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Monday, March 31, 2008

The Garden: Movement

Gamism Theory
The player makes a movement, either himself or through a computer avatar. When that simple action is the dominant element of an experience, you've got a movement game.

The primary content of a movement game is its control scheme. There are a lot of established and potential genres for movement control: flight, platformer (jumping), driving, swimming, climbing, running. (These are commonly seen as totally distinct Forms.)

Movement games will always exist. Moving around is the most natural thing for us to do, to the point where we get bored if we don't keep moving. And each time new hardware brings new kinds of controls with it, gamists are instantly inspired with subjects for potential movement games.

Some types of movement are fun to begin with. Flight, for instance. Everyone wants to be able to fly. Other types of movement are pretty boring, but you can make fun games around them by adding challenges.

Take a mouse cursor, for instance, like the one you're probably using now. Move it in a circle a few times. Okay, I take it back- that is pretty entertaining, for some reason. (I guess I'm easily amused by such things.) But there's not enough entertainment there to fill a long game with.

So you add another element native to movement games: obstacles. These are objects which may not be touched, or else you lose. Suddenly, you've got something more worthwhile. You're not just randomly waving your hand around, you're challenging yourself to move around skillfully. Another native element is the reverse: objects which you are encouraged to touch, perhaps with points or additions to the control. (Objects which add abilities are usually called "power-ups".)

Already that's enough for a good time. Here's a good illustration: Squares

More can be built on top of these elements, which is also well-established as a part of the Form. The frequency of obstacles can be manipulated to create dynamic levels of intensity. Power-ups can be used to add temporary variations on the gameplay. Plus there are other variations on the do touch/don't touch mechanic: objects which must be touched or approached, walls which may not be touched, objects which may be touched from one side but not another, objects which are bad to touch until you touch something else, and then they're good. The objects can move around in set ways, and the player can progress through entire worlds made of positive objects, negative objects, and neutral objects.

There might also be clear instructions on which moves to make, which you are then required to follow precisely. This is challenging even without any obstacles.

These conventions, which have accumulated over the years, can be put in the service of any sort of control, two-dimensional or three-dimensional (or one-dimensional, in the case of early movement games like Pong).

There's abstract movement, like the mouse cursor. (Now that I put it that way, I guess Ball Revamped is an "abstract movement game".) There are vehicles: cars (which are called "driving games"), planes (which are called "flight games"), boats (which aren't called anything, because there aren't enough games like that). There's dance, where all movement corresponds with how a real human body would move around. (Real-world dance is a sub-Form of the movement game.) There's swimming and climbing and running and jumping. And then there's just plain human walking around, but who'd want to play a game about that? (It shouldn't be a pure movement game if that's the type of movement.)

Movement, being such a useful activity, is often used as a subordinate element in other types of games. This is so common that it can often be seen as a tool given to the player (much like camera control or an option menu), rather than entertainment in and of itself.

Notable sub-Form
A popular element in movement games is a timer, where you have to reach a certain point before the timer runs down. Games in which this element gets a large focus are called racing games. This sub-Form has accumulated many conventions of its own over the years, evolving out of the emphasis on speed: repetitive environments, competitors, special floors which speed you up, etc. Though most racing games are in the driving genre of control, any other sort of control could be used in a racing game provided it is possible to move fast.

The movement game is very close to the action game. If you move to push something, which do you look at as the dominant element: the movement or the pushing (which is encompassed in the action Form)? If the former, then it is a movement game. If the latter, then it is an action game. This distinction is ambiguous, and many conventions are shared by the two Forms. However, there exists a hybrid (action movement game) when both movement and action are prominent. (The action-platformer is the most common genre of this hybrid.)

The movement game is also close to the exploration game. Though it is possible to see a world from a distance (which is unrelated to the movement Form), it is more appealing to step into the world via some sort of control. Since movement can become such a defining element of these experiences, it is not incorrect to classify these games by their controls rather than their world design. Movement games often include detailed worlds, but when this as well as the control is a focus the game is a movement-exploration hybrid. (Super Mario 64, for instance, is an exploration platformer.)

When gamism expands to interface directly with our brains, the movement game will give us different bodies and states of being, so that we can feel what they would be like. That is what movement games strive to be.

Droplets: Movement

You're playing a platformer, jumping around, when you get to a jump that looks tricky. You press the "practice button", and your precise position and circumstance is saved instantly. Then you try jumping. You don't make it, so you press the practice button again. This time it jumps back to where you just saved, so that you can try again. You fail again, and press again. Back to the spot. And so on, until you make it through perfectly. You practice a few more times just to be sure you've got it, then hold the practice button down for two seconds. The save point is erased, and you're playing for real. If you make the jump, you can continue. If not, you need to start back from the beginning of the level. This function could be abused, so a limit might be placed on its usage. With each level, the player might only be allowed to use the practice in, say, four spots of his choosing. (This number could be adjusted on a level-by-level basis depending on the length and difficulty level of the level.) Or the practice mode could be entirely outside of the main game, as is done in certain existing games.

Controls needn't be constant from the beginning to the end. They can change dynamically to express different emotions. Ease of movement is freedom, restricted movement is oppression. Physical attraction to certain objects can symbolize metaphorical attraction, and one path being more freeing than another indicates a character's preference. Gravity can change, friction can change, acceleration can change, appearance can change, the interface itself can change. These things can change suddenly or gradually, they can be jarring or subtle. Changes can happen for artistic reasons or just to keep things fresh and entertaining. In any case, there are many emotions to work with when one starts changing controls along the way.

A story could be told with those emotions. Not a story like game "developers" put in movement games now- movie-like literal plots told in cutscenes and voice acting. Those stories clash with the reality of the game. No, I'm talking about stories expressed through movement. Characters who move differently around each other than they do alone, to reflect their relationships. Characters with arcs, represented by control dynamics rather than dialogue. Places where the rules of movement work differently, to represent the nature of their societies.

Abstract stories can also be created in the manner of dance, where the player is told how to move and the emotions those movements create are evoked in an audience, not the player himself. The audience may be watching over the internet, or in the same room, or in a performance hall. This changes the nature of the work to performance art. The player can be instructed through notation, overlayed on the screen during practice. In the actual performance, a large number of players can coordinate with each other- this would be a technically impressive performance.

A cooperative movement game. One player goes on the other one's back, then pulls his friend up. One player touches a switch, so the other one's obstacles move away. The players swing each other, or are pulled by each other, or coordinate with complex machinery or maneuvers. One player teaches the other how to make unusual moves. Alternatively, the two players could have very different types of control. What one can do, the other cannot, and they can only progress together.

Life-counting is silly.

New types of controllers completely change the feel of movement controls, and new types of control are inspired every time such controllers are introduced. But gamists could go farther. Small controllers could be bundled in with movement games, where the controller is designed for the game and not vice versa. Or the gamist could decide to use existing controllers in unusual ways, as when Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat used drums for running. The Wii controllers can be attached to legs, or arms, or to many parts of your body all at once (with four of them). Or a platformer could be played on a trampoline. Or a plane could be moved by subtly tilting your arm (with a camera). These are not superficial changes- they would profoundly change the experience of movement.



The distinction I make here between action games and movement games is wholly arbitrary. Indeed, it is valid to consider everything I am describing here as contained within the action game. I have invented the term "movement game" because within this Form I see the potential for beauty, whereas the action game (as far as I know) can only aspire to intensity.


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