There Is No Tyranny In The State Of Confusion: Game State Management.

I’m reading Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell. In Chapter Ten, Schell talks about a “hierchy of knowing,” detailing a transitive progression of the information that game entities are privy to, ranging from the micro (players) to the macro (the game state) and beyond (random chance, as represented by the Fates). In theory, the game state has access to the same information that the players do, and some they don’t- a sort of meta-entity.  Computer games rely on the software to manage the game state- and while the algorithms that manage the game state are different from the algorithms that manage the NPCs, the end-user sees the two as incontrovertibly linked, thus giving rise to the perception that computer games “cheat.” Which they do, but usually for the benefit of the player (if designed well).  I can’t think of an instance where game state management in computer games is written explicitly to capitalize on its own lopsided advantage. I’d like to see something like this in the wild- a game that openly cheats on its own behalf. I want to see that it’s possible to make a game like that, that still engages an audience and keeps people hooked.

On the other hand, you have games where game state management is handled by humans. This is most common with tabletop and live-action roleplaying games. The game state is handled by a Game Master, Dungeon Master, Storyteller, or one of similar peerage, and occasionally assistants. Unlike computer games, where few things happen in the game that the software doesn’t know about, the GM is beholden to the other players for collecting and parsing the information he/she needs to manage the game state. This is a little easier in tabletop roleplaying, since everyone’s seated around a table and everyone can see and hear each other. With LARPs, it’s a little more tricky. The players move around in a big space, ranging from an apartment to an open loft space (which is where I used to run White Wolf LARPs) to a wooded area. It’s physically impossible for a GM, or even a team of GMs with assistants, to keep track of everything that goes on. Invariably, there will be some game information that the GM, as manager of the game state, won’t have available. As might be expected, savvy LARP players use this to their advantage. (Compare to the earlier observation on computer games and their advantages.)

This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just another permutation to be aware of when tuning for balance (yes, one more thing game designers need to worry about). Meanwhile, we’re presented with opportunities to explore gameplay where the presumably-omniscient game state manager doesn’t know everything that’s going on. Imagine a game where the players know everything and the game itself knows nothing. A cooperative gaming experience where, instead of players starting at a disadvantage and working together to change the game state to something more agreeable to them, the players start with the upper hand and work together to press the advantage while the game frantically tries to forge its own path to victory.

A game where you already have the princess, locked in your tower. You just need to keep her there.


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