Little nuggets of truth
October 27, 2011
Jonathan Blow grapples with design like a philosopher wrestles with be verbs. He interrogates core principles and the values they convey. If you’re interested in how game design emerges from a series of purposeful choices, Mr. Blow is an uncommonly generous teacher. His most recent talk at IndieCade, “Designing to Reveal the Nature of the Universe”, co-presented by Marc ten Bosch (Miegakure), presented a “game design aesthetic” that attempts to illustrate “fundamental truths [expressed] in the cleanest possible way.”
Blow believes good designers create and package “little nuggets of truth” for the player, building higher-order constructs from primitive granular elements. This system reflects nature, which can often be expressed through mathematics. Game designers create “toy universes” which resemble these complex mathematical systems. As designed systems, games can play a similar role illuminating the nature of the universe.
Blow and Bosch see another connection between Mathematics and game design. “Mathematicians talk about beauty. They seem to agree that the shortest equations expressing the deepest principles are the most beautiful.” We value similar elegance in design, across media and materials, because it leads us most directly to ideas the designer wishes to express. Blow believes game designers build systems and explore their consequences in a math-like way. “We present the results so that players can discover the same truths in turn.”
Blow and Bosch see useful methods for designing elegant games, and they devoted most of their presentation to sharing their process with aspiring designers, using their own recent work as models. What emerged was a series of principles (Blow called them ‘virtues’) directed specifically at puzzle design, many of which can also be applied to game design broadly defined.
- Richness - Start with an idea (a mechanic or a detail or a consequence of an unknown mechanic) and aim toward the richest space. Adjust the setup or mechanics of the game to find the richest, most interesting consequences for the player.
- Completeness - Explore the possibility space completely. Players naturally do this on their own, and their attachment to the game grows as the game reveals its depth in this regard. Leave no stone unturned.
- Surprise - Counterbalance completeness with occasional surprises. An easy way to surprise the player is to combine mechanics to produce different results. Surprise goes hand in hand with discovery, which encourages the player to continue exploring.
- Lightest Contrivance - Present the results cleanly. Let player experience it with the least possible contrivance. This applies to both mechanics and level design. Contrivance is proportional to Yield. The more contrived, the less the player connects with the game and/or its mechanics.
- Strength of Boundary - Fully understand the space of consequences. Trace a strong boundary around it. Your game exists inside that carefully considered boundary.
- Compatibility of Mechanics - Richness and Completeness want interactive mechanics that work well and feel like they naturally belong together.
- Orthogonality of Mechanics - Ask yourself: does a potential new mechanic add interesting new consequences, or are these consequences mostly contained in the mechanics already present? Blow cited Ikaruga as a game whose mechanical limits serve it as well as its possibilities.
- Generosity - Orthogonality and Completeness imply Generosity since rarely-used versions of similar mechanics are discouraged. The game should not limit you from leveraging its mechanics. The player should feel that the game’s mechanics make her feel powerful and enabled.
So, how do you design good puzzles? By not trying to make hard puzzles, say Blow and Bosch. Not even by trying to make good puzzles. “Look for the truth and illustrate it with a puzzle.” The point of the puzzle is to show some truth, and the designer must know what that truth is in the context of his or her game. “Eliminate anything that is not about that truth.”
Blow and Bosch see Nature as the best design inspiration, and a game designer who strives to emulate this system necessarily abdicates authorship over the puzzle. “The universe is the real designer of the puzzle,” according to Blow. “Games built this way are like many lenses carefully pointed at the universe.”