Clint Hocking’s talk at GDC was on the interplay between systems in Far Cry 2 and on how the gameplay based on complex, interrelated systems the game ended up with was not the gameplay based on complex, interrelated systems that it began with. The original intent was to create a a game that would enable players to compose and carry out elaborate plans to achieve varied goals. To this end, the developers set up a network of systems, many of which were characterized as “messy” or unpredictable (crowd dynamics, fire propagation, etc.), and some of which were more or less opaque to the player (faction morale, player infamy).
The problem with this system of systems was that between the unpredictability of some systems, the opacity of others, and the simple fact that playing a shooter tends to force you to focus on all the shooting going on, all the stuff about intentionality and planning got thrown out the window by players. What they found, though, was that the frequent disruption of player plans didn’t cause gameplay to degenerate into mindless button-mashing, but instead pushed the player into a cycle in which they were constantly making and executing more focused, short-term plans, reacting mindfully to an ever-changing situation. By designing for this improvisational loop, disruptions become less of a punishment, and more the point.
Towards the end of the session, Hocking talked about the differences between this improvisational style of play and the dominance dynamic that is common nowadays, in which games are seen as a thing to be “beaten” and then tossed away. Rather than forcing the player to adhere to a fixed script, improvisational play and complex systems encourage the designer to give up control and put the power to have fun back in the player’s hands.