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.