Gameplay Art

by ac3raven1 min read19th Sep 201114 comments

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This post is about the development of our game based on Eliezer Yudkowsky's "The Twelve Virtues of Rationality".

Are games art?

It's an interesting question, but it seems that most people who answer that question in the affirmative are--intentionally or not--subscribing to the "hybrid art" view.  That is, that games are art because they combine story-telling, music, and visual style; interaction with the system of the game is in service to the storyline, music, and visual style.

I don't like that.  Here is why:

"Art" in general is creative expression through a medium. The hybrid-art view treats gameplay as the icing on the narrative-musical-visual cake.  When it should be that gameplay is the cake, and everything else is the icing.

Gameplay, or interaction with the system of the game, is a  medium for artistic expression, just like paint is for paintings.  I don't think anyone can deny that interaction with a gun during a hostile situation reeks havoc on our emotions, or that interaction with a loved one can run the emotional gamut.  Interaction is powerful.

Games can take advantage of the power of interaction to be expressive.  The art of the storyline, music, and visuals ought to be secondary to the art of the gameplay.

Twelve Virtues

I believe that gameplay is a very powerful way to learn, and so the single most important design principle for our current project is expression through gameplay.  We want to convey the meaning of each virtue through gameplay. The player should be able examine the method by which they interact with the game to learn the meaning behind the virtue.

For example:

Point of no return

In our Curiosity level which is where the game starts, the player must follow a mysterious cat that appears.  Very early in the level, the player is faced with a "point of no return".  If they jump down to the ground, they can't ever go back to the starting area.  They must choose to follow the cat, or stay in their "comfort zone" so to speak.  They must embrace their curiosity, or ignore it.  If they choose to follow the cat, they will eventually discover a much larger area full of mysteries to be solved.

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Is there any reason why someone might not follow the cat?

I concur.

The beginning of games typically have next to no worthwhile activities.

Wired's article on the making of Halo 3 describes the process of leading the player along a set path using 'no return' strategies exactly like the one displayed here. The motive for doing so in Bungie's case was to make it so the player did not get confused and wander around endlessly. In this case, the no return strategy is supposed to be symbolic of something, of an irrecoverable loss. However, if nothing is being lost, then it fails to symbolize in any meaningful way.

I would say in order to get the ledge to symbolize that loss meaningfully, you'll have to fill the beginning of the game with worthwhile and engaging activities. Mini-games if you will. That way, falling down the ledge will be a kind of 'Ender burrowing through the Giant's eye' sort of moment. It will move the game past the time-wasting distractions of the beginning and it can start to take on real meaning.

Now, I definitely don't want to introduce any elements of scope creep into your development, but I do think that if you want to tell the story you are trying to tell, then there has to be something for the player to give up.

My plan is to make the first area a "playground" of game mechanics to make it feel like a "lived-in" place. You're essentially leaving your "home" to go on an adventure. Your example of Ender's Game is fascinating. Thanks for the advice.

As an experienced game player, my usual reaction to this kind of thing is to turn around and make sure I've exhausted all the content that comes before the Point of No Return - that cat's going to be waiting for me anyway, even if I do turn around and go back, so why hurry?

One way to get around this might be to have a score at the upper right corner, like in old-time adventure games, which stays conspicuously at 0 until you jump down.

I'm glad to hear this! With this explanation, the metaphor seems much more robust. And I'm totally with you on everything else in this entry, so I'm looking forward to seeing more about how you intend to convey concepts through gameplay.

Also, the graphics (and/or mockup) look pretty cool. :)

You're welcome.

Are games art?

This is a solved question, just like, "If a tree falls in the forest, and there is nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound?" Taboo sound / taboo art. The question dissolves pretty much by itself.

Another way to think about it: if I say games are art, what do you expect from that? If I say games are not art, what do you expect that to mean?

I would say that games are a medium for expression. It doesn't have to be artistic expression.

Traditionally, games have the character Get On The Boat.

I definitely agree gameplay is where the art lies in games.

Unfortunately the screenshot did not evoke the intended feeling for me. This is one of the hard problems in game design; there is no "comfort zone". Except perhaps games like Minecraft (anyone who has played will know what I mean) It's very difficult to establish such emotions, otherwise every "gamer" will indiscriminately jump into danger. The majority of sidescrollers don't even have fall damage.

Of course, screenshots can be incredibly neutered representations of how a game feels while playing it. I hope you can pull it off... perhaps having a close-in view of the character as they approach the cliff, then a short cutscene slowly zooming out to reveal the depth of the cliff, and then the cat. But then, this is cinematography, not gameplay.

I'd love to give more critique like this, and/or be a beta tester, by the way. I work in game QA and play many, many, indie games.

lukeprog answers this question in a nice video.

Did you see my recent post on "Rationality and Video Games"? Would you be interested in pulling resources together?

Also, can you link to your game (if it's out), or some more screenshots, or a website?

here's our website The game is still very much in development.