At Dawn and intentionality

In the first part of Justin Keverne’s analysis of Thief, he brings up the concept of ‘intentionality’ to break down the systems at play and examine how they fit into the player’s experience of the game. The explanation he gives is nice and neat—he says intentionality is your ability as a player to formulate plans and execute them. It’s kind of a two-part characteristic where first you need to understand the mechanical language of the game and then through these mechanics rearrange whatever in-game components in an intended way to produce a desired result.

Keverne gets the term intentionality from the design lectures and articles of Clint Hocking, who in turn inherited it from Doug Church. Church suggested the principal of intention in an endeavour to supply designers with tools for communicating the ideas of their field, with the hope that by stimulating discussion designers could go about developing their ideas and their techniques and not just sit around all day stumped by half-formed indescribable thoughts.

It was in this spirit that Hocking elaborated on intentionality (in Design Materials on the sidebar, or for a direct link to the zipped files, click here), which is to say, as jargon for designers to talk about design with other designers. Not that jargon is a bad thing—it’s useful exactly for this purpose. And it only obfuscates so long as it’s left unexplained or lives outside the general lexicon.

As it happens, ‘intentionality’ also exists as jargon within the philosophical world, predating Church and Hocking by almost 150 years. Though originally appearing in Scholastic thinking, it was really the Austrian psychologist Franz Brentano who in the 19th century shone a light on the concept of intentionality in reference to the workings of the human mind. Later, Edmund Husserl took to Brentano’s groundwork and established the school of phenomenology—the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness.

To be brief, phenomenology suggests that we don’t experience the world in an objective way, but rather our perceptions are loaded with preconceived notions and emotions and judgements and meanings that characterise the experience one way or another. Whenever we look out and perceive the world, we interpret it, which is to say the objects we see are automatically and immediately run through filters embedded in our minds. It is through this process that our perceptions are in any way sensible to us, since they carry meaning innately.

For example, for someone who has in the past been traumatised by drowning, they might perceive the sea as a terrifying body of water or a boat as a vessel that puts their life at risk. They don’t set their eyes on the sea, recognise it, understand it, process it, and then afterwards load upon it all sorts of scary connotations. Or even, if that’s what their brain ‘actually’ does on a neurochemical level, that’s not how they experience it as a living, breathing human being. Instead their experience is intimately one of terror, just as their perception of the boat is as an object of danger. But while some people view the sea with foreboding horror, others might view it with wonder and excitement for discovery of what it contains. It’s not that the sea is inherently this or that, rather that their perception of it is inclined this or that way depending on the complex whims of their mind.

In this manner, we view the world through mental phenomena rather than how it ‘actually, objectively is’. When we interact with the world around us through our senses and our outward expressions, we’re interacting with phenomena—words containing meaning, physical gestures that represent friendliness or hostility, noises that sound pleasant or grating. The notion of embedded meaning is probably already familiar to you via the relationship between form and content, or that of aesthetics and politics, or any number of alternatives. It’s got some fairly broad applications; phenomenology is just that as relates to the structuring of mental perceptions.

Let’s apply this framework in relation to At Dawn, by Darius Kazemi. It’s a simple enough game: you control a character as the sun comes up behind them. The left button moves them left and the right button moves them right, but when they meet the middle of the screen they move no farther right than that, giving the impression that the camera pans to the right alongside them. As you walk the sun slowly comes up over the horizon and emblazons the sky until your character is enveloped in its radiance. It’s a beautifully meditative game, even long after the music has petered out and you stroll on in silence.

I’m able to describe the game this way because my perception of it automatically interprets it in such a way as to be intelligible to me. Truth be told, there is no actual sunrise occurring in At Dawn, just a bunch of squares on-screen that keep changing colour. The figure I control, with all its jagged corners, doesn’t realistically represent a human character, and their ‘walking’ is really just three different frames one after another, which is not what it looks like when people actually walk. There’s nothing inherently meditative about viewing a bunch of animated frames in front of flashing coloured boxes while a tune plays.

Were I a robot whose cognitive powers were limited to collating visual and auditory information, this data-orientated summary would be the extent of my appreciation of the game. But because I’m a human, because I see the world a certain way and I suppose because I’ve been fairly accustomed to recognising and interpreting pixel art and because sunrises carry a certain soft, spiritual meaning in my culture and because listening to this music while thinking of perpetually walking as the sun comes up puts me in a certain frame of mind, my perception of At Dawn is irreversibly laden will all sorts of intentionality that characterises my experience of it like so. It’s visually a very pretty game, but it’s also quite beautiful.

At Dawn's sunrise

Developing on the ideas of Brentano, Husserl used the concept of intentionality to describe the nature of perception as always being directed towards something, like an object or a meaning. Within game design, intentionality is typically used to refer to a player’s intention in the colloquial sense of the word, whereas in phenomenology intentionality needn’t be conscious, as if you’re deliberately tossing all this baggage onto this wonderful or horrible thing you’re seeing. Rather, Husserl’s intentionality means the focusing of the mind on a phenomenon and how that conjures up whatever meaning it has to you. Intentionality is a characteristic of thoughts and perceptions, they have intentionality, just as through our mental processes we have intentionality, we possess it.

To elaborate more on this, there’s the analogy of a piece of string under tension. If you grab one end of an unfettered string and give it a tug, the string will flap loosely down to the floor. But if you tether one end of the string onto an object and then pull the other end, the string will tense up through the force of your effort and its anchoring to the object. In the same way as the tension exists between your hand and the string’s anchor and connects you to the object through the laws of physics, so do thoughts and perceptions only exist when tethered from your mind to an object by some meaning. You can’t have a ‘loose’ thought like you can have a loose string, since all thoughts are intrinsically about something. To be thinking necessarily implies to be thinking about something.

Going from this, phenomenology derives its name from an understanding that whatever we perceive is best described as a mental phenomenon rather than ‘an actual object’, since often we honest-to-god perceive things that don’t actually, objectively exist, like when you hear a serial killer scraping at your bedroom window that was actually a tree branch being shaken by the wind, or seeing an old friend across the street who turns out to have been a total stranger, or basically everything inside the virtual world of a videogame.

Phenomenology isn’t unheard of in the world of games criticism and design analysis, but I’m not sure if Hocking was aware of its philosophical context when coining ‘intentionality’ as a design concept. On the surface there’s some similarity between his use of it and its phenomenological meaning: Hocking’s intentionality is founded on the player’s intentions reaching out towards the game and altering its states, kind of like how Husserl’s intentionality sees the perceiving mind reaching out and characterising ‘external’ phenomenon. Hocking’s version is much more concerned with the root of the word—intentions—with deliberations and deliberate acting out of plans or desires. Quips of physics, like how a car tumbles any which way when you speed it over a ramp, don’t represent his intentionality. Husserl on the other hand is less concerned with intent as something that comes decisively and more with its aspect of cognitive directedness.

But dig a little deeper and more glaring differences begin to show. Hocking is only interested in intentionality to mean the space allowed by mechanics and systems for the player to express with intent—it’s explicitly a player’s digital input and the resulting feedback that constitutes his vision of player expression.

In his 2006 GDC lecture, he distinguished between ‘low order’ and ‘high order intentional play’. An example of low order intentional play is in Donkey Kong, when a barrel is hurdling your way, you press a button with the intent to jump over it. This is fairly in line with how Church used intention to reference the reliability of various states and actions in Mario 64, like when you press the jump button you know how fast and how far you’ll jump, so jumping becomes a measure of intentional expression.

Hocking went on to describe what he means by high-order intentional play with anecdotes from Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Grand Theft Auto and Deus Ex—games well known for their chunky systems. His examples largely amount to a call for a general increase in emergent gameplay. He wants richer systems with more niggly bits, so more things can happen, so the player can play about with more creativity and fulfilled intent, and he sees high order intentional play as a route to this:

I’m talking about the kind of play where the player at least has the capability to become an active and creative participant in the unfolding of an emotionally meaningful experience.

High Order Intentional play affords players the opportunity to express themselves in human ways in an interactive space. As differentiated from Low Order Intentional Play which allows the player to achieve his intent at a mechanical level.

Now, like I said earlier, Hocking uses intentionality in the context of a discussion on design between designers, so his language and his goals are centred on magnifying the relevance of designers to the subject at hand. They’re his target audience. Glancing over the fact that Hocking’s examples only illustrate ways players can express themselves in human ways by making explosions happen, his version of intentionality amounts to a game’s room for play, where a gameworld is stuffed will toys for the player to interact with and that will react back, so they can deliberately create a narrative through these interactions. Low order is mechanical, high order is systemic.

The problem congeals when Hocking latches his intentionality onto applications of interactivity, citing interactivity as being unique to the medium of games in ways inaccessible to television and movies. That old yarn. In this fashion, intentionality is a mode for creativity and expression through action explicitly, distancing itself from phenomenology’s intentionality as expression through being. In the past I’ve made (hilarious) snarky comments about how many designers carry on like if it’s not happening to the player or by the player then they’ll cease to exist, so if you’re a returning reader you might be familiar with my thoughts on that. Just this moment, however, I’m interested in the various forms of expression omitted by an intentionality overly concerned with interaction-as-activity and what that limits designers to.

Phenomenology and game deisgn

When a player interacts with a game, they engage it with their minds in a way that transcends ‘press button, receive banana’ feedback loops. The principal root of ‘intention’ in Hocking’s intentionality recognises this, since it’s contingent on the player having created a mental model of the gameworld that they can access outside of actually pressing physical buttons to interact with the ‘real’ gameworld. If I have the intention to make Mario jump yea high, it’s only because I understand Mario jumping yea high is a possible state I can achieve because I expect the gameworld to be persistent. The formation of my intent is predicated on my comprehension of the gameworld and what it allows of me. On the other hand, I could also misinterpret the world and intend something impossible in Mario 64, like pressing a button to try to shout out “Agro” and call over my horse. In either case I act with intention, although the intention of the latter example is left unfulfilled.

But I also interact with a game with intention when I ‘do’ absolutely nothing as far as the game is mechanically concerned, such as in the act of waiting—an intended, directed expression that falls outside the boundaries of an active mechanical interaction. While your character remains idle, your intent through deliberately striking that position could be any number of things: you might be waiting for a nice car to drive by, you might be waiting for the sun to rise or set, you might be eavesdropping on a conversation, you might be hiding, you might be biding your time, you might be loitering, you might be contemplating the beauty of life. What characterizes the idle position as any of these things is the player’s mind—returning to the piece of string analogy, meaning extends outwards from our thoughts and perceptions like a tension linking towards a mental phenomenon.

The same is true of all in-game actions and existences.

Mechanical interactions might define the distance and opportunity of a jumping action but it is cognitive interaction that grants it meaning. That’s the domain of narrative design, but Hocking’s intentionality is oddly coy about discussing narrative aside from ‘emergent narrative’, referencing a sequence of systemic events rather than parcels of meaning. At Dawn’s mechanical interactions are limited to moving left and right, so it wouldn’t appear to offer much in the way of his intentionality. Outside of those confines, however, it flows with narrative interactions defined through judgements and emotions ever-present in life, rendering it meaningful and intelligible.

For instance, when the music fades and you’re left walking with still more sun to come up, the silence of the game fills with the sounds around you, the sounds of your room and the outside, they become the game’s chorus. All the ambient noises of the world that you didn’t really notice five minutes ago now suddenly blare, but in a peaceful way, as if in your stride. The meditation of walking across a sunset blends in the world around you, so long as you’ve the time and the mind for it, roping in your present being and encompassing it in the game’s serene bliss. It’s not a thing of pressing a button to be an active, participating creator, and yet that model of intentionality lacks the relationship between being and meaning that At Dawn bathes you in.

Likewise, a systems-orientated intentionality offers little opportunity for reading into Boletaria as a historical setting, or for framing the power dynamics of an interrogation room’s composition, or juxtaposing cool sleek aestheticism with politics of mind control. It’s only a small slice of what’s going on when we interact with a game, even if you put aside the fact that it’s stymied by kind of archaic models of player interpretation and expression. For a model of cognitive interaction and meaning closer to sentient experience, think Husserl’s intentionality.


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