Monday, May 11, 2009

The Cloven Designer (Part I)

In Part I of this article, scholar Altug Isigan looks at Italo Calvino's novel, The Cloven Viscount, in order to discover game design insights from drama theory.

In this article I will approach game difficulty from a game writer’s perspective and eventually propose a definition for “easiest level” in games which is derived from drama theory. I will discuss the issue particularly around Italo Calvino’s novel The Cloven Viscount, which is a masterful piece of literature about the virtues of evil (and the many evils of virtue). I believe that Calvino’s book does not only tell us something about the relation of human nature and difficulty in games, but also about an essential quality of the successful game designer: her ability to treat the players good or evil without annoying them.
Too bad to be evil...

Before we get into Calvino’s The Cloven Viscount, let us first consider a quote of Alfred Hitchcock in which he states what he believes to be determining the quality of a narrative. In an interview, he says: “The more successful [the design of] the villain, the more successful the story”. (Chion; 1987: 165)
Many writers consider this statement as golden advice. At the core of the idea lies the principle of ‘maintaining the appeal of the bad guy’. Interestingly enough, applying this principle will result in a boost to the credibility of the good guy.

The villains in a script need as much of the writer’s care and attention as the protagonists. Villains should have their own unique and sophisticated ways, and they should be as skillful and intelligent as the protagonists. Even if we (as readers or players) are not in support of the villains way of conduct, we should still understand their motivations and reasons. Their evil should be grounded in something that makes sense to us, and should not feel like they were deliberately installed as trouble-making mechanisms. Villains that lack the good reasons for what they do which look flat. Don’t forget: even the devil has his reasons.

Evil for the sake of evil often looks ridiculously mindless and feels mechanical at best. Such bad designed evil has a devastating impact on the respect we feel towards the story as a whole. The more we fear and respect the villain for what he is and what he is capable of, the more we feel that solving the conflict is a true challenge to us. We enjoy it better when we can test ourselves against an exciting and “real” challenger.

...too good to be virtuous

We need to add that a purely virtuous character feels as fake as a purely evil character. In his novel The Cloven Viscount, Italo Calvino illustrates in a wonderful way the problem of characters that are pure evil or purely virtuous: The story revolves around a viscount who during war is being split into two halves by a cannonball. The viscount survives the incident and returns home as a “half person”. We soon find out that what had survived the incident was his evil half. As we read on, this purely evil half (which carries out its evil like if it were a task, and for no apparent reason) gradually turns into a parody of evil, because it becomes evil that borders at the ridiculous.

Things get worse when after a while the other half, which was thought to be dead, arrives in town. We are not surprised when this half turns out to be completely good. Soon the two halves start to compete against each other. However, the good half, which exercises its virtues because it sees it as an obligation to be good and helpful, invents for itself one welfare campaign after another, and by doing so, becomes so annoying and burdensome for those who are subject to this goodness that the people in the town realize that “the good half is worse than the bad half” (Calvino; 2000: 88). The narrator of the story summarizes the arising situation perfectly: “Our emotions lost all their colors and depth, because we felt completely lost between evil and virtue. Both pure evil and pure virtue were against human nature.” (p.89)

Which half of you designed the game?

What about games and game designers? Can they make us feel lost between good and evil through their design decisions? Unfortunately, we have to answer this question with a ‘yes’. Acting against human nature can be observed in a many game designers design philosophies and in player treatment that results from these philosophies.

For example there is this type of designer that always wants to challenge the player to the ultimate point (based on the argument that games should be designed for the “true gamer”). But often the desire to push the limits of the player, crosses an invisible border in which the player’s encounter with the game’s mechanics and system does not feel like a challenge anymore, but turns into a frustrating experience governed by some arbitrary decisions of the designer. The players will find it difficult to understand why the game is so much hostile towards them, and why it continues to be hostile even if it no longer serves a purpose. We could say that in such a design it is the evil half of the ‘cloven designer’ which is at work.

The good half of the cloven designer on the other hand, will be so good and helpful that the players will not be allowed to experience and learn something by and for themselves. The designer will always and insistently help, even when it is no longer needed (or worse, when it was not even asked for); this designer will come with universal solutions that recognize only one idealized form of a “user”, and will fail to notice individual differences and the importance of context. The game will become unbearable because of its overwhelming and unstopable help system. As an old proverb says: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Altug Isigan is a scholar at the Eastern Mediterranean University, Department of Radio-TV and Film, in sunny Famagusta, Cyprus, where he is writing a dissertation on narrative in games. You can read more of his work at his blog, the Ludosphere.


Alan Jack said...

A beautifully poetic piece, that marries up perfectly with Jesper Juul's scientific study of failure in games:

You're both essentially just describing the Falstein diagram of Flow, which in turn lends itself to being mentioned alongside Clint Hocking's diagram of Flow from his 2009 GDC talk:

"I believe that Calvino’s book does not only tell us something about the relation of human nature and difficulty in games, but also about an essential quality of the successful game designer: her ability to treat the players good or evil without annoying them."

It says something truly sad and tragic about our industry that my first response to this was "wait a sec ... HER? ..."

Anonymous said...


thank you very much for this very nice comment. I'm glad to see that I got my message accross; your reaction to it confirms this to me.

It was surprising to me that you said that this article marries perfectly with one of Jesper's articles, because I often feel that we take different positions with him, but maybe this is my chance to re-think his work and focus more on the similarities in our approaches. Thank you very much for pointing this out to me.

I barely remember Falstein's diagram and I had no idea about Hocking's presentation at this year's GDC, so thank you too for reminding me of those.

And finally, I had to smile when you emphasized the word 'her' in your comment. We definitely need more of 'her' wisdom in game design :) With that, I don't mean the industry needs more women that are appreciated because they can do what men do. It needs more women that are appreciated because they think in ways men don't do.

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