Tabletop RPGs & Play Without Games

Are tabletop roleplaying games like dungeons & dragons games? How about ones that de-emphasize rules-based play & focus on the improv aspect, like ones based on apocalypse world?

Usually, yes, but not always. They’re games paired with Roleplaying, or Communal Storytelling. Depending on your group, the amount of game and amount of storytelling can vary. Some groups play tabletops as straight-up games, some of them use the systems as ways of mediating communal storytelling and generating interesting outcomes for the story. Within the framework of communal storytelling success or failure isn’t so important, it’s all about working together to make an interesting story. To this end, DMs rig outcomes, fudge die rolls, and don’t stick to strict game rules, they don’t (usually) compete with the players and the rules are set up to where most of the interactions between DMs and players are indirect, facilitated through impersonal die rolls. There’s even one tabletop RPG called Dread, focused on horror, which features no stats or dice of any kind. Instead, situations are resolved by pulling a block from a Jenga tower, and if the tower falls over, you get caught by the monster or whatever.

In the transition to digital, the meaning of role playing game changed. It stopped being about communal storytelling, with everyone making up a bit of the story, and started being about stats (which even relative to tabletop roleplaying games makes a bit of sense, since the innovation of the earliest Tabletop RPGs over the war games they were inspired by was the addition of stats tied to a character that grow over time). This is why a lot of discourse on RPGs is so confused, because people take the name of the genre literally. See all the people arguing about whether Legend of Zelda is an RPG or not. It fit right in next to the action RPGs of its original time period, but in retrospect it’s very clearly not in the same mold, and some people argue, “but it’s still a ROLE-playing game, I’m playing the ROLE of Link,” or worse, get confused and ask how any game can be a role-playing game since you play a character’s role in practically every game. Some games still try to fit the mold of communal storytelling by having branching storylines and letting players pick dialogue or characterize the character through personality scores that change over time (like fable’s good and evil points, or mass effect’s paragon and renegade points), but in my opinion you can’t meaningfully roleplay without other people, so RPGs on computer systems will always be a misnomer.

There are types of play that aren’t specifically games, like playing Doctor, or a tea party, or the role-playing exercises in improv groups. These don’t have any form of goal or objective, They’re just intended to produce interesting outcomes rather than establish winners or losers.

Tabletop roleplaying games can run the gamut here, it depends on your specific group.

Games Ontology for Academics Came across this conversation about the most recent story and games thing.. (thread is hard to read whole because twitter is terrible) and I know your position, and that you have a really specific definition of game, but this emphasized to me the difficulty of arriving at a consensus when someone can interpret the press space to advance text thing to fit your definition It also seems clear that just being super reductionist sort of solves it, like, right, pressing space can be called a game, but obviously there is no artistic substance in that aspect, so it’s meaningless to include it in an analysis. How would you address it so that some consensus is reached?

Consensus probably isn’t going to be reached. There’s a lot of cultural issues here that prevent consensus. We have a broad digital entertainment field that is called “games” broadly as a field. Games collectively are a mass medium, bigger than Hollywood, revenue-wise. They’re the medium of a generation.

“Games” has a really complicated ontology. Ian Bogost wrote about what a clusterfuck it is in this article:

When you refer to a game, like Grand Theft Auto, you refer to a bunch of layered concepts wrapped on top of each other. The word “Game” could refer to a bunch of things when you’re talking about GTA. You could mean the physical product sold in stores, you could mean the disc you store in a sleeve, you could mean the source code, you could mean the set of interactions that create challenges in the game, you could mean the contract the player enters into, using the game console as a facilitating device to act out this contract. Continue reading

What can we call Not-Games Software?

You thought of a good name for simulations of space/virtual environments yet?

Nope. I tried looking through similar types of things on wikipedia to see if there was a categorical name for them (but did not find one):

Some candidates I have are:

Video Dreams
I think this one is just cute more than anything. I don’t think it’s descriptive or crunchy enough to actually catch on.

Entertainment Software
This can include stuff like Netflix, so I’m not sure if it’s really specific enough. It’s already used a fair amount, so low bar to adoption.

Promenade Theater/Site-specific Theater/Environmental Theater/Interactive Theater
Applicable to theater productions, but no good word to bridge it to digital media. It’s the physical equivalent to what is commonly done in digital media, you set up a place that allows people to interact in a certain way and see certain things.

Digital Museum
Fairly self-explanatory. A few digital museums actually already exist. Trouble is that people might expect things that resemble real museums a bit more when the media here supports things that are more like Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The word Theme Park also isn’t really appropriate because it’s not really a park.

Digital Playground/Sim Playground/Sim Spaces
Maybe these could be the best term? They’re generic enough that it could fit nearly anything that’s currently being called a game, but more specifically referring to a space than entertainment software, thereby excluding Netflix.

Virtual/Sim Adventures
Bit more imaginative than the previous ones. Virtual/Simulated/Digital are all decent descriptors to point out that this is happening on a computer. Simulator is slightly more generic and can refer to real life simulations too, which may be desirable for a term like this, since there is an analog in medium.

The primary criteria I’d have for a term like this is that it’s short, two words maximum, it’s descriptive, and that it’s easily adoptable, not too far a jump from our existing lexicon. Ideally it would seem like a word/term we always had.

Again, if you guys have any ideas, you’re welcome to send them in. I haven’t gotten any suggestions yet. You can of course use pastebin for longer thoughts.

All those ideas are honestly terrible, lol. Video dreams? Promenade theater??? I really think walking sims and interactive environments are the best terms.

I’m not referring exclusively to walking sims here, I’m trying to come up with an encompassing term for all simulated environments, because games aren’t necessarily simulated environments and simulated environments aren’t necessarily games.

Also promenade theater is a real term.

Think I’ll go with Simulated Environments.

What’s a Game II: Second Impact

Would you consider a visual novel a game? A David Cage/Telltale game an actual game? Why or why not?

Visual novels, no, not usually. Prof Layton and Phoenix Wright are exception, but they’re puzzles, which I don’t think are really like games most of the time.

David Cage: They have QTEs, so I guess sort of. You’re not exactly pursuing success with them frequently, just different storylines, so it’s hard to really say.

TellTale: I played TWD ep 1 and the entire sam and max trilogy. TWD, nah. There’s only different storylines, it’s not about success or failure, just branching paths. Sam & Max is puzzles, which I’ve said I’m iffy on calling games. Continue reading

What’s Wrong With “Fail States”?

What’s wrong with the term fail state?

It’s attached to the definition of game for many people, and it doesn’t mean anything real, so it causes semantic fuckery when people try to argue about what constitutes a “fail state” and whether a given game has one.

So what counts as a “fail state”?

Here’s an obvious one most people will agree with, game over. Meaning you reset the whole game, do it over from the beginning. You’ve lost the entire game. It’s all over. Multiplayer games have this as well. You can see this in tetris, contra, street fighter, and a bunch of others. Kind of went the way of the dinosaur except for short games and multiplayer. Continue reading

Puzzles vs Games

Layton is awesome. You don’t classify puzzles as games, right? But as something sort of a sidestep away?

Yeah, I don’t think they’re really the same type of thing, or at least, can’t be judged the same type of way. Puzzles tend to focus on a small number of solutions, and games tend to focus on a large number. Puzzles have a spoiler effect, where once you know the answer to a puzzle, it’s trivial; where in games even if you’ve done something before, it can still be extremely difficult.

You could also say there’s a continuum or spectrum between the two. After all, I frequently point out elements in games that are more puzzle-like.

I think Tetris being labeled a puzzle game, as well as other falling block games similar to it, is a complete misnomer.

I like good puzzles, but I think they need to be judged on a set of standards and criteria that isn’t the same as games. Something like depth (as I’ve defined it for games) is no longer a factor for whether a puzzle is good or not. Though then there’s weird exceptions like portal which clearly benefit from depth in a manner similar to games. A large state space in of itself can help prevent a puzzle from being brute forced, by trying every possible solution. A lot of Layton puzzles for example just involve inputting a number, but they are still frequently good. I could probably ruminate on good puzzle making until I come up with something satisfactory with a lot of research, but currently I regard that as outside my scope.

Though now that I think about it, I can see a connection between many puzzles and complexity class, as pointed out by Raph Koster in his Games are Math talk. A lot of good puzzles (and good games) regard problems that are difficult to process in terms of state size, but there are exceptions to that too, like simply figuring out connections between established mechanics.

I know you’ve said several times that you don’t consider puzzles to be real games, but do faster-paced versus puzzle games like Tetris Attack/Puzzle League or Puyo Puyo exceptions? Come to think of it, do they even fit into your definition of puzzle games?

Okay, Tetris, Panel De Pon, Puyo Puyo, Magical Drop and so on, I don’t consider these to be puzzles. I think that’s a misnomer based on their similarity to abstract puzzles. Many people call these action puzzle games. They’re totally games. There’s really no point of ambiguity about them, the same way with puzzles.

I’m fine with misnomers as long as we’re all clear it’s a misnomer and it’s a clear self-contained category (Like Role-Playing Game, or Action Puzzle Game, which both are misnomers, but it’s also really clear exactly what you’re referring to).

Could you shit talk that group of Golden Age mystery novel writers that considered their books to be games played between the author and the reader?

I’d say it’s more like a puzzle or riddle than a game. I mean, Phoenix Wright is built on a similar principle and I’m okay with that.

The trouble with mystery novels, unlike games is, you don’t have repeated chances to solve a generic version of a problem. You have one chance, and you get it, or it’s spoiled for you. You can’t go back and retry because you know the answer. You can theoretically grow the skill of seeing the patterns writers leave for you to have a higher success rate at guessing what the answer to the mystery is, but theoretically, it’s also kind of a crapshot because circumstances are unique to each individual book.

Like, similar to a game, these mystery novels do have something that you can be consistent or inconsistent at, but unlike a game, they have no possibility space.

They’re cool being what they are in my book, even if I might get a bit technical about the terminology.

How come you are so kosher towards Ace Attorney even though it’s almost a visual novel and has no depth?

Don’t forget Professor Layton and The Witness as well. I’m fine with puzzles in general even though they have no or little depth. If you’ve been following along, you’d know I’ve covered this before. I think puzzles probably follow different principles than games and I appreciate a good puzzle. I’m honestly not sure exactly what makes a good puzzle, I just know one when I see one, and I consider the problem of what makes a good puzzle outside the scope of my writing here. Trying to figure out the underlying principles there seems like a hard problem that is way more soft than something like Depth.

Ace Attorney has you thinking in a problem-solving mindset. It’s kind of tricky to figure out the answers, even if you can ultimately brute force everything when it comes down to it. And usually the answers are pretty fair and understandable rather than, “how was I ever supposed to make that connection?” (not always unfortunately). It has its roots in the same sort of mental mechanism that creates fun in games even if the same principles can’t completely overlap.

The Word “Gameplay”

Your thoughts?

Okay, this article is really old. Of course I don’t agree with it, because obviously gameplay can’t be substituted for game in all contexts, nor mechanic(s). Also dude’s shutting himself off from a very important tool that would be important to his perspective.

Gameplay fills in a semantic hole in our language. Other mediums as he listed don’t need a word for an equivalent concept because they do not need facilitators to deliver their content as games do. They’re not intrinsically hybrid media.

Mechanics are more specific than gameplay, a mechanic can be good, but the resulting gameplay can be bad. Continue reading

Definitions: Fairness and Challenge

You’ve got a solid definition for “depth.” Can you give similar definitions for “fairness” and “challenge”?

Sure thing.

Fairness is perceptual, people have differing standards of fairness. In single player games fairness is typically a matter of accurately communicating to the player what they’re engaged in, preventing them from getting blindsided, or letting them know that they may get blindsided and how to prevent it. Fairness is typically perceived as a matter of clarity. For that purpose many single player games even overcorrect, adding extra buffers or leniencies to tilt things in the player’s favor, because player perception is not always perfect, and they can miss an input in the space of a frame or two and think they got it when they didn’t. Many games make enemy hurtboxes smaller for this purpose.

In multiplayer games, there’s a similar impetus on communicability for fairness, but more than that it comes down to fairness between players and there’s even more widely varied standards there. This is typically a matter of balance, but players can perceive a lot of things as unfair, leading to scrub mentality. They can get hung up on individual moves that they think are unfair. They can get hung up on other players being better than them. They can get hung up on which characters are good or bad. It’s a mess. Is it fair that players can master certain techniques and win way more consistently? Is it fair to use unintended tricks? Is it fair to use unreactable mixups? Is it fair to have randomness affect the outcome of a match? Is it fair for a player who puts in less time to beat someone who puts in more time? Is it fair that some characters are better than others? A lot of these questions will be answered differently by different people.

Fairness means treating players without bias and preventing injustice. In Singleplayer contexts, preventing injustice is a matter of figuring out what players perceive as injust or imposing your definition of just upon them (“average human reaction time is about 15 frames, if this move’s startup is 15 frames long, you have no right to complain”). Ultimately you’re working to satisfy your players, so you need to be in tune with their perceptions to make them feel like the game is fair.

Challenge is a lot simpler. It’s a task that one is inconsistent at completing, where consistency is dependent on the individual’s skill. It may be used to refer to a specific instance of a difficult task in a game (eg. a reaction challenge).

Can puzzles have depth?

They can, but they usually don’t, and that’s usually not the point of puzzles. I think puzzles and puzzle design is a step removed from game design, even though they’re seen on similar terms by most people. Puzzles tend to emphasize singular solutions over dynamic challenges. Games like Catherine or Tetris have more possible solutions and are more freeform in a gamey type of way, which is why I think Tetris isn’t really a puzzle game at all (I haven’t played Catherine, but I know some sections emphasize specific solutions and there’s a more free-form versus mode).

I think Puzzles should be judged by their own standards separate from the standards used to judge games because there’s definitely something different going on with them, and it’s not really my interest to figure out what or try to come up with some type of cohesive framework for that medium.

Personally I’d encourage game designers to avoid puzzle-like design in their games unless they’re making a puzzle game or are using it for content framing purposes, to organize blocks of content with some overarching light puzzle structure.

The primary difference between games and puzzles is that on hearing the solution to a puzzle, it’s usually trivial to complete the puzzle, but static solutions don’t exist nearly as often for games. There’s a spoiler effect. Once you know it, the challenge disappears. Puzzles don’t generate inconsistency in individual players like games do, they block success, then cease to block thereafter (unless you forget the solution). In a game, you might succeed 1 time out of 10, but it takes another 10 tries until you can succeed again at the same challenge.

This recent claim of yours (you never said it before?) that puzzles are almost not really games is weird. They certainly deserve the title more than pure execution skill games, with nearly no choice making–at least they showcase high-level possibilities within a complex system. They’re different from action games in that they’re expository, rather than combinatoric, so they can be spoiled as you say, but someone who reads a puzzle solution can be said to be playing the game as much as someone who is being told each move in a board game. The actual game is understanding the system. They may not actively challenge on subsequent playthroughs, but the thought process they entail is similar as that required by action games. Ostensibly, any puzzle game could be turned into an action game by making some tweaks here and there, so that it becomes combinatoric.

You’re right, I’m flipflopping on this one. It’s just that puzzles clearly share different characteristics from games and can’t be readily understood in the same ways. If you want to go by a strict definition, related to succeeding at things inconsistently, at overcoming challenges, they definitely fit in the same family. I’m just hesitant to call them games outright. Something seems off about that.

I don’t think the same can be said of pure execution skill games, though other academics have previously separated these into a category they call, “contests,” rather than games. I’m more inclined to call pure execution skill games as such because of the lack of the spoiler effect and because they do have a state space, even if it’s a small one.

I don’t think you can turn every puzzle game into an action game, like for example, Antichamber and Professor Layton.

My base point is more that to understand puzzle games, it would require very different thinking than for regular games, which is outside my scope personally.

Definitions: What’s a Game State?

After reading some of your articles on depth, I have to ask. What exactly counts as a “state” in a game? Depth is characterized by the number of non-redundant states, but I’m not clear what counts as a state.

Have you ever used an emulator? You know how there are save states in emulators? Save states capture the current value of every single variable in the game. This is basically what I mean when I say a state. A state is the current value of every single object, element, or variable in a game. Any time something changes, even slightly, in a game, that is a new state, strictly speaking.

For an easier to imagine example, in a board game, a state would be every possible combination of pieces on every space on the board.

In most video games, it’s harder to think about every possible state because many games have things like velocity, or extremely minute and precise position tracking. Things appear to be more analog thanks to the use of floats and sub-pixels.

This is why I specify that depth does not count redundant states, because this level of minute detail goes far beyond what is significant in the majority of cases. Many of these tiny states can be said to be negligibly different from other states around them. Determining what states are non-redundant is unfortunately still a matter of interpretation. I count analog spectrums of information tracking as being more deep than a digital spectrum, but only slightly. I believe there are diminishing returns for additional subdivision of states. You only gain so much for going from an integer to a float in my book (look up data types if you don’t know what a float is).

This will probably help.