Dynamic Clarification
Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 8:03PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Dynamics

I recently had a conversation with Daniel over from danielprimed.com. We were discussing the game design particulars of Wario Land 4, a game that Daniel is heavily invested as he works on one of the most ambitious projects known to Wario fans. From our conversation, I realized that "dynamic(s)" is a term that could use a bit of clarification. So if you've read my article on gameplay dynamics and perhaps my article on the human/team dynamics you're ready to dive into the following serious discussion.

Let's start with some updated definitions for dynamic(s).

  1. A dynamic mechanic is a player action or a property of the action that can interact with all, if not, many elements in the game world according to the game's fiction. 
  2. A video game dynamic can generally describe any action that looks to and/or changes another variable within a game system. The term can apply to game mechanics, sound/music design, graphic rendering, game saving, etc.
  3. A gameplay dynamic is a system where one action changes multiple gameplay variables (elements and possibly challenges) simultaneously.


Wait a minute. Our examination has already encountered a problem. It looks like I've presented three different definitions with two grammatical uses. In other words, dynamic the adjective is not exactly the same as dynamic the noun. Fortunately, this issue is really easy to clear up. 

The word "dynamic" always describes interactivity whether between the game and the player, between players, or completely contained within the game system. So, according to the first definition when I say a game mechanic (player action) is dynamic, I mean that there are many things it interacts with. For example, let's say that I have a super attack in an RPG that wipes out all the enemies by blowing them away with strong winds. I can use this attack on every enemy in the game except the bosses for some mysterious reason. When I try to blow the bosses away nothing happens. Is it because the bosses are heavy? Powerful enough to resist the spell? Or is it that the game programmers made it so that my "wind wiper" cannot interact with bosses whatsoever. Keep in mind this isn't just an issue of clear feedback but how the move is designed to potentially interact. The more enemies I can use the "wind wiper" on the more dynamic it is. For the cases where the move doesn't work, arbitrary limitations may be in place.

The 2nd definition generally describes the inner workings of a game system. When you hit an invisible switch and a sound effect plays, we understand that the action/rule/code looks for the player to be in a certain position to trigger the sound event. A single video game action may look at dozens of different conditions, parameters, or variables before triggering an event. Because all video games feature rules that govern objects/elements that are defined by a list of variables, this definition has a broad use. Rather than overuse the word, I use the 3rd definition by default in my critical-writing. 

The 3rd definition presented above specifically refers to gameplay dynamics. This means we're concerned with the variables, objects, and game states that create the goal(s), challenges, and goal seeking actions. Daniel suggested that I replace the word "system" with the word "variable." So the new definition would look something like this: when one variable is changed by an action the same action changes a different variable (controlling an element, feature, or gameplay challenge). At first I thought this suggestion was great. But now I see a problem with the word variable that has uncovered a much larger issue. I'll attempt to explain things clearly.

If dynamics describe interactions then a gameplay dynamic cannot be a variable. A variable is merely a number value. The dynamic (interactive) part of a system is the result of rules that govern actions or trigger events. Describing how a rule can look to one variable and then change another is the root of a gameplay dyanmic.

The question that begs to be asked at this point is can we ever know what actual variables are used a game. If we can, do we need to know them to begin talking about dynamics? I say, of course not. Not only would it be difficult and possibly illegal to examine the code of every game, but the mode of critique that I've been practicing here at Critical-Gaming for over 3 years only requires the game itself and no other resources. This means we don't need and have no use for statements from the creators about what the game "is," what it "means," or how it "works."  And though analyzing game code might help us understand a game's rules, they're not necessary to critique their effect.

So, if we're not actually talking about actual game code variables, is it accurate to use the word at all? Can we ever make any headway in describing the dynamic inner workings of a game? Yes, and yes. 

Because gameplay dynamics refer to interactions or actions, we have to consider how we define these actions. Technically, a gameplay dynamic can refer to a system containing multiple rules, variables, and actions. For example, when you attack or get attacked by units in the GBA game Advance Wars, a special meter is filled. Depending on the damage dealt, who did the attacking, and the CO used, the meter will increase more or less. So, we can clearly see how unit position, health (damage), type, terrain (resistance bonuses), and CO (strength bonuses) play affect the variables of the CO meter and unit health. That's a lot of rules and variables involved in one dynamic action.

Furthermore, aren't all actions just collections of rules anyway? And aren't all of the unit/character/player/game states just a table of variables? If you're still following my train of thought you should see that the whole effort of clarifying dynamics is completely convoluted at this point. Because we can't look at the code to straighten things out we try to do it ourselves. When we do it ourselves we get lost in a never ending chain of arbitrary labels and groups. The only solution I see is to embrace the arbitrary groupings for the purpose of ultimately presenting an insight about the game at hand.

When we talk of dynamics we're really trying to make sense of the complex, connected system of rules and data that are video games by creating groups that make sense to us, the player. And if we create the groups from the player/learner perspective, we should be very successful. After all, video games are designed with players in mind so that players can play them. Using the player perspective is a great place to shoot one's "arbitrary arrow" so to speak.

The whole point of this clarification on dynamics and the entire critical-language I've worked to develop is so that we can make precise statements about games. Identify variables where you can. Define the rules and actions. And tell me why the dynamic relationship between the action and the results affects the game in a significant way. It's not enough to just call something a dynamic. 

Dynamics help give gameplay variety and connect different actions to different results. They can also help make the choices we make more interesting, which is the subject of my next article series. 

Until then, I'll take my dynamic exit.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.