Thursday, August 30, 2012

Babycastles Summit: The Bill Murray Theory of Game Design

John Teti of Gameological Society drew interesting parallels between game design trends and classic films of Bill Murray. The two films he specifically references are Groundhog Day (1993) and Scrooged (1988).
  • In both films, Bill Murray plays an asshole in the television industry who eventually becomes better due to supernatural forces that only he experiences.
  • In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's character, Phil Connors, is trapped reliving a single day over and over again. Through the course of the movie, he becomes relatively superhuman and gains intimate knowledge of the everyone in the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The film is regarded one of the greatest comedies of all time.
  • In Scrooged, Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, a cold-hearted television programming executive. Frank is visited by three ghosts who show him the error of his ways in the past, present, and future. The film is a zany, loud version of A Christmas Carol.
  • Imagine Bill Murray as the player and the worlds he inhabits are the video game systems.
  • In Groundhog Day, Phil replays the day over and over again until he gets better. He retains memories of past events, even though nobody else does. This is very similar to a videogame where the player can die and revive, gaining more knowledge whereas all the enemies replay their same routines.
  • Phil is ultimately able to leave Groundhog Day, essentially beating the game. But it took five essential steps for him to get there.
    1. Exploration and testing of the boundaries.
      • After realizing that he is reliving the same day, Phil decides to test the limits of the world. He drives his car in a crazy fashion, playing chicken with an incoming train, and when he is pulled over by a police officer, he makes fun of the situation by pretending to order fast food. As he drives his car, he claims, "I'm not going to live by their rules anymore!" This act gets him thrown into jail, but he wakes up the next morning back in his hotel room. He cheers as his test succeeded.
      • As a player entering a new game, you explore the mechanics and systems. You find out what are your strengths and your weaknesses, your abilities and your limitations.
    2. Strategic Action
      • After understanding the mechanics, Phil takes advantage of his superhuman ability. He courts Rita, played by Andie MacDowell, by taking her out on a date over and over again. Being the self-centered and misogynous personality that he is, he often says the wrong thing on the date and gets himself slapped in the face. However, he learns from his mistakes each time and corrects it in the following date, ultimately creating the perfect date.
      • The player plays with their perceptions of the conditions of the world.
    3. Failure
      • Phil tries to end the loop by committing suicide, but fails repeatedly. He electrocutes himself, gets hit by a truck, drives off a cliff, and jumps from a tall building, but none of his deaths can prevent the day from repeating.
    4. Reassessment and Growth
      • Nearing the end of the film, Phil shifts his focus on connecting with the people around him. He gains intimate knowledge of everyone in town. He also makes time out of his day to help people in need including saving a boy who falls from a tree and replacing a flat tire for a group of old women. Despite knowing that all these good action would be undone the next day, he still fits it into his personal routine.
      • He did not necessarily realize this was the goal for him to leave the loop, but he does it anyways. The relation between objective and personal growth may not be superficially obvious.
    5. Success
      • After he finally gets the girl, he was able to break out of the loop. He came out of there as a new man and in the final scene, even suggested to stay in the town.
  • Taking the five steps into account, we can define a "Groundhog Day game" as one that achieves player growth by the design of its world. In these games, failure is an option and the world has consistent ethos. The world itself is a source of guidance and the creator (the Hand of God) doesn't directly intervene. It leaves room for epiphany and also for disorientation. Examples of Groundhog Day games include Myst, Spelunky, Metroid, Journey, and Norrland (a game by Cactus).
  • In Scrooged, the three ghosts lead Frank around and punish him for not following their directions. In one scene with the ghost of Christmas past, the ghost tells Frank that he must have an emotional reaction when he sees his parents. He leads Frank by the neck even though Frank is completely against it. Instead of letting Frank have that emotional connection naturally, he basically forces him towards that path.
  • The ghost of Christmas present is a fairy who obnoxiously leads Frank around, very similar to The Legend of Zelda's Navi.
  • John defined a new term. To scrooge is to subvert the player's agency, prompting or making decisions for them. The Hand of God directs the player where to go and the player ends up not trusting the world.
  • Examples of scrooging include the "woman in the ear" that happen in many shooters like Splinter Cell: Conviction. Other examples are dialog boxes that pop up after you fail a few times asking, "Do you want to switch to easy mode?" or worse yet, a super guide mode that asks you to give up already and let the computer play the game itself. In the reboot of SSX, after failing a few times, the game allows the player to skip the level altogether while still gaining XP and bonuses from that level. The level does not even matter at that point. These mechanics let the players make the rules, in which case he's no longer the player anymore, he's a creator.
  • Choices are the fabric of the game and when you are able to simply skip the level, all efforts have nil value.
  • Some other examples of scrooging include internal monologues. In Arkham City, Batman constantly reminds himself that he should go to the next plot point, turning an open-world game into a very linear experience. In Alan Wake, Alan's internal monologues often gives the player the solutions to the puzzles. These types of scrooging alienates players from his own avatar.
  • Problems with scrooging is that it values nominal success over personal growth. Without failure, the Scrooged game skips steps 3 and 4 of the Groundhog Day model.
  • In the final scenes of each movie, you can clearly see the results of the different models. In Groundhog Day, Phil is genuinely a good person, having undergone a permanent change in his behavior. In Scrooged, he rants about having a second chance in life in a superbly crazy fashion. He seems completely crazy like he was tripping balls.
  • Scrooged games give you thrills and power trips, but these only last temporarily.
  • Scrooged games  are mass-market. These types of games are defined by business models. Older games followed the Groundhog Day model because they were arcade games that were meant to make the players pump as many quarters in the machine as possible. In the console generation, value was put into longer, more densely packed games, so games shifted to the Scrooged model to ensure more players are able to get through the content.
  • Groundhog Day games force you to be more intimate and nuanced with the mechanics and world.
  • In the current generation, games are too expensive to fail, so development cannot be put in the hands of the creative people.
  • In the indie scene, however, financial motive is secondary. Indie developers have modest resources and personal expression is not directed by marketing or the lowest common denominator.
  • There are also social factors. Helicopter parents (who over-direct their children's lives) tend to have better educated kids, but the kids are stunted in social development. Over-direction is not a good thing.
  • In the US, there is a safe playground movement where seesaws, merry-go-rounds, and anything deemed remotely dangerous are removed from playgrounds. However, studies have shown that protecting kids would make them more neurotic. Parents shepherding kids are more harmful to them.
  • Instead of letting kids go down a slide on their own, many parents put their kids on their laps and slide down with them. However, many kids get their legs caught on the side and the weight of their parents going down end up fracturing the kid's leg. This is a completely preventable disaster if the parents have more trust in their kids.
  • "I learned something, I gained something, I found something."
  • Hardcore vs. casual gamer is a false binary. Casual players are just like hardcore gamers but they are not so familiar with all the videogame tropes yet.
  • Survival horror needs procedural generation to keep it scary without scrooging the player.
  • Facebook games do not have true failure. Their type of failure, such as the withering of crops, is so binary and basic that it doesn't illicit any personal growth by overcoming them.

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