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.

The Secret Behind Platinum’s Quality?

If you ever get to the new TMNT game by Platinum, what’s your opinion on it?

I played it briefly.

It’s kinda boring. It doesn’t tell you the sequences for the combos for some reason. I checked all the menus. The sequences are the same on all the turtles, but each one has slightly different attack animations at a difference cadence and range and all. All of them can mash light attack in the air to do an air sequence, and press heavy attack for a diving attack. Then they each have slightly different sets of special attacks that do slightly different things. The game has a unique block/dodge/parry system. You can press R1 to dodge, hold it to block while spinning in shell form, then release right as you’re hit to parry an attack. Dodging perfectly lets you circle behind enemies and jump on their back to deal damage by mashing buttons. Speaking of that, there’s a fuckton of mashing in this game. You gotta mash to interact with things, and mash to revive when you get knocked out.

Each stage is a big cityscape with ninjas all over it. Occasionally objectives pop up that you can complete. You can use see-through-walls-vision to find where shit is going on. Beat up ninjas and eventually you get access to the boss.

So, kind of a disappointment overall. It’s a really simple combat system, and meh enemies, with plenty of filler content all over.

What’s interesting is the director. It was directed by Eiro Shirahama, who you might notice was also the director of Legend of Korra. Legend of Korra was probably Platinum’s biggest miss up to this point, which lead to a surprise when Transformers Devastation was amazing. So why was Transformers Devastation good among these three licensed cartoon games? The director of Devastation was actually Kenji Saito, who you might also know as the director of Metal Gear Rising.

So this makes me wonder, what other recurring directors have we had at Platinum Games? The answer is almost none. Almost every Platinum game has a different director. Even ones you’d think would have the same director like Mad World to Anarchy Reigns, and Bayonetta to Bayonetta 2 have different directors (perhaps this explains the difference in quality between Bayo 1 and 2). I’m only really looking at directors here because I know that a lot of the corporate attitude of Platinum is inherited from what Shinji Mikami established back at Capcom, where it’s all about the director’s vision. You’ll notice there are few repeating people in other roles as well though.

Of the recurring directors we have Hideki Kamiya (Bayo 1, W101, Scalebound), Yusuke Hashimoto (Bayo 2, Star Fox Zero), Eiro Shirahama (Legend of Korra, TMNT), and Kenji Saito (MGR, TD). This leads me to think that Kenji Saito is something really special to the company, he may be an even better director than Kamiya. I’d keep an eye on him in particular in the future. It also leads me to think that Hashimoto and Eiro Shirahama aren’t very good directors.

Gameplay is Meaningless?

Do you think the word gameplay is bad because it’s redundant or meaningless? When people talk about books, they don’t say bookread because everyone knows you read a book. Similarly, everyone knows a game must be played, so the term gameplay is pointless. Of course, nowadays, games have many different sections with wildly varying mechanics, as well as things like cutscenes and QTEs, so maybe the word makes sense.

Come on, don’t play coy, you know the answer I’m going to give to this.

The term gameplay isn’t meaningless, in the same way the word “cinematography” isn’t meaningless, or saying a book is “well written” isn’t meaningless. People use the term gameplay to refer to the interactive segment of the media work, as opposed to the music, visuals, story, etc. People use the word cinematography to refer to the composition of the shots as opposed to the plot, writing, acting, etc. People use the phrase, “well written” to refer to the method of writing used to render the plot elements in distinction from what those elements are.

The distinction is even more clear in the case of gameplay than these other terms. There wasn’t a parallel evolution of language across these mediums allowing for perfectly equivalent terms across all three, in part because the mediums are different, with games being a hybrid medium, or perhaps more accurately, a medium that requires communication through other mediums. Video games are a hybrid medium consisting of visuals, sounds, and optionally stories, games in a true sense don’t need all these things, but they typically need tools to facilitate them.

Nonetheless; come off it, there needs to be a word to describe the interactive challenging portion of a media work. If you don’t have a word encompassing that whole part, but still more specific than referring to the whole work, then you make communication way more difficult than it needs to be.

I recall icyclam’s argument that a better word than gameplay is “mechanic” and it’s retarded, because mechanic is way more specific, and gameplay can be used to refer to phenomena that result from mechanics, rather than just the mechanics themselves, not that icyclam EVER cared about whether the mechanics were good, as should be evidenced by his abstainence from specifically referring to them ever.

It’s of massive convenience to our language to be able to say things like, “gameplay consists of,” “The gameplay is good/bad,” “There isn’t enough gameplay instead of cutscenes,” “this form of gameplay continues for 3 hours,”

If you substitute the word mechanic here, notably the meaning of these sentence fragments changes, same for whatever other word you may choose.

Gameplay communicates a specific thing that we have a common understanding of, which is distinct from the words around it. We can communicate similar differentiations in other mediums (“It’s a good story, but poorly written” “The actors do a nice job, and it’s a good script to a good plot, but the cinematography is horrible”), even if we don’t have the same equivalency in terms over there. This is not a dispensible word.

But at the same time, what if I said that just as when you press a button, there is an animation, similarly, when you press buttons for 30 mins, there is also an animation (that ‘animation’ being a cutscene)? What is the difference between a quick animation for one button press vs. a longer animation for a series of button presses?

Iteration time. I’ve been watching people give talks on modern board game design versus old fashioned board game design for a while. One of the big things that most modern board games do is they have everyone take their turn simultaneously instead of each person individually take a turn, forcing everyone else at the table to wait. To cut down on this, in games where people still do go back and forth, frequently to cut down on people taking forever with their turn, the actions people will be allowed to perform are split up into tiny bits so it goes back and forth really quickly.

The decision happens at the point you make it. The gameplay happens at the point of decisionmaking. The more frequent these are, the more you’re playing, the less you’re watching. Below a certain threshold, the iteration time is negligible.

If you have a quicktime event, you have a really really simple system, pass/fail. It’s a reaction test basically. It’s the minigame played in sonic generations or unleashed when you jump off one of those ramps that has you press buttons to do poses in sequence before you land to get ring power. Except between each button press is a cutscene. There’s no decisions being made, just press or not press. The game state is no more complicated than that, and they stick extra stuff inbetween for cinematic effect. It should be obvious what I mean when I say, there isn’t much gameplay going on.

The difference is, shorter iteration times get you to the point that actually matters faster. This is primarily a user experience thing, but that doesn’t make it unimportant.

re: gameplay. I actually don’t think clam’s article on the topic is any good, partly for the reasons you mentioned, but also because he uses other terms like “gamer”, which can be criticized in the same manner. What is a gamer? Do we have moviers or bookers? Why aren’t people who play sports or board games or card games considered gamers? But who cares about any of that, I’m too busy being the most hardcore gamer in the world. That said, I think the criticism of the use of gameplay is valid. I hadn’t considered terms like cinematography, that is some pretty good critical thinking skill you’ve got. I guess the problem is no one adheres to a consistent definition of gameplay. How would you define it? I would say it’s all of the systems and mechanics, how they interact with each other, and how the player manipulates them. Rules are a byproduct of interactions, so I didn’t mention that term. Also, is core gameplay proper? E.g. Bayonetta has shooting and driving segments, but the core gameplay is beating things up. Make sense?

Usually people say film buff or bookworm, though I haven’t heard anyone say those in like a decade.

I’ve seen gamblers referred to as gamers before. And tabletop roleplayers are frequently called gamers. Both D’arbys are referred to as gamers in Jojo. People who play sports are athletes.

I don’t know why the term gamer stuck so hard. Mark Ceb would argue it’s a really successful marketing thing that only took off maybe a decade and a half ago. He might be right on that. I don’t really know why gamer for video games is something that seems so natural or why it became such a big part of so many people’s lives. Maybe it speaks to the efficacy of the medium to hold engagement?

Your definition of gameplay seems reasonable enough, but it should also have the definition as the active segment of time during a game, so we can have phrases like, “gameplay resumes”. And probably whatever other definitions would fit the various phrases I tossed out during the answer this is replying to, since all are in common use.

I think core gameplay is proper, because it’s possible to have segments of mechanics that are interrelated within those segments but totally separate from one another, and choosing one as core only seems natural. It’s in common parlance already and it’s not a big stretch.

Critpoints Glossary

After some thought, I’ve decided to make a glossary to help people who might not understand some of the terms I use. Some of these are terms I’ve made up myself, those will be noted as such. Rather than being ordered alphabetically like a conventional glossary, I’m ordering this so related terms are closer together, and you can get an idea of a topic from the terms close together.

I’m going to borrow from Critical Gaming’s glossary a little as well as general terminology that is sitting out there. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, just things that might be a bit out of the way for the common gamer (though I might have gone overboard and included a bunch of obvious entries too). These are the terms you might not know, but probably need to know in order to understand this blog or my writing in general. Continue reading

Property destruction and contracts of consent.

You have repeatedly used the example of the interesting aspects of trading card games and unintended use of certain cards to argue for glitches in video games. This is an opinion i agree with but thanks to you I stumbled upon this in a google search: ( . How do you feel about something like that? Would you say this is interesting enough to keep in the game, as nearly all opponents will concede when you start performing this combo, on top of the fact it would still practically be a guaranteed win if you replaced “rip up” with “send to the discard pile”. Alternatively, do you think it crosses the line of an unintended mechanic actively harming other players enjoyment of the game?

That’s really hysterical. I’m really surprised that they would print a card that has an effect where you tear it up, but significantly less surprised that there is a way to transfer the effect to other cards. Of course, it’s only natural that it came from the set Unglued.

What I’d say in this case is, rules are formed by the consent of the players. It’s us who agree to play with the rules presented on the cards in the first place, or with cards of those dimensions and so on. You should probably discuss it with the person you’re playing with before you play, unless you want to be a huge dick. Also I doubt this is among the legal sets allowed in tournaments.

It does raise the question of what I guess you could call implicit versus explicit rules (or formal versus informal, there’s no agreed upon term for this far as I know). Rules in a video game are almost all implicit, regulated by the physical structure of the device, much like the physical game snafu, or ball & cup. In the case of video games, a lot of how we play them are explicit rules actually, things we agree upon, like the goal, map pool, or other modifiers. The goal of a game is always an explicit rule, something that the player(s) accept and agree to play by, where the programming is an “embedded rule,” much like the form of the baseball bat, or that card games are played with cards instead of round chips or kept in memory. This means they work a certain way and serve the game in a certain way. Just something worth considering.

Games as a new media art form

For you, does story at least add something to the game, even if it’s non-essential, or do you think it actively detracts from the game? or is it just irrelevant to it?

I believe it’s mostly irrelevant, or a matter of user experience. One person once proposed an interesting reason why so many games have stories, it’s to make clear to the player what the objective is, and give them context for what is going on in the game.

Having a story helps lead the player along and gives them an idea what they’re supposed to be doing and how to play the game. Frequently narrative type content can be presented without any drawback, like in fighting games, characters have their own personalities, the backgrounds can be very detailed, the announcer and sound effects can be appealing. You can have a story and it can add all the positive things a story can add.

If I make a game it would certainly have a story, it’s part of selling a game to people. A developer at naughty dog put it like this, beautiful art is very good at attracting attention and poor at keeping it, stories are alright at attracting attention and alright at keeping it, systems are poor at attracting attention and very good at keeping it.

Stories detract from games when people start making a bad user experience (locking the user out of controlling the software) in the name of the story, when they start restricting or watering down mechanics in the name of the story, when they focus on the media product as a storytelling thing rather than a game system thing. This is why I get overly up in arms about it, because everyone is thinking of games as this storytelling thing; which is absurd in any kind of historical view, and crushes the greatest unexplored art form we have today. There is SO much we could be talking about for games that have never been discussed before in history, but everyone is caught up in reiterating ideas lodged in film, theater, and literature. Ideas we’ve done to death like the hero’s journey, camera angles, unreliable narrators, and all manner of “subversive” storytelling.

Then people like Roger Ebert see this pathetic scramble for legitimacy and call it puerile, because it is. If you read his piece on why games can never be art, you’d notice he opens the door for games to be art, then shuts it when he sees the examples presented, like Braid, Flower, and Waco Resurrection.

“Santiago concedes that chess, football, baseball and even mah jong cannot be art, however elegant their rules. I agree. But of course that depends on the definition of art. She says the most articulate definition of art she’s found is the one in Wikipedia: “Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.” This is an intriguing definition, although as a chess player I might argue that my game fits the definition.”

We should be arguing that Chess, Football, Baseball, and even Mah Jong are art, otherwise we’re not arguing games are art, only adjacent to art. Our examples should be Quake, Street Fighter, Katamari Damacy, and Tetris. Not “art” games.

Like, travel back in time to before 1973 and tell someone games are a storytelling medium, people will look at you like you are a madman, or ignorant on the topic. This wasn’t a transcendence or evolution of the game media that stories became attached to them, the same rules apply now as did then, we only have new tools.

What’s the problem with stories and settings? that’s been a tradition since the dawn of man. people have always told stories to communicate and to explain the world. that doesn’t mean the game part should be bad, but can you really fault someone for wanting a good story/setting?

Yes I can, because there’s inevitably a trade-off. No game has infinite budget. And as the story gets more detailed, either the gameplay becomes contradictory to it, or the gameplay is reined in to prevent contradictions, or vice versa. It makes me want to literally make a game and stick scenes from citizen kane in as cutscenes, no other cutscenes, just scenes of citizen kane and loudly proclaim, “This is the story!” It could be a metroidvania, it could be a first person shooter, rhythm game, action puzzle game, it doesn’t matter what type of game it is as long as it doesn’t bloody fit at all and it’s good to make up for being a dumb art piece with a message. Hell, pick another public domain film, have those cutscenes play in NG+ (though pretty sure CK is not public domain)

The problem I have with them is how it’s all anyone cares about, it’s all anyone analyzes, it takes up half the space of the best reviews most of the time. Nobody wants to voice what good gameplay is, it’s a “I’ll know it when I see it” type of thing with some vague-ass statements that seem to make sense occasionally.

The other problem I have with it is it’s like we’re so fixated on this perspective that the first thing people think of is the theme of a game. And all the parts of the game are things that fit into the theme rather than really coming at it from a systems oriented perspective. It’s like those psychological experiements, where if you ask someone to come up with a price for something, like how much they’d pay to buy a package of oreos, they might give you one price, but if you suggest a price to them like, “Here’s a $40 pack of oreos” They’ll always highball the estimate, and if you suggest a low price they’ll always lowball it. It’s called an anchor. By giving people a starting point, you’ll influence their decisions in that direction.

The problem with stories and settings is that they’re like an anchor. When you say stealth game, you get a picture in your head of a stealth game you’ve played or heard of. Now I ask you, what’s another way to distract guards? You’re probably thinking of tossing objects, or making a sound at your location. Or incapacitating them temporarily. Think of the central game form, stealth games are about when the enemy vision cone passes over you, they enter alert and try to kill you. The ostensible goal is to get them to look another way. If they just move into a corner or something, then they’re not really interacting with the player anymore. How can you make a stealth mechanic that continually keeps threatening the player with being found out, but the player can counter this in a variety of ways that don’t trivialize the enemies? Like mechanics that the guards can enact and the players can enact back and forth to continually threaten discovery and evade detection? Something that doesn’t just end up being a timing thing of moving through guard patrols as they go on their cycles.

I agree that it’s not something people should be so ‘aggressive’ about, however. Screaming, “IMMERSION” is stupid when there are more important things in the world than video games.

When you stop considering things from the perspective of “how do I add to this fictional universe” and from the perspective of how you can add additional counter play and depth to the system.

Like for example, we have people declaring that throwing objects to distract guards in stealth games is immersion breaking because nobody would fall for that shit, especially if they saw the object being thrown, but you don’t hear many alternative suggestions, because think about it really hard, what else can you even use to distract guards besides drawing their attention to a point away from you? If you can’t distract or mislead guards then how boring does the stealth genre become? Now consider the problem from the perspective of where else can guard attention be led other than to a remote place, usually far as a stone’s throw?

Additionally, how can you make it so that place is close-by enough that the player can’t trivially eliminate the guard threat by simply attracting their attention to a place the player isn’t going to? My first thought on the matter was, what if the point that attracted guard attention was tied to the player position in some way? like it was 5 steps to the left of them or something, so guards wouldn’t go directly to the player’s position, they’d move to the position 5 steps to the left of them, or to be even more daring, the spot projected 10 steps in front of them in the direction they’re currently moving, however that’s still pretty damn close to the player, so players have to watch out. Now, can you think of any way that this would make sense in-universe? Imagine the premise was you can control where this noise making point was relative to you, but never permanently eliminate it and it moves as you do. Suddenly, totally new game premise.

It’s not the type of thought that would even occur to someone trying to work in the framework or context of picking verbs to use from things that exist in any fictional universe, it’s decidedly anti-immersion in that respect even if it would probably work fine as a game mechanic. It’s easy to think of ways to represent it, like an after image moving in front or behind the character, or even just a marker with waves emanating from it. But how do you really explain something so arbitrary and contrived in a way that makes any type of immersive sense? The funny thing is, this is how the pink ghost in pac man is actually programmed, and the blue ghost has a similar but more complicated algorithm.

I have an article in development about first person shooters and crazy ideas we can do for those and none of them make any sense, like slow moving projectiles you can fire that will disappear if your opponent can hit you, that’s a clear and ridiculous abstraction.

They’re not only interested in stories, but you seem exclusively interested in strategic elements of games. Games can communicate other things appart from deep strategy, and different from stories too, things that are systems-oriented and exclusive to games, just not in the sense of strategy. Like, to give a dumb, but hopefully ilustrative, example, the random spread that you always criticize, I agree that it doesn’t add to the strategy, but it could be used to give a “sense of futility”, where the end result is independent of your aim, which can communicate the “despair of war”.

And examples like this continually getting brought up to me is why I say no one really values games. The “despair of war” isn’t a value of the game. In a systems sense, there’s no conception of what the despair of war is supposed to be. Does Poker convey the despair of war because it’s so random and degenerate? SF2 because damage and stun is so random? Despair of war is an idea outside the game being brought into the game as a matter of comparison or similarity, the gun being inaccurate doesn’t say shit, it’s just a hitscan with a huge RNG on it. (otherwise halo combat evolved conveys the despair of war perfectly with the assault rifle, which is patently fucking ridiculous looking back at the story).

The sense of futility isn’t getting close to fun, it’s creating a sense of frustration. Players get frustrated when they lose consistently and feel like their input doesn’t change the outcome significantly. The only things games can communicate is their strategies, if it’s communicating something else, then that’s because you’re layering a different type of feedback on top of it.

The fact that someone would ATTEMPT to convey the despair of war rather than only tells me they don’t give a fuck about games, they give a fuck about powerful messages like the despair of war. The despair of war isn’t what games are, from the inside, none of it looks like war except in the most superficial and abstract sense. You have a bar that depletes and upon depletion sends you to a checkpoint or respawn, potentially spawning new enemies or setting the state back to a prior one. We call this health/ego/hitpoints/heart rate/mana/energy/stamina/manliness and all number of other ridiculous name. The program itself has no idea what this variable is. It just follows the orders it consists of. The program has no idea what movement is, the program has no idea what attacks or defense or strategy are. Board games don’t either. We just label a ton of things to make their function a bit more intuitive.

You can replace all the symbols with other ones that provide the same feedback and the game works the same way, it’s still the same game. See texture hacks and model swaps in brawl:

The characters are the same characters, move the same way, have the same feedback even though the theme is totally distorted and mismatched. You’re still playing Brawl exactly the same way you were before, no better, no worse.

From the inside, all games are abstract strategy games.

I agree with you on games, but saying that Poker conveys the futility of war or whatever because of the randomness is a false equivalency and doesn’t really help your cause. Part of immersion is the aesthetic presentation. To convey war, you need the aesthetic of war… which poker isn’t.

My point was that the aesthetic of the game isn’t the game. Just looking at the game systems, there’s no aesthetic, there’s only feedback. This feedback conveys the state of the machine, it doesn’t mean anything else but the state of the machine, which is why I jumped to a game that is obviously modeling a completely different thing like poker. The point I was trying to make is that to convey war, you need something outside the game, like the aesthetic, to inform you of that. It’s not something inherent in the game.

I understand that a story is an imposed layer over what a game communicates, but then how would you explain games in relation to other art forms? most other art mediums have been built around an imposed abstraction, usually related to storytelling. Figurativity in painting imposes our associations. with real things over a medium that’s fundamentally about colour and shape, usually also with some theme or story in mind. It could be argued that Rothko’s colour fields and some other abstract approaches were a more fundamental expression of visual art.Something similar could be said of films. Music seems to be the only medium that has always been developed in its core expressions without imposed abstractions, specially instrumental music-always been about organizing pitches in time, only incorporating extra-musical elements ocassionally, in very limited form.

Lyricless music, typography, architecture, abstract sculpture, composition, color theory, motion graphics, many types of poetry and prose, product design, furniture design, electronic art, some people would say cooking is an art, light design, landscape design, dance, the performing arts, textiles, pyrotechnics, arguably programming (definitely anything in the Obfuscated C Contest), and probably some others.

Games are a different type of art form. They’re not an artform that is based on imposed abstraction. They’re an artform based on the desirable qualities of rulesets. Have you ever played a spoken word game? There are a couple, like 20 Questions, Ghost, and honestly the rest are kind of shit. We have Scrabble, we have countless countless card games, pool, golf, hockey, football. On the video game end we have tetris, dance dance revolution, candy crush. A lot of these don’t have any type of story, don’t represent any type of thing outside the game.

Games are the art of challenge, art of rules systems, art of strategies. Like a lot of other types of art, they don’t necessarily seek to represent, they simply stimulate, much like music. And through their individual expressions of different rulesets, they stimulate very different parts of our brain.

This is why I continually say, people who are in favor of games as an art-form, and want to push “art-games” usually are rigidly opposed to games as an art-form, and are the type most likely to post praises of the stanley parable, gone home, the walking dead, etc. It’s like they have this association with modern art or something and think they’re great and intellectual for being able to accept these alternative art forms, not realizing that games aren’t defined as loosely as art is, and it doesn’t make nearly as much sense to push the border of what games are. It’s like submitting a song and calling it a painting and supposedly…. Actually I think I should do that to a modern art gallery or something.

The point is, games are an art form that convey a totally different type of information from other art forms, but we already have a bunch of art like that. Think back to all the games that don’t have any type of story, like 20 questions, rock paper scissors, poker, and so on. Try seeing the games that use representational art styles in a similar way.

What is Art? Why are Games Art?

(editor’s note: Another old writing on this topic, relatively close to my current opinion, but a lot of the wording here is hopelessly confused)

One definition of art that is used a lot is that it is the conveyance of information in non-literal terms (I’d add to this that it must be arranged, not natural, because if it is natural then it is your interpretation of natural information, not conveyance of information). The quality of this information is determined by its depth, not necessarily content. Games are a form of art, however we get them confused with other forms of art. Games convey information about themselves, not all in literal terms, all games do. With art we tend to get lost in thinking that the message behind art is a literal thing that is being told to you. It isn’t. A more accurate summation would be that art conveys information, not just a message. A picture conveys visual information. The message is its content. A common practice among painters is to focus on the details of important areas, like the portrait in life drawing and to not add a lot of detail to areas that are unimportant, such as the feet, or the background (in life drawing, curtains are frequently used to intentionally create a background with less detail to add).

This definition is convenient because rules out a lot of things, such as assembly instructions, factual textbooks, strategy guides, and Microsoft Word, unless their design is in some way conveying a sense of aesthetic. It is also inclusive of a lot of things that people might not necessarily consider art, such as advertising, product design, games, and other “artful” things. I like this definition because it gives words to help explain a lot of things I have personally regarded as art for a long time while also accurately separating that which I consider creative work, but not necessarily art. Worth noting is that I personally have a very broad definition of information, broader than most people use the word for, so bear with me a little.

We frequently call advertising a form of art, but we wouldn’t call nutritional information art, or an instruction booklet. This is primarily because advertising is built on not conveying information in literal terms, and the latter are. as advertising evolved, it became more and more artlike, opposed to its early incarnations, which were closer to informing the customer of the product’s features similar to an instruction pamphlet. Modern commercials frequently have no details on the product, and just tons of branding, like logos, actors, feelings, stories, music, and more. Contrast a Coca Cola commercial to a Pepsi commercial, then to an older style infomercial.

What we need to understand about art is that information is not strictly verbal. Games are the art of interaction, puzzles are the art of cognition, paintings are the art of visual data. The “Message” of games is the way they are played. The type of interaction they seek to create. This is why the genres of games are divided the way they are. Genre distinctions exist to tell us the category of message. Whether the message is good or not depends on its depth. The thing however is that we mistake merely having a message for being quality artwork.

It could be argued that the depth of a piece of artwork is in how many layers there are between the surface and its ultimate message and how difficult it is to fully comprehend the piece. I do not entirely agree with this, but it brings up interesting parallels to the nature of depth in games. Imagine that the true message of a game is the best way to play it. Imagine that the true message is the expression of all the mechanics in synchronization. The true message of Street Fighter is conveyed in bouts by the best players of all time. The message of the game isn’t exactly its components nearly as much as how the player interacts with them. It isn’t art based on the quality of the code, but on the quality of the thinking that the player is expected to generate.

This is why objectives are necessary in games, because unless we set objectives, we are not compelled to think. This is why painters appreciate paintings more than anyone else, because they deconstruct it and reassemble it. They want to know what went into this painting. In games, we deconstruct them because we want to win, and the game is structured to force us to deconstruct them in order to do that. When a game has a lot of layers to it, it makes deconstruction more difficult. A game without an objective is a story without a focus. It’s not even a story, it’s just an account of disconnected events. It’s closer to a security camera feed than a film. Games without objectives cease to be games. Incidentally, they lose the message, because without an objective, there is no longer a type of thinking being conveyed, no longer that masterful way of playing. No longer a mode of play being conveyed at all. It is interactive, but without focus, there is no longer motivation to deal with it, unless you construct objectives from it (obvious example to give is Minecraft). It’s not a game, it is a toy. I am not going to go into the art of toys, I do not understand the art of toys except for their potential to be games.

The things we typically associate with difficulty in a game, like lethality and time windows, are not necessarily the true difficulty of the game, they are there to make us deconstruct and reassemble the game, that is the actual challenge. This is why it is very very easy to make a hard game, but very very hard to make a truly challenging one. The flash game titled The World’s Hardest Game is dull because every one of us has already beaten it, same for many other indie games billing themselves as hard, like Super Meat Boy. These aren’t games about understanding or interacting, they’re games about going through the motions until you happen to succeed. Just because you fail a lot on the way to your objective does not mean that you are playing a challenging game, only a hard one.

I believe games are art because they convey non-literal information in the form of their method of play. The method of play is itself an aesthetic that is distinct from its graphical representation. The design of the game conveys itself in non-literal terms. This means that it doesn’t outright describe itself to you, you must understand it implicitly through its means of conveyance. The information conveyed by the game is its strategies, the pace of the gameplay, the model of the actions you perform, the type of thinking required to solve it, the “feeling” of the actions involved, the spaces you traverse and their internal model contrasted with their visual appearance.

I think that by mentioning games like Okami, Journey, Flow, and Flower, people are fall into a trap along the lines of thinking music, painting, movies, etc are art, but games are not. What game would you recommend to a person who only thought paintings were art? A game that looks like a painting! No, that’s only reinforcing the idea that paintings are art. If this game is very artistic because it looks like a painting then you are implicitly admitting that games are not art, only things which stick to the categories we’ve accepted as art culturally are.

An example a friend gave to me was, “Is a hospital art because paintings are hung up in it?” No, a hospital exists for a literal purpose, not to convey non-literal information. Hospitals without paintings are not art, and hospitals with paintings are not necessarily art either. Redesigning the entire hospital to look like a house from Dr. Seuss or something doesn’t mean all hospitals are now art because that one has an artful design. In the case of such a hospital, the hospital itself would not be art nearly so much as the building that houses the hospital is. A hospital is not art until its methods of being a hospital itself are artful. Attaching objects that we accept as art to non-art objects does not make them art by proximity. Okami, as a game, is art because of the nature of its interactivity, not merely because it has a Sumi-e filter on everything. Dwarf Fortress is art despite being composed entirely of ASCII characters, the barest form of visual representation possible. Nearly all games are a form of art because nearly all games convey some form of nonliteral information. To call them art by association is to limit what games are and can be.

What are games?

Literally what is a game? Why do we play? What urge does play satisfy within us? Why would it be beneficial for animals to play? The current popular theory for why animals play is to simulate actions they will need to be good at to survive. So to condition themselves to perform well as adults they simulate facsimiles of the acts that their parents do. Humans are intelligent enough to create more organized and goal oriented versions of play that we refer to as games.

So what are games? Games are organized systems of play. They are challenges we create for ourselves (similar to puzzles or contests) out of our innate fascination with systems that produce varied outcomes that we think we have a control over.

We have invented many devices to amuse our aesthetic, auditory, visual, olfactory, and gustatory senses. We’ve invented forms of entertainment that stimulate our senses of humor, empathy, curiosity, sexual desire, and other emotions. These senses all developed in a natural way to acclimate us to an environment that required these things out of us, but evolution is a blind watchmaker. These things each exist to seek stimulation, but they are not terribly specific about the means or end results.

To that end we’ve created what are referred to as supernormal stimulus, a stimulant that triggers a response greater than what the sense originally evolved to respond to and motivate us towards. We have a response towards sex, for example, to motivate us to reproduce, but evolution doesn’t know that the act of sex causes reproduction. This means we have little problem using condoms or other contraceptives because we don’t have an instinct towards the end result, just the acts that get us there. In nature sugar and fat are rare resources, so there was a premium placed on the response to those, leading to us making exorbitant dessert foods that are tastier than anything nature could provide, without a real care for the end result of these because stimulus triggers evolve without information on what end they exist to further.

Naturally in the course of our desire to stimulate our various mental faculties we’ve invented games to fulfill our love of challenges, systems that produce positive outcomes inconsistently which we believe we have a control over. This is because to survive we had to respond to inconsistent outcomes deemed positive and attempt to make them consistent. In response to these events there is a release of the chemical dopamine. The dopamine hit gets lower as the action becomes more consistent, either negatively or positively.

For example: once one figures out how player 1 always wins or ties in tic tac toe, most people lose interest in it. A rat given a lever that produces a food pellet will pull it when they are hungry, given a lever that has a chance of dropping a food pellet, they will hammer the lever over and over again. The behavior is typically not much different in humans, which is why slot machines are currently the highest earning form of gambling and why many mobile and social games employ random chance the way they do. Related, if you always beat your friend at ping pong, you’re likely to seek harder opponents and your friend is likely to give up, because neither of you will be generating dopamine hits from the game. People with perfect consistency typically move to a new environment or challenge where their consistency is imperfect or quit altogether. People who obtain no positive results either move to an environment where they can obtain positive results at all (move to easier opponents for example) or quit.

What’s challenge? We determine what is challenging through consistency and the quality of results. Tasks which have a low rate of consistency and which return low quality results are challenging relative to us. Better consistency means we are improving at the challenge. This perception and response to challenge may exist to make us better hunters or better at war with other tribes and ultimately better at surviving through specific tasks that were common in the ancestral environment, but the stimulus response is not specific to any particular activity, it is equally responsive to something like computer programming or drawing as it is to sports even though the former two have no analogue to any natural activity.

Interestingly, challenge has a similar variability distribution to randomness and our minds aren’t conditioned to recognize the difference innately (though we can train ourselves to separate the two). Things that are random produce similar reward responses to things that are challenging, even though we may have no influence over them.

Notes for future expansion:

So how did we come to make games? Where did games come from?

Different genres like different flavors

We made games by recognizing systems that we have difficulty with, read: perform inconsistently at.