GDC for dilettantes
The Brain Game

Hitting the game design wall


Recently we've heard game designers, critics, and educators proclaim the limitless potential of games to do all sorts of wonderful things. They can make us smarter. They can teach our kids. They can help us better understand social and geopolitical issues.

Margaret Robertson (development director at Hide&Seek) has her doubts. This is worth noting because in previous GDC appearances Robertson has spoken forcefully, encouraging designers to summon their best selves and build games that challenge us to think harder, deeper, and more broadly. She consistently delivers among the most penetrating talks at GDC, and this year was no exception.

A funny thing happened to Robertson on her way to making the very kind of game she had always hoped to make. She failed. In her own blunt assessment, "I've been talking about the potential of games to deal with things of weight, important things. I thought this [project] was a great idea. It wasn't."

So, why did she fail, and what does this failure say about games and their capacity for addressing "things of weight?" This was the subject of Robertson's talk: "The Gamification of Death: How the Hardest Game Design Challenge Ever Demonstrates the Limits of Gaming." She promised "the bleakest GDC session ever," and she may have delivered it.

Robertson and her team at Hide&Seek were tasked with building a game to function as an online companion piece to "Dreams of a Life," a documentary about a woman named Joyce Vincent who died in her flat and lay unnoticed there for three years, her television still on.

"We were trying to make something real into a real game, a game about death," Robertson noted. "Games have a lot of death in them. We ought to be very good at it... This wasn't really a project about death, but about 'a death,' which is a much harder thing."

It was a challenging assignment from the beginning, and Robertson identified several factors that made the project especially difficult:

  • Aesthetics - The game was meant to accompany a serious documentary. "Is it going to feel right?" she wondered. How can a game help illuminate a sad and deeply disturbing true story? It was difficult, Robertson observed, to identify an aesthetic approach that didn't trivialize Joyce's story.

  • Timing - Robertson and her team needed to work in tandem with the film as it was being made, syncing with its production and release schedules. They had limited access to the creative team making the documentary, which was a passion project made by a small production company with no time to produce a film and collaborate with game designers.

  • Joyce - The documentary deals with the woman at the center of the story. "For us to present our own version of that story seemed unnecessary and substantially impertinent," Robertson noted. "Although you want to start there, it becomes a very difficult place to be." Producer Film4 initially suggested creating an explorable version of Joyce's flat, which Robertson considered "incredibly macabre" and inappropriate. Although Joyce was the starting point for the documentary, "we realized she couldn't be for us."

  • Budget - The projected game was never intended to be a AAA title, so Robertson and team had to work within serious budget constraints.

  • Compliance - Joyce's story touches on issues of suicide, domestic violence, and people who go missing. "We tried to be sensitive to these things, and these are very sobering issues," Robertson noted. But there were legal issues too. "When you deal with real people and raise questions of negligence," issues of libel may arise. "We were navigating in a very complicated space."

  • Not being an asshole - Joyce's story made Robertson consider how we make - or often fail to make - connections with people. If the game was to explore such connections by "digitally scraping sources" (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to explore how people connect, how often they connect, etc. "you soon realize you're starting to interfere with people's private lives," Robertson observed. This may "take you places you may have no right to go." Sometimes people disconnect or go off alone simply because they want to. The game couldn't comfortably exist in this domain.

  • Mission - Joyce was found by accident. "This terrible thing that happened, we just don't understand it." There was no 'mission' or discernible system to ascribe to Joyce's story. There was no 'goal objective.' Making a game to "save Joyce" or "get to her in time" "felt totally and thematically wrong" to Robertson. Such a game would be everything the film wasn't about.

Dreams of a Life poster

"At this point we began to get scared," Robertson noted. "If we don't use Joyce's narrative, and if we don't have a mission structure, what do we have?"

Robertson began thinking about systems and how she might identify something concrete upon which to build a game. "How can we boil this down to elements we can deal with that form structures?" The problem, which reflects the dominant theme of the film, is that Joyce's story is a lesson "that all sorts of systems failed. There was no system here, and that's the real story of Joyce's demise."

Studying the events that led to Joyce's death , says Robertson, reveals "imperceptible, longitudinal, tiny details" that add up to Joyce's story. When you try to apply a playable system to this, you impose a reductive structure to something that resists it. "You diminish it in insulting ways," says Robertson.

"A game about Joyce that can't be about Joyce" provoked Robertson to consider other options. She explored the possibility of putting the player in the position of navigating a series of rooms, solving puzzles to reunite people, reconcile differences, or make connections among important things. For example, the player could make a series of choices that cumulatively locate her on a matrix of Physical-Digital / Crowded-Alone, suggesting how our decisions and behaviors socialize or isolate us in the world.

Unfortunately, this design approach "failed to produce an experience that revealed anything worth digging to find." The moment a player senses his progress is being gated or monitored, he begins to second-guess the game. "You become self-conscious, and your choices don't really say anything true about you," observed Robertson. Role-playing games exploit this playfully, but such a system seemed ill-suited to illuminating Joyce's story or situation. More often than not, "players won't tell you what they think. In a game they tell you what they think you want them to think."

In the end, Robertson decided she couldn't make a game about the Joyce Vincent story. "So we made a thing that isn't a game. And it worked!" The interactive website "prompts responses to questions on society, friendship, love and loneliness...played against the backdrop of beautiful and haunting time-lapse imagery."

"We were able to photographically represent what we wanted to show and say. It is an interactive experience, but it isn't a game," said Robertson. "I really wanted to find a resolution, but couldn't. Maybe it's impossible to make a game with so many constraints."

Finally, Robertson asks "So what does all this prove?" She posits three "things that might be true":

  1. I might just be rubbish at this.
  2. It might be really hard.
  3. It might be a contradiction in terms.

"The minute you bolt game structures onto things that are real and important, there is a tension created," Robertson noted. Minimizing, trivializing, oversimplifying, being insulting - all these negative outcomes must be addressed.

Robertson's original view that "games can go anywhere! Games are unstoppable!!" have gradually evolved. "Now I have a more subtle conception of games." Games can't necessariy go everywhere, but Robertson doesn't believe that should frustrate us. When we begin to bump into the boundaries of what games can do, it may help us "better define what games are actually good at."

More importantly, it may also encourage us to find other solutions and to talk with each other about how we can work together to expand the reach of games. Her own failure may turn out to be the impetus for another designer's big idea.