Draw Your Sword

Way of the Samurai 3

The craven crew of criminals cowers before me. With heads hung low, they plead pathetically for me to spare their lives, that this was all just a misunderstanding. Sure, it looks like they're just robbing these innocent merchants of their rice stores, but it's not so simple as that! I sneer at such pitiful excuses, fingers tapping upon the hilt of my blade.

"What's going on?" a voice calls out. A young man with a boyish face and Flock Of Seagulls hair-do steps forward, looking between the previously posturing highway hooligans and myself. The merchants finally pipe up, expressing their intent to take the rice to the local village. The baby-faced warrior looks surprised.

"I see," he says calmly. "We were told this rice was intended for the Fujimori clan." I see his brow knitted in confusion, but it does him no favors. His words have already betrayed him, for I am a servant of Fujimori, and he has revealed himself to be of the rebellious Ouka clan.

I press L1 and unsheathe my blade.

In another playthrough, this very same situation played out amicably. He explained himself and invited me to join the Ouka clan, an invitation I gladly accepted. Yet the situation was different this time. I was Fujimori, and I had ambitions to get as close as I could to the Emperor. Not out of loyalty, but so at the opportune moment I could cut his throat and claim his throne as my own.

Player choice and freedom have been discussed quite frequently for the past generation. Perhaps it is a result of the Western legacy of PC games such as Planescape: Torment or Fallout 2 leaking into the rapid and rushing mainstream of console game design. Or it could be the emphasis on more complex environments, voice acting, and detailed character models, limiting resources for such freedoms in modern games. Players complained that games were being dumbed down and they weren't being given as much freedom and choice, and as a result developers and publishers started grabbing onto the player choice as a buzzword to help promote their games.

The trend in providing "choice" is to present players with a set of dialogue choices, each linked to a grade-school philosophy of good, bad, and neutral. While some games such as Alpha Protocol or the Dragon Age and Witcher series tried to move toward more nuanced, less obvious options, the general pattern is to modify the variables slightly to change how certain characters respond. However, the path is always the same. Even if the road forks, it comes together to lead to the same inevitable endings.

This is where Way of the Samurai 3, developed by Acquire and available for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, is different. Instead of having some great destiny already planned for the player, the game simply drops the player into a small confrontation between three different factions. Do they want to serve the Fujimori clan, overworking the peasants in some mad dream to overtake Oda Nobunaga and conquer Japan? Do you join the Ouka rebellion and try to reclaim the countryside in the name of the recently defeated Sakurai clan? Or perhaps you prefer to spend your days with the villagers, dreaming of a more simple, peaceful life in spite of interruptions by those who yearn to fight?

Emphasizing this level of freedom, any time a cut-scene begins, the player has a brief moment to bow, apologize, and turn away, completely skipping the interaction. The player can also, at any time in the conversation, choose to draw their sword.

Drawing your sword is not an action I would recommend to someone new to the game, partially because it takes a bit to get a handle on the combat. In addition, you'll probably find yourself taking on foes whose skills and equipment greatly outclass your own. However, knowing you could draw your sword gives a weird sense of freedom and power — to know that at any moment you could interrupt this other character and fight them. I find myself wondering "what if" at every turn.

It's an almost overwhelming sense of freedom, even if the end result may not be quite as drastic as the player expects. Killing a high-profile member (or even a mere grunt) of the Ouka clan simply means the player will be confronted for their actions on any map harboring the rebels. Good luck with the Fujimori soldiers if you start slaughtering them upon sight. If you're going to be a ruthless killer, you'd better be in it for the long haul.

No matter what side you choose, eventually you'll reach a point of no return. You can become a double agent, working with both Ouka and Fujimori for a time, but eventually you'll come upon a mission where you will be notorious. The other clan will hate you and kill you on sight. Some of the peasantry will praise your name, others will curse it. Contrast this to Mass Effect, where the choice to punch out a reporter merely changes the reporter's response and dialogue in future games. No one else in the universe cares or brings it up. I am also only given such options when the game deigns to make them available, rather than being able to pull my gun out at any time. Now I find myself wondering what would happen if I interrupted the Council by drawing my gun!

At the end of the day, my Way Of The Samurai 3 characters feel as if they are mine. Commander Shepard from Mass Effect always felt like I was playing some variant of BioWare's character. Alpha Protocol's Thorton was inconsistent as I tailored his attitude and responses to the personality of whomever he was speaking with. The closest I ever came to owning a character was the Grey Warden in Dragon Age, partially due to the lack of voice.

The ability to unsheathe my sword at any time, that the game provides me that much freedom of choice, gives me a sense of ownership of the character as well as of my actions. While the game certainly provides dialogue choices as well, Way of the Samurai 3 is more about action than words. You choose a side of the conflict to be on, or even dabble with them all. You can play hours of the game ignoring the conflict, instead accomplishing jobs, building relationships with partners, and forging new and powerful blades. The game can be as short or long as you want it to be, even if the story, no matter which path you take, is only a few hours long.

Way of the Samurai 3 did not need a large, open world with a half-dozen customizable character classes and branching skill trees to make me feel ownership of my own character. In the midst of its smaller-scale world with a smaller-scale conflict, the game adds one simple option: that I can kill any character I interact with if I so choose.

Comments

wordsmythe wrote:

Good additions, but let me fix that Expressive Processing link for you.

Hmm. Still breaking. A Goo.gl link works and appears to preseve the affiliate link.

I do think there's a lot that game structure can learn from visual novels and hypertext fiction.

Absolutely. If you're just talking about the narrative structure element rather than the mechanics end of the spectrum, then hypertext and visual novels are sort of a stripped away version of that, without the stuff you aren't focusing on.

Even fairly complex AAA games can seem pretty simple when you diagram their branches, especially compared to a visual novel. There are also, as LarryC pointed out, ways of telling an interactive story nonlinearly that are underused or unexplored outside of things like Visual Novels and Twine.

From the other perspective, Aarseth's aporia and epiphany model can apply to both emergent gameplay and narrative progression structures, making it a useful means of critiquing both at once.

This is a fascinating article, and a wonderful thread. I apparently have some reading to do!

Thanks for the links (which are hopefully working now!) and thank you for the awesome article, Chris.

Gremlin wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Good additions, but let me fix that Expressive Processing link for you.

Hmm. Still breaking. A Goo.gl link works and appears to preseve the affiliate link.

Yeah. Looks like the auto-formatting for affiliate cred is breaking/broken.

I do think there's a lot that game structure can learn from visual novels and hypertext fiction.

Absolutely. If you're just talking about the narrative structure element rather than the mechanics end of the spectrum, then hypertext and visual novels are sort of a stripped away version of that, without the stuff you aren't focusing on.

Even fairly complex AAA games can seem pretty simple when you diagram their branches, especially compared to a visual novel. There are also, as LarryC pointed out, ways of telling an interactive story nonlinearly that are underused or unexplored outside of things like Visual Novels and Twine.

From the other perspective, Aarseth's aporia and epiphany model can apply to both emergent gameplay and narrative progression structures, making it a useful means of critiquing both at once.

I don't know if I should phrase this as "Don't steal my idea!" or "Am I missing something really important from my lit review?" but my MA thesis is trying to apply Franco Moretti's ideas from Graphs, Maps, Trees to look at the structure of games. Namely, I am looking at manual and program-assisted ways of building the diagrams, and then I'm just going to say "If this were a PhD dissertation, I'd go on about what these show and how they show it, but since it's not, I'm just going to gesture at it and say 'I think this is useful and generates new views and meanings.'"

Great article, and I'm really interested in reading the previously mentioned books. Any ones I can get for under $10 on Kindle? That "expressive processing" sounds pretty good. Anything else?

Expressive Processing is only $10.50 for the Kindle version! So it isn't that far off your under $10 goal :).

I've been working for several years on theater pieces that involve borrowing narrative structural patterns from video games (So this article has me nerding out big time!) Here's an example of one of the projects I've worked on: http://thatsoundscool.blogspot.com/2...

Its interesting how the illusion of choice, or even a simple choice (like drawing a sword) can FEEL open ended enough that it does create a sense of wonder. The walls of the narrative are always going to be there somewhere. You can draw your sword, but you can't, say, offer to have the Ouka clan over to your place for a BBQ. But I don't think a majority of people don't mind not being able to do the latter, when the former actually alters the world of the game in a substantial and "meaningful" way.

Its also interesting how much of a push back people are having for choices that don't really have consequence (IE choices that don't truly effect the outcome). The illusion of freedom, when we see the strings, is somehow off-putting. I think a huge part of that is acknowledgement. We want the game to truly acknowledge what we've done (not just lip service at the moment of decision), because that gives us ownership of our role in the narrative.

The issue a lot of branching narrative games get into is that the acknowledgement of the choice is typically so superficial that it doesn't feel like a real choice. I'd love to see more games just react to your play style over time. If you talk your way out of lots of situations rather than fighting, having an NPC say something "I've heard you are a reasonable man" can go a long way to making you feel like your decision to continuously avoid/deflate conflict has impacted the game world.

It is less about total freedom and more about the FEEL of freedom. Even if we know that at the end of the day it is a game and we won't have freedom to anything, we want to know that we have resources we can use or not at our discretion, and that the game world will actually react to our choices on a macro and micro level, instead of just one of the two. When we are drawn in enough to choose to ignore the strings, we eat it up.

I'm curious about how something like Dwarf Fortress fits into all this...

I think in some ways that's what Peter Molyneux wanted to accomplish with Fable, but his design of such a world always came in extremes. There weren't any mixtures, no gray areas. Everyone was eventually called a Balvarine Slayer because that's what you had to do in the game. You had to go through a swamp containing a ton of Balvarines.

Oddly enough, I feel like the size of the world in Fable is also perfect for a game like this. It's bigger than Aonuma turned out to be in Way of the Samurai 3, certainly, but I think a bit of a larger world map wouldn't necessarily be too horrible a thing. I mean, Way of the Samurai 3 is low-budget, so a larger budget game should be able to manage more options.

But you have to be willing to tone down certain aspects of the world, while Fable was still trying to play at "YOU ARE NOW AN EPIC LEGEND RAAARGH!" and therefore it fell apart a little.

The Kindle constraint limits things a bit, since some of the more obscure books are priced at textbook level. The First Person, Second Person, Third Person series is pretty accessible but I don't think there's a Kindle edition. Half-Real by Jesper Juul, Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort are somewhat related, depending on what part of it interests you.

TheHarpoMarxist wrote:

It is less about total freedom and more about the FEEL of freedom. Even if we know that at the end of the day it is a game and we won't have freedom to anything, we want to know that we have resources we can use or not at our discretion, and that the game world will actually react to our choices on a macro and micro level, instead of just one of the two. When we are drawn in enough to choose to ignore the strings, we eat it up.

The most important recent paper on agency, to my mind, is "Agency Reconsidered" which gets at this exact idea: when what the player wants to do is supported by what the system responds to, the player feels agency. I've been combining this with Aarseth's ergodic cybertexts as kind of a unified model for how ergodic agency is the process of learning how systems work.

wordsmythe wrote:

I don't know if I should phrase this as "Don't steal my idea!" or "Am I missing something really important from my lit review?" but my MA thesis is trying to apply Franco Moretti's ideas from Graphs, Maps, Trees to look at the structure of games. Namely, I am looking at manual and program-assisted ways of building the diagrams, and then I'm just going to say "If this were a PhD dissertation, I'd go on about what these show and how they show it, but since it's not, I'm just going to gesture at it and say 'I think this is useful and generates new views and meanings.'"

Sounds fascinating. I'd love to read it when you've got something you're willing to show publically.

I have too many ideas of my own to work on, so I'd much rather you write it and then I can cite it. As for things-for-the-lit-review, beyond "Agency Reconsidered", there's the slightly feather-ruffling Cybertext Poetics. Without knowing more about what you've looked at already I'm not sure what else to suggest, though the International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling might have something useful.

Is anyone else unsettled by the idea that a game (or any literature) would seek to give the "feeling" of agency where there is none?

One could argue, I suppose, that all fiction is a kind of illusion, but I don't think they would be right. Fictional characters and events don't have the same importance or kind of being as actual things, but they do have some kind of being and independence. I am not being fooled when I read the Lord of the Rings or play Half-Life 2. I am engaged in the apprehension of or interaction with a fictional world (J. R. R. Tolkien called it sub-creation).

But, if a game or piece of interactive fiction attempts to induce the sense of free and effective action that isn't real, are they engaged in a kind of manipulation, and isn't that on a different (and more insidious) plane than simple presentation of fictional things?

On the other hand, if the "feeling" of agency has to do with "getting into" the role one is playing, it might be an aid to imagination, rather than manipulation.

I personally don't find that unsettling. I think it has to do with the very mechanics of what makes something a game.

When we read a story or watch a movie, we want to get drawn in. The tools that draw us in are different across each medium. You aren't being fooled when you read LotR, rather you're using it as a vehicle which sparks your imagination. Because it is a book, it appeals to your imagination in specific way.

Arguably, the biggest tool a game has with which to draw you in is choice. Games are about making decision. They draw you in with "player agency" rather than relying on, say, an actor's performance or gorgeous cinematography.

Actually, interestingly, agency plays a huge part in my ability to enjoy a book or movie. If I feel like characters are being railroaded by a plot, I lose interest. If I feel like, say, the female characters only exist to make the male characters look cool, then I lose interest. But when I see a fully realized story where the world feels alive and everyone has agency, I get drawn in. When its a game, that agency becomes personal. Its one of the strengths of gaming as a medium, IMO.

So reading the "Agency Reconsidered" essay that Gremlin linked to, and of all things to intrigue me, the possibilities of building a puzzle out of the "Eliza Effect", or at least how the system is demonstrated (repeat whatever the player says, but only in the form of a question so it sounds like a response).

How to create it as a puzzle without pissing a player off, be it in video game or D&D, is another thing, though I suppose it would be easier with the limited options of video games.

EDIT: Following that line of thought, I wonder if perhaps it isn't choice and options and even free will that we desire in our games, or what attracts players to games. Perhaps it is more that these games present systems that can be used to solve problems, and we enjoy solving the problem or mastering the system. Hence a group of users sitting down to figure out just how the Eliza program functions by merely talking to it.

In that regard, maybe it isn't that we want a system that allows us to do whatever we want, but a system so diverse that the system and game will adjust to our play style rather than we having to learn the appropriate way to play.

Of course, I think that might only be part of it. After all, when I replayed Way of the Samurai 3, I intentionally thought to myself "Hrm, I wonder what would happen if...", but then comparing a game like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, it was a lot more enjoyable my first time through when I was ignorant to some of its systems and it merely responded to me. After I beat it I read some information on how it worked, gamed the system, and ultimately forced a different ending. However, it didn't feel natural to me.

Hrm. I must ponder on this further.

Interesting, Marxist. It makes me wonder how close acting (as in on the stage or in film) and games are (the connection in D&D, for instance, is obviously strong). The sense that you ARE the character is definitely a powerful way of involving you in the events and allowing you to explore them, and choosing whether to do one thing or another (or even just having to press a button to proceed, I'm thinking of the bare-handed executions in Hotline Miami) might be the only way to do it.

I'm not saying I've heard it here, but I suppose the unsettling thing I am thinking of is a way of talking that treats the player as a sort of emotional puppet to be manipulated, rather than an active participant exploring a piece of art.

Also, I totally know what you mean about characters in movies, like when something is obviously contrived to further the plot in direct contrast to what makes sense in the situation that plot has already established; seems like lazy writing.

LudensCogitet wrote:

Interesting, Marxist. It makes me wonder how close acting (as in on the stage or in film) and games are (the connection in D&D, for instance, is obviously strong). The sense that you ARE the character is definitely a powerful way of involving you in the events and allowing you to explore them, and choosing whether to do one thing or another (or even just having to press a button to proceed, I'm thinking of the bare-handed executions in Hotline Miami) might be the only way to do it.

I'm not saying I've heard it here, but I suppose the unsettling thing I am thinking of is a way of talking that treats the player as a sort of emotional puppet to be manipulated, rather than an active participant exploring a piece of art.

Also, I totally know what you mean about characters in movies, like when something is obviously contrived to further the plot in direct contrast to what makes sense in the situation that plot has already established; seems like lazy writing.

As a film and theater actor who is also a gamer, I can tell you that I personally think there is a connection between playing a PnP RPG and acting.

Don't get me wrong - mechanically, they're wildly different beasts. The skills you learn playing D&D don't translate to skills you'll use on set (er, except for gauging junk food consumption perhaps) but there is a feeling that is replicated in both experiences - that feeling of connecting to a fictional character and making them real to you. They're also both artistic endeavors, which means at some core level they are about the experience of being human. I'd actually argue that reading a book or watching an actor perform also replicates this experience. In some ways the actor/avatar/collection of words/PC is just a vehicle.

I guess it can sound like emotional puppeteering, which is perhaps more about my poor phrasing than the actual experience... THOUGH, I will say that something that DOES piss me off in movies/books/narratives is obvious emotional manipulation.

At the same time, any art that does succeed in emotionally investing me I tend to think of as really good. Its almost as if the quality actually matters. Its unsettling to be clearly manipulated, but I enjoy the experience of being successfully invested... When I see a magician perform an amazing trick I *know* that it isn't magic, I know that there is sleight of hand / misdirection at work, but if the trick succeeds without revealing the strings, then I am entertained and impressed.

ccesarano wrote:

EDIT: Following that line of thought, I wonder if perhaps it isn't choice and options and even free will that we desire in our games, or what attracts players to games. Perhaps it is more that these games present systems that can be used to solve problems, and we enjoy solving the problem or mastering the system. Hence a group of users sitting down to figure out just how the Eliza program functions by merely talking to it.

In that regard, maybe it isn't that we want a system that allows us to do whatever we want, but a system so diverse that the system and game will adjust to our play style rather than we having to learn the appropriate way to play.

Expressive Processing explores some of these ideas. One of the central parts of the book contrasts the Eliza Effect with Tale-Spin and SimCity. SimCity walks the player through the learning process, avoiding the disruption of the Eliza breakdown of illusion.

There also a discussion of Façade, which was explicitly designed to have the player skip the need to learn the appropriate way to play by relying on the player's prior experience with the conventions of drama and human interaction. It's not quite learning the player's play style, but its along the same lines.

LudensCogitet wrote:

I'm not saying I've heard it here, but I suppose the unsettling thing I am thinking of is a way of talking that treats the player as a sort of emotional puppet to be manipulated, rather than an active participant exploring a piece of art.

Also, I totally know what you mean about characters in movies, like when something is obviously contrived to further the plot in direct contrast to what makes sense in the situation that plot has already established; seems like lazy writing.

I compare degrees of agency to playing music. If you're playing a Classical piece, you have to perform exactly the notes on the page to succeed. If you're playing a Jazz standard, you're supposed to improvise at least part of the time. In both cases, your freedom is partially restricted, since you keep playing the same instrument and don't smash it on the stage (that'd be Rock) but that's part of the art. You're actively playing within the set of rules you agreed to.

On the other hand, Hitchcock thought of movies as explicit emotional manipulation, where he reached out and controlled the audience's responses in detail. That was, I think, one of the reasons he found propaganda films so unsettling.

Lots of deep comments here for me to catch up on, but I wanted to answer this first:

Octacon100 wrote:

Great article, and I'm really interested in reading the previously mentioned books. Any ones I can get for under $10 on Kindle? That "expressive processing" sounds pretty good. Anything else?

I'd seriously consider seeing what's in your local public library system. If they don't have something you want, suggest it.

TheHarpoMarxist wrote:

Expressive Processing is only $10.50 for the Kindle version! So it isn't that far off your under $10 goal :).

I've been working for several years on theater pieces that involve borrowing narrative structural patterns from video games (So this article has me nerding out big time!) Here's an example of one of the projects I've worked on: http://thatsoundscool.blogspot.com/2...

Going to have to dig deeper into this. Chicago definitely has stuff arising less from theory and more from the deep communities of role-playing and improv. I don't know to what extent it's been studied by academics, since that's mostly to be found in a different discipline (and again, games studies shines brightest when it pulls in from other disciplines).

the illusion of choice ... the "feeling" of agency ... the player as a sort of emotional puppet to be manipulated ... characters in movies, like when something is obviously contrived to further the plot in direct contrast to what makes sense in the situation that plot has already established; seems like lazy writing.

So this theme makes me wish I was more conversant in Brecht and the whole idea of jarring people out of their immersion and out of the flow of the narrative as a way of making them think more critically. Ties to theater of the absurd, theater of the oppressed, society of spectacle, etc. I'd need someone better versed in that stuff to makes sense of the notions in my head, but the main idea I'm considering is whether immersion and the various illusions that are part of that in games should be held up as high as they seem to be, and what value there might be in breaking the player or audience's immersion.

wordsmythe wrote:

So this theme makes me wish I was more conversant in Brecht and the whole idea of jarring people out of their immersion and out of the flow of the narrative as a way of making them think more critically. Ties to theater of the absurd, theater of the oppressed, society of spectacle, etc. I'd need someone better versed in that stuff to makes sense of the notions in my head, but the main idea I'm considering is whether immersion and the various illusions that are part of that in games should be held up as high as they seem to be, and what value there might be in breaking the player or audience's immersion.

I think there could be value in doing both (holding immersion high and shattering the illusion) if done well. The problem is that games very rarely show their strings with intention - usually, when the illusion is broken, it is due to poor game design rather than a conscious choice on the part of the dev. Whereas, in theater, Brecht used alienation to a specific purpose - he wanted the audience to understand that they were watching a play and to focus on the political ideas behind the action. Alienation was a tool to prevent emotional attachment to the story or characters superseding his whole purpose for doing theater in the first place - which was to give a voice to the poor and rail against capitalism.

At the risk of digressing somewhat... There's an interesting phenomena where even when seeing the strings, people still get attached to characters and drawn into story. The character of Mother Courage, for example, was supposed to embody the spirit of capitalism. She seeks to profit off of war and in doing so, her entire family is wiped out. Brecht wanted the audience to blame her, but lots of people read or watch a good production of that play and still feel empathy for her. Which is fascinating, and to me speaks to people in general being more easily drawn to narrative than to concept/idea. Yoshi Oida (who is one of Peter Brooks main actors) did a workshop in the city that I was fortunate to be part of, and he did an experiment where he asked everyone in the class to "just start clapping." We all clapped slowly and at different times at first, and then gradually we sinked up. Then we accelerated our clapping until it broke apart into chaos again. Apparently, no matter who he asked to do that exercise that happened every single time. Didn't matter if it was a different culture. Everyone, everywhere does that. His theory was that those beats represented pure narrative form, and on a primordial level we are drawn to narratives - particularly narratives the create that structure.

Out of curiosity, how do you guys view or define "immersion"? I've actually been looking to break away from referring to it as much as I used to. The simplest way to describe "immersed" is "holy crap when did the sun go down?" for me, being so into something that you don't notice there's an outside world. It has all of your attention.

However, to me, that's only a result of being engaged, and is what happens when engaged in specific ways. Of course, then there comes the "how do you define engaged?" question, but to me you are engaged when the game gets you to think in some manner.

Of course, is this how film and television work? It's typically more passive, but are you thinking while watching something? It feels like "thinking" is the exact opposite feeling you get when you're totally drawn into a film or television show.

That's an awesome question. I'll try and answer.

I think immersion and engagement are two different - though often related - reactions that can happen any time someone consumes artistic content. So I'll first try and define what it means to be engaged. Which to me is as simple as something capturing your attention and focus for a sustained period of time that lingers even after the experience itself occurs. So if I see a movie, and it affects me and I think about it afterwards, I'd say that the movie engaged me.

As far as immersion goes, I think it very specifically refers to something drawing you into its world, often on multiple levels such as story, characters, and setting. I think immersion also implies a certain level of being so drawn in that you do lose track of things outside the world in question (the "holy crap when did the sun go down?" affect.)

So, when Brecht wrote Mother Courage, he used alienation to prevent people from being immersed with the hope that they would instead to be engaged. I think both often happen at the same time, which is why they are easy to conflate, but having one and not the other is a totally feasible artistic goal. I'd say a cotton candy show like, say, True Blood wants to immerse you in a crazy world but it won't give you a whole lot to think about. Whereas Mad Men wants you to be both engaged in the themes and ideas while simultaneously being immersed in the setting and mood of the show's universe.

Looking at these definitions, I guess I'm thinking of engagement as a cerebral connection to something and immersion as more appealing to emotion.

I also think they can both can be negative. Which, given how often these terms are used to describe "goals" for films and games is pretty interesting. I'm sure we've all been bored to tears and completely unengaged by work, but at the same time utterly immersed in it. And I'm sure we've all seen something that offended our sensibilities so much that it made us engage it from a place of anger and outrage.

As far as video games go, I think immersion has been somewhat of a distraction, because it became conflated with the virtual reality dream of leaving the material world. So the term itself has some baggage. And there are certainly games that deliberately alienate the player.

Trying to disentangle the threads: there's the flow state, the losing track of time mentioned above. There's engaging the work intellectually--or emotionally. There's the (almost gnostic) virtual reality substituting for flawed physical existence. Engagement/immersion is a good dichotomy, though I want to pull at it and see if there's more nuance there. Can you be emotionally engaged but intellectually immersed (and vice versa)?

I've been tracking the developments in the roleplaying community, though not as closely as I'd like. Generalizing, Scandinavian jeepform seems to be all about total immersion, or at least discussing what kinds of immersion are the goal of the game. In contrast, story games--such as Fiasco, The Quiet Year, and so forth--can be less about immersion in a specific role and more about exploring narrative or other forms of engagement.

I just came across a post on two kinds of empathy that may be relevant to the discussion.

I, too, read that article today. It was a decent read and had me rethinking some of my own gaming experiences.

Remaining on the topic of immersion vs. engagement, it seems like they could be synonyms that are simply used separately because they sound separate, or perhaps behave differently in certain contexts. For example, it's easy for me to label games as engaging more than immersive in that I can figure out how a game draws the player in with mechanics and response. It is constantly pinging the player, sending signals and awaiting responses, so on and so forth.

But as an example, even as a kid I rarely had several hour long marathons of video games. It's actually one of the reasons I remember games like Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger being longer than they are. I'd play small chunks that felt like an episode, then move on to something else. I'd hit spots that felt like "this is a good point to rest and do something else" and then get to it.

Harvest Moon was the first game I can remember truly being engrossed in, sitting down in the morning to play it, and before I knew it my mom was home from work and the sun was setting. The week I had rented that was the fastest week of my summer vacation. So what kept me drawn in? A constant cycle of engagement. Every day was a race against the clock while mentally calculating what tasks I needed to complete. First was the cows and chickens, then harvesting/watering crops, then if I had time socializing with the villagers. I'd be plotting several days ahead of what I wanted to do and what my plan would be. Something was always happening, there was always something to think about, and in the end I was never bored.

Yet I would not say I was "immersed" in the game world of Harvest Moon. Unless we instead define "engagement" as a catalyst, and it can lead to immersion. I may not have felt the game world of Harvest Moon was real, but my mind had molded itself to fit into the laws and rules of the game world. My mind stopped thinking about what it needed to do in my world, completely dedicated instead to whatever my avatar required.

I think there are probably times when you feel "in character" and still are in a state of flow with the mechanics, or even in a state of investigating and interpreting the mechanics. Maybe it helps that I am the sort who has spent time reading meaning into everyday physics, but I've explored and mastered magic systems in games while still wondering about the theological ramifications of the way they work both mechanically and narratively.

So many interesting things!

wordsmythe wrote:

I think there are probably times when you feel "in character" and still are in a state of flow with the mechanics, or even in a state of investigating and interpreting the mechanics. Maybe it helps that I am the sort who has spent time reading meaning into everyday physics, but I've explored and mastered magic systems in games while still wondering about the theological ramifications of the way they work both mechanically and narratively.

I think the two can definitely go hand in hand, and I don't think cceserano was saying they couldn't, just that they didn't in his experience of Harvest Moon.

Are you saying, Wordsmythe, that when you are engagded/immersed in a game in that way, you think of the mechanics of the game as part of the world of the game, just like actual physics is part of the real world?

With systems of magic-use this makes sense to me, because they obviously have a narrative aspect to them and are acknowledged by the characters (to a certain extent, of course the characters don't talk about "skill points" and such.)

It is an intriguing idea to do the same with other mechanics. But, considering how much of a game is the mechanics, they are, of course, one of the things one has to consider on some level if one is going to appreciate the game.

Are you saying, Wordsmythe, that when you are engagded/immersed in a game in that way, you think of the mechanics of the game as part of the world of the game, just like actual physics is part of the real world?

Yeah. I guess I am the born target audience for Fantasy Aristotle Simulator RPG.

wordsmythe wrote:
Are you saying, Wordsmythe, that when you are engagded/immersed in a game in that way, you think of the mechanics of the game as part of the world of the game, just like actual physics is part of the real world?

Yeah. I guess I am the born target audience for Fantasy Aristotle Simulator RPG.

I'd play it. Put me down for the Kickstarter.

Lol. Sounds great. But the developers better know their stuff.

wordsmythe wrote:
Are you saying, Wordsmythe, that when you are engagded/immersed in a game in that way, you think of the mechanics of the game as part of the world of the game, just like actual physics is part of the real world?

Yeah. I guess I am the born target audience for Fantasy Aristotle Simulator RPG.

Interesting. The only game that leaps to mind for me in which the developer obviously intended a game mechanic to be part of the world is Fez, but that game is kind of self-conscious about being a game and pretty surreal in its setting (I loved it).

I've always thought of the mechanics and story of a game as interrelated, but closer to parallel elements than actually being part of the same "sub-created" world. This might have something to do with the fact that a lot (most?) game mechanics are meant to be like metaphors for actions in the real world like shooting, jumping, collecting, etc. So I treat them as I would a figure of speech: something that is meant to be taken for something else.

This new idea is something to ponder...

Don't worry, your more normal ludo/narrative comparison makes a lot more sense most of the time.

I think all gameplay verbs are metaphors. Or at least analogies: even abstract game actions are representations that act as interfaces to the underlying systems. But they're usually abstracted to some degree, so maybe they're more like similes rather than metaphors.

It's a very postmodern move to make the substance of the game mechanics a part of the game fiction, but I think its a stronger effect and often works better than in other media, particularly film. Rear Window is a film about watching a film, but there's a limit to how far that feedback loop can go. If On A Winter's Night A Traveller is a book about reading If On A Winter's Night A Traveller.

There aren't a whole lot of games that explicitly use it, at least not that I'm aware of. One I'm personally fond of is the RPGMaker series The Way which takes the typical RPG mechanic of travel in space equating to progress in the game and creates an entire nomadic culture that is continually travelling in the same direction down an a road. Planescape: Torment is probably one of the best examples, though. The characteristics of the PC in Torment are the intrinsic characteristics of video-game-characters. The character has amnesia because the layer doesn't know the backstory, comes back from the dead because the player can reload, and is cursed to have other characters join the party.

I'm trying to figure out precisely what aspect of "mechanics as an element of the game's world" we're discussing here, because on one hand Spec Ops and Bioshock: Infinite came to mind, and then another the fourth-wall breaking of the Paper Mario series.

And I'm sure someone here would love to bring up Antechamber or The Stanley Parable, but being a filthy dirty console gamer I've not played either of these.

I feel like the willingness to provide contextual meaning to game mechanics is more likely to come up in Japanese games, however. Off the top of my head I am reminded, of all games, Pokemon Black/White and discussing the potential ethics of raising Pokemon so that they could fight (and naturally dismisses it all with Disney-esque love and togetherness moralizing), and Final Fantasy 8 where using the GF's led to the characters eventually developing amnesia.

However, while I love it when a game knows how to tie its mechanics into narrative, I've never been interested in examining ludonarrative dissonance unless there's a real problem. When people bring up the "ludonarrative dissonance" of Tomb Raider or Bioshock: Infinite, I'm pretty much ready to give the middle finger and walk away at this point.

Same if I hear the term "Skinner Box". Hell, I haven't kept up with Extra Credits, but every time I've heard my roommate watching it they've brought that damn term up, and I've read other writers and critics using it frequently as well.

I understand wanting to "smart" games discussion up, but hey, guess what? I've got a long word for you, too! Pseudointellectual Academia. WHEE!

[/rant]

I understand wanting to "smart" games discussion up, but hey, guess what? I've got a long word for you, too! Pseudointellectual Academia. WHEE!

Amen to that!

I'm trying to figure out precisely what aspect of "mechanics as an element of the game's world" we're discussing here, because on one hand Spec Ops and Bioshock: Infinite came to mind, and then another the fourth-wall breaking of the Paper Mario series.

I thought we were making a distinction between, on the one hand, a game's mechanics being more or less representative of something that is "really" happening in the world of the game (like walking over an ammo box in Doom "really" being picking up more ammunition) and, on the other hand, thinking of the game mechanic as it is in itself like a verb that only exists in the "world" of the game and has the same name as a verb in the real world. This latter is the new idea for me.

A kind of stupid example (because there is really no narrative, only a kind of setting) would be "dying" in Counter-Strike. Dying in real life is, of course, a radical change for a person. Dying in Counter-Strike is a minor, temporary inconvenience. But, if the "dying" game mechanic is treated as the nature of death in the "world" of Counter-Strike... that is a strange world. I think it might be hell. =)