Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Post Thaumatic

In the words of Tadhg Kelly and preformed as an introduction to a fantastic series of microtalks at GDC 2014. I encourage you to watch them all.
If you design games or write for them do you feel that exhilarating  rush of wonder?

Thauma by Tadhg Kelly

Leo Tolstoy once wrote that artists evoke a feeling in themselves and then - by means of expression - evoke the same feeling in others.
This, he said, was the activity of art.
Games also evoke feelings by means of expression.
I use the word thauma to describe how.

Thauma derives from Greek, meaning a wonder or marvel.
Thaumaturgy is the ability of a magician to work miracles.
As we describe the sensation of powerful story as dramatic.
I describe the sensation of powerful play as thaumatic.

There is an experience unique to games.
An enchantment that steals over us.
As we play, as we watch and as we retell the story of play it comes back to us.
We feel transferred to a different context of being.
We are here, yet we also feel elsewhere.

On a race track, pulling incredible turns.
On a tennis court, trying to score.
On a battlefield. In a city. In a haunted house.
A childlike landscape. A long forgotten shore.
An abstract space. An infinite plane.

Our journeys vary.
In some games we appreciate individual qualities.
But they don’t transport us.
Some games transport us but we don’t tarry long.
For each of us the criteria of thauma is different.
The nature of evoked feelings unique.

But to Tolstoy art was not mere beauty.
Or the expression of energy or emotions or pleasure.
He considered art not to be about how you feel.
Or who you are. Or if you cried.
But about what feelings the artist intended to generate.
And was she successful.

There are four schools of thaumatic design.
The school of mechanism, formal and elegant.
The school of simulation, complex and authentic.
The school of behavior, guided and rewarding.
The school of narrative, directed and emotive.
Each is valid.

As designers of thauma we add and remove.
We make giants of puny humans or gnats of fearsome egos.
We empower players with roles and fairness and resonance.
We toy with them and set the terms of their existence.
From these beginnings feeling is evoked.

Thauma is the holistic pot of fun, grokking, mastery,
skill atoms, veracity, flow, reward, action
meaning, narrative, magic circles, winning, losing
persuasion, immersion and ludonarrative resonance.
It is the feeling that a game world matters.

Thauma has many components.
That sense that a game must be fun.
That tendency of the mind to abstract.
That need to learn and grow.
Imperfection. Physicality. Time. Profit,
For some these are pillars. For others, boundaries.

Some games like to play with boundaries.
They should, particularly for criticism.
Yet the thaumatic experience rarely succeeds when only critical.
Or clever.
Especially if intended to be played for long.
Successful thauma is often grounded in rules.

In the elsewhere we know the rules.
We equate action with power.
In sports and board games rules make the world smaller and more focused.
In tabletop roleplaying they do the opposite.
The world grows larger.
In videogames?
Both at the same time.

Some would argue otherwise.
Why does a game have to be fun?
Must all roads lead to multiplayer?
Must all avatars have the same identity?
Is a player really a hero?
Is a game really a game?
These debates should show you how games are art.
But do you see it that way?

Or are you stuck on what games are meant to be?
That some games are art and some are problems?
That games will be an art one day?
That games must be destroyed so they can flourish?
That games must go beyond fun?
Are you frustrated by the present?

Future addiction gets depressing.
It’s fun to consider where games might go.
But as a group we get hung up on saying they have to go there.
And advocating that they have to change.
Or else be doomed.
Perhaps games are what they are today.
Warts and all.

Silly games with flapping birds are thaumatic.
Nagging games about making words are thaumatic.
Bewitching games about plants and zombies are thaumatic.
Cinematic games about solving murders are thaumatic.
Personal games about identity are thaumatic.
Ours is a broad church.

Arguments about “should” are a distraction.
The real argument is not about game versus story
or fun versus art
or future versus past
It’s about function versus institution.
The thing itself versus its place in the cosmos.
It’s about legitimacy.

Gamers often feel like outsiders.
So they co-opt the language of other arts and say “games are these too”.
And eventually get to “games should move on”.
Or they prefer to be outsiders.
They demean some voices to make them shut the fuck up.
For fear that they will “ruin games”.

Who Looks Outside Dreams.
Who Looks Inside Awakens.
We all already know that thaumatic feeling.
But we compromise it by only speaking to its future.
Or demeaning the present experiences of others.
We should own that feeling on its own terms.

We are neither scientists nor dramatists, psychologists nor economists.
We are thaumatists.
Our art of powerful spaces generating feelings is an art on its own terms.
It always has been.
In whatever form we choose to express them, this is what games are.
Thank you.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Bandit Country: Networks

When I first envisioned Bandit Country I was watching Proof of Life. Here I saw a film that had a protagonist who was not a super hero and who did not have a Future Box*. I saw the first inkling of the Big Picture, the Risk - Consequence - Opportunity loop. As I refined that loop I realised that it was missing an element and the Network module was affixed at the centre.
I watched Proof of Life again and I began to notice just how central Network is to the Risk Management resolution scheme of Bandit Country.
Terry Thorne played by Russel Crowe is a Consultant who is engaged to arrange the release of an American engineer who has been kidnapped for ransom. If you are interested in my mindset and the storytelling that I want to emulate, watch the film. The good news is that you can skip any scene that doesn't include Terry.
From the moment that Terry meets Alice and Janice by the pool at the Bowman compound he begins recruiting. He is studied, deliberate and follows basic risk management strategies in everything he does. My early appreciation of the film as a pillar for writing a modern espionage game that is not a Bourne/ Bond clone or a conspiracy game was based on his Risk Management behaviours. In later viewings I began to appreciate that he builds and surrounds himself with a Network and that he arranges and prepares this network to execute his objectives.
To avoid the Bond/Bourne heroic action genre Bandit Country needs to present player goals in terms that they cannot achieve on their own. Even a team of players cannot achieve them with nothing more than their own or specific dedicated resources. The Players will have to recruit the locals to complete their objectives. 
The first part of addressing this design goal is that the Players have to define their key tasks in terms of a Risk Management cycle. Even before they perform the task they have assessed it in terms of the risks and the resources they have to apply. This is inherently anti-heroic because heroes are all about doing as they will and adapting to the consequences whereas RM is all about minimising them. RM places the consequences ahead of the benefits and that is a good place to be for some gritty espionage gaming.
Secondly, Recruiting should be fun and achievable. The one thing that all Bandit Country Characters have in common is that they are great recruiters. It is the key ingredient of a consultant. It is also the reason why there is no `Recruit' Specialty. It is automatically assumed that every Consultant is an Elite recruiter. Recruiting has its risks but the Consultant is equipped to manage that because a goal of play is for them to build a Network.
Once they have a Network the real fun begins. Running a Network is a mini-game within the game. I have messed around with it a fair bit and have to playtest more to see where it goes next. Originally I modelled Network building on crafting in video games. If each Recruit is categorised by their Asset (Specialty), connecting them in specific ways builds a structure that is great for a specific role. If I recruit a Fireteam Asset and an Infil:Exfil Asset and a Intrusion Asset, I can link them to make a team that has mobility and can breach security to perform extractions. I could call that a Mobile Extraction Team. This is attractive because it addresses player uncertainty and essentially gives them a menu or shopping list to recruit to. The problem with this approach is to either have to create a long list of combo's or leave it to the GM who is busy enough. Secondly, I really want to see emergent play arise from Networks and defining the structure limits that.
I am currently leaning more in the direction of a boardgame style design (not that it will be played as a boardgame) where each Asset has certain applications (think chess pieces) and can be combined however the recruiter wants. The resulting combination should then be like a machine that performs the task it was designed for (and hopefully succeeds).
One of the core emotional jags that I want to arise through Network play is that the Consultant is using these people. He might convincing them that he is advancing their agenda but his actual interest is in advancing his own. It is quite likely that things will not end well for many of these recruits and that is part of the experience of playing Bandit Country.

*A Future Box is stuffed full of technology and allows for things to be done and discovered without a direct chain of human intervention. We see Future Boxes all the time in film, Jason Bourne consistently befuddles anyone who attempts to use one to engage him. The antihero in the upcoming Watchdogs video games has a cell phone Future Box. The US President and co watched the SEALs kill Bin Laden in one. 
Future Boxes are anathema to Bandit Country. The only way to really know what happened is to find out who was there and the only way to do that is to recruit someone to find them. If a consultant wants to have access to the tools of the First World's military and espionage communities, a stupendously risky thing to want, they will have to recruit someone to get that access. Bandit Country makes a story out of the hard road and will never give a Consultant the keys to a Future Box.