It is always easy to assume that we understand something, till someone comes along to redefine and undermine that very understanding. Reading The Four Concepts by Eric Zimmerman was one such experience for me.
In his essay, Zimmerman delves into the current state of interactive works and the fundamental aspects that allow their existence. He begins the essay by outlining his reasons for wanting to understand, define, and contextualize the concept of a ‘Game-Story’ and why it is important. Much of this has to do with the frequent misinterpretation and misrepresentation of what it means to create an interactive piece.
One of the first thing that Zimmerman addresses is for interactive designers and content creators to be sensitive to the medium. Using the example of video games, he laments that “developers increasingly rely on filmic story techniques” to create a “mutant cinema.” Instead of using existing frameworks and applying interactivity to them, Zimmerman urges creative to think of how interactivity can provide pleasures that “books or film cannot”. This forms a pertinent argument in the current landscape of interactivity. Rather than pushing interactivity as it’s own story telling or artistic experience, creators tend to heavily rely on existing ideas and tropes, slapping on interactivity as an after-thought as opposed to building the entire experience with interactivity at its forefront. It is not uncommon to see games addressed in a binary fashion, with narrative on one end of the spectrum and gameplay on the other. While Zimmerman chose to use contemporary video-games as his example, I believe this can be seen across a large variety of Interactive content. Even with something as simple as a website, designers tend to put interactivity last on the checklist, instead of thinking how the interactive capacity of a website allows affordance for new ways in presenting the content to the end-user in an engaging manner. This thought and discontent forms the backbone of Zimmerman’s urge to regroup and reclassify the state of interactivity.
The author is also careful to remark that much of these concepts don’t exist in individual vacuums. They are in constant overlap and influence each other in many ways. As a result, it is important for us as interactive designers to understand the individual value that each of these concepts bring to the table, as well as the combined impact of these concepts when used in concert with each other.
I thoroughly enjoyed the objective arguments made by Zimmerman as he went on the define and describe each of the concepts. I found the splitting of Game and Story into Narrative, Interactivity, Game and Play to be very enlightening. Often as creatives, we tend to get consumed with the end goal or final product so much so that we lose the purpose of why the work is being created, or the core message that we are trying to communicate. With these four concepts as tentpoles, I feel that the work will be better guided towards a more wholistic end point. By constantly keeping these concepts at the back of our minds, not only are we trying to address them in our work at various stages of production and execution, we become better aware of how these ideas overlap and influence the other aspects of our work.
This thinking became especially apparent when Zimmerman brought up the point that play should not be architected. Rather, play should arise as result of a well thought out structure designed with the freedom and potential for play. This point struck a chord with me. As a creative, I often see creators and game designers trying to instigate play in extremely controlled environments. This usually results in a lackluster experience that usually ends in boredom. To really engage your user or audience, play needs to evolve organically within the confines of a system designed to allow for play, but not dictate it.
Zimmerman also pointed out that narrative is something that is implicit and found across all media types. Instead of always focusing on the overt and obvious ‘story points’, the author also brought attention to the idea of the overall story–the grander picture, if you will. Every action, sequence or move in a game on interactive piece carries with it the psychological and emotional weight of it’s participant. These various “micro-narratives” pull together to form a grander story that may at times, be even out of the creative control of the original author. To put it more compactly, Zimmerman urges creatives to question how a work is narrative in nature in contrast to if a work may be considered a narrative. With this lens, we begin to see that narrative is implied in a multitude of layers, at every junction of the creative process, and at every step of a user’s interaction.
In conclusion, I think Zimmerman’s idea of dissecting the Game-Story goes beyond just games in general. It provides a good survey of the state of interactivity and proposes a fluid framework that also contains well defined boundaries. It gives us creatives a good stable ground to walk upon, while also encouraging the experimentation, exploration, and exploitation of the concepts at hand.