Saturday, January 19, 2008

Defending Gamist and Simulationist play.

Ok, you should all know by now that I strongly favor story-heavy games.

Quite often the narrativist/story focused front of the RPG Theory movement takes a somewhat negative view of Gamist and Simulationist play (please excuse me if I use GNS terminology for just a moment here). Oh, sure. We give lip service to equality. "There's nothing wrong with...deep, rich hobby...different styles for different tastes...blah, blah, blah." But let's face facts. We despise anything other than our precious story.

Some of the new breed of indie games have gone to great lengths to strip their games down to their narrative core. They've strived to get rid of nearly all traces of tactical play or what is typically called "realism" in the rules.

But are Gamist and Simulationist play really that bad? Yes, we want our game designs to be consistent. Yes, we want our games to focus on our desired creative agenda. But I think that some degree of tactical play and some nod towards realism (or at least perceived realism) is important. When handled correctly, they can actually improve the story content of a game.

Let's look at tactical play first. It is an unfortunate fact about (most) games, we have multiple players but play largely progresses serially. Each person takes a turn adding something to the story. That means, for a large portion of the game, I'm stuck waiting for my turn. That's a lot of downtime.

Sure, I can listen to the story being created by my fellow players. But, let's face it. I'm far to narcissistic for that. If I'm not in the spotlight, I'm either bored or I'm rapidly becoming bored.

During a tactical game, players have more things to do during the downtime. They can analyze the situation, plan out their next move, look up rules, worry about their rapidly falling hit points. Whatever. Tactical play has the ability to engage the players. It tricks the players into investing in the story. And a story cannot succeed unless the players are both engaged and invested in it's outcome.

Problems (as I define them) only arise when tactical play begins to dominate the game. Unfortunately, each of us probably have a different threshold level for tactical domination. That's one of the things that makes RPGs so difficult.

Ok now onto simulation. Let me step back a second here. Stories require the willing suspension of disbelief. We know the story's not real, but we're willing to accept it as temporarily real. Again, this lets us become emotionally involved with the story.

Unfortunately, if something destroys our ability to suspend disbelief, we often fall out of the story.

Take the movie 300. They went to great lengths to point out how the Spartans fought in Phalanxes. How their real strength came from their ability to fight as a unit. But, as soon as the fight scenes began, they all broke ranks and began Jet Leeishly jumping and swooping about. Visually stunning, yes. but it dropped me right out of the story, and I had real trouble enjoying the rest of the movie. If they had just removed that one bit of dialog, my entire reaction to the movie would have changed.

Of course, realism in games is a tricky subject. Common wisdom often conflates realism with complex rules. However, it can be argued that these complex rules don't do any better at modeling the real world. Indeed, they may be much worse.

In the end, it doesn't really matter whether the game accurately models the real world. What matters is that the game feel real to the players. That means the world and the cultures displayed, the NPCs and PCs all feel like real people and real places. This also means that the game's physics (largely defined by the game mechanics) feel real to the players.

Again, you can take this too far. The realism should serve and support the story. It's too easy to get wrapped up in recreating life during the Roman Republic, that we lose all sight of the story. Or at least, it starts to suffer under the burden of realism.

That's it. As always, please leave a comment or two. I would love to see your ideas on the subject.