Game Mechanics and Implicit Premise

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Submitted by SuperSayu on Sun, 12/09/2018 - 22:22

This is on my mind, as I've been trying to finish and wrap up my essay on Starbound, complete with an egregiously long preface and a full (in principle) alternate/sequel design. One of those prefaces goes on for a bit about the mechanical premise of Starbound, and how the game doesn't effectively resonate with it. However, this is actually reasonably common, and I think it bears some amount of discussion.

First, what do I mean by "mechanical premise" or a game mechanic's "implicit premise"? Let's look to Starbound, Terraria, or Minecraft, or any other game in that genre. The mechanics of these games allow you to rebuild the world block by block to better suit your needs. In theory (and the internet has proven that people actually do this), you could create absolutely gigantic, world-sized locations in these engines, such that no scrap of the original landscape remains. But (neglecting special creative-mode mods) you still do it block by block.

You could certainly say that it is the premise of these games is that you, alone, can change the world. But it isn't really an explicit premise, is it? Your ability to change the world is a mechanic, which itself resists your efforts to some degree. The fact that map editors are not built in to these games, and that (not considering mods) the only way you CAN change the world is brick by brick... that choice creates a tension between what you want and what you are willing to do to get it. I, for instance, can no longer play Minecraft for long periods of time without getting motion sick. Therefore, while I would very much like to create a giant world that I can experience from within that game, I cannot. I simply cannot spend the time playing to get what I want, and therefore, I cannot "win" the game.

In short, there is an implicit premise to these game mechanics: time and effort spent by you, the player, are necessary to change the world. And while to some degree there are mechanical consequences to what and how you build (keeping out monsters, for example, or even defeating them on your behalf), these games also mostly agree on one thing: what you build matters more to you than to the world itself. Make something grand or live in a muddy hole in the ground: you care, but the world does not.

These two thoughts together form a single idea, an implicit premise to these games: the world is cruel, but hard work can create peace, stability, and prosperity in the midst of the uncaring wilderness.

Some games do better or worse at noticing, manipulating, and accepting the "effective premise" of their game--that is to say, the premise that exists at the center of all their implicit and explicit premises. For example, Minecraft and Terraria, both of which are widely considered central games in this genre, both continue to have elements of danger throughout the game. In both cases, your hard work can be destroyed. Monsters search you out, and even with the best equipment you can get, some things are still deadly. And while home still can be a danger, even so you keep looking beyond your borders. In Minecraft you go to new worlds full of even more danger; in Terraria you delve into the depths and change the world by unsealing great evils. Whatever missteps they may have along the way, in both these games, the world is still cruel, but you can still create a place of peace and stability among the madness.

Other games in the genre seem to miss exactly why building alone in the wilderness is a romantic ideal. Starbound (about which I am writing separately) uses the same general engine as Terraria, except you aren't tied to any places whatsoever, and in fact you have a spaceship which can take you anywhere in the galaxy. And while there is apparently civilization out there, your character seems incapable of settling down anywhere, or in fact getting any help from anyone, in spite of being part of some society of protectors, and in spite of having a spaceship (which, presuming it isn't a literally everyday occurrence, means you could at least make a living as a trader if you wanted). No, instead you are encouraged to play with mud and toxic goo.

To put it differently, the game design of Starbound completely misses the mechanical premise of the engine, wherein you create stability in a harsh world with your own two hands, and with concerted effort from you, the player.

I have tried a couple other games in the general genre lately, and I'd like to talk briefly about one of them. Realms of Magic is still in alpha, and it looks like one of those games that may never get the final coat of polish that it deserves. Unfortunately, while I do like it in some ways, it also seems to misunderstand what the mechanical premise of the game is. Because while Terraria got away with its design partly by dint of isolation--you literally cannot leave the map, and wherever the NPCs come from, they have nowhere to live except for the home you built them, and no furniture except what you provide--Realms of Magic includes a map with nearby villages. You can choose to live a civilized life, but apparently, you choose not to. The whole premise of the game changes when people exist but are useless to you: you are not lost, you choose to build your way up from scratch, and continue choosing isolation in perpetuity.

One way of looking at Starbound and Realms of Magic is that they thought that the implicit premise of the game would remain the same if you changed the context, when this is untrue. The implicit premise is formed out of choices you may not have deliberately made, which is why meshing the implicit and explicit game premise can be a tricky thing. In the case of these games, they took an engine which is at its best when simulating someone scraping their way up from nothing, and put it in the context of someone who has other options. If, by way of analogy, it was a game engine about stealing from people, the game's premise would change based on whether the protagonist was a playboy prince or an escaped slave. Similarly, when they are stacking mud blocks to make a house with their own two hands, and wearing pickaxes to dust with constant use, it says something completely different about them if they could instead go do something else.

In these cases, if you recenter the game concept based on what is possible for the main character, you come up with an entirely different game. A character who is not isolated and can reshape the world ought to be at the center of a story where other people's lives are changed by your actions. In Terraria and Minecraft, you could only build for yourself and other players, because nothing else existed. A game concept that includes other people should lead to a design where the main character's role involves other people.

Let me shift gears to another game with similar problems; let's look at Sid Meier's Civilization series. I got into this series in the 90s with Civilization 2, and have owned several, including the current iteration and its expansion. Going back to the very beginning, the premise of Civilization was that it was never quite certain whether or not your own civilization was going to survive, because historically, it was never certain that any civilization, even the greats, would survive. The people, yes; the descendents of the Romans and Greeks and native Americans and many other races all still live. But which civilizations have left their mark on history only to die? And which are all but forgotten? Which civilizations rose, and which fell? Of those nations still alive today, which will rise and which will fall?

Again, I like Civilization, and this is not me arguing against liking it. But, while early versions of Civilization were the best possible effort to achieve this premise, the modern games are not quite centered on that premise. They are, instead, trying to refine the model of the earlier games, which was good for the time, but was part of the early generations of strategy games and lacked a lot of what we have today--like processing power and memory, but also an institutional knowledge of user interface design, the internet, and so on.

If as I argue the premise of Civilization is that we have no idea which civilizations will rise and fall throughout the course of history, then you can certainly understand interpreting that as a few civilizations starting at the dawn of time, competing to see not only who survives but who ends up dominating the world stage. However, in my admittedly faulty understanding of the world, the only nation of the world that comes close to this record of surviving since antiquity is China (according to Wikipedia the earliest dynasties of China date back about 4000 years), and while China may have been (arguably) a nation continuously since then, it was not the same nation, with emperors rising and falling, each having a different character. In contrast, control over who owns what part of Europe changed a great deal over the past thousand years, let alone four thousand years. Ancient Rome may have influenced all of Europe, but two thousand years after its founding, even Byzantium, which survived the sundering of the Roman Empire, had ceased to be.

Pottery, one of the earliest technologies researched in Civilization, is estimated to be thirty thousand years old--not one or two or four.

Make no mistake, Civilization is a good game. I am not sure that the premise matches up with the mechanics, but that is not a cardinal sin. And, take what I'm saying with a grain of salt, because I don't--and cannot successfully--play Civilization at the highest difficulty levels. Still, it is hard for me to see Civilization as a game where you never know who will survive into the future. Nations don't split with civil war. Bad leaders are not replaced, good leaders are not replaced, new factions don't rise, factions don't split, poor choices don't divide a nation. In short, at the dawn of time, you can count the possible outcomes of the world, and it isn't many. Sure, you may not know where cities will be or who will own them, but there will be no new names carved into the history books, only the same few again and again.

In the early days, Civilization was wonderfully ambitious, doing more than you would expect given what computers were capable of. And it's not like I don't understand trying to perfect the existing model. But the effective narrative of the game is... underwhelming. A few "characters" (in this case nations) meet, argue, fight, and maybe die, over the course of several thousand years. And... that's it. There is nothing else to the effective narrative of the game. Civilization 2, and the upcoming Civilization 6 expansion, at least have the premise of the world changing with time--pollution, global warming, and so on--and there are some side stories about things like religion. But much of it is the same every single time.

That also goes for a similar but unrelated game, Stellaris. Like many other Grand Space games (you could also call them "Master of Orion descendents"), they model empires over thousands of years, except in the future rather than the past, and on a galactic scale instead of a planetary one. And like Civilization, large swaths of the game are... just the same every time you play it. The difficult parts of the game, the parts you can actually lose, involve being assaulted by other empires. And like in Civilization, they just kind of... exist at the start of the game, and maybe die, and that's all there really is. The effective premise, and the effective narrative, is that a few cultures meet, argue, fight, and maybe die, over the course of several thousand years.

Now granted, you can make a perfectly acceptable game out of two human beings meeting, arguing, fighting, and possibly dying. But quite frankly, that game will be over much, much faster than a game of Civilization or Stellaris, or Minecraft or Terraria or Starbound. Part of the reason for this is that every culture on the planet Earth has thousands of years worth of stories of people meeting, arguing, fighting, and dying, and we've come to realize that when a story is told about such things, we have certain expectations. We expect some introduction or establishment of the characters, we expect some embellishment of the action, and we expect the story to reward us for paying attention to details, by bringing those details back around again later. We expect that if we sat down to hear an action story, then it's an action story, and if we sat down to hear a comedy, it's a comedy, and if we sat down to hear a tragedy, it's a tragedy. And sometimes what we really want is to hear a different story than we expected when we sat down.

All that said, who am I to argue with success? Civilization keep giving you things to do and keep giving you ways to progress forward, so it's no surprise that it's both addicting (in a less-than-volitional way) and intriguing. But it's gotten harder for me to continue enjoying the game over time, perhaps only because I want the game to be something other than what it is; Civilization is a competitive game, but for me, the game feels like it's more about making good decisions to protect and elevate your people. And that doesn't quite work with the the game mechanics, partly because there is, effectively, a ceiling to the game when played that way: there is only so much world to build on, and only so much technology to research. After that, if you are looking for meaning, you must conquer the other civilizations, and even then, that only pushes back the inevitable need for you to look elsewhere. And alas, this ceiling and its consequences have been there from the beginning of the series. (Perhaps it actually says something deep about humanity's past and future... but that may be giving it more credit than it deserves)

Effectively, I suppose, I am just looking for something different from Civilization... but I could also argue that given the history that the series, I am hoping that they would have found an answer to those sticky parts of the design, which have stuck around since its beginning. Because while humanity today clearly hasn't found an answer to what human purpose is, the game leads you to the modern day, as though that is the goal. Indeed, as I argued, being one of the few to survive to the modern day seems to be the premise of the game, mechanically. But why? The game does not judge whether the world has reached a good or bad state; it does not judge you if you use evil means or adopt evil policies. And it doesn't suggest at all that your opposition might be better or worse suited for being in charge of the world. If two civilizations are battling for supremacy, and one is ruled by Genghis Khan and the other by Mahatma Gandhi, both outcomes are equal in the eyes of the game. If you are Khan and run roughshod over Gandhi, that is "success"; if you are Gandhi and run roughshod over Khan, it is the same. Indeed (with apologies to the developers), it would be the same if one of the leaders was Adolf Hitler; leaders, policy, religion, war, peace, and all else are just means to an end.

Clearly it is not their intention to equate, in any sense, Hitler with Gandhi. They do not sell copies of the game hoping that someone will cheer triumphantly at a successful genocide. What they sell, instead, is a simulation, and the intent of selling a simulation is letting people play with the sandbox; if that involves kicking down sand castles, it is not for them to judge. However, by virtue of its mechanical function, that becomes the premise. After six iterations of the game, they know that it is there. And that's okay, because people enjoy playing Civilization, and making new versions over time is great.

But they simply don't sell a version that takes these externalities into account. There is no version of Civilization where there are legitimately good and genuinely evil nations, and you must for the sake of world peace keep the evil nations from winning--or, in reverse, to conquer the world as an unapologetically evil nation. It is, effectively, nationalist: your one and only job is to look after your own people, and the only way to win is for your people to be the best people. You don't need to fear for the survival of the species, you don't need to fear that tyranny or persecution will be rampant, or that countries will end up corrupt or twisted, or that people will lose their drive to be a leading force in the world, and become happy with living on the side lines. The game premise is effectively that no matter what you do, including genocide and nuclear war, everything will be fine. Humanity will survive. And you might even win!

I don't think that they deliberately chose that, and I'm not arguing that they should have seen it coming. I only wish they had some answer to it, some way to bend the rules to make these things make sense. And I wish that more developers accepted that their mechanics lead to an implicit premise, and that they would factor that into their design. It's difficult, but it makes for better, more consistent games.

I wish I could talk to people about these things, too, because I find it a fascinating study.