Project 1 (now called “Connections”) shares a fair bit of commonality with Rod Humble’s “The Marriage” – both are abstract in aesthetics, expressive about personal relationships, obscure…
We made the conscious decision to not pursue the level of abstraction that The Marriage embraces, though. Why?
Let’s call the level at which a system of rules/mechanics goes without an explanation of how it works “systems abstraction”. Low systems abstraction looks like combat in Dungeons and Dragons, where the player is fully aware of how much damage they do and exactly why. The Marriage has high systems abstraction, where the system is hidden from the player, there is no explanation for why things happen or what the rules they abide by are. There can be a mix (or a muddle), of course: The collision system in Madden football itself has high abstraction, since the player is unaware of what the calculations in the physics system are to determine how exactly collisions are handled, but colliding in Madden has low abstraction since the system itself is a close representation of reality and from this the player can generally infer how the system works (Man, there is totally another term for this out there in game studies, isn’t there).
As a low systems abstraction game, The Marriage has no context or explanation for its systems (aside from its representative title). The Marriage is made more powerful in its artistic expression for it though, since the player must play the game in order to understand the meaning. This ties into the game being unrepresentable in any other medium, since people can’t ascertain meaning from say, a book or film by playing them. Additionally it might be all the more resonant for them to find it themselves. Of course, player interpretation might vary wildly from Humble’s own intentions (but who cares).
We might be a case of us having our cake and eating it. For us, intelligibility is a concern when making meaningful games – we want at least a baseline of understanding, yet we don’t want to be too on the nose about things (otherwise we might as well have people read our intentions about the game rather than playing it). If people can play our games and at a very shallow level kind-of-sort-of understand what we might be expressing, but explore our games further and then come up with their own deeper interpretations and meanings of our work, we’d be very happy. We lose the power of the player discovering meaning on their complete lonesome, but possibly reach a wider range of players.
This might be an immature concern – after all, how long has it been since the visual arts gave a rat’s ass about the “question” of abstraction and meaning? – but we’re still wrestling with the balance between wanting to both be intelligible, and respecting our players to arrive at their own conclusions.