Archive for December, 2013

Unified Rules and Intrinsic Secrets

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Apple on Tree

I am fascinated by the parallel between the player's experience and the scientific process. By playing with a system we get a feel for the rules that govern it. We build up this data on what is possible in this system, and our brains look for patterns in that data to summarize it. By throwing balls, dropping apples, and looking at the moon for a while, humankind was able to formulate the theory of gravity. Formulating a mathematical theory is just another step in a process of finding patterns.

In the above except from the No Ordinary Genius documentary Richard Feynman talks about how research in physics is similar to watching some gods play a chess game without knowing the rules and only being able to see parts of the board. You may learn from careful observation about how the bishop doesn’t change color, or how it may only move along a diagonal. Or you may witness castling and you didn’t expect it.

In old games a lot of gameplay elements where left to be discovered by playing, and not explained verbally using tutorial text. And nowadays there is a resurgence of games that do this, the most extreme example that comes to mind being Starseed Pilgrim which gives almost no hints about many of its mechanics.

Feynman talks about how sometimes in physics there are these unifications and the theories become simpler. They can seem more complicated (possibly because they explain more) but they are actually simpler. Then he says that it doesn’t happen in Chess and that the rules seem to get more complicated. I think this is not true for all rules.

If you only ever saw a queen moving diagonally and suddenly it moved a square horizontally to the left, and maybe later on you saw it moving three squares horizontally to the right, you may think that queens move diagonally, except horizontally three square to the right, and one square to the left, but over time you might realize that they can move any number of squares horizontally and everything becomes simpler again.

However, I assume Feynman is referring to rules like castling or promotion of a pawn to a queen that feel like rules added on top of the previous rules, and can never be unified. Aesthetically these types of rules often feel less beautiful to me. I consider a game that can be "unified" a sign of a beautiful game. It is beautiful from a pure game-design aesthetic sense but in addition the moments when the brain connects these distinct elements into a single whole are magical.

Tower

Miegakure brings these concepts from science and games together very tightly because it is as much a game as it is a realization of a mathematical concept. Miegakure is built such that it is simple at first but if you look deeper you can build a better model of what is happening. For example you can play almost the entire game just using the large cubes (actually Tesseracts), but you may gradually learn that your position within each cube does matter. And so your model might expand from thinking you see these thick slices of objects, to knowing you see along an infinitely thin slice and that suddenly explains why things change based on your position (etc...) and your model becomes simpler again.

And there is a beautiful example involving certain blocks being longer along the fourth dimension but because of spoilers I can’t really talk about it in details. But basically, players can build a working ruleset of what is happening, and that allows them to solve puzzles, but that ruleset is very simple. Even people that understand the math well seem to sometimes still use the approximate ruleset because it works so well. I know I do. I love the idea that you could explain the simple rules to someone and they would be able to play, or you could make a game that would be just about these rules, but they are in fact part of a larger, more mysterious whole.

Bombing a wall in Zelda

I am reminded of the gameplay layering that happens in good Zelda games: a crack on the wall might not mean much to the player at first, but once the bombs are acquired the whole game world is seen from a new light. In Miegakure the secrets are more intrinsic, and when someone comes to truly understand the unifying rule it is a beautiful thing to see.

[Part 1]<Part 2>[Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6]