Sunday, June 27, 2010

Brainstorming: thesis topics

I've taken the time to think on potential topics I can cover, and mostly it came down to a fistful of subjects that I've continually criticized throughout my study of game design and observation of the digital gaming industry and its recent trends. In general I think there's lots of room for improvement on all fronts--more realistic development expectations, better, more natural scriptwriting, et cetera--but these three things are probably the most thought-out and tangible and probably the most reasonable projects for theses, and definitely the ones I've been most able to connect to concepts outside of gaming. What follows is a brief overview of those topics and my rationale and possible plans for each of them.
  1. Player Choice and Branching Narrative
    There's been a big push lately for non-linearity in games in one fashion or another, either in the form of open-world or "sandbox" games or else in the form of branching narratives that give players limited degrees of choice based on some kind of decision-making rationale. As I see it, though, these decision tree systems have been defined by a short list of pioneering titles, severely limited in the subject matter they explore--usual by some kind of morality-based system. Literally, when I see game developers talk about putting "choice" in their narrative, they almost always say "moral choice," as if that's the only rationale for making choice that exists.

    That seems like an awfully generalized blanket statement, but when you think about recent releases you start to see this is pretty much the case. Mass Effect, inFamous, Bioshock, Fable, and most other games that tout choice as a way of paving the way through the narrative focus on some kind of morality system, which I think is a real waste, first because I don't think that's how people really make choices, and second because morality is incredibly restricting, instantly dominating all the themes of whatever story it becomes a part of.

    What I see here is a need to identify other rationales and techniques for developing decision-making paradigms in games. What do people really think about when they make a major choice? Threat assessment? Resource management? Long-term versus short-term benefit? More to the point, what kind of decision-making paradigm would be something that the storytellers could use as a tool as opposed to something that forces the storytellers to work around it? How could we use decisions to create more engaging games as opposed to simply creating the illusion of control? These are the questions that this thesis would seek to answer.

    The research: Psychological texts on judgment and decision-making and general cognitive psychology.

    The project: Most likely a game of some sort showcasing the new decision-making paradigm. Engines I could work with: The Oblivion toolset, the Neverwinter Nights toolset, RPGMaker, Adventure Game Studio. All very limited, very dated pieces of technology that aren't liable to impress prospective employers, but at the very least they could get the point across...

  2. Alternative Storytelling Genres and Game Mechanics
    The game industry has come under a lot of criticism for applying itself to a very narrow set of storytelling genres, usually falling under the header of one action-adventure formula or another. Gameplay genres are well-defined (perhaps too well-defined) and very broad, of course, but it's nearly always fighting and action that's being explored, and less often do we see comedies, mysteries, or dramas. Companies like Tale of Tales and Quantic Dream explore the possibilities outside this genre, and certainly we've seen an abundance of interactive adventures, dramas, and mysteries like Phantasmagoria and Ripper, but in a way all these designers are almost flat-out ashamed to be making games. They openly state that game mechanics in the traditional sense would be more of a distraction than something that could drive or enrich the experiences they try to create. They make "interactive films" or "interactive paintings," colored by their envy of other mediums' perceived sense of legitimacy and establishment.

    But we've seen games explore alternative genres. We've seen bona fide games explore comedy, mystery, and drama before. Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game is a political drama; Clue and Scotland Yard are mysteries; Kill Doctor Lucky and Munchkin are both comedies; and all of these games, while their presentation does a lot to create their individual senses of flavor, achieve all this entirely through mechanics. That, if nothing else, is solid proof that we can develop games in alternate genres--we already have, just not in the semi-cinematic, explicit storytelling-driven form we've come to associate with digital games, but rather in the procedural, emergent form of board games. All we really need to do is find a way to bridge the gap, then do it.

    The research: Story/narrative structure and narrative genre formulas, as well as a long ludography of board games.

    The project: Likely a board game, followed by a digital adaptation of the board game's mechanics plus a more explicit story structure. This... could be a pretty hairy, really ambitious project, for as much as it could prove.

  3. The Rhetoric of Game and Level Design
    This is far and away the least most tangible of the three theses I'm considering, but it's also the one that's the most dear to my heart and the dream that made me want to study game development in college in the first place.

    In examining other mediums--poetry, literature, film, photography--we can always identify some kind of rhetoric. Poetry has rhetorical devices like synecdoche, anaphora, and alliteration; filmmaking has a number of camera and editing techniques; whatever the case they have some subtle means of using the medium's own substance, be it words on a page or composition of an image, to subtly make its audience resonate with whatever message is trying to be communicated or whatever story is trying to be told.

    But what about digital games?

    Games certainly have a lot of things that can be manipulated in terms of mechanics, interface design, and level design; but there's no consistent rhetoric or terminology that developers--and maybe more importantly, students--can reference. Certainly I can think of games that do employ their medium meaningfully; Half-Life 2 is nothing if not a masterful manipulation of the player's perception of the story through level design, and I've frequently expressed an admiration for designer Hideki Kamiya (of Okami, Viewtiful Joe, and Devil May Cry fame) and his ability to create games whose very mechanics instantly evoke the unique character and visual style of his works. More often, though, developers tend more towards arbitrary decisions and challenges for challenge's sake instead, the technical element of trying to make even a passable game being more than enough to occupy their time.

    The goal of this thesis would be to get a start at developing some rhetorical terminology for game and level design; some kind of taxonomy which we could use to be more purposeful in the way we build our games. I'd try to research existing rhetorical or literary devices and find the game or level design equivalents, then illustrate them through my project. The trouble here: how can I prove a project like that? How can it come off as being more than just "look! I made a level!"?
We'll see what my classmates and my professor have to say about these. Hopefully I'll get some suggestions that'll help me hone in on one of these topics and make it something doable.

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