21 August 2016

About 'adjective' games and responsibilities...

Alien words or alien worlds?

There's an excellent article over at Eurogamer about the type of game No Man's Sky is, the type of marketing and the words used in relating to the consumer. It's a complicated discussion but I feel that it's a great starting point for that sort of discussion so Alexis Kennedy is to be applauded for writing it and Eurogamer for publishing it - it's a brave move.

There are several ideas and concepts crushed down into a single, simplistic article there and, in many ways this serves to unintentionally obfuscate each individual idea or concept by rushing them past the reader in such a manner that the general reader's mind will not fully absorb the intent as part of the greater discussion. Ideally, each major concept would get a separate article but I can't blame them for not going down this path. So here's what I think about 'generalising a game through language'.

First off, the simplistic idea that you can boil down an entertainment experience of a piece of art to a single verb, noun or adjective is objectively offensive. Let's get the dictionary definitions of all those three types of words before we start, so we have a baseline to underlie the discussion:

  • Verb: any member of a class of words that function as the main elements of predicates, that typically express action, state, or a relation between two things, and that may be inflected for tense, aspect, voice, mood, and to show agreement with their subject or object.
  • Noun: any member of a class of words that can function as the main or only elements of subjects of verbs (A dog just barked), or of objects of verbs or prepositions (to send money from home), and that in English can take plural forms and possessive endings (Three of his buddies want to borrow John's laptop). Nouns are often described as referring to persons, places, things, states, or qualities, and the word noun is itself often used as an attributive modifier, as in noun compound; noun group.
  • Adjective: any member of a class of words that modify nouns and pronouns, primarily by describing a particular quality of the word they are modifying, as wise in a wise grandmother, or perfect in a perfect score, or handsome in He is extremely handsome. Other terms, as numbers ( one cup; twelve months), certain demonstrative pronouns ( this magazine; those questions), and terms that impose limits ( each person; no mercy) can also function adjectivally, as can some nouns that are found chiefly in fixed phrases where they immediately precede the noun they modify, as bottle in bottle cap and bus in bus station.
So, basically, that boils down to 'doing', 'naming' and 'describing'.

In this context, if you subscribe to such an oversimplification, 'verb' games are about 'doing' something. 'Noun' games are about, well, that's never actually explained or clarified in the article... 'Adjective' games are about how things 'feel' in a game.

Now, if you're sitting there smacking your forehead at the absolute lack of logic here, just go and acquaint yourself with 'horse-face / plate-face' as the author indicates we should do.

Ready from that inanity? Good!

Now let's really dissect what those types of games should be.

Underground, overground - wombling free...

In my opinion, a 'doing' game is one where you are primarily active in a single type of role, a 'noun' game is also a 'doing' game where the player acts out the primary attribute of the game's title and an 'adjective' game is one where you also do... nope, no. Not even a little bit - this just doesn't work!!

Is Assassin's Creed an 'adjective' game? Is it a game about feeling? All that parkour and stabbing and performing objectives? No! It is objectively a game about doing something. It may be doing different things but it is most certainly a series of games about performing specifiic actions without choice in order to proceed - it is a doing game. Gone home? You don't have any choice there either - you primarily utilise the one mechanic introduced by the developer to achieve progression in the same way as you do in DOOM. It may be a different mechanic but progress is assuredly obtained through use of whichever mechanic is in question.

Heading further down this rabbit hole, adjective games do not depend more on the quality of the experience. I'm 100% certain that all good games require (and have) excellent quality of experience for the player. Whether that quality is primarily focussed on a game mechanic or world-building. Both are incredibly difficult to get right and even more difficult to marry together and get one or both of them right at the same time.

The thing that muddies the waters of this discussion is that once a mechanic is defined it doesn't require any further expenditure to spread out in a gaming experience*. Other types of quality require exponential graphic art and modelling to carry off and thus they are more expensive to implement. However, this is a non-sequitur to this conversation. The expense of creating a quality experience is completely tangential to the difficulty of defining that experience - which is what really begets 'quality'. It is still expensive to propagate a mechanic in a so-called 'verb' game as much as it is to propagate a feeling/tone or idea in a so-called 'adjective' game. To think otherwise is to completely undervalue the effort and dedication developers put into a project to keep it interesting for the player.**

And now we progress onto how games are marketed and how they are understood by consumers and the press, alike.

I guess I'm not doing anything here...

I will start off with this premise:

"It is not the job of the game designer or marketer to dumb themselves, their product or their message down to the lowest common denominator. As long as they do not deceive, they can be as honest and clear as possible without fault.
If anything, it is the responsibility of the consumer and the press to raise the level of their enlightenment so that they can process and assess the people, message and product in question..."

Maybe this is an idealistic premise but let's be blunt here. In the same way that voters should enlighten themselves as to what they are voting for and what consequences they will usher in with that vote, consumers also bear the brunt of this unspoken and, fairly recently, pushed-aside truism:

'Buyer beware'

The problem with this phrase is that it was co-opted by people as a warning when in actual fact it relates to the consumer informing themselves about the product or service they might consume. Simultaneously, the truism 'the customer is always right' was co-opted by people who felt they righteously could demand whatever they wanted from a business or other people because they were the most important person in the world.

Neither of those things are true or 'right'. People should be informed. Businesses do not have to bend to the will and whim of every psychotic self-centred person who comes to them for business.

This comes full circle to the end of the article in question: What do you do in No Man's Sky?

You explore...***


Exit, stage right...

*Though it is expensive to create a unique environment to spread the mechanic into...

**How many games have suffered under the curse of 'outstaying their welcome' or 'could have been cut by a couple of hours'?

***Mild insults made for effect (i.e. it's a verb!!) aside, I really don't harbour any anger towards Alexis Kennedy or Eurogamer and really thank them for providing me the opportunity to put my distaste for the backlash against most recent games into perspective. The industry has been inundated with people insulting and threatening developers for their output and at the same time, developers and publishers putting out sub-standard products over the last five years or so. Now is the time for both sides to grow up and start treating each other with respect as fallible human beings...

****I removed the mild insult because after I posted, I realised it was superfluous to the discussion and antagonistic for no real reason. It was meant in a joking way but maybe it went too far. This is without any feedback from anyone else on the issue.

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