Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Is Fiction Just a Wrapper for Games?

In this article, game designer Chris Bateman explores what he calls the wrapping paper fallacy and why it misrepresents the experience of many players.

A popular view of the role of fiction in games is that it is just wrapping paper, enticing the player to start playing before later being discarded as the 'real' game supersedes its mere trappings. This utterly misrepresents the experience of a great deal – perhaps even the vast majority – of players.

I've been told Markku Eskelinen advanced exactly this metaphor of wrapping paper in respect of the fiction of games. I shall call this the wrapping paper fallacy, since while it is true of some players playing some games, it is not true of all players nor of all games. An attempt to restrict the category of games to only those that fit this fallacy would be misguided, and fall under my critique of implicit game aesthetics. Rather than a systematic argument (such as the one I provided in Fiction Denial) what I want to offer here is an observational rebuttal to the fallacy by describing play situations that cannot plausibly be understood in this way.

Perhaps most significantly, the play of tabletop role-playing games is impossible to understand without reference to their fictional content, and it is implausible to suggest such games could be remounted in a different setting with impunity. In fact, the players of these games have strong aesthetic preferences for the kind of fictional worlds they want to play within, and only a tiny minority of tabletop gamers become drawn into the kind of systems-focus that 'discards the wrapping paper'. With freeform and other diceless forms, there is very little system to 'unwrap', which is to be expected in a game form so intimately wed to its fiction. Even considering computer RPGs, which do have systems that might be unwrapped, the fictional content is rarely if ever set aside. If the mechanics come to dominate the fiction, some players will view this with disappointment, some will happily engage with the systems while still enjoying the fiction, and some will have their play destroyed by the intrusion of the rules into their experience.

Similarly, in games that attempt to evoke fear it is implausible to view the fiction as a discardable wrapper since it is always involved in the desired experience. The rules can support the fiction – as Resident Evil's ammo, inventory, and save management mechanics all do – but it is ludicrous to suppose an 'unwrapped' survival-horror game satisfying its audience. Indeed, as current examples such as Amnesia (and older examples such as Clock Tower) demonstrate, the beneficial confluence between fiction and function has great power to enhance the players' experience within the fictional world of horror games, but they cannot do so in disregard to representation. The lamp-management of Amnesia relies precisely upon depiction to work – and this is far from a rare case in videogames. Any game aiming to evoke horror experiences necessarily depends upon its representational techniques, which could never be simply discarded without failing to satisfy the players they attract.

There are also those cases that are experiential in nature, for which mechanics beyond the interface contribute little of importance. The snowboarding game is a great example, particularly when played by those who don't really care if they win. SSX, for instance, provided a very satisfying simulation of mountain descent at speed – but this is not simulation in the game mechanical sense, but in the representational, theatrical sense. Fiction is essential to this experience, and only in the less popular 'trick' modes of such games is there any possibility of 'unwrapping'. Indeed, what would it mean to 'unwrap' the downhill descents? To think solely in terms of the branch points on the route, and to set aside the sensory experience entirely? It is not plausible to think that anyone could be engaged solely in the route-management aspect of a snowboarding game, since the vertiginous fiction of the snow-capped mountainside is precisely the main attraction.

Another example is the sports game, which relies for its appeal upon its fiction and the veracity of its content to the sports they are modelled upon. When a group of friends play 2-on-2 football with a FIFA videogame, it misdescribes their experience to suggest the representation is set aside so they can focus on the rules of football. This would be nonsense! Rather, the fact that it is fictional that your team is fighting for victory on a digital pitch is quintessential to the pleasure of such games. Even in the case of something like the Statis Pro tabletop sports games, which have game mechanics beyond the rules of the sport being simulated, the appeal is always that you are (fictionally) playing with real teams and real players. If you take off the wrapping paper, there is no reason to continue playing at all.

Rather than the image of the mechanics as a desirable present wrapped up in pretty but ultimately forgettable wrapping paper, a better point of reference in respect of the kinds of play described above (and many other instances) would be the relationship between representation and function in gallery artworks. The interest in the painting is primarily in what it represents – in the picture. Familiarity will allow the player of such an artwork to see past the fiction and enjoy unveiling the skills of the creator – Van Gogh's brush work, the pigmentation of the old masters, the impressionists' ability to imply through colour. But at no point does the fiction of the painting cease to matter. Indeed, it is this that the deeper understanding of a painting seeks to explore.

There are indeed some artworks that make the functional components more central to their experience – Jim Warren's Ripping sequence, for instance, or the blank canvases displayed in the Hayward Gallery's Invisible: Art of the Unseen exhibition. No doubt there are some appreciators of contemporary art who prefer such invention to more conventional paintings. But we should not confuse the tastes of a subset of those who appreciate art for the experiences of everyone who can enjoy a painting. The same is just of true of games. The wrapping paper fallacy makes a minority experience into a model for a vast and diverse landscape of play, a model that is much more parochial than its advocates tend to admit. Theorists of games need to spend much more time watching how people play and much less time treating their own experiences as universal. Only when we actually explore how games are played by everyone can game studies really claim to be studying games.

[This article originally appeared on International Hobo's blog and is reprinted with permission.]

Chris Bateman is a game designer best known for the games Discworld Noir and Ghost Master, the books Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, 21st Century Game Design and Beyond Game Design: Nine Steps Toward Creating Better Videogames,and his eclectic philosophy blog, Only a Game. Until 2012, Bateman was the managing director of International Hobo Ltd, a consultancy specializing in market-oriented game design and narrative. He has worked on more than forty published games.


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