The Essential Flow (a case study because I have finals coming up, find your own damn links… fine, I’ll find some links…)
I’m sort of writing this quickly because, as my angsty title implies, I’ve got finals around the corner so this post probably won’t examine the science and depth of ideas behind “flow” and emotional game feedback and stuff. That stuff will be covered down the road, I promise! But today, I actually think it’s best to start that discussion by looking at what we have, what games exist that use flow miraculously well to convey their meaning, their core concept.
It’s no secret that “flow” in games is essential. The idea that the experience and mechanics must carry the player as much as the player carries forward the game. A game without flow is like… Like this gif. (note: this totally looks like my sister, lol)
My favorite example of a game that uses flow, like, perfectly, is Mirror’s Edge. If you haven’t played it, do so, it’s the shit. (also, go for the PC version, as the Xbox version is much less flow-y, what with finicky joysticks and such… which could lead into its whole own post on platforms for experiences… herpderp not now).
Mirror’s Edge is a game about a dystopian future in a pristine city-state world. You are a “runner” who delivers illegal, physical messages around the city, as the regime in charge brutally monitors all communications, media, everything. Blah blah blah backstory (also +1 for a emotionally complex and strong female protagonist). At its core, the game is about pursuing freedom when the world around you is supposed to restrict freedom. That is the game’s core concept, and both the mechanics of the game and the story give that concept beautiful, nearly perfect fulfillment IMO (‘in my opinion’ for those of you still catching on). This is not an RPG, this is not a ‘figure it out slowly’ type game (often the case with portal); choice is limited, there is usually a single solution, you are frequently corned, gunned down, or killed by your own missteps. And yet, the game conveys the pursuit of freedom gloriously. With flow.
Watch this: Mirror’s Edge, all in-game footage trailer.
Every jump feels dangerous and elating, every footstep and breath resonates, the colors used in the environment are both beautifully calming, and also quietly, almost jarringly reminding you that this city you’re fleeing through is a sham; a painted cage. Running in Mirror’s Edge truly gives the feeling of freedom feels free, it’s one of the best implemented motion mechanics I’ve seen, yet the world around you does everything in its power to set up a juxtaposition to that freedom.
[Enter 'serious' games]
Herein is an essential key in making games that affect ‘the real world’. The biggest issue often with ‘serious’ / ‘transformative’ / ‘will-we-ever-settle-on-a-name-here-people?’ games is that they lack flow. To be fair there are many many other failing factors frequently plaguing the reality-changing-games space, and other factors too such as the idea that finicky little buttons and switches might be the bees-knees to a kinder gardener and the utter hell of gaming to me, a 19 year old (this is something Melanie over there at the Science Game Center pointed out to me; she has evidence too!). And yet, flow does not have to be constant empowerment or player agency or total understanding, all flow needs to suck the player in is meaningful ensured progress. I’m not talking about to dive into a lengthy look at issues with the ever-infamous ‘Fail State‘ where games might often mistreat failure at the cost of flow, just that when the player makes an educated action, even in a split second like jumping off a frickin’ roof top, they are rewarded and pulled forward to the next challenge; hell, that pulling effect is the reward. Mirror’s Edge (the main campaign anyway) does not have points or scores, only flow to motivate the player. I would argue that points and scores are usually less motivating to the player than effective flow as well!
Behold, good reader, that the world of games-that-give-a-fuck is not totally bleak in the realm of flow. Allow me to present my favorite example here also! Dys4ia by Auntie Pixelante. It’s free. Go play it. I will wait.
Done? Awesome. Let’s chat. (if you don’t have a chance right now, play it when you grab some free time. It only takes like 10 minutes! It’s worth it).
Dys4ia, quite obviously, is about Auntie Pixelante’s experience of going through hormonal therapy as a trans person. There’s a lot to talk about here, but I want to focus on the game’s use of flow. Each little puzzle, each scene and situation used to represent Auntie’s emotions and experiences, consistently pulls the player forward without sacrificing the message of the game. The point isn’t points or winning, the point is progressing as Auntie did, and allowing the player to experience her feelings through the game’s mechanics. It is easy to jump in, it is consistently rewarding to stay in; the reward is the new experience; the emotional connection. Not points. Not checkmarks. Not gold. Not leet gear. The experience is its own reward in a well-made, core concept-oriented game.
There are a few other examples out there, and I could keep going on and on and on here because there is A LOT to explore in experiencing flow-y gameplay. If you’re hungry for more along this train of thought and don’t want to wait for another post… actually, regardless of your academic game hunger, go watch this Extra Credits episode on “Mechanics as Metaphor”; it’s related, I promise.
Games that use flow to motivate the player are more rewarding, and more effective at communicating their core idea. Play them, love them, let’s make more of them.
Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training.