Pizza and Puzzles
While it’s still fairly fresh in my mind, I wanted to drop some criticisms of Frasca and Bogost. My frustration with their theories comes a lack of applicability. Sure, their methods of analysis are useful for canonical simulations like The Sims or simple political games like September 12th. But the utility of their approaches drops dramatically when a complex game like Planescape: Torment is brought into the fold.
Take PST’s narrative/mechanical element of death. For both character and player, death in the game is not punished. The player finds herself in the Mortuary again, without reverting back to some checkpoint or losing items. Nothing is really lost. This is both a vital narrative element–at the core of the game is that the player starts dead in the mortuary–and a mechanical one, with the removal of what’s typically at stake in a game. Although there is a save system, as far as dying goes it’s pretty superfluous.
First, I can’t really find a way to separate the dual narrative/mechanical aspect of this gameplay element. For most game theorists, narrative might supervene on mechanics, or mechanics might lie in a core that narrative surrounds. But in this game, the mechanical/narrative elements are fused totally together. It’s sort of a chicken or egg situation as to which, mechanics or narrative, precedes (or acts as foundation for) the other.
And these dual but inseparable elements of the game come attached to a lot of other things. Death, because it lacks any real import, is de-emphasized in terms of importance. So we have an atypical attitude towards survival in the game, because play continues past character “death”.
And because death stops mattering in the game, the save system might prompt the player to reflect on her performance. For example, do I save frequently so I can explore different consequences? Or do I discard the save system because not saving gives my actions greater psychological impact? The single element of narrative/mechanic has reached to a meta-level, where I’m reflecting on my own choices made with a system that doesn’t actually have a place in the narrative of the game, but is there for the convenience of the player.
So there’s this mechanical/narrative element of the game. And part of it is a rhetorical de-emphasis on survival. And part of that is reflection on how I choose to interact with a non-diegetic element of the game, the save system. Which has me reflect on my own choices as a player.
There are even more things that we can’t separate from the narrative/mechanic element of death-but-continuity. The important thing here is that the analytic methods that I’ve seen become pretty useless in complex scenarios like this. Maybe Frasca is right. Maybe Bogost is. Maybe both of them are. But that doesn’t really help if the methods they set out are not really suited to games that are made up of a very near-homogeneous mixture of different elements, like Planescape: Torment.
I think Bogost might come closest: I know he’s partial to Object-Oriented Philosophy, and maybe this is exactly what he’s talking about when he builds unit operations out of individual unit expressions. It’s sort of like a glued-together puzzle. You can see all the different pieces, and then all the different pictures the pieces make, and then the whole puzzle. All of these are their own objects and pictures and meanings on different levels. But you can’t (and shouldn’t) pull them apart.
Sure. This applies to videogames. But it doesn’t really help me critique or analyze a game that’s really complex. And that’s where having a good critical theory is most significant. What Bogost and Frasca have taught me so far is useful when thinking about the field of games/play; but when it comes to a specific text, there’s not much to offer. I haven’t read anything in their example analyses of specific texts that a person couldn’t get at on their own, just by thinking about and playing the game. I don’t mean to sell them short: their ideas really are useful in application to games and play in general. But not a game.
When I was a little kid, I used to hate veggies on my pizza. I would try and pick them out. Especially mushrooms. If a mushroom was sitting on top of the pizza, it would be easy to take off. But if it was really embedded in the cheese, I couldn’t extricate it without taking the cheese with it. It’s those embedded pieces I really needed help with. Anyone who values cheese-crust cohesion knows how delicate the process of unwanted-topping removal can be. Knowing what a pizza is and what a mushroom looks like is a necessary part of the process; but that alone wouldn’t help once the going got tough. The ones that were really hard to get were left to mom.
Frasca and Bogost give me good tools to describe what a game is. And to identify some of the different elements of it. But when it comes to being able to study its real complexities, they don’t offer much except in the broadest sense. Maybe I should ask my mom.
(Admittedly, I’m only ¾ of the way through each of their works, Play the Message and Unit Operations. They could still blow me away or offer some really great stuff. But as it is I think I get them. Like, I see what their saying. Bogost is sometimes hard to understand, especially because I don’t like his writing, but I’m pretty sure I know what sort of critical method he’s setting up. Frasca is direct and interesting. I really like his work. Again, the problem is that neither of them are really concretely useful when applied to a specific game.)