“…We can avoid ineptness or emptiness in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison—as, so to speak, a measuring-rod; not as a preconceived idea to which reality must correspond.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein (translation: G. E. M. Anscombe)
Games are objects of comparison. We compare our wits against another’s when we play strategy games, we compare our physical dexterity against one another’s when we play action games. Games exist as tests of our abilities, but also as experiences.
Story is the main engine behind games that are about an experience instead of skill tests. The story is really only a set of very strict (and often very simple) rules for setting the context of play within a game. The more strict the game rules and confining the options, the more prognosticators will call the gameplay "story-based". JRPGs do this to such an alarming extent that I don't even go near the genre any more. Story in such games is set, linear (or a multi-linear, but still entirely pre-conceived), and unchangeable. Final Fantasy X is an experience—an experience which can only be fully had once, after which you’re essentially rewatching a movie.
I'm interested in games that present mechanics to generate stories and allow the player to control the interaction of these mechanics to generate their own stories—these games make it their goal to generate experiences for players uniquely each time the game is played. Europa Universalis III (and its expansions, which make the game well worth buying), Romance of the Three Kingdoms X, and the Football Manager games are like this.
I enjoy these games because they exist only as reflections of and comparisons to the real world. What makes EU3 so involving is that you’re creating a new world history that you can then compare against what really happened. A fascinating series of “what-if” scenarios can be played, and the player can play the role of important characters (or guiding hands) in each.
These games aim to create a metaphor. I believe such games are meta-art. Metaphoric games generate pieces of art. There is no reason a scene generated by a game cannot be as powerful as a good poem. Each frame rendered to your screen is a dynamic painting. It’s a depiction of a world that could be, a depiction of a different world from ours in which we willingly immerse ourselves. Through comparison with the real world, experiences in games can be akin to an aesthetic experience as deep as those that good art may generate.
Metaphoric games explore the human condition by simulating aspects of it in some limited way, clearing out the detritus and unnecessary complications that otherwise clutter our view of what occurs. Most of the time, clearing the detritus consists of removing the seriousness from otherwise extremely serious acts. But through playing out these limited simulations we can come to better understand our real world. The real world enriches and gives meaning to these games just as these games enrich our time in the real world.
Now we can establish a profound distinction between concrete and abstract games.
Abstract games, like solitaire, chess, go, checkers, backgammon, and basketball, are sets of rules that regulate the pursuit of some arbitrary goal. The rules and goals have nothing to do with real life—they are abstracted to be only meaningful in the context of the game to which they belong. These games give meaning to themselves through the act of play—they also give meaning to the world around them because they are the purest form of goal-seeking we see in real life. This is why sports analogies are so common.
Concrete games, like Madden, Rome: Total War, Civilization, Oblivion, and Fallout 3, derive sets of rules from real world (or possible) scenarios and provide goals that are similar to goals that would naturally arise in the real world. Concrete games are metaphoric games. They are metaphors for some aspect (or aspects) of the real world. These games are given meaning by the real world.
The difference between abstract and concrete games is the direction in which meaning flows. Does meaning flow from the game into real-life? Does it flow from real-life into the game?
[Praise for this post: "It's so bad it looks like parody of New Games Journalism. That is to say parody of a parody -- a meta-parody, as it were." -Alex Kierkegaard. Thanks for reading, Alex! Also, thanks for the links from your site. I appreciate that you would willingly alert people to my blog, it's quite a compliment.]