One of the really neat things about my job is that I get a lot of time to dissect things that I know intuitively. When I go to help other developers, my job is generally to try to explain why the changes I’m suggesting will make a game better. It’s one thing to intuitively know how something is done, but it’s completely another to explain why. It’s kind of like knowing what a word means and then being asked “why does it mean that?”
In the process of teaching myself how to explain the “why” of something, I often learn a whole bunch of new things about it.
Most recently, I’ve been thinking hard on the subject of “games as questions.” In a very real way, a game is a series of questions that the game’s designer is asking you (as the player). Because I’m been thinking about it this way, most of my explanations recently have been couched in terms of these “questions from the game to the player” and, interestingly, each question that I come up with can be easily broken down into more and more questions. It’s recursive, or fractal, or whatever… really it’s just that I could easily get lost for a long time thinking in those terms.
So I wanted to write some of it down here, so that hopefully I won’t get AS lost.
The hard part about that is that I want things I post here to make sense to readers other than myself. To achieve that, I have to lay an awful lot of pipe so that what I’m saying even makes any sense. I have what the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance would call a “platform problem.” Before I can make any sense of my thoughts to any outside viewer, I have to build a common Platform that we can all stand on to look at those thoughts. If I don’t do that, people look at them from all kinds of angles, the perspectives get messed up, and BAM! Confusion!
Creating the Platform is a straightforward thing to do, but very difficult — it’s what makes writing the articles I’ve written so hard, and what makes the topics I can tackle in them so narrowly defined.
I want to try and get this stuff out of my head, so I’ll work to make the Platform as solid as I can without driving myself crazy with extra work. If you find that something I’m saying doesn’t make sense to you, or seems wierd — it’s probably because I didn’t do a good enough job establishing the Platform, so always feel free to bring up questions in the comments if you want.
Okay, disclaimers aside…
Recently, the topic I’ve been mulling over a lot is enemy encounter design. It’s the topic I gave a talk on in Canada last week, and it’s been on my mind since. The prep work for the talk once again taught me a whole lot more about it, but this time I’ve also continued to think deeply about encounter design, even long after my speechifying was done.
When I examine encounter design in terms of “questions the game asks the player,” I often find myself getting kind of Socratic about it, so let’s call one part of my internal dialogue “Socrates” and the other “Me” (because why the fuck not?):
ME: An enemy encounter asks the player: “Who will you attack first?”
SOCRATES: Why does it ask that?
ME: If the player doesn’t know the answer to this question, or if the encounter does not ask this question, the encounter feels muddy and shallow.
SOCRATES: Okay, but in order for that to be true, each enemy must ask a question of their own, right? If the enemies don’t ask questions, and those questions are not different from each other, then the player will have no reason to attack one over the other?
ME: Indeed! So we can also say that an enemy asks the player “How do you defeat me?”
SOCRATES: “Defeat” is a broad term, surely we can get more specific than that!
ME: I’m getting to it, fucker, slow down. Jeez.
SOCRATES: No need to get defensive about it. I’m just trying to help.
ME: I know, I know. <deep breath> Ok, so “defeat” is a broad term, what do we mean by it? Well an enemy can only be defeated if you can successfully defend against his attacks AND/OR attack him back.
SOCRATES: In which case, the enemy’s attacks and defenses must each ALSO be asking a question?
ME: Exactly! The battle, in essence, can be thought of as a dialogue between the player and the enemy. The enemy asks questions with his attacks and defenses and the player answers the questions until the enemy determines you’ve done enough and he is defeated.
SOCRATES: And what does that dialogue look like?
ME: Well, if you take a simple enemy from most games (or most enemies from the Ratchet and Clank games), it’d look something like this: The enemy shouts “Hey player, I’m going to attack you — what are you gonna do to defend against this?” and then attacks! When he’s done attacking, he shouts again “Hey player, look at me! I’m vulnerable! Why don’t you attack me now?”
SOCRATES: Wait, that second question was a rhetorical question…
MIKE: Fine, “When will you attack me” is the question he asks. Just shut the hell up and let me finish!
MIKE: I typically would say an enemy has three phases “Pre-attack, attack, and post-attack” and if you map them onto the questions I showed above “How will you defend against this?” maps to the pre-attack phase and “When will you attack me?” <mumble mumble> maps to the post-attack phase.
SOCRATES: If there are only two questions in that whole dialogue, why do you assert that there three phases to an enemy? Doesn’t this mean that there are only really two phases?
MIKE: Um… actually yes! Wow, okay. That’s interesting. It seems to say that the actual attack itself isn’t that important in the whole process — that the pre and post attack phases are actually where all the important stuff gets done? Can that be right?
Hopefully the above kind of gets you onto a Platform to view the topic with me.
If a game is made up of questions, and the actual ATTACK doesn’t seem to ask a question, that either means that my concept of “a game is a series of questions” needs further examining or that the attack itself asks a question and I need to figure out what that is.
Rest assured, I’ll be mulling it over in the days to come.
Of course, once I figure that out, then I’ll be need to break all of that down further and start looking at the sub-questions there: If an encounter is a question made up of enemies which are questions made up of “attack questions” and “defense questions”, what questions are each of those made up of?
EDIT (2014): I found the answer to this, oddly enough, in pen-and-paper role-playing games. The short answer is this: The attack is important because it provokes the hero’s questions. For example a horizontal attack means “jump, idiot!” and a vertical one means “dodge sideways, idiot!”
(Did I say the word “question” enough, there?)
It’s enough to drive a man sane, I can tell you, but if I ever discover that games are made out of 1-dimensional slices of a 2-dimensional membrane vibrating in 11-dimensional space, then screw that, Socrates — you win! I’m throwing in the towel.
I’ll let you know if I get there.