The Yin and Yang of Games: Code and Content
Have you ever played a game, even a very good one, and noticed after a while that you are not paying attention to any of its content? After hours of playing, are you clicking blindly through option windows, watching your on-screen characters moving from point a to point b, not noticing any nuances of animation or experience, and wishing they would hurry up so you could continue your blind mouse clicking? If you have, then you have experienced a game breaking down into its two constituent parts, the content game and the code game.
Content is more influential in the early stages of a game, in making you want to play. It is the story, the premise, the characterisation, the atmosphere, the style. It is the experience you wish to have; to be a soldier, a racing driver, an adventurer. The content game is the experiential process that is implied by the game's symbolic, artistic elements; the process of becoming a hero, of winning a race, of fighting a war. But unlike a film or book, this experience depends on the underlying mechanisms that allow you to manipulate and participate in this experience, it depends on the underlying rules, the code game.
The code game is what you are playing when a game breaks down as I described earlier. It is what you are playing when you are fighting for high scores, rather than the rescue of a princess, it is that urge for completion that possesses a gamer to a point where he does not see, does not feel what he is playing. It is the game underneath the graphics; the systems, structures, procedures and rules that dictate how a game is played and what it is.
The breakdown occurs when the content game does not match the code game, which is the stronger of the two. It occurs because the content game, the graphics, characters and themes can be interpreted and experienced in many different ways while the code game, being a singular rational system, cannot. The code game defines what game objects can do and what they are, whereas the player may have any number of feelings and ideas about a particular object. Think of doors in video games that never open despite the player emptying an arsenal into their thin wooden frames; think of all the non-player characters repeating the same words, the mountains which are really game world boundaries and the distant cities that no racing game has ever allowed you to reach. After a while, when he starts to understand the game's rules and structures, the gamer gives up his former ideas about an object and sees them only as icons depicting the abstract rules, the code game underneath.
But this apparent failure is very useful. In exploring the underlying code game, it is possible to discern a single system, a single abstract process, shared by many games. A process that is at the very least, useful for improving and understanding game design.
A Hidden Process
A game can be described at its most fundamental level as a total system; a system of changing variables, the limits and functions of which are set by the designer who can by the nature of logic, predict every outcome of every change in any variable. [Note: By variable, I do not mean the constructional elements of a programming language i.e. DWORD's, CHAR's etc., but the discrete, changing elements of a game as they are perceived by the player; the game's objects, options and playing pieces] Here, the designer has the total perspective of a god. At this perspective, there is no conflict, no excitement, just a system running perfectly. (Well, maybe with a few little bugs..)
To create the conflict and relative unpredictability of a game we need to step inside it and take up a perspective that limits our view of the total system. This perspective is the player, or more fundamentally, the set of variables over which the user has knowledge and control. The variables over which the user has no knowledge or control are the opposition, the enemy. Often, the set of variables that comprise the player must be maintained in a certain way to retain coherence of the player perspective.
At its most basic, the game is the process by which the player manipulates the variables at his or her disposal to create a state of completion, or of stasis in the system, by either taking control of all the opposing variables, or by eliminating them. At this point, if no further opposition is forthcoming, the player has total knowledge of the system. Now equal with the designer there is no further reason to play.
This description may seem strange and alien, and you may ask how this process can be fun at all. The answer is held by the content game, which expresses the abstract process underneath. Instead of the cold process outlined above, we have the process of how Cloud Strife defeated the enigmatic Sephiroth and learned the secrets of his past, of how the GDI defeated the brotherhood of Nod, how the player can win a fighting championship or the Monaco GP. These subjective processes, connected deeply to our dreams, fantasies and desires give meaning to the game and give abstract variables a recognisable, human form. It is when the nature and limits of these variables do not match the nature of the content used to represent them that breakdown occurs.
The process outlined above represents what could be the deepest level of the relationship between a player and a game. As a psychological process it exists on many contextual levels within the game as a whole, with smaller mini-processes being set up wherever a player concentrates on mastering a smaller set of variables. Not all games contain this process, at least not in this particular strong form. Take puzzle games such as Tetris for example. It is hard to find any clear notion of a player perspective or a distinct opposition in these games, other than on a vague tactical level.
As for the content game, although it might appear to be a separate process, there is a deep link between many of the common themes and stories used in games and the hidden process. In my forthcoming article Games and the Imagination, I will describe this link and explore the subjective experience of gaming in much greater detail.
Although there is still much work to be done in defining and clarifying the details of this underlying system, even a basic knowledge of it could open new doors for game designers. Look at the game as a total system and imagine new perspectives for representing the player and his/her relationship to the other variables in the system. Look at how the process of gaining total system knowledge does not necessarily mean representing it through violence, or some of the more simple minded representations that exist. Look at the amazing number of themes that can be represented.
Puzzles are an integral part of games, and demonstrate well the interplay of code and content. As logical riddles with a single outcome, they are grounded in the code game, but look at how they are represented by the content, at how the solving of a puzzle leads to an interesting transformation of the content's meaning in the mind of the player. In his book Trigger Happy: The Inner Life Of Video Games, Steven Poole uses the terminology of semiotics to accurately describe the changes in relationship and meaning within a puzzle. Semiotics could be a useful tool for game designers, at least in allowing clear descriptions of the relationships between game objects. Having these clear descriptions could allow developers to play with meaning within a game, especially within puzzles. The solving of a puzzle is often a threshold moment in games, leading to a new level; it could also lead to a new understanding of the whole game process, transforming the perception of the entire game at key points.
Avoiding the breakdown
The experience of a game breaking down is not pleasant for the player, bringing boredom and emptiness and doing little to convince people that gaming is not an abstract, nerdy pastime. Games that break down are in effect betraying their own content, and betraying the gamer's understandings of that content. But it can be avoided if developers realise that what they are doing is consciously deciding what a game object can be. By using subjective content to represent a fixed, underlying order, they are actually engaged in building a particular perspective, a particular way of viewing a world. Knowledge of this could be very empowering for an artist, and could lead to a new expressionism, new artistic styles that accurately portray what the designer-defined object is underneath.
There are other, less esoteric ways of avoiding a breakdown. Games that offer visceral experiences such as first person shooters and some driving games show that if the system is fast enough and intense enough, then the player will not have time to look around and perceive that something isn't quite right. But the code game demands that the player comes to total system knowledge eventually as he/she increases in skill and comes to understand the structures underneath.
Some designers have maintained that the more complex and hidden the underlying system is, the better the experience for the player, I agree to a certain extent. This works to a degree in non-goal oriented games such as Sim City and Black and White. Games with a definite goal break down by definition: the existence of a certain goal in the code game implies the existence of a limiting system. The breakdown in non-goal (or user defined goal) games comes when the player understands the game environment, and what it allows him to do, the goals he is allowed to pursue.
Graphical realism can cause a breakdown if this realism is not reflected in the underlying system. In older games I think we are more willing to forgive breakdown because the game objects they contain are so vague and unrealistic. They do not infer many real world qualities so gamers are more likely to accept the ones given by the developer. For the designer, this is a question of balance, of finding the right way to represent an object or character with just the right kind of detail to suit the game.
It seems to me that this breakdown occurs in every representational system. The only system that could avoid breakdown would be a system of such scope, and such great interactivity that all the content used in the game was completely context-free at the system level, that is, a system that lets the user create his or her own perspective. I cannot tell whether such a system would ever be technically or even philosophically possible. Even the gathering of data for such a system would force a point of view, by the nature of who or what did the gathering. But that is for the future. At least by understanding the relationship between code and content we can have a clearer picture of what a game can be.
Poole, Steven , Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Video Games (Fourth Estate, 2000)
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Copyright (C) 2001 Richard Dare