Last week I introduced two concepts for videogames criticism: system and metaphor. System is the underlying logic of a game; metaphor is the way that system is communicated to the player. Some games are fun mostly because of their systems, and others are fun mostly because of their metaphors.
So what? The relationship between metaphor and system can be used intelligently to enhance the player’s experience of a game. This is a feature of videogames that no other storytelling medium has available.
In this post there are two examples. In Thomas Was Alone by Mike Bithell, an interesting system elicits engagement with a simplistic metaphor, and in QWOP by Bennett Foddy, a smart metaphor makes a confounding system much more affecting.
Thomas Was Alone
In Thomas Was Alone, the system enhances engagement with the metaphor. Some reviews describe the metaphor (in terms of “graphics”, or “aesthetic”) as “abstract”, but in fact the metaphor is a videogame. The first playable character, Thomas, is a red rectangle. He is not presented as a plumber or a hedgehog; he is merely a playable videogame character. Similarly, the levels are not dressed up as any sort of recognisable non-videogame environment, but are merely levels of a videogame.
Enough familiar videogame system tropes are pulled out in to the metaphor — and explicitly commented on in the game’s narration — that the world is recognisably just a videogame. For example, the level design specifically suits Thomas’s abilities, and the early levels have a very deliberate difficulty curve. These are standard elements of good modern games, but here the game character conspicuously remarks on them, pulling the facts of the system out into the metaphor for that system presented to the player.
The brilliance of taking a videogame as a metaphor is that the system can naturally be in tune with that metaphor, and enhances the metaphor by providing an interactive realisation of the same ideas.
Why is the player convinced by Thomas’s loneliness, when Thomas is presented just as a rectangle? His position at the centre of a world with no other entities similar to him is actually modelled in the early stages of the system by the fact that, of all the interactive possibilities available, none involve interaction with any similar entities.
The second playable character to be introduced is Chris, a grumpy, orange square. The narrative relates his resentment of Thomas, who can jump higher and further than Chris. Since the metaphor offers us nothing to distinguish between these characters apart from their simple shapes and sounds and narrated thoughts, any compelling differentiation must be provided in the system. We as players explore their commensurable abilities to navigate the environment. We experience for ourselves that Chris’s jump is weaker, but discover with him that he can fit through smaller spaces than Thomas.
As a final example, John, the third playable character, a tall, yellow rectangle, is exuberant and excited about his own abilities. In the early stages with John, the player can experience exhilaration in fast movement and long, high jumps, in contrast to the interaction models of Thomas and Chris. Again, we are merely prompted with simple narration in the metaphor, but experience directly through the system what that narration is only asserting.
Telling a story
So the system in Thomas Was Alone is doing the storytelling work. The metaphor literally just asserts that the shapes have certain characteristics — in onscreen text spoken by a narrator — but otherwise offers only plain, non-anthropomorphised polygons. There are no goggly eyes or funny little arms or voices, and only minimal variations in basic sounds.
So the main aspects of the story are being given to us by the system — our commitment to them is earned by the system.
Thomas Was Alone helps prove a point about what can be done in terms of storytelling with game design, but it is perhaps such a clear example only because it is so simplistic. Regardless of the merits of the story itself, it is told carefully and skilfully in a way that only videogames can tell a story.
Thomas Was Alone uses its system to engage the player with its metaphor and tell a story. In contrast, QWOP, by Bennett Foddy, shows how a metaphor can transform the experience of a system and make it more strongly affecting — infuriating and funny in this case.
In QWOP, the player must run as far as possible. There are no obstacles (shh… I know) or enemies or opponents, or time limits, but if the character falls over, the player must restart. In most games involving running in the metaphor (Mario, Half-Life, GTA, thousands of others…), running is a metaphor for a very basic mechanic in the system, usually operating a single directional control and perhaps holding or tapping an auxiliary control at the same time, in order to move a character at speed. In QWOP, the structure of the system represented by the running metaphor is wildly different.
Q and W control the thighs, and O and P control the calves. The player character, the runner, will not balance of his own accord, and the player is required to keep his legs under him and achieve forward motion with only these exceptionally literal controls for alternating the states of left and right thighs and calves.
Where Thomas Was Alone provided exceptionally close alignment of system and metaphor — the metaphor was of a computer game, and the system was itself a computer game — in QWOP, the two are really not aligned.
Consider the running mechanic in Super Mario Bros., which is simply to press B and a direction. To anyone this is simple, but to a gamer it is primally obvious. Running, for most people who can run, is also primally obvious, and at a conscious level is as simple as deciding to do it. So in which of QWOP and Super Mario Bros. is the metaphor of running better aligned with the system? Which system is more like running? If I have to pick which button-press is most like the sophisticated kinaesthetic process I engage in, I choose Super Mario Bros., simply because, for me, running takes no more conscious computation than simply deciding to do it.
But the point is that the relationship between system and metaphor in QWOP is a joke in itself. System and metaphor do not seem to be in alignment, but that changes the way we interpret the game. We believe it should not be difficult, because it is just running, and are inclined to explore the maddening process of doing it. It also reminds us that running, which so many of us do without thought or trouble, is at its core a complex process. This turns a mechanic — a system — which could otherwise be utterly frustrating and uninteresting (at least until you‘re hooked) into something intriguing and funny.
To illustrate this point, imagine the game was called “Puppet Master” and there were little strings and wooden joints drawn on the ragdoll, and no running track. The system would be unchanged, and the metaphor and system would arguably be better aligned, but the game would completely fail to make the point it makes, and would get boring very quickly. It would just be a far-too-hard puppet game.
We all knew that QWOP was making a point about something, but system and metaphor are a means for us to start saying what, and how.