Thursday, October 22, 2009

Real multiplayer games

It's a recent tradition in our family to buy the kids games for their birthdays. We are lucky to have a major game conference near us every February, which coincides nicely with Louis' and Zoé's birthdays. We go down every year, meet up with manic Kurt McClung, and peruse the latest and greatest.

It should be noted that the games in this case are board games, not computer games. Why? Because board games can be played as a family. Because boards games don't require that everyone own a battery- or electricity-draining device that costs from $150 to $500 (plus a copy of the $40 to $60 game, one for each player...). Because board games are portable, non-linear, age-indifferent, replayable, and they have better graphics. I'm not kidding about this; take a look at the maps, cards, counters, and dice in a game like Jamaica or Dixit or Keltis and you'll see what I mean. They are increasingly solid, well-crafted, and beautful; a pleasure to handle and play with. They are tangible and can be used even during an electricity blackout, given a sufficient supply of candles. Fifteen years from now you can take them out of the closet and play them, regardless of where polygon counts and graphic cards are.

Over the last few years we have purchased a number of excellent ones, the kids' favorites being Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Keltis, and Kyogami. This year we added Jamaica and Dominion, and I'll probably get Dixit  for Zoé (please don't tell her!).

So these birthday gifts made me think about comparing video multiplayer games to classic ones. For me it's interesting, because as enjoyable and wonderful and replayable as board games are, they do not have a formal story. What they have are unpredictable and anecdotal sequences of events that are great to live and great to re-tell, except for that inevitable "...but I guess you had to be there" ending. What is curious is that a hot topic for game designers and academics these days is "emergent story" (or emergent narrative because it has more syllables), meaning that the players generate their own story through their actions as they play the game (yes, that's a gross simplification, but it's the basic idea). This, as far as I can tell, what has been going on since the makers of Clue (a.k.a. Cluedo) gave the opportunity of mixing up the weapon, the place, and the suspect. This sounds reductionist, but it should be. We're taking two of mankinds three oldest activities -- telling stories and playing games -- and pretending that by adding a computer to the mix things have become radically different.

What is true is that game developers have a sort of Shangri-la vision of a future game system where the computer is another, unpredictable player; imagine what would happen if Colonel Mustard took the secret passage from the Conservatory to the Lounge halfway through the game, or  if a peasant army in Kamchatka fought back against your tray full of ten-army towers, or if there was a real estate crisis halfway through Monopoly and people started running to invest in 'safe' markets like railroads and utilities?

In truth, it would seem to me to be simply an unexpected twist on the old gameplay; merely an added dimension to an already well-worn (if well-loved) path. Primarily because I don't think that story generated this way will be able to provide the same sort of sense of tension / climax / resolution that a well-structured tale provides. It is, however, very tempting to think about it.

But remember--the next time you do a raid in WoW or fight off a competing guild in EVE, retelling it to those who weren't there is about as much fun as hearing the blow-by-bow of your last awesome RISK smackdown.