Thursday, March 1, 2012

Homeostasis and the Asshole

My latest PopMatters article is now live: Homeostasis and the Asshole.

This is an admittedly design heavy piece about understanding games as systems independent of the player, or at least player agency. At its heart though, it is about we as players and type of worlds we want to inhabit. Personally, I want to world that fits snugly, that I can explore without worrying I will encounter the hand of god forcing me onto illogical paths. I want game worlds that bend and stretch and react to my decisions elegantly. And frankly, this is asking a lot.

How do we understand and analyze these qualities in a game in the first place? I think homeostasis is a good place to start, in which case we should imagine the game world devoid of my choice, inhabited by an ideal robotic player. Imagine the grasslands in Far Cry 2 as the set of a film instead of a vibrant world prone to chaos.  This ideal player might have an adventure, moving one location to another, killing a few bad guys, running into trouble, without over altering the set's variables more than expected. The fictional player may never get lost, never all off a cliff unwittingly, never break a sweat even. Now what if I messed it all up? What if chose to only travel by foot, or only use a pistol, or, like a crazy person, play with permanent death? How much give does this system have?

In the case of Far Cry 2, quite a bit in fact. Like our own bodies, these miraculous self-balancing machines, the system of Far Cry 2 regulates player input elegantly and beautifully. In fact, the most compelling game worlds implement homeostatic features with ease. I like this vision of games as systems, separate from my choices. It means each play experience is a meeting of two systems - we both redefine ourselves in relation to a mutual give and take.

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