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October 2011

Little nuggets of truth

Jon_blow (1)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Strength of Boundary - Fully understand the space of consequences. Trace a strong boundary around it. Your game exists inside that carefully considered boundary.
  6. Compatibility of Mechanics - Richness and Completeness want interactive mechanics that work well and feel like they naturally belong together.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.”

Soul Dojo


To mold the mind and body. To cultivate a vigorous spirit, And through correct and rigid training, To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo.
                                                        –“The Concept of Kendo,” 1975

I am sure you will die a lot in the game, but the game is designed in a way which a player can learn from his deaths. By experiencing a lot of deaths in the game, I am hoping that a player can find out how he can overcome each difficulty in the game… When the difficulty is high, all the values of things a player finds in the game will be very precious.
                                            –Hidetaka Miyazaki, director, Dark Souls

Most reviews of Dark Souls lead with a lament/celebration of its difficulty. Whatever else we might say about this game’s merits (and there is much to say), we’re fixated on this game’s capacity to bash our brains in. Many players find the difficulty frustrating, and some have suggested only masochists can truly enjoy the experience Dark Souls delivers. But for many of us, this game and its predecessor Demon’s Souls elicit an uncommonly ardent (dare I say reverential?) feeling of devotion that few games evoke. Why?

Dark Souls pushes all my buttons, provoking long, bleary-eyed play sessions; tenaciousness bordering on obsession; audible gasps of incredulity, followed by frustration, followed by profane tirades, followed by warnings from my wife not to wake up our 3-year-old. These behaviors are all familiar to me because Demon’s Souls provoked all the same reactions. I’m left wondering why no other games push me anywhere near those places?

These questions have rattled around in my head since late-2009, when Demon’s Souls sunk its hooks in me. What is it about these games that draws me in so completely? Why do I feel such a powerful compulsion to keep going, despite hundreds of ruinous failures along the way? Is it less about the game and more about me? Am I looking for a way to prove myself as a gamer? Am I simply a glutton for punishment?

Maybe I shouldn’t dismiss that last question so quickly. If the ‘punishment’ dished out by these games feels substantive to me - if it truly has meaning - then perhaps I do behave like a player-glutton. I eat up my punishment in big helpings, ever eager for more. I mean, if the shoe fits…

So, an obvious question arises: what does Dark Souls punishment mean? What exactly do I get out of it? Back in ‘09 I took a stab at that question with Demon’s Souls, and the answer I came up with was pedagogy. These games employ a failure-as-tutelage model that works remarkably well, if you’re willing to trust the teacher. Ultimately, the difficulty resonates because the cumulative impact of many failures is progress - and progress feels like victory in these games.

I believe that assessment holds, but I’ve come to realize it doesn’t fully account for the grip Dark Souls has on me. Something else - deeper and more reverberant - is happening to me when I play this game. I believe it has something to do with training and mindful discipline. Playing Dark Souls intently, over time, is akin to practice, in both the common sense of the word - performing an activity or skill repeatedly to achieve mastery - and in the traditional spiritual sense - deepening our awareness through disciplined focus and effort.

For the correct transmission and development of Kendo, efforts should be made to teach the correct way of handling the shinai in accordance with the principles of the sword.[2]

DarkSoulsPlayerFor me, Dark Souls enables an approach to play that reflects Kendo (i.e. “The Way of Sword”) training, with some of the same benefits imparted to the earnest practitioner. Thus, the world of Dark Souls functions as a kind of virtual Dojo, a stern but playful host for rigorous lessons in persistence, patience, discipline, precision, mastery, and charting an optimal path.

Dark Souls is an exacting master, unsparing in its insistence on thoughtful play. No game requires more persistent mindfulness of my actions, my environment, and my technique. Each new place (and its terrain and inhabitants) will test what I’ve learned. Cautiously entering an uncharted region, I unfailingly pause to take a breath and consider my preparation. Am I ready for this? Do I have everything I need? Am I nimble enough? Am I strong enough? Am I fully focused and undistracted?

If any of these answers are ‘no,’ I will very likely die. If all the answers are ‘yes,’ I may survive, but probably not. The real challenge for me isn’t survival - I mean, the game starts the player as dead and insists on keeping him there - the challenge is mostly about paying attention. Learning the game’s cues, memorizing its environments, and internalizing its systems. Dark Souls doesn't rely on adaptive AI for its NPCs because doing so would disrupt this carefully balanced ecosystem. It would also likely make me shoot myself in the head.

The great misconception about Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls is that they’re designed to kill you a thousand times. In fact, these games are a series of immaculately designed challenge chambers, designed to teach the studious player to succeed, but on the game’s terms. At the risk of cliche-mongering, I’ll suggest that this requires a kind of surrender often described as ‘letting go’ or ‘becoming one’ with the game.

If you want to be given everything, give everything up.
                                                --Tao Te Ching

And so in the Dark Souls Dojo the player cultivates his mind, spirit, and technique through disciplined practice, aiming for “Ki-ken-tai-ichi,” (“spirit, sword, and body are one”) a Kendo term used in teaching striking moves. “Ki is spirit, ken refers to the handling of the sword, and tai refers to body movements and posture. When these three elements harmonize and function together with correct timing, they create the conditions for a valid strike.”[1] This concept embraces a way of playing this game that appeals to me and enriches my time inside the game. I know what a "valid strike" is in Dark Souls. I have felt it.

When I play Dark Souls mindfully, it’s possible for me to experience a fully-unified sensation. Last night, I sustained it through a perfect run of the New Londo Ruins. I executed every move efficiently, with minimal effort and maximal effect. I knew exactly where to be, what to do, and how to do it. I was elegant and precise. It was less like fighting than dancing. It was beautiful.

IndieCade keynote: Rich Lemarchand

Rich Naughty Dog Lead Game Designer Rich Lemarchand kicked off IndieCade on Friday by delivering the keynote address.

One might wonder why the organizers of IndieCade - a festival and conference devoted to showcasing the work of indie game designers - would choose a guy from a AAA studio (who admits he's never worked in the indie space) to open their conference. Happily, Lemarchand made his appearance a natural choice by delivering a gracious and thoughtful address called "Beauty and Risk: Why I Love Indie Games."

If there's a smarter or more personable figure in the game industry than Lemarchand, I haven't met him. He regularly appears at events like this, always available for conversation, with an apparently bottomless well of enthusiasm for games, designers, and players. He majored in Physics and Philosophy in college, where he says he discovered a life of the mind that continues to prod him to inquire and seek understanding. The best word I can think of to describe Mr. Lemarchand: effervescent. 

Lemarchand credits the 'bedroom programmers' of the 1980s as inspirational in helping him understand "the DIY spirit of creating something from nothing." These game-makers were especially helfpul to him when he joined Microprose in 1991, and their influence continued when he moved to Crystal Dynamics three years later.

In his remarks, Lemarchand explored our natural fascination with systems, both organic and human designed. "I was captivated by the work of William Morris," he noted, and the 'design by subtraction' ideal. He cited Morris's famous advice: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." Like other game designers, he admires "The Design of Everyday Things," and he also encouraged attendees to watch Jon Blow's recent "Truth in Game Design" talk at GDC Europe in which he discusses systems as sets of rules provoking behaviors over time.

"I've become very interested in human attention in recent years," Lemarchand observed, noting that we rarely talk about attention because it's hard to understand. He suggested that, "Games hold our attention by presenting beautiful systems to us that capture our imaginations. ...We love watching big systems unfold." Games can enable players to inhabit this process in ways other media cannot. 

Lemarchand sees a human as the ultimate complex system - embedded in other systems (relationships with others, nature, etc) - and designers are challenged to build games that reflect this complexity. In this regard he acknowledges the limits of authored narratives in games like the Uncharted series, but he and his team are always striving to do better. 

Lemarchand cited the development of Chapter 16, "Where Am I?" in Uncharted 2 as an example of Naughty Dog's efforts to provoke an empathetic response in the player. This interactive explorative sequence asks the player to follow a Nepalese man named Tenzen through his village, engaging its residents. The player is prevented from running, climbing, or performing combat moves while in the village. Several members of the design team expressed reservations about this sequence, but Lemarchand felt certain it would work because he had experienced its effectiveness in another game.

Chapter 16 in Uncharted 2 was inspired by an indie game: Tale of Tale's The Graveyard. Lemarchand admired the way this game "created space for reflection," and he tried to offer a parallel experience in Uncharted 2. The 'punch' command, for example, was replaced by a handshake animation. An interaction with children results in Drake getting hit by a soccer ball. "Most players never saw these exchanges," Lemarchand noted, because they aren't accustomed to looking for such possibilities. Such experiential sequences will be a big part of the forthcoming Uncharted 3

Narrative "in a looser, less structured sense" is something games can do, and Lemarchand believes indie games have their greatest opportunity here. Less constrained or abstract art and literature can help us understand life and relationships, and Lemarchand cited Passage, Today I Die, Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery, and A Slow Year as examples of games that succeed in this regard. "Our depth of understanding (in these games) can be profound."

Lemarchand went on to consider the word 'videogame,' describing it a "a good word...but problemmatic." It implies a win condition built into the system, "but lots of video games don't have this state." He praised Minecraft as one of his favorite recent games and admitted to developing a short-term addiction to it. "I play Minecraft narratively," he said, seeing the game as a kind of "Lego I Am Legend." 

He also referenced Kent Hudson's recent talk at GDC 2011 on player-driven stories, noting that agency within a game world can occur from top to bottom, throughout every element of desgin. "Minecraft expresses this perfectly," and it does so entirely through its systems. A major part of Minecraft's pleasure, for Lemarchand, is the player creating beauty and wonder through his own efforts. "It's systemic Theater," he observed. "Minecraft isn't a story, but I made it one."

Lemarchand also mentioned the theater production Sleep No More (which I've written about) as a very recent influence, describing it as a mash-up of "Choose Your Own Adventure" books and ARGs, embedded into a formal system, "plus human psychology...and masks." "There is much for us to do here as game designers," he noted.

"If you want to pursue art in games, make sure it is about something," Lemarchand suggested. It can be "hard-ludic" or "loose experiential," and either method can succeed. "It's hard to find an indie game that isn't about something, and that's why I like them."

Lemarchand concluded with practical advice for aspiring game designers. "Some people will tell you you can't make something for very good reasons. Don't listen to those people. Be honest about what you're good at and then make something using those skills. Then show it to someone... You must collaborate. Follow up. Be persistent."

"Say when you don't know something because then people will teach you things."

"Treat people with respect. Tell people the truth in a way they can hear it... Don't be a dick."

"Be vulnerable. ...It creates an envronment where it's okay to make mistakes."