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GDC 09: Beyond Single Player

7:00 PM on 03.24.2009 // Anthony Burch

Jason Rohrer has possibly been one of the most interesting forces in creating artistically legitimate videogames; any opportunity to listen to the dude will probably not result in time wasted.

Rohrer's IGS lecture, "Beyond Single Player: Hunting for an Artistic Niche," focused on the idea that videogames in general may be wasting time and effort by focusing so predominately on single player experiences when the realm of multiplayer interaction might potentially bear greater fruit.


No answers were promised by Rohrer, only questions. In this sense, he more than delievered. Hit the jump for a summary of the talk.

The starting point for Jason's lecture is the acknowledgement that games have a cultural legitimacy problem, that games exist in a cultural ghetto. Above the cultural line in the sand, you have theatre and novels and film and rock and roll, but below the line you have mainstream videogames like Zelda or MGS2. As fun as the games are, they're not Lolita. How can you get across that line into the “snooty club,” as Jason called it to scattered audience chuckling?

Games are a lot like film in many ways. How does film do it? Graphically, we keep seeing graphics get better and better and games keep attempting to reach filmlike levels of quality through those graphics, moving toward this constant ideal of totally realistic interactive experiences that are basically movies, but better, because they've got interactivity. In reality, however, this leads to stuff like MGS4 with more noninteractive material than interactive material. Games that drop these cut scenes like BioShock are better for it, but even then you're still stuck with the idea of a linear, authored narrative stringing along pockets of interactivity. Movies and novels find a way to be expressive in their own unique ways, where games are still aping other art forms even when they get rid of cut scenes. This is hurting games' attempt at solving the legitimacy problem – if games eventually make it all the way and feel just like movies, then what? We already have movies.

Artgames attempt to use game mechanics to speak to the human condition rather than narrative (a slide represents Braid, The Marriage, etc). These games are really interesting, but they still don't spring across the cultural line in the sand. But there's still one guy in the world who has done more to advance the games legitimacy question than anyone else.

And that's Roger Ebert. He's the perfect straw man, who you can attempt to disprove through game design. A lot of people argue against Ebert by suggesting that he just doesn't know what he's talking about, but what game would those people really show Ebert to prove the medium's merit? Would you really think that Ocarina of Time would convince him?

What about Go, the 4000 year old board game? You can come back to it over and over throughout life and consistently find new and interesting things in it. In order for the gameplay to be legitimately artistic, the gameplay itself needs to be inexhaustibly deep and infinitely replayable in the way that Go is. That seems like the holy grail of design, but it's so difficult to achieve that most don't even attempt it (even stuff like Braid or Rohrer's Passage lend themselves to multiple reinterpretations, but the gameplay itself isn't deep enough to lend itself to infinite replay).

However, infinite replayability is a remarkably common denominator for classic board games. What do these games have that videogames don't have? “The only ingredient I could come up with is that all these games have multiple players,” Rohrer answers. A game, by many definitions, requires many players. Before videogames and computers, there are very, very, very few examples of singleplayer games apart from rare examples like Solitaire, which is really just “a puzzle with randomized initial conditions.” If that randomization isn't present, as is the case in many old arcade games, designers attempted to fill that void with depth through reflex challenges which, for the average person, have “essentially infinite” challenge offerings. These three goals for making infinitely interesting singleplayer games – multi-step puzzles, randomization, and reflex challenge – culminate in Tetris.

Yet, there's something artistically unsatisfying about something like Tetris or other randomization-based challenges.

German board games have a crapload of interlocking mechanics, however, and that makes them interesting, so what if you do that in singleplayer games like Rohrer's Gravitation? According to Rohrer, it “doesn't really work” because players tend to ignore the emergent meaning you think they should get from the mechanics because the game suggests they focus mainly on getting more points or completing goals or what have you.

“Multiplayer is a fertile soil,” Rohrer says, where the seeds of mechanics can be planted and bloom into infinitely different and infinitely rewarding gameplay variated by player-versus-player interaction. A singleplayer version of Go would be boring and stunted.

Even current games with popular multiplayer like Halo are just reflex challenges built off existing reflex-based singleplayer experiences. These conflicts lead to some interesting questions.

“Are we sort of painting ourselves into the singleplayer corner without realizing it?” Are we avoiding the possibilities of multiplayer by doing so?

Are we missing out on what's actually unique about our medium?...We're the only medium that can potentially require multiple participants” in order for the game to function on a basic level.

On the flip side, though, what if this deep gameplay runs contrary to artistic expression that's supposed to get games out of the legitimacy ghetto? What if there are emergent mechanics in a multiplayer game that run totally counter to the designer's intentions and hurt its artistic reasoning?

“Okay,” Rohrer concluded with. “That's...that's the talk." To say the time passed quickly would be an understatement.

With only time for two audience questions, a few audience members audibly groaned at the first attendee's request for a link to Ebert's articles about games as art. Thankfully, Rohrer steered the dead-end question into a quick acknowledgement that Ebert has a “pretty strong point” about games potentially not being art because of the necessity of authorial control. “Everyone dismisses Ebert as an old crusty Luddite,” Rohrer says, but we need to actually address his complaints.

Someone brought up Civilization as a solution to the Ebert challenge and Rohrer agreed in theory (also pointing out its essential multiplayer-esque structure based around competing with AIs), but sheepishly admitted he'd never actually played it.

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