Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
A Childhood in Hyrule

Marty M. O'Hale | 5 Jun 2007 08:00
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Heterogeneous and Homogenous Experiences
Widespread game-playing increases the homogeneity of designers' experiences in two respects.

First, like the film industry, the game industry is dominated by a handful of prominent titles occupying most of the market. The most obvious example of this is World of Warcraft. Because of the budgets required to make, market and distribute videogames, they inevitably won't be as numerous or as risky as books, board games or even tabletop RPGs. For that reason, game design tends toward homogeneity. Everyone will tend to have played more or less the same games, and those games will be relatively similar to one another.

Second, within a given videogame, a player's experience will be much more predictable than it would be within more freeform experiences where the rules are negotiable. The lack of fixed media and the wheeling and dealing involved in make-believe adventures and tabletop roleplaying leads them to create heterogeneous, even idiosyncratic play experiences. The contrast is driven home by an absurd memory of mine from grade school: two friends playing a game that was nothing more than one relating the preordained plot and fixed puzzles of King's Quest V as the other tried to guess the single solution Sierra had provided in the computer game. It didn't matter that there were dozens of other obvious conceivable solutions based on his descriptions; the "game master" had been enraptured by what he'd played on his computer.

Autonomous and Subordinate Play
In one of the all-time great moments of fanboy incitement, Nintendo boasted that Zelda was superior to Final Fantasy because the latter was merely a movie to be watched, while the former was an adventure to be played. But while Nintendo surely was correct that Zelda offered more freedom than could be had in linear console RPGs, at bottom, the player in Zelda is still subordinate to the designer. He visits the dungeons in a predictable order, solves problems according to rigid rules of engagement and navigates the world along fairly narrow paths. If one were to write an account of a play-through of Zelda, no one would call the player the director of the action. At best, he's an actor performing minor bits of improv.

This stands in stark contrast to board games like Axis & Allies or Risk. In those games, players have the ability to define the rules to some extent (which is to say, they are autonomous). Complex treaties or trades can be hashed out in board games, which can immeasurably alter the course of play. In a well-managed tabletop session, players will invent unexpected solutions to puzzles presented by the game master, who will respond not by rejecting the solution but by expanding his concept of the scenario. Tabletop games have a way of ending up somewhere quite different from where the GM planned; Zelda always ends with Link killing Gannon.

When a player is autonomous, his engagement with the game is active and creative. The subordinate player is passive and receptive. That is not to say that the experience of subordination is necessarily less fun or meaningful than the experience of autonomy; reading Hamlet or watching The Princess Bride is subordinate, while playing with stuffed animals is autonomous, yet a convincing case could be made that the former are deeper and more fun than the latter. Games, out of necessity, strike a balance between these poles, because they must permit some freedom but also provide rules. Yet there is a trend to hew toward player subordination, in part because such games are cheaper and easier to make, but also because players may no longer know any better.

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