The evolution, from the “mechanics” to the “metaphor”

Originally I was planning to write in this post just about the concept of “roads” in my dream mmorpg and its design implications, then I bit onto something.

It starts again from the long debate with Raph about the role and relevance of the “mechanics” and the “metaphor” in games. Raph thinks that the only essential one is the first, without which, we have no games. My belief is instead that they are strictly connected. And more than that, that one is the evolution and continuation of the other.

The raw theory behind these thoughts is rather simple to explain. We are cultural beings and we experience the reality only through the egg-shell of the “culture”, rarely in direct contact (and no, drugs are symbolic and cultural. As are games). So our perception is filtered through that shell. As Raph says, games tell us lessons about ourselves and the world. This is why the strict mechanics are much less powerful than a “metaphor”, because the metaphor is what adds the cultural value to something. Life-like patterns that are easier to recognize and that communicate their messages much more efficiently. In a word: immersion.

The basic critics I was making is that when we “simulate” something in a game we surely cannot replicate every other element. But we should choose the elements and rules that we are going to use to “make sense” in the game world. So, even if choosing a few elements, they must be drawn from a reality. If there are going to be five basic mechanics, those five should be “life-like”. Immersive. They should tell something concrete.

Years ago when I was working on a MUD concept there was an idea I really wanted in. NPC guards that would enforce realistic behaviours. At that time I was only playing Ultima Online and always thinking, “the guards should take all these people going around naked and throw them in jail”. And there were a lot of people running around Britain in underwear when I was playing. I couldn’t swallow that. As I couldn’t swallow all the stupid names that people used. I just didn’t like how awkward was the simulated world. For me the immersion has always been everything, the reason why I play. I imagine a game as if I’m being there, as a movie. I don’t think that a movie about Ultima Online would tell 50% of the walk-ons, “go sit in the set in underwear”. It just isn’t realistic and I always thought that if I was going to build a “world”, one day, this would be as immersive as possible, in all its smallest details.

Let’s see at this from a completely different perspective. Let’s take the Doom’s toilet. See, this means a whole lot. It tells us the evolution of games. The mechanics of FPS haven’t really evolved much. But you can see a definite, fundamental trend in the evolution of level design. In the classic Doom the environment didn’t make much sense. Raph would say that their function was exclusively about the mechanics. Long, narrow corridors, bigger rooms, moving walls, raising platforms. These had a role and this role was about creating a variation in the type of challenge, with a mix of different monsters and situations. Secrets to discover, puzzles to figure out. Everything was there with a purpose and the purpose was to create fun situations. The level design had the only purpose of creating fun and varied gameplay. Mixing the right types of rooms and environments with the right monsters.

That toilet represent the seed of an evolution. That toilet was out of place in that game. An anomaly, as it didn’t create any form of “gameplay” on its own. Think about it.

The evolution was about moving away from those generic rooms strictly with a functional purpose to reproduce more “life-like” environments. Think at those elements that made Duke Nukem 3D so popular. The interactivity, the voice comments, the dancers in the bars. Compare the classic Doom to the modern FEAR. The level design in itself isn’t so different. We still have walls, ceilings and doors. But today the designers and artist go in great detail to model these environments to look as realistic as possible. Instead of having rooms that are just rooms without a “metaphor” or an actual context, now we have enivronments that are reproduced as photorealistic as possible. We model officies, depots, parking slots, industrial complexes, and then desks, computers, cans, cables, ducts, sidewalks, manholes, posters and so on. More and more we go into the detail. And then we add physics so that all these objects also behave more realistically.

For me those levels in Doom that somewhat replicated more realistic environments were by far the most fun and those that I replayed more. Urban-like combat was the most fun to be had. The less linear was the level the more I enjoyed it. The mechanics weren’t “better” in those cases, but the “metaphor” was much more powerful. The game communicated better with me and it felt much more immersive. Running around an urban environment was for me more direct and powerful than moving around rooms connected together with little sense. I loved so much Doom 2 because it moved in that direction. I remember that when I played in multiplayer with my friends we used to give nicknames to the different zones in a level, the “house”, the “bridge”, the “refuge”, the “jail”. We were parsing those environments to make them look more familiar.

Think about it and you’ll see how the evolution we had is exactly that. We moved from the generic rooms in Doom, to reproduce realistic environments in the tiniest detail. Rooms that are linked together with a sense. Not because those details really add a lot to the gameplay. But because they add so much to the immersion and the results is significantly more powerful that you can imagine. These games communicate better. They establish a better link with the players. Today people love to play stealth games, from Metal Gear Solid to Splinter Cell. The immersion is everything. The only real difference from a normal shooter and a stealth game is that the latter replicates patterns that are more immersive. Where you have to think with the mind of your opponent, study his behaviour, follow where his eyes are looking, look around the rooms to locate the spots where you can hide better. The patterns that these games replicate are just more “life-like”. More complex and immersive.

Take also the AI used in FEAR. It was the must praised element of that game but I didn’t find so great as I expected. Imho the game isn’t all that much more challenging compared to other shooters. What I noticed is that if you move around the level trying to mimic a realistic behaviour, leaning past the corners, duck behind things, the enemy AI seems to react much more realistically. But if you take the “run & gun” classic approach the game is even easier and the bad guys look as dumb as in every other game. The thought I had is that the AI in FEAR isn’t harder to defeat or more challenging. It just tends to behave and react more realistically. And people love that. They like to go in a message board and write down a play session like a story. And this story makes sense. It’s not just a game. It’s pure… roleplay.

People seem to love to roleplay shooters. An enemy that yawns, sneezes or starts smoking. When they play a game and there’s something that behaved realistically they go “Cool!”. It’s the “wow factor”. (and take even the example of my short report about Sin) They call their friends and say, “Look at this!”

Is this more fun? Hell yes! That kind of “sophistication” isn’t anything else that the link between the bare mechanics and the “metaphor”. The life-like patterns. The immersion. “Being there”. Communicating in the most efficient way as possible.

Games tell us about life. Reality and the world. But filtered through the culture. The level of the metaphor is what bring that culture in a game. We like sex and blood and things that go BOOM! in games not because they are more fun (oh yes, they are) but because they are metaphors. Nothing else.

Take someone who never played a game and that thinks that games, comics and animated movies are things for children or nerds. Then show him Pac-Man, Tetris and Bubble Bobble. Then show him that fake trailer of Killzone 2. What you think will impress him more? What you think could “win” him?

And this brings me to what I really wanted to write about. The concept of “roads” in a mmorpg and a simulated word. Right now we have various levels of implementation:

1- In some games the roads are nothing more than a different texture on the terrain to give that “life-like” impression.
2- Then in other games the roads are used to lead the player. If you follow a road you’ll eventually arrive somewhere.
3- In fewer cases the roads are also safe spots, where wandering mobs do not pass, so a better choice if you don’t want your travel continuously interrupted. In the case of WoW there are also NPC patrols to guarantee that the monsters stay away.

One thing that I really wanted in my dream mmorpg was varying running speed and an active role of the environment in the game. So that, for example, it would be more convenient to pass over a bridge to cross a river instead of just swimming through it. For me these are fundamental issues because, again, I aim to create game worlds that can make sense. That are immersive and where the elements have a purpose.

In the recent games we always have maps but I remember that when I played DAoC I usually had to stick to the roads to not get lost. With the maps, those roads become more like superficial graphic features than something that has a “role” in the game. In these game worlds the roads don’t have a similar purpose like in our real worlds, where roads are sort of indispensable.

The idea was to change all that. What’s a mount in WoW? Well, a mount is just a well-animated model below your ass and a bonus to the running speed. Then, if we nitpick, a mount defines also a social status. It says that your character is at least level 40, and if it is an epic mount it says you made a trip to IGE or that you catassed or cheated enough to get one.

The idea was, again, to change all that. Everything pivots around the keyword “realistic inventory”. And then “realistic loot”, but this one I won’t discuss here. A realistic inventory means that I want the “weight” back in the game. It also means that a bag isn’t an icon on the lower right of the screen, but a physical object that you have to wear in certain locations. And in that bag you can fit only something that is at least equal or smaller than the dimension of the whole bag. The quests tells you to bring back twenty goblin skulls? Well, you’ll have to find a way to carry them.

Here plugs the idea of mounts and caravans. They are used to transport stuff that you do not usually carry with you. You can buy a cart and tie it to your horse. But the horse will run slower if you do.

And the roads. The roads will have a definite role because the carts and horses move much more quickly on cobblestones than they do on raw grass. And for sure they won’t go up a mountain. If you want to transport goods between a town and the other, organizing a caravan would be required. The purpose is to give the environment a role, and more, a realistic role.

In a PvP world the players could control, camp and block roads because those roads aren’t there just as a different texture on the ground, but because they were built so that the carts could move without breaking up. As it happens in our real world. This brings to an immersive game, but also to a game that has a better complexity, where the players can play actively with these elements because these elements have that realistic role that then behaves in a meaningful way.

Giving a purpose to the “roads” is just the first step to bring in the game another layer of complexity that enables the players to have a control over those elements. Patrolling and controlling roads will have a definite use. The game world would start to become more “life-like”. More immersive and deep.

If you think about this, it’s the path that we should take toward an evolution of these games. We always moved from a superficial reproduction of elements to then progressively add more complexity, more depth, more “meaningful” interaction. So this path is already traced, I’m only better defining it with concrete ideas. I believe it would lead to better games. Immersive games that communicate more effectively. Realistic loot, realistic inventories, realistic aggro behaviours, monsters attacking in teams instead of getting “pulled” one by one. One day these things will go away because they are only “temporary sketches”, temporary compromises.

It happens everywhere. It happened when for the first time we killed the dragon in D&D to find piles and piles of gold, but instead of becoming suddenly rich the master said, “how are you going to carry all that gold?”. And it happened in today’s comics, where Brian Michael Bendis took the Avengers and made them live stories that are truly “dramatic”. We don’t have anymore Capitan America fighting against 100s nazis with a smile. We don’t have anymore the superficial propaganda. Instead we scratch and scratch more on the surface. Give realistic and deep relationships to the characters, give every element a “weight”. Even the random combat scene isn’t anymore just a generic sequence of punches. Instead the backgrounds get more detailed and the action flows much more organically and consistently, with the “actors” respecting their positions and states. It’s a more detailed and careful description. More realistic, and more immersive.

“What would you do if?” The roleplay. Immersion. Being there.

Simply put: immersive games lead to stronger bonds. They communicate more efficiently.

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