Chapter IV: Pullulation & Ludic Playability
Figure 40: Possible Worlds, Bifurcating.
4.1 Possible Worlds Landscapes
Digital worlds are procedural, which means that they can exist in a variety of states. The procedural description of a digital world defines a landscape of possible worlds: multiple world states and their relationships to one another. A digital world’s dynamics, defined by its makers, gives rise to a possible worlds landscape that is traversed by players.
One of the experiential pleasures of both narrative and games is pullulation, the feeling of negotiating multiple potential worlds, the tension of multiple possibilities, and the resolution and celebration of this indeterminacy. The term pullulation comes from a Borges story, “The Garden of Forking Paths’’ [9]. This story makes explicit what all stories have in common, which is the negotiation of potential worlds in the fictional world, the minds of fictional characters, and the mind of the reader.
Narrative action is predicated on conflict, and conflict is generated by incompatible possible world states: incompatibilities between the actual state of the fictional world and the dreams, plans, and beliefs of characters within that fictional world [69, p156]. Ludic interest is also predicated on diversification of possible worlds. Will Wright describes the ludic interest of divergent possible worlds in Go:
In Go, both players have a model of what’s happening on the board, and over time those models get closer and closer and closer together until the final score. At that point you have a total shared model of, you know, “you beat me.” (Laughter.) Up until that point, though, there’s quite a large divergence in the mental models that players have. Especially if you ask them what the score is, or “How are you doing?” They’ll frequently say, “I’m doing pretty well, here,” or “He’s whipping me.” Or that backwards thing, “Oh, he’s whipping me,” when really you’re the one winning. And it really comes down to how each person is mentally overlaying their territories onto this board. In each player’s mind, there’s this idea that “Oh, I control this and they control that, and we’re fighting over this.” They each have a map in their head of what’s going on, and those maps are in disagreement. And it’s those areas of maximum disagreement where the battles are all fought. You play a piece there, and I think “Oh, that’s in my territory, I’m going to attack it cause you’re in my territory.” Whereas you’re thinking, “Oh, that’s my territory, you’re invading me.” And finally, the battle resolves that in our heads, and then it’s pretty clear that, “Okay, that’s your territory and that’s mine.” So the game is in fact this process of us bringing our different mental models into agreement. Through battle. [63]
Marie-Laure Ryan’s principle of narrative tellability seeks “the diversification of possible worlds in the narrative universe” [69, p156; emphasis removed]. A corollary principle of ludic playability is responsible for ludic interest: diversification of possible worlds in games gives substance to phenomena such as contests, challenge, agency, winning, and losing. Placing a stone in Go closes off certain potential game states and opens up others. The game’s combinatorics generate a wild bifurcation of possible worlds from the placement of a single stone. Indeterminacy and interest approach zero as a Go approaches its end. The possible worlds which orbit the actual game board state converge towards equilibrium. No further moves are necessary. Both players pass, the score is counted, and the game is over.
When the possible worlds of a game converge, it ends. If convergence takes place before the game’s formal ending, participants end play on their own, as games with undiversified possible worlds are dull. Players often resign when it is clear they will lose, and Go has a handicap technique for making matches between players of disparate skill interesting.
The kernels of possible worlds diversification, such as chance, agency, and transformation, are operationalized differently in narrative and games. While narrative pullulation toys with the expectations and plans of characters and the expectations of the reader, ludic pullulation engages the expectations, plans, and actions of the player directly, since the reader is no longer a reader, but a player who participates in the action and directs travel across a landscape of possible worlds. Agency and chance are narratable (“Jane buys a lottery ticket and wins.’’), but agency and chance in games can exist at the same level of reality as us, the physical reality of the narrational machinery. Players act within the nexus of pullulating worlds.
The topographical features of a possible worlds landscape generates interesting narrative and ludic experiences. The structural relations that bind bifurcating possible mental and material worlds give rise to narrative and ludic experiences like planning, risk, strategy, threats, forced moves, power, contests, disguise, surprise, and optimism.
Game designers define possible worlds landscapes that players traverse. The dynamics and rules of a game shape its possible worlds landscape. Rules and dynamics constrain player input, limit reachable game states, limit transitions between possible game states, and automate game state transitions. A game’s rules are a web of constraints which hold its moving parts and experiences together, enable and prompt action on the part of the player, give intelligibility and plasticity to the system, imbue a miniature world with dynamics and life, generate the experience of responsibility, enable problem solving and contests, and give value to particular game states.
SimCity’s evolution from paint program to game is paradigmatic for thinking about the role of constraints and dynamics. SimCity began life as a level editor, a paint program for making “islands with little roads and cities on them.’’
I read that the level editing tool for Bungeling Bay was your inspiration for SimCity.
It was a character set that actually described a bunch of islands with little roads and cities on them. And so there was such a big area that I developed my own little character editing program. I found that I was having so much more fun with the paint program than I was with the game that after I finished the game I kept playing with the paint program. And it eventually evolved into SimCity [68, p436].
Apart from illustrating Wright’s propensity for making things rather than blowing them up, a feature that sets apart Maxis titles, the evolution of SimCity from paint program to game illustrates the role of constraints and dynamics. Comparing SimCity the paint program (Bungeling Bay level editor) and game (SimCity) is a productive thought experiment for evaluating the structure, function, and experiential effects of constraints.
Constraints can be instantiated in digital worlds as rules and dynamics, but they can also be mentally deployed by designers. One of Will Wright’s design practices is to build open simulation worlds, and then mentally impose a system of constraints, which makes the system more game-like (personal conversation). Possible constraints are play-tested alongside an existing system before they are fixed into a game’s code.
Rules are the abstractions that define a microworld, and give it intelligibility and plasticity. Constraints, dynamics, and rules give shape to a landscape of possible worlds, and carve out the topographical features that give rise to experiences such as agency, chance, exploration, planning, strategy, risk, regret, threats, forced moves, power, contests, winning, losing, challenge, inevitability, optimism, responsibility, empathy, disguise, and surprise.
4.2 Constraints & Ludic Playability
Experiences such as responsibility, risk, regret, and strategy are structurally dependent on constraints that interrelate possible worlds. If I choose to cross a rickety wooden bridge over a canyon which drops hundreds of meters into rapids swarming with sharks, I’m taking a risk. This risk is predicated upon the distance between the possible worlds of death below and living above:
Figure 41: Risk on a possible worlds landscape.
If after landing in the water I can somehow teleport myself back up to the top of the bridge, falling in the water has no consequences, and the risk involved in crossing the bridge evaporates. Threats are also predicated on a particular relationship between possible worlds:
Figure 42: Possible worlds landscape in which a threat is being made.
Loftus & Loftus articulate the experience of regret in terms of possible worlds:
“If only I had put on the radiation suit,” you say to yourself, “I wouldn’t have died that horrible death in the radiation chamber.” And since the alternative world in which you put on the radiation suit is very close to the “actual” world in which you didn’t, regret is very high. But since you saved the game, you can go back and create the alternative world, thereby eliminating the regret. So you do. Computer games provide the ultimate chance to eliminate regret; all alternative worlds are available [39, p32].
Part of the allure of games, Loftus & Loftus argue, is risk, regret, and repair through replay. Replay does not eliminate risk, as all alternative worlds are not available in games. Limited chances and incomplete alternate world recall means that replay doesn’t violate the constraints that create risk and regret. Pac-Man has multiple lives, but a fixed quantity of them, so getting caught by ghosts is a threat. The Legend of Zelda has no lives, but when Link is killed, game state components are rolled back. Link is returned to the dungeon entrance with additional costs incurred: Link only has three hearts, and resources such as money or bombs spent during the attempt are not refunded. Undoing what the player has done is an intrinsic penalty that gives weight to actions and can be used to generate regret, risk, danger, failure, and winning. This intrinsic cost is similar to what happens when some other kid comes over and knocks down the wooden blocks you’ve been carefully assembling into a castle. Bullies are one way to add risk, strategy, failure, and winning to a playground.
Eliminating alternative possible worlds from a game’s state space can yield powerful experiential effects. While getting killed in Pac-Man feels like getting caught and starting over rather than death, Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy 7 generates substantial empathy and loss, rather than a simple feeling of regret and a desire to retry. Pac-Man’s demise is preceded by a high degree of perceived agency and replay potential, but Aerith’s death is marked by a loss of control and a sense of inevitability, a feature shared by the death of Floyd in Planetfall (many players cried), and also the death of the homeless man in Groundhog Day, who dies despite the efforts of Bill Murray’s character in numerous parallel worlds. Agency in a multiform world, it seems, can be used to heighten a sense of impotence and loss, by affording the traversal of multiple possible worlds only to reveal that a particular outcome is rigidly immutable. While thwarting agency is generally not a designer’s goal, Final Fantasy 7, Planetfall, and Groundhog Day illustrate the expressive potential of such a strategy.
SimCity deploys limited funds as a ludic constraint on player activity. A fixed quantity of funds demands allocation and strategizing about how to obtain more. If a limitless quantity of money were available, we would have something closer to a paint program; there would be no limit to how one could modify the city, and agency allocation would not be a problem to solve. Problem solving only exists within a context of constraints.
Constraints carve out a space of reachable states, and the pathways of the state space add intrinsic meaning to particular states. Winning and losing states of a game are not interesting if they are adjacent to every other game state. If at any point during a game of chess a winning move is available to both me and my opponent, we no longer have a contest, but a collaborative exercise in arranging chess pieces; such free accessibility robs winning and losing of meaning. A degree of inaccessibility is a necessary condition for winning and losing states to exist. This principle can be generalized to goal oriented activity in systems which aren’t contests at all, such as Will Wright’s constructionist toys. If any sequence of moves yields a player goal state, the sequence of moves and goal states lose their value. Winning exists in the face of challenge:
Figure 43: Challenge and winning on a possible worlds landscape.
Goals and solutions have meaning when alternate event sequences are conceivable where the goal’s attainment was thwarted. This principle of ludic playability is isomorphic to Ryan’s principle of narrative tellability; interesting conflict is constructed by divergent event sequences, imagined or real. Alternate event sequences give agency, conflict, problem solving, failure, and goal states meaning. The participatory pleasures of contests and problem solving are predicated on constraints.
If a system allows players random access to possible world states, then we end up with a system more like a paint program than a game. Paint programs, as Wright points out, provide access to huge state spaces, but only a tiny fraction of accessible states are actually interesting. Games, on the other hand, constrain accessible states to those which are interesting. Interesting failure states are an important design rule of thumb proposed by Wright. If a player fails to direct a sim in The Sims to the bathroom, the results are still entertaining. When players push on the boundaries of Super Mario Bros., the game world rewards players, rather than breaking. An extreme case of interesting failure states is Bridge Builder, a game by Alex Austin. Watching a failed bridge’s spectacular collapse is far more interesting than watching a bridge work properly, because a bridge that is working properly doesn’t do much. All of these games reward subversion.
What about games in which players always lose, such as Missile Command? Is failure meaningless because all play results in loss? At the global scale failure is meaningless, since winning the game isn’t possible or conceivable, but at the scale of shooting down incoming missiles, protecting a city, and completing a level, failure and success have meaning, since alternate event sequences and outcomes are possible. The principle of ludic playability, conceivable alternate event sequences where a goal’s attainment is thwarted or successful, is adhered to in Missile Command.
Wright describes game players as climbing solution landscapes of possible world states to reach goals. These landscapes are formed by the geological processes of game dynamics. Game dynamics constrain reachable states and establish transitions among them. SimCity’s dynamics offer resistance along certain event pathways, and help along others; some states are hard to reach, and others are not. A possible worlds landscape with no constraints is the equivalent of mountain climbing in Kansas.
4.3 Input Constraints
Lack of input constraints poses a huge interface design hurdle: if millions of possible worlds are accessible from this one, how is the player to select, let alone conceive of, an adjacent world? Trained designers and sophisticated players use mental microworlds to navigate through vast landscapes of possible worlds. Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, for instance, is an architecture microworld whose constraints help people navigate the vast space of possible structures. Games constrain the types of things players can do for reasons of ludic interest as well as intelligibility.
The graphical user interface championed by Apple structures user input so that only valid inputs are allowed. A command line interface will happily accept any sequence of characters, but only a miniscule fraction of possible inputs actually do something. Crawford conceptualizes the design advance of the GUI as a reconfiguration of the ratio between conceivable and reachable states. GUIs are better than command line interfaces in establishing expectations consistent with what the system actually does, resulting in a tighter mapping between conceivable and reachable states [16, p62].
Elegant input structures use a small vocabulary of user commands for a wide variety of purposes. Super Mario Bros. is a masterful example of how elegant dynamics can give intelligible and multiform meaning (activating blocks, breaking blocks, leaping over things, squashing creatures, variable jumping height) to a simple input, such as pushing the jump button. Mario’s water pack in Super Mario Sunshine allows Mario to float, fly, clean things, water plants, push switches, and swim more quickly through water.
4.4 Motivating Rules
Motivating the rules of a digital world is a topic that is too large to be treated here in depth. In general, rules can be motivated and explained through syntonicity and scripting play, topics discussed earlier. Limited resources, for example, are often represented as money or minerals, and the removal of entities from a game world is often represented as death. The Legend of Zelda uses myth syntonicity to organize the world into a sensical whole, and motivate player action. Go’s dynamics are syntonic with space, power, and contests. As discussed earlier, syntonicity lends microworlds intelligibility, and allows games to have cultural currency beyond their magic circles.
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