The first session I attended at GDC 2011 was Dynamics: The State of the Art presented by Clint Hocking, newly of LucasArts. In broad overview, the talk was was another attempt to answer the question “What/How Do Games Mean?”, and posits Dynamics as the base unit of meaning within the medium of Video Games as a whole. Overall it was a great talk, and it was a pleasure to see Clint talk for the for the first time. Like always, any mistakes are purely my own.
Meaning in Film
- Initially, film was a curiosity, such as the film produced by Thomas Edison of an elephant being electrocuted. The goal was to inspire fear of AC current, but it failed to connect with the audience. Film didn’t know what it was doing yet.
- The Kuleshov Effect was the first time anyone figured out how to really use film. An actor with a neutral expression was edited together with images of food, a woman, or a coffin. Audiences immediately attributed different emotions to the face of the actor, which was identical. Editing was creating meaning.
- Editing is the basic tool of meaning in the medium of film. It’s what separates the medium from theater or radio. If you strip more and more of the editing out, eventually you get a televised play, and it’s not truly taking advantage of the medium
- Games are still in the curiosity phase, and are still looking for their base method of meaning.
Dynamics Show the Way
- Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics is an approach to analyzing games. Mechanics are the rules explicitly designed into the system. Dynamics are the runtime behavior of the system. Aesthetics is the wrapping of graphics/sound/story over top of both.
- There’s a continuum of where meaning comes from in games, between mechanics and dynamics. On one end we have a message model of meaning, where the designer builds the meaning directly into the mechanics. On the other hand we have abdication of ownership, where the meaning comes out of the dynamics. Dynamics is really the Kuleshov of games, the unique element
- The original Splinter Cell was very far towards a designed experience. Goal was to get across the themes of sensitivity, proximity, and fragility. The game mechanics are designed to reinforce this, so by necessity there was little player choice.
- Splinter Cell: Chaos theory built on these concepts, but added those of Exploration and Domination, which opened up the choices and pushed more of the meaning towards Dynamics. But, it was still fairly constrained
- Far cry 2 was designed to be an exploration of human cruelty, comparing the savagery of humans to the savagery of animals. Was designed to be horrific, intimate, shameful. But, the dynamics didn’t always encourage this. For some people it was about being safe and boring, by being as efficient as possible. For others it was the chaos of lighting a field on fire. It turns out the chaos/paranoia of the dynamics overwhelmed the proscribed meaning of the mechanics, and the dynamics are where the meaning really came from.
Dynamics in Context
- Tetris is about anticipation and keeping opportunity alive, but is largely abstract. The power of aesthetics can be seen by adding an aesthetic layer to add context, such as transporting prisoners. Then, new meaning is derived in the dynamics despite the mechanics being identical. Now the goal is to be less efficient or possibly to fail the game.
- Competitive games such as fighting games are unique. In those games the true meaning derives from the conflict between the world perspectives of the two players. Each player has a conception of what the game is and should be, and that conflict builds over concepts such as what “cheap” is. The meaning is “synthetic” in that it comes from synthesis of other concepts. It’s “rigorous” in that the meaning depends on how much the players care about the match. And it’s “instantial” because the meaning comes from the individual match instance, not the mechanics as a whole