When I logged into The Endless Forest, the first thing I did was fiddle with the controls. I walked my fawn around in circles. I had it rub its side against a tree, and eat some purple flowers. I visited an ancient stone shrine that made my fawn’s head glow after kneeling before it for a minute, and visited the ruins of a cemetery. It was serene, but lonely.
Then I logged out, slightly frustrated. I was worried that I had missed something crucial… a cleverly hidden gameplay mechanic, a story-line or introduction that failed to get trigged… some kind of point to the game!
They are brilliant.
If there is a single human element that unifies just what makes games ‘gameful’ – it is play. Despite its daily use, “Play” is not a well understood term in the gaming world. Play is often used as a part of other game-related words: gameplay, player, playable, playing, multiplayer, role-play, etc. But just what we mean when we use the word “play” is often ambiguous. What does it mean to play a game? Does it mean we are playing with a game, like the way a baby plays with a toy, or the way a dog plays fetch? Does it mean that we are playing with ourselves? Or is there something more enigmatic to human play, something beyond simple mechanical interactivity? Is it possible to perhaps play through a game as an extension of our bodies?
The Endless Forest, I think, demonstrates a theory of play at a fundamental human level and corrects what was a long history of games that were not very “playful” and were more like “toys”. Before I discuss the game any further however, we need some new language to talk about games with, because our language for talking about “play” is not very rich.
Forms of Play
When a child plays with a stuffed bear, she often imbues the bear with aspects of her own personality: the bear is grumpy or happy. She tells the bear secrets, and even scolds it when she thinks it has told on her. This model of play relies on the child’s imagination to set the rules for play; the bear cannot talk-back or disagree outside of the child’s mind. This form of play I will call monadic play. An example of a game that has some monadic play to it would be Will Wright’s Sim City. In this game the player is free to explore the world and build in it, destroy their creations with earthquakes and tornados, or make smiley-faces on the map using the in-game tiles 2 – hence the term “sandbox” game.
A second kind of play is found in children (and adults!) who play games with each other, such as hide-and-go-seek, cops and robbers, and tag. These games often feature rule systems that are decided by the players as the game is played – children always find ways to “cheat” in these games and convince their friends that the “rules” don’t really matter and they make up new ones on the spot (think to yourself – is there any definitive rule in a game of ‘tag’ or ‘hide-and-go-seek’ that cannot be broken?). This form of play is set apart from monadic play in that the rules of the game are now formulated, argued, and enacted by more than one person – thus I will call it dyadic play. It is a dyad (two) because two is the minimum number of human participants necessary to engage in this form of play. Dyadic play can occur in multiplayer video games that have some amount of gameplay freedom – for instance we can make our own game of ‘tag’ or ‘hide-and-go-seek’ in World of Warcraft if we want to. However, most multiplayer video games distract players from engaging in dyadic play by forcing external rules upon the player. For instance, in World of Warcraft I cannot ‘play’ in most areas of the game as a low-level character because I will simply be killed by randomly spawning enemies. In that way, opportunities for play are greatly reduced because the designer has some ideal method of play in mind for the player (Second Life is a much better example of dyadic play, but I haven’t played with it enough to use it as an example). This is certainly different from pencil’n'paper roleplaying games that offer the richest forms of dyadic play in that the settings, social contexts and battle rules are almost completely decided by the players as they make up the story (often using rulebooks such as Dungeons and Dragons as the norms for gameplay).
A third form of play is typically only found in video games, and sits somewhere in between between monadic and dyadic play. In most single-player games, the author decides what the rules of the game are, and what tools the player can use to play within those rules. This form of play is often the most restrictive, and does not give the player much opportunity to engage in their own personal goals. In that way, we are playing with the computer as an opponent or assistant, acting as a stand-in for what would normally be another human being. This form of play I will call monadic play with dyadic simulation. Most video games fit this bill to varying degrees, because they presume that the player must learn and discover the rules set by the designer and play according to them. That’s the theory; in practice things are much stickier. At one extreme, we have games that are only playable if the player follows the rules set by the designer (ie. Tetris) and purely make use of dyadic simulation, but at the other extreme (ie. RPGs such as Fallout 2, or Neverwinter Nights) we have many more opportunities for monadic or even dyadic play. Each game obviously makes use of many different forms of play, but Fallout 2 and NWN seem to offer the richest opportunities for other forms of play because they allow the player to role-play. For instance, in Fallout 2 there is no rule that forces my character to fit a certain personality type; I can be a psychopath, a murderer, a savior, or simply a wanderer; as such I can engage in kinds of play that are purely imaginal – the character only exists insomuch as I impart some meaning on them. I can role-play a psychopath that only wishes to maximize his personal benefit and takes advantage of others at every turn, because my imagination imparts a meaning to the act of killing an NPC on the screen after taking his money; this is obviously a monadic form of play.
Alternately, in Neverwinter Nights forms of play are granted even more flexibility through user-created scripts and multiplayer capabilities – possibly allowing for dyadic play. However, it must be understood that even in games that offer players great flexibility with forms of play, players often resist engaging in monadic and dyadic play and prefer to engage with the computer as a dyadic simulator. Often, we see this in MMORPGs: players who spend hundreds of hours in what I call a “math fight” – a brute-force attempt to subjugate the character level/experience math curve that the designers have imposed upon the game (other people just call this “grinding”).
Poesis: Creating Play
Now that we have a bit more language to ‘play with’ (*groan*, I couldn’t resist that one), why do I think that the developers of The Endless Forest are brilliant artists? What tipped me off was their response to Régine’s question regarding future updates to the game:
All of these [additions] will be more poetic than game-like. Our priority [is] definitely with poetry. To some extent we only use game-type interactions to stimulate people to hang out in the world a bit longer. Ideally, however, we want to design interactions that are poetic in and of themselves.
At first glance, that response seems a bit odd. What do they mean when they say they desire “interactions that are poetic in and of themselves”? This is where the language of ‘play’ might come in handy. Poetry, if you don’t mind a rough definition, involves play-using-words (Robert Frost has even said that poetry is “serious play“). And “poetry” comes from the Greek word “poesis” – literally, to “make” or “create”. What matters here is that poems somehow bring together words and play to create something new.
Turning back to Michael and Auriea’s comment, we now can understand that part of their goal is to create opportunities for play using the in-game symbolic system. Literally, they want people to play with each other in the most basic form of human engagement: dyadic play. And what makes The Endless Forest different from other MMO’s is that it discourages people from resorting to other forms of interaction that decrease the chances for dyadic play. Concretely, there is no in-game chat system, nor any other way of talking to other players than by using symbolic acts such as shaking your the antlers, rearing up on your back feet, or erupting a loud squeal. None of these acts ‘mean’ much of anything alone, and require other human players to react (ie, if I rear up on my hind legs, you cower in deference) and give the symbols a meaning. The game is literally creating a language for play from the ground-up by allowing players to decide what everything means. That is why the developers did not build any quests or external goals: all of the goals are determined by the players themselves. In that way, players have to ‘decide on’ what games they are going to play with each other from the very beginning: first they need to play together in order to determine what the symbols/icons mean to each other, then they can use these symbols to make up “2nd order games” with each other.
To put this more concretely, imagine that you and I do not speak the same language and meet each other on the street. I move my hands around, and you move your hands around, vainly attempting to communicate using gestural language. Eventually, we might come to an understanding that if I point with my finger in a certain direction and wave my arm towards it, I want you to follow me. After a while, you decide that you’re tired of following me, and wave to the north – and I follow you. The second that our actions become mutually responsive to each other, we are playing a game together – we are playing the following game! And in that way, my fawn avatar in The Endless Forest is literally an extension of my body – just as my hands and arms are when I’m trying to communicate with the stranger on the street.
This kind of play is what the game lends itself to producing opportunities for: games of ‘tag’, ‘Marco Polo’, and ‘hide-and-go-seek’. And even better, it forces us to make up the rules on-the-spot for the symbolic language that we’re going to play the game in. Play is poetic – it requires us not only to negotiate with other human beings on the rules of a game using words or symbolic acts (and in the game’s case, deer-like actions), but come to new formulations of those rules when someone breaks them. In that way, The Endless Forest is the ultimate user-created fantasy world where our spoken languages no longer matter and we can, as human beings, come to define languages and games within the world together. The “game” is not really a game as we currently understand them (as abstract rules-systems that designers allow us to play) – the game is really a world, a forest (!), or a city park that gives people new opportunities to play with each other freely with as few external rules as possible. That is what sets the game apart from other MMORPGs that rely upon external rules to give players a sense of purpose of duty – in this game the goals are left unspecified and totally to the player’s imagination and social context. That is what makes the game truly artful – it destroys our pre-conceptions of ‘play’ in video games.
That is why players who think that ‘the game has no point’ are utterly confused, or personally resistant to monadic or dyadic play. The world can have a point – but it’s up to the players themselves to decide what the point is by playing/interacting with other players.
And that brings us to what is missing in the game to make this budding masterpiece work: it needs more people playing it! In order to engage in dyadic play, you need at least one other person – and if you want to create a language using the symbols they have in the game, you need a critical mass of people that regularly log-in and stand in front of each other making funny gestures until they cohere into a recognizable set of social meanings.
With any abstract language, tag and hide-and-go-seek are the most simplified forms of play – but imagine the possibilities in this kind of world! With enough work and creative ingenuity I guarantee that a group of players will eventually figure out how to tell the story of King Lear, or a deer drama troupe will learn how to act out an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation using the deer iconography. The possibilities for play in The Endless Forest are truly endless.
If I’ve persuaded you at all to give The Endless Forest a shot, there is no better time than this week! On Thursday November 1st, starting at
4pm10pm GMT, the world will celebrate its next “Abiogenesis” – a get-together where Michael and Auriea login to the world as gods (or simply as ‘nature’), and create real-time changes in the world (ie. playing music, or creating objects) as people play. This will be the first Abiogenesis I’ve attended, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they have planned for All Hallow’s. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be logged in with my girlfriend. We’ll be the two deer walking around with the same pictograph above our heads. Feel free to signal a ‘hello’ – we’ll figure it out what it means eventually.
What Forms of Play might mean for game developers
I realized that I neglected to add some comments directed towards game developers. Basically, forms of play (monadic, dyadic, simulated play, etc) are simple descriptors used to allow us to think conceptually about game play. The concepts are important because they give us the ability to identify just how particular forms of play make more or less use of the imagination, are more or less social, or are based on interaction with a computer. So, for instance, if you’ve decided to make an MMO game that’s based on a high degree of player interaction – you might rethink the whole idea of making generic quest generation algorithms that make Player X deliver a Y to NPC Z and receive Q coins in return. In fact, you might allow players to create quests of their own – ie, “challenges” that are funded by a guild like killing a dragon – dyadic play at its best. You might develop a built-in escrow system that only hands over the prize after the enemy has been smoten. Monadic and dyadic play also demonstrate why “griefing” is always going to happen in MMOs, when players literally become bored with static gameplay mechanics that the designers have imposed on the world. Griefing, many kinds of bug exploitation, and general out-of-character behavior are all the acts of a creative mind searching for something more interesting in the confines of a rather bland game.
Alternately, if you’re making a single-player RPG you might provide the player with enough flexibility to allow them to explore the world freeform using completely non-linear adventuring and storytelling (ie. Ultima VII) – and not force them along a very narrow linear story (ie. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion). Freeform exploration and non-linear storytelling are much closer to a kind of monadic play using dyadic simulation but much richer than the usual cRPG. It is richer, because it depends upon the player’s imagination and personal choices to decide where the story is going – and the computer only exists insomuch as to facilitate their choices.
In the end, Forms of Play demonstrate that our jobs as developers involve providing players with opportunities for play using the player’s imagination, their friends, often with the computer acting as a facilitator for those play experiences. Who really wants a math fight with a computer anyway? That gets boring, quick. Might as well go play the slots in Vegas.
1 I found it interesting that the name Auriea has its roots in the word “aura” – denoting a magical essence surrounding a living thing. It’s not just a beautiful name, but an indicator of the kinds of people behind the project, and give us a clue at the kinds of goals they might have as artists… a living, breathing, magical world.
2 Of course, keep in mind that Sim City also has many elements to it that fit the profile of monadic play with dyadic simulation – ie. you are expected to keep your citizens happy by adjusting taxes, building roads, etc.