Mechanics as Metaphors: an Analytical Interpretation of Game Design as an Art Form

So for the past few posts I’ve talked about how Cliffhorse presents itself in a way that lets players control the game for their own pleasure. It uses the core game as a landscape for other players to build upon. The narrative is oriented towards the player’s control but the core metaphors such as the use of the horse and the cliffs represent something more concrete. I also mentioned in my Undertale analysis how its many mechanics work to say something different about every character, idea,  and player decision. Undertale also uses its multiple endings and character interaction to allow the player to partially craft a unique story. This got me thinking. So few games today use their own mechanics as metaphors. Even fewer games today are able to impact me on a personal level. Sure, some have really fun gameplay and others have fantastic stories, but I have a hard time recalling games that allowed me to discover myself. Why is that? What does it take for a game to examine its player base and why is it so rare for games to do this? First, let’s look into some games that do implement mechanical metaphors. What first comes to mind when you think of these things? Other than some of the games I’ve talked about before, when I think about metaphors within game mechanics games I think of games like Bloodborne or Portal so these are a few games I’ll be analyzing for the sake of this post.

To begin, let’s look at what Bloodborne does to its players. Bloodborne is able to deconstruct the player’s actions by displaying how ruthless and murderous he is all though the game’s notoriously difficult storyline. There is little hand holding in the difficult Bloodborne and other than the initial enemy confrontation that teaches the player how to use the basic controls, the game gives little direction. Players are thrown into a dangerous world and expected to survive and progress. But they aren’t told HOW and furthermore the HOW of all this doesn’t even have a definitive answer . There are so many different mechanics that players can take advantage of in order to progress through this gruesome world, and they’ll need to learn a number of these if they are expected to finish this game. Players can choose to implement stealth and sneak around enemies and swim around boss attacks to punish them with a deadly back stab. Other players may choose to demonstrate how powerlessly ruthless they are. Stun-locking enemies is a technique that prevents enemies from moving and counter attacking by hitting them so hard they don’t have time to move. The many different ways Bloodborne allows its players to fight enemies gives room for the game to examine a lot about that individual’s personality, perhaps even more then they might have looked into it. But the metaphors don’t stop there. Not only does Bloodborne examine the player’s personality, it begins to actively shape it. One mechanic that Bloodborne implements is the health regain system. When a player is hit and loses health there is a limited amount of time in which they can regain this lost health if they choose to and successfully counter attack the enemy. This causes the players to be less conservative and increasingly ruthless, they have to be in order to succeed in this difficult game.  Furthermore, even when an enemy is defeated it is often that players will continue to attack the enemy. Not because they are malicious but because Bloodborne rewards players who choose to do this with a small amount of health regain. Here you can see how Bloodborne uses its difficulty in addition to some small mechanical choices to say a lot about its players and the world it has created. Now, let’s look at how Portal does some similar things.

Portal is sort of a cult hit. Developed by valve this platformer uses its portal mechanic to orient and direct the player through a number of complex and challenging puzzles as well as challenging the player to learn and utilize these original techniques. Gamers everywhere were pleased to discover a completely new mechanic but they were also excited to see just how much this new portal mechanic meant to the game. Portal doesn’t just use its mechanics to enable its users, it uses them to define its users. The game allows its players to learn how to use the portals and also forces its players to learn about its physics, physics that are realistic. And this leads into something even more interesting. If you ask me what I think portal symbolizes I would tell you that it is in fact commentary on the science fiction genre. Each of this game’s features can be interpreted as a core concept used in defining the science fiction genre. All of the games physics are consistently defined and a player can use what they learn throughout the game so far to figure out how to solve the next puzzle they encounter. It constructs a believable, scientifically backed world yet it explores something we don’t really understand: portals. Furthermore, it pokes fun at science narrative as it constructs the sarcasm of the main antagonist GLaDOS, an A.I. This is clearly a reference to the villain in 2001: a Space Odyssey HAL 9000. Yet portal demonstrates a satirical and humorous take on science fiction. And again the use of mechanical metaphors directly influences how Portal is able to achieve these things.

The reason I bring these two games up in particular is because they are both debated greatly amongst gamers but they are also completely different games. One is an open world and the other is level based. Bloodborne is a 3rd person hack ‘n’ slash RPG and Portal is a puzzle platformer. Despite the huge differences these games have, they both excel in presenting a piece of media that has metaphors and multiple interpretations that can be analyzed. And what I think is the main reason these games succeed in implementing these metaphors over other games is the lack of hand-holding and personal freedom it gives the player. Hand-holding in particular is the main cause I think so many high budget games lose a lot of their intended ideas. Games like Call of Duty don’t use the shooting mechanics to give the players freedom or say something about violence or war, they use these mechanics because they are fun and gamers like to play fps games. Games without internal examination simply force players to use their system without letting them figure it out for themselves or giving them freedom to play around with the mechanics. Players are simply following a formula never thinking twice what it means to throw a grenade or fire a weapon. Games like this lack a player trust system. If you don’t believe that your players will figure out what playing your game means and you tell them either explicitly or even covertly HOW to beat your game, you’re doing it wrong. If you want your game to be a statement of something larger, if you want players to spend hours thinking about what your game means to them, you need to allow your players the freedom of interpretation. But don’t misinterpret that last sentence. Giving players the freedom to interpret a game does not mean simply making it open world or anything like that. In fact, a lot of open world games suffer from this issue. So then let’s look at a few older games; games that came out before open world was even a thing.

Let’s further look into some older games, but not just old games, primitive games. Let’s look at games where there was only a single core mechanic and nothing but that. If you look at the original Pac-Man you might ask how such a simple idea can demonstrate metaphors. But the truth is that it demonstrates ideas so easily because of its simplicity. There are many different interpretation of this game. Although an analysis of this game could take up a number of articles I will just give you my quick interpretation of the game. The changing mazes throughout each level represent the complex and confusing world each of us live in. The dots represent all of the goals and achievements in life that we have to achieve to feel satisfied and intentionally they are scattered all throughout the world. The ghosts conversely represent other challenging figures in life. These people could be what impedes someone through his life or a figure that is stomped on to achieve victory. Now these are just my thoughts on the game but if you just look through other message boards on the analysis of retro games you’ll find a number of other ideas. Another lesser known title is M.U.L.E. This is ,in my opinion, a landmark in multiplayer video games. If you don’t know M.U.L.E. is a seminal multiplayer title that came out in 1983 and incorporates strategy and economics through competition. There are many different interpretations of this game but most people will agree it at least commentates on the construction of economics in multiple governmental systems. Now these theories and ideas of these games might seem vague but the point is that people can, and do talk about them. It doesn’t matter how concrete or abstract the metaphors are. The point is that a game can communicate something with players that they can each interpret differently. And this is exactly what I’m trying to get at. If you ask me what the overlying reason so few games are able to capture complex themes, it’s because the struggle to convey a consistent and simple message.

When you look at Portal, Bloodborne or the older games we talked about, you’ll see how little the mechanics of the game is spelled out. Players need to figure out how the world around them works and then they need to deice how they are going to use the games features. The sense of player trust is extremely important in implementing these metaphors. Games need to passively allow the player to learn about their new situation and then decide what they are going to do. Players don’t want to be told how to beat a game, they want to discover it for themselves and this discovery is part of a games metaphor. One of the most exciting parts of Portal is figuring out for the first time how to solve some of those really tricky puzzles. And again this choice ultimately leads players into what the game is trying to say. And this leads me to another topic about metaphoric game mechanics that sort of scares me. I think one of the biggest reasons so many games can’t demonstrate an interpretive freedom is because they overwhelm their players with so many mechanics. When games try to implement an increasing number of mechanics because they think players will enjoy them, they have good intentions towards their consumers but they are taking away from a game’s overall message. If you look at the games we analyzed, Bloodborne and Portal, you’ll see how few core mechanics are implemented, hack ‘n’ slash and platforming physics. The smaller mechanics are less specific. Bloodborne uses its health regain system to make a statement bout savagery. Portal uses its realistic physics to deconstruct realism. But each of these smaller mechanics points to the core of the gameplay. And if you look at smaller art games like Journey which have very few mechanics and can be finished quite quickly, you’ll see people debating over the meaning behind Journey’s exploration mechanics in the core of the game. You see how even when a game is complex, or if it’s not, if it is trying to provide a piece of media that can be deconstructed and analyzed by its consumer, it points to a central idea and focuses on this. GTA is a very fun game but with its most resent title it loses so much of its metaphors. There are dozens of core mechanics that have uses in GTAV: driving, flying, shooting, and communicating. This is fine to do if these mechanics point to a core mechanic/idea but the many mechanics in GTA do little more than provide entertainment to the player. However, games were always intended to provide entertainment from the very beginning but in the current era I believe video games are constructed in a different way. And the core construction is where I think this communication in metaphors needs to exist. If you ask me what a game needs to do to most easily communicate ideas through its metaphors, I would tell you that the game needs to have a very basic underlying mechanic and that it stick to those rules. Now I don’t think that it is any more difficult right now to construct a metaphoric game then it was say 20 or even 30 years ago. I don’t even think it’s more common. I just believe that the most popular and most expensive games being released over the past 10 years have been lacking and the issue I see most is that they are trying to do way too many things. This doesn’t make it un-fun, it just means that players won’t have much to interpret. But I believe that if more people will begin to dissect more and look into what they are playing and what it actually means, designers will start to put much more heart into what they are making.

Now after I’ve said all this I don’t want to give off the wrong message. I don’t think that games need to display mechanical metaphors in order for them to be good. I don’t even think this is the only type of metaphor that a game should utilize. However, in the past few years, I’ve seen games begin to go down a road I’m not too excited about. The recent stigma behind gaming and the evolution of game expectations as a form of media are changing. Games are beginning to utilize such highly built consoles and PCs that they can do about anything. But what a lot of game designers choose to do is copy the old. In doing this they forget what that original idea or mechanic represented. This analysis is to conclude that video games aren’t just a form of media, they are an art form. Video games are one of the few types of media that can examine the actions of a player and simultaneously commentate on those decisions. Can you think of another type of product that’s able to do this? This is one of the reasons I think games are so important to our culture. They say so much about ourselves and if we continue to just accept that a normal game is just something fun with no substance we’re depriving ourselves of something deeply important. What I want to see in new releases is something I haven’t experienced anywhere else. I want to see games utilize their platform in a unique way and if we continue to see games like Bioshock, Dark Souls, and Undertale then I have high hopes for games in the future.

Thank you very much for reading

Written by James Murphy

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