I’m rereading The Phenomenon of Life, by Christopher Alexander, in preparation for reading the other books in the series. And, again, I’m blown away by it: if the book contained nothing but the pictures in it, it would be worth it.

But, of course, there’s a lot more to the book than pretty (beautiful, profound) pictures: it’s a theory about the nature of life. (He’s not one to hide the ambition of his goals: the subtitle to the series is “An Essay on the Art of Building and The Nature of the Universe”.) While, of course, my first reaction to such sweeping claims is to roll my eyes at them, I just can’t do that here: he asks too many uncomfortable questions for me to simply ignore him.

Over lunch today (Cafe Brioche, yum), I finished the section talking about how the fifteen fundamental properties appeared in living objects. Which got me thinking: where else do they appear? I have go on the brain these days, and if any game is going to show signs of life, surely that’s the one, so let’s test them.

To my readers who are not go players, I apologize for the lack of context for the following. (And I have suggestions for how you can fix that!) I looked for good go pictures, but had a hard time finding ones I really liked; here’s one famous example, but that’s an abstract picture of a position, and of course in Alexander’s context I really shouldn’t be ignoring the actual physical objects involved. (Unfortunately, people who post pictures of go boards on flickr seem to like to take them from odd angles.) Anyways, let’s go through the properties:

  • Levels of Scale Individual stones, adjacent stones, eyes, living groups, walls, territories. I can’t really imagine cramming in more levels of scale, given that we only have a 19×19 grid to work with! (And, if we talk about the physical objects involved, there are the lines on the board, the grain of the wood, the grain of the white stones, the room you’re playing in.)
  • Strong Centers Thick positions, stones casting influence, the ear-reddening move, the pon-nuki that the proverb tells us is worth thirty points, areas of white or black territory.
  • Boundaries The borders between black and white territories, that can be as proportionately thick and contested as any of Alexander’s examples.
  • Alternating Repetition I’m not convinced that go games do a particularly good job of exhibiting this property. (The go board itself does, a little too rigidly perhaps.)
  • Positive Space Territories expanding against each other. On a conceptual level, the space of two eyes giving life to the surrounding stones.
  • Good Shape I don’t think I have to comment on the importance of this to anybody who has played any go at all.
  • Local Symmetries The go board and stones exhibit this, of course; I’m not sure that positions generally do in a meaningful way. Though I suppose there are some conceptual manifestations of this idea, e.g. the notion of miai.
  • Deep Interlock and Ambiguity White and black positions butting up against each other, a group of one color on the run between two groups of the other color and then, suddenly, turning the tables so the attacker becomes the attacked. (In fact, Alexander has a picture of a go board in his discussion of this property.)
  • Contrast Black and White. Life and Death. Thickness and Weakness.
  • Gradients I’m not sure the game does a great job of manifesting this.
  • Roughness Boundaries between positions are never straight lines. Leaving a position slightly unfinished to move on to other areas of the game. The fact that people don’t place the stones exactly on the intersections: this stone is a little up, that one is a little to the right.
  • Echoes I’ll have to think about this one a bit more; I think there’s something to it in the go context, but I’m not sure yet.
  • The Void The board at the start of a game. Moyos. Large territories. The fact that (in Japanese rules, at least), you win by enclosing more empty space than your opponent.
  • Simplicity and Inner Calm The game’s made out of a board, a grid, and black and white stones, nothing else.
  • Not-Separateness The effects that stones have on adjacent stones, that groups have on adjacent groups, that (in the context of a ladder) a stone on one side of the board can determine tactical success or failure on the other side of the board.

Works for me; maybe this Alexander chap is on to something? Makes me wonder if I could improve my go game by concentrating more on expressing his properties.

What about a video game example? (I don’t expect them to do nearly as well as go.) I just finished Half-Life 2, so let’s use it as an example.

And, immediately, I run into a problem. The examples in his book are physical objects; in my go example, the physical positions of stones gave enough grist for my analytic mill that I didn’t have to go beyond that. But just talking about the physical layout of (the abstract space in) a video game leaves out so much of what makes them important! Not sure what to do about that; I’ll follow my nose and see where I end up.

  • Levels of Scale Small objects, large objects and characters, vehicles, rooms, buildings, areas, levels, the game as a whole? Shooting a weapon, fighting an enemy, fighting a group of enemies? And perhaps some of my earlier complaints about excessive repetition could be ways in which the game misjudged this?
  • Strong Centers The strikingly different character of some of the levels? The clear distinctions between types of weapons? Alyx? Large battle set pieces (boss battles, effectively) punctuating levels? Different places to take cover (with different virtues) in those battles? Maybe the levels could have used more of this in their physical layout, actually: if I’m going through section after section that feels the same, that’s a sign that I wanted more strong centers.
  • Boundaries At first, I thought the game did a bad job of the sort of thick boundaries that Alexander is talking about. And there really isn’t that much transition from section to section. Then again, maybe the mini-levels (typically involving hooking up with the resistance) that punctuate the longer levels are an example of this? Or the approach to the prision (with bugs!) is a boundary between the travel level and the prison itself? So now I think there are some, but that the game could use more.
  • Alternating Repetition Battle, quiet, battle, quiet. Building, outside, building, outside.
  • Positive Space The buildings, the roads and the plazas between the buildings? That works to the extent that, for example, you can enter the areas on either side of a road; to the extent that you can’t, I don’t think roads feel like positive space. So they probably weren’t in the rural levels; the urban levels may or may not have had some positive space, I’d need to have a better global feel for the map.
  • Good Shape Hmm, not sure I felt this one too strongly. At least on a larger scale, maybe the individual objects did a better job of manifesting this.
  • Local Symmetries Maybe present in the objects/buildings; not sure. Not seeing it on a more conceptal level.
  • Deep Interlock and Ambiguity I’m having a hard time finding good examples of this.
  • Contrast The “Alternating Repetition” examples? The different feels of different levels? The fight of good versus evil? Not sure.
  • Gradients The progression of enemy strength, of the strength of weapons, of the number of options you have available.
  • Roughness I think the game does a great job of this in its physical design, the way buildings are lived-in, run down without descending into ruins.
  • Echoes Again, I’ll have to think about this one; this may be the property that I understand the least.
  • The Void Almost completely lacking (unfortunately the case for most video games). Maybe that’s why the “carried on a track through the Citadel” scene made such a big impact on me?
  • Simplicity and Inner Calm Again, pretty much lacking. Though the game did a decent job of sticking to a not-too-large set of gameplay elements. (E.g. the limited set of weapons.)
  • Not-Separateness At first, I was going to vote against this one: you couldn’t make choices that had significant ramifications elsewhere, the plot was going to do what it wanted whether you liked it or not. Then I went and read the description of the property, and now I’m not so sure: you are presented in the context of a larger world with signs of its own history. So maybe it’s not as lacking here as I thought.

Hmm. It seems like an interesting enough set of analytical categories, at least. And I suspect game designers could use the list to improve the design of their games. And I’d be very curious to see games that did a better job of bringing out The Void without having it dominate the games. Hyrule Field in Ocarina?

Of course, I came to Alexander through the programming community, specifically through groups influenced by his thoughts on patterns. (Which haven’t really lived up to their potential: Kent Beck seems to be the only person getting much mileage out of building a pattern language at multiple scales.) Can I use these ideas in my programming? Can I tell live code apart from dead code by how well it expresses these properties?

Something to think about. But later; this post is already quite long enough, and I’ll need some time to get my thoughts straight in that area anyways. Time to start looking at code through different lenses, though.

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