Thursday, February 7, 2013

Non-fiction games... Worms ahoy! (wait not the game Worms, I meant this discussion is a can of worms)

at 3:20 PM
Fellow bloggers ought to chime in on this discussion, preferably in posts of your own, or the comment section if you want to be lazy and write something that even less people than already read this site will read. Don't know how readership can number in the negative, but I'm sure that's one thing this blog can accomplish.

Andrew mentioned non-fiction games in his last post because he said reading makes him feel like a genius. My congratulations.

Alright I kinda have to start by saying I don't really care about this topic. I'm more inclined to read about it than write. Then again, I have a blog, and write I must. For ego's sake. Come on though I don't wannnna.

Let's get ourselves into the right mood by listening to a[n] historical song:
Ah, now I'm ready to learn.

Do I even know what non-fiction is? K, Wikipedia clarifies: the assertions made by the author are understood to be factual, according to his knowledge/research. Doesn't that kinda make religious texts non-fiction though? And that's definitely not right. But a book doesn't become non-non-fiction if one of its assertions is disproven at a later date. But let's just skip that weird discrepancy because it doesn't need to apply to this discussion. Non-fiction is a work in which all assertions are understood by the author and audience to be facts, let's leave it at that.

A game contains authorial assertions alongside audience input, the latter not present in other media. Assertions in the form of setting, dialogue, and scripted events can be argued to be factual in a manner identical to books or film. Nothing new there. That alone is enough to establish that a game can contain non-fictional content - content that the player knows is being dictated to them as fact. Assassin's Creed is a widely popular example of this. The game includes dossiers on historical landmarks, personalities, and organizations. Though the plot (and thus the game as a whole) is clearly historical fiction of the Dan Brown variety, the factual matters are well-enough delineated that an audience member can know they are absorbing information about reality.
Semi-fiction, explained
Control is the more difficult matter to assess - without establishing non-fictional player interactivity, the best a game can be is semi-fiction. An argument made elsewhere on this blog that we'll take as an assumption is that any action leading to failure of the game's winning condition is not a part of the narrative*. Meaning that if you're playing as George Washington and accidentally fall off of a cliff, that does not mean the game is asserting that George Washington fell off a cliff and respawned back in town - only that he could have (fallen that is - I don't think historical figures respawned too often). But without establishing a binary pass/fail to every action the player takes, ambiguity is introduced into which is an assertion and which is simply a player freedom. Say, for instance, we were examining a biogame about Miles Davis. Imagine a scene in which the player is presented with the prompt "press X to throw a trumpet at the bigot or press Y to say 'yessuh massah'" If the player knows that making the wrong choice will cause a Game Over, he can assume that the right choice is a factual assertion. If the game continues regardless of selection, it becomes unclear what action Miles Davis actually took, or whether that was a historical situation at all. Even if it is factual, if the player can't tell that it is, it's not nonf, is it? 

So it seems to me that there is potential to create a non-fictional game experience, though not without limitations. It is first understood that all scripted content must be factual to the greatest degree available to the creators - this includes setting, characters, and plot events. A restriction on interactivity is also necessary to inform the player of what exactly is an assertion and what is a freedom. This can take the form of a binary reward/punish mechanic (an artless means of accomplishing this would be the implementation of a score counter: +1 point for factual actions, -1 for deviation) or a delineation between history lessons and playtime (see Age of Empires II - the battles are clearly free-for-all historically set playgrounds, while the cut-scenes and story progression are informative). 
I always loved how the tiny units lined up for you. It was such a delight. Real-time tiny-unit-lining-up-for-you action!
Dunno, just a day's worth of thought on the subject. Maybe I'm not clambering for non-fiction gaming (personally I find there's as much to learn from fictional narratives), but I will admit that I do feel pretty edified after a session of Romance of the Three Kingdoms VII or AoE II. Actually I never really appreciated how much I learned from New Horizons, but it was chocked full of information about the Age of Discovery. Maybe I'd even make a case for that being a nonf game, on that inevitable day when I expound on how it's one of my all-time favorites.. Regardless, as the Americans say, "it is good enough for me".

*if we do not assume this, the entire argument is fruitless, so we can either take it as fact and argue about it later, or not have this conversation at all

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