April 29th, 2012
(written by lawrence, however indented passages are often quotes)
The ‘game’ aspect of this beast we call a computer game always involves ‘loops’.
The player starts with a mental model that prompts them to…
Apply an action to…
The game system and in return…
Receives feedback that…
Updates their mental model and starts the loop all over again. Or kicks off a new loop.
These loops are fractal and occur at multiple levels and frequencies throughout a game. They are almost always exercised multiple times, either within a game or by playing the game multiple times.
Nested, dependent loops yields complex feedback loops and unexpected dynamics. Loops tend to deliver value through the act of being exercised. Thus they are well suited for mastery tasks that involve trial and error or repeated exposure. The goal of both loops and arcs is to update the player’s mental model, however loops tend to rely on a balance of the following:
Interrelated actions that trigger multiple loops in order to bring about specific system dynamics.
Systems of crisply defined cause and effect that yield self contained systems of meaning.
Functional feedback that helps players understand causation.
Loops are very good at building ‘wisdom’, a holistic understanding of a complex system. The player ends up with a mental model that contains a thousand branches, successes, failures and nuances that lets them approach new situations with confidence.
‘Arcs’ have similar elements to a loop, but are not built for repeated usage. The player still starts with a mental model, they apply an action to a system and receive feedback. This arc of interaction could be reading a book or watching a movie. However, the mental model that is updated rarely results in the player returning to the same interaction. The movie is watched. The book consumed. An arc is a broken loop you exit immediately.
Narrative games are the most common example of mixing loops and arcs. A simple combination might involve layering a segment where the player is engaged with loops with a segments of arcs. This is your typical cutscene-gameplay-cutescene sandwich.
However, the analysis can get far more detailed. For example:
Parallel Arcs: You can treat the emotional payload of song as an arc that plays in parallel to the looping gameplay.
Levels: The spatial arc of navigating a level provides context for exploring variations on a central gameplay loop. The ‘Golden Path’ in a single player level is really just another name for an arc.
Micro Parallel Arcs: A game like Half Life combines both levels and parallel arcs to deliver snippets of evocative stimuli as you progress through the level.
These structures also exist in traditional media. For example, if you look at a traditionally arc-based form such as a book, you find an odd outlier in the form of the Bible. At one level of analysis it can be seen as a story arc that you read through and finish. However, it is embedded in a much larger set of loops we casually refer to as a religion. The game-like loops include everything from worship rituals to the mining of the Bible in order to synthesize weekly sermons. The arc is a central rule book for a larger game consisting primarily of loops.
In the past I’ve discussed criticism as a game that attempts to revisit an arc repeatedly and embellish it with additional meaning. The game is to generate essays superficially based on some piece of existing art. In turn, other players generate additional essays based off the first essays. This acts as both a referee mechanism and judge. Score is accumulated via reference counts and by rising through an organization hierarchy. It is a deliciously political game of wit that is both impenetrable to outsiders and nearly independent of the actual source arcs. Here creating an arc becomes a move in the larger game. Intriguingly, tabletop roleplaying games use a similar core structure though the high level rewards differ.
Even in these complex cases, understanding which behavior is a loop and which is an arc helps tease apart the systemic behaviors. Of the two, loops are rarely discussed in any logical fashion. People note the arcs and comment on them at length while being quite blind to the loops driving the outcomes. Both criticism and religions are lovely examples of how loop analysis can provide a practical description of the game’s ruleset and magic circle even when the actual players are only vaguely aware of their constraints.