Definition- the general or abstract principles of a body of fact, a science, or an art.
Definition- the act or mode or result of performance.
I always try and touch upon larger truths in my Muranica’s, in an attempt to catalogue my own thoughts on gaming. A concept I’ve been recently kicking around is the Theory vs. Execution in videogames. My idea on the subject involving how often the two elements fail to coincide meaningfully in creating a well rounded video game. I was going to wait a longer time to write this one, but my recent coverage of The PS4 Press Event created an unavoidable parallel in my own line of thought. This chapter in Muranica very quickly follows a swath of video game related articles, but I’ve been tripping over ideas to write about as of late, which is far outside my normal routine of brain storming.
So in an attempt to flesh out my own thoughts, and create an ongoing project within the confines of Muranica, I will take a look at a couple of examples in the Theory vs. Execution conundrum.
As mentioned in the intro to this chapter of EM, the theory of a video game involves it’s premise, simply put. How it will work, how the design will function, how the player is going to have fun with it, etc. The Execution involves taking those ideas, and putting them to the test in a workable video game environment. Mario is about jumping, Halo is about shooting, and game design is about how to extrapolate this activity 100 times over, while keeping the repetition fun for the players sake.
Of course, talking about designing a game and actually doing so are very different, concept and reality colliding, Theory vs. Execution in a constant battle with each other. Just as one more re-frame of the premise, my theory in writing this article was to explain my own thoughts. My execution is to finish writing this article to tell you about them. Without the article the idea is useless, and vice versa, both existing within a symbiotic bubble of need.
How this can go awry can happen in many ways. A gesture as simple as giving someone a bouquet of flowers can even fall prey to flawed execution, with an initially sound theory falling whim to misplaced ambition.
In many ways, I felt like some game developers during the PS4 Press Event wanted to give me a nice bouquet of flowers, and instead, presented me with some Butt Roses. The Old Man Tech wreaked with untimely ambition, despite looking gorgeous. David Cage is a good example of someone who adheres to a reasonably safe system of Theory vs. Execution. He’s good at both, just not incredibly timely about it.
On track, but not on time, is one of the more popular failings of the T v E hypothesis, with the unavoidable truth that meaningful experiences, will take time.
So if a game like Mario, has a fantastic mix of T v E, and my developer example of David Cage equates to Good Theory vs. Good Execution, what are some other examples within this sliding scale?
A couple of good examples are as follows.
(Murano Subjectivity Alert)
Tetris: Flawless Theory, Flawless Execution.
Shadow the Hedgehog: Terrible in both regards
Asura’s Wrath: Good Theory, Flawed Execution
Phantom Hourglass: Messed with Theory, Sound Execution.
Time to examine some of the games mentioned with a little more depth (as I’m sure a fair number of you are scratching your heads at this moment, possibly still about the Butt Flowers picture).
I’ll start with the basic look at Tetris, with what I consider to be as close to an ideal video game experience as one can have. This being a result of Flawless Theory vs. Flawless Execution.
One of the main reasons Tetris is my go to example as the front runner in both, is that while subsequent iterations have muddled the design, the original stands king in delivering one thing, and one thing only, an engaging puzzle game. The title was created by Alexey Pajitnov, a computer programmer obsessed with puzzles, so you can correctly assume the artistic value derived in the entertainment of Tetris, is directly benefited from the math involved. With such a simple concept, all you have is the player vs. himself, and how he will best top his own score. A wonderful achievement in game design.
Next I’ll look at Shadow the Hedgehog, which I claim has both a mix of Bad Theory and Bad execution.
While there are more famous examples of other bad video games, I choose Shadow as it represented a particularly bad time in the Sonic franchise, one I happened to be a fan of. The series was suffering for awhile, due to mistreatment of the developer and bad sales as a consequence. Shadow was a desperate result of demographic whoring gone horribly wrong, and a company spoiling a working game formula.
The reason Shadow is the stand out example of bad in the T v E hypothesis, is because it disfigures an already tried and tested formula, and then even screws up the brutality after the fact. Sonic never needed a harder edge, and he definitely never needed guns. Sonic was about running, and the best games in the series show case that. Shadow is about shooting and being bad ass, and he fails at doing either. On top of a conceptually flawed execution, the game is a glitchy, unplayable mess. A travesty in every regard.
I now turn focus to a game called Asura’s Wrath, which is the example of good theory, bad execution. While the game’s theme’s may not be for everyone (anime art style, ridiculous action sequences), within it’s own realm, Asura had a nice aim. To deliver what was at it’s core, an episodically based anime adventure, akin to you playing through your very own anime cartoon, helping Asura reach his goal.
Where the game went wrong, with it’s poor execution, is how it handled actual game play. The game’s design ethic stems around a series of quick time events (fast button presses), intermingled with some really shallow on rail shooting sections. Any real fights, with full character control, are sprinkled about as if there was a gaming famine on, and there simply wasn’t enough to go around. The true problem with this lack of game play involves you watching Asura’s Wrath more than playing it. Obviously problematic for an interactive experience. The game represented an effort in creating an anime show like video game, and instead, mostly created a video game like anime show. The game has so many fun ideas, but fails to deliver upon them, making this a mixed bag of gaming tolerance.
The last game I will look at it in the T v E hypothesis is an odd exception, especially considering all of it’s pre-ordained advantages. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass represents a terribly odd misstep for the series as a whole, and is a unique example of a Zelda game. The first one, in my mind, to disservice the rest of the series with poor quality. PH fails to deliver on Excellent Theory, and Excellent Execution in one glorious display of spectacular failure, making it a black sheep for the Zelda series.
Zelda in theory is sound, and has been for decades. To the point of remaining my favorite game series through all my years as an ever evolving gamer. Each title, adding to the overall legend of the titular character, and enriching the gaming world with a new take on a fantastic formula. When Phantom Hourglass launched, however, my Zelda world got flipped turned upside down.
When PH failed to inspire, and in my subjectivity, even under delivered where no other Zelda game had, I started to question at one point the theory for Zelda was messed with, and when the formula started to break down. Streamlining an already simple premise often results in something far too hollow to be satisfying, and destroys a meaningful dichotomy of depth vs. interest. Zelda’s basic premise, exploration, has already been touched upon in multiple ways, and very simply at that. This has helped to create success in all of the other titles, even portable outings prior to PH.
Creating the ambiguous can help convey a message to a broader audience, but at what cost? When your message is already easily comprehended, you have to be mindful of extracting any further content from the subject matter. Phantom Hourglass ended up sacrificing too much of it’s own quality, through simplification.
Simplification usually resulting in the degradation of a competent formula.
One of the reasons I accuse PH of bad theory vs. sound execution, is that the game, from a technical stand point, has nothing really wrong it. The title isn’t glitchy, the story isn’t too derivative, and the fundamentals of exploration and dungeon diving are carried over from prior games. The bad theory, is the already discussed existing premise, somehow being simplified to the point of destroying basic elements of quality. Link’s Awakening was so impressive when it came out, because it translated Link to the Past into portable form with almost no major sacrifice. Had Phantom Hourglass done the exact same thing, consequently miniaturizing and effectively, “bite sizing” Wind Waker, the game would have succeeded like the rest had.
So what does this all mean? Nothing conclusive, at this current point in time. The Theory vs. Execution is a hypothesis after all, and will take further examination and litmus testing to explore. I touched on only a couple of examples, and only loosely at that. T v E is going to be a subject I come back to in Encyclopedia Muranica, as I think it represents a fascinating premise of where good games go wrong. The strong subjectivity of gaming allies itself with all kinds of gaming view points and philosophies. I am comfortable knowing my Theory vs Execution never has to become validated fact for it to mean something. I don’t seek to be right, I just seek to question, and provoke those around me to other curiosities as well.
T v E is so rudimentary in my every day gaming dealings, with a regular reminder of it’s importance this last week reporting on the PS4 press event. The showcase begged so many questions, and pushed me to ponder endlessly. While the developers are suppose to hype their own products, and promise mass ambition, at what point does extrapolating the fictional become counter intuitive to the final product? Further, what honest loyalties are deserved to us, the gamer, and how does one deliver successfully on a product with unjustifiable amounts of hype behind it?
As someone who enjoys struggling with the conceptual, I can relate. Pushing your own boundaries, and being adamant about ambition, can help us reach new goals, even if it is at the mercy of possible failure. We can’t really achieve anything new if we are too afraid of imperfection, as flaws, failures and false expectations can lead us to new realizations about ourselves. Some of the experience I mentioned here may be flawed in my own speculation, but acts only as curious observation, and not with the want of always wanting the “perfect game”, which for a number of reasons, simply doesn’t exist.
To this point, we must be mindful in our exploration, however, even with something like video games, not to become too unrealistic with what we expect. Too high of expectations and too much fiction can be poisonous and turn into somewhat of a vice, with us being ever too reliant on the “unreal” and always expecting something ridiculously unobtainable. Like most bad habits, they are very hard to break, which is just one more reason proper awareness and a healthy amount of curiosity can do wonders for both video games and the human condition alike.
In my consideration of Theory vs Execution, I learned just as much about myself as I did the games, and urge you to consider much of the same when observing any reality. We should always consider why we continue on, as succeeding under the stress of limitation can make us all powerful, even in our darkest hour.