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Beyond Ambience

Beyond Ambience
« on: January 06, 2013, 03:34:25 am »

I've noticed that a big trend in not-games is ambience:

You're sometimes greeted with a message suggesting for you to wear headphones, the music is soft, mostly consisting of tones and relaxing melodies. Why is this so common? It seems to me that the default focus of a notgame is relaxation in some form. Even if that isn't the intent of the author, the lack of threat usually presented by gameplay in something like Super Mario Bros is also absent in the game's music and visuals. How can we go beyond that without 'gameplay'?

A major goal of one of my current projects is to explore the inverse of that; instead of being told to wear headphones, it's recommended that you play the game at high volume of speakers, the music and visuals are loud, abrasive, and aggressive, and the player should feel the farthest thing from relaxed while playing it. However, in trying to maintain the game's aggressive energy, it seemed incredibly unnatural to reject things like player death or enemies.

So is aggression like this even possible in not-games? In a game with no end-goal or negative reinforcements, relaxation seems like a natural outcome -- in much the same way we would feel relaxed while not being menaced by bills or knife wielding bandits. But if, instead of the game having a passive relationship with the player, I want the game to grab the player by the throat shake them -- how could I do that? Could I do that?

There are definitely examples of games that build tension or fear, such as Yeti Hunter or even Slender, but they still create these responses via ambience. The game maintains a passive distance to its player, but never gets in its player's face and screams at them in the way some supergames do.

I'd love to hear any examples of games that you guys think do accomplish this, if it's possible, or how.
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Re: Beyond Ambience
« Reply #1 on: January 06, 2013, 12:39:57 pm »

Interesting question. The creation of notgames or, on the other hand, independent games, presupposes a certain mindset and sensibility; not to mention a noticeable exhaustion from the recurrent stylistic motives which dominate the games industry, which shifts between the ultra-violent and über-cuddly neglecting all the gradations that exist in between.

As a consequence, developers show a greater esteem for those themes not yet explored and try to confer them with greater ambiguity and subtlety. It is also a very functional means of highlighting the often tenuous line between industrial/mainstream and artisanal/independent. Themes such as Violence or War can and indeed should be explored under the same awareness as Love and Peace, although seeking different emotional responses. If not, all this will be about nothing more than providing a marketable alternative; as opposed to an intellectual effort of true width and depth.

The point you make seems to be more related to style than the nature of the contents themselves. Just a few days ago I played a very interesting and experimental notgame (we could call it that) named Slave of God where the audiovisuals are quite rough. It's not a violent experience, but it certainly casts doubt upon the notion that leftfield independent games are formally obsessed with peaceful ambiances and tranquilizing sounds. The same could be said about the upcoming Memory of a Broken Dimension, Dear Esther or the recent Kairo where the emptied vistas and aural moods can be very disconcerting.
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Re: Beyond Ambience
« Reply #2 on: January 08, 2013, 01:29:02 pm »

I have wondered about this too. It's probably mostly desire to do something different than the usual. The usual being violent or action-packed games.

The typical formal game structure does lend itself well to violence with its implication of winning and losing. It's not uncommon to consider games and sports as stylized versions of war.

Obviously, the childish ways in which these themes tend to be explored in games leaves a desire for something else. I would be very interested to see a videogame that is not a game but still is very active and/or deals with violence.

I guess to some extent, we have explored violence in The Path and even Fatale, but admittedly in a more meditative mood, from a distance, without engaging the player directly, physically.

One of the things that I dislike in interactive experiences is a feeling of resistance coming from the game. But this may be because the game's fiction never instills a sense of respect in me. So I get annoyed with what feels like artificial challenge.
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Re: Beyond Ambience
« Reply #3 on: January 13, 2013, 05:59:35 pm »

I would say that you're right in thinking that aggressive interaction and challenge go hand in hand and thus traditional videogames will tend to be more aggressive than notgames, but I do think that it is possible to have notgames that are aggressive.

I'm actually quite interested in notgames that have interactions that are, not necessarily aggressive, but more visceral/tangible and less ambient. I tried to do this to some extent in this prototype thing I made for a ludum dare a while back, I'm not sure if it's the sort of thing you mean?
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Re: Beyond Ambience
« Reply #4 on: January 28, 2013, 05:50:21 pm »

Maybe a bit of it has to do with people working with what they know - For example: I'm introverted and drawing from woodsy/naturey experiences and so I'm trying to create that same vibe based on my own experiences. I've also been in warzones and think we need a lot more embodied notgames exploring themes relating to them.

Slave of God is a great example of how we can use the personal to convey the cacophonous and alienating intensity of certain experiences. I very much want to explore the role of city/rural with loud/quiet and some of the literature around designing sounds for spaces.
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Re: Beyond Ambience
« Reply #5 on: February 06, 2013, 05:20:09 pm »

I definitely agree that ambience is a (perhaps troublingly) major theme in notgames, but I think the remedy there is (in part, at least) a focus on strong narratives. Consider Thirty Flights of Loving; by most accounts, this is a notgame. But it certainly does not court ambience. I think the major reason for this is its strong focus on storytelling, but its unconventional setting might also play a part.
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"Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other."
--H.P. Lovecraft

Call me Dale Smiley
Re: Beyond Ambience
« Reply #6 on: March 03, 2013, 07:58:24 pm »

I would say Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead suggest at least one way forward here.

I'm thinking in particular of the scene in Heavy Rain where you're aiming your gun at Nathaniel, and liable to shoot him when he reaches for his cross. It's murder without gameplay, and as a result, the best murder simulator yet. (Of course, it's as flawed as the rest of Heavy Rain, namely there aren't really any consequences, but it still puts the player in the shoes of a killer in a unique way.)

The action sequences in TWD work similarly. You can technically die if you wait for too long, but your leash is so long that it doesn't really matter, and all you have to do is click on the target to attack it. It's like they took a FPS and stripped out everything except the immersion. It works very well.

So it seems like thoughts and emotions associated with violence can be generated by notgames as easily as other emotions. You just have to put the player in a corresponding situation. Games put players in such situations all the time, but the emotions are weakened because it's gameplay in immersion's clothing.
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Re: Beyond Ambience
« Reply #7 on: March 04, 2013, 02:01:58 am »

It's like they took a FPS and stripped out everything except the immersion. It works very well.

So it seems like thoughts and emotions associated with violence can be generated by notgames as easily as other emotions. You just have to put the player in a corresponding situation. Games put players in such situations all the time, but the emotions are weakened because it's gameplay in immersion's clothing.

Yes! I've encountered this before, in my first game programming job working on casual games, where we found that fictional penalties and a fictional sense of urgency worked fine without backing it up with gameplay consequences. In particular it was a tornado minigame in the hidden object adventure game Fiction Fixers: The Curse of Oz, where if you click on the wrong object it would hit the house and the characters would be like "Oh no!" but it didn't actually matter in terms of gameplay. But it was enough for people to get into the fiction and play along.
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