The difference between the physical game and the conceptual game

Looking back on my old posts I realized that I already wrote on the topics in this article previously. Not only that but the previous post is more entertaining. At least in my opinion. So, check it out if you prefer: Differentiating Between Physical And Conceptual Interactions

Gamers, there is a difference between art object and art subject which needs to be addressed when talking about games.

It seems most people that write or talk about games seem to fail to understand that every aspect of games, and art & entertainment in general, has both a physical component, the object, and a conceptual component, the subject, that comprises the whole. Most of them seem to feel there is just one component of games and I’ve seen people refer to the physical component and then the conceptual component of a game as though they were the same thing. I don’t need examples.

When we say we are “playing a game” we are actually saying two things simultaneously: we are playing the game physically, which means we are interpreting and manipulating physical objects in precise and purposeful ways, and we are playing the game conceptually, which means we are interpreting and manipulating the ideas and concepts that the physical objects link us to. We can see the exact same thing is true of a book or a movie. When we say we are “reading a book” we are talking about two books, one which is made of tangible matter and one which is made of intangible ideas. We are holding the physical object in our hands as we turn the physical pages and look at the physical symbols printed there. We are also holding the conceptual story in our minds as we progress through the intangible concepts, characters, and ideas.

But, the physical component is not the ideas themselves, it is the link to the ideas. If in a novel a character’s dialogue is written in italics that means their words are being stressed or emphasized and it doesn’t mean that they are leaning to the right.

Many video game discussionados fail to understand this dual nature as it applies to games and so they say nonsensical things like “games tell stories through interaction” which doesn’t actually mean anything. Interaction is not storytelling. Interaction is the way we access the story. The analogous argument in books would be if someone said, “books tell stories through page turning.” No. The page turning is just a physical mechanism we use to access the conceptual story.

Normally this distinction between conceptual and physical is unnecessary. If someone says, “That’s a good book,” you know they mean, “The ideas and storytelling were enjoyable,” and you don’t think they mean, “The paper was luxurious to the touch; the font was pleasant to the sight.” The distinction between physical and conceptual is obvious in the arts. In video games it’s not so obvious and that’s why when dealing with abstract concepts like agency, control, gameplay, and story, game discussionadoes often get mixed up in the dichotomy.

So, for fun, I felt I would write down some common aspects of video games and look at the physical and conceptual components of each one.

The Game itself:
The physical game, the game object, is all the code that constructs the game. It’s all the in-game objects, effects, and actors. The conceptual game is the system of rules, definitions, and meanings accessed by interacting with the game. The physical game might have barriers, lighting, and enemies; the conceptual game might have fences, electric lamps, and Porpoise Nazis. However, the physical aspect (a deadly obstacle) is not the conceptual aspect (a lava pit) since you can change one without altering the other. You can keep the physical aspect (deadly obstacle), but change its conceptual component to “pit of spikes”. In that example the physical component has remained identical while the conceptual component (and the ideas it conveys) changes. Or you can keep the conceptual component (lava pit) and change the physical component so that it is no longer a deadly obstacle (because your character is immune to lava or whatever).

Cooperative single player:
I remember back when the first Halo came out and people poked fun at its coop mode which had two Master Chiefs. People were all like, “Woah, how are there two Master Chiefs? Why doesn’t the story address this?” Some people said these things tongue in cheek, but some people leveled this criticism with all seriousness and it was these people that just didn’t get it. There was no story component to Halo’s coop, no conceptual aspect to it; it was purely a physical, mechanical aspect of the game that let you play with a friend simultaneously. That’s all it was and it was great. But apparently game developers lost their senses and listened to those absurd criticisms voiced by morons because Bungie ended up creating story explanations for the coop avatars in later Halo games. Which wouldn’t be bad except I get the feeling Bungie did this to sooth the fans and not because the story really needed two Elites tagging along with the Master Chief all over the universe. The developers of Resistance did something even worse. In R1 there was single player coop in which Player 2 played a black soldier who wasn’t actually a part of the story. That was fine, but in Resistance 2 the developers REMOVED single player coop altogether because having a second character didn’t fit the narrative. Insanity! The second character never had anything to do with the story, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t a character because he was purely a physical mechanism allowing two people to enjoy the game simultaneously and now you’ve taken that away and now me and my friend have to take turns playing your travesty of a sequel.

I remember a while back there was a discussion circulating in the game community about how to interpret player death. What did it mean? How did it affect storytelling? How does it reflect on the medium? The answer that few people stumbled upon was that it means nothing, it is just a physical mechanism. I once even read an article where the author talked about the player’s repeated deaths alongside a character’s narrative death in a cinematic as though they were the same thing. Which they’re not. Player death in a video game is not death. It is just a mechanism to halt the player’s progress and force him to start over. It has nothing to do with the story. The character never experiences that death; that death is experienced only by the audience. Sure, the death/restart mechanic could be intertwined with the narrative, and it could reflect something meaningful or narrative, but that’s only true if the author expresses that this is the case. By default there is nothing intrinsic in the mechanism of player death that leaves it open to conceptual interpretation; by default it is purely a physical behavior of the game object.

This is purely a mechanism for marking a particular spot. It is like a bookmark or the pause button on a dvd and there really isn’t any room for philosophical interpretation. There can be narrative explanations for why a player can save, but by default the save feature has no narrative implications. Ultimately, although it can add some flavor to the game, providing a narrative explanation for the save feature is as unnecessary for providing a narrative explanation for the reader’s ability to bookmark a book.

Player agency:
In terms of the physical game the player’s agency is pretty much nonexistent. You are only able to explore the physical game based on what the code let’s you do, based on what the developer let’s you do. You can only progress when you’ve done what the developer demands. In contrast, you can physically progress through a book in any way you want, even backwards, it’s just you might not get the most out of it. As for the audience’s conceptual agency when dealing with a game, it is the same as when dealing with any other medium. You can interpret and understand the concepts and ideas in any way you please. It is entirely up to you as to how deeply you look into what’s presented or whether you accurately connect different events within the plot. It is up to your own knowledge and intellect to find the hidden meanings and symbols. Some works hide things deeply and some don’t hide anything.

Authorial control (related to above):
Absolute. If a game author makes it impossible to “win” the first level then you will never get to the second level, ever, unless you hack/break the game. Your ability to physically interact with the game is in the absolute control of the developer. I focus on this idea in another article of mine (Authoritarian Control). Again, look at things conceptually, a game author’s authorial control is exactly the same as any other medium. The author can carefully select what concepts are available in order to guide the audience in a direction, but ultimately the audience can interpret things how they wish. The author has no control over the audience, but he can predict how they will approach his work and construct things accordingly.

Glitches, exploits, and cheaters in multiplayer:
If you’re going to use exploits or glitches in multiplayer then why are you even playing? Those things are clearly not part of what the developers intended, and you’re not playing in the spirit of the game. Some people argue, “Well it’s in the game, so it’s fair to do it.” That makes sense if you’re a complete idiot that’s never used logic before. In soccer you can pick up the ball and walk into the goal and drop the ball right there in the goal. You can do that, it’s right there in the game. The physical reality of the game let’s you do that. However, it defeats the purpose of playing the game in the first place and at that point you have to wonder why you’re even playing at all. Same with glitches or exploits in multiplayer. When you play a game you play by the conceptual rules of the game and not the physical rules the game’s reality. You play in the spirit of the game. If you’re not willing to play along with that then you shouldn’t waste everyone’s time by playing at all.

Physical and conceptual progress exist on two separate tracks altogether. Once you’ve physically progressed through a book or a game then there really isn’t much new to experience the second time around. However, your conceptual progress the second time around is going to be much more rewarding because you’ll notice things you never saw before and you’ll experience the story in a different way.

All those completionists out there trying to get every achievement are a bunch of weirdos. But their goal is actually possible. They are trying to physically complete every part of the game, which can be done, just like it is possible to physically complete every part of a book. But completionism is impossible when dealing with the concepts of a good game. As with good literature and film there will always be more things to see, more interpretations, more things to discuss. It is possible to physically “complete” a game, but usually impossible to conceptually complete it.

Secrets are awesome. What happened to them? It used to be that game designers would cram all sorts of secrets into their levels, from secret rooms to entire secret levels. You don’t see that much these days. More secrets please.

Those above examples are physical secrets, but conceptual secrets are cool too. Like when a story doesn’t explicitly tell you that a character is a replicant, but if you dig deep into the clues and ideas then you’ll figure it out.

One of the things that pisses me off is when someone will shit praise all over some innovation that’s purely mechanical or technical in a game. Like, “Hey, this FPS let’s you have superpowers which function just like guns, isn’t that amazing!” So, game developers, whether indie or mainstream, tend to make technical innovations rather than conceptual ones since those are easier to do and will get the same amount of praise either way. So, what we end up having is a dozen FPSs coming out that are all slightly different from one another.

That’s the main difference between video games and other mediums. It’s not interaction, it’s not choice or agency, it’s the variety of physical constructs we use to access the game. FPS, RTS, RPG, those aren’t different genres of games, they are different mechanisms we use to access the game.

In literature, writers rarely experiment with new forms of page turning, or page shapes, or paper composition in order to innovate; and they rarely experiment with new forms of grammar or phonetic symbology. Same with film: the technology used to record movies and display them may change, but the basic physical way we access them remains the same.

Video games differ in this respect. While a writer has to focus his innovation on his use of language and storytelling in order to be considered talented, a game developer can ignore all those things and simply innovate the mechanical access to the ideas that are barely there.

In film and literature everyone just went with one method of delivering content because it made the most sense. “Why should we waste time creating new physical forms to store our ideas and make our audience waste time relearning how to physically navigate? Why don’t we just use a well established mechanic like “looking at something” or “turning a page” and stick with it so the audience can get straight to the concepts.” Jonathan Blow understood that principle when he made Braid although he didn’t apply it as well as I would have liked.

That’s partly why FPSs are so popular. They are a familiar and straightforward method of physically accessing content. The FPS mechanic is essentially the same mechanic that people use to open folders and applications on their desktop. In both cases you move a cursor across a 2-dimensional plane until it overlaps with an object you want to interact with and then you “click” to access the content linked by that object. Shooting an alien is basically the same as opening a folder, it’s just that the folder doesn’t try to shoot back. What you’re actually doing is accessing the computer code that controls certain animations and variable states. It’s worth noting that FPSs are essentially two 2D mechanics used simultaneously. One mechanic is the aiming and shooting, which is still done on a 2D plane no matter how “far away” objects are, and the second mechanic is moving through the world which basically functions as though you’re only moving through two dimensions. An FPS is basically like double clicking on a desktop folder and then using WASD to walk into the folder and see what’s inside.

Developers vs. Designers:
Developers are more like book printers, paint makers, or car mechanics, while designers are more like authors and painters. The two professions shouldn’t be the same. An author shouldn’t waste his time developing the paper and ink for his book (unless he’s got a very good reason for doing this) because that would be a procrastination from the real work he wants to do. It’s just a waste of time for an artist to create his materials every time he wants to work, and even though creating your own materials, the way painters used to mix their own paints and make their own brushes, can give you even more control over what you’re doing, usually it’s an unnecessary step in an already long process. I think developers and designers should be completely separate. Game designers shouldn’t waste their time creating a new game engine everytime they make a new game; that’s like creating a new type of paper or a new type of page turning everytime you want to make a new book, it’s ridiculous. Instead I think that there should be engine developers who work in their own company, and then there should be designers who choose an engine to work with and maybe even stick with one engine preference for several games. Games creation would happen a lot faster and designers could possibly be more focused when they don’t have to waste time working on the physical structure of their tools.

There’s a difference between physical and conceptual repetition in the arts. You can have things repeat conceptually while physically they are different; you can have things be the same physically but the context of their occurance changes their conceptual meaning. An example of this is if a man’s house is being demolished to make way for an intercity bypass and then later Earth is demolished to make way for an interstellar bypass. Physically some things are different, but conceptually the situations are identical which is what makes the joke analogy work.

Consider of Halo: CE. I don’t know why I keep using the original Halo in these examples; it’s just the first thing that keeps popping into my head for some reason. One complaint people had about the game was that after a while you travel back through some of the previous levels from earlier in the game. Some people even claimed this was a deficit of the game and a sign of laziness on the part of the designers. These complainers were idiots who completely missed the point. While physically the earlier and later levels were identical they were completely different coneptually. You had access to different weapons and thus different tactics, and you encountered different enemies (mainly in the form of the Flood), and new combat situations. The nay sayers complained about the repetition of levels because it completely slipped past them that the levels weren’t repeating they were reiterating. The physical repetition was used in order to conceptually reinterpret and recontextualize the game’s mechanics and the game’s narrative elements. By repeating a physical space with a different gameplay situation the designers of Halo focused the audiences attention on the conceptual change, it’s just that the audience had to be intelligent enough to pick up on it (this same artistic device was applauded by critics when used in Braid but was complained when used in Halo). And Bungie has a long tradition of reinterpreting their past levels; in every one of their previous series they have taken a level from a previous game and reproduced it with a new context and with a new interpretation of the level design and combat design.

Branching dialogues and changing the story:
I’m going to write another article devoted to the true nature of storytelling in video games. For now I’ll briefly address the idea that game discussionados have that they are altering or changing the story.

They’re not and their mistake is a sign of their egocentric view of the world.

Players feel like they’re changing the story of the game when they make different choices. It’s a neat trick of the mind but that’s all it is. If you could really change the story then you could do things that aren’t accounted for in the game’s code. But no matter what narrative “choices” you make in a game you aren’t changing anything; you are only accessing different parts of the narrative or different narrative possibilities. The story is always there no matter what choice you make. The whole game already exists so it’s impossible for you to be creating anything. You may be changing your own subjective, personal story (which is just called living life) but you’re not changing the objective portions of the game’s story. Ever. Take branching dialogues as an example. In a branching dialogue with a character it seems that what choice you make alters the story, but that’s only from your own perspective and to assume this is objectively true is egocentric. The story, every line of dialogue, was already there waiting for you to discover it. You didn’t create it and the only thing you chose was which portion of the pre-existing story you would explore. You don’t change what the character does because they already do it somewhere in the game’s code.

Fantastic. Good times all around.



  1. fusionchamberlain

    When you say that the phrase “games tell stories through interaction” means nothing, I’m afraid you’re misinterpreting what people mean. The “interaction” doesn’t refer to the player’s pushing of buttons in order to move around objects; it means interacting with the concepts.

    In a video game, the player has interactive freedom, whereas in other mediums the interaction is more straightforward. The fact that a player can roam about the game world at will, and explore the characters at her own pace, makes for a different type of storytelling, which is what people mean to say with “games tell stories through interaction.”

    Indeed there’s a difference between the physical game and the conceptual game, but I’ve never witnessed a discussion in which confusing those two concepts affects the arguments meaningfully.

    As for developers vs designers, it’s true: they’re different jobs altogether. However, does a film director not know about photography? About acting? In fact, an accomplished director must be well versed in those matters. Likewise, I believe a good game designer must know a little something about programming, at the very least.


    • Philtron

      Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your thoughts, really. Having someone present their differing opinions helps me hone my own.

      Regarding your comparison of directors-acting and designers-developers: My point wasn’t that designers should be oblivious to development and programming. Film directors should know something about acting but they don’t have to be actors themselves; in this same way designers should understand logic structures but they don’t have to be programmers.

      Before that, you said: “Indeed there’s a difference between the physical game and the conceptual game, but I’ve never witnessed a discussion in which confusing those two concepts affects the arguments meaningfully.”

      It’s interesting you mention that because I think in your very own comment you confused the two concepts several times in ways that affect your argument.

      I am not misinterpreting what people mean when they say “games tell stories through interaction”, but perhaps I didn’t phrase my thoughts clearly. Perhaps people mean “interacting with concepts” when they say it but when they, like yourself, provide examples they actually provide examples of “pushing buttons in order to move objects”. Roaming about the game world is a physical interaction, clicking on a character to talk to them is a physical interaction, and making a choice in a dialogue tree is a physical interaction with conceptual associations (and players don’t actually get to roam about the world at will, which I’ll touch on below). So, roaming about the landscape in game is physically similar to flipping pages in a book. You are physically interacting with the medium in order to see the physical content you want to see.

      I think you confuse the two aspects (physical and conceptual) once again when you say that the player has interactive freedom whereas in other mediums the interaction is more straightforward. Other mediums have a more straightforward physical interactivity because each one has an industry standard: you turn pages in a book from first to last, you look at one screen in a movie, etc., and this is the way people have grown comfortable doing it. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. You could turn pages in a book in whatever order you wanted or you could watch three movie scenes on three separate screens simultaneously, but it’s easier for everyone (authors and audience) to abide by the industry standard.

      Now conceptually, all other mediums have the same level of interactivity as games. Once concepts are in your head you have total freedom to do what you want with them and to analyze them how you want and to the degree you want; interacting with these concepts properly requires intelligence and training but you can still think about them any way you want.

      But, in terms of physical interactivity the player does not have interactive freedom in games. Players cannot roam the game world at will because there’s always physical restrictions such as enemies, locked doors that require keys, the absence of a jetpack, or any other obstacle that stops them from exploring how they want. The player actually has less physical interactive freedom than a reader. A quick example: If you want to talk to a character in a game but you don’t have the proper item necessary to talk to them, then you can’t talk to that character at all. The game completely restricts your behavior and there’s nothing you can do about it unless you use cheats. On the other hand, a reader can skip to any conversation he wants to in a book regardless of whether he’s met the intended prerequisites. You can’t do that in a game. I call this utter lack of physical freedom in games “authoritarian control” and I wrote a 16 page article about it on this blog.

      You also mention that the player can explore a character at their own pace, which is 1) true of other mediums like books, and 2) is not true of games. In a book, let’s say, I can read a conversation, stop, think about, then flick the pages backwards (physical interactive freedom) and reread the conversation. I can take my time with it, or I could just skim past it, or skip it altogether, it’s my choice. Now let’s take a conversation in a game. I can’t always stop it where I want, I can only skip it if the developers programmed the ability to do so, and usually (depends very much on the game) I can’t rewind the conversation to re-experience what was said unless I have a saved game nearby (lack of physical interactive freedom). So, readers of books are actually able to explore things at their own pace much more so than game players (again, I cover this difference in more detail in my article about Authoritarian Control). Once those conversations, whether in films or books or games, are firmly planted in our heads then we have all the freedom in the world to explore them and interpret what they teach us about the characters and the story.

      So, games aren’t a different storytelling experience at all. Fundamentally it is the same experience as any other story medium: you access physical content which contains conceptual content and this conceptual content is used to construct a narrative in your mind.

      I hope that clears things up. Let me know if made my thoughts clear or whether they’re confusing. Let me know what you think, whether you agree or no. Again, thanks for your comment, I appreciate it, and I’ll have to check out your own blog when I get some free time.


  2. fusionchamberlain

    Thank you for coming up with such a well crafted response in such a short time. I got serious about gaming (blogging, reading, studying game design, etc) about a month ago, and it’s been a fascinating journey, but mostly a lonely one. I’ve been looking to have discussions with other people, but haven’t had many chances like this one.

    Regarding directors-acting and designers-developing, I wasn’t disagreeing with you at all; I just felt it was relevant to add that designers should know something about programming. Sorry for not making that clear.

    But on to the juicy stuff: I think the problem with your argument is that things aren’t as simple as dividing the physical and the conceptual. For example, you repeatedly compare pushing buttons in a game to flipping pages in a book. While they’re both physical acts, they have very different functions in their respective mediums.

    If you take a given book and print it in a different format so that it has less pages, it’s still conceptually the same. If that book is in pdf format, or you’re listening to an audio recording of it, the book is still the same. On the other hand, this is not true for video games. If you take an fps and make it a point-and-click, but leave the narrative, characters, graphics, etc. untouched, it becomes a fundamentally different game, not just physically but conceptually as well, because physical access matters to games in a level that doesn’t matter at all to books.

    I agree when you say that books give the user greater physical freedom than games. Indeed there are many restrictions to what you can do in a game. But that’s not what I meant when I said that players can roam about the game world at will. Let me see if I can explain this by tackling the question of exploring a character at your own pace.

    You say that a book provides much more freedom to explore a character because you have the option to stop, to think about things, to flip the pages backwards, to skip conversations, etc. This is true of games as well. I can stop playing the game whenever I want and ponder about the characters. I can also return to a previous save file if I want to experience something again.

    Now, you may argue that not all games implement save files, and you’d be right. That’s the big problem we have when comparing books to video games: the physical way in which we access books is not only meaningless to the experience, but it’s also uniform across the medium. Both of these are false when it comes to video games. In fact, the many different ways in which games implement physical accessibility makes it very hard to talk about it in general terms.

    With that in mind, let me get back to character exploration and interactivity. What I’m clumsily trying to convey with all this rambling has to do with actively assuming the role of a character. Being able to control your character’s physical actions, and more than anything, assuming their role, makes for a very different experience. That’s why I do believe that games are a different storytelling experience, just like storytelling in books is different to storytelling in film, even with all the similarities. That’s why reading Lord of the Rings is different to watching the films or playing the games, even if the stories are the same.

    I hope you understand what I’m trying to say here, even if I do get some things confused. I tend to ramble a lot and get things messed up, probably for lack of writing practice. For that I do apologize.

    One final thought to wrap this up. Yes, it may be true that gamers confuse the physical and conceptual mediums, but that’s because they’re intimately intertwined when it comes to video games.


    • Philtron

      You’re right, things aren’t as simple as dividing physical and conceptual. Things aren’t black and white. But I don’t think my argument is flawed.

      You say,
      “…you repeatedly compare pushing buttons in a game to flipping pages in a book. While they’re both physical acts, they have very different functions in their respective mediums.”
      From the way I’m looking at it they actually do have the same fuctionality: they are both physical processes used to see a segment of physical content. If you turn a page you’re doing it because you want to access some physical content (which contains some conceptual content) that you didn’t have access to before. The same thing with walking into a room in an FPS: it’s a physical action you’re performing to see some physical content you didn’t have access to before. I’m trying to look at the core of things, so turning a page and walking into a room are both, at their core, a physical action performed by the audience to see a new part of the game’s/book’s structure.

      Your analogy with converting an FPs into a point-and-click is broken. Let’s look at the second half of your analogy: If you convert an FPS into a point-and-click then it changes, not just physically, but also conceptually, even if the characters and narrative are the same. Sure that’s true. It has to be true, because those two game types are physically different. But that doesn’t fit with the “printing a book with fewer pages” analogy. The correct book analogy would be to say: if you take a book in traditional fiction format, like the Great Gatsby, and rewrite it in a different format, like a dictionary or an epic poem, then it will be physically and conceptually different, even if the characters and narrative are the same. Physical access matters just as much to books as it does to games, that’s why books where authors experiment with different formatting or different grammatical structures (Ulysses, House of Leaves, Infinite Jest, etc.) are often less accessible than traditional book.

      Okay, there’s a lot going on with the rest of what you write, but I’m going to focus in on two points you made.

      “the physical way in which we access books is not only meaningless to the experience, but it’s also uniform across the medium”

      I want to reiterate my earlier point about the way we access a dictionary vs. poem vs. fiction text. Grammaratical structure is a physical aspect of writing and it can greatly alter the tone, mood, atmosphere, meaning, and nature of a story or a given message. I mean, yes, turning pages is usually meaningless (although I can think of a few examples where it isn’t, examples which I mentioned in a previous parentheses) but you could say the same thing about turning on a computer and pressing keys. It doesn’t really address the issue though.

      Also, not all books have the same physical structure. Take non-fiction books that discuss science, social issues, politics, or history. Back in college I learned that you’re not supposed to read those books the way you read fiction books, from start to finish. With those non-fiction books you don’t start reading with the main text. You start by reading the index, the bibliography, and the table of contents. From those you get a handle on what the book will be about, what topics it’ll cover, and possibly what arguments it will make. Then you move onto reading the section titles within each chapter. And then finally you actually start skimming the main text. As a method of accessing the book physically it is a completely different from traditional methods of reading. Fiction books don’t follow that format but they easily could. So, the physical way we access books may be mostly uniform across the medium but that’s due to a tradition and not due to an inability.

      2) “What I’m clumsily trying to convey with all this rambling has to do with actively assuming the role of a character. Being able to control your character’s physical actions, and more than anything, assuming their role, makes for a very different experience.”

      I’m glad you brought that up. I completely disagree with the popular perception that a player is assuming the role of a character or controlling the character; I think that’s just a cognitive illusion.

      It seems that it’s the case at first glance, right, because when we press a key the character moves, when we move the character into lava he dies, and when we press another key the character engages an NPC in dialogue or in combat. So, it very much seems that we’re assuming and controlling the role of character. We never do though because we aren’t really experiencing what the character is experiencing. I’ll explain, and bear with me:

      Some old school games had a particular kind of “thief” enemy which would steal items from you and run away. If you didn’t chase down this Thief then your items would be gone forever. Interestingly, this made Thief enemies more frightening than regular enemies, even more so than bosses. Losing your items was more stressful than dying. Why? I was discussing this with a friend and he pointed out that the answer was simple: losing items was more work for the player than dying and starting over. You don’t actually lose anything when you die in a game except time. When something is stolen from your character you lose time, power, and efficacy. But that’s only from the perspective of the player.

      Consider the situation from a character’s point of view. Krongar the Mighty is an axe wielding warrior in some fictional fantasy land (where there is no resurrection). From his perspective once he dies then he’s dead and he no longer exists. But if something is stolen from him he can get it back. So, Krongar is probably is more afraid of dying than he is of being robbed. That’s the opposite of what the player feels. So, the player can’t be truly assuming the role of the character because she’s dealing with a very different reality than him. And she can’t be truly controlling the character because she can’t make him do anything he wouldn’t do: if Krongar took a vow of silence then the player will not be able to talk to other characters.

      Sure, there are game’s where dying and starting over is part of the narrative but that’s overlooking the point. The player is dealing with a very different reality than the character and doesn’t have to worry about the same things that the character does. And, the character doesn’t have access to things the player does like pausing, saving, taking a break, looking up walkthroughs, using cheats, and using skill tree calculaters to maximize DPS.

      We players aren’t assuming the role of a game character anymore than a reader is assuming the role of a character in a book told from the first person perspective. We’re just being shown the world through the character’s eyes.


  3. Emily Z

    This may be slightly off-topic, but I think it’s inaccurate (and possibly unfair) to describe programmer developers as “book printers, paint makers, or car mechanics”. Programming is more like car design than car mechanics.
    Programming is an inherently creative enterprise, with many design decisions that are not always visible to program users. Programmers create things out of thin air – look at all the different things that programs are able to do.

    I’m a project manager at a game design company that’s starting to get into software-based games (video games). One of the constant struggles is getting the game designers to understand programming design decisions (and restrictions) and getting programmers to understand game design decisions. “Why can’t we just do it this way?” and “It should just do this”. Both programs and games are susceptible to exploits (bugs and “broken” game mechanics). Both have to be concerned with performance (game pacing and length, and lag and hardware constraints). And, of course, all of this ignores the UI, art and sound aspect of video games.

    Programmers are not game designers, and far too many programmers think they are. And, there are far more armchair game designers than armchair programmers – which I think is a part of your article. However, just because there is a difference between the manifestation of a game (the “physical game”) and the conceptual game is not a reason to denigrate either. Both are critical to a well designed software game.


    • Philtron

      Sure, you’re slightly off topic, but that’s alright. If we never went off topic then we’d only ever have one conversation.

      You’re saying several things and I’m not sure which one to focus on. You’re right, game developers are more like car designers than like car mechanics; they construct things, they don’t fix things already constructed. But that’s kind of ignoring the point I was trying to make in favor of nitpicking my mistake. The analogy I was trying to make was that paint manufacturers and game developers work physical objects into physical structures which can then be used by painters and designers to express non-physical ideas. That code on the screen is a representation of actual physical switches and structures and when a progammer codes he is designing the physical structure of parts of a computer. And I wasn’t trying to denigrate either designers or developers. I was merely pointing out that they are two very different disciplines and trying to juggle both is probably less productive than focusing on one or the other.

      One last thing. I don’t know how serious you were being when you said, “Programmers create things out of thin air – look at all the different things that programs are able to do”, but I’m going to assume “totally serious”. My response to that is: programmers definitely don’t create things out of thin air and the functional variety of programs would not be proof of that either way. It may seem that programmers create things out of thin air because the physical structures they’re dealing with are incredibly tiny but those physical switches exist in an objective physical reality. Artists on the other hand actually do create things out of thin air because they deal with ideas that exist in a totally subjective cognitive reality (although technically even this isn’t true since those ideas physically exist within the brain).


      • Emily Z

        I’m finding myself feeling like a lot of nit-picky things are important, which usually means (for me) that I have some larger point I’m having difficulty articulating. Fundamentally, it’s that I disagree with labeling the software part of the game the physical part of the game. Why is that important and what should we call it instead? (Just to be clear, the software part of the game is definitely distinct from the concept part of the game, and your post goes into the ways in which they are separate and why it’s important that they’re separate).

        I think instead, we should talk about the concept of the game and the implementation of the game. Implementation decisions, such as highly restricting save points and frequency/consequences of death change the gameplay experience, and fundamentally are design decisions. Changing them doesn’t change the conceptual game (some games use those mechanics to control difficulty level), so they’re not exactly conceptual-game design decisions. On the other hand, the implementation design decisions shouldn’t be made in isolation of the conceptual-design decisions. Implementation decisions can affect the player’s focus of the game, and the conceptual-game usually has a focus too. If they’re too badly out of sync, the game sucks.

        I concur that trying to juggle both game design and software design is less productive than individuals focusing on one or the other. However, the groups need to have good communication with each other.

        Here’s some musings about computer programming (while I was trying to figure out my point).

        There’s a really interesting description of software from the perspective of computer science (as it relates to intellectual property law) at Groklaw. For my purposes, you can skip the legal stuff at the beginning, and jump down to “What does computer science say?”
        Programmers don’t really work with the physical switches (transistors, etc) in computers. Instead, they work on creating systems of rules for assigning meaning to symbols. These rules must be confined to things that can be objectively carried out by the processor.

        Computer programs are created in the mind of the programmer. Computer programs can be written down on paper – in fact, that is often encouraged (or mandated) in introductory computer science classes, as a way of clarifying the concepts of the program. Computer programs written on paper are considerably less useful than those that are entered into source code, and compiled into machine language to run on computers.
        Similarly, games can be designed on paper, as a set of rules (see Ghost). Generally, this is not as useful as games that have some sort of physical manifestation, either through physical objects


  4. Philtron

    Thanks for your reply, but your last paragraph seems to have been cutoff mid-sentence.

    I do agree with most of what you said. Implementation decisions are mostly physical design decision. I myself prefer games that don’t put any restrictions on save points and which don’t have any consequences for dying except for starting over.

    Thanks for the link. It was an interesting perspective. Perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be that developers are like architects and designers are like sculptors. I don’t know, I’ll have to mull it over in my mind some more.


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