When I started writing here on Game. Art. Love. my first intention was to address the idea that great videogames need to deliver authorial messages through their game mechanics.
The way for doing this is by creating meaningful contents through meaningful gameplay. I believe that game developers should make more personal works, touching their lives, their mood, their vulnerabilities, and generating game mechanics that can address a message to their audience.
Back then, I started working on a very personal project called Project Bloom, a game about the troubled relationship between me and a person very close to me.
I believe that videogames can do much more than just providing plots and dialogues to the player, and that’s why I worked on a game mechanic that perfectly addressed the message and the meaning I wanted the game to provide.
Due to a lot of different external factors I’ve been forced to stop the development of Project Bloom for quite a while, and only few days ago I started discussing about it with Stefano Gualeni. As usual, the conversation was full of interesting ideas and thoughts.
We ended up questioning ourselves about the efficiency of a meaningful mechanic if extrapolated from the the game itself. In other words, “is the meaningful gameplay still meaningful if presented to the user in the most essential way?”
The first thing that came up to my mind was The Marriage, by Rod Humble. I think The Marriage is a perfect example of meaningful gameplay, since its mechanics exist with the only reason of addressing a specific message to the player. These mechanics were built with the specific intention of delivering a message.
The Marriage is essentially pure gameplay, since its aesthetics exist not for enriching the experience, but exclusively for giving visual clues to the user.
Now the trick: what happens if The Marriage doesn’t have this title? What happens if it’s called XYZ?
Rod Humble seemed to be aware of this problem, and that’s why he felt like he needed to explain the game to the user:
This is a game that requires explanation. That statement is already an admission of failure. But when working with new art forms one has to
start somewhere and its unfair to an audience to leave a piece of work (even if its not successful) without some justification. […]
The Marriage is intended to be art. No excuses or ducking. As such its
certainly meant to be enjoyable but not entertaining in the
traditional sense most games are. This means I am certain to be
perceived as being pretentious by some who read this, my apologies.
This is also a very difficult game to understand, again my apologies,
I have tried to assist those who are interested but frustrated with
the rules summary below.
Even though a game mechanic contains a message, it is very difficult - if not impossible - to address it to the user without providing other additional elements. In the case of The Marriage, the main key for the interpretation is its title together with the long analysis written by the author himself.
To the question “Can a videogame address a message only through game mechanics?” my answer is “No.”
The difference is that I don’t see it as a failure of the medium, rather as a confirmation that videogames are an incredible mix of elements that are all important parts of a universal whole.
Rod Humble could have possibly managed to deliver the same exact message by embracing all the components of the medium rather than focusing exclusively on the game mechanics. I have absolute respect for his work since I see it as a pioneering work for our expressive medium, but I believe videogames need to use their full potential to deliver meaningful content.
If you want to create meaningful content, use all the tools you have to make the message understandable for the user, but don’t rely exclusively on the narratives or game mechanics: it’s possibly the most disrespectful way to treat your audience.