Game Design: Communication is almost a two-way street

There’s something that has been bugging me about The Dragon Speech and only today have I finally succeeded in putting my finger on it. Other people, like Corvus, have talked about the subject extensively, but I haven’t seen anyone address the possible limits that we designers have in our communication with the player.

Since videogames can talk back to the player, we could say that there’s a communication between the game itself (or even the designer) and the player. That’s all fine and dandy, but how limited is this communication? Well, basically this is what bugged me about the Dragon Speech when Chris more or less equates a conversation between two people with playing a videogame.

It isn’t that simple, mainly since two people talking implies a back and forth of ideas, of reactions, but a game cannot afford to do this or else it risks spreading itself too thin. And even then, we don’t exactly have the sufficiently intelligent AI for tackling such a feat with any degree of success (though a failed attempt, Façade was a very good first step in that direction).

What I’m talking about here is that any given game focuses in a few topics and never strays away from them at any given point, contrary to what happens in normal conversation where a cacophony of ideas, anecdotes and chit chat takes place.

There’s a strange dichotomy between the agent of chaos that is the player and the focused experience that the game tries to be. Sure, some designs are not linear, sure some games don’t even have an express objective, but the games are always in control of the topics beings discussed, even if their express goal when designed was to grant the player the most freedom possible.

So, the conversation that takes place when gaming is inherently limited to what the designer wants to talk about, or rather, what she wants to say. Furthermore, the game can only react to the actions it was programmed for, otherwise if the player does something unexpected he will always get an inappropriate reaction. The back and forth of the conversation is broken.

And I’m kind of wondering: Is this unavoidable? The knee-jerk response is to say that sooner or later, the player will always find an inappropriate reaction, but I’m not too sure of that myself. I mean, if the game was polished enough, short enough and designed well enough, then maybe, just maybe, the conversation of play won’t be broken for a small amount of people.

Then again, one could argue that purely ludic games like Super Mario Bros. have already accomplished that on a much, much smaller scale by simply having not that much to say but polishing that message to a shine. Problem is, I don’t like that approach since it implies that dealing with simple messages is the only choice we have as designers.

Mmmhhh, then there’s Passage, which communicates it’s message directly through mechanics and opens the communication only through interpretation. Only by deciphering what every mechanic means can the player understand what the game is “talking” about. The major disadvantage to this approach is that the inmediate communication is not very engaging and might even alienate some people. What do you exactly do in Passage? Well, you walk. And open chests. And maybe get a wife. And die. And that’s it, it just doesn’t sound very good at face value and so, it’s audience will be limited to those people who just “get it” and looked past the seemingly boring actions the game was apparently about.

Image silently pickpocketed from here.

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