I think that the genre of platforming elucidates a lot of interesting things about the ludological perspective of comprehending games. Ludology (contra narratology) stresses that games should be understood in a formal, abstract manner–as a system of rules and abstractions. Central to this perspective is the idea that games should be views as games, as opposed to the narratological perspective, which sees games as yet another medium through which to convey meaning. Before going further, the reader should take a look at these three posts that Electron Dance wrote (1, 2, 3) about the relationship between ludology and narratology.
Simple early platformers are really good examples of the primacy of ludology in games because game developers were quite obviously physically limited by what they could make a game do. The limitations with which they were faced forced them to make their game concepts simpler and more abstract, which led them to focusing on their game’s rules.
Generally speaking, the principle rules into which we can break down a platformer is that such a game will:
- have a main character that has to move around in an environment with some convincing implementation of Newtonian physics (whether two-dimensional or otherwise);
- require the player–through the main character–to collect things and/or move from one place to another;
- (perhaps really a component of Rule 1, but we’ll make this distinction separately to help us to rule out games like rail-shooters more clearly) the player will usually have a high degree of freedom with respect to their movement.
I realise that, at this point, these rules probably don\’t allow us to discriminate between some sports games and that which we traditionally conceive of as platformers, but for the purpose of this post I think they’re good enough.
It’s interesting to consider, absent of any other details, that the key rules of a platformer are usually just to travel somewhere and collect things. It’s obvious to us now that the point of a game like Mario 3 is just to get to the end of the level, or in a game like Mario 64 or Crash Bandicoot 2, find some collectable object, because I don’t think that that’s the most entertaining aspect of these games. I think this is why the supposed pesudo-genre of atmospheric platformer has gained such a great incidence of mention among gamers lately. The atmosphere of games like Banjo Kazooie is indeed frequently toted as a a key virtue of a good platformer, alongside other features as ‘exploration’ and ‘freedom’.
Atmosphere, exploration and freedom are very qualitative concepts to be advancing as central elements of a good platformer and they seem to be more derivative in relation to the implementation of the actual rules of platforming, rather than a direct consequence of the the player’s strict pursuit of the game’s goal or ‘purpose’. Despite this, I think they’re valid virtues to value highly when setting out to appreciate a platformer.
Why? An example might provide the best entry into an explanation. Remember the levels that lead into the chamber where you fight Bowser in Mario 64 (and their corresponding throw-backs in Sunshine and Galaxy–and, come to think of it, all the bonus, and later space-themed levels in Crash Bandicoot). While they possess their own theme and atmosphere, these levels stand in stark contrast to the bright, colourful, and reasonably realistic levels that exist everywhere else in the game’s castle. These levels are composed of highly linear, abstract platforms that serve to test your raw platforming skills. The platforms have no meaning in connection to the environment around them–the player has have no point of reference in this environment other than the platform they’re on, and the platform they want to get to. These levels are brilliant examples of the purist execution of ludological platforming. Watch this part of a Super Mario Sunshine Let’s Play to get a feel, if you think you need to re-familiarise yourself.
Needless the say, even simple such levels are nerve-wracking. The player almost always feels disoriented and must focus carefully on the game environment in order to properly interpret it. It is pretty easy to jump from this observation to the conclusion that players must need some greater degree of contextual information in order to better engage with their environment.
The significance of this difficulty in ‘immersion’ that players experience when playing abstract levels has direct consequences for how we should approach the study of video game aesthetics. The study of a game through its rules simply isn’t substantive enough to help us explain why we become so with engaged with them. While it’s true that people can train themselves to become exceedingly proficient at even the most abstract of games (Super Meat Boy, I Wanna Be the Guy), the fact that a person has to drum out their common sense in order to successfully interact with a game should be taken as a symptom of the weakness of the ludological approach to appreciating games.
Moving outside the realm of platforming, think about all the pointless rooms you encounter in both the single player and multi-player modes of GoldenEye 007. I only just had this brought to my attention! All those rooms make the game-play better by helping the player better come to terms with the game environment, help convey information in manner that is more effective because it is congruent to the way people’s cognition works. One could of course just counter here: well that could be expressed in the form of a rule! All we have to do is pay attention to the way human cognition works in order to come up with better procedures for conveying the information contained in game rules.
Such an argument, however, conflates narratology and ludology. Ludology is about decision-making, and patterns of behaviour, and the role that the communication of meaning plays adjacent to those two concepts is of course important, but it gives the idea of meaning an insanely narrow reading. Taken this way, ‘atmosphere’ gets boiled down into something instrumental–a way to help players better process information contained in the game environment.
What about those times in Mario 3 when you have the P-Wing, and you totally transcend the level’s construction, completely exploding its challenge? Or those bonus levels in Mario World where you just fly around and collect tonnes and tonnes of coins? The feeling of complete freedom, and the contrasting purposelessness of the level you’re leaving far behind form an integral element of those games–the idea that you’ve gained special powers, and that the environment that you’re inhabiting is magical and mysterious, full of secrets and hidden truths (see more about flight in Mario games). It should be readily admitted that these moments do not do much in the way of advancing a narrative in these games, but it should be accepted that they form the first few steps developers need to take in order to achieve in order to construction one: the evocation of emotion, the construction of something affective and not merely mechanistic or ‘challenging’ in an everyday sense.I think that if it can be shown that something affective about even an old NES platformer plays a prior role in its aesthetic significance than just its rules and mechanics, then it surely must hold that way for most games. I think the best way to put this might even be to say that meaning-construction is so important in games that it’s probably best when a game’s rules are purposefully sought out to be broken and ignored, that when you move beyond the ‘purpose’–not in an obsessive Otaku sense but in a transgressive sense–of a game (a kind of game in itself), unlocking an unintended transcendent game-form, that’s when gaming is at its best. Why else would we care so much about game glitches and tricks? Following this line of thought, surely to understand gaming, perhaps approaching it as a culture must be a priority. The most salient things about gaming aesthetics must in all the feedback loops of emergent meta-narratives and communicated gaming practices (like players only using the shotgun in Gears of War).