Saturday, 8 November 2008

Abstraction: The Representation of an Idea

Picture the scene: it's 1982-ish*, and I've spent a good chunk of an afternoon typing in a program in BASIC from two magazine pages. It's called something like Dragon Run, and after spending ten minutes making sure that it is saved to tape, I excitedly type RUN on my flat Atari 400 keyboard.

If memory serves me right, the reality of the game falls somewhat short of the artistry that adorned the page of the magazine: a flourishing drawing of a big green dragon chasing a fearsome (yes, you read that right) knight. The game idea, we're told, is that you must reach the castle from your starting position, negotiating the forest, while avoiding the dragon.

A few seconds after typing RUN, we find that the truth of the gameplay demands some imagination, and that illustration of a dragon has been reduced to a single low-resolution pixel (in a 4-colour, 80 × 48), and the knight likewise. Trees were shown in another colour, each being single pixels.

You might think that is a harsh criticism, but that is not my intention. What we have here is an extreme case of abstraction, where the player has been primed to expect a dragon, a knight, a forest, and a castle, and makes the massive leap from pixel square to dragon. Was it successful? Perhaps!

So, we ask the question, "Is abstraction bad?"

My first answer would be that it's unavoidable, and that it's a question of "How much abstraction is necessary or acceptable?" We can't avoid abstration, which is the substitution of reality for a symbol of that reality. Even images on a live news broadcast are an abstraction of the depicted reality, because lots of information is lost in the representation.

Most modern games strive to be 'realistic' or as unabstracted as possible, often at massive cost (see my previous post), but is this really necessary to implement a good game idea? Most platform games and 2D shooters of the 1980s and 1990s are not very far from the pixel abstraction of Dragon Run, and some imagination was needed to translate the game symbols into something the player understood, whether or not the player noticed this translation into a workable reality.

Players can easily pretend that Pong is squash, tennis, hockey, or soccer (though the latter two are perhaps stretching the abstraction too far!), and that the clump of pixels at the bottom of a Space Invader game is a well-equipped fighting spaceship, so why do we have to spell it all out for the games we make now?

An honest (non-commercial) game would not need expensive graphics to reproduce the game experience, provided the player can do a little mental work decoding the abstraction. In most cases, this player orientation should be a brief learning experience. Game objects just have to exhibit some tell-tale behaviours to remind the player of their function, either in-game, or out-of-game. A good example of the latter (even though it is 'expensive media') is the animated sequences of Astrochase, where we see the astronaut climb into the flying saucer that the player controls in the game itself. The player will then carry this detail into the game, which represents the saucer more simply.

So, with a well-written game, the player can quickly become familiar with the plot, orient themselves, and continue to understand what's happening in the game environment. It doesn't really matter how abstracted the representations are, as long as the gameplay is understood quickly by the player. Further, it is often said that books can be better than films. This is because books make the reader's imagination work harder to fill in the gaps left by an implicit description, often producing a better result.

Concluding statements, then:
  • Do we really need explicit representations within games, when the player's imagination can fill in the gaps inexpensively?
  • Is there a danger of providing too much poor detail, which would be worse than having very little detail?
  • An abstract representation in a well-designed game can produce an enjoyable experience.
*Further research [here and here] reveal that this game was in G&VG magazine in 1983.

1 comment:

boomlinde said...

Good read! A prime example of abstract representations and imaginative descriptions would be roguelike games like Nethack or Crawl. I've tried playing Nethack with tiles but the crude 16x16 graphics don't cut it, while my imagination can easily produce high definition renditions of the scene when using ASCII characters :).

It also made me think of the mid-90s 3D games that would definitely benefit from using sprites instead of polygon characters. In my opinion, sprites probably did a better job at depicting a character in that period, but flat images in a 3D environment being somewhat more abstract and 3D models being "cooler" and more flexible made the choice obvious...