November 12, 2012 1:00 AM | Staff
Award-winning experimental designer Chris Bell has been working with the design challenge of creating friendships between strangers, in his recent work on Way and Journey.
Looking back at those games helped him map his own design interests in the goal of looking ahead toward his next project: "When I look at both of those games now, it's particularly revealing to see how the player communities have changed over time," he says.
At Journey's launch, most players wanted to reach the mountain. Having achieved that, they're no longer fascinated by the ultimate goal and look elsewhere in the game -- its symbols and lore, for example -- for meaning and engagement. They perfect the art of flying with other players, and create their own challenges as they discover the nuances of the game's movement constraints.
The interest that outlasts all of these in both Way and Journey is the act of interacting with other players, the variable of another human -- "this person who guarantees the recurring mystery of who is this stranger this time, how will this stranger play, and how will the two of us express ourselves together?"
By linking two free-choosing individuals with individual motivations in a suggestive "playground" environment, new forms of performative play emerge naturally, says Bell. Players have intentionally or otherwise developed their own improvisational folk games within Journey's world -- without the developer ever needing to explicitly outline the potential for those games within the world.
There are some reoccurring roles and player types -- the team identified four during playtesting that have since cropped up during play: The lover, the loner, the griefer and the explorer. The difference is essentially defined by whether players are moving closer to or further from one another, relevant in the context of a game that's fundamentally about digital space.
A lover, for example, will follow the other player; a griefer will do anything in his or her power to upset the other player's intentions. A loner seeks isolation, while an explorer, naturally, explores. How did the combination of those particular roles create folk games?
Let's say an explorer seeks discoveries within the place, and the lover follows, or, acting out of affection, perceives the explorer's interest in discovery and guides him or her. Journey's Barrens area is designed as a circle, an initial recruitment space. Lovers are inclined to wait there to greet new journeyers and show them around.
There's the dance of tandem flying, too. "Synchronized flying is this thing that emerges where as players stay together they can charge each other up and fly over really long distances. When you find two players that can fly really well together, that becomes a sort of conversation," Bell explains.
"Players may entirely reject the meta-goal of getting through the level, they'll just play with the landscape, and weave through the landscape... orthagonal to the overall objective of getting through the narrative," he adds. "This is the player's own narrative, and they're engaging with the game that they themselves created."
When a loner and a griefer join, it becomes a game of cat-and-mouse, where the solitary player is trying to escape a pest. "The mechanics of Journey are designed such that we try to bring players together, and so a game of cat and mouse is kind of borked. It's really hard for that 'mouse' to get away."
Toward the end of the desert is a high tower, and when Bell played as a loner for the purpose of role-testing, he tricked his colleague Nick into thinking he was going to drop down to the bottom of the tower. To descend the tower is to reject the game's overarching goal.
"I jump off the ledge and Nick follows, but just as I go out of frame I fly right back up and land on the ledge. He doesn't see that; he falls all the way down. We disconnect; I had won! That was a very beautiful and kind of profound moment, because I had subverted the system and found this new way of getting away that we hadn't really pushed for players to find," he says.
"That was beautiful and strong, but I couldn't share that with anybody," he adds. In that way, the original goal of escaping a griefer became a wish to connect with the other player again so that he could see Bell's trick. Fundamentally Journey's design always returns to the objective of creating a longing to connect with others.
At the game's snowy summit, all these ideas and themes converge, Bell says. "You actually have echoes of every level that runs through... at the end of the game. And with that, we supercharge the player and let them do endless things that they couldn't do before and I think that speaks to that notion of us trying to provide a place for you to play in and just be in, versus some other over-arching goal."
It's key that each space within Journey offers a unique sense of playground. The shape of the landscape and world acts as a constraint, and informs the ways people experience the game. Peekaboo, hide and seek, synchronized flight and dancing, cat and mouse, racing, tandem rock climbing, follow the leader, tag and acrobatics are just a handful of the kinds of games players have performed together within the game's world.
"It goes without saying that every game that comes from Journey ... must exist as a subset of Journey," he adds. "When we look at playground design we're trying to look at games that afford new kinds of games to emerge."
The best interactive landscapes -- like physical playground installations, for example -- provide a wide variety of spaces for participants to generate their own games based on the intuitive suggestions of the space. It presents "an invitation for players to use it, but how the players use it is met in conversation with that," says Bell. "It's about understanding and looking at the implied system you have... but sort of changing it to your own will and making it for your own."
These spaces are systemic, self directed and cognitive; sensory, physical and flexible, rich and varied, cross-pollinating and accessible, Bell says. Every space of Journey is a conversation with the players about what can be done in that space.
Now, Bell is excited to continue focusing on giving players the ability to construct their own "magic circles" within games. Minecraft does this well, because it allows players to repurpose and reconstitute the space themselves down to the smallest building block, says Bell.
"When I think of games in digital spaces, we tend to lock them down and apply a very rigid system to them, and I don't think that necessarily needs to apply," he continues. "The work of Doug Wilson (J.S. Joust) is a good example of how this work can be changed and be more malleable, more liquid."
One example of a "conversation" and reduction of play that Bell likes is how in Counter-Strike, there's the ritual of the knife-fight -- players will actually use knives to communicate to other players that they want to have a knife duel. "There's this conversation of them not wanting to partake in the normal game, but in its own game within the game," he says.
The next step for Bell will be to continue exploring folk play within games that provide for players to invent their own experiences, languages and methods of communication using the tools of the over-arching experience.
[Leigh Alexander wrote this article, which originally appeared on Gamasutra.]