January 11, 2009

Solaris: The Impossible Game

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axcho said...

Have you read A New Kind of Science, by Stephen Wolfram? His discussion of alien "life" or "intelligence" (one short section in a long book) is probably the most lucid I've read, and most similar to what you describe.

I like that idea of setting up expectations (like, here is a puzzle, so it must have a solution) and then showing those expectations to be invalid in the situation you create. I've heard that the game The Jackyard does something like that with unsolvable puzzles, but I haven't been able to get far enough in it to find any.

I think that such a thing could be more than pointless as long as there is some other "point" to find other than the expected one. Like, you may not be able to solve the riddle of what this alien is or whatever, but there is some other thing to get out of the experience. Like, teaching people to look past what is expected or assumed and find meaning elsewhere.

When it comes to natural phenomenon, again thinking back to A New Kind of Science, I think procedural generation, artificial life stuff, could fit well. The core doesn't have to be human-generated.

I wonder if we could (or should) apply any of this to Adopt an Invader. On that note, did you get the email I sent a few days ago?

Krystian Majewski said...

Wolfram - mhm, a 1000 page book on Cellular Automata. Nice! I might take a peek into it!

But keep in Mind that Solaris was written in 1961. Back then, Wolfram was 2 years old.

The problem of natural phenomenon vs. wit of the designer is a more fundamental one: if I'm playing a game it is the game designer who (implicitly) suggests that there is a solution by even creating the game in the first place. It doesn't matter if the puzzle is handcrafted or procedurally generated. The fact that it has been made into a game by a designer remains. And this is why players will repond differently than a hypothetical researcher on Solaris: They will say "There is no solution, this game (and it's designer) sucks!" instead of "There is no solution, gee there might to be limits to human understanding". Because it is a game, there is someone to blame. In real life, you wouldn't have that escape.

Kylie Prymus said...

Nice choice - Solaris is an outstanding book. I completely agree with your assessment of why the film adaptations necessarily fail. The impossibility of a game is really a logical one. If the point is to get players to realize that there is no way to understand it, then that becomes a way of understanding itself, thereby disrupting the point. But it also could drive home the very human need to create meaning and understanding even if there isn't one.

I imagine if the events of Solaris were to actually occur it wouldn't take long before scientists would reach some sort of tacit agreement on what the "planet" is and completely reject any further inquiry into the matter. Naysayers would be relegated to the status of conspiracy theorists and ignored.

I'm reminded of a passage from House of Leaves (which I thought about blogging for the Round Table but it just doesn't seem possible):

"Riddles: they either delight or torment. Their delight lies in solutions. Answers provide bright moments of comprehension perfectly suited for children who still inhabit a world where solutions are readily available. Implicit in the riddle's form is a promise that the rest of the world resolves just as easily...

The adult world, however, produces riddles of a different variety. They do not have answers and are often called enigmas or paradoxes. Still the old hint of the riddle's form corrupts these questions by re-echoing the most fundamental lesson: there must be an answer. From there comes torment."

axcho said...

Yes, A New Kind of Science is worth looking at. :) Perhaps you could start here: http://www.wolframscience.com/nksonline/page-825

I see the problem now with having a game designer. The way I'd approach it is to make the game about some other goal, with the (unsolvable) riddle as a side issue, that players may discover and pursue (or not) as they wish. They may still choose to blame the game designer, but I imagine that fewer people would do so. For example, in the Solaris game, the players may be on the planet for some commercial mission, but can also investigate the alien existence there if they choose.

Interesting points, Kylie Prymus. It seems like there could be a lot of potential in exploring riddle and paradox in games.

axcho said...

Just realized - there's a game that is kind of similar here, by the RRRR group. Go to their about page and scroll down to the description for "Please the Art Critic" :p

Krystian Majewski said...

@Kylie: Thanks for that quote! It's an a perfect match for this topic. Amazing!

I agree that a real Soliars might not receive that kind of attention. That's how the Pluto case was solved anyhow - you just invent a new category and continue. But on the other hand, things might get different when we start actually going to all that far away places. So far, the furthest man was from earth was the moon and even that was only temporary.

@having some other goal - good idea! Might work. Would be somewhat like Alpha Centauri. My only concern would be that it might distract from the message if you make that alternative task to engaging.

@Please the Art Critic - I don't know about that. They say you can't win the first 12 times but I have been able to beat the first level on my second try. They have some EXCELLENT collection of games on their Website though! Thanks for that link, great source for inspiration.

Kylie Prymus said...

@having some other goal - I wouldn't be too worried about players getting caught up in the other games and missing the point. In fact, I would count on it! They will move on to the other tasks and stop caring about understanding the planet, which is itself an object lesson.

We'd rather deal with that which we (think we) understand. Few people have the tenacity to continue to poke and prod at something in hopes of understanding it even if they never will. At least if those other "goals" are there they would continue to play the game (rather than just quit playing) which gives the the opportunity to reflect, on occasion, on that particular task/puzzle (the planet) which they refuse to explore. If they stop playing the game then it will no longer call to them, beckoning them to at least admit that they refuse to engage with something so far outside their established parameters of meaning.

Krystian Majewski said...

@Kylie: Good point about opportunities for reflection. Haven't thought about that!

I wonder what this goal could be, then. I initially thought somewhere along the lines of a 4x. But now that you mentioned opportunities for reflection, I thought maybe of a tourist game like Shadow of the Colosus or Endless Ocean. In Endless Ocean, one of the goals is to visit every spot on the map at least once. I thought that worked very well.

axcho said...

Yes, I also agree with what you're saying, Kylie. Maybe this kind of game could be more feasible than we (Krystian) thought?

About the goal, I wasn't thinking 4x (fourecks?) so much as a typical game where you have one limited avatar, like a shooter or something (Space Invaders?) or maybe a space resource-harvesting game (Motherload?)... And if you give it a tourist-y flavor, even better.

Not sure if you saw this in the description for Please the Art Critic, but my point was that it is an example of a game where you try to understand a system that is impossible to understand. And that players did not give up in frustration and despair quite to the degree that you had feared. Instead, they believed they understood more than they really did.

"The critic asks you to draw things and decides if what you made was good enough, but unlike most games the probability of him approving is random. Instead of the yes-or-no deterministic games everywhere, can people realize when a game is ruled by chance? No one in the comments seemed to notice, only complaining that once it was beaten there was no replay value."

What do you think of that?

Krystian Majewski said...

I think shooting would go against Lem's conventions. Motherload-esque: maybe. But it would have to be less cartoony.

As for the Art Critic description - that's what confused me. It says that the system is random but when I play it, the critic clearly tells me what I did wrong. If I do the picture according to his demands (using certain colors, shapes), it works. Maybe it gets more random later on?

In any case - since you CAN win, people don't bother if there is reason behind it or not. It would be different if not only understanding but also winning was impossible.

Great experiment nonetheless...

axcho said...

I just finished reading Solaris.

Not sure what to say right now.

Krystian Majewski said...

Not sure what to say right now.

Is it different from what you've expected?

axcho said...

No, it's about what I expected.

I wanted to let you know that I had read it, but at the time I couldn't express what I felt or thought about it in only a sentence or two.

Definitely worth reading. Left me with a similar taste as Lord of the Flies, I'd say.

I would like to see a game like that. I do think it would be worth pursuing at some point in time.

Krystian Majewski said...

I'm glad I was able to persuade you to read it. ^_^