2.5 Down the Rabbit-Hole
What if you walk along and everything that you see is more than what you see–the person in the T-shirt and slacks is a warrior, the space that appears empty is a secret door to an alternate world? What if, on a crowded street, you look up and see something appear that should not, given what we know, be there? You either shake your head and dismiss it or you accept that there is much more to the world than we think. Perhaps it really is a doorway to another place. If you choose to go inside you might find many expected things.
– Shigeru Miyamoto [73, p37].
2.5.1 Worlds in Flux
Figure 18: A World, In Flux.
Once the boundaries and organization of a world are intelligible, they become potential targets for playful inversion, transgression, and transformation by both players and designers. Worlds with intelligible boundaries are constructed, made plastic, and placed into flux.
Testing boundaries is one way to find out what stuff a constructed world is made of. The clearly established boundaries of Super Mario Bros. become a target for playfulness and inversion by both Miyamoto and the game’s players. Chuck Jones’s classic Duck Amuck can invert and play with the conventions of cartoons because the boundaries of the cartoon and its system of representation were established at the time the film was made. In a similar move, Miyamoto plays with the conventions of a game from within it. Hidden passages take you underneath or on top of Super Mario Bros. levels, literally outside of the established spatial frame of the game’s space. In Level 1-2 of Super Mario Bros. you can jump on top of the screen, and run behind the level’s end into a warp zone that transports you to other sections of the game:
Figure 19: Sneaking outside the frame of Super Mario Bros..
In Level 1-3 of Super Mario Bros. 3 Mario can fall behind the level’s scenery, and run behind the curtain which marks each level’s end to recover a treasure. Objects sometimes dangle invisibly in the air, waiting for Mario to hit them before revealing themselves. Most pipes aren’t passageways, but some pipes take Mario into alternate spaces. Both Miyamoto and players delight in playing with the boundaries and organizing principles of his miniature gardens, but this play is possible only because the boundaries are so clearly defined. Expectations are established against which surprises operate. Clearly marked boundaries form a backdrop against which instabilities can be constructed and made to feel safe, inviting, and charged with wonder.
Miyamoto describes the pleasure of testing boundaries and uncovering secrets:
The players must be thinking, “Well, I don’t see anything here, but it can be, it’s possible.” Then the player is curious enough to visit that place. When he finds something he never expected, he feels, “Ah, I did it. I made it.” It’s a great kind of satisfaction [73, p53].
Conceivable and reachable states are put into flux, inviting an exploratory play of world boundaries. The pleasure of finding reachable states in unexpected places teases the player into imagining additional states and testing their availability. The secrets, surprises, ambiguities, and alternate worlds of Miyamoto’s miniature gardens lure players into toying with boundaries. Will Wright’s constructionist toy worlds invite players to test the limits of the buildable, a basic pleasure of making things. SimCity goads players into conceiving of a variety of potential cities, and then exploring their reachability. Players of SimCity, in this sense, are exploring the boundaries of the buildable, just as Wright himself plays with the boundaries of what is digitally simulatable. Papert argues that testing the limits of a microworld is part of getting to know it:
[In Logo] the primary learning experience is not one of memorizing facts or of practicing skills. Rather, it is getting to know the Turtle, exploring what a turtle can and cannot do. It is similar to the child’s everyday activities, such as making mudpies and testing the limits of parental authority—all of which have a component of “getting to know’’ [62, p136] (Emphasis mine).
David Sheff relates an episode of boundary violation, spatial and parental (we can assume), from Miyamoto’s youth:
Miyamoto as a child had worked up the courage to go beyond the periphery of the forbidding cave he had discovered. “The spirit, the state of mind of a kid when he enters a cave alone must be realized in the game,” he [Miyamoto] says. “Going in, he must feel the cold air around him. He must discover a branch off to one side and decide whether to explore it or not. Sometimes he loses his way. ... If you go to the cave now, as an adult, it might be silly, trivial, a small cave,” Miyamoto says. “But as a child, in spite of being banned to go, you could not resist the temptation. It was not a small moment then” [73, p52].
Miyamoto’s worlds reward players for testing limits rather than breaking under the duress of player subversion. The rules of a game world, its organizational structure, are a contract between the player and game that takes the form of boundaries and expectations. Games, however, revel in establishing boundaries and then putting them into states of instability, flux, and play. Dominant world organization is introduced and then subjected to a host of violations, reversals, suspensions, and transformations. ¹
¹ Conceptualizing a world’s dominant organization allows us to articulate sanctioned cheating or rule violation within a formal system as rule bending or breaking. Stealing bases in baseball, sanctioned use of illegal words in a game of Scrabble, or special moves in Street Fighter II can all be described as interruptions of a dominant world order.
Transformation of player power is a common world organization violation. The boundaries of player power are clearly demarcated and then reversed or expanded. Pac-Man’s dominant organization is structured as a pursuit of the player character by ghosts, but Pac-Man can briefly invert the game’s power structure by eating a power pellet. For a short interlude Pac-Man chases the ghosts. The invincibility star in Super Mario Bros. functions like the power pellets in Pac-Man; touching the invincibility star temporarily inverts the power relationship between Mario and hostile agents, and the musical accompaniment of the game switches to a faster tune.
In a miniature garden, relative size is power. Relative scale of creatures and objects in Super Mario Bros. is a world organizing principle against which transformations in size operate. Mario becomes larger and smaller through the transformative power of mushrooms and interactions with other creatures. The game’s power relationships are not only mutable, but reward, at times, Mario’s smallness with access to places unreachable when large. Super Mario Bros. 3’s world four is populated with creatures and objects which are larger than their normal size; everything except Mario is four times its normal size. This world’s organizing principle is a play on the other worlds’ dominant use of relative scale. Normally Mario intrudes upon his world’s order by growing larger, but in this world Mario is effectively miniaturized. Against this new organizing principle of a world which is larger than usual, Miyamoto continues to play tricks with scale. Passing through a doorway in level 4-6 causes the scale of the creatures to change back and forth between normal and large. Passing through a pipe in the Mario 64 level Tiny-Huge Island causes Mario to shrink (or maybe the world enlarges), and the camera perspective and sound effects go along for the ride. Consistent relative scales are established and then intruded upon.
Mario undergoes a handful of transformations in Super Mario Bros. which reconfigure the world’s power organization. Small Mario dies if harmed, becomes large Mario when a mushroom or fireflower is touched, and can fit into small spaces; large Mario becomes small when harmed, can destroy some blocks, and becomes fire Mario when a fireflower is touched; fire Mario can throw fire balls; touching a star renders Mario temporarily invincible.
Another play on power organization is establishing the boundaries of player power within the world, and then inviting the player to violate those limits. The Legend of Zelda begins with Link acquiring a sword, a first in a long series of steps in which player power is gradually incremented. Both Miyamoto and Papert describe violating or testing authority in relation to maturation or learning, an experience that can be exciting and awkward. Gaining experience, skill, and power is constructed in games like Zelda as testing and reconfiguring the organization of a world.
Another appeal of transformation is repeating the initial pleasure of immersion into a game world: player character transformations are not unlike the experience of starting a game and acquiring a new form, and environmental transformations and transitions repeat the sense of novelty and dislocation associated with immersion into a new environment.
Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced additional mechanisms for placing the series’ dominant world organizations into play. P-blocks, when activated, temporarily transform solid block into coin and coin to solid block:
Figure 20: P-block in Super Mario Bros. 3.
This interlude is accompanied by a dreamy music box song which emphasizes the transient intrusion of an alternate world order. This delightful transformation allows Mario to reach spaces previously inaccessible and reap treasure from what was solid block. The possibility of this reversal teases the player into thinking about solid rock as passable, mountains of stone as hordes of treasure, and coins as solid platform that can be stood upon or destroyed.
This reversal is simply one more trick in a collection of transformations and disguises for which Miyamoto uses Super Mario Bros.’s ubiquitous blocks. Most blocks are breakable by Mario, but some contain hidden treasures and cannot be broken (one coin, multiple coins, extra lives, mushrooms, stars, fire flowers, magic bean stalks, etc...), and in Super Mario Bros. 3 players can find such blocks jumping about with little critters living inside. Mario games articulate dominant world organizations that carefully build player expectation only to surprise with unexpected violations and transformations. Players are kept on their toes by Miyamoto’s imaginative use of disguises, presents, surprises, transformations, and ambiguities.
Game worlds can also exist in states of vibrating instability. Rather than construct instability as playful violation of dominant world structure, worlds can be sites of oscillating order. Ikaruga is a vertically scrolling shooter with an intriguing instability: the game can be played with your choice of two sets of rules, and the rules can be switched during play as often as desired. The majority of agents and all the projectiles in the game are either black or white. Black agents shoot black projectiles, and white agents shoot white projectiles. In one mode, your vehicle is black, and black projectiles, when touched, give your agent power, and white projectiles destroy it. In the opposite mode, your vehicle is white, and black projectiles harm and white ones aid. Switching modes inverts danger into safety and safety into danger. An unlimited number of reversals are available to the player, and the game demands rapid switching, as the play field is often filled with both black and white projectiles. Ikaruga’s structure is an oscillating bipolar order. The dominant organization vibrates between two modes, yielding an exhilarating feeling of ongoing instability and dizzying reversal.
The spatial structure and power distribution of a Go game is in continuous flux until its end. A large part of the pleasure of playing Go is the fluctuating relationship between stones and power boundaries. Group boundaries and player power is very fluid in Go: a single stone can reverse who has which space, or turn a live group into a dead one. The boundaries between black and white power, and the identity of groups are continually transforming, vibrating, and reversing. As the game approaches its end, these instabilities approach zero, tension is resolved, and play becomes less and less interesting until additional moves are meaningless, which is marked by both players passing.
How do worlds in flux remain intelligible to players? What prevents a world in flux from disintegrating into nonsense? A world’s rules might be in play to such a degree that it dissolves into unintelligibility, but this would be an extreme case. Violations are readable when they operate against a dominant world order. Super Mario Bros. is intelligible because its boundaries are clearly established and then subverted.
Dominant world order might change in such a way that we find ourselves in an altogether different world. The dominant organization of a game’s multi-world universe might then be a particular sequence of worlds, as in Super Mario Bros.. The sequence of worlds can then be placed into flux, and violated with diversions into alternate worlds via warp zones or other magic portals. But before we can trespass across multiple worlds, a compound world must be constructed.
2.5.2 Compound Worlds
Figure 21: A Compound World.
In Super Mario Bros., players travel above ground, underwater, underground, through castles, the clouds, dark worlds, and winter worlds. Players delight in the exploration of these multiple worlds, and the movement between them. The phenomena of compound worlds is a trope of both fiction and art, and happens to be a particularly postmodernist preoccupation. How does one go about building a compound world, and once you have one, what can be done with it?
Compound worlds are collections of microworlds, each microworld framed and set off from its neighbors through boundaries and changes in world organization. A single boundary can play many roles in a game world: it can be put into playful flux, used to frame a world and make it feel complete, and also delineate the boundaries between multiple worlds. The framing conventions of a Super Mario Bros. level, such as its end of level markers and spatial boundaries, are simultaneously used by Miyamoto to make each level complete, mark the boundary between levels and worlds, and are limits that players can violate, at times, by sneaking outside of.
The last chapter of Boris Uspensky’s A Poetics of Composition, describes how miniature worlds are created in both literary fiction and visual art. Such miniature worlds are constructed through a variety of techniques, and are often composed into compound worlds. Literary and pictorial works of art, Uspensky writes, both “possess the features of a closed system—each work presents a unique microworld, organized according to its own laws and characterized by its own spatial and temporal structure” [82, p167]
² Two definitions for microworld are now in play, one from Papert, and one from Uspensky. For our purposes, the definitions are complementary. Papert uses microworld to describe a miniature world that embodies a “set of assumptions and constraints’’ [62, p117]. Logo is a microworld for playing with geometry. Uspensky uses microworld to describe an entire work, or the units of a compound work, where each unit has its own organizational structure, or is set off in some way. Microworld conveniently absorbs both meanings. Papert and Uspensky’s definitions reinforce one another.
In many instances, it seems to be psychologically necessary to mark out the boundaries between the world of everyday experience and a world which has special semantic significance. Thus in the theater the frame is expressed through such stage devices as footlights, curtains, and so forth. ... Sometimes the borders of the conventional artistic space may fluctuate, without, however, being entirely destroyed, as in the case of carnival or mystery plays where theatrical conventions expand into life [82, p138].
Uspensky writes that changes in descriptive system, such as visual perspective or narrational point of view (ideological, psychological, spatio-temporal, phraseological), or beginning and ending markers, are enrolled to signify the frames of a microworld. Furthermore, this “framing may apply not only to the whole narrative but also to parts of the work. These parts (microdescriptions) have their own organization, based on the same principles as the organization of a whole work—that is, each has its own internal composition and its own frame” [82, p151].
The frames, internal laws, and structural principles which define the boundaries of a microworld can recursively repeat, producing compound worlds. Worlds within worlds are created by repeating the elements that frame worlds. Microworlds are combined into compound worlds through adjacency (spatial, temporal, or otherwise), embedding (forming hierarchies), and layering. The boundaries between microworlds can be clearly demarcated, or organically merged and “detected only by discovering the implicit framing devices ... which, so to speak, constitute the internal seams of the work” [82, p155].
Compound game worlds can be analyzed in terms of variation in descriptive mode or changes in world organization with the tools put forth by Dolezel and Uspensky. Each room in The Legend of Zelda, for instance, has its own independent point of view.³
³ Dolezel argues that narrative microworlds are constructed by selection, which “determines which constituent categories will be admitted into the world under construction,” and formative modalities [22, p113]. Dolezel puts forth a typology of such modalities: alethic constraints govern what is possible, impossible, and necessary in a world, “especially causality, time-space parameters, and the action capacity of persons” [22, p115]. Deontic constraints govern what is permitted, prohibited, and obligatory. Axiological constraints govern what is good or bad, and epistemic constraints describe what is known and unknown [22, p113-128]. Dolezel describes compound worlds as dyadic. This modal system gives us traction for describing ludic microworlds through their rules. The rules of a game articulate what can and cannot be done, what is known and unknown, and what actions get rewarded or punished. Also, the difference between alethic and deontic constraints provide a language for describing sanctioned rule violation, such as stealing bases, within the formal constraints of a game world.
Multiple worlds in Super Mario Bros. are marked by changes in description and organization. Music, environment, and rules change as Mario moves between worlds. Super Mario Bros. uses spatial boundaries, different ludic orders, and various markers to demarcate the boundaries of its microworlds.
Dominant world organization, discussed earlier with respect to worlds in flux, can be used construct a neighborhood of microworlds. Multiple world organizations means multiple microworlds.
Game interface elements are often layered directly on top of the primary representation. This layering doesn’t create confusion because each layer belongs to its own microworld. The microworld of interface elements, such as the player’s score and lives, frames the game microworld, and is clearly separated by differences in descriptive style and function. The layering of an interface microworld on top of the game microworld, furthermore, helps construct a fourth wall between the player and game world. Games often use embedding to form a hierarchy of microworlds: Final Fantasy 7 embeds games within games; in Mario 64, Mario jumps into the represented space of paintings in a castle, which forms a hierarchy of microworlds.
Super Mario Bros. 3 is organized into a sequence of eight microworlds, and are literally referred to as worlds within the game. Each world, in turn, contains a set of levels, which are microworlds embedded within the space of each world’s map:
Figure 22: Embedded microworlds in Super Mario Bros. 3.
Thumbnails of each level are placed on the world’s map, which spatially embeds the level microworld within a world. Also, the point of view changes from a 3/4 overview perspective on the map to a side view for each level.
Super Mario Bros., rather than use a map to represent the embedding of each level within a world, frames levels by other means. The start of each level and play attempt summarizes the player’s location within a particular level and world. The spatial limits, end of level staircase, and flag pole are frames that demarcate the boundaries between level microworlds:
Figure 23: Level demarcations in Super Mario Bros..
Super Mario Bros. uses heterogeneous environments to construct multiple, internally consistent microworlds. The game’s environments include, but are not limited to, above ground, below ground, underwater, and castle interiors:
Figure 24: Compound worlds via varied environments in Super Mario Bros..
Japanese gardens and miniature gardens also construct compound worlds by representing a multiplicity of environments, such as mountains, oceans, and forests:
Figure 25: Japanese garden with multiple zones [75, p68].
Slawson writes that the “emphasis on natural features and scenic places reveals a ‘feature-oriented’ approach to landscape design. Chosen features of natural scenery were re-created in the garden so that they were convincingly present and evoked some of the same feelings one had when actually viewing them in nature” [75, p58]. Japanese gardens build landscapes containing multiple, embedded zones, through techniques for maintaining the internal consistency of each microworld, such as natural habitat and geologic zones, and clearly marked zone borders. Slawson quotes Illustrations for Designing Mountain, Water, and Hillside Field Landscapes, a pre-medieval Japanese gardening text:
In the planting of trees and herbs, you make their natural habitats your model. You will not go astray so long as you bear in mind the principle of planting trees from deep mountains in the deep mountains of the garden, trees from hills and fields in the hills and fields, herbs and trees from freshwater shores on the freshwater shores, and herbs from the seashore on the seashore. For the landscape garden mirrors nature. And thus it is said that in each and all we must return to the two words, natural habitat [75, p62].
Rocks taken from mountain, river, and ocean environments re-create those environments, as the natural forces operating on the rocks have left their mark. Such rocks and plants are abstracted elements that stand for particular habitats and geological zones. Each garden zone is an internally consistent microworld with boundaries marking the frontier between microworlds. Slawson writes that
it should be borne in mind that in an art seeking to convey the experiential quality of natural landscape, the designer, like the painter, may compress a great distance into a relatively short interval of time and space. For example, in the left rear corner of a site no more than thirty feet square, the designer might plant several cypress on an artificial hill to create the effect of a deep mountain, with a retaining wall of boulders to simulate a rocky cliff. The mandarin orange could then be planted in the right front corner near the residence, in a sun-filled meadowy space that extends out to the front bank of a stream bed (wet or dry) running along the base of the retaining wall. The stream bed thus serves as the primary demarcation between the two habitats and their corresponding geological zones [75, p64].
Internal consistency and clearly marked boundaries create compound landscape microworlds. Landscape elements can suggest different zones and moods, a design principle Miyamoto seems to be well aware of:
Nintendo Power: The first two stages of the game [Pikmin] convey a strong, “backyard” feeling, but the next two stages have a grander atmosphere and don’t feel like an adventure in a small world.
Miyamoto: Perhaps, because those two areas don’t have objects like empty boxes or cans. [1]
The castle levels in Super Mario Bros. are foreboding environments because of more than a change in the music or scenery. The materials the castles are built out of are unbreakable silver bricks, and the castles contain fewer secrets and hidden treasures than elsewhere. Change in environmental design shifts the emotional tone to one of less playfulness, which makes the castle seem more dangerous, and less subject to Mario’s power reversals and whimsical transformations. If there’s a knob of miniature garden-ness, it has been turned down for the castle levels.
Brian McHale argues that a trope of postmodernist fiction is constructing complex, compound worlds for the purpose of putting the interfaces between these worlds into flux and exploring the world building process itself [50]. Compound game microworlds afford travel and trespassing between worlds, as well as play with the world building process itself.
2.5.3 Trespassing Across Worlds
Figure 26: Traffic Across Worlds.
All of the techniques for framing and composing microworlds into compound worlds come together in Super Mario Bros. to produce the effect of travel between worlds. A hierarchy of microworlds (worlds and levels) is established through variations in internally consistent environments (above ground, below ground, underwater) and clearly marked microworld boundaries (staircases, status screens, flag poles). The game’s microworlds share ludic properties: Mario must evade or beat enemies and travel to the rightmost edge of each level. The compound world of Super Mario Bros. carries with it a dominant world organization, that of linear progression from world one through world eight. Traveling between worlds creates the pleasure of immersion into a new environment, and trespassing across worlds adds the pleasure of sneaking across worlds in violation of a dominant organization. Trespassing across worlds is made possible by repeating the technique of putting a world in flux not at the scale of a single world, but at the scale of a compound world as a whole. Trespassing occurs when a compound world’s dominant organization is in flux and subject to playful transgression. Warping from world one into world four (skipping two worlds) is a violation of Super Mario Bros.’s compound world organization.
Miyamoto, like postmodernist authors, moves us between multiple worlds and across unstable world boundaries. Super Mario Bros. communicates Mario across worlds with warp zones, pipes, and magic bean stalks. Super Mario Bros. 3 adds magic whistles, doors, and magic note blocks to this repertoire.
Trespassing begins with articulated multiple worlds, clear boundaries between those worlds, and a clear dominant organization for the compound world as a whole. The player is then invited to play with the compound world’s organization, and the interface between separate microworlds. The progression and size of each level and world in Super Mario Bros. is clearly established and then compromised: a hidden bean stalk carries you out of the current level and into the clouds, an alternate microworld; a pipe in level 1-1 brings you briefly into the underground world, a rupture in the normal composition and progression of microworlds; a room behind the end of level 1-2, a space which can only be reached by traveling outside the boundaries of the level and over the interface, lets you warp into worlds two through four, a microworld sequence violation. Some of these ontological diversions are also marked by variations on the dominant game rules. The underground microworld detour in level 1-1 has a different ludic organization than that of each level: the screen doesn’t scroll, no enemies threaten Mario, and the room is filled with an unusual number of coins. Many games contain reward microworlds where threats are absent and treasure is abundant, and Super Mario Bros. combines this trope with world trespassing, which makes it into a kind of bonus level with additional, intrinsic rewards: the microworld is discovered by testing a microworld’s limits, trespassing across them, and discovering a new microworld which other players may not have discovered.
Playing with the boundary between the microworlds of above ground and underground is a trope common to Miyamoto games. The compound world of The Legend of Zelda is organized into an overworld, and a system of underground dungeons and caves whose entrances must be found. These underground microworlds have different ludic, musical, and environmental organizations than the overworld. Super Mario Bros., like Zelda, is organized into above ground and underground microworlds with both obvious and secret interconnects:
Figure 27: Interlinked overworlds and underworlds in The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros..
Just as manholes and gutters in the real world suggest the existence of vast underground networks through the principle of hide-and-reveal, the pipes, caves, and rabbit holes of Super Mario Bros. and Zelda suggest vast underground microworlds. These underground microworlds lure players into pushing on world boundaries to find hidden seams and enter secret worlds that are always nearby, just below our feet, and tantalizingly out of reach. The seam between worlds, even if it is impassable, is always present, reminding us of an alternate world with an inchoate scope. Hide-and-reveal creates the sense of a vast shadow microworld, and players are teased into imagining palpably close other worlds, and searching for passable interfaces:
Figure 28: Hide-and-reveal across a seam between an overworld and underworld.
Every game boundary can be exploited as a seam (shared boundary) between parallel worlds. The spatial boundaries which frame a microworld can be used as world seams, as can the rules of a microworld. Many adjacent microworlds can be simultaneously juxtaposed via such seams; Super Mario Bros. simultaneously juxtaposes an underworld, a world in the clouds, and alternate world orders in this way. The p-blocks of Super Mario Bros. 3 activate radical world transformations, and create a shadow world of inverted block and coin. Passageways communicate between spatially adjacent worlds, but transformations superimpose shadow worlds. Transformation tokens such as the p-block, mushroom, star, and fireflower are glimpses into alternate worlds, but rather than transmit us to a nearby space, these tokens are interconnects where shadow worlds intrude on our own.
Leakage between microworlds can occur when materials move from one microworld to another, as in The Sims and Animal Crossing. Sims can travel from one house to another, between saved games, which reinforces the sense of each household as a distinct, self-sustaining world with its own life. Neighborly visits suggest that each household has an independent life that perpetuates even when you aren’t around. Each Animal Crossing saved game is a unique environment, a microworld unto itself. Just as two SimCity saved games are independent microworlds, each Animal Crossing saved game is its own unique village. In one Animal Crossing village, peaches might be a common fruit, while in another village peaches might be rare and valuable. Players, however, can communicate objects and characters across these microworlds. It is possible to take a fruit from one village, mail it to a friend playing an altogether different Animal Crossing game, and have the object materialize in someone else’s village. If two saved games are inserted into the same console, it is possible for your character to ride a train and travel from its home village into the village on the other saved game.
Besides adding ludic interest to a game, the juxtaposition and leakage between microworlds brings into focus the boundaries of each, and heightens the sense of independent, complete worlds. Juxtaposing worlds throws their shared interface into sharp relief, which reinforces the boundaries and completeness of each world, just as the ritual of crossing national borders foregrounds the sovereign and unitary existence of each country. The train and mail link between Animal Crossing microworlds foregrounds the self-contained nature of each village, and transforms each saved game into a complete world. The same holds true in the compound world of Super Mario Bros.; boundaries between microworlds frame individual microworlds as independent, unitary entities, and leakage between worlds draws attention to this fact.
Why build compound worlds? Compound worlds allow both designers and players of game worlds to repeat the pleasures of world construction and immersion. Compound worlds also contain interfaces between microworlds, boundaries which can be placed into playful flux. Worlds in flux and compound worlds foreground the world making process itself, and the excitement of a new medium for making worlds.
2.5.4 Ontological Foregrounding
Figure 29: Ontological Foregrounding.
Foregrounding ontology, or the constructed nature of a world, is a preoccupation of postmodernist writers. Foregrounding the world making process is another way to frame a world and call attention to its status as fiction [50, p27]. Two operations are accomplished by this move. Ontological foregrounding is a technique for framing, abstracting, and make a world miniature, intelligible, and safe. Secondly, ontological foregrounding is a ludic operation. The fictional world is simultaneously real and unreal; it’s a world, but it isn’t.
Calling attention to the world making process itself foregrounds the fourth wall, the interface which demarcates the boundary between our own world and that of the game. The interface between any pair of microworlds calls attention to the separateness, unity, and constructed nature of each. Foregrounding the world making process is another way of establishing the fourth wall that divides the real world from a fictional one.
In some sense, much of the pleasure of playing with worlds in flux and traveling across the interconnected microworlds of Super Mario Bros. is sharing with Miyamoto the designer’s delight in making a constructed world. It is not hard to imagine the warp zones of Super Mario Bros. being used by the game’s creators as a debugging tool for quickly navigating a large world, or at least being inspired by such a mechanism. Likewise, each playful change of rules remind us of the designer’s ability to do whatever he wishes with a game world. Miyamoto invites us to share his own pleasure in seeing what can and cannot be done, like a baby playing with its fingers, discovering a new medium and its world making possibilities. All of Will Wright’s games directly share with players the experience and exhilarating pleasure of constructing, and then bringing whimsical destruction upon miniature worlds. SimCity reminds us of its fictional status through our own construction of cities, secret codes for free money, and disasters that can be inflicted upon a city at whim. Cyan titles like Cosmic Osmo and The Manhole share with players the designer’s delight in exploring the ability to fabricate and play with multiple worlds.
Ultimately, what is being played with is not only the boundaries between the embedded microworlds of Super Mario Bros. or Cosmic Osmo, but the fourth wall and ludic frame itself. The world of Super Mario Bros. flickers between a carefully framed play space and an immersive world. Playful reminders of Super Mario Bros.’s constructed nature make exploration, experimentation, and play safe, comfortable, and inviting for both players and designers. Playing with the dominant world order of a game repeats the first act of game making and playing: establishing a new world order counter to the existing one.
Figure 30: Cosmic Osmo foregrounding the ludic frame.
Prev Table of Contents Next
Miniature Gardens & Magic Crayons Chaim Gingold © 2003