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While chowing down on workday lunches I’ve been reading The Hollywood Eye. It’s a book about what makes films enjoyable, moving, and generally impactful. Actually it’s the observations about what doesn’t work and why is the part most applicable to games–there are a lot of ways to take the player out of the game just as there are ways to take the viewer out of a movie. Game designers have the added complication of satisfying the desires of the player without complete control over what happens.

In the book there are 3 eyes: voyeuristic, vicarious, and visceral. Each is a sort of enjoyment center of our brains, if you will, which has an appetite for different aspects of the stories we experience. The voyeuristic eye is looking for spectacle, logic, beauty, and the new experience. It enjoys the visual for it’s own sake and it is quickly bored. The vicarious eye wants an emotional connection so it can be transported to new emotional vistas from the safety of it’s own life. It’s concerned with how genuine the emotions and action of the characters are and it has all the time in the world as long as the emotions are right. The visceral eye is the part that likes shock, gut-wrenching, and a physical reaction to the scene.

At first glance games would appear to be well suited good at satisfying the voyeuristic eye–we have lots of eye candy to go around and since all our sets are created from scratch its almost easier to take the player to a new world. However, our players are used to being transported to new lands and are a bit jaded to the effect. On top of that, the voyeuristic eye is quickly bored and with the player in control of the pacing its hard to keep the voyeuristic eye satisfied. Alice and Grim Fandango do pretty well at this.

The visceral eye would be my next bet for one games could tackle–and I think this one is managed on occasion, though its not as easy to impact the gut through a TV sized screen. Nonetheless–with the player in control there are some opportunities to really surprise the player with a monster or an unexpected even. More often then not games undermine this greatly by sucking us out with NISes. Id be hard pressed to find a game that does this better than Fatal Frame. Play it with the lights out, alone, at 2a if you dont believe me. System Shock 2 deserves an honorable mention in this category.

The vicarious eye is the hardest one for games, I think. Most games cast the player as the main character limiting their potential as an emotional backdrop. And since the other characters the player interacts with are nowhere as real as the player is, it hard to develop the sort of emotional connection that would interest the vicarious eye. I mean, when was the last time you cared about an NPC in one of these thingsor shared an emotional connection with one? Its an interesting limitation of the medium. The closest I’ve gotten recently is with, oddly enough, Full Spectrum Warrior. I felt responsible for my men as if they were peopleknowing that this training is used by real soldiers made me think that I should take this very, very seriously just as if I were a soldier. One of my men getting shot wasn’t just something I could reload–someday this could be real!

Whats struck me most about this book is how it has equipped me to evaluate games and understand why they didnt work for me when I previously relied on intuitive tools alone. I’m interested in seeing how I can apply these ideas to game design. Good stuff.