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A Game Has Made You Cry, But… Procedural Rhetoric’s Value

Posted in Gaming by Simon Ferrari on December 13, 2008

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This is a response to the “games as systems” argument in a “A Game Has Never Made You Cry” by Chris Bateman.

Many of you probably read this article and thought, “His logic sounds right, but something about his conclusion didn’t ring true for me.” This is because his logic is actually sound, and his conclusion is actually untrue. There are in fact two arguments hidden in there. One note before we begin (in case you haven’t take a logic class), an argument’s validity (that it “follows”) is separate from its truth value. Here is his first:

1 Narrative is not the essence of a videogame (valid premise, true)

2 Procedural Rhetoric (the “system” view of what makes a game unique) is an important component of a videogame (valid premise, true)

3 Therefore, If narrative is not the essence of a videogame, then procedural rhetoric is the essence (invalid conclusion, unknown truth value)

Here is his second:

1 Procedural rhetoric is the essence of a videogame (valid premise, unknown truth value)

2 Procedural rhetoric (ie, a game mechanic or the game’s computational system) has never made you cry (valid premise, unknown truth value)

3 Therefore, a videogame has never made you cry (valid conclusion, unknown truth value)

As you can see, his logic for the second argument is impeccable. But the truth of his conclusion cannot be confirmed. Furthermore, it can be refuted if it can be shown that a game’s mechanics or computational logic have made one person cry. Here is my counterargument:

1 Narrative is a part of a videogame (excluding “abstract” cases such as Tetris) (valid premise, true)

2 A videogame’s narrative has made one person cry (valid premise, true)

3 A videogame can make you cry (valid conclusion, true)

My conclusion trumps Chris’s, because mine has a confirmed truth value while his does not. The other difference between the two arguments is that his is actually interesting, while mine is not. All I do is regurgitate a simple fact; I don’t further any investigation into the strength or nature of videogames. As has been stated time and again, the question “Can a videogame make you cry?” is both boring and of little value. Chris has stated that the purpose of his piece was to inspire valuable debate. I don’t intend to stop at disproving his conclusion.

The value of writings such as Chris’s is that they challenge players to find examples (instead of arguments) that disprove his statement. I have the pleasure of studying under Ian Bogost, the Dean of Procedural Rhetoric himself. As such, I get the chance to violently disagree with him on a daily basis. See, I don’t personally agree with essentialist statements such as “Procedural rhetoric is the essence of videogames.” All such statements are derived from Aristotle’s first argument on the essence of man: “The essence of a hammer is that it hammers (nails into wood); the essence of man is that he reasons.” He draws the second statement from the first, because he saw reason as the only thing that seperated man from other animals. The mistake he makes is that he’s taken a premise that’s true about a simple system (the hammer) and applied it to a complex system (humans). It’s not necessarily true that reason is the only thing that sets us apart from animals. The specific structure  of the languages we’ve devised, our use of medicine and other technology to expand our lifespans and trump natural selection, and our prediliction to create “art for art’s sake” are all examples of things that also make us unique. Likewise, videogames are complex systems that cannot ultimately be boiled down into any “essence” (procedural rhetoric, in our case).

But here’s the key to Chris’s and Ian’s writing on the issue: they both utilize “Procedural rhetoric is the essence of videogames” as a working premise (of unknown truth value) in order to explore the aspects of games that usually go unnoticed. You don’t see professional video game criticism that simply rehashes whether or not the story was any good. They consider the multiplayer aspects, the replayability, the degrees of freedom, the game mechanics, etc. These things are what make games interesting. So it’s not entirely honest to make a statement like “Videogames have never made you cry,” but it forces you to examine his argument and see if you can find gems among the games you’ve played that disprove him – and thus move the study and development of games forward.

A few people commenting on his blog mentioned Jason Rohrer’s Passage and Gravitation as exceptions to his Chris’s rule. I’d like to add Jon Blow’s Braid to this short list.

What do these three games have in common? “Well they’re overrated,” you might say if you’re a hardcore gamer tired of hearing about how these games have made your favorite online shooters or role-playing games “trivial.” Let me explain one reason why they’re not overrated, related to the question of whether a game’s mechanics alone can make you cry.

In Passage, you can choose to avoid the “spouse” character or join with her. Coupled with her, you gain more “points” from moving rightward and colleting “score stars” than you would have if you’d played through the game without her; however, pairing with her increases the size of your sprite’s “hit box,” which means that you can’t move through some cramped spaces like you could when you were alone. This is an example of a game’s mechanic relating to a fact of human relationships by itself (without any need to allude to story or character). It is possible that this realization made you cry – you were struck by how “true” it was.

In Gravitation, playing catch with the “child” character expands the game’s visual space and opens up new procedural music tracks. It is possible that this mechanic made you cry by itself – you were struck by how simply it simulated the effect of joy on your life.

In Braid, you come to a level called “Irreversible” in which your safety blanket – the mechanic that allows you to reverse time and fix any mistake you made – is taken away from you on purpose. Blow structures this instance of the game’s primary mechanic breaking in order to make you realize just how important it’s been to you. It is possible that this made you cry, because it’s the one instance of a game mechanic (and it’s purposeful destruction) that has actually caused me to cry – by itself, seperated from the narrative and my attachment to Tim and his Princess. I can’t explain exactly why this made me cry, of course. I don’t believe it was emotional – I wasn’t upset or angry with the level. I suspect I can connect this kind of reaction with theories of the sublime – the idea that an aspect of a work of art impacts one because it connects them to something greater (in the same way that religious people feel God’s presence in awesome sights such as mountains or the sea). So what this mechanic did was give me an insight into all the work that had gone into crafting the experience, all the code and thought behind the thing.

What’s the point of these examples? Well, I don’t know if I would’ve ever thought to look for them if it hadn’t been for Chris’s article. What it makes you realize, if you’re a game designer, is that these are mechanics that you can develop from in your own work n order to make them more meaningful or effective from the perspective of procedural rhetoric. It’s true that narrative in games has come a long way, and it has a long way to go still. But games as a whole won’t achieve the amount of respect – as works of art – that they deserve until their every aspect seeps value. Thank you for reading. Please post any examples of game mechanics striking you as truly unique and beautiful in the way that I’ve shown above, if and when you find them.

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3 Responses

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  1. Chris said, on December 15, 2008 at 5:06 am

    Hi Simon,

    I found this very entertaining! You didn’t need to convert to the logic form, I think, I would have gladly yielded that I set up the argument this way. 🙂

    “The value of writings such as Chris’s is that they challenge players to find examples (instead of arguments) that disprove his statement.”

    That’s what I wanted – I wanted people to say “but X has made me cry”, and I wanted people to explore their objections to my carefully (and misleadingly) constructed argument. And it seems to have worked, which is pleasing.

    And yay for attacking Aristotle! 🙂 Smart guy, but so blinkered in his perspective, just like Plato… As you attest here, the orbito-frontal cortex (“reason”) does not make man unique, although it does make mankind intellectually arrogant, and that is fairly unique. 😉 Our physiological response to absurdity – laughter – does seem to be unique, though, but it’s one of many such things as you note here.

    You have a clear handle on what I was trying to do in this piece, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to see you dissect it further.

    Best wishes!

  2. Ty said, on December 31, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Hey Simon. After seeing this, I thought you’d enjoy something that came into my blogosphere today.

    http://gaygamer.net/2008/12/video_1ups_first_times.html

  3. deckard47 said, on January 4, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Hey,
    thought I’d hit you back today, nice thoughts you left over on my blog. Of course, when I got here, I saw this. I’m glad yo wrote this, I was looking around for something like this for a while. I read the article you’ve responded, and even though it seemed well-argued, I really wanted to argue against it (especially after playing PoP). So thanks, you hit this one out of the park.


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