Friday, July 30, 2010

Dimensional conflict: diversion vs. expression

While I mentioned in Three-dimensional games that games with the greatest magnitude in all three dimensions will be considered the best, this isn't to say that dimensions won't occasionally come into conflict with each other.  In other words, it is possible that attempting to increase the magnitude along one axis will decrease the magnitude along another axis.

I want to focus on a specific conflict that can arise when trying to maximize the magnitude along every dimension: the conflict between the demand of diversion to fill time and the demand of expression to reduce the time filled.

While I don't doubt that all readers would understand why diversion demands the maximum time to be filled, some may believe it outweighs expression's demand to minimize time taken.  Surely expression demands first and foremost the expression of a thought or emotion, with economy of space and time being of secondary concern.

However, I believe that the more one delves into art, the more one finds that the true art of art is that economy.  Given enough time, space, and energy, anyone could express anything...eventually.  The true prize in art is not merely expressing something, but expressing it elegantly.

As in mathematics, elegance in art should be thought of as complexity simplified.  Mathematicians call their greatest equations both "powerful" and "beautiful," which are the same words we use to describe great art.  I believe that what a great equation and a great work of art have in common is the quality that if even the smallest element were removed, the whole thing would fall apart.  This doesn't happen by chance--one of the most important jobs of both the artist and the mathematician is to remove all the extraneous stuff.

Perhaps this should give pause to an industry known for its proclamations of quality based on quantity ("80+ hours of gameplay!").  While even mainstream games appear to be slimming down as a more casually-minded audience picks up the sticks, it is still rare to find the level of pruning in a video game that approaches the mathematician's sense of beauty.  In fact, the thought is so alien to the medium as a whole that it's probably difficult to imagine what an "economic game" would even look like.

And of course the conflict that we started with might have begun brewing in your head by now: that games are often primarily diversion.  That even if you could boil the essence of a game down to 4 minutes, would you want to?

There are two ways out of this dilemma, per usual: an easy way and a hard way.  The easy way is to say, yes, let's just make the game 4 minutes long.  This is a short enough time that players will likely still get hours of diversion from it because they'd keep replaying it--if it were any good.  This is the option I see most widely accepted by game designers who don't like to subject their players to filler content or pretend that the game is 20 hours long when it's really the same 4 minutes repeated over and over again.

The harder way, and the one that is much more rare--which means you have the better shot at glory if you can do it--is to make a game that takes 20 hours to play through because what it is expressing demands 20 hours of gameplay.  In other words, the complexity of the expression is so deep that even after pruning every extraneous element from the game, the game will still take that long to get through.

This is not only a challenge to game designers--it should also be a challenge to players.  Be looking out for the game that accomplishes this.  At each stage of a game, be asking yourself whether this could be part could be cut out with no detriment to the experience.  Demand more of your games--don't desire merely to have your free time wasted.  Expect to have your empty hours replaced with full hours.  Anything else isn't worth your precious time.

1 comment:

Josh "Smokin Hot" said...

The issue of economy in expression is certainly not limited to games alone. Modern consumer culture and especially the movie industry thrive on maximalism--selling audiences the biggest movie with the biggest amount of stuff in it, projected on the biggest possible screen, etc.

It's true, however, that length has become an important selling point for video games in a very unique fashion. Hardcore gamers thrive on huge games with dozens of hours of content, believing that they are enjoying more value for their money; movie audiences, on the other hand, have a hard time sitting through films that last longer than about three hours and twenty minutes. Unless hobbits or James Cameron are involved, of course.

Personally I find myself sometimes experiencing a strange kind of despair when I realize I will never be able to experience all of the content in the games I'm playing. There's just not enough time in my life to complete every single task in games like Red Dead Redemption or Assassin's Creed II. Even though I know I am fully experiencing the story, the world, and the overall emotional experience of the game, I know that I'll never find every hidden item or finish every optional mission. Some would say that's an indicator of how awesome, how epic these games are, but for some reason it makes me feel kind of sad.