Saturday, March 13, 2010

Three-dimensional games, part 4

Over the past few posts, I've briefly described how you can view games in terms of their relationship to three dimensions: diversion, sport, and expression.  The previous two parts explained how to get a visual representation of the dimensions and how to deal with some of the shortcomings this model has in it.

In this part, I will add the third and final dimension onto the dimension map.  This dimension is expression, and it is the one that I care most deeply about when it comes to video games (and pretty much most things, coincidentally).  Most game-makers, game-players, and non-game-players do not think of games in terms of expression, so in the last couple posts, we were free to exclude it as I introduced this dimensional view of games.  But now we finally get to add it in our visualization, which is important, because it will reveal a hidden side to games and explain why I disagree with so many of my friends when we are talking about games.

But for now, let's just map it out.  As I mentioned in the first post, it is difficult for the human brain to visualize something in true 3D.  In fact, it might be impossible.  This is because even if a human has more than one eye, the two eyes are placed so close together it is nearly impossible to get anything above a vague sense of depth.  This is why optical illusions work, including the illusions of depth now taken for granted in representational paintings and film.  We see, and therefore think, in terms of the x and y axes, and have to use cognitive tricks to reveal the z axis.

Therefore, the best way to visualize something--especially an abstract idea--is in two dimensions.  So not only are we going to collapse the universes of diversion, sport, and expression into straight lines, we are going to flatten this three-dimensional multiverse, as well.

While there are several ways to collapse three-dimensional objects into two-dimensional objects, for our purposes, it's best to imagine the axes forming an upside-down "Y."  To do so, we are simply going to turn that dimensional map we created in Part 2 and rotate it downward, and then we're going to attach our third dimension to the right angle they create so that it creates two 135° angles, as such:

The dimensions now create an upside-down "Y"

That was easy enough.  Now I'm just going to have to explain how it works.  Functionally, it's fairly similar the dimensional map we created in Part 2.  We just assign a value to the expression dimension:

The quality of expression is mapped to the Expression axis

...and then we draw two lines to link this value to the line created by the first two dimensions:

The full expression of the quality of a game is a triangle

So now we have a more interesting object when we are discussing video games: not just a line, but a triangle.  Notice that it is apparent when we decrease the expression value to "0" that we get a right triangle (which is what we were getting without realizing it before):

The triangle is a right triangle when the expression value is 0

What is less obvious is that is that if we reduce either of other two dimensional values to "0," we also get a right triangle:

When the diversion dimension is zeroed out, we also get a right triangle

This aspect is the unfortunate distortion we get when collapsing the three-dimensional space into two dimensions, but as long as we remember that the only way to get a right triangle is to assign one dimension a 0-value, we'll be okay.  This also allows us to view two dimensions in 2-D map we created in Part 2 if the other dimension is assigned a 0-value.

But don't worry much about the complexities of dealing in three-dimensional space.  Just as a longer line symbolized a higher quality game in terms of two dimensions, a triangle with a larger surface area symbolizes a higher quality game in terms of three.

We learned from Part 2 that this dimensional construction makes clear the folly of overlooking dimensions.  This furthers the point--while two games might be equal in terms of diversion and sport, the surface area of the triangle may be greatly different depending on the expression-value. 

Also notice that in this construction, these dimensions are equal.  Zeroing out any of them will result in a literally flat game.  To maximize the surface area of that triangle, the game must have a high value in all three dimensions.


Remy77077 said...

I might be pre-empting a forthcoming post, but I'm interested to know whether you are considering expression mainly on the behalf of the players of a game, or from the developers of a game, or perhaps both?

Ferguson said...

Keep the comments flowing, buddy. Don't worry about pre-empting any posts because as soon as I write them, they get posted.

That question is very interesting, very complex, and has been and will be a major topic of discussion regarding artistic endeavors.

I wrote out a huge response to the question, but in the end what I was really trying to say is this: both. Both in different ways.

That actually would be a good subject for a post!

Josh "Smokin Hot" said...

I agree with the other person's comment-- TALK MORE ABOUT EXPRESSION!!! I want to know your thoughts. If you wrote out a huge response to the earlier comment, please post it.

I want very much to hear your thoughts on expression, because one of your other posts downplays the importance of certain elements I would consider strongly linked to expression in games. You wrote, "Cutscenes don't matter. Voice-acting doesn't matter. Blood effects don't matter. Dynamic shadows don't matter. Historical accuracy doesn't matter. Texture resolutions don't matter. Soundtracks don't matter. Story doesn't matter."

Reading your blog has helped me to realize that I place a very high degree of importance on the story/atmosphere element of a game. I enjoy games that involve me in the story, characters, and world that they present for me to explore. As a result, I find it difficult to understand a theory in which story completely doesn't matter to the overall worth of a game.

To use a specific example, I would say that Gears of War and Uncharted are both very entertaining, well-made third person action games. But Uncharted involves me very strongly in its story and characters, while Gears of War tells a very adolescent story limited to big thick dudes shouting testosterone-fueled one-liners at each other. Even though I consider Gears of War to be a more innovative and influential game from a pure gameplay standpoint, I would call Uncharted the superior game without hesitation. Its story, characters, and atmosphere are more expressive.

It sounds as though you intend to say that games should primarily focus on "expressing" ideas through the rules or mechanics of gameplay, while completely disregarding the artistic statement that games can present using storytelling, graphics, and audio. Is this correct? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

Ferguson said...

Hey, Josh!

Yes, I believe that games should primarily focus on expression through the rules of the game. However, I don't believe that it's necessary to "completely disregard" other aspects of the game. I think of elements such as cutscenes, graphics, and so on, like a frame on a painting. A good frame should complement the painting, should help create the right atmosphere for the painting, but the frame cannot be the painting and the painting should not be judged according to the frame.

I'll also be sure to get another post about expression out soon to avoid getting all-capped again.

Josh "Smokin Hot" said...

RARRRR!!! All caps are SCARY!!! Sorry if I was a bit overly dramatic, but I'll definitely be interested to read your next post on the subject.

It's fascinating to think about why different people respond to the same game in different ways, and I do believe that I place a high value (higher than most gamers perhaps) on what you describe as the "frame" of the painting. However, I definitely agree that the greatest storytelling in the world couldn't save a game built around broken or illogical rules.