A common metaphor used by game designers is that game mechanics are verbs. Verbs are actions; each distinct action you can make in a game is one verb.
Children’s games are often named after their verbs. Consider: Hide and Seek, Tag, Rock Paper Scissors, Kick to Kick.
The primary verbs in Doom are LOOK, WALK and SHOOT. Immersive sims such as Deus Ex are characterised by their large variety of verbs, whereas the minimalist Canabalt has only a single verb: JUMP.
In fact, JUMP is one of the oldest and most adaptable verbs in game design. Corvus Elrod recently wrote about game verbs as carriers of meaning by describing how the verb JUMP varied across five different games.
Just for fun, let’s extend the language metaphor. If game mechanics are verbs, game objects must be nouns.
Nouns are easiest to identify in a board game. The nouns of Chess are PAWN, ROOK, KNIGHT, BISHOP, QUEEN and KING. Each has two associated verbs: MOVE and CAPTURE. The game board may also be considered a noun, or 64 nouns if each square is taken individually.
Nouns in videogames can be harder to define. Take Mirror’s Edge: obvious nouns include enemy police officers and climbable objects, such as drainpipes and fences. But is the player-character a noun? (I’d say so.) Is a far-off building that can never be reached a noun? What about Faith’s arms and legs, which you can see as you run and jump about the rooftops? These things are represented visually and aurally, but have no substance. Stripping them from the game would not alter the action in the slightest. They are therefore not ludic nouns – but they are aesthetic nouns, defined solely by their adjectives.
Adjectives are a game’s aesthetic wrapper. They affect the game world’s presentation only, not its rules or actions. For example, the adjectives of the standard Chess pieces are HORSE, CASTLE etc., but there are Chess sets that swap these out for alternatives (e.g. WOOKIE, DROID etc.) or abstract shapes without changing the nature of the game.
So far, so mildly entertaining. But is this more than an alternative jargon? Can it help to express anything useful about games? Let’s see how some typical writing advice applies to game design.
One of the most common recommendations for writers is to avoid adjectives and adverbs. “Show, don’t tell.” Writing that is high in objects and actions and low in descriptions engages the reader (the theory goes) by making them work to imagine the story. In games, this can be taken one step further. Once again, Corvus Elrod has said it first: “let me do, don’t show, don’t tell.”
Adjective-heavy videogames are all wrapper and no lolly. Typical features include continual overlong cut scenes and hours of dialogue that bears little relation to the game. No surprises there; melodramas like the Final Fantasy series have always struck me as florid teenage poetry made manifest.
Adverbs in games are modifiers to game mechanics (verbs) that alter the effect of the action but don’t change its nature. Once again we’re in RPG territory, but this time the most conspicuous abusers are Western games. Blizzard, I’m looking at you.
Action RPGs, such as Diablo, Torchlight and even the core of World of Warcraft, are all about accumulating adverbs: get this ring to make your mana regenerate faster, use this weapon to cause more damage, put a point into Constitution so your health will last longer.
Justin Keverne has written about the pitfall of overusing adverbs when a game need distinct new verbs:
In the majority of role playing games the actual number of verbs that are valid is fairly low. They basically break down to “move”, “attack” and maybe “talk”. When we make character development choices we are modifying these verbs. We select a “Point Blank Shot” feat and this serves as an adverb, modifying the “attack” verb slightly but still retaining the same core functionality, we are simply changing how and when we can attack; changing the underlying equations.
Keverne’s point is specifically about using game verbs to create dramatic role playing. That doesn’t mean Diablo is a bad game, but its mechanics are not terribly varied, expressive or dramatic. As in writing, verbs create real action; adverbs just dress it up.
Right, that’s about enough forward chaining. Time for a conclusion. As of today, all videogame criticism must be conducted entirely in English language metaphors. All game designs must conform to strict grammatical rules, as laid out in Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
Next week: HUDs and menu screens – the punctuation of the videogame.
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