Video games are art, but we don’t code them like it.

Introduction

Games are software-driven projects, that employ hundreds of developers to create a complex product for a competitive market. Yet the entire mindset of software developers in the game industry, including the development methodology they use, is not up to the task of grappling with the deep thematic and artistic consequences of the systems they construct.

Games as software: Large-scale and long-term?

Video games are big – really big. Not just in terms of the size of the industry, but also the scale of the projects delivered. Major releases are hugely complex software projects which take years to develop, and are expected to serve as the baseline for expansions to the original product as well as sequels that use the same components. Some games are intended to never end, virtual worlds that are constantly debugged, updated, and tweaked by the developers. Games also stretch horizontally across disciplines, bringing together dedicated game designers, programmers, musicians, artists (both concept and asset), voice actors, and support staff to try and produce a single, seamless work.

Despite their interdisciplinary nature, games have tended to be approached primarily as software development projects, which makes some sense given video game’s nature as software-driven projects. While the single highest cost continues to be art assets, much of the technology that powers the artist’s work is developed by the game’s programmers. And code is critically important to one of the key elements of any game – its mechanics.

Programming is a fifth of the budget, but much of the art budget goes to software development as well.

Mechanics as Code

Mechanics are the structures (usually systems of rules) the player experiences in his interaction with a game, and are what helps contextualize the contributions of all other disciplines. They are implemented by programmers in the game’s code, and further speak to the critical importance of software in tying games into a coherent whole. The critical community spills gallons of ink arguing about what mechanics are and how they should be used, but generally agrees that they are the benchmark for deciding if something qualifies as a game (this is ignoring the vocal contingent who are against defining games at all, in the interest of brevity).

For example, in a game about a square-jawed hero mowing down waves of horrifying demons, one of the major mechanics might be how input is translated into movement and shooting. In a game about leading a civilization from the first cities to modern history, there would need to be a mechanic to model technological change – and to allow the player some degree of influence over its progression. And in That Dragon, Cancer, there’s a mechanic for you to try to comfort your confused, weeping child as his cancer progressively worsens. That Dragon, Cancer also ensures that you can never succeed – that in the end, you’re always left listening to him sob desperately with nothing you can do to help.

Mechanics as Metaphor

As that last example makes clear, game’s mechanics are not just rope to tie the real, artistic components together – to some extent, *they* are the real component. The deliberate and designed interactivity unique to games arises from their mechanics, and the core elements of traditional media (such as narrative and art) are ultimately contained within one structure or another. Critical theorists within game studies have become increasingly interested in how the mechanics of games work to influence the overall artistic work, and how the mechanics can make their own artistic statements. Naomi Clark’s piece on Gone Home‘s use of mechanics, specifically the way it deliberately denies the player access to one they normally use freely, is a good example of the power mechanics have to make significant statements. Just as a character in a novel can be a significant sounding board for one of its themes, a game’s mechanics can be a powerful thematic device by deliberately including or excluding options.

In the end, mechanics are fundamentally tools of control, which often present an illusion of choice as a disguise for their real purpose: to constrain the player’s choices into carefully chosen vectors. In our demon shooting example, the player would probably be given a variety of different weapons to choose from – but no option to put his weapon down. The choice offered is fundamentally illusory, as each choice has in turn been deliberately included in the game so that the consequences can be properly programmed. The Tyranny of Choice is part of the latest round of debate on how much agency players truly have within this constrained structure, but that mechanics are as much a part of the game creator’s toolkit as narrative elements is clear enough.

Ludonarrative Dissonance: A break between mechanics and story

Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock kicked off the debate about the thematic implications of mechanics, as well as introducing the term used to describe what happens when the themes of mechanics and narrative clash. Clint Hocking discusses how the game Bioshock, which by its narrative was ostensibly a critique of individualist Objectivism, was deeply weakened by the incredibly individually empowering nature of most of the game’s mechanics. Players are literally a one man army, able to tear their way through hordes of enemies – and this in a game which is purportedly attacking Ayn Rand’s vision of an independent hero figure! A mechanic which emphasized the need for community and mutual charity would be better, and would complement the game’s narrative instead of undermining it.

Yet despite this, games continue to pay little heed to their mechanic’s effect on the work – a fact that is making the critical community sharper with its comments. Bioshock was released five years ago, yet there is still little progress in trying to ensure that the mechanics a game has complement its artistic intent. Even smaller, independent titles are routinely criticized for ignoring the message sent by their core mechanics, and how it might clash with the purported message of the game’s writing.

Interlude

Around this point, most readers are not only likely to be extremely patient but also rather confused – isn’t this an assignment for an Informatics course? Am I perhaps some Arts student, who accidentally posted his essay on the wrong course blog?

Stop being a software developer, start being an artist

So let’s bring it back to software design: I believe that the cause of this consistent and concerning inability to engage with the artistic nature and thematic consequences of a game’s mechanics originates (at least partially) from the developers of these mechanics themselves – the software developers and programmers who build them, usually using common software design principles. Susan O’Connor, a writer for video games, noted in an interview that “A lot of times, what ends up happening when you have a room of primarily tech-oriented [staff], it becomes like a software development environment”, and went on to decry the technically oriented thinking that many software designers who work in the games industry continue to hold on to.

Games are developed as software projects – yet they’re not at heart. They’re pieces of art, even if it’s often high budget, commercial art. The design and development of the game’s major and minor mechanics, as implemented in the game’s software, can have an incredibly important effect on the final result. Yet they continue to be approached as if they’re any other software project, where the design does not have to take into account the thematic implications of decisions but can instead be aimed towards a more objective goal. For example, unthinking application of HCI design principles has been critiqued harshly for effectively eliminating certain kinds of experience from the table – what if the goal of the game is to actually provoke frustration? Or to provide a challenge itself? Any interface which did so would violate the most basic tenets of good design, but might be absolutely critical to the intended message of the work. Approaching a game’s user interface like any other HCI problem fails to take into account that form may need to triumph over function when creating a deliberate, artistic experience.

“Just add art to the spec! We can get to it after we write the unit tests.”

So all we need to do is tweak our existing methodologies, right? Just add “ensure resonance with thematic and artistic intent of game” to our Waterfall requirements, or create a use case for the player’s experience of the theme, or keep it Agile so that we can quickly rework mechanics that feel wrong. Those are all good ideas, and more acknowledgement of the importance of these kind of aesthetic concerns couldn’t hurt, but the core of the problem remains. While composers and modellers who work on games acknowledge their role as artists, software developers continue to act as if they don’t need to adopt a similar approach. Software design methodologies are important to developing a game’s mechanics efficiently and on time, and should continue to be used. But by themselves they are incapable of mimicking the critical understanding and close reading that is required to grasp the artistic consequences of design decisions, let alone understand how to create an intended effect on the player.

Tabletop Games: From D&D, to FATE, to Fiasco

We can look to a similar medium to see how this might occur – tabletop role playing games. These are games played in person around a table, in which players follow a set of rules to act out their adventures. Early games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, often failed to treat their mechanics as anything other than conflict resolution and simulation mechanisms. Yet recent generations of tabletop games have increasingly used their own mechanics to reinforce the intended mood of the game, and as a result mechanics have tended to simplify – not only to enable better control over their exact effect, but also because the increasing understanding of the intended theme of a game enables unnecessary and overcomplicated systems to be stripped down or removed. Instead, each mechanic is deliberately developed with the intended effect in mind – conflict resolution by random elements  (such as dice) are introduced to games where the player is meant to feel particularly powerless or surprised, while group voting is used in games where negotiation and consensus is important to the setting.

Conclusion

On the other hand, the mechanics of tabletop games are far simpler than video games as a rule. Often, one or two people can develop an entire tabletop game, which makes a holistic approach much easier but is all but impossible for larger video games. What is needed is a software development methodology for games that looks to how writers write and painter paint for inspiration and seeks to encourage developers to embrace the artistic nature of their work. This could be a modification to an existing approach, but it can’t slot “ponder the artistic ramifications” as a step between coding and testing. Instead, consideration of the code’s effect on the mechanics has to be holistically and continuously assessed, and given as much weight as meeting more mundane requirements. Until this happens, developers are likely to continue ignoring the thematic consequences of their code, and mechanics will continue to ring against narrative.