Intent vs. Emergence in Videogame Criticism
A reader brought up an interesting question in regards to the Reverse Design project. The stated aim of that project is to reverse-engineer all the design decisions that went into classic games. The reader wondered whether or not it was appropriate, in a modern context, to suppose the intentions of the author, no matter how much evidence might be present. This arises out of a movement in the study of literature to avoid authorial intent, becuase not only is this intent very difficult--if not impossible--to know, it precludes other useful interpretive strategies. I'm agnostic (read: apathetic) about the death of the author in literature, but I think there's a very useful distinction to be made about authorial intent in the study of game design. Firstly, most games don't have an author; they have a team. That team is held together by design documents, meetings, master plans, producers, publisher demands, and many other factors. There are many industry-wide practices used to ensure that the intent of the designers is carried out everywhere in the finished product. And, of course, there is playtesting. As far as I know, no book, movie, or piece of music has ever endured the kind of scrutiny and revision that comes from hundreds of hours of metrically-driven playtesting, watched by dozens of people, analyzed by all kinds of computing and math. It's likely, therefore, that the intent which binds a team together might tell us something meaningful and enduring about certain games.
This does not mean that authorial intent is king, and that other interpretive strategies are wrong. Rather, I think it points to a legitimate tack in the subfield of game design writing: the study of intentional design vs. emergent gameplay. If you look at the math that supports the gameplay of a title, certain intentions become very clear. For example, when we looked at the stat system of Final Fantasy 6, we saw that the way the magic power stat and the damage forumula for spells were disproportionately more powerful than anything else in the game. Magic is the only damaging ability that's basically the same for every character. (The "Fight" command, although shared by all, is drastically different from character to character because of the weapons they equip.) It stood to reason, then, that this was an intentional way of making all the characters mostly equal, so that there were not two or three characters who were grossly more powerful than the rest. It didn't work perfectly, but it did work adequately, and the math bears it out.
For the Reverse Design project, we tried to study things that were mathematically demonstrable as being intended, but not everything in FF6 or Chrono Trigger was like that. Indeed, most games contain some amount of game-long emergent gameplay. In Final Fantasy 6, for example, there's an infamous exploit (Vanish/Doom) whereby players are able to defeat most of the bosses in the game with two easy actions. It's pretty clear that the designers didn't want this in the game, or else they wouldn't have spent so much time crafting boss fights full of status debuffs, periodic and sequential phases, wipeout attacks, shifting elemental resistances and mob-summons. All of that work is wasted once the characters are capable of the trick, about a third of the way through the game. We spent effectively no time on this trick because there isn't much to say about it. Emergent gameplay ideas like these are an important part of many games, but they're often very simple exploits whose use obviates the intentional game design systems. Writing about these kinds of emergent gameplay tricks is, in our opinion, best confined to FAQs.
There is plenty of emergent gameplay entirely worthy of the kind of systematic, mathematical analysis, although it's often a very different kind of discussion from a Reverse Design. The MMORPG genre, for example, has theorycrafters who analyze the frequent changes, disruptions and emergent strategies created when the developer patches the game. The practical theorycrafter seeks to gain the greatest possible systematic advantage, often by means that the developer didn't intend. The designers, seeing the game-breaking success of these strategies issues patch which changes everything, and the cycle repeats. One might create a document detailing meta-trends in intentional design, and that would be useful, but there are some serious problems there. In some cases, the entire design team might have been replaced, person by person, over time, causing wide variation in intentions. The publisher might have changed, necessitating a different design trend (like monetization), halfway through the game's life cycle. The two most realistically possible kinds of response are, first, an interpretive one: a travelogue of Azeroth, a sociological examination of a guild, a deconstruction of myths in light of retcon, etc. Second would be industry criticism: what made Blizzard change the game so much, the history of industry pressure, the changing face of a multicultural player base.
Of course, that's not the sum of emergent gameplay or the possible criticism of it, by any means. Take for example how people have been talking about all the emergent gameplay that makes Minecraft so interesting. The designers of Minecraft have always been fairly transparent about their intentions, and those intentions have always been straightforward to the point that there's not much to say. Minecraft is designed to be a kind of interactive toy with which players can build their own game modes and ideas. Modders, seizing upon this, have created a stunningly broad array of things to turn Minecraft into a different kind of game. Many of those plugins work very well together to create even more complex game design features. In this case, how do you subdivide the species of games that could still be in the genus Minecraft? What is canonical? There are thousands of possible Minecraft mod implementations possible, and more arriving all the time. This is a case where a simple reader response would be the most useful: the qualified experiences of various individuals would be useful in figuring out which implementations we might like to play. Considering how difficult it can be to find the right server, this is an incredibly valuable thing.
If this seems like a middle-ground statement that pleases nobody, I'm sorry. As far as I can see, if a clear, unassailable designer intent didn't exist at least partially in many games, those games would be unplayable. Can you imagine two levels designed by two teams working without any communication with one another? That's the stuff of 2/10 reviews. The Forum is more or less dedicated to designer intent, but we certainly don't mean to crowd out other kinds of criticism; we just go with what we've got.