Saturday, 4 June 2011

Materiality and Procedurality

This is my position paper for a seminar in IT Copenhagen's game studies department called 'Against Procedurality'. It has Portal 2 spoilers in it. Also spoilers for my presentation on Tuesday :P Anyway, I don't usually get to put things I write academically up here because they're so long, so I thought I'd take advantage of the opportunity to post a short piece of work. Enjoy!

‘As humans we experience our world through the materiality of things. We walk on concrete, wooden or carpeted floors and drink tea from a ceramic, paper, plastic or polystyrene cup. There is a continuous, invisible exchange taking place between us, our objects and our environment.’- Karen Richmond, Thingness Symposium, Camberwell College of Arts

‘Don’t get yourself all covered in the gel. We haven’t entirely nailed down what element it is, but I’ll tell you this: it’s a lively one, and it does NOT like the human skeleton.’ - Cave Johnson, Portal 2

Materiality refers to the emotional and pragmatic significance of materials. Wood feels familiar, tactile and reassuring. Plastic feels like anything and nothing all at once - it feels more alien the more it attempts to emulate the familiar. When games involve virtual worlds, part of their procedurality is devoted to the materiality of the game-worlds.

Psychologist James J. Gibson, writing in the 1970s, was concerned with the mind’s perception of surfaces and substances in the environment. Gibson claims that the concern of the active being in the inhabited environment is not the physical properties of materials but what can be done with them - affordances, such as ‘sit-down-able’ or ‘stand-on-able’. The way that game engines model affordances highlights something about cultural understandings of materiality.

How materiality is conceived in the virtual world is by nature a procedural question. In Portal 2 the perception of the environment as surfaces and substances with their own affordances is heavily manipulated. The player’s assumption that the affordances of surfaces can be judged by their colour is turned around by allowing the player to repaint the surfaces to change their affordances. It is a creative masterpiece of hyperreal plasticity in procedural form, and it works because of player assumptions about the virtual materiality of the game-world.

Procedural materiality can be exploited rhetorically. Katamari Damacy posed a phenomenological critique of contemporary consumerist society. A small ball can be rolled around the world, picking up any ob jects smaller in mass to itself, growing exponentially as more things are picked up. It answers the question of what matter really is by reducing the products of modern consumer society down to mere material. Nothing differentiates a pylon from the Eiffel tower or a cow from a human being other than their mass. In essence, all things are just lumps of material.

Affordances determine the possible action-paths that players can follow - a virtual environment with a large amount of surfaces posing a wide variety of affordances presents several possible action paths. Final Fantasy games feature beautiful environments in which almost none of the surfaces present affordances other than passability and impassability. Dirt paths are passable, shrubberies are not. The battle screen offers more action paths - a variety of weapons and items can be used in a variety of ways by accessing them from various menus. While the battle system lends itself to mimeomorphic actions, the range of actions the player may choose to replicate is fairly wide. The procedural materiality of Final Fantasy game-worlds is accessed predominantly in the battle screens.

Chris Crawford argues that to exploit procedurality well, games should be as interactive as possible. I suggest instead that simulations of materiality that account for the limitations that materials can place on human agency are more immersive and persuasive. Players want to experience the limitations of a virtual material world as much as they want to try out new possibilities - limitations make these possibilities more meaningful.

‘Look at this! No rail to tell us where to go! Oh, this is brilliant. We can go wherever we want! Hold on though, where are we going? Seriously. Hang on, let me just get my bearings. Hm. Just follow the rail, actually.’

This quote, by a robotic character in Portal 2 who has been recently emancipated from a monorail in the ceiling, seems to be a self-referential comment about game design. Level designs that allow a sudden sense of freedom are entertaining, but only in contrast to the restrictive nature of level design ordinarily. Likewise, aspects of game design which give players more agency over materials are only meaningful when materials are ordinarily resistive to interaction. Portal is a more meaningful franchise because not all surfaces can be modified with a portal-gun. You can’t interact with every surface, because there is something fascinating and fun about the way that materials limit human agency and force us to use our power to interact with the world in a smarter way.

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