The high school I attended used to show its commitment to maintaining its own academic standards namely by adding, at the end of the school year, an extra exam week, for its own exams, just before the Ministry exam week.
All Ministry exams, which all students in the province had to pass, on the same subject, at the same time, were of the same format: A set of multiple-choice questions. They were called objective examinations, a fancy name for, well, forms. The school exams on the other hand were exams of comprehension and memory. They were mainly made of blank pages and questions that required us to compose responses, called essay questions.
The fact that I had, for several years, to pass these two types of exams back to back, on the same subjects, left me with a lasting impression of their main differences.
First, essay question is an appropriate term. Because writing tiny essays was what we were doing, on those frighteningly empty pages, without really realizing it. And by passing such exams—as well as preparing for them—we were learning, far beyond any single “answer”, the crucial skills of summoning up, organizing, expressing, refining—of developing—our thoughts. Of asking ourselves relevant, diverse, timely, pregnant questions. Lots of them.
The multiple-choice question can’t care about anything else than answers and their binary processing: they are either good or bad, true or false.
A Ministry exam after the school exam was like an amusement ride after a wilderness survival exercise.
The point is that the format of those government exams was designed for the sole purpose of accommodating the Ministry. Not the school, not the student, nor knowledge itself, for that matter.
Because of course, essay questions are impractical, totally unsuitable for marking an entire student population in any timely and consistent manner.
Essay questions don’t scale.
And the very reasons why they don’t scale are precisely where all their strength, their value lies.
I enjoy many of my favorite games for those same reasons; because they have the same qualities as essay questions. Because they value exploration over solutions.
And they too, don’t scale.
Their production can be minimal, unadorned, even clumsy; their gameplay can be long, uncomfortable, opaque, frustrating, unforgiving. They can be hard to market, to explain, to play or analyze.
Compared to slick, mass-market smash-hits, often disguised, lubricated at great expense with popular licenses, enticing visuals and overproduced material, such visually dull, unwieldy essay games are total commercial misfits.
And just as there are some schools dedicated to maintaining their own standards, there are some publishers, such as Splotter, Sierra Madre, Hollandspiele or GMT, among others, that are crazy enough to dedicate themselves to keep producing these unconventional, marginal, essential games.
Games that do scale well mostly care about answers.
I find these families of games, and among them many story-driven games, tiresome because they’re too talkative, too explicit. They can not help, for example, but tell me when, why and how much my character or faction is in trouble. Which I find boring, since those are questions I enjoy asking—and answering—myself.
I enjoy trying to develop an ability for assessing my situation during a game; I much prefer having to estimate and surmise being in trouble for such and such reason, rather than being told by the game that I have only three life points left. Such games present me with a clear problem, along with the menu of the available solutions; then their narrative goes on pause and awaits my choice.
I guess I enjoy attempting much more than answering. What amuses, what engages me in any game is everything that precedes the answer. The doubts, dissensions, hard choices, shifts, misunderstandings that may lead to an answer. But the answer itself is the show-stopper for me.
Come to think of it I’m far less interested by games that ask me questions, their own questions, than by games that force me, by their carefully calculated silence, their balanced opacity, to question myself.
In that sense a good game is like a snake charmer; by playing the right tones or rather making the right movements—but without telling anything—it brings up in its players all sorts of new, unexpected, memorable, and yes, sometimes poisonous, questions.
Questions that beg to be developed rather than be answered.