I just wanted to follow up on my blogpost with a few thoughts on the potential for play within other media such as cinema:
Most, if not all, of great cinema is a well designed game. It encourages play, it transcends enjoyment to the realm of reflection, meditation, education, and/or empathy. I wrote in my blogpost earlier that any interaction a reader has with any media form (print, analog game, digital game, computer console, painting, film, video, etc) creates a space within the reader where the meanings of the media is formed (through an "infinite play of the world"); many post-semiotic thinkers have discussed the "play of language" and the play-like nature of the formulation of meaning from language. And as I went home today, I was browsing my computer for something to do and I decided to put on a nice, quite, contemplative game about the meaning of our lives.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is a Korea film by Kim Ki-Duk. It is set on a floating temple in the middle of a lake within a valley in Korea. It is set in an ambigiously timeless yet modern day, across four different seasons of one man's life (the final spring being the new springtime of a young boy, soon to begin his own journey). There is extremely little dialogue, it is incredibly beautiful, and I recommend that you sit down and spend some time out of your long weekend to give it a view. It's extremely interesting, mostly because it is such a fantastic film to play*.
1st Level: Spring
A young boy and an old monk dwell on a floating temple together, the young boy goes to pick out herbs. The old man warns him about snakes. During the herb picking the boy sees a snake, picks it up, and throws it aside in an unafraid and learned manner. The movie has introduced the snake to us.
The main action of the first level now begins. The little boy, in a fit of boredom, goes out to the wood and giggles as he ties rocks to various animals. First, he ties a rock to a fish in a small pond. Then to a frog, and finally to a snake. The whole time the old monk follows and watches him, but takes no action. At night, the old monk ties a heavy stone to the boy. The boy wakes up, complains about the heavy stone and the master chastises him for tying the stone to the animals. He tells the boy to release the stones from those animals, and then his own stone will be released. However, if any of those animals are dead, then he will carry a stone in his heart forever.
The boy discovers the fish, and finds it has died. He buries it in the ground with care. He finds the frog, and it is still alive. He frees it. He then goes to find the snake. When he finds it, its head is violently smashed in, and the boy starts crying. Unlike with the fish, he is in grief so much he is unable to provide the same solemn burial.
The snake and the rock are established as two symbols within this movie. To an extent we can guess their meanings, and the stone's meaning seems simple to us now, while the snake is shrouded in more mystery; play with what these symbols could mean emerge based out of the reader's past experiences with these images and what is provided to them by the movie.
As the movie continues (I don't want to spoil it, its great!), more animals are added: a rooster walks around the temple during Summer, the old monk uses a cat for calligraphy in Fall, a snake slithers within the temple in Winter, and a tortoise is knocked around during the second spring. Candles glow brightly later on, and a full on pyre takes center stage in one beautiful scene. For no "realistic" reason a woman with a completely shrouded head appears, a man ties a rock to himself to hike a mountain, and snakes just seem to show up in the darndest places. As we continue in each season (or level), the two symbols of rock and snake are not only expanded on, but more visual elements are added, their placement and relation makes us reflect on their meanings as very little meaning is provided for us. The story of the film is utterly boring and unexciting without these, but by being almost absent allows us to realize this film is not about its narrative, but about these visuals.
Suffice to say, by the end of the film there is a sense of accomplishment, and by the closing scene the viewer suddenly feels more equipped and ready to understand the challenge of the snake and the rock from the beginning of the movie again by the end. Yet, each person will play with the given set of images the film offers, come up with their own meanings of what each symbol is. This is the nature of analysis, reflection, and enjoyment. And this movie does not force these meanings, but leaves them like lego blocks or simple toys for us to approach in our own way.
This is not a class on Asian cinema. So what can we learn from this in terms of game design?
(1) A good game teaches through showing, not telling - We are not told the snake is important in this film, nor the rock. They are simply placed before us, and in interacting with the meanings of snake and rock we learn how to play with the deep level of meaning inherent in each one. The very beginning of the film simply states what will be important, does not overwhelm the viewer with the plethora of meanings that emerge later, but lets them take it in gradually then later challenge, expand, and build off of what was first laid down as groundwork at the start.
(2) A good game lets play emerge from the player - Several meanings of the rock and snake are provided quite literally, but the enjoyment that arrives from this film comes from the emergence of meanings that the viewer creates in the process of seeing how they are used.
(3) A good game does not let narrative get in the way of telling a story - There is a very sparse narrative in the film. Very few things actually happen, but the story is rich, compelling, and expansive. The story then is not what happens, but what we create based off what we see. In effect, the story is created through the process of play, not the telling of events.
(4) A good game can provide a sense of fulfillment and reflection - At the beginning of the film, we have no experience reading the symbols it gives us. By the end we are presented with a scenario where we read every symbol and feel as though we can create the rest of the story from those few elements. This gives the viewer a sense of accomplishment, of fulfillment, of "yes, I have mastered this and I do not need to do any more"
(5) A good game does not end when it is turned off - On the flip side, you walk away from this film full of thoughts and ideas about the state of being and the meaning of our existence. We may have gained a deeper understanding of those symbols within the film, but the message that we have formed using them may be one we did not expect from ourselves, and causes us to reflect on our being.
So from that much, I can say that this movie has taught us the importance of a game teaching its mechanic, creating emergent gameplay that empowers users, letting the play process create story vs. a represented narrative, creating closure, yet providing reflection afterwards. Film is a visual medium (especially in a film such as this where there is very little sound) and these visual elements promote play. Digital games are a procedural medium where the procedural components should promote a similar type of play.
The snake and rock are only two of many very rich and complex symbols within this movie. Fire, the figure of the buddah, the knife, the covering of the face... there is a lot to play with here.
*Note that we can also define play as "(1) : to cause (as a radio or phonograph) to emit sounds (2) : to cause the recorded sound or image of (as a record or a magnetic tape) to be reproduced" along with the way we use it in class with games. Quote from the Merriam Webster Dictionary. Okay, that's stretching it but STILL it's interesting, right?