The Sound of Immersion

Immersion is what makes a video game great. It is usually behind the feeling of being at one with the game world, the one-more-turn syndrome that makes you forget reality, the jump scares when something attacks your character… Efficient immersion can be achieved though many tools, but let’s focus on one today: sound.

Immersion’s latin etymology is “immergere”, to dip into. In games, it can be described as follows: “Sometimes people find the game so engaging that they do not notice things around them, such as the amount of time that has passed, or another person calling their name. At such moments, almost all of their attention is focused on the game, even to the extent that some people describe themselves as being “in the game.”(Jennett et al., 2008). How can sound help achieve this?

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Sweeping soundtrack not pictured

As Schell (2008) notes, “audio feedback is much more visceral than visual feedback“. This can be observed in Fist Person Shooters, where gunshots make the player’s adrenaline spike, and cause an immediate reaction such as seeking cover, crouching or running (in-game, of course!). In these cases, the immersive power is such that the player feels directly threatened. On a different note, music can serve to compliment a beautiful setting, and reinforce the presence of an in-game area or its charm. The Witcher 3 uses sweeping soundtracks when the main character travels through the roads and wilderness, allowing the player to enjoy the scenery with their ears, so to speak. Ambient sounds can also be used to make a setting more alive.

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Did you hear that?!

However, a case can also be made for the lack of sound, specifically the lack of musical score. Several games have shown this to terrifying effect, including the pioneering horror/survival game Silent Hill. The player finds themselves lost in fog in a disturbing, hostile world. Where a tactful score could have represented a lifeline to humanity and civilisation, the designers opted to let the player to their own devices. No music can be heard, only strange sounds, distant footsteps making you second guess every movement, and distant screeches. Brrr!

My conclusion? Sound matters more than you may initially think. Use it wisely!


References

Jennett, C., Cox, A., Cairns, P., Dhoparee, S., Epps, A., Tijs, T. and Walton, A. (2008). Measuring and defining the experience of immersion in games. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 66(9), pp.641-661. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1071581908000499 (Accessed 22 Nov. 2016)

Milner, J. (2015). A Sound Argument – Is Sound Important in Games? | SA Gamer. Sagamer.co.za. Available at: http://sagamer.co.za/2015/03/18/a-sound-argument-is-sound-important-in-games (Accessed 22 Nov. 2016)

Schell, J. (2008). The art of game design. 1st ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Morgan Kaufmann, p.390.

Silent Hill (no date) [image]. Available at: http://silent-hill.1408-000.net/index.php?go=35 (Accessed 22 November 2016)

The Witcher, (2015) [image]. Available at: http://static3.gamespot.com/uploads/original/1365/13658182/2624268-the_witcher_3_wild_hunt-crossroads_1407869449.jpg (Accessed 22 November 2016)

Featured Image:

Immersion (no date) [image]. Available at: http://silent-hill.1408-000.net/index.php?go=35 (Accessed 22 November 2016)

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A Space of Your Own

Spatial awareness in games is ubiquitous – so ubiquitous, in fact, that players often don’t realise that they automatically internalise its rules. Players are used to the rules of space in real life and understand how to move through it as well as what an obstacle is, and how to navigate around one. Fortunately for us gamers, this conveniently translates to understanding most video game worlds. Ubiquitous does not mean unimportant, however, and as Aarseth, Smedstad and Sunnanå (2003) noted: “space is a key meta-category of games. Almost all games utilize space and spatial representation in some way“. While there are many ways to think about space in games, there is one theory that I find particularly compelling: space as a way to create a sense of ownership.

Most games allow players to move through the world, but don’t always allow the player to make a mark on it. You can shoot an enemy, go from A to B, or solve a puzzle, but what about more permanent and concrete changes? Let’s look at three games that buck the trend.

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Far Cry 3. Red alert! (Far Cry 3 Relic Location map, no date)

In-game maps are not always the most engaging UI element. They help, and can look pretty, but tend to leave the player cold. Well, not so in Far Cry: 3. By climbing radio towers throughout the map, you can “liberate” an area and defeat the bad guys’ influence on a particular region. Because the map starts red, and your actions gradually make it green, there is a real sense of progression and of changing the game world to make it your own. You can see at a glance which areas you have successfully won over, and this even translates to less enemies in the green areas. A win-win that makes the player feel very engaged with the world itself.

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Home Sweet Home! (Fallout 4)

Fallout 4, while not a pioneer in the genre, uses a very interesting technique to let the player make their mark on the world: settlement-building. After liberating an area swamped by all kinds of enemies, the player gets to chose how to make it look and has access to a Sims-like building menu, complete with structures, decorations, workshop items, and free standing walls. The player can even display trophies they have collected throughout the game in the structures they create, as well as sleep or craft new items. A barren ruin can become a bespoke settlement with a sense of investment, and suddenly the world feels a lot more personal.

 

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Bonfires: a welcome sight

Finally, what happens when you’re lost in a hostile, dark, and forbidding world? And you can’t even save your game? You find a bonfire! At least that’s what you do in Dark Souls. Space in the Dark Souls franchise is used to highlight the player’s insignificance in the world, and to threaten with danger at every corner. Typically, one area ends with the famed bonfire: the only place where the player can save the game, heal, and take a virtual breather; nowhere else is really safe. This is reflected in the bonfire’s very primal representation: once a player reaches one they kindle it and spark a camp-like fire, a powerful symbol of light, warmth and homeliness in a hostile environment. A visual and emotional way to own a little part the world.

As Schell (2008) notes, “game designers can learn a lot about creating meaningful and powerful spaces from architects“. And indeed games are very capable of using space to represent ownership, either by reflecting the player agency, allowing them to become the architect themselves, or giving them the opportunity to unlock a safe haven away from home in a dark world.


References

Aarseth, E., Smedstad, S.M. and Sunnanå, L. (2003) ‘3. A Multi-dimensional Typology Of Games’, Proceedings of the 2013 DiGRA. Available at: http://www.cogsci.rpi.edu/…/new%20topology%20of%20games%20A.%20Arsneth.pdf. (Accessed 22 November 2016)

Fallout 4 (2015) [image]. Available at: http://www.psnation.com/2015/11/09/review-fallout-4-ps4/ (Accessed 22 November 2016)

Far Cry 3 Relic Locations Map (no date) [image] Available at: http://www.realsg.com/2012/12/guide-far-cry-3-relic-locations-map.html (Accessed 22 November 2016)

 

Schell, J. (2008). The art of game design. 1st ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Morgan Kaufmann, p.368.

Information Age at the Science Museum: Style Over Substance

Information Age is a permanent exhibition at the Science Museum of London, seeking to “celebrate more than 200 years of innovation in information and communication technologies(Science Museum, 2016). The displays are thorough and varied, showing antique telegram machines, 1920s radio equipment, mid-20th century telephone exchange panels, beautiful 1960s TVs, bulky 1960s and 1970s mainframes, shiny telephones of all decades, and of course a wide array of retro computing (the Apple Lisa (1983) and Macintosh (1984) being particular highlights for me). The exhibition’s wide and clear displays do a good job of keeping the visitor entertained and are a true visual treat.

The exhibition is organised around the six key technology revolutions that have changed information in the last two hundred years: Cable, Broadcast, Exchange, Constellation, Web, and Cell. The displays focus on the individual objects or collections that best represent these innovations, showing an interesting mix of originals, reproductions, or small reconstitutions such as ship cabins. The focus is firmly placed on how the object functions, and on the people behind the inventions. This makes for a rather personal history of each technology, while attempting to show how these objects transformed our lives and allowed further technology progress.

An interesting goal, and an impressive display. Did the exhibition achieve everything it set out to do, however? I’m not so sure.

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The exhibition layout

My first criticism comes from a purely practical perspective: where do I go? Upon entering, the visitor is faced with a small panel detailing the exhibition layout. It does not suggest an order, although the visitor will naturally be drawn to what seems the “oldest” display (in this case “Cable”), and work their way around the room to advance to newer technologies. However, following this implied order makes for some odd experiences. Soon after observing some 1960s TVs, I was suddenly faced with a wall of code, before realising I was in the “Web” exhibition; turning away from the code I was faced with a mainframe computer, some 40-odd years older than the code. Similarly jarring experiences happen throughout the exhibition as it is very easy to turn the wrong corner, sometimes difficult to understand why we are shown older technology in the midst of a modern exhibition, and almost impossible to check which display we are currently in. I thought this was an oversight that could have easily be fixed by a suggested display order or larger, more informative text panels. If we think of an exhibition as a magic circle experience (a bubble of immersion), the lack of direction and of a consistent chronological narrative unfortunately broke this for me.

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tl;dr

Another criticism is that some display pieces are barely explained. This wall of code was a great example: at first glance, there are no explanations are in sight. Closer observation reveals that the few lines explaining the display are hidden in the code. While this is an interesting idea, would a child or an adult not familiar with coding know to look for it this way? This seemed misguided for the intended audience. Furthermore, I would have liked to see this piece linked to the HTML display, and it merited an explanation on how advances in web programming transformed the way we communicate on internet.

 

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Palm Pilots, remember them?

On the other hand, some displays suffered from an info-dump problem, coupled with a lack of necessary context. The digital organisers display illustrates this point rather well: it’s great to see these relics of the 1990s, but why did they become popular? What did they replace, what problem did they solve? Why was one popular with teenagers, another badly received by customers? I would have liked to see that instead of piecemeal information on their functionality.

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Africa and mobile phones

Overall, I felt that this exhibition failed to place itself in a wider societal context. Information and communication revolutions did not start in 1816 on the dot, nor ended in 2016, and I think the exhibition would have been greatly enriched by explaining what was in place beforehand (the importance of printing, the limitations of paper letters, etc.) and by peering into the future. As described earlier, and more problematically, the exhibition consistently failed to explain the fascinating context of the creation of the machines- the WHY, focusing instead on the technical details and the people behind the objects. One notable exception to this lack of context was the welcome aside discussing the importance of mobile phones in Africa, a well thought-out display that showed what information technology can do besides allowing us to communicate.

All in all, while I thoroughly enjoyed the objects on display, I left feeling frustrated. A missed opportunity, and very much style over substance.


References

Science Museum (2016) The Information Age. Available at: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/plan_your_visit/exhibitions/information_age (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

GAA [Game Analysis Acronyms]

 

Analysing games is a fascinating past-time, and a necessary exercise for game designers. How does the game work, what does it do, why do the players enjoy it? While these are all valid questions, it can be difficult to even begin answering them. Games are a complex interactive medium, and call for a more structured way to organise thoughts and questions. Enter game analysis frameworks. In this post, I will explore the three key  frameworks used by designers and academia alike: MDA, DDE, and AGE.

MDA

MDA stands for Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics, and was put forward by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek in 2004. Its aim is to “bridge the gap between game design and development, game criticism, and technical game research” and to “formalize the consumption of games by breaking them into their distinct components

Their relationship is illustrated as follows:
tumblr_inline_nalirn3tdz1qlivun

  •  Mechanics (or rules) can be described as the “mathematics” of the game: the nuts and bolts that form the rule set, and are effectively the “verbs” that a player enacts (run, shoot, jump, etc.). To analyse a game’s mechanics, we can ask ourselves the following questions:
    • How is the game set-up?
    • Which actions are available?
    • Effect of actions?
    • When does it end?
    • How is resolution determined?
  • Dynamics represent the system put in place by the rules and how it is interacted with by the player; these can encompass challenge, strategy, or frustration, and can be found by exploring the following questions:
    • What happens in play when the rules are in motion?
    • What are the emerging strategies?
    • How do players interact with each other?
  • Aesthetics, finally, are the emotions felt by the player when interacting with the game, with the explicit purpose of defining exactly what is “fun”, instead of using this very vague term.These can be explored by examining the following:
    • What is the effect of play on the player?
    • Is the game boring/engaging? How?
    • Is the game emotionally/intellectually engaging? How?The MDA framework offers this non-exhaustive list of potential aesthetic trends:

screenshot-2016-11-01-20-06-29

DDE

While the MDA framework opened the door to more structured and in-depth analysis, several issues were found with it:

  • The difference between the game shell and gameplay can be difficult to determine
  • The difference between dynamics and aesthetics is sometimes difficult to assess
  • The MDA framework cannot be fully applied to narrative structures

For these reasons, Wolfgang Walk developed a new framework called DDE: Design, Dynamics, and Experience (Walk, 2015). This framework set-out to address the issues found with MDA, and to focus this time on the perspective of the designer and the designing process, and on the importance of the narrative in a video game., Walk describes the process as follows:

  1. Design, the iterative start of the game design process, owned by the game designer and comprising of blueprint, specific mechanics and interface
  2. Dynamics, observing the relationship between the player and the game, the player and the player’s entity in the game, and the game and the game
  3. Experience, which is another way to describe aesthetics, this time refining the emotional, psychological and physiological aspects triggered by the game

dde

 

AGE

Finally, a third framework as put forward by Roberto Dillon in 2012, the AGE: Actions, Gameplay, Experience (Dillon, 2012). This framework seeks to solve the issue of how to get from mechanics and dynamics to aesthetics, in other words: how can we analyse the player’s reaction to the game in a more efficient way? AGE operates on the basis that emotions trigger instincts, instincts push the players to do an in-game action, and that instincts can thus easily be linked to gameplay.

AGE lists:

  • 6 basic emotions: fear, anger, pride, joy, excitement, sadness
  • 11 instincts: survival, self-identificatipon, rveenge, aggressiveness, curiosity, protection/care, greed, collecting, competition, communication, colour appreciation

Dillon provides the following illustration of his framework:

Screenshot 2016-11-01 20.28.20.png

As we can see, AGE can be a great tool to zoom in on the player experience, and break down the way the game affects the player.

In Conclusion

With the MDA framework, a new era of game thinking began, seeking to formalise the way games could be made, and analysed, to the best of the designer’s ability. MDA also sought to be a thought-provoking piece, ideally inspiring new ways to formalise the analysis – and indeed new models have been put forward since, such as AGE and DDE. Which one is best? It will probably depend on the designer’s view of their creation and on the type of game. To be continued!


References

Dillon, R. (2012). A modern approach to game analysis and design: the AGE framework. [online] Slideshare.net. Available at: http://www.slideshare.net/robertodillon/the-age-framework [Accessed 1 Nov. 2016].

Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M. and Zubek, R. (2004). MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. [online] Available at: http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf [Accessed 1 Nov. 2016].

Walk, W. (2015). From MDA to DDE. [online] Gamasutra.com. Available at: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/WolfgangWalk/20151111/259078/From_MDA_to_DDE.php [Accessed 1 Nov. 2016].

LEGO: Another Brick in the Gameplay

A common question amongst gamers is “what’s the first video game you ever played?”. I’m going to twist this question slightly, and ask “what’s the first game you remember playing?”. Well, for me, it’s probably LEGO. But is LEGO even a game? Or just a toy I played with?

It’s interesting to look at the differences between “play” and “game”. Some languages don’t even make the difference – English does, however, and it’s a detail worth looking into to in order to answer the LEGO question.

What comes to mind for me is that play is a free, enjoyable, unrestricted activity. You can do something playfully, and have fun doing so – it doesn’t have to be part of a game. The word “game”, on the other hand, feels more formalised. A game has rules, it has parameters, and a context. You can play a game, which usually involves challenge to reach an objective.

Looking at a LEGO box, and therefore a completed set, one can imagine how the characters can be moved around, made to fight, inhabit imaginary worlds… In other words, how LEGO can be played. Playing and Gaming –
Reflections and Classifications (Kampmann Walther, 2016) observes that “Not only do we explore a world while playing. We are also driven by its potential meaning and the stories we can invent in that respect.“. This seems to be an exact description of the LEGO player’s activity: a creative undertaking based around the toy, using it as a prop to create stories and interact with it.

Talking about play, Freud (1953) points out that “as people grow up, then, they cease to play, and they seem to give up the yield of pleasure which they gained from playing“, and we can make an almost direct parallel between this quote and LEGO. It’s not often that you see a 50 year old picking up a LEGO pirate crew member, invent a story about a treasure raid, and spent twenty minutes enacting the scenes. Equally, even Freud-approved players may find the activity dull, and not want to use LEGO this way. Does this mean that LEGO has reached its full, and only, potential through play?

Maybe not, thanks to another crucial component to LEGO sets: the building. In this play instance, the player will pick-up the manual, follow the (sometimes challenging) steps, to reach a particular end state, i.e. the completion of the LEGO set. A game can be defined as “goal-directed activities in which inefficient means are intentionally (or rationally) chosen” (Suits, 1967). Indeed, one might say that there is no challenge in building a LEGO set – the instructions are set and you simply follow them. However, from a game-centric perspective, I would argue that the building is in fact the key challenge and a game, because it is the inefficient path. The easy path is a pre-built LEGO (and who wants that?), the harder path is the challenge of building it yourself, frustration, fun, personal touches, missing pieces and all.

My conclusion is that, through separate forms of gameplay, LEGO is both a playing activity, and a game. And like with any game, the fun is in the eye of the beholder!


References:

Freud, S. (1953). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press, p.149

Kampmann Walther, B. (2016). Game Studies – Playing and Gaming: Reflections and Classifications. Available at: http://www.gamestudies.org/0301/walther/#_edn4 (Accessed 1 November 2016)

Suits, B. (1967) ‘What Is a Game?’, Philosophy of Science, 34(2), pp.148-156. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/186102?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents (Accessed 1 November 2016)