Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Comedy & The (Short Essay On The) Linearity Conundrum

In early 2006, a team from Harmonix, creators of the original Guitar Hero (and now Rock Band), gave a presentation at the GDC’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop titled “Guitar Hero – The Failures.” (link) At this talk, Dan Sussman and Eric Brosius discussed their experiments with an unreleased game mode for Guitar Hero called “Freestyle Mode,” where the player is given relative free reign to create a melody of their choosing.

Ultimately, the mode didn’t work and they provided three reasons why: they couldn’t get it to sound good; they couldn’t fit it into game design; and it was hard to teach the usage to players. A simple way to sum this up would be “it’s too free.”

In mid-2008 a game called Metal Gear Solid 4 was released. Although this game received the requisite across-the-board high scores, there was one common gripe that many reviewers, and players, had with the game. Namely, the cut scenes were LOOOOONG. 30, 60, or even 90+ minutes long. During this time, the game provides you with one of two interactive options: watch the cut scene, or skip it. A simple way to sum this up would be “it’s not free enough.”

OK, I admit, MGS is only a half-assed example, but you get the point. These are two extreme examples of stochastic and linear gametypes. Many players would love to play freestyle mode, and many players enjoy watching MGS’ long cutscenes – but this article isn’t about those games or how fun they are, nor is it a critique on either.

Balancing the linear and stochastic elements in our medium is the difficulty we face; make a game too free and players flail in their freedom, but make a game too liner and the game fails to take advantage of what makes games great, namely, the way our choices affect the game’s outcome. Movies and books have an advantage in this sense – they are inherently linear, so do not have to deal with this quandary. A non-interactive game is nothing but a movie.

But there are certainly ways to blend the two (in fact, most games are a blend), and there are even ways to give the player a choice between a more liner experience and a more stochastic one.

Take Fallout 3, for example, the epitome of a modern day open-world game (or any of the Elder Scrolls games, for that matter). Anyone who has played this knows that they spend more time than is truly necessary pulling up their map and determining which direction to travel in the labyrinthine undercity. A simple solution would be a visible waypoint crumb trail, a la Fable 2 or even GTAIV. This would dramatically increase the accessibility of the game, and thus increase the games sales. They could even make it optional by being one of the game’s perks, so fans don’t decry such heresy.

My girlfriend spent literally 5+ hours creating her character in Oblivion, only to stumble out of the sewers into the wide world, overwhelmed with too many quests and no clear goal or direction. She wanted to play Oblivion, but it lost her due to the difficulty of figuring out what the game wanted her to do. Conversely, she played Fable 2 more than I did, and always knew where to go thanks to a proverbial yellow brick road. There’s no reason the game can’t have this option (hmmm… mod opportunity!), especially considering how there’s a strong possibility the entire world’s AI navmesh is already present, making it so the hard work is already done.

Finally, we get to the reason I wrote this article in the first place. I pose a question to you all:

Is it possible to create a game where the central premise is comedy, or is comedy inherently too stochastic and too subjective to be the pivotal gameplay determinant? There are plenty of games that include comedy as an element in their presentation, but I know of none that, for example, strive to have the player create comedic situations. And really, in what ways could a piece of software determine what is funny and what is not?

A gold star to anyone who nails this one, and a high-5 for getting half way there.



Anonymous said...

I have a hard time imagining a way to make comedy into a game. Comeday is about entertaining by surprising your audience, but how can you surprise yourself?

Savid Daunders said...

How indeed! That's precisely the question I'm asking.

The difficulty lies in measurement.

Hmm... I sense a new post topic. Is the ability to measure an input a prerequisite for making a game? Wii Fit can measure the pressure applied to the balance board. A controller measures the pressure (or activation) of a button press.

But once you get into measuring the transcendental, that's where we run into problems.

I'll get into this more soon. Thanks for the bout of inspiration!

Kelsey said...

Plenty of comical situations have arisen when players surprise the game. I.e., when the game logic doesn't expect a player's actions and responds in a weird way. When a dead body in Halo starts constantly shuddering thanks to collision logic, it's kinda like the game is snorting milk out of its nose.

The challenge with this line of thought is that it doesn't lend itself to intentional humor on the part of the game maker, because the joke is on him. But then, plenty of comedians have made careers out of self-deprecation.

Perhaps a puzzle game whose game logic is a simplistic approximation of the real world? To solve puzzles, you would have to exploit the game's simplicity and break natural laws.

Kelsey said...

Come to think of it, Karoshi is an example of what I described. This kind of mechanic probably emerges in the preliminary stages of programming any game that simulates reality.

Of course, there's probably more to game comedy than programming humor.

Savid Daunders said...

@ Kelsey - Wow, I never thought of approaching it that way. I like it! A LOT!

I could see making a game where the point of it is to discover the game's quirks. And by that I mean "discover" - I suppose the designer/programmer would program each of those glitches in. Similar to what you said about twitching in Halo, Warthog jumping would be another example. If a whole game could not be made out of these, achievements could easily be awarded for these quirky findings.

And also, I had never heard of Karoshi, but I checked it out and it looks cool! I look forward to checking it out when I get home tonight.

But I think you're right - there's more to comedy than programming humor. That's what's so difficult about it I suppose.

Any other thoughts on ways to approach this one?

Kelsey said...

Semantics is my favorite way of generating thoughts! I was just twisting Anonymous's words a bit.

IRL, I treat humor like a series of truths I think others might enjoy. I try to be funny because I like seeing people laugh. I'm not sure that I would find it as satisfying to try to amuse a game. Karoshi and similar games are still instances of the game designer being funny, not the player.

I think a game where the goal is to be funny would have to be multiplayer, and if we want the players to be able to make real jokes, it would probably have to entail LittleBigPlanet-scale content creation and sharing. There's no sense in forcing the player to make jokes about one topic, even if most of them will be making video game jokes anyway.

Of course, making the player think he's funny, like Guitar Hero makes him think he's a guitar hero, is pretty easy to conceptualize. Aim the slapstick! Refine your motions! Time your actions for maximum comedic effect! This kind of thing is plenty measurable.

Delivery of comedy is a skill that can be refined—easy to convert into a game, though I'm not sure what a comedy delivery game might entail. Creation of comedy is an art, a lot harder to ludolize.

Savid Daunders said...

Kelsey, I'm proud of you, you know your game terminology :D

I like where you're heads at. What other topics have been on your mind recently? You ever think of working in games?

Also, how'd you stumble across this blog?


p.s. BTW, you get the Gold Star I mentioned in this post

Kelsey said...

Yay Gold Star!

I just started college this year and found out that there's a game developer's club ( ), so I've been spending a lot of my free time in the past few months hunting the Internet for as much information as possible about game design (the club is dominated by programmers, so I have to learn this stuff online). It's brain candy, so I've been having all sorts of ideas that I've been putting into the Notes app on my iPod. I recently finished converting all of them to drafts on Wordpress, and I'm going to go through them and make them more readable to those who don't share my brain. The beginnings of it are here; subscribe to the feed!

I'm heavily interested in art games and game artists, so I spent a while going through Ian Bogost's stuff. I stumbled upon the two comments that comprise your latest blog post (in comment form, not blog post form). I was pretty happy to find a game designer who has a blog, because my Internet searchings for such yielded disappointingly little! How many do you know of?

I'm one of the few in the club who's only there as a hobbyist--I understand that it takes a while to earn the title "game designer" unless you go indie, which seems difficult--but I don't have any particular career in mind, so who knows?

Kelsey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.