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August 24, 2010

The Marriage, my divorce, and Abstraction

When I was working on "my divorce", I quite naturally spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how Rod Humble’s The Marriage worked, since I was seeking to emulate some of its themes (and steal its appearance outright).

The obvious stand-out immediately is the graphical representation. It’s as simple as can be, and I think that’s a good thing for this type of game. Humble¹ was seeking to represent at least some of the interactions at play in a marriage, and I think this sort of level of abstraction really works well for that. One can at least imagine a fully-realized, hyper-realistic third-person rendering over which we have a god-like view, with the “events” that drop down from the top of the screen represented as real events of some kind. You could perhaps imagine this sort of thing on a holodeck, which would further give the opportunity to render an enormous amount of alternative male and female abstractions.

But in doing so, much would be lost. The Marriage seeks to abstract not a husband and wife, but the masculine and feminine aspects of a marriage, which could come from either partner, and I really respected that. The Marriage could in fact represent the forces at play in marriages between same-gender partners, for example, since it’s not really about gender. And at this point, a highly representational approach would not so much break down as require many, many more plays to get at the underlying meanings, since the representation would become part of the message, and that representation would have to change many, many times for the participant to understand that the graphical representation was in some sense irrelevant to the message the work sought to impart. When specifics are available, we tend to latch on to them.

So I sought to emulate that representation. It’s possible, in my divorce, to represent either “parent” as a pink square or a blue one: they aren’t meant to represent people so much as aspects of the things that parents give their children. It’s not even necessarily meant to represent masculinity and femininity - simply that each parent gives something different to a child. The game can be reconfigured to work with same-gender parents and still be winnable, by tweaking the weights.

Discussing my divorce with a friend who has two children, each with a different father, we talked about whether the game could represent more specific situations, such as a step-parent entering the scene or other such specifics, and how a parent or the children might respond to that. I definitely considered that quite a lot before I embarked on the game, but I decided that in doing so I had a hard time separating my own response to the introduction of a new figure in the lives of the children from how that might affect them. So I left that ambiguous rather than introducing another layered mechanic -- the green, grey, and black circles are whatever you might think them to be. There’s no reason, for example, to think that a given circle in The Marriage doesn’t represent an affair -- it’s a valid interpretation, I think.

So, that’s perhaps one lesson in art games that we can take away, because it also turns up in games like Passage, one of my personal favorite games² and a well-known example of an art-game. In its low fidelity, it’s abstract already, but other elements are highly abstractable -- the “treasure chests” can represent material gains or more abstract things. Perhaps a chest is a promotion at work that didn’t work out as one hoped, or a career change that did, or a new child, or any number of things. It’s of course, only one style of art game, but I think it’s a worthwhile tool -- maybe we are the “abstractionist” school of art-game :)

This is, of course, nothing new. Due to limitations in presentation, the first video games were necessarily highly abstract -- Pong represented tennis or table tennis and perhaps even throwing a frisbee around, and with simple reconfigurations of the representations could also represent handball, racquetball, or squash. But I like the idea of using abstraction specifically as a tool to achieve a particular effect.

This post has already gotten a little bit longer than I intended, and I’m being called to play a card game. I’ll return in the near future to talk just a little bit more about The Marriage and my divorce.

¹I remain convinced that Rod has one of the best names in game developerdom, particularly as a maker of art games.
²I have been listening to The Brainy Gamer Podcast lately and in some of the podcasts he’ll interview someone and ask what their “Last Supper” game would be. Thinking about it on a long drive recently, I realized that Passage would be mine.

Posted by Brett Douville at August 24, 2010 09:37 AM