February 26, 2008

Message Me, Videogames

by Nick Montfort · , 7:17 am

“I have poured the message of love and peace and happiness in Space Channel 5. These were the emotions and desires of this game.” -Tetsuya Mizuguchi

“Well, there are lots of message games coming out now. … [but] a lot of people like cake.” -Erik Wolpaw

What does it mean for a video game to have messages? Do any good ones have messages? Are there games that aren’t really fun to play, don’t have messages, but are still good games? That is, can games have anything besides message and gameplay?

Following up on recent discussion, I’ll describe here why I think Portal has more of a message than Passage. (I’ve tried to keep the spoilers to a minimum in this one…)

“Rrrrrgh,” says half the Internet, “Portal is the optimal game and it doesn’t need a message. Thinking about messages is stupid.” “Mmmmmf,” says another one-fifth of the Internet, “it does have a message! It has a message about existential despair, about a character being tormented for no reason, about the destruction of god by man.” “AAAAAAAAA!” says most of the rest of the Internet.

When I wrote my recent post about Portal, describing it as excellent and lauding its design accomplishments but not being effusive enough in my praise, I was careful not to deny that the game has a message. This seems to be consistently denied by Portal developers, though. Wolpaw sets up Portal as a contrast to “message games” and none of the developer commentary says anything about the meaning of the game.

I simply described the game as “purportedly message-free.” Besides being suceptible to the same existentialist readings that most video games, and most situations in life, can be, I think the game does actually say something. I agree with Joe that the game is not without a message, but is “underdeveloped” in this regard. (And, yes, I do appreciate all the comments from the Internet.) And I think this aspect of the game is underdeveloped because everybody working on the game more or less attempted to avoid it. The result is a very funny and sinister message, delivered well, but still, one that is stifled. This message could have been developed into a commentary on post-industrialization and technology of the sort that is seen in Bad Machine, or to say something about people’s relationship to training in modern society, or to comment on how we distinguish “good” and “bad” technologies. But, sure, it says that technology both oppresses us and liberates us. It says that you can overcome challenges by making connections instead of deploying your own firepower.

Passage, on the other hand, doesn’t have a message. At least, it has very little in the way of message. It has empty treasure chests that look like they’re going to have treasure inside. But this is not a pronouncement from the game developer. It’s not even a wry or funny comment. Instead, it’s something you can read meaning into in various ways:

Passage offers an environment that people can make meaning out of. Obviously there are some limits to the kind of meaning we’re going to be able to make: The treasure chests are not silver spaceships launching and taking us away to distant star systems. But diverting to pick one of them up also doesn’t trigger a cut-scene where we get praised for our wily discovery. It doesn’t make us more evil, or more good, influencing how others behave toward us. It’s just something which we can think about as relating to life. It’s pretty easy to think about it as being related to life, in fact, in multiple ways, whatever our value system.

So I put Passage in the category of games that aren’t fun, don’t really have messages, but are nevertheless successful because their concept works – they are ways of thinking about something else. In this case, the something else is life.

I did begin by mentioning Space Channel 5. Many of the best games with messages combine fun and relevant play with messages that are effectively portrayed in the fictional world (cut scenes, game spaces and encounters, and so on). The gameplay and the fiction relate to one another and to the message. I discover a plot, my seeming enemies turn out to be my friends, and as I discover these things, I am united with the world by dancing with others. Space Channel 5 is utterly unlike both Portal and Passage, but Mizuguchi isn’t kidding when he says the game has a message. And just as the gameplay accomplishments of Portal couldn’t have come together without the fundamental design innovation made in Narbacular Drop, the message of Space Channel 5 and the concept of Passage are there by design, and it took effort to conceive and nourish them.

7 Responses to “Message Me, Videogames”

  1. Chris Lewis Says:

    I’m not going to claim to be much of the artist, but isn’t Portal’s message pretty much whatever you want it to be, as it they avoided it altogether? It seems that the freshness of the gameplay, only one speaking character (who isn’t human), and the fact they worked so hard to avoid saying anything, allows players to take many different readings.

    I do agree about Space Channel 5.

    “Are there games that aren’t really fun to play, don’t have messages, but are still good games?”

    I don’t think you can have a good game that isn’t fun to play, whether you derive that fun from the gameplay or the narrative. I’m of the opinion that quality gameplay or narrative can make up for deficiencies in the other aspect. For all intents and purposes, the LucasArts adventures had awful gameplay with some truly bizarre puzzles (particularly in Sam and Max), but the very strong narratives balanced that out, creating classic games. Because the question appears to be impossible to solve, it’s not answerable!

    I do think that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a good game that you could not read some form of message into, if you were looking hard enough and willing to grasp at enough straws. Alexey Pajitnov once described Tetris’ compelling quality as a need for humans to clean up the chaos of the bricks falling down the screen. That’s a deep message! I think that the very act of performing something or overcoming some obstacle which leads to enjoyment says something about the human condition. Although I am challenged right now to think about a message for games where the physics are the key: Super Mario Bros. being a great example. What’s the message there? That we all wish to be empowered to master our interactions with the environment in which we live?

    Terrible games, that are broken at a fundamentally technological level, aren’t able to communicate a message because you aren’t able to properly interact with them.

  2. josh g. Says:

    (Spoiler warning)

    While the message in Passage is open to interpretation (as is Portal’s, as is anything’s), I don’t think it’s without any message. The game’s scoring and mechanics express value judgements, such as:
    – Once you’re in a lasting relationship, it’s much harder to attain and achieve things of significance.
    – Treasures that you do find are more valuable if you have someone to share them with.

    As an experiment, I replayed with a few strategies for optimal score, and found it much easier to achieve a higher score when alone than when bringing the woman along.

    It’s debatable what sort of value the score is meant to convey, but it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to equate “higher score” with “better” when looking at the message of the game.

  3. Patrick Says:

    I think BigBoss put it well in the last one, to the effect that there is a difference between our nuerochemistry and our nueroelectricity, or our emotions and thoughts. Passage makes you think which triggers some complex emotions (in a number of players anyway), while Portal is a simpler emotional experience which makes you think about manipulating time-space in a lot of interesting, specific instances. I think we should stay in the perspective of our own brains reacting and not get caught up in semantics, too much – some semantics is alright.

  4. Dominic Says:

    Doesn’t this touch the age-old issue of interpretability and meaning? I am of the opinion that an interpretation needs not be rooted in deciphering the author’s intent, and so any comment from an author regarding the fact that “this was really supposed to mean that”, or “this had no intended meaning” is mostly irrelevant. Not completely, but mostly. I would argue that all game mechanics are based on assumptions – philosophies if you will – of the world, very much akin to what josh g. outlined earlier, and that whether they were intended to reflect X rather than Y is meaningless. This line of thinking faces the problem of determining valid criteria for differing interpretations (i.e. not all is the same and not every interpretation is as good as another, treasure chests are not silver spaceships indeed), but at least has the merit of permitting multiple interpretations, unlike the search for the “intended meaning”. I think games are much more prone to that because of the emergent nature of rules. Games routinely get out of hand and go beyond what their creator intended – that’s why there are teams of testers working for weeks or months on them. If they do their job right, all is well, and the game goes somewhat along the intended direction (yet even then, the player’s skill and knowledge can be completely out of the expected range and warp the experience – for one player, Super Mario Galaxy is about freedom of movement and paidia, while for another, it is about achieving perfect coordination and executing pre-scripted sequences). Sometimes, there’s a few exploits left over (was the Rocket Jump in Quake intended? Is the game making a statement that “sometimes to succeed you have to shoot yourself in the foot”?).

    In all cases, I would say that all games are interpretable. One can always infer meaning from any game, though it is true that some showcase it, or otherwise encourage this activity, more than others. Labeling a game a “message game” or a “not-a-message game” tells us more about its production context and the team that made it, about the game’s origin, than about its actual content.

  5. Zack Says:

    When I played the game the score was the one part that didn’t make sense. To me it doesn’t belong, but I wonder if that isn’t the point:

    The score is the only part of Passage that connects to other “lives” — everything else is this private little journey (with a partner, if you choose). And it’s just positional; it’s pointless in the game. Yes, you can focus on maximizing score, but I think you will have missed the point of the journey. The real life parallel is “keeping up with the Joneses,” and to focus on that in real life is, again, to miss the point.

    I think the game equates “higher” with “better, but so what?” That’s my take, at least.

  6. Jonathan Leenman Says:

    I think that the way both Portal and Passage do or do not tell a message is what makes them quite similar. They both do not really have a specific message to tell and they both do offer a virtual world / story in which the player can more or less interpret his own message. This gives interesting stuff to discuss about as a lot of people have different opinions about the supposed message(s) of these products.
    The difference is though, that Passage seems to be purposely designed to imply having a message in this way, while with Portal this seems to be a mere side-effect of the developers wanting to create a game that focuses for as much as possible on a certain game play mechanic.

    As a product I really do appreciate Passage, to me it is a fantastic barely interactive non-story, seriously… but if we’re talking about games I cannot say that I think that Passage is a game at all*. And Portal, well… that’s just a game, an awesome game.

    I don’t really play games for the message I expect it to tell me.

    * http://grandtextauto.org/2008/02/24/pvp-portal-versus-passage/#comment-208750

  7. Peter Says:

    Okay, anything can be interpreted if one really wishes. One can read into tea cup if he really wishes! So, I think whether games do have message or not is not as important as whether games merit themselves for deeper interpretation. Some mentioned Super Mario, and I’ve heard of academic interpretation of that game, and honestly, I think it’s nothing more than reading into tea cup. Seeing that Nintendo is all about casual party games now, I doubt there is much meaning into Super Mario’s design.

    But “how a game expresses its messages” is a whole other topic. As I believe that game’s unique advantage over any other form of medium is its interactivity, or the gameplay, I believe Passage is well above Portal on this one, since the difference between how much they rely on other types of medium is vast, and clear.

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