Galaga and Making Interesting Decisions

Sep 23, 2011

I keep up with incoming links to this blog (thanks to everyone that shares links in – I notice!), and this morning I caught a discussion about one of last month’s entries, Many Games Are Not About Choices. A counter-argument came up that I suspect may be a common reaction among readers, and I would like to address it here.

As I’ve expressed dismay over before, many game studies focus on either turn-based strategy (especially board or tabletop game design) or film-like storytelling. Both of these are perfectly great endeavors and respectable game types. However the tendency to emphasize those styles in literature and workshops often leads to confusion in the design domain of the fast action tacit skill game types that I prefer.

To paraphrase the argument: one reader suggested that real-time arcade action games like Namco’s Galaga really are about making interesting decisions after all, on the grounds that the player gets different points from different targets, and can deliberately lose a ship to a tractor beam for a chance to get a double ship (shown starting at 0:40 in the video below, in case you’re less familiar with the game).

My issue with framing Galaga in this way, as a game about making interesting decisions, is that this approach could classify nearly any activity as making interesting decisions. To name a few: karate, riding a bicycle, playing hacky sack, or batting in baseball.

Yes, there is a wide range of possible outcomes, and the player has enough control over the situation to affect those outcomes. However:

1. The outcomes are largely differences of degree rather than differences in kind.

To borrow the baseball batter example: there is clearly a difference between bunting vs swinging for the fences. That represents a difference in kind, and can easily be recognized as an act of decision making. Practically speaking, though, the outcome generally has more to do with how successfully someone swings for the fences, since it’s fairly well understood that in most cases that action has far more potential for success. That – how well/far someone bats a pitch – is a difference in degree. Most people would not identify the difference between a skilled batter and an unskilled batter as one doing a better job of making an interesting decision.

In Galaga, you’re trying to shoot all the enemy ships while dodging their shots and kamikaze dives. A successful player performs those fundamental activities more successfully than an unsuccessful player.

2. The time/space-scale involved is a finely grained continuum acted in under pressure, such that conditioned reflexes and practiced skills are leaned upon as shortcuts to perform in real-time, compensating for lack of idle time to make optimal, or even well-reasoned, choices.

Someone reviewing a video of their performance in a karate tournament, given a chance to pause, rewind, and switch to slow-mo, could very likely point to each and every thing that they should have done but didn’t. That intellectual understanding of the decisions does not help the fighter in real-time, when they are under considerable pressure and their opponent’s leg is coming at them.

Again distinguishing skilled Galaga play from unskilled Galaga play: the differences may come down to dodging a few more (or fewer) pixels in one direction or the other, firing 150 ms earlier or later, or reacting by sliding left instead of sliding right when there are a half dozen projectiles and ships coming at the player. Arguing that we can classify as an interesting decision the act of moving a few pixels further, firing a reaction-time interval later, or dodging the opposite direction with a moment’s notice would border on absurdity.

3. The risk/reward probabilities involved are fuzzy and constantly in flux, such that the outcome is more contingent upon executional ability, practiced coordination, and momentary concentration.

The differences in player ‘decisions’ during play of this type are snap judgements that might be retrospectively explained as, “can I pull it off? am I confident enough to try X right now?” – not as decision making ability (“what should I do? what are the probabilities to consider for making an informed decision?”).

If someone wishes to ride a bike but has not yet learned how to, the problem is not a misunderstanding of what they’re trying to do, but simply doing it. If you can already ride a bike, think about performing a backflip off a bike ramp. Either way is the same story: it’s easy to picture, the concept is clear, it’s just hard to do and requires practice. Likewise for keeping a hacky sack going. Of course everyone knows to not let it hit the ground. Doing it consistently is the difficult part, and central to the activity.

In Galaga, the player may have a crystal clear idea of exactly what they intend to do, but panic and fail to make the move on time, or instinctively cower and dodge the wrong direction, or simply fail to time their firing action in a way that will collide with a target. As discussed in my older entry Real-Time Play: Tactical Patterns, in many of these games the player will wind up so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of simultaneous movement and danger that they’ll resort to moving in a pattern while firing blindly, iteratively refining or changing-up their patterns between lives in a search for a rhythm that works best. It would be a stretch to regard that type of adaptive search process as the player making any interesting decisions.

The presence of a witty one-liner in an otherwise serious film does not mean we ought to consider that film a comedy. How we categorize media artifacts may seem like a matter only of interest to archivists, but categorization really affects everything from development targets to user expectation and critical reception. The hint of a subconscious tactical decision in Galaga – or, for example, the freedom to switch between guns in Doom – does not mean it’s a game about making interesting decisions, any more than the rescuing of a princess makes Super Mario Bros a story game.

Intellectualizing real-time gameplay activities as interesting decision-making misses what’s at the forefront for a player during gameplay, and can lead to nonsensical or misdirected design discourse. It’s sometimes a result of thinking about one’s memories of a game, instead of playing the game and paying close attention to the experience of really playing it. It partly arises from overconfidence in recall, trusting the brain to emulate the experience (it can’t).

To reiterate, then: many games are not about making interesting choices. Some games are. Games are not better or worse based on whether they are about making interesting choices, though in many cases these elements appeal to two different types of players – or at least two different desires/moods, sometimes both residing within the same player(s). Attempting to redefine terms to maintain compatibility with a popular sound bite is not productive, as doing so can only lead to confusion about game design, rather than improved clarity.

I think that one reason people sometimes feel compelled to force their favorite classic (or own) games into a mangled redefinition of “decision” is from confused thinking that to be good, we must somehow explain how the game is about making interesting decisions. And who could blame them, since the oft-circulated quote by Sid Meier that spawned the previous article in question is, “A [good] game is a series of interesting choices” (Rollings & Morris 2000, p. 38).

Declaring that a particular game is about making interesting decisions is not an evaluative statement asserting its quality. Declaring that some other game is not about making interesting decisions is not a slam on the game’s quality or worth. It’s similar to saying that some movies are serious, some are funny, and some movies succeed in blending both (which is not necessarily superior to either in isolation!) – it’s only identifying a difference in kind, not a difference of degree.

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