A Better Metaphor for Game Design

Metaphors are useful means of expressing ourselves, and when we struggle with new and unfamiliar concepts, their value is all the greater. What better way to get a grip on the unknown than to view it as a variation on what is already known?

Of course, the illuminating power of a metaphor cuts both ways; it holds us back even as it pushes us forward. A good metaphor casts a strong light into a dark room and allows us to see its contents, but the single shaft of light provided by the metaphor illuminates parts of the room while leaving other parts hidden in shadow. Because a powerful metaphor has brightness and clarity, we think that we know what is in the room, but in fact what is hidden from our beam could be more important than what is visible from the solitary vantage point provided by the metaphor. Thus, while an expressive metaphor might prove useful in the early exploration of new intellectual territory, we must be careful lest its weaknesses delude us.

The Cinematic Metaphor
Such is the case with our most commonly used metaphor: the cinematic metaphor. It attempts to describe the less knowable (game design) in terms of the more knowable (movie design). When I first began to examine the cinematic metaphor back in 1982, it seemed a useful means of exploring the unknown world of game design. But over the years the cinematic metaphor has grown more pervasive, so that now it underlies much of our thinking about game design. Its weaknesses have been addressed in these pages before. But the metaphor has such a firm grip on our minds that we cannot shake ourselves free of it.

Consider how we boast when we add some bit of Hollywood to our efforts. Broderbund has a real sound studio now, just like they have in Hollywood. Sierra is selling product placements in its games, just like they do in the movies. Electronic Arts has always been mad with Hollywoodophilia, and now boasts a producer widely known as "Hollywood Chris" (does he really wear a big gold chain around his neck?) We hire "real" animators (as opposed, perchance, to the "fake" ones who aren’t from Hollywood?) We hire "real" scriptwriters with Actual Hollywood Experience. We ooh and aah over the cinematic techniques used in
Wing Commander.

I note with sadness that our attachment to the cinematic metaphor has less to do with its intellectual robustness than with its emotional appeal. Hollywood is glamorous, rich, and successful; we are poor struggling nerds. If only we had some of that Hollywood stuff, maybe we could be like them. It really is pathetic, this displaced penis envy of ours.

What is pernicious about the cinematic metaphor is the way that it distracts our attention from interactivity, the central essence of what we offer to our audience. Movies have zero interactivity. All the cinematic wisdom in the world cannot advance the interactivity of our products one iota. Camera angles, animation techniques, pans, zooms, plot twists, and character development can, at best, improve the supporting elements of our interaction. At worst, they crowd the interactivity right out of the design.

I am not advocating the total abandonment of the cinematic metaphor. Instead, I am arguing for moderation, for putting the cinematic metaphor in its proper place as an occasionally useful means of expressing difficult concepts in game design, rather than the centrally defining metaphor of our industry.

An Alternative Metaphor
But I wouldn’t be carping about the cinematic metaphor if I didn’t have a better one to offer. I propose that we use the conversation as our metaphor for game design.

I can imagine the howls of outrage at so prosaic a suggestion. How can I suggest replacing a glamorous, ego-stroking metaphor with a dull, drab one? We all know that people pay good money to see a movie; who would ever pay money to have a conversation? What possible entertainment value can a conversation offer?

The answer, of course, is that a conversation has no entertainment value, but the reason why conversations have no entertainment value reveals a great deal. You see, a conversation is necessarily a two-person event. The world’s greatest conversationalist could not carry on more than one conversation at a time. Thus, a person gifted with great powers of conversation could never parlay that gift into a marketable entertainment experience, because such conversations could not be shared by more than one person at a time. A singer can sing to thousands at once; an actor can play for millions via television or cinema; a storyteller can share her beautiful stories with countless numbers through print. But the hard reality is that a conversationalist entertainer must always have an audience of one, and it’s pretty hard to make money with such a tiny audience. So conversation never developed as an entertainment form.

But now we have a technology that eliminates the restriction on the audience. Think of a computer game as a "conversation in a can". Through the medium of the computer, the author interacts with the audience, and that interaction is a direct, one-on-one experience. Yet, we can duplicate the floppies on which the potential conversation is stored, thereby allowing the great conversationalist to reach many people. Suddenly, conversation has become an economically viable form of entertainment!

The true value of this metaphor is that it focusses our attention on the interactive nature of our work. A conversation is one of the few interactive experiences that we already know about. We all have a thorough understanding of the requirements of a good conversation. We can apply that understanding to our computer games to improve them.

For example, have you ever tried to converse with a know-it-all who wouldn’t let you get a word in edgewise? Somebody so eager to show off his vast knowledge that he droned on and on endlessly? Those were not enjoyable conversations, were they? Can you imagine the computer game version of such a conversation? The game would go on and on, telling you about all its wonderful things, never letting you do very much. It would have lots of great animations to show off, oodles of music to awe you, but it wouldn’t let you do much more than move to the next glorious sequence. Do you know any games like that?

Or how about the conversation with a nincompoop? Have you ever tried to talk to somebody so dumb that they just couldn’t say anything interesting? Perhaps it was at the family reunion last July, some in-law you had to be nice to, but who drove you nuts with his inanities. You remember that conversation well -- it was excruciating, wasn’t it? So then you go home to a computer game that’s even dumber! It expects you to treat non-player characters as if they were robots out of a 1950s sci-fi movie: push the right button and they love you, push the wrong button and they try to kill you. Eliminate the evils of the world with a few well-timed laser blasts, and win the girl’s heart by chopping off some bad guy’s head. Right. Even your brother-in-law can’t be that stupid.

Or what about the conversation with the guy who just won’t listen to what you’re saying? You go round and round, and you just can’t get through to this guy what you want. How’s that for a satisfying experience? And how many computer games give you the same feeling, as you desperately try to get the damn thing to do what you want, but it just doesn’t seem to hear what you’re trying to tell it? Not much fun, is it?

There are three simple rules to holding up your end of a conversation: listen, think, and speak. Listen to what your interlocutor is saying. Then think about what he said. Then speak your thoughts to him. The same basic rules apply to computer game design. Listen to the user, let him say interesting things to you. Then think about what he said. Then respond with some graphics or sound that constitute a genuine reaction to the user’s input.

I could go on with other examples of the utility of this metaphor, but I’ll leave it here. I’m sure that you can come up with other applications of the metaphor. The important thing to note is that this metaphor gives us a very different view on the problems of game design, a view that I think is superior to the one offered by the cinematic metaphor.