Aristotle once asked his game design student, Abraham Lincoln, “If game-play is king, what then is the role of spectacle in the creation and play of games?” To which Lincoln replied, “I won’t be born for ages yet; why are you dragging me into this belabored introduction?”
Okay, Aristotle never wrote about game design. But he did write about spectacle. He called it out as a part of drama–but the least-important part. He said the audience could get just as much out of a play by merely reading it, regardless of the costumes, sets, and special effects (which consisted of a proto-Michael Bay standing off-stage shouting “Boom!” when the giant Greek robot exploded).
Games have spectacle too. Video games are full of the stuff, with their cut-scenes, eye-melting graphics, surround sound, and dramatic voice-overs. For games on the tabletop, the spectacle comes from the flashiness of the components: playing pieces, artwork on the box, or battery-stuffed doodads that light up or talk to you.
As in drama, it could be argued that this is the least-important part of a game. As long as you have your game mechanics and victory conditions, you don’t need gorgeous graphics (in a video game) or enormous boards covered in detailed plastic miniatures (in a board game).
Spectacle may not be essential to game play, but I’d say it definitely has a place in game design.
Spectacle as Reward
The most common role of spectacle in video games has traditionally been as a reward. Congrats on finishing that level! Here’s a sweet cut-scene with spaceships. Hey, you leveled up — here’s an explosion of numbers and a rumbling bass line to help you celebrate! You nailed the last peg in Peggle? Here’s some Ode to Joy and slow-motion rainbows for you!
We can use these rewards to encourage specific behaviors. If we want the player to explore the world in a video game, we can make sure that doing so rewards him with dramatic views of the environment. If we want to encourage pulling off that unlikely, but fun special move, the move should result in such a cavalcade of wonders, the player can’t wait to pull it off again.
Spectacle as Exposition
Story is also another element that’s not essential to a game, but can elevate a merely good game to something with deeper engagement and immersion. It’s no surprise that they often go hand-in-hand.
The best most recent example is the opening to SKYRIM. While you’re still playing the game (it’s not a cut-scene), your actions are limited to simply looking around, so there’s no actual game play going on. Instead, you’re treated to some dialog from other characters explaining where you are, who they are, and how you’re all about to be executed–and then the dragon attacks! It’s exciting, dramatic stuff, but it serves a purpose; it gives you all the background information you need to understand the context in which you’re playing the game.
Spectacle as Game Play
“Liar!” you may be shouting at your screen. “You said that spectacle had nothing to do with game play!” But that’s not technically true.
Technically, I said that spectacle is not essential to game play. That doesn’t mean you can’t integrate it into the game play. This is usually found in the form of a scripted event: You turn the corner and see a giant alien tripod stomp into view for the first time, a building explodes, or the game unleashes some other spectacular set-piece. No, you can’t control when the tripod appears, or stop the building from exploding, but you’re still in control. You’re still playing the game. The spectacle is simply part of that game play experience.
The Purpose of Spectacle
These are the main roles that spectacle can fill in video games. The purpose of these roles is to entertain the player in ways that he can’t be entertained by the game play alone. Game play appeals to the thoughtful, puzzle-solving, pattern-memorizing parts of our brains that like to be challenged. Spectacle speaks straight to the adolescent pyromaniac parts of our brains that love to watching things sparkle, dance, and blow up.
And as Abraham Lincoln once said, “Spectacle may not be essential, but it’s still awesome.”
What other spectacle roles did I miss? What did I miss out on regarding spectacle in tabletop games? Let me know in the comments, and let’s discuss!