Thursday, June 30, 2016

An E-mail

C. Lee sent me a note about Danganronpa, He describes it as an "allegorical detective story", but what's most interesting is the brilliant bit of writing he added after that. Here it is (what's next is C. Lee, not me):
Something that struck me while playing this was the role of repetition. Certainly in a lot of the Japanese video games I’ve played, there’s a distinct sense of recurrence, of repetition, of the notion of a theme and variations. Take Persona 4, for example: You identify a missing person, go searching for them, find the dungeon they’re trapped in, and save the person. The game is essentially recapitulates this pattern, with various changes, through the end. Danganronpa is very similar: You learn someone has been murdered, and you go through a series of determined steps to figure out who the murderer is. The pattern plays out very rigidly, but within that pattern, there are surprisingly innovative variations that keep players on their toes.

My suspicion is there’s something about this repetition, this implication that the game world follows a distinct pattern, that’s meant to be comforting to the player. “Ah, so there are rules governing this world,” the player thinks. “It’s not just random events following one after another; there’s an overall purpose and direction to what I’m doing.” The implication that there are rules encourages the player to figure out those rules and bend them to his or her advantage, to seek freedom of action within constraints.

An open-world game, on the other hand, lacks this kind of overt structure. The implication is that you can go and do whatever you want, whenever you want. And yet, this freedom is often only the illusion of freedom. A truly open world defies attempts to balance difficulty spikes and create narrative flow, and so there is generally always some hidden constraint that channels the player down a certain path. The promise of the open world, in other words, is like that button placed at crosswalks for pedestrians to push so the light will change faster; it only provides the illusion of control to mask the reality that the pedestrian actually has no power to bend traffic to his or her will.

In other words, one style of game makes the rigid rules immediately apparent; the other hides them behind an illusion. An armchair sociologist might say these games reflect the societies that created them. Japan is a highly ordered society, with multiple rules, spoken and unspoken, that govern behavior. The U.S. looks like a society that offers comparative freedom, but the reality is that beneath the illusion of freedom, there are also multiple rules, spoken and unspoken, that determine what’s possible and what isn’t. Our crosswalk button is arguably freedom of speech, which acts as a kind of pressure valve and provides the illusion of control and self-determination.

My suspicion is that both types of games have pluses and minuses. The Japanese type is arguably going to mentally prepare a person to work within constraints, and yet not encourage that person to be self-motivated in exploring alternative possibilities. The American type is arguably going to encourage self-motivated exploration, but not necessarily to prepare someone to tolerate the frustrations of a world with boundaries and rules. In other words, I suspect that the Japanese type of game is likely to encourage a player to try to untie a Gordian knot, and the American type is likely to encourage a player to try to cut it. Given that both approaches can be useful in life, this is surely an argument in favor of being omnivorous when it comes to entertainment.

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