Game Design as Make-Believe: Depiction vs NarrationS

Based upon part six of the Mimesis as Make-Believe serial.

In Walton's make-believe theory of representation, there are in effect two different ways in which representations can be constructed: they may be perceptual in nature i.e. making use of one or more of our senses, in which case they are considered a depiction, or they may be verbal in nature, in which case the vast majority of cases can be interpreted as narrations, that is, sentences uttered by a person or people, and even situations that do not immediately appear to constitute a narrated text can still be interpreted this way by construing a figuratively "omniscient narrator". To close this serial examining game design as make-believe, we will look at how these kinds of representation work in the space of games.

Depiction can mean far more than visual image. Walton suggests that a depiction is "a representation whose function is to serve as a prop in reasonably rich and vivid perceptual games of make-believe." Thus, an audio game like Studio Hunty's In the Pit uses a purely aural representation for its play (as, for that matter, does MB Games Simon for blind players). Even in the case of visual representations, the audio can be hugely effective: Marty O'Donnell & Jay Weinland's sound design for Halo: Combat Evolved added enormously to the quality of the representation, arguably more than the graphics team since other games were comparable in graphical quality at the time of its release but few games at that time has such attention to detail in the construction of the soundscape.

From the perspective of game design as make-believe, depictions also frequently include tactile elements. The success in 1988 of the Atari arcade game Hard Drivin' had as much to do with its pioneering force feedback controller as its use of 3D polygons, both essentially new to the driving game genre. Similarly, Nintendo's Rumble Pak accessory was introduced in April 1997 and immediately created a stir, so much so that Sony had their first DualShock controller available in Japan before the end of the year. (Cinematic experiences have also been enhanced with tactility, of course – from William Castle's use of joy buzzers to shock the audience of The Tingler in 1959, to modern sound systems, which produce bass rumbles powerful enough to allow every explosion to be felt in the bodies of the audience).

Game Design as Make-Believe: Depiction vs NarrationS

The closely related senses of taste and smell have been rather less often used in games, although of course Steve Meretzky's Leather Goddesses of Phobos, published by Infocom in 1986, famously came with a scratch and sniff card as a prop providing seven different odours. The card was less about adding to the representational elements of the game, however, and more about setting up gags. For instance, the first use of the card is in the toilets at the very beginning of the game... but transpires, to the relief of the player, to be a day old slice of pizza. Some boxes of chocolates use taste as a play mechanic by offering a Russian roulette-esque circumstance (such as, by hiding one chilli chocolate among sweet flavours), an idea gainfully deployed as a marketing gimmick for the mixed chocolate brand Revels in the UK.

The depictive elements of videogames fall less to game designers (who nonetheless may have key influence in what will be depicted) and more to the graphic artists and sound designers, whose toolkit overlaps enormously with other media. Nonetheless, thinking about how to exploit the functional possibilities inherit in those depictions can be a key contribution a game designer can make to a videogame project. Good examples of this practice include the use of arrows in the graphic design of the corridors in Halo to help guide players, for instance, and the inclusion of ammo counters within the gun designs (rather than an overlaid HUD), or the distinctive sound of the nirnroot in Oblivion that both helps players find them, and adds to the richness of the fictional world. In game design as make-believe, the game designer should be aware of the opportunities for using depictions – visual, audio and tactile – to carry information to the player, without damaging the integrity of the fictional world.

Of course, graphics are excessively valued in the review of videogames. This perhaps reflects the extent to which the visual has become central in most modern cultures, or it may reflect the greater richness of the visual field to all but blind players (for whom the soundscape can be far more richly resolved). Nonetheless, in creating props to assist players in imagining, outstanding sound design can make a vast difference, and the use of stereo provides opportunities for gameplay that are not often exploited. The sword-compass in Shadow of the Colossus could easily have been rendered as a keening tone that harmonised in the correct direction (perhaps with font sized used to represent this effect for deaf players).

Whereas in hitting out to a mass market audience one can expect depictions to have the most importance, in appealing to the gamer hobbyist the potential of verbal representations can be significantly greater. Narrations generally require greater imagination to be appreciated, as the relative popularity of films versus novels demonstrates, but of course the dedicated player of games generally has make-believe skills that can be used to great effect. The fact that text is radically cheaper than any kind of depiction only adds to their usefulness, although publishers in the videogame industry are increasingly unwilling to resort to text – aiming always for a larger audience, the assumption is always that text must be recorded as voice. There are times when this might be a mistake. For a computer role-playing game, a more imaginative and literate audience can generally be assumed, for instance.

Most use of words inside videogames provides supplemental materials to flesh out the fictional world. One thinks naturally of the use of books in computer RPGs, or of memos, letters, dossiers and so forth in games like the Resident Evil series. They are only centrally used as a representation in text adventures (and their largely indistinguishable successors, interactive fiction). Walton actually mentions these kinds of games in his book, noting that interactive fiction, like improvisational theatre, allows the artist to "customise the work for the game any particular appreciator might play with it". This is viable in text because of the supreme cheapness of developing in this form; it becomes radically more expensive to do something similar with depictions.

The commercial decline of text adventures reflects the greater imagination required to enjoy the form, and thus the smaller audience that can be reached, and it is safe to assume that the golden age of verbally represented videogames has passed. That said, the ease of developing within a verbal representation framework allows it to survive (under its "rebranded" name of interactive fiction) as a niche artform. It is interesting to note that, in the very early days of computer gaming, verbal representation was the norm, and there were a great many styles of game that used it, such as the popular 1971 (unlicensed) Star Trek text game. Of course, once graphical forms became readily available, these older forms essentially died out.

In boardgames, verbal representation principally finds its way into games through the use of cards. In Monopoly, of course, both the Chance and the Community Chest cards are a means of prescribing random imagined events such as it being the player's birthday, having to pay a fine, or coming second in a beauty contest (pictured above). The efficiency (in terms of the cost to produce) of delivering narrative material this way makes it a popular mechanic in hobbygames with a more story-like play. Fantasy Flight's Arkham Horror and Battlestar Galactica games both use card-based mechanics to supply narrations that generate an ad hoc plot via random methods. Something similar can be seen in Digital Eel's Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, which uses similar mechanics under the hood of its videogame façade.

Some hobbygamers, however, baulk at this kind of collision between story and boardgames, claiming that they are merely restricted forms of tabletop role-playing games. This may be fair, but of course by reducing the burden on the imagination (by using counters and cards to drive the process) these kind of games can appeal to players who might struggle with a role-playing game, or who simply lack the time to pursue one, since the play of a tabletop role-playing scenario can consume dozens or even hundreds of hours as the players develop and improvise their story together.

Game Design as Make-Believe: Depiction vs NarrationS

I began this serial talking about tabletop role-playing games, and the degree of imagination required to enjoy them, and it seems a fitting place to end as well. In many respects, the tabletop RPG is the ultimate narration – it's content is only limited by the imagination of its players, and quite literally anything can happen. But by the same token, because the demands it places on the make-believe skills of its players is so high, it's appeal is correspondingly limited. While the boom years of this kind of hobbygame have passed, superseded in commercial terms by videogames, the more modern games owe a gigantic debt to Dungeons & Dragons, as I have written about previously, both in terms of the popularity of fantasy representations among gamers, and more specifically in the mechanics used by everything from World of Warcraft to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Some game designers like to fantasise about the future of videogames and see a digital successor of the tabletop role-playing game as the ultimate in gaming. I myself have indulged in such fantasies in the past. I think, perhaps, that this is somewhat misleading. The tabletop RPG is already the pinnacle of its form, since its players have no limitations whatsoever in the content of their play. And if there were the technology to fully depict visually and aurally what goes on in such games, would it not still need players of greater imagination to drive the stories? Without such players, the analogy to the RPG is vacuous, and given what we now know about the appeal of videogames to the mass market of players it seems something akin to a Star Trek: The Next Generation "holodeck" game would be far less likely to resemble a tabletop RPG than a shooter or other action game with more constrained prescriptions to imagine, or perhaps even more likely, a real world sport like football or skeet shooting.

For game design as make-believe, the most important lesson to learn is that what drives the play of any game – both in terms of the representational and the functional elements – is the players themselves. It is the players who set the limit on what can be imagined and enjoyed, and without them any game is thoroughly pointless. The mechanics, depictions and narrations that are created are merely props to aid the players in their own individual games of make-believe, and as such the task of the game designer now, as it has always been, is to understand what kind of games players want to exercise their imagination within, and then to craft those games with the artistic flair that great games embody.

With my personal thanks to Professor Walton for his support in the construction of this serial.

Reprinted with permission of Chris Bateman.

Chris Bateman is a philosopher, game designer and writer, best known for the games Discworld Noir and Ghost Master, and the books Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames and Beyond Game Design. Chris runs International Hobo, a consultancy specialising in market-oriented game design and narrative, and has worked on more than two dozen videogame projects.

Graduating with a Masters degree in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science, he has since pursued highly-acclaimed independent research into how and why people play games. His most recent player model, BrainHex, is based upon neurobiological principles and the test has been taken by more than 30,000 people.

As well as his many books, Chris writes at two blogs: ihobo.com, which carries pieces on game design and the videogames industry, and Only a Game, which contains an eclectic selection of articles on philosophy, ethics, metaphysics and other nonsense.