Abstraction | vector poem

Last weekend we saw Pixar’s latest animated feature, Wall-E. The film’s relative merits and flaws aside, I was reminded just how potent stylized characters can be, and how underused and ill-understood a tool abstraction is in game design today.

The Uncanny Valley has become a commonly understood concept in videogames lately, but go read that page if you’re unfamiliar with it. The conclusion that a lot of mainstream games seem to draw from the idea is “We just need to work harder, spend more money and be smarter than everyone else, and we’ll clear the Uncanny Valley and have characters that are absolutely flawless humans.” In practice this has just created a buffalo stampede into the Valley.

On the other hand you have Pixar who, regardless of whether or not you find their films entertaining, seem to understand characters better than almost anyone else out there – and they are very intentionally choosing to stylize their characters a great deal. Depending on your perspective, they’re either taking a shortcut, or making a smart tradeoff. Either way it’s hard to argue that humans don’t have an aptitude and affinity for meeting abstractions halfway, particularly in the realms of social reasoning and emotion.

So, in other words:

Uncanny Valley (commentary in red)

In games, you have the hugely significant addition of rules and interactivity. For many years now, advances in graphics have driven games towards a sort of simulational literalism – it’s non-negotiable (due to market biases) that a gun look like a gun, so to avoid cognitive dissonance it must function as much like a gun as possible.

So as someone who’s very interested in seeking out the ignored or unknown territories of game design, I want to see what lies in the opposite direction: where mechanics aren’t centered around a metaphor for, a simulation of, real life. If a gun no longer has to look or behave like a gun, what interesting things can you now do with it? Are other metaphors a better fit? What are the aesthetics implied by such mechanics?

The huge challenge with this of course is to abstract/stylize effectively, in a way that makes things clearer and more resonant rather than hopelessly inscrutable. If you take away a familiar point of reference, you have to work twice as hard to help the player understand something. This has emerged as the central challenge of my abstract FPS game Purity. Whether or not the end result is successful, the creative journey there has been very satisfying and illuminating.

This entry was posted on Friday, July 4th, 2008 at 6:26 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

5 Responses to “Abstraction”

  1. steve Says:

    It seems like an interesting disconnect between the first and second half of your post; while Pixar uses heavily stylized characters to represent familiar, human experiences (Wall-E resonated because it was an easily-recognizable pantomime love story) the second half of your post seems interested in how we might express entirely non-literal, unfamiliar situations mechanically. In Wall-E, Eve’s gun acted like a gun, and the robots acted like humans; they are very much a metaphor for real life. I wonder what the challenges of creating an altogether mechanically and representationally abstract experience are. Without real-world analogues, would any symbol used lose meaning?

  2. JP Says:

    Two points, I guess. Total abstraction is an extreme end of the scale. In between that and total, literal realism you have an interesting range where humans still have something to connect with, and it’s that spectrum I’m interested in exploring. Starting from the 100% literal is easier, so it’s understandable that we’ve mapped the territory around that quite thoroughly. We just need to occasionally invest the confidence we’ve gained from that into more ambitious and medium-expanding things.

    Also, abstract doesn’t mean arbitrary. You get total cognitive dissonance only when you replace a familiar reference point with something that has zero connection with it – that’s more surrealism than abstraction. The process of abstraction is more about taking the reference point and paring its information down to its “essence” – whatever qualities the artist finds most essential/intrinsic – undoubtedly a subjective process, but that’s why it’s an art.

    Regardless, because we’re all human and we have a lot of general thought patterns in common, you can often abstract something heavily and still make a powerful connection with people. Doing that well means figuring out what information just adds noise, robs the piece of impact or makes it less universal… whatever you’re trying to express.

    What impressed me about Wall-E (the first half at least) was that they took a few steps back from their already-semi-abstracted cartoon humans, and remained just as successful as they usually are. To me that served as a reminder that people have plenty of – more than they’re commonly given credit for – aptitude and affinity for meeting abstractions halfway.

  3. Tynan Sylvester Says:

    “Starting from the 100% literal is easier, so it’s understandable that we’ve mapped the territory around that quite thoroughly”

    I’m not sure I agree. I think that we are mostly locked in cycles of derivative design. I think there are many many original games that are yet to be made, but still map quite cleanly and obviously with reality. Designers who find a new way of literally mapping reality into a game space and do it well tend to make a lot of money. Take a game like The Sims, for example. Nothing abstract, stupidly familiar, but incredibly original and seductively lucrative.

    Making game element analogous to real life simultaneously solves a lot of player training/core fantasy/narrative context/marketing problems simultaneously. It’s going to be a real challenge to move away from that.

  4. JP Says:

    think there are many many original games that are yet to be made, but still map quite cleanly and obviously with reality.

    Absolutely. Part of what I’m saying is that all games, no matter how cleanly they map with reality or not, present a subset or synthetic reality, and the subtractive design you must apply to get to that point is, whether conscious or not, an act of abstraction. You’re paring away something that isn’t essential to the systems, the themes, the experience… take your pick.

    So knowing that every game, from Operation Flashpoint to Geometry Wars, sits somewhere on that continuum, I’d personally like to see designers spreading our wings a bit by wielding the abstractions we employ more intentionally rather than pretending that we’re always some incremental step from a holodeck-like 100% mapping with reality.

    There’s also the fact that of the 4 issues you mention, “player training/core fantasy/narrative context/marketing problems”, pretty much only player training is an objective Good that every game must have. The other three are only virtues if you’re making a blockbuster. Again my thinking is more about the breadth of the medium than of the market.

  5. Ben Says:

    Abstraction in mainstream videogames not uncommon. Abstraction as a clear tool of narrative is less common. In the case you made about the gun in videogames, fantasy weapons can be viewed by someone unfamiliar with the game and still, that person will probably know it is a weapon. Abstraction of that type helps establish a game’s atmosphere and is common throughout the industry. The gun can support the core ideas of not just the atmosphere but also the story. In the videogame ‘Alan Wake’, the flashlight becomes a gun alongside other weapons. In addition to conveying an atmosphere, the flashlight as a weapon gives the player a sense of aloneness and sensory deprivation. Over the entire story, that driving force causing fear propels the narrative. In another case, the children’s movie The Iron Giant, the giant is a ‘gun’. Over and over, the giant is established as a military machine with dialogue from the boy, actions by the military, and, eventually, the transformation into the aggressive form bristling with weapons. Despite this, the ‘gun’ reverts to the peaceful, childlike giant that is humanized for the first half of the movie. By giving the weapon a human like personality, the movie can use it to progress a central theme of internal conflict between violence and innocence. When the giant makes the ultimate sacrifice, he does like superman, calling back to the more innocent portion of the movie, instead of blasting the missile out of the sky with his lasers. In videogames, guns and any other central objects can be made abstract, not necessarily humanized, to be vehicles for underlying, symbolic ideas.