Wednesday, January 14

Procrastination: Immersionless Experiment

Play Procrastination.  It's short and easy and will take you maybe five minutes.  I'm going to assume you've played it.
There's a short essay called Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics written a handful of years ago.  The thesis of the paper is that game designers and players see the game from opposite directions.  Designers create mechanics, the interactions of those mechanics creates dynamics, and the interactions of those dynamics creates aesthetics.  As players, we primarily experience the aesthetics of the game, and the creation is primarily experienced through the mechanics. This is set up as an important issue because it means the communication between players and designers is flawed when this perspective is ignored.
I initially thought Procrastination got around this issue.  It seems so basic and simple, like all I'm witnessing are the mechanics.  But it's more complicated than that.  Procrastination is not just mechanics.  A math equation is mechanics, the result is a dynamic, and a word problem is the aesthetic.  In this way, Procrastination is a dynamic game.  The aesthetics don't  reveal themselves until game is over.  You can experience the interactions, you can see effects and hear the sounds, but what it amounts to is not really understood until the end, or maybe the second or third playthrough.
I'm not claiming that Procrastination is some brilliant creation, but it uses its minimalism to distance the player from the idea of the game as a story, and forces the player to understand it on a less refined level.  So often the mechanics of our games are shrouded in mystery.  When I attack a monster in a game like Castlevania: Circle of the Moon and a number pops up telling me the damage I did, I know there's some algorithm behind the scenes measuring my Strength score, that creature's defense, whether or not I have a magical buff equipped, etc., but I don't see that, and I'm not asked to look.
Procrastination doesn't explicitly ask me to look either.  But I can see.  I can see more deeply into the systems than in other games, because they're all represented on screen in some fashion.
I think it's important for games like Procrastination to exist, because they push into unfamiliar territory and show us a different perspective from which to view the experience.  That kind of perspective that would be helpful in a lot of present-day games, where so many aspects are taken at face value.
Hang on, it's about to get English-major-y.  I'll be as direct as possible.
There was a theatre guy named Bertolt Brecht who thought that sometimes the audience shouldn't get lost in the story of a play.  He thought the play should make them uncomfortable and ask really important political and philosophical questions of themselves.  To do this, he straight up had characters remind the audience they were watching a play.
Maybe Procrastination isn't that far down the rabbit hole, but it's headed in that direction, and it's an important place to go.  If you've played Spec Ops: The Line (spoiler warning), you know how the game reminds you that you are playing a game, that you are not a hero, that you are only attempting to  experience a fantasy you know nothing about.  That kind of direct accusation that so many critics lauded wouldn't be possible without these artistic forays into the weird.  I hope this space is more thoroughly explored, because I think some important experiences will be born of this style.

The next game I'll talk about is Order and Chaos Duels, a collectable card game for the iOS.

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