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Some thoughts on “presentation”

posted on June 12th, 2007 by matt

I don’t want to brag, but when I’m not writing fantastic and thought-provoking articles on vl, I spend the rest of my time as a game designer at a video game company (which is awesome, btw). And as such, I try to expand my knowledge on the subject of game design as much as I can. And today, a surge of information flooded my cerebrum after giving the Assassin’s Creed Sampler OST a listen.

Composed by Jesper Kyd, Assassin’s Creed is steeped in Persian aural stylings. If anyone has ever listened to or played Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, you can understand what Assassin’s Creed will sound like. It’s a little more orchestrated, and keeps the hummable melodies to a minimum, but it’s essentially the same thing.

The music really got me in the mood to play the game, to experience what Ubisoft is going to do with expressing the Middle East during the Crusades. I don’t really care what I’m going to do in the actual game, however; I’m more interested in the presentation of the game.

Why risk your life when you can stay here and admire the view?

Which leads me to my thoughts on game design. As a designer, it is my job to define the rules of the game, to give it purpose. I mean, they are called video games, after all. Mario needs to get to the end of the level without dying, and before time runs out. And this is all good, but what would a game be like without rules?

The presentation, rather than the rules, is what I’m looking forward to with Assassin’s Creed. I don’t care about how I’m going to kill someone, or how I’m going to beat it. I merely want to experience the setting, to learn what it was like to live in and walk around a Middle Eastern city during the Crusades (provided that Ubisoft does their History homework, of course). My enjoyment from the game will not be from following the rules and overcoming some challenge. I basically don’t want to play a video game when playing Assassin’s Creed. I will turn it into a trip to the museum.

I’m gonna listen to the music while sitting atop a rooftop, I’m gonna look at the Persian sun while it sets, and I’m gonna watch as the pedestrians go about their business. It isn’t a movie either, as I direct where my character and the camera go. But basically, for me, the most memorable parts of Assassin’s Creed may come from the presentation, which is nearly non-interactive.

And is this necessarily a bad thing? Eternal Darkness is cited as being one of the greatest games of all time, but the gameplay wasn’t why. It was the attention to detail that brought ED into the upper echelons of gaming. Giving the player historical data on the weapons in the game, or making a character better developed through dialogue does not define the rules of the game. This idea of presentation is basically secondary in most designers’ minds, but in terms of enjoyment, it can be most crucial.

A sexy accident.

But as a designer, I have to understand what other people want, as I’m not the one that’s going to buy the game (I tend to get them for free, you see). I may love the idea of interactive entertainment that throws rules to the wind, but there are those who want to play a game with rules, hoping to earn the right to say that they overcame the game’s challenges when confronted with constraints. Which makes it hard to choose whether to focus on rules or presentation. In a perfect world, both would be given the same amount of care, but this is hardly a perfect world.

This isn’t to say that one is better than the other, mind you. It’s just an interesting topic that a lonely, semi-good-looking game designer wanted to talk to you about. In the industry today, we have games with all gameplay/no presentation (Bejeweled) and games with a good mix of the two (Metal Gear Solid series). Can there be something that is all presentation/no gameplay?

I don’t think anyone has ever thought of a game that has no rules. You have Will Wright’s The Sims, but you are still governed by rules, like the need to go to the bathroom. That series may be more sandboxy, but it still has basic rules.

Can there ever be an “un-game”? Would anyone even want that?

8 Comments

  1. sagexsdx said on June 13, 2007:

    i’m not really a fan of the ps3 but isn’t Afrika suppose to be one of these “ungames” u speak of?

  2. sagexsdx said on June 13, 2007:

    the more i think about it, is it even possible to have a game (or ungame) without rules? i mean even in the aforementioned “Afrika”, you would be governed by rules of gravity and such. you couldn’t just walk THROUGH animals. I think you would always have some sort of rules.

    unless of course, you were assuming these basic sort of rules. =P

  3. pat said on June 13, 2007:

    i thought that was unclear as well. all games require some kind of physics at least, which would count as rules. games like tail of the sun, aquanauts holiday and even nintendogs are basically just sandboxes. there is definitely a continuum, but i dont think a game with zero rules is desirable. i do seem to recall a terrible psx game with no collision detection (a pretty important rule). anyone else remember that?

  4. Don said on June 13, 2007:

    I go to see “un-games” every week at my local cinema.

  5. sagexsdx said on June 13, 2007:

    [quote]
    It isn’t a movie either, as I direct where my character and the camera go.
    [/quote]

    sorry, local cinema excluded =P

    it sounds more like he’s describing an MMO. Or Oblivion if all the baddies weren’t trying to kill you all the time =/

    I think there are plenty of examples of “ungames” in games right now though. you don’t HAVE to do stuff in sandbox games. There are plenty of people who play GTA only to steal some cars, crash some cars, and run from cops. I played Spiderman 2 on Xbox strictly for swinging around from building to building. I only got to like the 3rd story mission.

    Second Life comes to mind as another “ungame”

  6. jay said on June 13, 2007:

    Pat, it was a PS1 Japanese racing game that was reviewed in a magazine I showed you years ago. Possibly an EGM, but I don’t recall the name of the game. It got a score of 0.

  7. Max said on June 13, 2007:

    I think it’s a question of perception. Any game has both rules (physics, interaction, etc.) and presenation elements; the question is, from a player perspective, does a game feel like it’s mostly about rules or mostly about presentation or somewhere in the middle? My take is that most games coming out tend to be more rule based. There are a few on the other end of the spectrum – mostly in the adventure genre – such as Dreamfall. The ones that fall in the middle tend to either be games of the year or abysmal failures that fall through the cracks faster than they are dropped on the store shelves.

  8. Matt said on June 13, 2007:

    In my head, collision detection would not be considered a “rule.” That’s merely a given in my mind. I’m going further with it, by saying you can do nothing to effect the environment, and you have no goals. Which comes with the territory of saying you have no move set, no items, yada yada. All you have is a character and a camera. You still hit walls, and stuff like that. What I started to hint around was the idea that Jarrad coined: virtual tourism. How interesting would it be (for some people, now) to interact in Ancient Egypt, or Mesopotamia? Something like that. You walk around and basically just view it. Scripted events would occur to give a lesson on what it was like to live in that time, or to tell a story. A full-on presentation based interactive video game, but it’s interactive as you still point the camera in the desired direction. This is basically what I was suggesting. It’ still up for debate as to whether or not we can even call it a game, as there is essentially nothing to do but watch. Second Life is I guess the closest thing to that, but I really don’t know the full extent of Second Life, as I don’t play it. And I’m not even sure they revealed what Afrika is all about. Every time someone talks about it, all I hear is how Sony says its gonna be something completely new. As from the screens, however, it may turn out to be what I described: a virtual African tour. But who knows. And yes, you don’t have to do anything in a sandbox game, but it’s not designed with that in mind. They designed it to let you do whatever you wanted, not necessarily nothing. You can sit on a street in GTA, but usually nothing that interesting happens. And stealing cars is part of the rule set, btw. So yeah.

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