In both cases, the availability of particular weapons is a key factor in gameplay, more potent or specialized weapons being necessary to the performance of particular tasks. In Medal of Honor, however, all the weapons are based on real-world equivalents, the relative capacities of which are set out in what is presented as real historical detail in the manual and have an impact on their in-game functionality.
Cover, interface and other artwork are also designed to signify a grounding in historical reality very different from the overt fantasy neo-gothic SF world of Doom. By making claims to authentic representation of Second World War contexts, in some respects, Medal of Honor opens itself to potential criticism about the adequacy of the simulation it offers of aspects of an historical experience. It loses, to some extent, the insulation provided by the modality-invoking statement that it is just a work of fantasy.
It remains a game, however, something very far removed from any directly consequential real-world activity of the kind it represents and asks the player to perform. In multi-player games, for example, the added dimension of a social reality within the game-world can blur the modal framework. More generally, meanings with real-world resonance or potential implications can translate across the boundary, as argued in the second half of this chapter and in Chapter 4. The fact that they have to move across a boundary to come into play underlines the fact that an initial state of separation exists.
Examples of supporting hooks found in particular examples include the introduction of a stealth mode in Return to Castle Wolfenstein and the higher than usual premium put on the need to remain in cover to avoid being hit by often unseen enemies in Vietcong , an attempt to map into the game one of the distinctive features of the American military experience in Vietnam.
Note gauges to be monitored for health and ammunition on lower screen-left and inset map showing enemies and direction of objective on lower-right. It is the imposition of numerous different demands that helps to account for both the challenge offered by many games and their compelling and immersive qualities. A typical game situation requires the player to attend to a multitude of tasks while moving forward, incrementally, through a particular mission, level or stage of development.
In a strategy game, it involves monitoring progress or setbacks on multiple fronts, keeping a large number of balls in the air. In games such as Civilization , Age of Empires and Command and Conquer , this involves management of resource production and its deployment, the latter often including ongoing action at different ends of the game map. The incremental nature of gameplay tasks helps to explain its compelling nature an aspect of play emphasized by Huizinga , the urge it creates to keep playing. Enforced repetition can be frustrating and off-putting and might, in some cases, lead to the abandonment of the game.
The urge to keep playing can also be felt at the point where a much-repeated section has just been completed. The temptation is offered of a fresh, new situation — usually the ringing of a few changes within the same basic scenario — the immediate appeal of which can be strong, as a reward for persistence. In real-time or turn-based strategy games, a similar urge to keep playing can be created by the desire to see what happens next, how one of many localized scenarios might play out. The fact that operations are usually ongoing on multiple fronts, and that they include both those initiated by the player and moves by non-player rivals, can create a self-perpetuating momentum the default tendency of which is to keep going until marked breaks such as those created by victory or defeat.
In a game of Command and Conquer: Generals, for example, in which the player chooses the side of the Global Liberation Army GLA , the player might send out an attacking force against United States positions. Battle ensues, its outcome a function of both automated calculations by the game engine and micromanagement by the player pulling back damaged units to prevent their destruction, sending in reinforcements, and so on. During the thick of this action, the GLA base might face aerial attack from the US, including the use of devastating fuel-air bombs that create an urgent need for repairs to essential resource-building infrastructure and air defences such as stinger missile sites.
On top of this, US ground forces might launch an assault and the player might be in the process of constructing a force of scud missile launchers with which to strengthen the attack on the enemy base. Events such as these overlap, but occupy their own time-frames. They develop at different rates, giving the player the chance to turn from one to another, and always, in mid-game, inviting the player to keep going, to see what will happen next. In a turn-based strategy game such as Civilization, the incremental nature of play is institutionalized. The number of turns required to achieve any new move is openly advertised across the territorial map, some development usually temptingly close to fruition, while the option to keep playing for just one more turn — and another — is as explicit as the pressing of a button.
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- Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders: Videogame Forms and Contexts.
- Critical Thinking in Health and Social Care.
Regular visits to a MMORPG world enable players to keep up contacts with friends made in the game, but also create pressure to keep playing or risk being left behind as others advance in capability. The potential to create an immersive effect, in which the player is absorbed into the game, is an important aspect of gameplay. Immersion in the sense of establishing an illusion of quasi-physical sensory presence in the on-screen world of the game is considered in greater detail in Chapter 2.
A game, or part of a game, that is too challenging for the player is likely to cause anxiety; one that is too easy is likely to create boredom. A player starting with a low level of skill will require modest challenges initially, but these will need to be increased, incrementally, to match the increasing skill gained with practice by the player.
This is precisely what is offered in many videogames. In some cases, these functions are performed in what are framed as training modes, in locations such as the indoor and outdoor obstacle courses at the palatial home of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider games. The availability of a range of challenges appropriate to player skills, and earned player-character capacities and equipment, is built very clearly into a MMORPG such as EverQuest. An assortment of creatures and monsters populates the various landscapes of the game, each being labelled explicitly in terms of the level of challenge it would present if engaged in combat by the player.
Creatures that offer a reasonably safe and useful source of experience points in the early stages are barely worthy of notice once a few levels are gained unless they possess something required in a particular quest , a pleasurable sense of progression being created by the gradual ability of the player to take on opponents that are more challenging and bring greater rewards as they level-up.
In this case, what is involved is the level of skill embedded in the player-character more than that of the player hm- or herself. The same factors enable the player-character to embark on increasingly elaborate quests and to become a more valuable resource to others in group activities. An increase in the number of gameplay hooks makes the game more complex and demanding.
Too many hooks can become overwhelming, as Howland suggests; too few, and boredom is likely to set in once the initial novelty of a new title is exhausted. To engage effectively in challenging activity, matching skill against challenge, it is essential that a clear sense is established of what has to be achieved. Unambiguous feedback is also required: a clear sense of the extent to which any activity by the player succeeds or fails. Many games offer instant feedback.
The centrality of shooting to a wide range of games might be explained as much by its suitability for the provision of action that creates an immediate feedback response as by any broader cultural factors, as Marie-Laure Ryan suggests. In some types of games, especially strategy games, the fruits of action are delayed into the future — the time it takes for a particular resource to be developed — but instant feedback is usually provided to signify that the process is underway and some indication is given of how long it will take to be completed.
Without a framework of clear goals and feedback, gameplay is liable to be confusing, which can be the case, especially for new players, in extremely open-ended games such as MMORPGs or largely non-directive games such as Animal Crossing More complex interfaces can provide greater functionality, however, than those which are most rapidly grasped. Repeated usage results in the creation of customized neural pathways in the brain, reducing the amount of processing required for reaction to on-screen events.
One of the potential pleasures of immersive absorption in activities such as gameplay is the opportunity they provide for other preoccupations and anxieties to be forgotten. A strong focus of attention on the tasks at hand leaves little or no room for anything else. Gameplay, like other sources of leisure and work that require sustained concentration, can provide an orderly arena into which the player can move to escape the multitude of disorders and uncertainties often characteristic of everyday life.
Another dimension of this kind of experience is the sense of control gained by the player. The player is granted a certain scope for controlling agency in all games, yet this is determined by the particular rules and parameters of any individual game. The pleasure of playing lies, often, in a particular combination of freedom and determination, control and lack of control.
The sense of control is strongest when the player has freedom to complete tasks in more than one way, but this, itself, is determined by the game. This is largely illusory, however, given that the player usually has no control over the challenges set or parameters such as those determining the requirements needed to attain a higher level.
In multi-player games, the sense of accomplishment and control felt by experienced players can be increased by the practice of helping new players; much of the in-game chat revolves around the comparison of strategies and skill levels, including frequent boasting about achievements.
An experience often reported by gameplayers is the sense that time passes differently during anything other than short periods of gameplay, particularly that it tends to pass more quickly, that hours can disappear in what seem like minutes. Intense levels of absorption or immersion in the game, and the closing out of the external world, imply a move into its rhythms and timescales rather than those of the real-world clock. How much frustration can be contained within this experience, without creating alienation for the player, is likely to vary from one example to another.
In shooters such as Doom and Halo , for example, the number of enemies decreases on easier settings.
When it is switched on, enemies can be hit merely by shooting in their general direction rather than requiring more accurate aiming, a change that can make all the difference in the heat of the action and when subject to panic-induced button fumbling. Consciousness of the existence of relatively arbitrary game devices is likely to reduce immersive potential. Hit-point systems, for example, used to calculate the relative strength of characters and to chart their state of health during combat, have a number of advantages, Jonathon Schilpp suggests, including their ease of use, versatility and familiarity to players.
Hit-point systems lay bare the numerical models used by game software, especially when their dynamics are presented explicitly to the player, as is the case in the on-screen information supplied during combat in examples such as EverQuest. Many subsequent games map health status onto the appearance, behaviour and capacities of the playercharacter. Numerous other factors can also intrude on the gameplay experience, reducing the likelihood of reaching anything like an optimal state. Gameplayers often seek a private space in which outside interference can be minimalized, using devices such as headphones where necessary to increase separation from the surrounding world,61 but it is not always possible to prevent interruption.
A variable balance exists between the relative strength of demands posed by real and game-world activities. Such theories can be seen as products of a particular social, economic and cultural conjunction, dominant in contemporary western society, in which an emphasis is put on notions of individual freedom. This does not make such concepts of any less use in the understanding of contemporary videogame play, but suggests that they should not be elevated to the status of universals.
Gameplay does not exist in a vacuum, any more than games do as a whole. It is situated, instead, within a matrix of potential meaning-creating frameworks. The extent to which contextual material or associations are likely to come into play during play is variable, according to factors relating to the nature of the game and the manner in which it is played in a particular gaming context.
In some situations, quite commonly at the height of the gameplay action, contextual material is likely to recede from view. But games, like other cultural products, always contain potential for the creation of extrinsic as well as intrinsic meanings. Some of these are considered in greater detail in Chapter 4, in which we focus more broadly on the social and cultural dimension of games and gameplay.
The remainder of this chapter considers the role of contextual frameworks, principally those established by narrative and genre associations. In the last part of the chapter, we consider more closely the relationship between gameplay and contextual material: the extent to which such dimensions are likely to be in-play, rather than relegated to a position in the background, during particular sessions of gameplay.
NARRATIVE The narrative potential of videogames has been one of the dominant concerns for a number of theorists, including some coming to games from a background in literary studies. The narrative dimension of games tends to be seen in this context as somewhat crude and debased. One of the main reasons for objections to any emphasis on the narrative components of games, where they exist, is that the narrative dimension itself is not usually interactive, and therefore lacks the quality seen as the most distinctive element of videogames as compared with other media.
Aspects of narrative are present in many others, but they often play a marginal role. Little more than a minimal backstory is created in some cases. More substantial overarching narrative frameworks are developed in others, along with localized narrative components.
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Games of emergence, as suggested above, are those in which a number of simple rules combine to form a wide range of interesting variations. Such frameworks play a far less directing role, however, than is usually the case in games of progression. Substantial advance can be made through the game — exploration, combat, the pursuit of quests, increasing the experience and skills levels of the playercharacter — without any more than passing engagement with this kind of narrative background.
In EverQuest, the choice of whether or not to worry about narrative is made explicit in the form of a control that can be used to turn on or off a story mode in which narrative updates are provided. Players can also choose to invest more strongly in narrative context by reading books in which a mythic background is elaborated or by visiting new areas that might be opened up temporarily in line with a new story arc. In online role-playing games, this investment is likely to be increased because players interact with others in the guise of their chosen characters: the attributes of character to some extent frame the manner in which players regard one another.
The player can choose to avoid the process of ongoing character-development, but not without severely limiting the scope for other forms of emergent gameplay an increase of character experience being necessary if freedom is to be gained to roam the game-world in relative safety and to embark on a wider range of activities. If players of games of emergence can, among other activities, generate a variety of emergent narratives or tellable stories from the initial parameters, one of the tasks set by some games of progression is to realize a narrative structured in advance into the gamescape.
This is not the case with all games of progression, some of which have little substance in the narrative dimension. The basic dynamic is one of repetition of gameplay activities at increasingly higher levels within a context that remains essentially static after being established at the start: reiterations of the same types of actions.
Narrative material is developed during the course of the game, often interspersed with gameplay activities in which the dynamic is much the same as that suggested above: broadly similar assortments of tasks to perform but often more testing, and with access to more resources, as the game proceeds. Comments by nonplayer characters in the early stages build expectations that something is amiss, creating an explanatory context for subsequent events.
A number of messages await Freeman but cannot be accessed because the computer system is down — narrative information that is missing, in other words, increasing the overall impression of suspense. A number of plot twists impact on gameplay as the game proceeds. It soon becomes apparent that they are shooting at the player-character, however, although maybe too late to prevent the character being killed and the player having to return to the last save-point. Why the troops are shooting at the player-character, here and subsequently, becomes another source of enigma, background to the immediate task of having to deal with another hostile force.
The carefully crafted narrative of Primal pivots around the fact that chaos and order are no longer in dualistic equilibrium. The main playercharacter, Jen, is plunged inadvertently into a mythical realm and charged with the task of rebalancing these primal forces. A number of different devices are used to supply this kind of narrative material. Some, such as cut-scenes, entail a break out of the main gameplay arena. The cut-scene casts its meanings forward, strengthening the diegetic, rhetorical dimension of the event to come. Scenes important to the plot of Half-Life remain fully interactive, allowing the player to move around while information is relayed by non-player characters and other integrated devices.
In games such as these, the challenge offered to the player includes realizing the pre-existing narrative structure and making sense of the narrative context in which gameplay occurs. Damaged, blood-spattered interiors and the remains of carcasses from which shape-shifting aliens have emerged provide both evidence of recent events, as constructed in the narrative past, and warning about the likely kinds of events to come. It also matters to many game designers, an important point given the tendency of some commentators to treat narrative as essentially a concern brought to games from outside, principally from those seeking to impose on games study perspectives more relevant to other media such as literature and cinema.
The provision of narrative material can be seen as a reward for successful gameplay. The unveiling of a new plot development often comes after the completion of a series of gameplay tasks. The balance of pleasure might change from one game to another — depending on the relative quality of both gameplay activities and narrative development — and from one player to another, depending on individual preferences.
Whatever the preference of the player, however, or the particular narrative development offered in any individual title, the bulk of the playing experience of most videogames that have narrative dimensions occurs in between the moments of narrative elaboration. Games with overarching and developing narrative frameworks such as the examples cited above might be reduced to a basic three-act structure of beginning, middle and end, but, as Craig Lindley suggests, with a highly extended second act in which gameplay activities dominate over narrative development.
In each case, the core gameplay experience occurs in the extended second act, framed by introductory or climactic material that does most of the narrative work, often through the use of out-ofgame devices such as cut-scenes. Factors determining the degree to which narrative material is likely to remain in-play throughout the game include the pace at which movement through the game is allowed or encouraged. A faster pace, other things being equal, is likely to increase the proximity of narratively loaded components, creating a stronger sense of linear continuity, of narrative binding, across sequences of gameplay activity.
A slower pace, or larger gaps between narrative devices or more widely spaced play sessions , is likely to reduce any impression of narrative continuity or progression, creating a more episodic experience. Likely speed of progression can be increased through the use of devices such as navigational aids that steer the player in the direction necessary for progression, encouraging a more linear passage through the game-world in which narrative continuity is more likely to be sustained — an issue to which we return in Chapter 2.
In Enter the Matrix, for example, player-characters can move at a helterskelter pace, faster than usual for third-person action-adventures, and are constantly provided with orientation by a directional arrow at the top right-hand corner of the screen. The effect is to create a strong impression of momentum, very different from the exploratory wandering in search of the right route through the more puzzle-like gamescape characteristic of titles such as the Tomb Raider games.
The length of a given game might also affect the experienced coherence of a narrative arc: in shorter games, the impression of coherence might be enhanced while longer games often place emphasis on the more general experience of being in the world of the game especially in subscription-based MMORPGs.
Generally, narrative is delivered and experienced in games in a more fragmentary and drawn-out manner than in more narrativecentric forms. If players of Half-Life: Blue Shift choose to shoot unthreatening NPCs they receive a warning from inside the diegetic universe that they have violated their contract of employment and are thrown out of the game. Marie-Laure Ryan argues that ingredients such as these are not used for their own sake but as means towards another end, that of luring players into the game-world.
Basic narrative elements or dynamics can also be linked more closely to core gameplay activities. Quest frameworks, in which characters are sent on missions often to exotic places to perform heroic actions, form the basis of many games, especially in the action-adventure and role-playing genres, obvious examples including Primal, EverQuest and the Tomb Raider series. Quests are also found as more locally embedded mini-narratives within the more open structure of games of emergence, as suggested above. The format is offered by Troy Dunniway as an ideal narrative template for game design, its facility being based largely on the simplicity and familiarity of the form.
The emphasis tends to be on the journey itself, and the assorted experiences encountered en route, rather than on the end-point or destination, much the same as could be said for games that have overarching narrative frames but in which the majority of attention is devoted to the performance of the particular gameplay tasks required for progression. In Primal and Buffy the central characters have their heroic destinies foisted upon them by metaphysical forces.
The one does not follow from the other, as is sometimes implied. Existing videogames may be disappointing to some critics in their lack of narrative subtlety or sophistication, but the narrative dimension still exists and needs to be understood, both in its own terms and its interaction with gameplay. Relatively crude narrative material is, in fact, probably best suited to the job, in existing game formats, providing a few strong hooks on which to hang gameplay activities and well-matched to the protracted and multilevelled engagement of most games.
An important point, sometimes overlooked, is that the narrative dimension of gameplaying is not limited to the function of narrative material that can be located explicitly within the individual game-text itself. Games can also play into the context of narrative material elaborated elsewhere. The game, Juul reports, comes in three phases, each involving the control of a spaceship engaged in different combat actions. The narrative context for the action performed in the game is established in advance, in the movie and, especially in this case, as a result of the prominent position it attained in the popular culture of its time.
This is the case both in this individual example and in the wider economy of which it is a prominent manifestation, in which an important emphasis for large media conglomerates is on the production of franchise properties that can be exploited across a range of different media forms.
Filmto-game adaptations are often greeted with scepticism by gameplayers who suspect, not unsurprisingly, that they are less than usually likely to have been developed with their distinctive gameplay features in mind. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise, for example, has a high brandrecognition factor, spanning a range of media and including several game versions. The games locate themselves temporally at various points in the story arc established by the series. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds makes more general allusions to events throughout the whole series.
As a result, there are relatively few expository cut scenes or the static picture and text equivalent in the more resource-restricted context of the Gameboy. Various in-jokes and narrative resonances are expressly addressed to Buffy-literate players. An unusually large number of expositional cut-scenes are required, both at the start and throughout the game.
Extensive marketing was needed to sell from scratch the central character, Jen, and the world she inhabits. The advertising campaign was much bigger than that used for the Buffy games, including expensive television spots. Competing for the same target market as the Buffy games, Primal makes use of various codes to identify the nature of the game, creating points of recognition for fantasy-literate gameplayers including, as the voice of Jen, the actor Hudson Leick, who played a tough woman warrior character in the television series Xena: Warrior Princess.
A more risky venture than the Buffy games, the pay-off for Primal is the creation of a game that stands out from many others by having a well-developed storyline of its own in which emphasis is placed on character development, a dimension unusual in games. For players, the existence of a pre-established narrative framework can create added resonance to the gameplaying experience, a sense of being able to occupy and explore story-worlds created elsewhere.
A close connection exists in many such cases between narrative and the particular spaces in which it unfolds, or for which a narrative context has been created elsewhere. Spaces such as those of the Star Wars games evoke established narrative associations. Developers and academic commentators agree on the important role genre can play in providing a context for the pursuit of gameplay activities. Why is she gathering resources to build armies? To win, yes, but for the game to be an experience, the why needs to be less about game mechanics and more about interaction and, yes, story.
Genre is a particularly useful source of such context because of its familiarity, in much the same way as broader narrative archetypes or licensed properties. It is especially useful to games, however, as media not so well suited to the articulation in any depth of their own contextual background because of their participatory status.
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As a gameplay device, it might seem arbitrary and intrusive if it were not for the broad generic motivation. An activity such as teleportation would be incongruous in games such as Grand Theft Auto III, Max Payne or The Getaway, for example, in which player-character actions have to approximate not so much to reality as to the conventional limits of the thriller genre.
In a game, the player might have little choice. Genre provides a context that makes the action meaningful, within an established frame of reference, rather than arbitrary — a factor that strongly increases the immersive and pleasurable potential of the experience. In Max Payne and The Getaway, the familiar scenario is that of the outlawed anti-hero, forced to demonstrate his capacity for violence against his will.
Blood Omen 2 strikes a different metaphysical and moral chord by putting the player on the side of the glamorous blood-drinking bad-boy vampire. These are all relatively simple, clear-cut contexts. They have the virtue, for games, of being both familiar from other products of popular culture and lending themselves to the production of extended variations on the main theme in the shape of whatever activities are foregrounded by the type of game in which they are used.
Contextual frames such as those provided by genre and narrative can be morally loaded, as many of the above examples suggest, providing not just popular-culturally meaningful association but value-judgement. Story or genre frameworks often seek to justify the kind of behaviour required of the player-character if progress is to be made through the game. Max Payne, as operated by the player, does not just indulge in orgies of violence, but is a put-upon character left with no choice if he is to survive; Mark Hammond in The Getaway, likewise, is forced into violent activities by gangsters who have kidnapped his young son.
Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders: Videogame Forms and Contexts
James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2 is looking for his wife. In each of these cases, sympathy for the plight of the protagonist is sought through the melodramatic device of violent intrusion into their domestic life. If narrative, genre and other resonances provide contexts in which gameplay occurs, are these dimensions really in-play, or just somewhere in the distant background, during gameplay? Broader socio-cultural values can also be encoded into the game-world, from the kinds of moral oppositions cited above to more overtly political-ideological implications.
But how far are these dimensions likely to be in-play in games? A number of factors can be suggested that might shape or determine the extent to which contextual associations are in-play in any particular game or any particular playing situation. A useful starting point is to focus on games that have relatively explicit or contentious politicalideological dimensions, a situation in which the impact of contextual associations might be drawn more sharply to our attention an issue to which we return more generally in Chapter 4.
Both games offer material typical of the kind expected in their respective game genres. The main gameplay concerns for the player of Command and Conquer are resource development, management and deployment. Barracks are constructed and managed to produce troops; war factories or their equivalents to produce armoured and other vehicles. More advanced buildings are used to develop more specialized technologies and capabilities. An eye has to be kept on strategic factors such as the development of any particular offensive campaign, the availability of sources of revenue and the potential for enemy attacks.
In both cases, these generic features are situated within ideologically and geopolitically loaded contexts. The GLA of the game is not meant to be a representation of al-Qaeda, being more akin to a conventional army in some respects. But, within this arena, the game includes numerous semantic elements — units of meaning — capable of playing strongly into its contemporary geopolitical context. How far, then, are these contexts likely to be in or out of play?
One way to address this question is to construct an axis of possibilities with extreme positions at either end and a large grey area in the middle. At one extreme would be a purely abstract process of gameplay, entirely free from any extrinsic associations or motivations. At the other would be a notion of gameplay fully saturated with extrinsic contextual material of one kind or another.
Neither extreme is likely to be fully applicable. When each particular, detailed gameplay task was performed, it would be done with full consciousness of the contextual association. When a scud missile launcher was developed and moved into position by the GLA, for example, it would resonate strongly as a representation of the real-world equivalent used by the regime of Saddam Hussein in recent history. It might be experienced in the context of a real threat posed to the anti-Saddam forces — or, for the opponent of action against Iraq, as a vicarious equivalent of hitting back at US neo-imperialism.
In an action-adventure title such as The Getaway, the equivalent would be the experience of every gameplay task through the imaginary lens provided by the generic context and the particular situation faced by the player-character. Such associations can come into play, sometimes quite strongly. But they are never likely to reach a point approaching that of total gameplay saturation. They are bound to recede from consciousness, probably very often, during the implementation of basic gameplay tasks, and in the formulation of broader tactical and strategic approaches in a game such as Command and Conquer.
There is a routine dimension to gameplay of all kinds that cannot entirely be displaced. The cognitive demand imposed by these processes is such that they often become the focus of attention in their own right; it is not practicable to imagine them being weighed down, always, moment by moment, by the available contextual associations. Scud missiles launched in attack on a US base in Command and Conquer: Generals : loaded with real-world resonances, or just abstract counters in a game repertoire?
The environment, a network of seemingly endless corridors, ventilation ducts, stairways and laboratories, is heavily coded according to genre. All of this, however, can be reduced to something closer to the status of an abstract puzzle-maze, especially in longer or repeated periods of gameplay uninterrupted by the presentation of fresh narrative material.
If contextual associations can never always be fully in play, does the routine implementation of gameplay tasks reach a point at which contextual associations recede entirely? For the player of Command and Conquer as the GLA, does the production and use of scud launchers or anthrax weapons become a purely abstract feature of gameplay, in which the loaded nature of their connotations falls out of view? Much of the time, the scud launcher might just be experienced as another weapon, merely a counter in an abstract game; one more item to be produced, moved up into position, defended from attack and used against the enemy.
Even the most abstract game contains such potential, including perhaps the most often discussed example, Tetris Janet Murray has been criticized, quite sharply, for reading into this an associational meaning. The distinction is an important one. The same can be said of narrative context. David Myers, for example, argues strongly against the value of backstory in games, suggesting that it is often imposed on games for commercial reasons but likely to interfere with, rather than to support, gameplay.
Narrative is often offered as a source of context within which play can be located, but its hold is always likely to be limited by factors such as the nature of the particular gameplay experience involved and the orientation of the player.
What is required here, as generally in the study of games, is analysis of the game-as-playable-text — the material offered by the game itself — and consideration of a number of different ways in which the same game text might be experienced from one occasion to another. It is important to stress that exactly how the balance operates between gameplay-for-its-own-sake and gameplay-in-context is hard to determine in other than an approximate fashion.
This is not a question that lends itself to an exact science of understanding. Material extrinsic to the performance of core gameplay tasks is likely, on balance, to recede from view as gameplay proceeds within any particular game. The opening video sequences make stronger than usual claims towards verisimilitude, mimicking the format of a television news broadcast to provide basic context for the missions in which the player takes part. Actuality footage and date-stamped captions that refer to real historical moments are used to ground the game in a real-world context.
Like many other shooter games, this also serves to establish some illusion of a moral context for the action. Reminders of this context are also supplied at the start of each individual mission, several of which involve the rescue of UN relief convoys. As each mission progresses, however, the emphasis is likely to shift to the more generic, and at least relatively value-neutral, performance of conventional shooter tasks. The task is then to deal with snipers in surrounding buildings and enemy forces on the ground, negotiating streets and bombed-out interiors before eventually placing charges on a truck that has been used to block the road, at which point the missions ends in success.
As the mission proceeds, however, the basics of shooter gameplay come increasingly to the fore. Saving comes into play, as in so many games, because of the constant likelihood of the player-character being killed and having to start again. A return to an earlier save, or to the start of the mission, might be used to correct the balance, to use M16 bullets more judiciously. Reduction in the characters health level creates a similar dynamic, maybe requiring more careful use of cover. Contextual associations are likely to slip furthest from view in extreme states of play, at its most heightened and, equally, at its most potentially tedious.
Little perceptual or cognitive space may be left for awareness of context when gameplay is at its most fast and furious: when the player has to move fast to shoot and avoid being shot, especially when ammunition or health are low the latter being when the stakes are highest, especially if a long stretch of the mission will have to be repeated in the event of death. Regimes of saving-and-repeating can add to the intensity of the experience, especially in games such as Max Payne that permit an extremely rapid resumption of play. They can also create frustration, however, and sometimes boredom, when a player is forced into multiple repetitions.
This is another situation in which contextual background is likely to be reduced to the more distant background, the gameplay situation taking the shape of an abstract problem to be overcome rather than one that retains much in the way of contextual depth. Games often build elements of variation into repeated attempts at missions, in an effort to maintain interest and reduce the likely alienation of the player. These can, in some cases, help to some extent to maintain contextual awareness.
In The Getaway, for example, scripted comments made by the playercharacter change to a degree from one attempt at a mission component to another. The effect is to create a slightly stronger sense than would otherwise be the case of the experience being mediated by a character, in a narrative-oriented situation, rather than just an abstract task to be performed again by the player.
In easier modes, or with the use of aids, the player can move more swiftly through the game. The volume of explicit reference to contextual material can also vary extensively from one game to another, as has already been suggested in the case of narrative. Black Hawk Down is much more explicit and detailed. Differences can also be found in the extent to which reminders of context are provided in the thick of the gameplay. Command and Conquer contains many details that highlight the real-world geopolitical context within the imaginary space of the game.
Its exclusive access to air power often seems to give the US a considerable advantage, if not as great as the overwhelming superiority enjoyed in the real world. Playing as the US, life is sometimes made easier through the use of air power, not always involving any action on the part of the player. Snippets of dialogue also act as reminders of real-world discourse, even if reduced to the status of comedy quips. Explicit connection with events in the forefront of public attention at the time of release is likely, on balance, to increase the extent to which associational material remains in focus.
The game also locks the player into the perspective of the US military, a factor likely to make it less contentious for many, except those opposed to US military interventions overseas. Played just before, during or immediately after the American-led attack on Iraq in , the game entered an extremely heightened context in which its associational meanings might be more than usually likely to be drawn to the foreground of attention. Elsewhere, the more generic-seeming the associational context — the more familiar and generally uncontested a background it might constitute — the less likely it may be for its contextual material to come strongly into play.
Another crucially important factor in determining the extent to which associational material is likely to be in play or not is the receptivity, and particular orientation, of the individual player. In the case of geopolitical or ideological context, especially, some players are far more likely to be attuned to such material than others — or more concerned about such matters, making them likely to play into the gaming situation.
For the player opposed to the American interventions in Somalia or Iraq, playing Black Hawk Down or Command and Conquer: Generals is likely to be an experience in which contextual associations cannot be kept at bay. A keen supporter of the attack on Iraq might be equally attuned to contextual resonances, if from an opposing perspective.
A contributing factor might be the familiarity of the player with the particular genre involved. To the fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, playing as a central character in which emotion is invested in one of the Buffy games, their own performance — good or bad — might be measured against that associated with the character. Player orientations such as these can affect gameplay decisions and outcomes.
Playing as a Jedi knight in the Star Wars tie-in game The Phantom Menace , for example, the more highly attuned player might choose an approach based on the minimal use of force, in accordance with the Jedi code established more generally in the franchise.
The result, in a particular engagement, can be different from that experienced by a player who acts in the more direct and forceful manner characteristic of many other titles in the third-person action-adventure genre to which the game belongs. Depending on the orientation of the player, the balance between gameplay as a more abstract task and gameplay that takes on associational resonance can shift, sometimes in what might be unexpected directions. Some of the missions in Black Hawk Down, for example, culminate in a dash on the part of the player-character to the point at which the US troops are to be extracted.
Played with few if any saves left, this can be quite demanding, requiring a number of repetitions. In this case, geopoliticalideological context can come back into play through the process of abstraction. If the extent to which contextual associations are in play is likely to vary according to a number of factors, as we have suggested, can any broader conclusions be made, any tendencies that override differences found from one moment of play to another?
In general, the balance between gameplay and meanings created by associational context is likely to favour the former over the latter. If gameplay activities and contextual background impose rival demands on the cognitive resources of the player, as Lindley suggests in his case, the emphasis being on gameplay vs. What gives is always most likely to be richness of contextual background, for the simple reason that gameplay can proceed without any noticeable attention to background while the opposite is not the case.
When it comes down to it, gameplay is more likely to operate as the primary frame that contextualizes and at times obscures extrinsic referents. That is not to say that it does not still perform an important role in the overall experience offered by many games, even if it might shift in and out of focus during gameplay. As we argued in the Introduction, games study requires the analysis of a number of different dimensions of games, including both gameplay and the meaning-creating contexts in which it is situated, even if the latter are often relegated to a secondary position at the height of the gameplaying action.
The two cannot entirely be separated, even for a commentator such as Lars Konzack, for whom one is clearly privileged over the other. There is some empirical evidence to suggest that the garb in which gameplay activities is clothed can have a substantial impact on the playing experience. In one study involving children aged 11 and 12, two structurally identical games were offered to groups divided on gender lines.
The former contained overtly male-gendered characters while the latter used representations designed to be as neutral as possible. It can have considerable impact on the overall experience offered to the player, however, as indicated by the example cited above and many others outlined in this chapter. A complete study of games needs to take both levels into account, along with a number of others. Gameplay has its own intrinsic appeals. It might be said that these can be heightened by the location of gameplay within recognizable contexts, but this presumes that more than a very rudimentary gameplay can ever exist outside some kind of legible contextual framework.
Exploration of game-space, as we have seen, can be a way of realizing pre-structured narrative design. Exploration and the sense of presence that results from the creation of sensory immersion in the gamescape can also be central to the accomplishment of gameplay tasks in many games. Both exploration and the creation of a sense of presence are important aspects of games in their own right, however, with their own intrinsic dynamics and appeals.
Even where exploration is closely linked to the pursuit of goals or missions that advance the player through game levels, for example, it can include scope to move more freely within and through a variety of on-screen landscapes, a pleasure that can be indulged for its own sake. More than simply a background setting, the world of the game is often as much a protagonist, or even antagonist, as its inhabitants. We start by considering the degrees of freedom offered by different games, from the most restrictive to those which offer maximum potential for spatial exploration, including consideration of issues such as modes of navigation and locomotion within the game-world.
We then look at the degree to which games create for the player an impression of virtual presence within the gamescape, a mediated sense of spatial immersion within the on-screen world. Our focus will range from the large scale — the way entire game-worlds are structured spatially and rendered navigable — to closer textural detail that seeks to fabricate an impression of virtual embodiment, immediacy and presence. Degrees of Freedom At the most restrictive end of the spectrum are games that afford no scope for spatial exploration. A greater impression of movement through space is provided by side-scrolling games, such as Defender and Super Mario Brothers , but this also remains entirely restricted.
Greater scope for exploration is usually associated with games that produce more detailed three-dimensional worlds through which the player-character moves, although the principal gameplay tasks of many 3D games are such as not to encourage a design that affords great scope for exploration.
Even in off-road rally games, such as the Colin McRae Rally series, the scope to venture off the track is usually very limited. In many cases, lower degrees of freedom to explore are associated with older games designed for platforms with fewer processing resources than those of today.
Restriction is also fundamental to gameplay in the updated 3D equivalents of earlier 2D platform-based games, examples such as Super Monkey Ball , in which the player is required to keep a rolling ball containing a monkey on various tilting, angled and moving platforms. Capacity for exploration also remains limited in many graphically rich 3D game-worlds, for at least two reasons.
Resource management is one factor, even with ever-increasing processing power, because of the demands made by other game components such as graphics rendering or the implementation of particular gameplay options. Spatial restriction as basis of gameplay: Super Monkey Ball Restriction should not be understood only in negative terms, however. It is also the basis for many key gameplay effects that result from channelling the player or player-character in particular directions. Much of the fun of a restrictive game such as Super Monkey Ball lies precisely in manoeuvring within a spatially designated path.
Restriction is also integral to games that offer greater margins for freedom of exploration. This often involves periods of exploration that are not necessarily fruitful, but that may be enjoyable or in some cases frustrating, or a balance between pleasure and frustration in their own right. Invitations to explore take various forms in such games. The tempting glint of a possibly useful object might lure players from their chosen path, a device often used in the Tomb Raider series. The vista of a new area glimpsed through a window or appearing between features of the immediate environment might also distract the player from a more immediate goal, especially when presented in an aesthetically striking or attractive manner — an aspect of game design considered in detail in the following chapter.
A dynamic interchange is often found between concealment and revelation of space, a spatially oriented device that bears comparison with those used to structure information and events in more narrative-led media. The pay-off for successful exploration is often the revelation of new spaces that offer further challenges of the same or different kind. Inducement to explore spaces thoroughly can also make sense from a commercial perspective, increasing the amount of play that can be generated within a single gamescape. Some horror-oriented games, such as Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver and Silent Hill, invite the player to explore the same space more than once, in different dimensions.
Switching from the material to the spectral plane in Legacy of Kain reveals new features that must be explored and investigated if the player is to gain access to certain parts of the game-world. Encouragement to explore can also be more direct. But you will need more than a wish to get inside. Enticements to explore can also come from out-of-game sources such as game reviews or communication with other players. The balance between freedom and restriction varies from one game to another, as is the case with the distinction between rules and freedom in gameplay more generally.
In Half-Life, for example, restriction predominates. The gamescape consists of seemingly endless sequences of corridors, ventilation ducts, stairwells and laboratories, through which the player is encouraged to move in a primarily linear fashion. In some games, the player can only move a relatively short distance from the pre-structured path, often little more than a narrow passage of navigable space.
Appealing vistas often exist that cannot be explored. In others, wider latitude is allowed, as in Silent Hill 2, in which quite large areas of the mist-shrouded town in which the game is set are open for general exploration at any one time. Early sequences require the player to explore the space available in search of clues, but the environment can also be explored for its own sake.
Both types of boundary can function to control the movements of players.
Hard boundaries are also given plausible motivation, as far as is possible, to avoid impressions of arbitrariness that are likely to reduce the immersive qualities of a game. Yawning holes in the ground that delimit the playing space of Silent Hill 2 operate more enigmatically, signifying the destruction created by some strange force.
Hard boundaries are not always given such visual legitimation, however. In some cases the horizontal equivalent of a glass ceiling is encountered, halting player-characters in their tracks. This is a frequent occurrence in Unreal II, in which the player can see spaces into which movement is impossible for no reason that is given legitimation by the existence of a physical obstacle in the game-world. This book is a valuable contribution to this new field. Its main focus is on key formal aspects of games and the experiences and pleasures offered by the activities they require of the player.
A wide range of games are considered, from first-person shooters to third-person action-adventures, strategy, sports-related and role-playing games. Issues examined in detail include the characteristics of gameplay and its relationship with narrative, genre, virtual landscapes, realism, spectacle and sensation. Lively and accessible in style, this book is written for both an academic readership and the wider audience of gamers and those interested in popular culture.
Realism Spectacle Sensation.