Gamasutra - The Semiotics of Choice
It seems I'm lazy when it comes to posting submitted news so lets fix that. A new article on Gamasutra takes a look at how choices are used. Everyone thank Thrasher for the news-bit, and you can find the reply's on his thread in the forums.
If a player sees a red bar near his or her character that has no instructions or label, it is assumed this represents "health" and decreases with damage taken. A blue bar near the character that has no instructions or label is assumed to represent "mana" -- the currency used to cast magical spells. If the cursor turns into a finger or a gear, it means the moused-over object may be clicked in order to interact with it. Question marks or stylized icons means an NPC has something to say, and exclamation points means that NPC is waiting on you to advance his state. When you spend points in a tech tree, it unlocks the next node to be purchased which lights up. And this goes on.
When we play a game, we subconsciously (or consciously) recognize all of these things. We call good games "intuitive" and bad games "confusing" but really this is a matter of the designer's fluency in the language of games, and also the designer's ability to create novel language for new features that is immediately understood by players. Good writers add to the existing body of language, and good designers invent new symbols which add to the semiotic lexicon.
On a recent play-through of Skyrim I walked into a cave and saw a dead body on the ground, three stone pillars, and a locked gate. Semiotics told me a dead body on the ground means the corpse will have a book with a riddle that tells me how to rotate the pillars and unlock the gate.
I read the riddle, and was stumped.
My girlfriend, who is not a gamer and had never seen Skyrim before, was watching me play. She said "oh the pillar next to the water gets the fish." My gamer brain had completely discarded the background as for-atmospheric-purposes-only, but she was free from my prejudice.
One challange sandbox games a graphical fidelity improves each generation is that there is so much detail painted into a scene the player has no idea what's important. Whereas in earlier RPGs with less sophisiticated graphics, the difference between a "background tile" and a "foreground object" is clear. The limited color palettes and resolutions made it necessary for designers to highlight the semiotic elements.