Let's talk a little about game design. As a researcher and teacher, I sometimes find it difficult to express in words exactly what it is that game design is, or what I hope to teach to outsiders--even to gamers themselves sometimes. Capturing exactly what the difference is between design decisions and development process is difficult, since "good" design often fades into the background because it just works. As a player, one rarely notices all the individual rules and decisions that have been made, the experience occupies the conscious mind.
Discussing game design is difficult because it is a second-order task. A designer constructs the rules, environment, etc. but always in hopes that the player will experience something that is greater than the sum of those parts. When set in motion, the player(s), rules, environment and fiction all combine and create something that is not obviously discernible from a list of the game's rules. Further, since it is the player whom we as designers are trying to affect somehow, their perception and personal interpretation of what is happening is more important than what the game design document says should be the result. (Not that players can't be wrong or ignorant, but we still have to deal with their perception of our work.)
Finally, discussing the design of the kinds of games I like is very difficult, because there is very little opportunity for experimentation to verify any hypotheses about the way the game works. That is, I'm not often able to change one rule and see how it plays out. The games are sealed and finished, I can't tamper with them myself very often. Even in franchise games such as Assassin's Creed or Mass Effect, which are largely similar, many changes have been made between iterations, so it becomes difficult to nail down exactly what cause has led to which effect.
Allow me to preface this by saying that I am in no way a Batman 'buff.' My knowledge is rather limited, but I think this description still holds. I do realise, for example, that occasionally characters (such as the Joker) will eventually die in comic series. That doesn't prevent him returning in other media.
Being Batman would be a nightmare. Apart from the horrors of the brutal murder of his parents as a child, Batman lives bound by a set of principles that ensure his constant torment throughout his adult life. These rules exist both within him as a human character, and as unspoken but immutable laws of the Batman universe. Each night he must sally forth from his Batcave, to combat the endless criminals whose sole purpose is to destroy Gotham City, and by proxy, torment Batman. As a character, Batman is defined by his unquestionable need to safeguard Gotham. By contrast, his various nemeses are defined by their insatiable need to create mayhem, and thus, cause Batman pain.
When speaking of Batman this way, differentiating between his depiction in comic books, movies, television series or videogames is not even necessary. Whatever the medium, Batman lives in a kind of gameworld. The peculiar narrative content of the superhero thwarts the usual procedure from beginning to end, where conflict is resolved and heroic characters can live happily ever after. Batman's need to defeat his enemies stops just short of actually killing them, bound as he is in a deep sense of righteousness. Whether in comics, movies or videogames, Batman's overall goal is to lock such villains as the Joker in prison or Arkham Asylum, not put them in the morgue. So whatever else defines the contest, there is (almost) never any chance for permanent victory.
I find achievements a compelling topic in game studies. By achievements I refer to the fairly ubiquitous concept of player profiles that transcend the particular game, bound to the platform or service (ie. Microsoft XBox 360, Sony Playstation 3 and Valve's Steam all maintain separate systems), which exist as virtual trophy rooms to record the player's travails across many different games. This concept probably goes without explanation, but I tend to use the word achievements, and that's not to exclude the 'Trophies' found on PS3, for example, or other similar systems.
I first started to really mull the topic over last year after the now (in)famous talk Jesse Schell gave at DICE. For a post-mortem of that furore, head over to Critical Distance. He made a provocative speech that raised a lot of hackles, mine included. I'm not going to engage directly with that particular speech here, I'm not really focused on the 'gamification' (what a terrifying bit of corporate jargon that is) of non-game activities here. I'm more interested in the effect achievements have had on videogames themselves, why they have come to be, where I think they are useful and where I think they are a shameful crutch.
Alternatives to the Orderly World
Constructive criticism requires the presentation of suggestions to ameliorate some if not all of the shortcomings identified by an assessment as scathing as the one presented above. While it is beyond the scope of a theoretical thesis to actually implement and test these suggestions, the following are essentially design ideas that, theoretically at least, alleviate some of the limitations observed above. The first area to explore are alternative concepts for what the object we currently call ‘videogame’ could be. When relying on existing definitions of videogame, many of these suggestions will very likely seem like very bad design choices. What must first be addressed then, is the nature of a videogame experience, the goals of the medium, which can then allow for slightly or wildly different formal structures. These new concepts are fashioned in hopes of creating new gameworlds that provide experiences with a wider range than is possible with the very determined, game-like and predictable systems presently available. Perhaps some of these simulations will be more true-to-life in some ways, certainly in certain contexts, than is possible through the determinist model. Whether true-to-life or not, though, this wider palette will allow artists in interactive media to express a wider range of ideas than rigidly game-like concepts allow.
Escape the Tyranny of Game-Fun
Industry-focused game design texts advise budding game designers that not everyone likes the same thing you do, not all players will find the same games fun. They advise to pick a market, a genre, or some other identifiable goal and work towards that. This is obviously sensible, the kinds of players who like the Sims are often not the same as those who like Fallout 3 or FIFA 2010. If they do crossover, it is usually to satisfy very different desires at a given time. However, as much above assessment describes, the very high-level kind of fun that these same game design texts assume is a ‘game-fun’ involving mastery of rules. That game-fun constructs an end-point of power, then builds a ramp for the player to ascend towards it, until eventually, there is no challenge the player cannot overcome. The player-character has become the most powerful being within the game system. There is nothing the player has failed to do, he has ‘beaten’ the game. This does not correspond well with life experiences, nor does it allow for other archetypal narrative types, from comedy to tragedy. The question is, can a system be designed that abandons this strict, rule-focused and progress-based framework for experience, and what would we call it?