Jeff's World of Game Design

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The message and the argument

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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Microbadge: You Said This Would Be FunMicrobadge: LeftyMicrobadge: SPACE-BIFF!Microbadge: Van Morrison fanMicrobadge: Star Wars fan
Disclaimer: I wrote the first half of this a couple of months back; it's not in any way a reaction to current events

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A local radio station has recently put into regular rotation a new song by the Dixie Chicks called "Gaslighter." If you haven't heard the song, you can probably guess from the title what it's about, and bonus points if you also guessed that it's not especially good. I'm tempted to say as a general rule that "message songs", "message games", "message movies", etc., tend not to be very good. But that's not really true. The Dixie Chicks' own "Not Ready To Make Nice" is a poignant reaction to the backlash they experienced for speaking out against the Bush administration at a time when country music was assumed to be fairly monolithic in its political affinities, and it's a good song to boot.

A strong message can have the same kind of confirmation bias on your audience that pretty artwork can have. For the audience that is receptive to the [message, artwork, etc], it reduces the quality setting of their "is this good?" filter. "I am naturally drawn to this, please just be ok please just be ok", and if it's even just ok, great, expectations met.

For the creator, it can present the same problem, because the importance of the message [can] replace quality as your primary drive, and as a result it's possible to worry too little whether what you've created is actually good.

What I think we can say is that a good message in a song, and a good message in a game, doesn't punch you in the face with the artist's point, it leads you there, gives you something to think about, leaves open the possibility that you can disagree. There are a few songs worth a listen that do this very well.

coffee The first time I heard Lydia Loveless's Steve Earle, I had to laugh in stunned disbelief. It's a song about being stalked by Steve Earle, and I had no idea whether it was based on a true occurrence or completely made up, but either way I thought that recording it was the ballsiest thing that anyone had ever done. And it's a stomping good song too, with a great giddy-up drum beat that propels the song forward, all of which gives its central point -- which I think is fairly obvious, "women shouldn't have to put up with this crap" -- some real punch. But the best part is the melody, which goes all over Loveless's (appreciable) vocal range. You know how old hymns or old Irish melodies sort of start in one register and then there's just this huge jump up, and then down and then up again and so on? This song is a bit like that. It is probably weird to have a song about stalking as one of your favorites, but anyway here we are:

coffee Writing new Christmas songs is hard, there have only been a few good ones over the last few decades and many otherwise great songwriters have tried and failed to come up with something useful to say about Christmas other than that it's a very special time and we should all enjoy it. Ray Davies somehow managed to do the impossible, wrote a Christmas song that not only manages to be good, but actually manages to use Christmas as a prompt for a broader point, which happens to be also (partly) the point of Christmas, goodwill among men.

Ok, to be honest, the video for this is super hokey, just listen to the song with the screen minimized:

coffee The most important song of 2019 was by Amy Ray of Indigo Girls. It's called "Sure Feels Good Anyway" and it's about her experience living as a person who is misaligned in almost every possible way with the community she lives in, and yet she still feels the impact of that community to her very soul, the role that it played in shaping her and the way that it supports her even in disagreement with her views. In an era where it's easy enough to find like-minded people all over the world, it can seem like the path of least resistance to seek retreat in the company of people that agree with you, wherever in the world they may be. And yet, as we're re-learning this year, life is lived in the physical world, and we could all stand to try a bit harder to treat each other well, and think the best of one another, whether or not we all share the same views. The scorched earth, "if you think X, you are evil, I shall have nothing to do with you!" isn't a viable way to live; at least that is what I take to be Amy Ray's point.


What list of great message songs would be complete without the greatest message song of them all, "The Message", by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five? Not only does this song need no introduction, there's nothing that can be said about it for which the time taken to say it wouldn't be time better spent just listening.

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In some recent posts I've underscored the point of Ch 7 of You Said This Would Be Fun that a game benefits from having a central idea. This doesn't have to be a message necessarily, but it can be, and sometimes it's interesting or compelling when it is.

There's an article that's gotten some attention lately, by Omari Akil, designer of Rap Godz, that some of the random elements in the game are important to him because they communicate the sense of helplessness and lack of control that can typify the black experience in America. Thus the randomness is itself part of the game's message. That's an certainly interesting take.

Another consideration of a game's message or argument can be found in this discussion at the Space-Cast, between two of the three sharpest minds thinking about games today, Cole Wehrle and Dan Thurot. (The third, of course, is the collective hive-mind of the Jeff's World community!)

Their topic was a game's argument, but by this Cole doesn't mean the same thing as its message or what I call its idea. Rather what he's talking about is something we might call its set of core assumptions, its worldview. He is talking mostly about games that have historical underpinnings, but his point is that the game's action should support the game's argument in that the game's action should naturally bring about at least some of the right historical outcomes. If, for example, your Reformation game is exploring the argument that "the Reformation arose due to the corruption in the Catholic church", and in the course of the game players are church leaders doing corrupt things, but the Reformation never actually happens, it's a bad sign for your game's argument.

We can think about other arguments that games can make, other messages that they can support, and then think about the ways that we can verify whether the game's action expresses the argument. I usually come back to decisions for this kind of thing: in grappling with the available turn options, do my actions lead me into the kind of dilemmas that a person in my role would have grappled with?

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There's an entirely separate and mostly unrelated question, namely of how can a game simulate an argument? Political games like Credo or Founding Fathers or Republic of Rome provide examples: one player introduces a motion in some way, and others elect to support or oppose that motion by spending power or influence.

I came up with a slightly different idea for a Thirty Years War game. Throughout the late stage of the war, there are combat operations AND there are peace negotiations happening in parallel. Tom Russell's game Westphalia explores this. But all throughout the war there had been little diplomatic flare-ups, between allies or between rivals, and that required the deploying of ministers to go and negotiate and try to come out ahead.

My idea was to simulate each of these political squabbles with a track. You and the opponent are on opposite ends of the track, and you can spend a turn action to move the track toward your side. The dispute ends when one player "concedes the point", and each player receives the payout indicated by the current position of the track. But, you can only concede if the track is on your opponent's half of the track, OR if you have pegged it to your own side. And, if it's on your opponent's side, the outcome is more favorable for your opponent than for you.

So for example, maybe a particular track is something like this:

6 4 2 1 || -1 -2 -4 -6

So I want to get the track all the way to my side (left) if I can, because the payout is better, but if I'm going to concede, I want to do so before my opponent gets it too far to his side, because the penalty for me gets worse the further to that side we go.

Now I never did much with this, but this week I've had a new idea that uses this in a possibly interesting way, by making it the entirety of the game. Say that the board is made up of territories that each have one of these tracks. Say also that at game's start, we each put a marker on every such track. On your turn, you can do one of three things:
- move a track toward you (cost: 1 cube)
- move a track toward your opponent (gain 1 cube)
- concede a track (gain X cubes, where X is based on the track's current position; opponent gets Y points)

Thus you must spend action cubes to manipulate these tracks, but you aren't given any action cubes by the game. You have to 'buy' them by conceding stuff. So to move the track in your favor in one area, you have to give up some ground somewhere else, and if you give up on a region entirely, you get some flexibility but your opponent gets some points. How much flexibility, and how many points, depend on where the marker sits on the track. And of course each track will be a bit different.

It's easiest to think of this as a bilateral conflict but in fact I think it potentially works as a multi-lateral conflict. In each region there is still just one track, and players are part of two coalitions. So in reach region, you have some allies and some opponents, so if you abandon a region or give up some ground in a region, you're leaving the heavy lifting to your allies to bring things back to the right side of the track.

Obviously lots of details are needed to make this playable but I think the idea of needing to give ground to gain ground could make for an interesting conflict-based game and one that's ostensibly more about diplomacy and arguments than about military might.
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