My Thoughts on Video Game Structure (and How It’s Like a Pizza)

This post is dedicated to Cyber6x, a good online friend of mine, and probably the smartest person I know when it comes to video games.

I’ve been taking a class on Video Game theory as a way to bump up my GPA, and to learn more about an area of study that I’m already a pretty big geek about. I’ve been discussing video games and the market for years, but with this foundation, I feel a little bit more capable to comment on the culture and theory of video games (I’m not an expert, mind you). And, with that, I write about my favorite metaphor I use when discussing games: the pizza.

To explain, a pizza is a food that uses multiple ingredients, all of which can be considered foods on their own. In the same way, video games are a medium that use many different aspects that can be considered media in of themselves.

I’m going to try to be as thorough as possible here, so tell me if something is unclear.

  • Starting off the list is game design. What I mean by game design is the basic code, rule system, and controller configuration that makes up a game, and nothing more. This is the bread of the pizza; the stable foundation that makes it a video game. Simply put, this is the “game” in “video game”.

If you’re wondering why I’m starting off the list with this, it’s for one simple reason: video games are first and foremost games. They are meant, at whatever level, to give the player a level of interaction into a system of play with definable rules and limits (however minimal or maximal those rules and limits might be). Without that level of interaction, the thing playing on your television screen is an animated move. It is here that game design comes into play. The “bread” starts off with a premise (I’ll go over premise later on) that motivates the scenario in which the player will be involved. After that, the necessary abilities, obstacles, and rules are added into the file to become the game through coding. Think of it like the dough of a pizza being made: an idea becomes a mixture of water, flour, salt, and other ingredients, and then shaped into a round, thin disc (another little irony of my extended metaphor). Many different ingredients in both scenarios are added, but it all ends up in one single product.

It is here, technically, that the game is complete. I don’t mean that the video game is done and ready to be put on store shelves, I mean that the game side of it, the premise of play and the accompanying rules and obstacles, is complete. Barring the rules of reality, any game that has finished this stage is playable in real life (obviously there are no goombas to go stomping on for points, but the premise of jumping on something to earn 100 points is completely possible). Basically, I consider games overall to be the bread. Chess, monopoly, tag, poker, you name it; any game that lacks the other aspects I am about to mention (basically, any game played in the real world, not on a television/computer screen [though there are exceptions]) is bread. This is not a slap against non-video games; the games developed before the digital age were key in the development of civilization (McLuhan, Understanding Media). The point I’m making is that bread in of itself is a whole food, and does not need anything else to be a complete food. In the same way, a game is a complete form of medium, and needs nothing else to be a game.

  • The second ingredient on a pizza is the tomato sauce, which, in my metaphor, represents graphics and aesthetics. What I mean here is any visuals, audio, and anything the player directly experiences without directly and voluntarily causing the circumstances for experiencing it.

This is a bit of a fuzzy area, as “what the player directly experiences without directly and voluntarily causing the circumstances for experiencing it” can vary. Basically, I’m referring to anything in the game artistic: graphics, sounds, designs, etc. These are things that make the game more immersive that don’t necessarily add to the progression of the story; in other words, without these visuals, the game is still a game. However, these things “add flavor” that you wouldn’t just get from “bread”; in today’s digital age, the consumer is really only interested in peak performance (yes, I know there are exceptions, but you have to remember that a business can’t be dependent on a minority for profit), and a pizza without sauce is cheesy bread. The aesthetics enhance the video game and make it more immersive for the player. For example, compare the two games Death Race and Grand Theft Auto. Both games involve driving a car and causing harm to people (at different levels, but still). And, yet, Grand Theft Auto has been running as a franchise for 15 years. Now, I know that Death Race was taken off the shelves for controversy, but I think the point stands that people would have more fun playing any of the Grand Theft Auto titles than Death Race, for multiple reasons, one of which being the aesthetics and the immersion they create. It’s an enhancement of flavor; the sauce on the bread.

  • Moving on, we come to the third ingredient, cheese. The cheese in my metaphor is the story, or premise, depending on level of involvement.

Simply put, the story is what wraps up the video game as a video game. Now, I acknowledge that you don’t need a story for a video game, but for the sake of the metaphor, I point out that you don’t need cheese for a pizza, either. Italian pizza very rarely uses cheese, but not many Americans would enjoy that. In the same vein, I point out that while it is completely possible to have a game without a story, you aren’t going to see a lot of that, save in the casual market. For example, Wii Sports literally has no story aspects beyond the fact that you can see what kind of arena you’re in while playing whatever sport, and that’s already covered by the tomato sauce. But Wii Sports is nothing more than an introductory game for the Wii, and I would bet good money that if you’ve ever played it, you don’t now. It’s all about the specialization of games for a demographic, this example being the casual market.

On the other side of things, most games have a premise of some kind, all of which I would consider a story. You can go from Skyrim, which is just about as much of a story as you can get (or, if you’d prefer an example with primary focus on the story, any of the Metal Gear Solid games), to Angry Birds, which gives you a still image at the start that says, “Look at those nasty pigs! They stole your eggs! Go obliterate their population and civilization”. To me, that’s just as much cheese as the four-type slow baked Skyrim plot.

There are, of course, games that focus mostly on plot, rather than gameplay, such as the Ace Attorney games. However, I’d still say that gameplay is the bread; it’s just minimal. Think of it like flat-bread versus deep-dish or rising crust: there’s still bread, just less of it, for a different texture and flavor. All of these different types of story-focus are just different ways of baking up the final product.

I will reassert here that most games will give you at least a setting and a motivation, and that these are just as much the story aspect as large epic games. In the end, it all depends on your preference. Not all games will have cheese, mind you, but most do, and it has become an integral part of the game culture and market.

  • Finally, we reach toppings. This is the end ingredient, and an extra one; you don’t need a topping to have a pizza. In fact, many people prefer cheese pizza. But, some people want more, and this is where toppings come in. Toppings, in this instance, are extra game aspects, such as side-quests, customizable characters, DLC, unlockable content, and multiplayer.

Most players these days aren’t satisfied with a simple start-to-finish game; there will always be a call for deeper immersion and player control. As such, game developers have begun to add bonus content that doesn’t add any deep meaning to the game itself, but gives the player more to enjoy. A pizza is still a pizza whether or not it has pepperoni, but now it’s a pepperoni pizza. In the same way, a video game is still a video game whether or not it has multiplayer, but now it’s a game with multiplayer.

Another aspect of this metaphor is the wide range of toppings, or extras, a pizza shopper, or game developer, can choose from. Some people like customizable characters, some people like side-quests, and others like multiplayer. Some people like the supreme deep-dish video game that has every extra and unlockable under the sun. It all just depends, once again, on the market demographic. None of these extras are necessary, and there are plenty of games that sell just as well as cheese pizza. But these toppings add that extra taste to it that make it the player’s all the more.

After all these ingredients, you have a pizza. It may look completely different than you expected it, or it may fit your ideas exactly. EIther way, it’s a pizza. All you have to do is pop it in the disc tray and play it (actually, trying eating the pizza and putting the game into the disc tray. That might work better.)

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