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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Tapestry Thread: Universal notation

Upon writing up the game design for Smilie, I ran into a small problem: I don't know how to write up a game design. Now, don't give me that line about how I don't need to work out all the details yet. Without a script of some sort, I'd program a line or two, say "I think this is good enough.", and stop. But if I spell out exactly how it should be, with no regard for exactly how it should be done, then I'll have a clear goal to work toward. In trying to implement the script, I will be forced to learn whatever skills are necessary to achieve that goal; chances are, those skills will be useful for many future games.

But how? How does one write a script for an interactive experience? It's helped by the fact that this will be more or less linear, albeit with branching paths. So I can start from the beginning and work my way forward from there. This is reasonable only because I'd already decided that it would only be a minute or two long. (I've been saying for months that branching linearity works best for short games.) Even so, I still had no idea where to start. I decided I'd make it up as I went along, and so I did. I settled on starting with classification, going on to the general concept in short, then straight into a blow-by-blow script from start to finish (numbered with a not-quite-effective system I made up). I chose to approach the script from the perspective of the player, rather than of the programmer, so that I could put myself into the shoes of the person for whom this character would have meaning. In any event, I was (and still am) eager to prove this notation useless as quickly as possible, so that I could find something more useful.

At the same time, Daniel Cook of Lost Garden invented his own notation system. Imagine that! I've been reading Cook's writings for about six months now, not because I've agreed with anything he's ever said, but because it gives me a fresh perspective which I am guaranteed to have never considered. His notation system relies on manipulating the player into feeling that he is being rewarded. I should have expected as much from someone whose views are based largely on the completely serious definition of videogames as "drugs". Since this has roughly zero to do with what I see in videogames, the staples of his notation system such as "buzz notes" and "reward channels" are completely inapplicable to what I'm doing here.

But it helped in two major ways. First, it pointed out certain should-have-been-obvious necessities, such as defining "verbs", which I can now integrate into Smilie's design document. Secondly, it sparked a debate among many other bloggers, some of which have more reasonable things to say. Sure, there are the pretentious ones like Raph Koster chiming in, but then there was this very simple comment from Ron Gilbert which caught me off guard, mainly because I should have realized it first:
It also seems that there are so many structures for so many different types of games that coming up with a unified system to cover them all is unrealistic.
That's the real problem, isn't it? I was looking only at the small task ahead of me right now, but past this I could get myself into big trouble. But here's a warning to keep me on the right track: I should not try to come up with a notation system which fits all types of games. In essence, to try would mean finding a system so universal that not only all the Industrial Forms, but music and dance as well (since they are no less a part of gamism) can all be expressed under it. Is such a system possible? I don't know. If it were, it would probably be extremely clumsy to use.

But think of the possibilities! With a unified notation system, music could finally be composed with branching paths! Dance and music could weave in and out of each other! And all manners of other dreamy things! But I have no answers. For the time being, I will focus on this task, and create a language suitable for virtual characters as I have been told.



I disagree with your comments about the article at Lost Garden equating games with drugs.

I felt the article very accurately described a way to measure 'pleasure-pulses' if you will that occur as you are rewarded. I don't think everything about his system is perfect, but I think he's really onto something.

I do like your idea of arts intertwining like tapestry threads, though - and I'd be interested in seeing you flesh out a construct around those ideas.

In the article I linked to in the post, Dan Cook (the writer of Lost Garden) wrote:

"Let's be blunt. Games are drugs."

I've been following his writing for a long time, and a good deal of the things he says are tied to that statement. The reason I can't relate with the "Buzz Note" concept in particular is that it assumes that these reward cycles are the basic units with which games should be made. I don't see that that is the case, because I am looking at the potential for art and not the potential for psychological drugs. But the fact that I've been following his blog for so long should tell you that I am well aware that he's onto something - just not something which I can agree with.

I smiled when I heard your interpretation of "Tapestry Thread". Actually, it is just a formal repetition of the idea I've stated in the past that there is a clear pattern to life. The tapestry is a common and well-known analogy for life from this perspective. As evidenced by the later "Tapestry Thread" post, I intend for this to be a recurring "feature" which serves for exposition. By examining one aspect of life and how that one metaphorical thread ties together several different recent events, I can celebrate the elegance of life even as I am trudging through heavy exposition which would otherwise be very boring.

This first TT post deals with the specific thread of notation, and pointing out the elegance of such a debate starting on the web just as I was struggling with these issues myself. The second TT post deals with accelerated change, and how this pattern can be seen in no less than five nearly simultaneous events.


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