Friday, July 18

Can metacognition improve game design?

Metacognition can loosely be defined as thinking about thought. It is often described with a continuum that has reflective thinking at one end and dynamic thinking at the other. Everyone falls somewhere on this continuum. Reflective thinkers tend to think things through. They might try something that fails and based on that experience spend a few moments thinking about it and try something else, rinse and repeat until success is achieved. Dynamic thinkers tend not to stop attempting an activity to think about it. Generally a dynamic thinker will try a bunch of different things (sometimes repeating already attempted things) before finding something that works. Dynamic thinkers don't stop doing to spend time thinking about their actions.

Meta-gaming is a term used in table top RPGs that describes when the player has their character do things that the character couldn't possibly see as appropriate given the context, but that fit with game tropes or rules. It is quite rightfully seen as a form of cheating, but it has uses in non-cheating ways so it's reputation as a negative is undeserved. I'll try to explore this more later, it's here to illustrate that it exists as a named and known phenomenon in table top gaming.

A meta-dialogue is a term I'm inventing (it may already exist elsewhere with either the same or a different meaning) for when an external stimulus causes one to think about something. An interactive media like games represent the best example of a meta-dialogue in action, tutorials and the like introduce a player to a set of expectations, games frequently then toy with those expectations as part of their challenge mechanic. Oh, I've just searched found something similar in Wikipedia called metafiction. Of particular interest is "A story that anticipates the reader's reaction to the story", but the other points are worthwhile also.

I will explore the idea of a meta-dialogue expressed in gaming through three games developed by a single game company, Bioware's Knight's of the Old Republic (KotoR), Jade Empire and Mass Effect. Produced by a single developer there is a consistency of vision that permeates each game, probably the culture of the company that has formed within the company itself. Also, each game engages a different level of meta-dialogue with the player, I'll start with the most recent game and work backwards chronologically.

Mass Effect has no meta-dialogue with the gamer. It is delivered 'straight-up' with a largely linear story and linear gameplay (yes one can choose the core missions in differing orders but one MUST play through them all rendering the order choice cosmetic). As the lastest game produced by Bioware it shows no insight into its own nature as a game, nor does it deviate from what are standard tropes in RPG story and game design - although it conforms more closely to ARPG (action role-playing game) than RPG in actual play, it is largely an RPG at its heart. It doesn't even have a sense of humour about its overblown and juvenile plot, and cookie cutter characters.

Jade Empire attempts to have a meta-dialogue with the player by establishing a supposed weakness apparent in the hero's fighting style through observations made by skilled NPCs. This fails, however, because it is not observable in actual play. While playing the character there is no way to get a sense of this weakness, not that I could find anyway, a fallible assertion. My 'buy-in' to this premise is undermined by the way the game plays, thereby undermining the effectiveness of the plot 'twist' presented later in the game. It is relatively easy to argue the opposite stance, that as the main character (who is blind to the weakness) the player should not be aware of it. My defense against this particular stance is based on reason, I wanted to test my character's fighting style, to explore it against skilled opponents and understand the claims made by the character's contemporaries. The game even encouraged this mode of thought through repetition and variety of claimant (if one falls on the more reflective end of the spectrum anyway) but it steadfastly refused to allow any form of exploration that could confirm or deny the claims.

Knights of the Old Replubic, the oldest or least recent of Bioware's games explored in this post exploits the expectations of the player to deliver what was recently rated in the top 10 OMG WTF moments in games by Screwattack here. If you haven't played the game then be warned because it's a spoiler. If the player returns to the game, replaying it from the beginning then it is possible to see that moment regularly foreshadowed by the dialogue and events depicted in cut-scenes. I missed it, however, and enjoyed the "shock" because the game took standard video game design tropes and subverted them (well some of them anyway). Go have a look at Videogame Tropes for a long list, I'd recommend reading things like Willing Suspension of Disbelief, Gameplay and Story Segregation, But Thou Must and Post Modernism for named relevant tropes. I thought I had read a trope that details that the hero is an amnesiac, but failed to find it for this piece, so I guess that's up to my readers (all two of them! Woo!). It is my belief that the subversion of the expectations of the player of the game through establishing gameplay actions that we, as gamers, permit for the needs of learning how to play the game and then hinging specific story actions on those gameplay elements helped make this game the memorable experience that many gamers claim.

What I'm positing is this. Games and those that play them explicitly establish a dialogue about many aspects of the game, such as gameplay, character and plot. Many games see this dialogue as nothing more than a means to deliver information to the player for successful completion of in-game tasks / functions / for successful 'play'. They treat the player as a dynamic receptacle for instructions and nothing more. A few games have gone further, and are made the more memorable for it, GTA IV does it through its social commentary, MGS4 does it through the inclusion of the 'real world' in the game world and through Breaking the Fourth Wall (kinda). Those games that are aware of their status as a game, and are aware that someone is playing seem to be those games that garner the greatest attention in discussions, in the collective unconscious of players, in the history of games.

It's a delicate balance, most certainly. But as gaming moves closer to achieving a cultural evolution it is an understanding of the relationship between the game and the gamer that will offer the greatest insight into what sorts of impacts a game can have.

Think back to your greatest play experiences, those OMG WTF moments, or those game-gasms you've had playing games and tell me about them. I don't have enough data to claim that my thoughts are little more than opinion, so I need your help.


BRK said...

My favourite OMG WTF moment was in FFVII, when Aeris was killed. What, a party member died? And didn't get rezzed by the story?!!

Before that moment, RPG party members were static and immortal in my head. Another moment was in in Luna 2: Eternal Blue, where you find out that Luna allowed herself to grow old and die as a human rather than resuming her role as a goddess (which happened in the first game.)

I was wondering if an increased awareness of metafictional/ metagaming tropes in games will ruin the impact of such tropes in games. I know when I played Jade Empire, I was really expecting a cool twist, but it wasn't that great.

Sort of like how the early Simpsons was good because they mixed up metatextual jokes with usual ones, and now that's not as funny any more because you expect it. And when I see a Simpsons episode that doesn't have many metatextual jokes, I don't find it as funny and think about how it was better in earlier seasons.

nobody said...

And Phoenix Down didn't work either because Aeris was no longer a party member. Your sentence "Before that moment… [etc]" confirms that you were expecting more of the same, and that the game had done some work to establish that continuation of your expectation - before completely fucking with it, that is.

I can't offer a comment on Luna 2 because the context you've provided isn't meaningful and I haven't played the game. That's fine.

While I agree with your Simpson's analogy, I don't agree that they're synonymous. Games are interactive in ways that the more passive media are not, and it is this 'feature' that enables game creators to manipulate the player in ways that the more passive media cannot. This interactivity allows the potential for designers to direct a player's expectations and facilitate a continuation of effective delivery. I believe that when game developers understand this, we'll start to see the games as art debate gain credibility.

I'm curious though, you only list your favourite and another 'throw away' game-gasm. Have you had any others? Even ones that have been listed by others. Have you played Planescape: Torment? Based on Daedalist's comment here, this game would probably do it for you.