Subjectivity and Reverse Difficulty

This past year has been an exercise in exploring the more fuzzy aspects of video game design, particularly around style and taste. These subjects have my interest outside of games and I’ve experimented in how to incorporate them, and at times these disciplines feel squarely at odds with game design. Expressing yourself often comes out in video games as completely extra and unaffecting, or overly mechanical and easily gamed. When it comes to play, the looser the bounds on the game are on separating life and play, the easier it is to incorporate more subjective expressions into the experience. Video games however attempt to completely isolate themselves away from the messiness of life to create simulated order, no matter how obscured. Because the game tries to contain the majority of the experience within its physical and digital bounds, it can only account for style and taste with its own arbitrary rules, which will mostly stay static from the moment it is shipped.

Staying within the conventions of game design, production, and distribution makes it hard for us to break out of these bounds. There are some online aspects that allow social elements to filter in and typically create what we would consider a fandom, however these aren’t central to the experience. Trying to get these subjective experiences into video games might just be a selfish task to further my consumption of them, but I can’t help but be interested in the possibility.

There’s a chance that what we think of as a good game might be standing in the way of understanding how we can incorporate style and taste further into game design. When gamers and designers look at works like Style Savvy and Happy Home Designer, they see a vagueness rather than a carefully constructed method where the player proves they’ve mastered the system. In both games, the player is presented with fairly easy quantitative obstacles to move around which in many cases barely constrain the amount of answers you can give. In the Style Savvy series, customers describe to you what they want, say a pink skirt or a sporty outfit, using words that you can use to filter through your stock room. As long as what you choose has those quality tags, the customer will be satisfied and buy what you offer them. Happy Home Designer is even less restrictive, usually only requiring the player to include a couple types of objects, but the specific objects and the design of the entire house and rooms can be anything and the client will be happy. The only degree of quantitative challenge is dispelled in the tutorial phases of both these games which leaves the traditional player bored only because a quantitative standard of difficulty isn’t present. It can be perceived as some sort of reverse difficulty, where the biggest challenge is upfront but also doesn’t severely limit what you can do. If essentially you can do anything and be ‘right,’ what is the point of the game?

This is a puzzle-solver’s mentality that is ingrained into both game design and playing. We expect to not only figure something out, but figure out a specific answer set up by concrete facts of the game’s rules and system. This can be as obvious as figuring out the placement of numbers in sudoku or instinctual for understanding all the physics of a fighting game and how that relates to what your opponent is doing. The designer creates an environment where the player has to grow through the material constraints of the video game, and the player expects to discover themselves through ever increasing challenge. This is a fundamental assumption present in the overwhelming majority of commercial products, to the point where games like Style Savvy can be described as vapid or lacking in substance not merely because it’s read as a ‘girl game’ and is about fashion, but because there isn’t this process of mastery involved.

At some point in time, this expectation molded both game design and playing to the point where current attempts to incorporate style and taste can be at best subpar. How do you quantify what we perceive to be unquantifiable in reality? Two people can look at an outfit, sit in a room, eat through a course meal, and have completely different experiences despite the identical processes. How is a video game going to account for that in the methods used for conventionally good games? It isn’t difficult to imagine that the lack of diversity in the kinds of interactions we have in video games is influenced by having challenge and mastery fixed as a cornerstone in how we create and play. To include commonly ignored, botched, or underdone subjects like style, expression, sexuality, and culture, video games would have to set aside this challenge-based call and response and expand it to where we can conceptualize how a computer can help us play with these topics. This doesn’t mean that the current methods for expressing style are the best, but rather an attempt to get players used to the ambiguity past the challenge. If you know that you will most likely surmount the obstacle in front of you, then surmounting the challenge is most likely not the point.

A solution would most likely appear in how we actually encounter all of these things in life. How is style expressed, recognized, created? Games that want to further dive into fashion would have to create societies with their own preferences, social issues, and methods of spreading trends that happen independent from the player’s actions. Look at today’s fashion for some examples: Why are hemlines longer and bigger? Why is there so much brown? Why are workout clothes replacing other parts of our wardrobe? It’s because a creativity industry that dictates what is made is being influenced by multiple factors, such as what are fashionable people on the street wearing that isn’t on run ways, what past decade is currently being revived for inspiration, seasonal conventions, and current social and design provocations. What is missing in Style Savvy is a living source of inspiration that prompts creativity. That is, the calcification of styles such bold or gothic in quantitative measures cuts the player off from being inspired or inspiring. Other characters will always react the same because their programming is looking for the bold and gothic flags and nothing else. It’s almost like the last vestige of challenge in the game is what holds it back the most. Some experiments in procedural generation imply the use of creating societies with their own biases and history as a way to actually explore style and taste. Because the point shouldn’t be to replicate real-world fashions and training players to understand them, rather understand the process of how taste and style are cultivated and expressed.

Applicable is the famous and much recited Yves Saint Laurent quote, “Fashions fade, style is eternal.” As much as I love Style Savvy, it is a game about fashion, not style. Fashion lends itself to games easier because there is a perceived right and wrong of what to wear. However what it is we want to play with is style, and that requires a system that is beyond right and wrong. And I think if we can wrap our heads around that, we can both design different games and play games differently than we’ve grown accustomed to through the height of video game consumption.

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