The Yin and Yang of Games: Code and Content
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.