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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Exploring Taste in Play

I recently gave a talk on exploring the different ways players can express their tastes or preferences through play in video games that highlights some interests I still have in the genre. Springing from a piece specifically about Style Savvy, I wanted to reach for a design imperative to structure space for different kinds of expression that isn’t usually afforded to in games. How can games play with style and taste, help players cultivate and communicate their aesthetics? This is different from the usual customization that some game offer, like choosing an avatar or accruing items more to collect than to help you express yourself as the main focus of play. I find the topic fascinating because of how much I feel like people really want to have taste and style in games, but how to do so seems relatively stagnant. So here are some examples I went through to try and reach out on how to explore this topic.

 

Fire Emblem Awakening & Fates

Being of the moment, I start this journey from the most mechanistic of the examples on our way to more and more abstracted methods of exploring taste. Fire Emblem’s legacy is focused on being a strategy game, much like a particular evolution of chess with some story attached to it. Though known most through time for its difficulty, its reputation shifted as a particular feature surrounding pairing up characters in battle began to evolve. By the time it got to Awakening, characters who fought together often in battle would get cutscenes together and possibly got married and had children, who would then travel from the future to fight with you, being a mix of the parents traits and being a pretty unique unit subject to many min/maxing guides. But most importantly, units in the Fire Emblem series evolved from being mere chess pieces that you only moved because of their strategic to agents for expression, moving units together based on your preferences along with strategic consequences. Here we have players creating their ideal story in spite of the strategic aspects of the game which are decidedly difficult, creating a melodrama suited to the range of eccentric characters you pick up on the way. I would say that now Fire Emblem is more known for its romancing features, and the newest edition, Fates, recognizes this by having two versions with different sets of characters and more casual modes that encourage creating bonds between characters over victory difficulty. The lesson, then, would be to revisit the objects used in play and see we can imbue them with qualities that make players care emotionally about how they use them in the game, instead of keeping them as pieces that may hurt to lose, but are ultimately disposable. Rarely do games allow that sort of control or ownership over central aspects of design like this.

 

Long Live the Queen

Looking at another strong tie between strategy and preference, Long Live the Queen takes the framing of the Princess Maker series, a ‘life sim’ that has you guiding the main character through her growth as a young woman, but puts many obstacles in your way to achieving those ends. Mainly, you develop the states of your princess, attempting to pass many skill checks so you can survive until the day of your coronation. You are presented with a large stat sheet and have to manage the princess’ mood so she does well in her various classes and trains up her skills. It’s easy to go into the game with certain preferences as for what you want your princess to be good at, like being a good public speaker and deft at political intrigue, or familiar with various weapons and trained as a magical girl. The problem is there is a system out there to kill your princess, and the realities of that course of events forces a tension between what you want and what will make it through to the end of the game. So I can stick to my guns and want a princess who is most able at moving through the social game of the narrative, but I have to exercise creativity if I’m going to have her survive all the different physical threats thrown her way. I find this is the most typical route games tend to allow player expression, through gaming a system and finding a unique strategy to overcome the challenges. What makes Long Live the Queen different is how it incorporates the life sim elements to allow subjective preferences to interface with what would in other circumstance be just moving numbers around until the puzzle is solved. An idea for evolving this to further submerge the system so it isn’t mostly balancing stats but more qualitative aspects that players could become more emotionally invested in, where the end of the game is less about surviving and gaming and more a culmination of all the choices you’ve made to create a unique experience at the end.

 

Shira Oka: Second Chances

Butting up right against the life sim genre are dating sims, which are much like the former except the end goal is to end up with a love interest. These games take a stronger visual novel approach and treat the player as a guiding force in the story for which character the protagonist ends up with. Shira Oka is a particularly good example of this because instead of just making story choices to get your romance, you have to manage your time in order to shape life in the right enough way to pursue their route and end up with them in the end. The preference part is pretty apparent, being which of the romanceable characters you want to be with in the end. Unlike most dating sims, you are made to play the same sequences of events over and over again with meta-data involved that compiles and confuses all of your desires, while also throwing in plot twists that can end your playthrough and force to start over. This complicates the usual branching narrative model that most dating sims operate by, creating a more unique method of player expression, one of wrangling together chaos and leaving behind a footprint that can’t be easily replicated. Building upon this, I find that games in general are find amping up difficulty in traditionally gamey aspects of games, but when there’s narrative parts that involve expression, rarely if ever understanding what it means to create complex decisions. We can also look to legacy games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age that have games that build upon the varying choices of the past to create landscapes continually shaped by past actions. I can see games that use the repetitive genre conventions of visual novels to slowly move the game into a highly idiosyncratic ending that veers far enough from a standard expression of the game enough that players would see wide-reaching differences in their games that would reflect much of how they interacted with the experience. I touched upon some of this with some meditations on what digital patina would look like.

 

Happy Home Designer

Moving to some more fluid expressions of preferences, Happy Home Designer centers player experience on crafting homes in a particular style that is typically auxiliary features in other genres. The game is pretty permissive in letting the player do whatever they want, to many gamers’ chagrin. With each assignment, the player gets access to new themed furniture depending on their new customer’s preferences, prompting a loose base for creative output. What I think is typically lost with Happy Home Designer is that people tend to hue too closely to realistic expectations of homes should look like despite their clients willingness to accept pretty much anything you can give them. Happy Home Designer’s prompts are commonly open for subversion to create political commentary or surrealist imagery that goes beyond just preference and up a level of personal expression. Approaching the game with the particular intention of creating a morbid undertone to the overly cute aesthetics of the Animal Crossing world (which I do find disturbing particularly around themes of capitalism re: Tom Nook), I created a set of rooms that took clients’ desires and expressed them in a dystopian future that I believe would be the inevitable product of a world ruled by Nintendo. Pushing this game further would involve putting it in an ecosystem that the Happy Home Network gestures towards, where the interiors add and speak to a discourse about the spaces we inhabit and the politics residing there. There is something naive about creative games like this one that keeps your works separated from each other and not summing up to a series that affects the world or at least the creative network you are in.

These are just a few examples of how preferences are expressed in games and how we can use them to add a new experience to our play. I’m particularly interested in subjective play, or at least, challenging that play isn’t only some weird, wishy-washy thing that sometimes happens, is whimsical and intangible and therefore of less interest to people in our field. The success of some of these games shows that moving towards this kind of player expression is resonating with people and bringing in new kinds of players into games instead of relying on usual kinds of engagement that convention entertainment game design relies on. I feel like there would be a new era of games if creators were able to integrate these sorts of qualities into their designs and values, particular in response to usual tactics for diversity and representation in games.

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