Is Design a Performance?

GDC was a few weeks ago now, but it’s taken me this long to finally edit and finish this post. Forgiveness begged.

At GDC this year, a couple of the talks I found particularly inspiring, the first by Ian Bogost. In his view, authorship doesn’t mean you necessarily tell a story – you simply provide the backdrop and allow the player to discover themes and meaning within it. His example is a poem by Ezra Pound, but it also hearkens back to what I posted last time. The author provides the location for adventure but what happens there is up to the hero-bard.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough. Ezra Pound

Yoshio Sakamoto of Nintendo has a different philosophy about the relationship between authors and players. He sees emotion and experience as something to be constructed ever so meticulously. With his four elements of creation (mood, timing, foreshadowing, and contrast), he attempts to “control audience reaction“.

This terminology of an “audience” sparks questions. Rather than creating something for people to play from more of a gift or service approach, Sakamoto is performing for an audience. A design built for an audience versus one built for players is going to be very different, and one may not sound like a design for games at all. However, how much control do designers ever truly have and how much freedom do their players? Are players that different from an audience, albeit an interactive one?

These design philosophies are perhaps not as effective as they may appear. A carefully designed narrative flow that attempts to anticipate audience reaction can be thwarted by restarts, foreknowledge (from wikis or the like), mental state, environment of play, etc. An entirely abstracted one can simply result in confusion and frustration rather than providing the discovery and wonder the designer intended.

Bogost isn’t advocating a completely freeform approach, but he does speak of the author-designer’s job as one of creating “wonder instead of clarity”. The player’s job is more to excavate the author’s ideas and themes rather than to be told them. But are players qualified to be narrative archaeologists? Or rather, are there a few who do the dirty work of excavation while most wander through the museum reading wall plaques?

I’d like to think of myself as a narrative archaeologist, but I don’t actually think I am. Something like Oblivion which is very open and allows for freedom of experience leaves me feeling lost. I need some kind of guidance to allow me to fully enter the world and then have a meaningful experience. To go back to our archaeology metaphor, I need a ready-made site and the tools (coupled with A/C and cold beer) if I’m going to discover anything. An X to mark the spot wouldn’t hurt either.

Does this mean that players like me need an entirely scripted experience? No. There is still room for interactive cooperation between author-designer and player but it exists on a continuum between free-form and script. Creating something that is successful for such a broad audience is challenging, if not impossible.

Know your audience.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Evan
    Apr 05, 2010 @ 22:13:44

    Well I think the first distinction to be drawn is between performance and a performative act. You likely aren’t going to observe a writer write their book the way you watch an actor act (although you certainly could, and I certainly spend time seeing clearly what was intended and how a writer accomplished what they wanted to accomplish (although we might argue that this adversely affects my experience as a reader)), but even when you are observing an actor, you are going to see the finished product and not everything the actor brought to the table to create the elements of their character. Like a writer, there are elements of an actor’s performance (cadence, accent, gesture, etc.) that are visible and which work together to define a performance (as a writer’s words do), but there is something more persistent that needs to be undertaken (literally and figuratively), something more visceral. I generally default to the title “reader” when discussing an audience (for obvious reasons; for my purposes, they are entirely interchangeable), but perhaps this is something that is differently addressed by video games. I don’t know that I generally see eye-to-eye with you in describing someone who plays a games as behaving as an author, because their experience is always bounded by the game’s creator(s), no matter how much freedom they are given to shape the narrative’s order or nature, but I think that you are right that there is room for noticeable difference between an audience and a player. You are not in control of the story or even fully in control of the actions of your character, but the control you do have is comparable (yet more profound) than the relationship between an actor and their writer.

    I think that there is a problem with many MMO games and western-style RPGs (that is to say, those derived from pen and paper games), and that is that they seem to believe that one has wonder only at the expense of clarity, and I think that this is what leads to a lot of problems. Complaining that narrative games don’t offer the player enough freedom sounds very odd and confusing to me, as we would never level this same complaint against a movie or a book, and I think a part of the reason why we shouldn’t is, as you say, most people are not as qualified to try and create for themselves a narrative in someone else’s world as the person who created it is. The choice between exploring the themes of an author’s world any way you choose and simply being told them is a poor one to have to make, and it is for this reason that the mark of inferior literature and film is a book or movie which serves as a political tract for it’s creator. What I feel is missing from so many games, what separates them, on average, from successful movies and books is this performance which connects with its audience without simply battering them with ideas.


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