Thursday, August 30, 2012

The what and the how:
literature / music adventure / platformer

"Adventure" is a videogame genre generally described as lacking action and speed. In an adventure, many times, there are no enemies to kill and the protagonist hardly bothers to run. The challenges the game has are mental challenges: the famous puzzles. Most of the time is invested on exploring places, having conversations with other characters, picking up items, combining them, giving them to someone in exchange for some information.

Last month, Ron Gilbert wrote a short comment on the right use of slowness in old movies, as opposed to the high speed today's films are expected to tell their stories at, and he wrote the same thing was happening to videogames. He also expressed his concern for today's players who may not have the patience it takes to play old school adventure games (mostly 'cause he lives of making them).

Maybe he's right, maybe not. I didn't want to talk about that. What surprised me was the final line on his post: "A good adventure puzzle never leaves you wondering what to do, only how to do it."

And then I remembered Why adventure games suck?, the incredibly lucid article Gilbert used to open his blog 8 years ago now. And I found a passage that, I think, contradicts the previous quote.
Reward Intent
The object of these games is to have fun. Figure out what the player is trying to do. If it is what the game wants, then help the player along and let it happen. The most common place this fails is in playing a meta-game called "second guess the parser." If there is an object on the screen that looks like a box, but the parser is waiting for it to be called a mailbox, the player is going to spend a lot of time trying to get the game to do a task that should be transparent. In parser-driven games, the key is to have lots of synonyms for objects. If the game is a graphics adventure, check proximity of the player's character. If the player is standing right next to something, chances are they are trying to manipulate it. If you give the player the benefit of the doubt, the game will be right more than wrong. On one occasion, I don't know how much time I spent trying to tie a string on the end of a stick. I finally gave up, not knowing if I was wording the sentence wrong or if it was not part of the design. As it turned out, I was wording it wrong.
The central point is, games shouldn't make existence harder for players. You have to design them so, if the player gets what she's supposed to do, she has no problems doing it.

The essence of adventure: the what

Though there's no evident contradiction (and though the 23 years separating the texts justify any contradiction) I believe this paragraph of Why adventure games suck? is a great description of the adventure genre: a game where the key is the what, never the how.

And I explain: in a traditional platformer (taking an iconic, typically fast genre) the player knows their goal really early, what do they have to do, and the point of the experience is in how they make it. If I'm playing Super Mario Bros. and I see a pit and two monsters throwing hammers in the air, the what is clear from the beginning.

Q: What should I do?
A: Jump over the pit and go forward dodging the hammers.

The how is the game itself. How do you jump over the pit and dodge the hammers is a complex task requiring a pretty specific combination of keys in a particular order and each one during a detailed timed duration. There's no encompassing answer to the question.

Super Mario Bros. is about execution, not planning. The expert player ain't the one who knows what to do (we all know what to do), but the one who can do it without getting it wrong. In adventure games, however, execution is never important. And Gilbert explains it better than anyone: if the player knows what to do, her task is completed, and now the game should only accept her success and make sure the execution's as easy as possible.

The adventure game shows you the rope and the stick, and it probably shows you you're in a pit too and you need to climb out. You don't know what to do in order to get out. You think about it. You reason. You reach the conclusion that maybe you have to tie the rope to the stick. If the game's well designed, the how is trivial.

A: I know I have to tie the rope to the stick. How should I do it?
Q (text adventure): Type "use rope with stick" and then press enter.
Q (graphic adventure): Click the rope in your inventory and then click the stick.

The what already happened, and it was the game itself. In a platformer, saying you have to dodge the hammer and then challenging someone to do it is a fair challenge. In a well designed adventure game, saying you have to tie the rope to the stick and challenging someone to do it is ridiculous, because you just played the game for them, by saying that.

And I'm not saying you can't ask for skill. But the more skill and fast reflexes you require your player to have, the more your game starts absorbing elements from genres outside adventure games. If you need skill to tie the rope, the game's either showing you a minigame or awfully designed.

If a platformer requires you to figure out which way to go or what to do, it's either bad design or the incorporation of another genre's mechanics and tropes to the game.

What Ron Gilbert meant, probably, is subgoals need to be clear. This is useful advice, too. He'd be saying the player has to know she's trying to get out of the pit, but has to figure out how to do it, in the sense of what items to take and what combinations could work.

However, I wanted to use the quote to break the ice and get to this kind of definition I developed: the essence of adventure games, what defines them, is this sort of banality of execution. The emphasis is in planning the solution, not in executing it. Executing it is paperwork, delegable even. All the adventure happens after a problem ends being solved and before the next one starts being solved, but never during the solution.

The banality of literary execution

And while thinking about this stuff, I remembered a pretty peculiar distinction I used to make as a kid between visual art and literature, though now I think it works better between literature and music: in literature, material execution has no value. I mean, writing a literary work isn't part of the creative effort. No other art discipline has this characteristic in such a universal fashion.

When a person writes a song, that writing is obviously a creative, artistic work. But it takes more than just writing it, generally: you also need musicians to play it. And a musician's interpretation has as much if not more artistic value than the original composition of the work.

There's musicians who don't actually write songs at all, but develop an artistic skill to play them. The work ain't complete when the author finishes writing it, but goes on rewriting itself on every new execution.

In literature there's no such thing. Of course, there are similar phenomena outside the artwork: a person can develop a plot, and several writers can do different short stories with that same argument. "Peter and the wolf" by Leopoldo Marechal will surely be different than "Peter and the wolf" by Manuel Puig. But, even if there's something like what I was describing, the literary community will read both stories as two different works of art.

And yet, though "Hasta siempre comandante" by Inti Illimani is drastically different from "Hasta siempre comandante" by Nat King Cole, we conceive them as two versions of the same song.

The music world had to develop different labels for the "composer/author" and the "interpreter." The literature world has no such labels 'cause it didn't need'em. That's why Borges, when he published "Emma Zunz," had to clarify the circumstances of the story's redaction on the book's epilogue, instead of using the much simpler solution the music world could've provided:

Lyrics and music: Cecilia Ingenieros.
Arrangements: Jorge Luis Borges.

A musician can decide to develop the skill to execute several songs. This skill is tested every time she plays a song. In literature, on the contrary, redacting a previously written poem by someone else will hardly impress your future partner. Literature gives no value to execution.

And this is no surprise for anyone. Writers know this since long ago and have frequently used it to show how silly would it seem for literature writing to behave like music execution.

There's the story about that writer who claimed to have memorized the poem "En la masmédula" by Girondo, in order to some day write it as it is, from beginning to end. Or, bringing Borges back, he wrote his short story "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote," in which a writer decides his literary masterpiece will be writing the Quixote again, identical word by word to Cervantes' version.

What? How?

It's simple. Imagine two people: A is at the computer playing a game with a US soldier killing Arabs, he needs to stay focused and have good aim. B is sitting on a couch, giving instructions to A. Who is really playing the game? And the answer is A.

Now the situation repeats, but A's playing a graphic adventure! B, from the couch, tells him where to click, what keys to press, whom to talk with and what objects to grab and combine. The real player's B! Though the position relative to the computer is exactly the same as in the previous example.

If A's playing a kick-ass trumpet solo and B, from her couch, is giving him directions, the one who's effectively doing the artistic work that requires a musical competence is A.

But when A's typing a short story while B, from her couch, dictates the words, B's the real author of the short story.

Playing an adventure game and writing a literary work are activities oriented towards intellectual work. Playing platformers or shooters and executing a musical work are activities based on a more contrete work, direct, much more corporal. And what I've been trying to say with all this is that maybe, just maybe, my incompetence with action-centered games and my complete lack of musical talent aren't as unrelated as I always thought they were.