#LHA300-4 – Synthesis

There’s this term you see a lot in gaming media, a term that’s faded in popularity in recent years but sadly serves a decent purpose: Ludonarrative Dissonance. This dissonance, derived from the cinematographical term Filmic Dissonance, is the problem that comes when a game’s systems, juxtaposed with the game’s content, seems mis-matched.

There’s a number of examples of this in games. One fairly renowned example is in the videogame Bioshock Infinite, where a narrative about racism in an opulent floating country is interrupted by the player character being induced by health-based rewards to eat cake out of trash bins. Ask any game reviewer and they’ll have an example for you, of something that stood out to them and stuck in the memory about a game because they weren’t… quite sure it fit.

This synthesis of content and systems is, for lack of any better term, the game itself. When they work together, the game feels whole; when they work against one another, it creates a strange feeling. Sometimes it doesn’t even slow things down meaningfully – players are very good at skipping over systemic bumps as they get into the fun of a game.

Dissonance is worth considering, especially when you have a dossier or a statement of intention in a game. If a game is about deprivation and debt, does it mean anything if the players are constantly rolling in the game’s currency? Does a game frame itself as being about combat, but all combats are resolved by a single, blind die roll?

In The Suits there’s no current glaring point of dissonance. In play, there are moments when the lack of information becomes a problem. Players are trying to manage hidden information, but are completely bereft of reasons why. It’s possible a player may use their nicknames, and give a player who knows all the possible nicknames an edge on knowing what gang they belong to. What’s more, memorising that table (when ambiguity about who is what allegiance) becomes a very powerful option, which seems maybe against what is a very lightweight, very small game.

#LHA300-3 – Systems

The systems of a game are, for lack of any better word, the how of a game. When you have a game in front of you, you can look at each individual piece, but once you set up the game, you are complying with the system. The game tells you what priority and order to look at things when you put it in a system; it conveys to you information about the important details.

The systems of a game structure the content.

This is important: The game is meant to present information to the player. Unlike a more structured essay, the game content is presented to a player in an meaningful way, but not necessarily in a linear way. Game content is part of an inter-related cloud of information, where each section opens questions as to other, possible things that are worth considering. That is to say, game content induces the consumption of other, related pieces of game content. This is regardless of what systems are or do – players are induced to naturally wait for the game’s content to draw attention from one piece to the next.

Game content is largely easy to consider, in a vacuum, as a teacher. It can be considered in terms of its volume and its basic skill in construction – are the instructions cleanly spelled, do they make some sense, do they project the appropriate character of the game’s tone? – but the challenge presented in grading content is to not just take that text into account, but to then consider what game content is presented in terms of relevance, and that is where systems take up the burden of the game.

In The Suits, the systems are reasonably simple, and use the cards to randomise and handle memory. Characters have gang roles, which they are assigned at random. They have nicknames, and allegiances, which are also assigned randomly, and the nickname is even up for individual interpretation.

Reading the rules as a play of the game, it does work in a linear passage of time; you start the game, encounter hazards, learn how to overcome those hazards, then how you can lose the game, or win it.

There’s a voting system which is barely explained, suggesting the game doesn’t really have a strict view on how people should vote, just that there needs to be some balance. Loot can be used to dispose of problems, which is also not directly explained, and could create strange interactions depending on what players consider the hazard to be.

Finally, there’s a only one way to win the game, and that comes at the end of a chain of ways you can lose. This suggests that the idea of winning the game is actually unlikely.

#LHA300-2 – Content

The simplest and first place to look at a game’s text is the grouping of elements that we’re going to refer to as the content. As with all gaming terminology, this stuff is ambiguous. The terminology used to refer to game components shifts from place to place. In this case, what I’m discussing is one of the three major parts of a game that make up its text.

Game content is, in the broadest possible way, the non-moving parts of a game. It’s honestly one of the harder things to talk about in a game because listing the elements that make up content is incredibly broad.

A game’s content includes but is not limited to:

  • Artworks
  • Manuals
  • Text in the game
  • Advertising components (box art)
  • Dialogue
  • Text explaining how the game is played
  • Game components such as dice, pieces or counters
  • Voice acting
  • Music

A game’s content does not include:

  • Systems
  • Structure

This is important; text that explains how the game works is still part of the content, as that text preserves the elements that make up the game.  That is a place where the game can communicate how it wants to communicate. Even if the rules of a game are so simple as to be explained in a short, spoken description, doing so in that way is a part of demonstrating what a game sees as important. A broad, simple way to view it is content is the game components, divorced from the systems of how those game components interact.

The good news is, these elements are usually very easily estimated and considered. The game content has its own distinct character. These elements can be approached from a point of external ignorance, and the game is, itself, meant to present these elements to the reader in a participatory way.

So, you can examine Game Content and consider it in isolation. What kind of look does the game have? What words show up in its vocabulary? What does the game want to tell you about, initially? When the game makes its first impression, before you ever play it, what can you tell about it?

In The Suits, as a very small game with very small amount of content, it’s not hard to take it all in, at the moment. The game uses its cards to create a train. It refers to gangs and loot. The language of the game is, at this point, very gender-light; there’s no instances of ‘he’ or ‘she.’ The game is about a theft between conflicting parties, but also about ambiguity of identity, suggesting that nobody in these groups is necessarily famous enough to recognise one another. The train is a casino, suggesting ridiculous luxury.

There’s also an element of the game missing from the posted version: It describes tables used to convey some game information. That’s part of the content, and that would be another place to look for possible information about the game.

So far, the main thing you can tell about The Suits before considering its systems is that in this context, theft is okay, that rich people probably can afford to lose money, and there’s something heroic about criminals. The use of language suggests a fairly inclusive structure, though that might be industry standardisation.

#LHA300-1 – Introduction

How do you determine a game’s qualities? I don’t just mean how do you know if a game is good, I mean, how do you determine if a game’s succeeding at what it’s trying to do?

We’ve got a culture of games that tend to focus on elements of polish or style, or familiarity in design, rather than trying to treat each game as if it was a thing that was trying to convey information meaningfully. For this project, I’m going to try and offer a rudimentary guide to a way to understanding games from the perspective of a teacher striving to assess a game.

Now, as a caveat, games as art pieces are going to be artistic works. This means that all the problems that come with art are going to come up : The player brings their own context to the narrative, the author does not necessarily have a final say on how the art should be interpreted, and there are always unintended consequences in interpretation. This should be considered as not a guide on how people should all regard games, but instead is a a basic sort of toolbox for talking about and understanding games on an academic, educational level.

This essay seeks to be a simple, straightforward, readable guide to grading and treating a game as a whole, created object, a synthesis of three major components that make up the whole text. We’re going to go over these basic components of what a game says and how in these posts, and we’re going to refer to the LHA300 game Olivia and I outlined, the Suits to do it.