The Invisible Hand of the Designer(s)

22 Dec

I recently came across an essay Steve Gaynor penned on his blog concerning what he calls invisibility.  The idea being, generally, that the more a player is able to become aware of and ‘game’ the mechanics, the more the player is interacting with the intentions of the designer.

“In a strange way then, the designer of a video game is himself present as an entity within the work: as the ‘computer’– the sum of the mechanics with which the player interacts. The designer is in the value of the shop items you barter for, the speed and cunning your rival racers exhibit, the accuracy of your opponent’s guns and the resiliency with which they shrug off your shots, the order of operations with which you must complete a puzzle. The designer determines whether you win or lose, as well as how you play the game. In a sense, the designer resides within the inner workings of all the game’s moving parts.”

The opposite of having such transparency would be the suggested invisibility — the less esoteric a game’s mechanics become and the more relatable to real life they become, the less interfacing there is between the hand of the designer and that of the player.  Gaynor makes it a point to note that even user interfaces intrinsically support transparent game design (although it can be argued that in the following example it’s not the fault of the user interface, but rather the mechanics it represents, so too can it be argued that a game with more invisible mechanics would have no need for an interface whatsoever).

The player then is less concerned with their character being ‘hurt’ or ‘in pain’ as with their being ‘damaged,’ like a car or a toy. The rules become transparent: when I lose all my hitpoints I die; when I use a health kit I recover a certain percentage of my hitpoints; I am a box of numbers, as opposed to a real person in a real place.

And all of this only leads me to think: isn’t it amazing how non-critical most games are when it comes to overall game design?  Far Cry 2 attempts to depict a realistic African romp with its beautiful visuals, first person map and real-time travel, yet it is utterly transparent in the implementation of superhuman enemies, diamond tracking mini-games, two dimensional characters and missions, and purchasing (relatively cheap) weapons over the internet with blood diamonds.  Parts of its own overall design actively work against one another, and it makes for a confusing adventure — it’s an incomplete reality, half adhering to the rules of the natural world and half forcing a designer’s rule construction down the player’s throat.

All of this is not to say that invisibility and transparency mean good or bad, or that Far Cry 2 is anything more than a convenient example.  It’s good that, in games like Bionic Commando Rearmed, the player is forced to struggle against enemy patterns, exact mechanics and controls, and health bars — in fact it defines that sort of game experience.  It’s also good that games like Call of Duty 4 have regenerating health, try to hide the HUD when it isn’t needed, and try to funnel the player naturally down an otherwise constricting linear path.  It’s also hard to say that combining the two methods of design is a bad thing, because it can be done intelligently.  For example, Gears of War’s cover system seems like a natural way to move about during combat and with its one button/directional control system, it doesn’t require much attention — it falls closer to the invisibility camp.  But it’s ‘golf swing’ reload system is a transparent mini-game, albeit (besides the revealing UI bar) it otherwise stays invisible with its affirmative reload animation and negative weapon jamming animation.

But understanding the concepts of invisibility and transparency can do nothing but inform design decisions and the overall design intentions of a game.  Gears of War has elements that are so muffled and mixed, everything seems congruous and tight.  Far Cry 2 has divisive elements that slant so far in either direction they become counter intuitive to one another.

Agreeing on a direction from the beginning and adhering to the chosen side of invisibility or transparency as a game changes and evolves over time, and examining if something from the opposite side is appropriate here and there, should help prevent designing mechanics that mysteriously detract from the game.  If you’re surprised that all the reviewers are ragging on the bar health system in your realistic shooter, then you haven’t been looking at the big picture.  It might have made sense because it makes the game harder, or because it allows for health pickups which beef up the minute to minute gameplay, but it’s an injection of transparent arcade spirit that doesn’t necessarily jive with the realistic shooter motif the rest of the game adheres to.

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One Response to “The Invisible Hand of the Designer(s)”

  1. Mrop December 22, 2008 at 5:42 pm #

    I can’t say I feel that Far Cry 2’s designer is less invisible than for example Half-Life 2 or any other linear shooter. Many puzzles in Half-Life 2 can be solved by remembering the fact that Valve were very proud of their physics engine and wanted to use it all the time. This kind of designer visibility interestingly has nothing to do with interface.

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