Creativity in a Mess of Bramble

A game is a possibility space. A huge graph of millions of game states that the player can potentially access. A subset of nodes constitute a “win”, and it is the player’s job to traverse this graph in some way to get to one of the “win” nodes. It’s up to the player to figure out how to get to the win state. In a puzzle, there is only one path to take. In a game, there are many possible paths.

Creativity is the thing that happens when somebody sees something new in a possibility space. It may be a new subset nobody else had thought of (like inventing a new source of energy), or it may be a novel way to traverse the space to get to the same end point (like increasing the efficiency of the new source of energy). It is the act of discovery. Humans are constantly striving to be creative, be it in their attempts to increase the efficiency of their morning routine before work, or to create a painting to try and move others.

Games have a real propensity for being machines for creativity. In other forms of art, the possibility space is only manipulated in the viewer’s mind. The film, or novel, or painting, try to guide the viewer’s brain through paths previously unknown. Most of the creativity happened in the creation of the thing. Games, though, themselves contain possibility spaces, external of the player. The mastery of a game is a mastery of the possibility spaces it contains. Mastery of such a space involves the creative impulse.

For a game to encourage creativity, it must be sufficiently complex. As it turns out, most computer games are enormously complex. In a typical action game, you have a number of types of enemies, a number of types of weapons, and a number of types of environments to fight the enemies with those weapons. These elements can be almost endlessly enumerated, which are what make up the game’s encounters. And yet, I find that computer games tend to lack the encouragement of creativity.

An examination of elements of the more popular genres of today, the action RPG and sandbox game, reveals why. The idea of these sorts of games is that you are a player in a large world, filled with enemies. You can combat these enemies in many different ways. Almost, the developers claim, in any way you want. You can stealthily approach them, or you can go in guns blazing. More than that, you can pick what weapon you want to do for the job! Each weapon knocks out or kills an enemy in subtly distinct ways. You also get to choose from various abilities to further empower your character, that let you be more stealthy, or more combative, or whatever it is you want to do.

Well, not quite whatever it is you want to do. Because these games that offer you multiple ways of accomplishing a goal are essentially limited by their budget. Once the money is gone, the game has to ship, and whatever methods of victory the developers planned that got in the game are what you get.

Multiple ways to tackle a problem sounds promising, but the issue becomes balancing the whole thing. When you have something as already enormously complex as a computer game, and then promise to let the player play the game in five different ways, the idea of balancing it all is laughable. How do you take one scenario and develop five different ways to approach it, all while ensuring that each of those ways are themselves sufficiently complex, offering creative ways to tackle the problem?

Usually, you don’t! Each way of completing a task becomes a path of least resistance. A dominant strategy. You pick whatever gun you’re having the most fun with (for me, usually the shotgun), and stick with it, swapping to a different one only when you’re out of ammo.

Since whatever you choose is a path of least resistance, there is no need for you to be creative within that path. And so, you don’t. It’s very hard to be creative. It uses a lot of brain power. A person must be forced to do so. If you can simply complete the game using basically whatever tools the developer made, why would you ever try and be creative? It’s just not worth it. Creativity in a player must emerge out of necessity. Computer games that offer “many ways to play”, are really only offering the player many well-manicured paths to the end. All the player does it pick one.

But these games offer variety, some may say. Yes, but the variety in gameplay becomes just a thing for the player to try out once they get bored of following their well manicured path to the end goal. This path over here has some different colored flowers … maybe I will try it out. And they are soon bored again, and so try another path. Developers seem to only hope that the player sticks around in these paths long enough so that the end of the game comes before she has tried them all.

Developers have many ways to make the paths seem more interesting. Some make them shorter, to give the player less of a chance to become bored before the game’s end. Others with more money add more paths. A most common technique is to give the player limited time one each path, or only open up one at a time as the game goes on.

But these are all just tricks. A well manicured path is always just a well manicured path. Rather than creating these paths at all, give the player a tangled mess of thorns, dead branches, and shrubs. Let them hack their way through it. They can see the goal, but just barely. They need to clear away all this bramble first. It’s hard work, but swinging a heavy machete at a bunch of bramble is a lot more fun than walking down a gravel encrusted path any day, no matter how nice it is. It offers more opportunities for creativity. And the bramble is cheaper to maintain, too.