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Monday, December 22, 2008

The Garden: Metaludes

There are at least two distinct Forms arranged as equals, connected with exploration. When these three (or more) Forms are present and dominant, you've got a metalude. It's complex, obviously, which means the primary content is story.

If we're treating a Form as a discipline with which to make games, then the metalude is the discipline of connecting other disciplines together in a way that is cohesive and sustainable. I'll get to the "cohesive" bit in a minute, but what I mean by "sustainable" is that you can use this formula to connect any two Forms together, no matter how bizarre the combination seems, and it'll probably work. So this isn't a one-off structure, like Metal Gear Solid's stealth action/audio drama/film combo. You can use it over and over again to get lots of different kinds of games.

The exploration is a constant among all metaludes because it makes the work feel like a cohesive whole, rather than individual parts strung together. Rather than feeling like "Here's a puzzle game, now here's an action game.", it feels like "Here's a world, where this room has a puzzle and this room has a battle.". It's not a series of events, it's a landscape which has all these different kinds of gameplay on top of it. Rather than getting totally separated emotions from different sections, the player gets a combined emotion from the game world which is defined by the contrast between the two (or more) kinds of gameplay.

There are two main genres of metalude, in popularity and commonness: fantasy and urban. Fantasy metaludes (The Legend of Zelda being the model) take inspiration from fantasy role-playing games, and urban metaludes (Grand Theft Auto) take inspiration from crime movies, if I'm not mistaken. (I've never actually played GTA, so I don't know for sure.)

In fantasy metaludes, it's generally expected that there will be puzzles and action. I guess that fits with the Tolkien model of fantasy stories- fighting armies of monsters, solving ancient riddles. It's a curious combination, though, in that the pacing is totally different. Action games are intense and rely on quick reactions, puzzle games are slow and rely on careful analysis. But maybe that's the appeal- action will tire you out leaving you in the mood for something more relaxing, and a puzzle will tax the brain leaving you in the mood for something more mindless. So in a sense they balance each other out. The plots of Zelda tend to concern divine balance- proving to the gods that your skills are balanced enough, fighting against an enemy who is too focused on accumulating power. While I don't approve of the cinematic way those stories are told, they aren't really grafted on. They're an extension of what the game is already about.

In urban metaludes, it's expected that there will be driving movement and action. I haven't actually played such a game, so I don't know for certain how the combination works. But if I may guess, it seems like it would evoke aggression and a certain single-mindedness. You drive to wherever you need to get to, you shoot whoever you need to shoot, and you drive on. Both driving games and action games strive for intensity, and movement games aren't so far removed from action games, so it's a straightforward combination. If I were to make such a game I'd try to distinguish the two from each other more to heighten the contrast, to contrast the rules and tedium of driving with the chaos and frenzy of fighting, but my understanding is that that's not what they're going for. From what I've gathered, it's a low-contrast world where everything is chaos and frenzy. I haven't heard anything specific at all about the stories, but they ought to focus on the endless loop of violence in the world, because that would fit the never-ending intensity of gameplay.

There can be much weirder combinations. I think the strangest I've encountered was Chibi Robo, which combined platforming with (of all things) cleaning. (Cleaning is a weak Form, about which there's not much to say.) The cleaning never pretends to be anything other than tedious, which makes the contrast with the platforming -a Form which typically evokes joy and a sense of liberation- more pronounced. The story was about a tiny cleaning robot in a massive (for him) house encountering all sorts of strange characters. I think this is actually a really good example of what I was saying about how the feeling you get from the world is defined by the contrast between the two Forms. On the floor the gameplay is cleaning, and when you go higher up the gameplay's climbing and jumping and floating around. So the house feels like chores are its surface, and the farther you go the more fun it gets. On reflection, there may have been an intentional educational message there.

My last example is Beyond Good & Evil, which fits into the fantasy genre but is worth considering on its own. On top of its world it puts not only puzzles and action, but also stealth action and driving and flying and platforming and photography. The two Forms which stand out most are stealth action and photography, stealth because it's used most and photography because it has a different interface to everything else. The story is about a photojournalist who sneaks around government facilities to uncover the truth about conspiracies. The huge number of Forms makes the world seem complicated and messy.

In each of these examples, the story isn't something tacked on top. It's the result of how the different Forms fit together.

The interface doesn't absolutely need to be consistent from Form to Form, but gamists usually try to cover up the seams for the sake of cohesion. (If it's going to be disjointed, why connect it with exploration at all?) There won't be five buttons controlling fighting, there'll be one. And that button will stay there even as you're solving a puzzle, but just won't do much. The trouble is, each type of gameplay requires a different set of buttons. And there are only so many buttons to work with. So the gamist needs to be clever, reusing buttons in ways which are efficient but not unintuitive. For instance, in BG&E the button for jumping in platforming sections is also the button for rolling on the ground in stealth, and the button for running is also the button for speeding up a vehicle. This makes the jumps from Form to Form smoother, so it's laudable. Still, trying to fit everything together can limit a gamist's visions for each individual section. When Forms are especially distinct from each other, a dynamic interface (like I suggested in the adventure game post) is a good idea. The 3D Zelda games actually do something similar, though on a smaller scale: There's one button that does whatever the game says it does at the moment. Text at the top of the screen has a phrase like "throw" or "put away" or "defend" depending on the situation, and that's what that button will do at that time. It's clever, really- it fills in all the functionality the gamists weren't able to fit in normally.

Being a complex Form, the techniques used in making a metalude are naturally similar to those you'd need for an RPG or any other complex game. You need to understand how several Forms can fit together, how to tell a story, you need to understand the needs of the contained Forms. But the principles of metaludes -contrast and cohesion- are not shared by other Forms. In a role-playing game, even one with exploration, strategy and action, it is counterproductive to make the strategy and action feel similar or give them equal placement in the whole or keep the interface constant. What you do with the strategy is almost irrelevant to what you do with the action, and vice versa. Also, what makes for a good metalude story doesn't make for a good RPG story. The metalude's story emerges from the gameplay, the RPG's story is mostly separate from gameplay. Just because both Forms are complex doesn't mean their language is the same.

A game with exploration, and two Forms which are combined together as though they were one element, is not a metalude. That's a hybrid serving the purpose of an exploration game. Metroid, for instance. Action and platformer, with exploration. That'd be a metalude if the action and platformer weren't woven together so closely. You don't get contrast between two Forms if they're interpreted by the player as being one Form.

I will point out that the adventure game by its "present" definition, which I consider to be a poorly conceived Form, is extremely close to the metalude. If an adventure has exploration with puzzles and character interaction, that's already a metalude. I am not familiar with an adventure game whose story fits the contrast between puzzles and character interaction, and the interface is almost never consistent between puzzles and dialogue, so clearly the traditional adventure gamists were not approaching the material from the same angle as the metalude gamists. If they had, the stories would have all been about the conflict between intellect and compassion, or something to that effect. In trying to achieve a broader range of stories without radically changing the make-up of Forms, adventures set themselves down a different path, which I maintain is better achieved through the "future" definition of adventures which I proposed. Still, the comparison is interesting in that it points to a different (more limiting) way adventures could progress.

As gamism progresses, the general public will not clamor for metaludes. The public doesn't realize that metaludes even exist. But gamists themselves are guaranteed to work within the Form, just because there's so much artistic potential there. I don't know if the metalude will ever be formally recognized as a kind of game. But I do know that, even when gamism interfaces directly with our brains, the metalude will still be on the cutting-edge of art. The more sophisticated other Forms become, the more the metalude has to work with. I'm certain the first gamistic equivalent of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony will be a metalude. It is the Form which contains all possibilities, and makes sense of them.

Droplets: Metaludes

Adventure and interactive music, in a world containing semi-abstract musicians and realistic ordinary people in equal numbers. The frustrations of ordinary life are resolved by playing music in branching paths. The story involves a musician going through hard times with his banal work and uncaring family.

Puzzle and luck, in a totally abstract (and convoluted) world where it's not immediately apparent which Form is which. Sometimes careful deduction will get you the answer, sometimes you just need to bumble around long enough. Sometimes you're relieved that you don't have to put in effort, sometimes you're relieved to be given that opportunity. Which means, of course, that you're also often frustrated before you get to that point. The world design is hard to fathom, with no sense behind anything. The story is, as you'd expect, abstract but emotional.

Flight, platformer, driving, strategy, puzzle and luck, in a world where each Form is given a dedicated section where the farther you go the harder it gets. They overlap with each other at rare points, so that if you get far in one you can jump to a far part in another. The game doesn't save progress, but keeps a timer of how long you play. After 24 hours of play, the game suddenly deletes itself and can't be played again without buying the game over again. The story concerns a sick person with one more day to live.

Platformer and sports action, in a more-or-less real-world setting. There are kids in the street to kick balls around with, and houses which you can jump over. If any of the kids see you jumping, you can't play with them anymore. But it's fun to jump. You get to jump over all the landmarks of the city, watching games down below from rooftops.

Perception and action, again in a 3D real-world-meets-science-fiction setting. You look for optical illusions - all sorts of everyday objects which look perfectly normal from one angle but from a different angle are clearly impossible. That's a gateway to another dimension, where you have to fight weird alien creatures. The story is about an attempted alien invasion which only you know about (or can stop).

Film and role-playing game, with a dynamic interface which in the film sections becomes a remote control, in a generic fantasy world where one corner is totally noninteractive and the other corner is totally interactive. You need to hunt for ways to defeat the generic fantasy villain, which gives the gamist many opportunities to contrast the old-fashioned way of telling stories with this newfangled way of telling stories. The story can be resolved many ways, some more interactive and some less interactive.



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