The difference between the physical game and the conceptual game

by Philtron

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.