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Author Topic: Video Games: Abstraction vs. Immersion  (Read 1414 times)
Kevadu
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« on: June 09, 2010, 11:01:29 PM »

Here is a colossal topic that relates to everything from whether RPGs are a 'dying' genre to the recent trends in motion controls.  In some sense I suppose it could be considered the driving force behind the whole video game industry.  So I'm sure I can do it justice off of the top of my head in a few paragraphs.

First, let me define what I mean by 'abstraction' and 'immersion'.  By 'abstraction' I mean the symbolic representation of entities within a game and their abilities in the context of the game.  You might have something that represents your character and rules that guide how that character can act and these things can be completely unrelated to your own physical abilities.  By 'immersion' I refer to the desire to create more lifelike experiences, and directly mapping what happens in the game to the actions of the player.

Immersion has always been limited by technology and not our imaginations.  In fact, given that the ultimate goal of immersion is to reproduce a life-like experience, immagination isn't even an issue.  In the old days your 'character' in a game was a vaguely-person-shaped blob of pixels that could move left or right.  Now we talk about 3D displays and motion controls.  These things (when used right) really can increase immersion, but I think we are also sacrificing something along the way.

Imagine, if you will, at some point in the future we have technology on par with the famous Star Trek holodecks.  That is the 'holy grail' of immersion.  Some might argue it's the holy grail of gaming.  Certainly it would be a novel experience that I would be happy to try out if the technology existed, but one must also consider the limitations of this approach.  In this scenario you have increased immersion to the point where the 'character' is only capable of doing what the 'player' can do.  But part of the whole appeal of video games is being able to do things in them that we could never do in real life.  If you take that away then what is the point?  OK, the holodeck would be really cool to be able to see and experience things that would be impractical otherwise, but if that's all there is to it then it's no longer even a game.

Abstraction in games predates video games by thousands of years.  Classic games like chess or go evolved out of abstract simulations of warfare.  Compared to modern video games these are incredibly primitive representations indeed, but are the games actually worse off for it?  Make no mistake, the abstractions were developed out of necessity.  This was long before computers and there was no other way to do things.  But the games live on because people have found intrinsic value in those abstractions.

Of course you can go too far in terms of abstraction as well.  If the player isn't deciding something then it's a simulation, not a game.  Some might argue the early parts of FFXIII were kind of like this, since you could basically 'play' it just by holding down X and running forward.  That's bad game design.  A game designer needs to think about precisely what kind of challenge to present to the player.  That challenge can be cerebral (strategy games), reflexive ('twitch' shooters), or even purely physical (not that there are many video games like that...).  Different choices here lead to different kinds of games, but I'm not going to decide that one category is 'better' than another.  That's an issue of taste.

Now what does this all have to do with RPGs?  RPGs have traditionally been an abstraction-heavy genre.  Indeed, pen-and-paper RPGs were developed the way they are again out of necessity.  Computers were still something of a rarity and not nearly as capable as they are today when D&D was created.  So the development of traditional RPGs is closer to the development of board games than computer games, though the goal is different.  A traditional strategy boardgame is a strictly competitive match between two (or more) players, while something like D&D is a cooperative experience in which players and DM work together to tell a story.  The DM can also serve as a kind of opponent, though, so it's a fairly unique experience.

So what challenges does a good RPG present the player?  Certainly there is some strategy.  Not just in the actions the player takes in combat, but also how they equip themselves, develop their character, find clues, etc.  Things like being clever and avoiding an enemy encounter should be rewarded.  That's not the case in most computer (using the term generically here: can also mean console, handheld, whatever) RPGs, which often effectively punish the player for avoiding an encouter by making them miss out on experience, money, items, etc.  However, most of them do a good job of rewarding other things like exploration (finding secret rare stuff), conversation (gaining side quests, etc) and the like.  Note that FFXIII fails miserably at those things too...

Computer RPGs have a bit of an identity crisis.  RPGfan's podcast last week talked about this:  What actually is a computer RPG?  Literally it's a game in which you play a role, but that's practically meaningless.  Any game in which the player takes on the role of a character within the game (i.e., practically all games these days) could be considered an RPG under that definition.  But consider the history.  The term was coined in reference to pen and paper games during a time when the kind of abstractions (stats, hit points, etc) we expect in an RPG were necessary to make the game work.  These days in a video game a lot of them don't seem necessary any more, which is the source of all the confusion over the definition of an RPG.  However, as I have been leading up to through this entire long rambling rant, there can be inherent value in those abstractions.  Even if they are necessary, they can still be fun.  That's why we play RPGs, after all.  So don't stress about the literal name, as that's a historical oddity.  An 'RPG' should be defined by exactly what we know and love them for:  The abstractions (stats, experience, etc) and mechanics (strategic combat, exploration, puzzles, etc).

These days there are more and more game borrowing RPG mechanics, and that's fine.  But what I dislike is the decline of the 'pure' RPG.  Seems like everything is an action-RPG or some kind of hybrid these days.  Well, that does seem to be what sells.  Maybe it's that immersion factor.  However, personally I enjoy the abstractions and I don't particularly want to see them go away.

And I think I wrote enough...

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Uru
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« Reply #1 on: June 10, 2010, 12:33:59 AM »

That was quite the read man...

You say that everything is turning into some form of hybrid, which I agree with some exceptions. But, isn't that their (japanese and western devs) only way to innovate? With the head honcho from capcom saying that the japanese devs are completely stagnant and so far behind western devs (which i dont quite agree with) and western devs riding high on their laurels of Fallout and Mass Effect, is the future going to be...

wow, i just confused myself on that... im not quite sure what I was getting at there. I'll try again tomorrow when im not sleepy, lol.
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Aeolus
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« Reply #2 on: June 10, 2010, 01:38:29 AM »

IMHO RPGs started off as an option for more intellectually inclined gamers versus the more reflex oriented gamer. However today I feel that other genres have been assimilating the planning and growth mechanics of RPGs while RPGs themselves have begun to incorporate a level of skill into their own gameplay. One way to look at the situation is by looking at examples of older games on a scale between RPGs and the more action oriented genres.

Listed from 'entirely stat/menu driven RPGs' to 'pure action games' I have...

Final Fantasy...Super Mario RPG...Tactics Ogre...Secret of Mana...Castlevania SotN...Legend of Zelda...Super Metroid...Super Mario Bros...Sonic the Hedgehog

(btw TO was added into that list for the reason that it involves spacial reasoning beyond being in the front row or back, and Sonic was added because SMB still provides power ups to enhance your character's abilities for as long as you are able to keep them versus Sonic's entirely short lived powerups and the only relevant numbers are time left and if rings =/= 0 or not.
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Uru
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« Reply #3 on: June 10, 2010, 01:20:04 PM »

Speak of the devil! Shinji Mikami said something today relating to this:

http://kotaku.com/5559926/resident-evil-creator-jrpgs-were-never-popular-in-the-west

In that same article, Bioware adds their two cents.
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MeshGearFox
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« Reply #4 on: June 10, 2010, 07:00:06 PM »

Quote
IMHO RPGs started off as an option for more intellectually inclined gamers versus the more reflex oriented gamer.

I used to think that too, when I was younger, but then I realized that playing Doom was a more intellectually taxing experience than a lot of RPGs that were around at the same time, because Doom actually requires a level of skill and planning and knowledge about how the game mechanics worked, whereas most RPGs in those days consisted of grinding.

So here's the problem. A lot of the features of traditional RPGs -- it's hard to improve them. A traditional, turn-based battle system is always going to trend towards "hold down A to win" style gameplay, and Press-Turn was really the only thing I've seen that countered that all that effectively (SJ should've had press-turn, I think). With a traditional system, it's hard to give weapons really meaningful characteristics (outside of just like, different stat boosts) without turning into number wonk (FFIX and Strange Journey were probably the best examples I've seen at countering this. Contact to a lesser extent. Later dragon quest games also sort of dealt with this but not as effectively (IE, DQ8's different weapon classes, or weapons that hit different patterns of enemies). It's like... Well, okay. Here's an example.

STALKER is an FPS/RPG hybrid. More open-ended FPS, less RPG. Each weapons has stats, but mostly these are sort of approximations. They all have a very different feel to them. So, for instance, a weak pistol might end up better for your because they have relatively little kickback and have a decentish clip size. Shotguns are really powerful, but they're slow to reload, so it might be better in some situations to use some sort of automatic shotgun with more than two chambers (I think those exist). Stuff like that.

And in King's Field (The first US PSX one) I thought the weapons definitely felt different in terms of range and stuff.

With a turn based system it's more just numbers and fuck this I'm tired ofw riting.
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