6 August, 2016
While discussing games with a friend, we started talking about abstractions. While some games attempt to simulate reality, not every element in a game is a direct simulation of reality. Some elements are abstractions of reality.
Let’s take a look at abstractions and why they’re used.
Taking things literally
Sometimes people look at game and think some particular behavior is silly. A classic example is the early Ultima games, where characters say simple words when interacting with NPCs. For example, most NPCs respond to “NAME”, “JOB”, and “HEALTH” in Ultima IV.
Taking this literally, it seems a bit silly. Imagine someone in the offline world coming up to you and barking one word commands at you. “NAME!” “JOB!” “HEALTH!” It’d be a little off-putting, to say the least.
But, a better interpretation of this is that this standardizes and summarizes the conversation you’re having. Typing in “name” means that the avatar asks someone’s name. “Excuse me, could you tell me your name?” But, without having to store all that extra fluff that would get tedious to read every time you wanted to talk to an NPC.
Of course, people take this a step further. Someone wandering up to you and asking your name out of the blue might seem slightly less off-putting, but still odd. Would you give your name to someone who just walked up to you?
Again, we can look at this as an abstraction of what is really going on. The Avatar might be going up to people and engaging in a bit of chit-chat. Asking about the weather or some other trivia. After a bit of talking, the Avatar then says, “Excuse me, I didn’t catch your name….”
That would make a lot more sense in context. But, do you really want to read dozens if not hundreds of instances of small talk in the game? Probably not.
Let’s take a look at this in another game, such as the common complaint that enemies in MMOs are nearly blind. While you’re fighting one enemy, another enemy seemingly a few yards away does nothing, even though they are likely within seeing distance or at least within earshot of the terrible din a combat would create. So, why don’t they come to help?
This time, we’re seeing an abstraction of space. Instead of putting enemies a distance that would make them unable to see or hear combat, the game assumes that they are actually further away than they appear. Otherwise, enemies would be spread out quite a bit, and after fighting one enemy you’d have to wander around a lot to find the next enemy to kill.
Abstractions in other type of games
Some games are almost entirely abstractions. Take chess as an example; it’s an abstraction of a battle between two sides. The abstraction is pretty deep here, with rules about how each piece moves that seem only vaguely related to the piece. I mean, how does a castle tower move clear across the board, let alone move at all?
Board games work similarly. Many board games with “spaces” you move through are an abstraction of distance. In the board game Clue, moving from location to location to collect clues requires moving through a bunch of spaces representing hallways in the house. This is an abstraction of the distance, with the die roll being an abstraction for how quickly one can move through a strange house.
Tabletop RPGs also have a lot of abstraction. The character sheet is an abstraction for a person in the world, a list of numbers that categorize physical and mental attributes, as well as list possessions and any other data representing the person. It usually takes the player to take this abstract data and breathe life into the character for the game.
Reasons for abstraction
There are a few reasons why games abstract reality like this.
The first is technical constraints. Ultima IV was originally released in 1985 on computers with a fraction of the power of just about any mobile phone from the last few years. They couldn’t store a lot of data, load a lot of data into memory, or do natural language parsing. But, it could store one word inputs for a very simple dialog system.
Even as technology gets better, some things still remain hard. Natural language parsing is still pretty tough, so dialog systems are still pretty simple. You might select a type of response from a list, such as in Bioware’s RPG dialog system, and get responses based on that input.
The Bioware dialog trees show another element to abstraction: design considerations. Often the option you select in a Bioware game isn’t the literal words you say. Usually the dialog option gives you a sense of what you want to say, the meaning and emotion you want to convey. The actual response (and voiced dialog) might seem ambiguous without body language and tone of voice that can be shown when giving the response.
Finally, we run into efficiency. Watching the Avatar engage in small talk might be interesting the first few times, but eventually you’re going to get bored with having a 15 minute friendly chat just to find out what shrine is in the area. In Ultima IV, you can find out relevant information after a minute or two of dialog. In the MMO example with oblivious enemies, this saves you from having to run 5 minutes between every single battle in order to spread out the enemies wide enough so that they don’t all come running to every battle.
Finally, some abstraction is just necessary for the game to work. In a shooter, pushing the a button is an abstraction for pulling a trigger and/or loading the weapon. Creating an interface that allows you to actually pull a trigger takes a lot more work, requires specialized peripherals, and changes the nature of the game.
Too much abstraction?
The job of a designer is to figure out the right level of abstraction. Too little abstraction and you might have a technically infeasible game, or a tedious game that feels like a chore to play through. But, what about too much abstraction?
In some games, the lesser amount of abstraction is the point of the game. Some games attempt to simulate reality more, such as flight sims. Sure, you could abstract all the details about flying the plane, but that wasn’t the point for fans of the genre. Too much abstraction and fans feel the game becomes too “arcade-like”.
But what about in games that aren’t hard-core simulations? Abstraction often eases gameplay, eliminating some activity because it’s not fun. But, people play games to engage in some kind of entertaining activity, so it’s possible to eliminate the “fun” activity from a game. The old game Progress Quest took the MMO love of abstraction to absurd levels, allowing the game to essentially play itself. Yes, the game had its fans, but it hasn’t quite stood the test of time like Everquest, the original target of it’s parody, has.
As usual, there’s no one universal right answer here. For some people, abstracting the process of forming a party and going to a dungeon into a “looking for group” interface is fine, for others it hurts the experience. People who like the abstraction feel that the part before running the dungeon was tedium, but for others it was an exciting part of the process. Who is right depends on the design goals of the game and the audience it hopes to attract. In general, though, it feels like design trends have favored more abstraction to ease gameplay.
So, what are your thoughts? How much abstraction do you like in games? How much is too much?