Thursday, October 11, 2012

Game Segmenting

Analogies and resemblances cannot be pursued too far - they lose conviction and charm. They begin to take on the air of machination or card-tricks.
-Sergei Eisenstein
In my Screen Theory class this semester I'm required to dissect a film over the course of a few months. The chosen film is Harakiri (1962). My first step was to segment the film into its different parts (a "segment" of film is a unit of plot). Each segment can be further dissected by plot, mise-en-scene, editing, cinematography, and sound. The analysis and comparison of segments in film can point to its mechanisms for creating meaning.

It makes me wonder if we can dissect games in a similar, comprehensive way. In movies, "plot" is thought of as everything that happens on screen, while "story" is everything that happens in the universe of the movie. The distinction is important, and also useful in games. Narrative games have story universes, but the plot of the game is everything the player does and has happen to them.

While film segments are units of plot ("Tsugomu meets with a member of the Iyi clan"), how can game segments be defined? Games already segment themselves into levels, so that may seem like an obvious choice. But when you think about how designers create maps for games, especially narrative ones, it makes more sense to segment games into rooms. Well: rooms, hallways, stretches of road between tunnels, tunnels themselves, any space that is separated from other spaces, usually by doors. Sometimes there are rooms within rooms. A room is a designed segment of gameplay, where mechanics are arranged so that certain outcomes may occur.

For example, when Samus steps into a room in Norfair, not only is she bringing all the mechanics she has with her, she's also interacting with all the mechanics present in the room. The designer anticipates what abilities Samus may have, and creates a scenario in which those abilities will be engaged in a certain way. Samus can jump high. Some platforms can break when you jump on them. When Samus jumps on a platform and it breaks, she'll need to use her high jump to escape the lava.

The elements in a room are comparable to mise-en-scene in movies. Mise-en-scene refers to everything in front of the camera in a shot: objects, actors, sets, the color, lighting, and configuration of each. Games also have these elements. One of the key difference between games and film in this area is that film decides how long to show you a scene, and from what angle, while games let you explore an area on your own terms. Not to say that rooms in games aren't, or cant be, similarly restricted. Plenty of games restrict you from seeing everything in a room without attaining certain powers or progress elsewhere.

To go back to the example of Samus jumping on and breaking the platform: this is a perfect example of a dynamic, or an interaction between mechanics. The two mechanics in this example are 1. Samus's ability to jump and 2. the platform's obligation to crumble. The dynamic created causes Samus to fall into the lava. Here there is another dynamic: Samus's aversion to lava, and her ability to jump. She will jump to avoid the lava, or die because of it. These dynamics evoke meaning and ideally an emotional reaction in the mind of the player: "oh no I'm falling" and "oh no I need to get out of this lava."

This process of meaning created through interacting mechanics is similar to Sergei Eisentein's theory of montage in film. His theory posited that the dynamic between two shots created a new meaning, independent of either one, in the mind of the viewer. In a famous and blatant example from the movie Strike (1925), striking factory workers are shot by the military while the film inter-cuts footage of cows being slaughtered. The meaning in this scene is clear and effective.

I don't think it's too much of a stretch to compare Eisenstein's montage to Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics (MDA). I've been taught that shots are a basic unit of a film. Perhaps mechanics, or rules, are the basic units of a game. This comparison, however, may not hold up well today, as editing in most mainstream movies is meant to be invisible (and certainly not as on-the-nose as in Strike). I do think it is useful to separate game design (creation of rules and dynamics) from level design, as one would shots and editing. I'm not too sure about comparing rules and shots, but level design and editing specifically are the language of how the player/viewer experiences the world.

Of course, in both media the entertainee is shown only what the camera sees. Cinematography in film has its roots in photography, a separate art form. But in film the camera not only frames, but it pans, zooms, and sometimes rides on tracks. Games also have cameras. The camera in a game is the player's window into the world, and takes different perspectives for different experiences. First person games position the camera as the eyes of the player character, so that the player can easily fit into the role of a person in the game world, seeing everything a person would see. Third person games pull back to show the player character itself, and all the actions they take. A game like Resident Evil (2002) uses fixed camera angles to attempt to convey a more cinematic experience.

It could be said that the camera in games is more functional than artistic. Giving the player camera control, however, gives them the opportunity to frame their own shots, which gives them intrinsic meaning. Level design also controls a lot of what the player sees, and from what angle. In cinematography a high angle shot looks upwards at a subject, giving it power. In a game, the same effect can be achieved by forcing the player to be grounded in front of a towering object (or being). Such "forcing" is often the result of lack of movement choices for the player. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011), Dear Esther (2012) and Dishonored (2012) all utilize level design to "frame" environments and subjects, with often stunning results.

A worthwhile comparison to film would be lacking without mention of sound. While level design sets much of the mood in a game, sound takes it the rest of the way. As in film, sound gives a game a sense of space and life. Sounds from off-screen signal something nearby. Bangs and booms give gunshots their heft. Music in games is also often dynamic, changing to fit the mood of the action as music fits the action in movies.

It occurs to me that there should be a "why" posed to this dissection. Though if you've read this far, I assume you have your own "why." Why is segmenting a game like this useful? Why go through the trouble?

Critical theory is my primary motivation here. Criticism of video games is in its infancy, especially compared to film. A big reason I took this screen theory class is so I could learn critical approaches to art. I think as you can loosely segment a film into plot points and then dissect those segments into plot, mise-en-scene, editing, cinematography, and sound, you can do similarly for games. Games (or really, a lot of narrative games) can be segmented into rooms with mechanics, mise-en-scene, level design (mechanical), camera, and sound. Just as "segments" in film are wishy-washy on boundaries, so are "rooms" in games. Being able to segment a game like this is an exercise in seeing its multidimensionality, and invites close analysis of all the game's elements and their dynamics.

I will do a game segmenting soon to see how it works. I'll post it here. I also just remembered that I completely forgot about UI, so I have failed in my quest to be comprehensive. I'll figure it out.