Player self expression in games and why you need ludic linguistics
As a development community we have a rather one-dimensional view of what constitutes player self-expression. In general play activities that allow players to “create” have become synonymous with play activities that allow players to express themselves. I’m inclined to believe that this generally held belief stems from western societies privileging of a tangible artistic object as the product of “self-expression” over everything else. There is a trend in our community to say that games that do not empower the player to create something tangible (usually that they can screenshot or film and put on youtube) do not deliver play experiences that allow the player to express themselves creatively.
We can learn by viewing games through the lens of a ludic language that choice itself is a form of creativity – in fact, it is creativity incarnate, at its core, all art, all creation, is simply a series of choices, and games have the potential to embody this in the most empowering and exciting way possible.
What is a ludic language?
A ludic language is simply an analogy which applies concepts of linguistics to game design. When we view games through the lens of a ludic language we assign each type of choice a player may make in game to a syntactical object in a language. In an FPS for example:
The choice of weapons and how they are used may be assigned to nouns and verbs. The choices of spatial positioning may be mapped to connectives which link the primary choices of weapon and patterns of use in the game world. These may then be modified with adjectives in the form of an upgrade system and changed with adverbs through modifying items that alter gameplay.
In the same way that a spoken (or written) language can be rich with possibilities of self-expression, so to can a ludic language be rich with possibilities of play. Just as choices in a spoken language can be used creatively, so to can the choices offered by ludic language be used creatively.
While the aim of spoken language is to communicate an idea, the aim of a ludic language is to accomplish a goal. The richer the ludic language you give your player to express themselves the greater number of interesting options a player will have in accomplishing any single goal. This allows a player to approach playing your game creatively.
The vast majority of games being made today do not empower players to play creatively by offering them a complex ludic language to express themselves. However, the one’s that do allow for creative play generally achieve it through some combination of RPG elements, expansive move sets and unique goals. It is important to note here that by “RPG elements” I do not mean the gradual accretion of stats for a character, ludically this RPG mechanic is not particularly interesting on its own. More creatively empowering are tech or talent trees that allow for completely new modes of play and problem solving by changing the way a character plays. Unfortunately in most RPGs talent/tech trees are generally reduced to uninteresting damage increase/reduction effects that do not empower the player in creative play.
Three games, that despite being flawed in their own ways, do offer players complex ludic languages are Dishonored, BioShock and The Binding of Isaac.
Dishonored offers a plethora of complex play activities through a mix of expanded move sets, branching level design and unique gameplay goals. The prime example of a unique goal - that has been echoed in many other games - is the non-lethal play through. Immediately this creates a set of expressive play possibilities about how the player must navigate and defeat enemies. The game takes this idea and expands it further with a huge and complex move set that encompasses a whole range of unique situations. Of chief importance is the way different abilities in Dishonored interact; a player can use traps in conjunction with teleports to confuse enemies into killing themselves, they can use their melee weapons and blink to accomplish effortless close combat kills, they can snipe enemies from afar with an arsenal of special use arrows in conjunction with cloaking abilities. All this is then packed on top of non-linear levels that allow for even more exciting and branching possibilities that give players a range of personalised possibilities when attempting the game’s missions.
BioShock creates a rich ludic language through a set of enemy behaviour modifying abilities and scripted interactions of non-playable characters. Rapture (BioShock’s setting) contains several NPC (often hostile) factions that are all at war with each other. BioShock also has a host of abilities that can be used on enemies to change their behaviour e.g the “Enrage” ability which causes enemies to attack anything which is near by, or “Security Bullseye” which makes hostile security devices attack the ability’s target. As well as this emergent interaction modification clever players can trick the competing factions of rapture to play off each other for their own benefit and without the intervention of special abilities; one of the best examples of this is tricking gun turrets (which are only hostile to the player, but very dangerous) into hitting a Big Daddy (which only become hostile when damaged) through clever positioning thus causing these two competing forces to annihilate one another. In combination these two elements allow for a complex ludic language that the player can use to complete their objectives in the unique ways that they want.
The Binding of Isaac creates a host creative possibilities by tying its generative elements to mechanics rather than stats. The randomised power ups that appear in the game don’t make non-expressive changes to gameplay i.e. simply increasing damage, adding a modifier etc. They completely change the way players interact with the game system; the Dr. Fetus power up is a good example of this, letting the player choose to “solve” the problems of the levels through stationary, bomb-style play. Thus players who know little about the systems at play in game get to creatively experiment with the fast paced randomised gameplay and experienced players are given a complex possibility space of ability expression as they chose which power-ups to use and which not to.
All these games use very different techniques to create their ludic languages; level design and ability interaction in Dishonored; NPC interactions and ability design in Bioshock; radomisation and mechanical modification in The Binding of Isaac. All three offer a rich set of creative, player driven possibilities for accomplishing their goals, and, more importantly, they don’t privilege a “best” way of accomplishing those goals, but empower the player with the possibility space of the game’s ludic linguistics and trust that player to actualise those possibilities creatively.
How do we create a Ludic language?
As we have seen above there is no cut and dry solution for creating a compelling ludic language when designing games. It very easy to either make your game too restrictive (a lack of expressive potential) through a lack of content or a lack of meaningful choices, equally it is possible to overload your game system with content and choices so that the game’s language of interaction becomes bloated with unused and unnecessary possibilities.
In general every action (or word) in your game should be of equal significance if it is to create a compelling system with which the player may express themselves. This means that a dominant strategy should not be allowed to arise that could work for every situation. If there was a single word in the English language that could express everything we needed to on a daily basis then we would quickly find that much of our language fell out of use. Similarly, if you give players an unambiguously “best” way to complete the game, they will generally neglect the rest of the richness in your games language.
Vocabulary vs. Syntax
The main problem that ludic languages can be used to solve is neatly interpolated in the tension between vocabulary and syntax. The more vocabulary a language has the better it as expressing the same basic ideas in varying shades of specificity; think synonyms. Languages with too much vocabulary end up with a host of rarely used words because there is not enough distinction between them.
The more syntax a language has the more possibilities it has in expressing different interactions between words; think the addition of adverbs to the English language which revolutionised how we could describe our actions. A language with too much syntax becomes bloated and complex and requires a lot of learning.
In general, sparing amount of ludic vocabulary modified by a reasonable amount of ludic syntax makes for the most compelling and creative interactions. This means that at its core, when trying to design an engaging set of ludic possibilities with which the player expresses themselves, one should aim to settle on a set of core mechanics (vocabulary) that the player uses to complete the game and masters over the course of play. These core activities should then be modified by a set of meaningful mechanical changes (syntax) that alter the way these core mechanics play without making them unrecognisable. This is what all the case studies I have cited above do, in all three the basic activities the player engages throughout remain the same, however, the games create interesting play situations by re-contextualising the core mechanics in new and exciting ways. All languages proceed from a base, that is why they are interesting, games are no different. Through a mix of core mechanic modification and creating choices that subvert dominant play strategies you will be well on your to creating an expressive ludic language.
At its core, the viewing of games through the lens of a ludic language is intended to make designers think about how the choices players make function as extensions of themselves as human beings. Do you accomplish your goal by being sneaky? How are you sneaky? Do you bribe your enemies? Or do you break into their houses in the dead of night? Or do you blackmail them? How might you blackmail them? Emotionally? Sexually? Violently? What manner of violent blackmail is most effective? The richest of ludic languages have a cascade of fascinating choices behind each apparently finite choice of “sneaky” or “blackmail” or “violence” that might be acted on to accomplish a goal. So give your players a chance to be creative without creating. Give them language with which they might converse through interaction with these beautiful things we call games.