games as conversational spaces ∙ A MAZE./ Johannesburg ⋆16

this talk was originally given at A MAZE./ Johannesburg on sept. 3 2016

So this is a quite untidy talk about games as conversational spaces—or more precisely, how to create space for conversation in games.
In the context of this talk, a conversation is defined as a meaningful interaction between two entities, both of them changing each other's perspective. It is a transformative interaction.

For a quick intro: my name is Pol Clarissou and i make shortform experimental gamelike things.

I am part of French games/art collective Klondike which you should check out.

There are two games of mine i'll talk about a bunch during this talk. First is Even the Stars (2014). It is an existential space sim in which you travel through space on a tiny ship, warping between planets without goal or purpose. On each planet, you can choose to stop at locations and enter logs for whatever thing crosses your mind. You age throughout the game, and eventually die of old age, and get to see all of your logs in a map of your visited locations—a summary of your whole life as an astronaut.

The second game is Orchids to Dusk (2015)—another game about dying in space, actually. In Orchids to Dusk you play an astronaut who just crash-landed on a planet and only has a few minutes of oxygen to live. The game is very spoilable and i'll reveal a little of it in this talk, while not giving up the main twist entirely. But the idea is that the game is about accepting one's own death.
My process is usually to make games following my intuition, and later look back at them and analyze them to see the intents and motivations i had (without being able to put words on them at the time). A huge part of this talk comes directly from this process of reflection on those two games.

A conversation is a two way interaction—in contrast to monologues, which are one way assessments.
We can consider a piece of media and the person who experiences it as two members of a potential conversation. It is easy for pieces of media to be assertive monologues (to deliver a message without expecting a response); and one would think that games are inherently better at creating conversations than traditional media because they are inherently (to a degree) interactive.
My experience, however, has often been the opposite.

Games, in their interactivity, can put the player on tracks and mechanically pull them through a predesigned experience.
Films or books, however, are typically better at opening space for a conversation because you are not part of the piece, and therefore you need to reflect on this separation between you and the piece, bringing your own perspective into the experience.
Examples of movies that push this quite far are Melancholia, Ghost in the Shell or Drive—very different thematics-wise, but all three movies say very little about the morale or logic behind the story, and all emphasize stillness, which invites you to reflect and pull a personal meaning out of this. These examples are very personal of course.

[it's very frustrating how hard it is to google screenshots from Drive that communicate the mood of the movie and are not just Ryan Ghosling being hot on camera—which he is, but that's not my point]

This emphasis on stillness is the first thing that i think is important to bring back in games. It is often considered bad design practice to leave waiting room in games, to not always have a goal for the player to focus on, but i want to challenge that assumption.

Idleness, emptiness and lack of direction, if part of the experience, give the player some breathing room to pause and think about what the game really is about. By also not being too assertive, such games create a substratum for players to project their own perspective and navigate personal issues, instead of trying to enounce general truths that are often irrelevant or trivial. It allows players to pause and wonder what this means to them, personally.
Mirror Moon EP is an example of a game that leaves that kind of space for players (it is also retrospectively one of the biggest influences behind Even the Stars). The game mainly consists in going from planet to planet to solve abstract puzzles on their surfaces; but travelling between each planet takes real-life time, depending how long you are traveling and how much fuel you have. So you end up spending quite some time idly looking at the stars through your minimalistic cockpit and.. pondering.

One thing i tried to do in Even the Stars was to have an explicit gesture within the game to invite players to reflect and bring their own experience in the mix. Whenever you stop on a planet, you get to write a travel log: this is a way for the game to make it explicit that this is a moment for the player to fill the white space, and avoids the risk of incomprehension and frustration that pure empty space can create—as the game explicitly aknowledges this moment.
It's good to think about how to encourage the player here, and creative tools to fill the blanks can be a solution (which is not to say that it is always a thing to do—friction and frustration can be powerful and relevant in their own way).

A question adjacent to this aimlessness idea is the question of agency. Again, games tend to give a lot of agency to players (see: the golden promise of open world games where anything you see can be reached—which, btw, is not how even the real world works at all).
However if you have less agency, you will think more about your place in the story, and less about how to dominate it.
Lack of agency shifts the focus from events to perspective: you do not control the things that happen but you can reflect on them and what they mean to you. Besides, it avoids ending up with a very trivial emotional experience (because if you control the outcome of everything, what contradictions are there left for you to reflect upon? Besides a lack of skill).

I was too lazy to pick an image for this slide but like picture about any game where dude A is shooting dude B. Anyway.
Let us now consider the relationship between the player and the environment in the game. To simplify, we can usually divide games in two main forces: the vessel of the player (the avatar but also the UI, or anything in the game that is under the player's direct control) and the environment (in a broad definition: anything that lives on its own in the game and that, while it might react to the player's actions, is independant from them). The interesting bits of the game typically happen at the meeting point of these two forces.
Oftentimes in games these forces are locked in an antagonistic relationship. Your goal as a player is either to destroy the environment or to control it (express full agency in it at best, eg. in stealth games): it's always about displaying superior power.
The only way you can touch each other is by hurting each other, and the best way to play is to be completely untouched and unchanged throughout the game.

Some games try to challenge that power relationship by putting you in front of consequences for what you do.
It typically doesn't work in a systemic approach (chaos gauge, good/bad metric or whatever) because it is trivial and doesn't have real (emotional) consequences outside of this independant, unrelated metric and maybe a different ending cutscene. Besides, the real friction that appears here is “am I good enough as a player”, not any real emotional or moral friction.

I'm gonna talk a bit about OFF here though because it's one of the only games i've played that really manages to do something interesting with this idea.
OFF is an RPGmaker game by comic artist Mortis Ghost. It does a lot of interesting things but at its core it's about cleaning areas of monsters swarming them—a processus referred to as 'purification' in the game.

Every area is very colourful, full of strange cartoony monsters and NPCs. The game actually lets you switch an automatic mode for fights that lets an AI play in your place so you can dance to the music instead so that's pretty rad. The structure of the game is linear and you don't really have any reason to revisit an area once you've cleaned it.

However, you can still return to areas once you've cleaned them. When you do so, you find yourself in the area you used to know, except completely drained of its colours and even of its features—a simple block level without indications, characters or anything. The music is discrete but extremely unsettling. There is an immediate feeling that something is very wrong.

The cleansed areas are completely devoid of their usual enemies and NPCs; but as you make your way through the exit, you stumble upon random encounters with enemies that only exist in these areas. As much as the style of the game is already dissonant and weird, these ones are downright upsetting—where typical enemies are cartoonish drawings, those look more like fleshy tortured dolls. These are very powerful enemies with very high HP, and fighting them is frustrating and exhausting.
This is, to me, where OFF gets it right. At that point, the game becomes this very long, boring and frustrating experience, where you experience harder combats than before and feel more vulnerable than ever. In most games, the only thing that changes if you behave good or badly is the difficulty level; but the mechanics are still the same and the game is still enjoyable. In OFF, the cleansed areas subvert the grammar of the game and become a very anti-player, anti-fun experience. And that creates a much stronger emotional response, while also making you feel very vulnerable and powerless—as a consequence of your own actions.
Anyway, for all it does right, OFF still stages a one-way relationship here: you act, the game reacts, period. So that was just a big digression.

So how could we balance power more evenly between the player and the game and make it more of a conversation? Again, in a conversation, each part has power on the other—and a meaningful conversation changes its participants.
As said before in most games the only modality of the conversation is aggression, and any kind of change inflicted on the player is negative. This ties back to masculinity in its most toxic bits (which is deeply embedded in ~games culture~), the refusal to be challenged and accept fallibility/imperfection.

What i try to do in my games is to integrate a notion of giving, or even of sacrifice. A payback.
This is done abstractly in Even the Stars, where you age for every log you write. Symbolically, you need to sacrifice your time to stay somewhere long enough to get something back from that place, and grow as a person—to change.

Orchids to Dusk is much more explicit about this (also, mild spoiler here). The whole game revolves on the separation between the player's avatar and their environment: interaction between them is basically nonexistent, as the player is completely sealed away in their suit, and the astronaut cannot survive were they to take it off. The game is about accepting this limitation and learning to abandon oneself to the environment, and through this gesture become part of something bigger. This is quite literally a transformative experience.
(Hopefully this all makes sense if you've played the game).

An additional example from a game that isn't mine: L'Amerzone is an oldish point&click game that i played a lot as a kid, from the same studio and lead designer as Syberia. I love it for a lot of reasons but it is also an old french game, which means it gleefully indulges in colonial cultural erasure and appropriation, racism, sexism and so on... Anyway.
Throughout that game, the closest thing you have to an avatar is this multipurpose vehicle called the Hydraflot—it's home. It can switch between multiple modes (plane, boat, submarine etc). However, for each mode change, it also loses some of its parts (eg. switching to boat mode literally drops the wings). This is not necessarily a thing you realize right away, but as you keep playing, it becomes apparent that moving forward means sacrificing your way back, and that seeing the end of your quest will cost you your life. As a kid, this slow realization had a strong impact on me—because it is slow and never explicitely mentionned, but more and more apparent through the game.

[img source]
Now for a side note about exploration, which is mostly a pretext for me to say for good that i have Issues with No Man's Sky and don't like it when people compare it to Even the Stars.
Exploration is often seen as the always-good & pacific mechanic in videogames, yet often it still does end up with displays of dominance. In No Man's Sky, there are two main ways for players to interact with things: stealing things-as-resources (with a very explicit 'destroy' prompt) and naming things, which has this very weird invasive vibe of trying to make one's mark in an almost colonial way onto something that already exists. Either way, both are still displays of dominance over the environment. By contrast, Even the Star's logs are not about being in a competition with other players to find the coolest dinosaur and put a stamp on it, but instead about reflecting on one's very personal perspective and thoughts.
There is something very interesting happening with No Man's Sky though: players have been sharing huge amounts of screenshots; and that, to me, expresses a will from players to adopt a more contemplative and respectful stance on the game, focused and observing and listening—this was planned by the developers to a degree for sure, but it still feels like players are subverting the game's core system, which is cool.
Anyway, in general, let's try to always be careful about the invasive dynamics behind the idea of "leaving a mark". Leaving messages for each other can be a strong and compelling experience but it can also re-center the whole game around the players and their race to a dominant posture. This resonates with what was said about agency earlier.
Disclaimer: i have actually not played No Man's Sky, and i know that there are very nice things about it (plus, in such unfocused games, you can always find tiny things that you really like and carve yourself a nice experience here). Regardless, the discourse around the game is here, and i believe that's enough for me to talk about its broad design principles and its cultural imprint.

Concluding notes
It's tricky to make these kind of games because the more you get into that stuff, the more engagement you ask from the players—it requires to really invest in interacting emotionally with the piece. It's hard to balance, and oftentimes the game will only ring with people who are already into that stuff: people who both understand the grammar of games and aren't alienated by it; and who are also looking for new, emotionally engaging experiences rather than a fun game to take a break.
It's also completely valid to want to make games that are more immediately compelling and ~fun~; i am not trying to say that games such as the ones i mentionned in this talk are somehow better. You do you. Keep in mind, though, that the balance of power that you put into a game sends a message to the player. I will not start a rant about entitlement here, but these are things to consider for any game.
There is no universal answer to these questions, and every game is to be considered in its own, specific context—that includes the audience it will reach.

If you want to read more about similar matters, i strongly encourage you to read Soft Chambers. It's a series of short posts by Merritt K., ex-gamemaker and critic, and it's been extremely important to me and my work.


///extra reading: Orchids to Dusk design post mortem