representative democracy,” and “the newly risen moon, Trammel, is in its Gibbous Waxing phase,” and “slimes carry no booty”. But, after playing through the introduction, there you were holding a dagger and a cloth map with a teeming, jester-infested world sprawled out unhelpfully before you. Who would point you to glorious victory and amassment of booty? How would you make progress? Progress on what? The petty tyrant Lord Blackthorn, who hated freedom, advertised no vulnerabilities.

Ultima V didn’t have a score. You were on your own in evaluating your collected resources against the challenges and opportunties you confronted. You could release prisoners from jail when they begged you, and you could take crops from fields when you were starving, and you could feel really vague about whether these were jolly good ideas or ghastly, staggering blunders.

Today, this sort of thing is considered bad and wrong, and we’ve developed some of our most sophisticated design around preventing it. … To keep players informed and on the right track, we have clear objectives with unambiguous, visible closure conditions. To tell players whether they are playing well or badly, we rate every action and encourage them to get a perfect score.
… Why do we do all this? Because games are supposed to be fun, and fun only happens when you are pointed directly towards it, when it’s neither too easy nor too hard to get, and when you’re told ‘good job’ upon acquiring it. … Ultima V teaches you that it’s a harsh but beautiful world. That your actions will have consequences. That you won’t be rewarded fairly every time. That you can’t always tell right from wrong. That you have to make your own goals and decisions. Does this remind you of a non-virtual universe in which you participate? Modern games, by contrast, teach us things like it doesn’t really matter which way you choose to go. That someone will always watch over you and check you’re OK. That there is an omniscient judge of your behaviour who is generous with this information. That you should do what you’re told and get really good at it. … Are we so hooked on the escapist fantasy of an uncomplicated life, of reverting to the safety of childhood, that no other games should be made? Have we explored alternatives? How can we make a game about something personal and organic, like human relationships, if we insist on goals and scores? What kind of relationship would we portray? … Ultima V’s final message is that if you’re a good person, keep trying, and learn from your mistakes, you’ll eventually depose that jackass pretender Lord Blackthorn. If corrected for modern standards, you’d probably learn that thinking for yourself is questionable and that you’ll be told the right way to do things. But you’d still depose Blackthorn. Wouldn’t you?”


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