GDC 2010: Expressive Play


Ubisoft’s Jonathan Morin is, apparently, a music lover: he effectively used the metaphor of music to build an argument for expressive play during his session early Saturday afternoon.

It all started with Steve Vai, who Morin admires for the incredible amount of emotion Vai puts into his performances. “When Steve Vai plays,” he said, “he doesn’t need any words.” Everything just “flows”, conveying his meaning precisely to the audience.

Wouldn’t be awesome, Morin posited, if gamers could be like that?

He identified two key elements that enable expression in music: a common language, and phrasing.

The common language is the idea that an instrument works the same way regardless of who’s playing it, and that at a higher level, music works the same way (e.g. notes, timing) regardless of the instrument. In game terms he was essentially describing standards: genre standards, control standards, perhaps even platform standards.

Phrasing — in music — is the organization of a composition and the interpretive sense with which a performer brings out the meaning. An analog in games might be the idea of strategies: the means by which a player expresses his will.

“Musicians and players are after the same thing,” Morin argued. “They’re trying to understand the flow.”

But, he warned, game designers have a tendency to get lost in the details, to stack game mechanics in order to feed the player’s desire for “more”. “There’s this fallacy that innovation is equal to new mechanics,” he said, and warned designers to be conscious of the “fine line between innovation and alienation”.

He spent several minutes deconstructing the game Prototype, arguing that with its 50+ moves he had to spend too much of his time learning and not enough playing, or expressing. He was trying to “become” Alex (the game’s protagonist) but never quite got there, never quite found the flow. He argued that Prototype lacked a common language with other games in its genre and had lots of duplicate mechanics that didn’t contribute to expression, only to complication of the experience. That complexity inhibited his ability to phrase, and thus to play expressively.

“Don’t stop exploring new game mechanics,” he clarified, “but when we do it too much we’re asking the player to learn and not to feel. It’s like asking a musician to learn a new instrument each time he plays a song.”

In closing, he said, “Notes are limited in time: make sure every single one of them counts.”

Morin’s assertion that games ask us to learn too much was surprising and provocative. On one hand, I’ve been a proponent for the idea that when players stop learning, the game quickly becomes boring. On the other hand, I can totally see where he’s coming from, particularly in terms of his music analogy — I myself being a musician by hobby — if the player is busy learning mechanics, he’s unable to express himself through those mechanics, unable to find the flow.

Is Morin’s suggestion, then, that games should be simpler? Fewer, more straightforward mechanics and greater adherence to established conventions, in order to reduce the amount of player investment required before full expression becomes possible? It would seem so. I can certainly get onboard with the former — mechanical simplicity is a key goal of Cortex, in fact — but the latter is a stickier problem. Certainly there’s room in our industry for both genre conventions and creative innovation, and in fact both are necessary to advance the medium. But when it comes to innovation, if Morin’s thesis holds, game designers need to be extremely cognizant of the educational load on the player and figure out ways to minimize the distance between introduction and full expression in spite of that.