Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mario Melodies: Counterpoint part.1

At last, we come to Counterpoint; the subject that brings mechanics, interplay, and variation together. In music, Counterpoint is the writing of musical lines that sound different on their own, but harmonize when played together. How the melody of a song interacts with the other lines is the focus of Counterpoint. John Rahn puts it best:

"It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal structures that create each of the voices separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices. The way that is accomplished in detail is...'counterpoint'"

Notice the words in bold. Though Rahn was only talking about music, his language can easily be apply to videogames with a few tweaks. Here's my version...

"It is hard to design an interesting game idea. It is harder to design several individually interesting game ideas that, when experienced simultaneously, influence a game's mechanics and gameplay into a deeper, richer multi-element whole. The internal structures (rules) that support each of the ideas separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the multi-element whole, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual ideas. The way that is accomplished in detail is...'counterpoint'"

  • multi-element whole = emergent gameplay
  • game idea = the influence of a game element or group of game elements on a game's mechanics
  • emergent structure = the coming together of a few rules in "unexpected" ways.
  • reinforce and comment on the structures of individual ideas = interplay

Counterpoint can be used to design gameplay with a high level of emergence and flow/momentum. At the same time, counterpoint can be used to evaluate, analyze, and even possibly measure the kinetics (emergence/flow) of a game.

Counterpoint, in gaming, is a word for the way gameplay develops past optimization and emerges into a medium of expression that reflects the individuality of a player and dynamics that reflect the complexity of the world we live in.

If you want to know why gamers cherish videogames so much, it's because of the action (what I've call the mechanic). There's something unique about actions. Known to speak louder than words, like music, actions are a universal language not just among people. Action is the language of how one thing affects another.

Then there are people. We do many creative things, pursuing these endeavors to great lengths, investing all the available energy of our beings to do. And to share. Some write stories. Some shoot movies. Some compose scores of music, or songs, or tunes, or diddies. Some dance. Some paint. All in effort to know by doing and by relating to each other. Such a strange idea; getting to know someone else to better understand yourself. Testing the world around you to figure out what you're made of. Peering into the ether like a forever mirror trying to prove that we're all like everyone else and simultaneously how we're different.

Someone once said, it's what we do that defines us.

So take that action. That whatever mechanic. That one thing, something you do, and tell me about it. I'm not asking for everything you do. I'm only asking for one thing. Just one because one is quite enough, believe me. I want to know how far this action goes. I want to know what it does and what it affects. I want to understand it inside and out so I can see the you that did it and possibly see the me that never could (at least in the same ways). Keep zooming in until all that matters are the things that are related to that action, because that's what stories are; zoomed focus. Every segue, distraction, and side attraction can wait. Build a world around us for that action so that everything responds to it. And let those reactions carry those conversations; the details that fill a story with richness.

Take that action. Build your world. And let me play in it. No consequences. No death. Let me have a million lives and a million tries per day and then some so I can know what you mean by "jump". A jump so save one's life. A jump to bridge a gap. A jump to squash. A jump to fly. A jump to save the princess. For an individual life is just one complex action bundled up and held back by skin, to do in the world you created is knowing.

From personal experience, I write. I play music. I compose. I sketch. I ink. I paint. I sculpt. I sing. I dance. I fight. I direct. I edit. I design. I game. Each is a language all to itself. I've always stayed out of the "videogames as art" debates/discussions/rants/fights. It's not that I couldn't put my point of view into words before. It's because for a person who's been a writer since learning cursive, a musician since being introduced to the piano, a painter since when fingers were better than brushes, a dancer since becoming stable on two legs, and a film maker since that first video camera, it never mattered to me how others categorized of my actions. I did those things because they interested me. Because something unique was reflected back at me with each. I did it because doing was what mattered. Not the applause, the compliments, or the acclaim. And videogames are no exception. So, for those of us who do, keep on doing what you do, and leave the job of sticking the "art" labels for someone else.

It is through counterpoint that videogames fulfill the medium and become art through play, expression, and interpretation through action. To reach this level, there must be forms that match concrete mechanics. The marriage of form and mechanics create reaction and interplay. And when these elements are properly arranged, the emergent result surpasses the diminishing returns of optimization and enters a space of expression, dialog, and life as action.

Counterpoint is the zenith of Classical Game Design, and we are on the verge of tackling it head on. It's all down hill from here. So for now, enjoy the view.


namekuseijin said...

I enjoy your posts about music and the comparison to game play mechanics.

Regarding counterpoint in particular, I felt Super Metroid to be a pinnacle of emergent structure and interlocking puzzles that in the end fit each other with as much grace as a good Bach fugue. One of my favorite games, hands down.

I think elaborate level layouts are more important than actions in this case, because it doesn't really matter if Samus is jumping platforms in Brinstar or Norfair, but how to get there with minimum fuss and powered-up all along the way. Good level layout design is all about that. It's all about showing your next goal and getting you thinking how to reach it, while pursuing subgoals that eventually will get you back to the point of the original goal already loaded up with whatever new power was needed to get through the first goal in the first place. That's a work of genius!

So, actions are more like chords and level layouts are like the individual musical lines brought together at the same time, leading to the chords. Well, at least it's one way to see it, I guess...

KirbyKid said...

@ namekuseijin

Thanks for the compliment.

As for you comments on counterpoint and Super Metroid....

You are dead on.

Congrats. You grasped the concepts and could even clearly articulate ideas that are the next step in my Counterpoint+videogame investigation.

Keep it up.

namekuseijin said...

Yes, good when ideas resonate, huh? I'm looking forward for take 2.