The entire day posts are getting too long‐Monday’s was almost 4000 words—so I’m going to break talks I particularly liked out into separate posts.
Wednesday 10:30am–11:30am: “Dynamics: The State of the Art”, by Clint Hocking
This is my favorite talk of the conference so far; I really hope he posts his slide deck and more thoughts, because I’ve only barely begun to process it, and I’m sure there’s a lot I missed. My notes:
A question Chris Hecker raised in the 2009 GDC: how do games mean?
In film, there’s something called the Kuleshov effect. Audiences read emotional response from context: an identical actor in an identical scene (literally identical, same film spliced in twice) is read differently based on adjacent footage. Editing is key in generating core meaning of film. Without understanding that, cuts would be at odds with higher-level meaning; we’d avoid cuts, do wide-angled shots, avoid opening and closing scenes while focusing on characters. Film would look like stage plays, but missing the fundamental power of that medium.
So: how do games mean? Answer: via their dynamics. Which are the run-time behavior of mechanics.
E.g. to whip in Spelunky, you need to raise it before you can hit. Leads to atmosphere of deliberation.
Does meaning come from rules governing the whip, or the way the player plays using the whip? Problematic word: “play”. Games are like player pianos. Different in that the player piano can play by itself: think instead of a player piano roll that’s half of a duet, expecting a human to play the other half. You can weight the piano roll versus the human contribution in different amounts; for video games, both parts are always present.
Splinter Cell (original and Chaos Theory) have meaning more on authored side; Far Cry 2 more on player side.
Chaos Theory is about chaos theory: sensitivity of systems to small changes. Sensitivity, proximity, fragility. Both Splinter Cells; original forced player to follow guard, use thermal vision to read finger prints on keypad. In fact, if you were too good, followed closely enough to not need that, you’d get a game over. Chaos Theory loosened that sort of restriction: use thermal visioning, follow guard, interrogate guard, hack computer, hack door. So add in possibility of domination and precision as meanings.
Far Cry 2. Original concept: human social savagery more savage than savagery of tooth and claw. And that’s still there: can mean that its horrific, intimate, shameful, in Tom Bissell’s playthrough. But in Ben’s permadeath playthrough, took safe options more, so reserved, safe, boring.
For sale: baby shoes, never worn. This abdicates as much as possible in a story to the player, while leaving an irrefutable meaning.
Tetris. Dynamics about precision, anticipation, keeping possibilities alive. But it’s really about itself, not anything in the broader human experience. (Which is completely fine!) How could we change that? Borrow from Train: playing field is a train car at the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto. Each line is a car full of people, will only leave if it’s full. Gameplay otherwise identical.
How do you play? Dutiful servant. Schindler: most fill rows, but leave gaps to trains don’t leave. Saboteur: stack up pieces as high and as quickly as possible.
New potential meanings. Not from the mechanics: from the interplay between mechanics and the game’s fiction.
Street Fighter isn’t about a battle between Ken and Ryu, it’s about a battle between two players. Then, he talked about the Shusai—Kitani match, chronicled by Kawabata in The Master of Go. It’s about a shift in Japanese ideals just before World War 2.
Go has very simple rules. Add in tournament rules: time limits, sealed moves.
120th move: Shusai makes move that sets up battle in middle of the board. Lots of questions for how to respond. Kitani thought for an hour and a half; sealed move.
Sealed move was a forcing move elsewhere. So upshot was that Kitani got an extra two days to think about how to respond in the middle of the board. Shusai felt Kitani had ruined the match. Kitani didn’t see anything wrong. Shusai ended up losing by 5 points, died a year later.
Go isn’t about competing world views of Japan, but this game was. Meaning is a synthesis. Meaning is rigorous. And meaning is instantial, determined by how a specific match is played.
1991: Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost its dominant trading partner. Average Cuban lost 20 pounds over the next four years. But agriculture responded by moving closer to consumer, worked out well.
Dynamism isn’t a feature: it is the fundamental core of how games mean.