mechanical meaning

No grep this week.  How about some incoherent ramblings instead?

So I’m still catching up on this whole debate re: ‘what is a game,’ as I’m trawling through these threads.

As I play more of these ‘personal games,’ where indie devs are pouring their hearts out in experimental new formats, I find myself again looking inward, asking myself what story I want to tell with my own game.

But as I’ve mentioned before I don’t want to write a story, in fact I’m not sure I would even know how to if I tried.  Instead I want to create a platform for telling stories.  As the form of this procedural storytelling sandbox continues to take shape I am confronted with questions about the nature of playing games.  What’s the point?  Why do we do it?

Or more importantly in this context, why do I want to expend so much effort creating a game with meaning?

Creating games is something that I’ve always done, for as long as I can remember.  Not just video games, but games in the way kids turn anything into a game.  I always loved creating rules that invented a space for me and my friends to play in.  And so I’ve never really questioned what was the point; creating games was just the natural order of things.

But these were all games for the sake of fun.  A worthy endeavour, sure, but now I suddenly feel like I need to create a game with meaning, something that could be considered culturally important in some way.  This leads to a very different set of problems to be solved.

While struggling with these concepts I stumbled upon this discourse between Raph Koster and others debating if games should have a definition or not, amongst other topics.  In particular this comment from Richard Bartle struck a chord with me:

“Gameplay is what games have that nothing else has: it’s here where the symbolism has to lie if you want to talk about games as art. Anywhere else, it’s basically games being co-opted as other art.” –Richard Bartle

This is the source of my internal dissonance.  I want to create a simulation with deep emergent storytelling properties, yet I have no interest in writing any one specific story.  These two ideas seem incompatible, and this incoherency has created all sorts of conflict within me.  How can I have one without the other?

I’m beginning to understand that the two concepts really are mutually exclusive.  I am a writer of game mechanics, not a writer of literature.  I speak in a language of formal systems that when combined can be greater than the sum of their parts.  If any game I create was to have meaning it would come from the mechanics.

With this new understanding I am able to move on to a new source of confusion and self doubt!  I’ve read plenty of stories, and I know a good one when I see one, but could I tell you WHY a story is good (or bad, for that matter)?  Without this level of understanding of the structure of good storytelling, can I possibly create systems that allow such stories to emerge?  Further down the rabbit hole we go…

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