Game design

Notes on Genre


The term 'genre' eventually becomes pejorative because you're referring to something that's so codified and ritualized it ceases to have the power and meaning it had when it first started. --Christopher Nolan

Here's what we think we know about genre: it limits creativity. It binds artists to tried-and-true formulas and encourages derivative work. A creator must be free to follow her muse, unhindered by prescriptive rules. An artist working on a genre-bound project is like a caged bird. She can sing pretty songs, but don't expect her to go anywhere interesting.

Genres are agents of ideological closure; they limit the meaning-potential of a given text. --John Hartley, A Short History of Cultural Studies, 2003.

Artists aren't the only victims. As Hartley notes, genre may even limit our ability to interpret and respond as readers and viewers. We're constricted by formal conventions we're conditioned to ignore. When you can't see the walls anymore, you forget how small the room you're in actually is.

Some artists try hard to avoid genre influences on their work. Filmmaker and 5-time Oscar nominee Paul Mazursky once noted, "One thing I know is that I don't want to be a director for hire, making genre films. That would be death." Mazursky believed genre implied servitude, limiting personal vision and fomenting homogenized, focus-grouped entertainment.

So it's worth asking: what artist worth his salt would self-impose such constraints? Well, lots of artists, actually. Great ones.

Women in The Searchers

My name is John Ford, and I make Westerns. --John Ford, 1950

Lots of gifted artists have been drawn to genre because of its formulaic nature, and many of our greatest artistic treasures are clear expressions of genre inspiration. In fact, many artists routinely hailed as pioneers in their fields - Shakespeare, Cézanne, Virginia Woolf, Miles Davis, Akira Kurosawa - each demonstrated a keen awareness of genre and produced extraordinary work situated well within genre or other formal boundaries. These artists didn't steer clear of genre "limits." They embraced them.

Artists crave freedom, but most quickly learn that limits, even apparently harsh ones, can be more friend than enemy. In 1922, the great Russian director Stanislavski was invited to stage a production in America. He was asked how much rehearsal time he would require. "Six months," was Stanislavski's reply. Startled, the American producer informed him that it would be impossible to host (and pay) a visiting theater company to rehearse for that length of time. "Not a problem," replied Stanislavski, "Give me three weeks." The production was a triumph.

Sometimes a blank slate can be less inviting than a rough outline, especially to an artist who sees opportunity in an apparently moribund genre. When John Ford made Stagecoach in 1939, the Western was seen as a lifeless form mostly aimed at juvenile audiences. The lineage of post-Ford writers and directors drawn to the Western as a template for self-expression - Anthony Mann, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, David Milch - suggests the "dead" Western springs back to life every decade or so whenever an artist comes along to imprint the form with his own personal vision.


Film Noir? I don't know. When I make a picture, I never classify it. I say 'this is a comedy' and I wait until the preview. If they laugh a lot, I say this is comedy ... A 'serious picture' or 'film noir,' I never heard that expression in those days. I just made pictures that I would have liked to see. --Billy Wilder

Sometimes an artist operates within the framework of genre without purposefully doing so. In the case of film noir - a genre with easily recognizable stylistic traits - it's worth noting that the term "film noir" was coined by critics years after these films were made. Noir progenitors like John Huston, Otto Preminger, and Raoul Walsh never arrived on a movie set to "make a noir picture." Rather, their work was inspired by a moral ambiguity brought on by a post-war malaise that found expression in noir form. Genre born from collective artistry, rather than a framework to contain it.


You put funny people in funny costumes and paint them green and we could talk about anything we wanted to, because that was the only thing that fascinated Gene (Roddenberry) about this particular genre. --Majel Barrett, actress/producer, Star Trek

A great paradox of creativity is that a wide-open possibility space can feel paralyzing, while a fixed set of constraints can liberate an artist to make inspired choices. Creative projects that succeed ask the right questions at their formative stages, and often these questions pertain to genre.

That's where video games come in. We read and hear a lot of talk lately about "broken" or "worn-out" genres. At this year's GDC, speaker after speaker bemoaned the state of an industry mired in me-too shooters devoid of new ideas. I don't disagree with that assessment, but the solution often proposed (stop making so many shooters) strikes me as similar to asking an impressionist to stop painting so many blurry trees. The problem isn't the form, but a lack of vision infusing the form with energy and life.

PortalPortal is a landmark game for several important reasons, but perhaps the most overlooked is that it repurposed FPS tropes and mechanics in service of its own cunning aesthetic. The player's "weapon" is a puzzle-solving tool essential for survival, but incapable of killing. Portal redefines the shooter while preserving most of its familiar attributes. Players with FPS skills will feel instantly at home playing Portal, but they will be reoriented to consider their experience differently than previous shooters. That's precisely what great artists do with genre. We see something familiar, but with a new set of eyes.

So why should we care about genre? Because it's a way for creators to communally explore an idea and a shorthand for the audience to help make sense of those new ideas. It's something that stretches across all matter of art forms, from impressionism in painting, to art deco in architecture to neoclassicism in sculpture. Simply, genre is one way design can explore and evolve ideas/styles rapidly. I'm certainly not going to prescribe that it's the only way, but it can be a tremendously effective one. --Nels Anderson, Lead Designer, Mark of the Ninja.

Into_pixel_03One recent game beautifully illustrates the power of genre to provoke shrewd thinking and artful design: Mark of the Ninja. Better than any game I can think of, MotN distilled the essence of its core genre (stealth), refined its best elements, jettisoned the superficials, and built a devilishly stylish player-centric world.

One (among many) seemingly simple design choice - limiting the consequences for failure - opened possibilities for the designers to be more playful with difficulty and offered players more enticements for experimentation...which led to greater replay value...which provoked more discussion among players...which added a competitive dimension to a solo-play game (especially in my house!). Big results from a deceptively small decision.

I suppose the best thing we can say about Mark of the Ninja is that it's perfectly situated in a tried-and-true game genre, AND that there is no game at all like Mark of the Ninja. Proof, it seems to me, of genre's best nature: boundaries that contain inspiration.

Note: If you'd like to know more about the story behind Mark of the Ninja's design, Nels has graciously shared the transcript and slides from his recent GDC talk. Chris Plante also wrote a feature piece on Klei Games (the studio behind MotN) for Polygon this week, and I highly recommend it.

The stuff of Fairy Tales


Some think the World a Mysterie 
Through which to blindlie blunder,
Yet Wiseards since Prehistory
Have sought to know its Wonder. 
           --”The Wizard’s Companion,” Ni no Kuni

A hundred years from now, when cultural historians and literature professors look back on the games we’ve played for the last 30+ years, they will see a renaissance age of Fairy Tales. They will study a deep catalog of storytelling games filled with heroes and supernatural helpers, anthropomorphic animals, magic potions, healing fruit and epic sojourns. Tales of fate, souls redeemed, loved ones lost and found. Nature as leitmotif. Wise trees, restorative stones, and guiding wind. The stuff of fairy tales.

The Legend of Zelda, The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Quest, Mass Effect, Fable, despite their obvious differences, all exist within the "Perilous Realm” described by J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy-Stories:

Fairy-story as “stories about fairies” …is too narrow. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky, and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. The definition of a fairy-story - what it is, or what it should be - does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.

Zelda__wind_waker_by_ma5h-d52vo7tLike the video games we play, “fairy tale” is fraught with misconceptions, perceived by many as mindless frivolity aimed at children and adolescents. But we should know better. Like Grimm’s Fairy Tales (actual title: Children’s and Household Tales), our wildly imaginative games are accessible by children, but they also function on a deeper level where adults may unpack metaphorical connections to themes that challenge and captivate us, no matter our age. The melancholy, for example, that casts its shadow over the apparently childlike world of Wind Waker may not be apparent to children, but it’s there if you’re mature enough to see it.

When those curious academics look back at our fairy tale games, I believe they will recognize Ni no Kuni as a significant achievement. Few games have captured the once-upon-a-time magic and fanciful spirit of fairy tale so completely. Menacing darkness - a mother’s death, an abandoned child, and an evil spirit bent on destroying him - underlies a bright enchanted universe of eccentric fairies, cat-kings, and cow-queens. A boy overcomes his fears. A perilous journey is undertaken.

Of course, as with most fairy tales, there’s little new here, but novelty plays almost no role in such stories. Familiarity is a pivotal dimension of fairy tale because it is in the act of telling and re-telling that we dig into these apparently simple tales and derive meaning. In Ni no Kuni the infusion of Studio Ghibli style is notable because it distinguishes the game from the avalanche of teen-angst anime that has dominated JRPGs for so long. But in the end Ni no Kuni rings bells we’ve rung many times before, built with blueprints borrowed from Dragon Quest, Pokémon, and Spirited Away.

So, if Ni no Kuni is so familiar, why does it feel so irresistibly fresh? Why does it captivate my imagination so thoroughly? Why does it linger in my thoughts, and why, as I near the end, do I feel a genuine foreboding that this intoxicating journey with friends will also soon end?

Frog_king_popI believe it has something to do with Tolkien’s notion of the Perilous Realm and “the air that blows in that country.” Ni no Kuni situates the player similarly to our position reading or hearing fairy fales like The Frog King or The White Snake. These stories aren’t about kissing frogs or talking animals. They’re about enduring values like patience, devotion, and abiding love. The designers of Ni no Kuni know what the Brothers Grimm understood about persuasive storytelling. A good storyteller allows his most cogent themes to drift serenely in Tolkien’s “air that blows in that country.”

Oliver searches for his mother in a land of fairies and monsters, enveloped by game design elements (collecting stamps, leveling up familiars, etc.) that quietly reinforce the game’s central values. He heals broken hearts and helps lost souls find their spiritual middle way. These are presented as apparently extraneous “sidequests,” gameplay padding to fill the 40+ hours that post-Final Fantasy JRPGs are expected to provide.

But like the servant in the Grimm’s The White Snake (and many other faithful fairy tale heroes), Oliver’s simple tasks - small missions he accepts from townspeople or minor characters - are the ones that define him. Grimm’s servant discovers what Oliver also learns: the big quest and the many little tasks are all part of a single overarching journey of sacrifice and self-discovery. In both stories the little things matter, but the reader/player may not realize that truth until the end.

Sometimes we try too hard to squeeze video games into the kinds of meaning we derive from books and movies. Think Cinderella and her stepsisters and those shoes. Maybe we're looking at games like Ni no Kuni the wrong way. Perhaps the fundamental structure of most games makes their narratives more akin to fairy tales than Hollywood pics. Given the enduring nature of fairy tales and their marvelous capacity to reach the elusive "children of all ages" demographic, maybe that's a good thing.

Gallery of goodness


It’s time to stop fretting about storytelling in video games. Five years ago - around the time Bioshock appeared - designers and critics began to intensify our focus on things like player agency and emergent gameplay. We coined phrases like “ludonarrative dissonance” and “on-rails” storytelling to characterize how games often fall short of their potential or dim in comparison to more mature media. Games like Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2 became rallying points for us to gather and measure the progress of narrative games to that point. These were tremendously useful conversations, well worth the energy they consumed.

But times have changed and so have the games. If the crop of 2012 proves anything, it’s that games and their designers now claim storytelling space across a wider spectrum of design and discourse. Progressive designers have severed ties with film and other media, or they’ve repurposed the language of those media to serve their creative ends.

Abstraction is no longer a low-budget refuge, but a tool leveraged by artists who see opportunity in fracturing time and space, filling their storytelling worlds with punchy ideas that push us to assemble meaning. The narrative games of 2012 have the audacity to make us keep up. Have you played Thirty Flights of Loving, by the way?

The games of 2012 suggest that designers are discovering and exploiting more channels of communication with players. In the past, these efforts have mostly been about experimenting with genre. Limbo is a great example of a developer mixing familiar gameplay mechanics with macabre horror elements to make something that looks familiar, but feels different. Filmmakers have done this for years, mimicking or reframing genre (e.g. zombie movies, westerns, vampire tales), applying a canny modern sensibility to address contemporary themes. Quentin Tarantino has made a career of it.

But few filmmakers stray from conventional storytelling forms. They may play with linearity or occasionally rethink the screen space (television is actually more ambitious in this regard), but most thematically ambitious films conform to standard presentations of time, place, and character.

Not video games. In 2012, many of the best play-worthy games were built by designers who found their voices by re-thinking the essential structure and function of games. This year, the very definition of “game” was thrown into question more often and by more designers than ever before.

If the signature of a vibrant art is artists pushing conventional boundaries, questioning formal assumptions, and producing provocative, wildly divergent work, this was a very good year for the art of games.

For a taste of what I mean, consider this gallery of assorted goodness. (Note: some parts of these descriptions are drawn from developer blurbs or related sources, but most are my own):

  • UnmannedUnmanned - Winner of the 2012 IndieCade Grand Jury Prize, molleindustria’s newest game is about a day in the life of a drone pilot. The game relies on a series of short, split-screen vignettes to combine simple mini-games with clickable conversation options, taking the player through the humdrum existence of a modern drone pilot. Shaving, driving to work, even playing video games with your son are all given equal weight to blowing up a suspected insurgent thousands of miles away. The game’s short length invites multiple playthroughs, with different options leading to significantly different outcomes.

  • Journey-soloJourney - Indie games’ definitive statement, Journey is probably the best and most fully realized game of 2012. Lots of people have had their say about this remarkable game, including chatty me here, here, and here. No game better demonstrates the power of experiential gameplay or the poetic quality of organic design.

  • Dear-esther-2Dear Esther - Dear Esther is a ghost story, told using first-person gaming technologies. Rather than traditional gameplay the here is on exploration, uncovering the mystery of the island, of who you are and why you are here. Fragments of story are randomly uncovered when exploring the island, making every each journey a unique experience. Is Dear Esther a game? I don’t know, but I agree with Edge Magazine’s contention that it is “something incredibly beautiful that could not exist without videogames.”

  • Thirty-flights-of-lovingThirty Flights of Loving - A first-person video game short story that wears its pulpy jump-cut influences on its sleeve without resorting to mimicry or parody. Thirty Flights of Loving can only be experienced as a game, and the story it tells begs to be played, replayed, and played again. Designer Brendon Chung’s message to players is simple: I will make something worth mining for meaning, and I will trust you to dig. This game would be unthinkable without Chris Remo's soundtrack, by the way. Playing Thirty Flights of Loving injected me with joyful bursts of hipness, a transformation akin to Lazarus' resurrection.

  • SimonySimony - Ian Bogost makes games that explore the nature and function of games. And players. His latest, Simony, is a medieval church politics-themed game about earning your station among a community. Is glory and achievement something you earn, or something you buy? Is it more right (or more righteous) to ascend to a rank or office on the merits of your actions than on the influence of your connections, or the sway of your bank account? Simony was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville. Players who choose to buy their way to the top can ascend to form the "Jury of Ten," invited to enter the inner sanctum of the actual museum. There, they will choose how to spend the proceeds generated by the game on the museum's behalf. C'mon, how cool is that?! Ian Bogost is the rarest of critics who also functions as an artist, and his work on each side of that divide informs the other.

  • AnalogueAnalogue: A Hate Story - Christine Love’s dark visual novel extends the non-linear style of her previous Digital: A Love Story in a mystery featuring transhumanism, traditional marriage, loneliness, and cosplay. The player explores a long-derelict ship by perusing dead crew logs, engaging in terminal hacking, and maybe even discovering friendship or romance with an AI over the course of the investigation. Teachers like me are forever seeking material to promote close reading and thoughtful conversation among our students. Take it from me, AAHS works like gangbusters.

  • To-the-Moon-Logo1To the Moon - This game was released late in 2011, but many of us didn’t learn about it until this year. It’s a cliché to claim games can make us cry, but this unassuming adventure RPG (built with dev tools first released in 1992) had me weeping like a baby. It’s a disarmingly lyrical story about two doctors traversing through the memories of a dying man to fulfill his last wish. To the Moon doesn’t break formal molds like other games on this list, but it does suggest powerful storytelling can still emerge from worlds built with 16-bit sprites and pre-made tilesets...if the writing is good enough.

  • Papoyo610Papo & Yo - As I wrote in my previous post, Papo & Yo is a “puzzle-platformer” like Vertigo is a “suspense-thriller.” Its genre trappings frame far more important elements that convey the game’s nature and ambitions. Papo & Yo is about a boy who makes a magical playground out of a place many would consider a hellhole. He runs and climbs and uses his superpowers to transform the world around him, and the game situates these actions - all metaphorical - at its narrative core. What you do (reach, climb, bend, flee) and what this game means are intrinsically linked like few games before it. And, yeah, this one made my face rain too.

  • BientotleteBientôt l’été - You’ll have to trust me on this one, a game from Tale of Tales still in development (I've played the most recent beta build). Click on the link for more info. I’m a judge for the Independent Games Festival at GDC this March, and I can tell you the judges' online discussion of Bientôt l'été was among the most stimulating I’ve seen for any game. I can’t say more than that, but watch this space for more.

  • ClemThe Walking Dead - I’m including this game, not because it innovates per se (it’s essentially a traditional point-and-click adventure game with terrific production values), but because it exists as an example of something good artists have long known. Sometimes we overvalue new. Sometimes what we need is familiar done extraordinarily well. That’s what The Walking Dead is all about. Human relationships explored with nuance and insight, character-driven plotting, pithy dialogue delivered by exceptionally strong actors. Serial drama that's genuinely dramatic.

Games with lots of words; games with none. Games with lots of choices; games with few. Narratives linear, fractured, and in-reverse. Big beautiful worlds of photorealistic suns and blocky pixelated moons. Player as moral compass; player as explorer; player as archaeologist; player as sociologist; player as damaged child. Systems and mechanics all over the map. A panoply of interactive stories.

I hope this post won’t be misconstrued as arguing for complacency. I don’t believe we’ve reached some final destination we should celebrate. Not at all. I can’t think of a designer who isn’t trying to move the ball down the field. Every narrative game released in this environment is a thesis statement for how to improve storytelling, broadly defined, in games. We’re nowhere near maturity, and I’m not sure we should want to be. It’s good to be emerging. 2012 was a good year. The work continues.

Crafting wonder

Jenova Amy Ian

Players and critics are hardwired to classify. We obsessively index and categorize the games we play, relying on their mechanical properties (platformer, RTS, FPS, etc.) to communicate their essential characteristics. Not content to classify the games, we even classify the gamers, building taxonomies to describe who plays games and why. We’re human. We file things. We can’t help it.

Publishers follow suit, describing their games in familiar terms. When I saw Dishonored a few months ago at E3, the booth rep made sure I knew the game would appeal to FPS and stealth and RPG fans alike. The Arkane/Bethesda folks wanted us to know Dishonored would blend and refine familiar elements from other successful titles, and those expectations frame how we see the game. It's hard to find a review of the game that doesn't focus on Dishonored's mechanical debts to Thief, Bioshock, Deus Ex, etc.

But what about games that downplay or discard traditional game architecture? How do we classify them...or should we? We can discuss games like Journey, and Dear Esther in the same breath with Eric Loyer’s games (Ruben & Lullaby, Strange Rain) or the work produced by Tale of Tales (The Path, The Graveyard), but these games share little in common, aside from their status as “art games” or “experiential games.” There I go classifying again.

It’s possible to ask more interesting questions. At IndieCade last week, I attended an illuminating panel discussion among three designers from different places on the design spectrum: Jenova Chen, Creative Director of Journey and Flower, Amy Hennig, Creative Director of the Uncharted series, and Ian Dallas, Creative Director of The Unfinished Swan.

Moderator Dan Pinchbeck (Dear Esther) began by asking what developers can learn from adopting an unorthodox approach to game design.

Jenova Chen observed “there is a big difference between being a designer and a director,” noting an important distinction between mechanics design and 'experience design.' “I really see my brain functioning differently when I'm trying to create an emotional arc and meaning. I'm thinking as a director, not a level designer or a mechanics designer.” He emphasized the importance of crafting the player’s experience, enabling the player to behave freely in a game world, but within purposeful constraints that impart meaning.

Amy Hennig concurred, stressing her belief in authored experiences. “All my favorite games have a definite authorial voice. It is a crafted experience.” For the developer, this requires a “giant act of faith” in your team. It is unrealistic to expect one person to drive a singular vision. A team must build “creative trust and humility” to determine that vision and collectively pursue it.

The Fun Imperative
“In experiential games, we're not necessarily optimizing for fun,” noted Ian Dallas. "The Unfinished Swan is about provoking wonder and curiosity... All factors coalesce to provoke a feel.” This isn't easy to communicate, let alone build. The people building a game can lose track of the big picture over time, he cautioned. "It’s easy to get completely absorbed in day-to-day fixing.” If you're not careful, you can get lost.

Pinchbeck asked how designers should respond to “the pressure within traditional game design to make everything fun.” No other media, he opined, feels the pressure to be entertaining all the time.

Hennig responded that it all comes down to pacing. “Games that try to operate at 11 all the time rely on bombast and spectacle. We need lulls and valleys.” She described the occasionally awkward position she finds herself at Naughty Dog. “We're trying to navigate these issues in a AAA space,” with a lot of money to spend. “Golden shackles,” she said with a smile, admitting that she sometimes envies indie developers’ freedom to experiment. “Audiences react so very differently to what we produce,” she remarked. “We want to craft an experience without letting the player see the strings of the puppeteer too much.” It’s a terribly difficult balancing act.

Peaks and valleys
Chen observed that we remember games with huge peaks and valleys. Designers create acceleration. “Up and down. If I'm a dancer and I'm always going flat, it's boring. But when I go up and down, it's more interesting.” What is fun? We needlessly limit our definition, according to Chen. Good interactive fun can occur in a valley, but “it needs to be beautiful, not broken. Even at the bottom of the arc, it needs to be very well designed.”

“Our games are more meditative” than mainstream games, Dallas said. “We must communicate our values to the player early on, even from the marketing.” But even a quiet game like The Unfinished Swan must take players’ patience into account. Studying players and their behaviors, Dallas believes most will walk in a single direction for 3 seconds before becoming bored. Players need frequent stimulation, so designers must respond creatively. “We put turns in staircases, for example, to address this issue... It sounds stupid and pacifying, but it's a fact of design.”

Chen emphasized the point. “Discovery is a reward for doing something boring, like pushing a stick forward.” (Audience laughter) Something needs to happen that feels interesting. A real desert is mostly flat. Chen and his team created dunes for players to climb and discover something in the process. Each dune must be interesting to climb, not just scenery. It keeps the player engaged.

Pinchbeck remarked “We talk about pace, but we throw everything we have at presentation. People talk about mechanics, but we spend far more time thinking about presentation." The Unfinished Swan and Journey seem to have similar priorities: a sense of place, of wonder, of discovery. Do these trump mechanics in experiential games?

“We called it ‘grameplay’: graphics as gameplay,” Chen said with a laugh. “If Flower doesn't have grass on the ground, it's super boring. Same with sand in Journey." These design elements communicate environment, as well as provide a tactile experience players like. “Discovery is seeing output from your input,” Chen observed. Hennig chimed in, “Like getting your pants wet in Uncharted, which Jenova loved.” “Yes!" Chen replied, "Simple things like that can be better than level design!” (Laughter).

Please interpret
“Interpretation is also interactivity,” noted Hennig. “I’m drawn to the simplicity of Journey and Dear Esther. “This is a world I can discover and interpret. It's like a poem.” She lamented the role of exposition in narrative games. “At Naughty Dog we struggle with exposition and the expectation of exposition.” Players seem to want “every damned thing explained.” Navigating these expectations is her biggest challenge. Drake can deliver a monologue, but it's an inelegant solution. Nevertheless, many players want it, perceiving purposeful ambiguity as a mistake. “People say it's a plot hole, and we're like ‘no, it's not! Interpret it!’”(Laughter) With a game like Uncharted, “you have to play to the people in the front and the people in the balcony.”

Regarding ambiguity, Chen stated that he never tried to make Journey mysterious. “We were trying to connect players on an emotional level.” In real life, people are busy and have many things to do. We rarely connect. Online players assume other players will behave like jerks, so we don’t connect there either. “But in the woods on a trail, you feel very small. Alone. Vulnerable. If you meet another person there, you say hi. We wanted to make the player feel very small and powerless.”

Chen believes this feeling was an essential part of Journey. Players reported the game reminded them of the original Legend of Zelda, a game with no handholding. “We didn't tell the player anything,” noted Chen. Modern games too often rely on checklists and completion to engage the player. Such games are seen as more “game-ish,” than Journey, but they don’t provoke the kind of engagement Chen seeks.

Emergent as experiential?
Pinchbeck wondered about the emergent narratives that multiplayer or open-world games offer. Aren’t these also experiential games? Chen responded that he enjoys playing Call of Duty games and believes they are well designed. In CoD “you get rewards for mechanics.” You just killed three people in one shot, so you get a reward for demonstrating skill. But the narrative campaign modes do not feel experiential. “When I feel a sense of wonder in an FPS, it's always emergent from mechanics. A grenade bounced an unexpected way and did something crazy. That's great, but we don't work in that space. We're trying to craft surprising moments.”

Hennig questioned emergent gameplay as narrative. “Emergent experiences are fun, but I don't see them as story,” she stated. Storytelling in games is tricky business. Players don't have the patience for being stuck. “We walk a razor-thin line between authorial control and player agency. The more you do the second, the more you risk ludonarrative dissonance. Too much of the first, and you feel like you're on rails.”

The pretty imperative
All three panelists agreed the pressure to produce stunning visuals is ever-present in contemporary game design. Indie developers typically target a smaller audience more tolerant of abstraction, and Hennig sees this as a very good thing. “Photorealism is antithetical to game design, she observed. “We bury problem solving in production values. People won't buy our games if they don't think they look awesome. The games that have affected me the most are the most austere. They are like poems... Why can't we affect people emotionally on the level that a Hallmark commercial can do in 30 seconds?"

Pinchbeck wondered if we simply haven't done it well enough. Do poor writing and acting continue to undermine games? Chen sees it differently, returning to simplicity. “In Journey I wake up in the desert and make my way to the mountain. That's the story of Journey. Everything else we added through architecture and discovery.” We must leave a wide space for player interpretation. We need to leave room for the player to dig so the story under the surface will emerge.

What a life


I know a game designer. He is quiet. Absorbed. A bemused observer. The one who notices patterns. The smart kid who sat in the back at school, bored out of his mind.

He is a builder, but for as long as he can remember he's been caught between two conflicting impulses: save the world, or blow it up and make a new one. He lives in the space between, drawn to anarchy, but irritated by disorder.

He believes a robust system can harness chaos, but he knows entropy will play the last card. Still, he stubbornly believes he can win. The triumph of design. The elegant loop. Optimal trumps beautiful. Strike that. Optimal is beautiful.

He does his best work alone. He trusts his instincts, but fears he may be too smart for his own good. His intelligence both enables and alienates him. He lacks the common touch. The winning smile. The self-effacing demeanor. He says the thing that needs to be said, but at the wrong time, or with the wrong inflection. Charm is an awkward chore. He wishes we could skip the diplomacy and just focus on the work.

For him, it's always about the work. Keep your eye on the ball. Leave your pride at the door. Bromides, but valid ones. He lives for incremental progress. The daily grind is the fun part for him. The crashes and roadblocks are his wheelhouse. Eureka moments are lovely, but overrated. He has learned to appreciate the squashed bug that stays dead.

He shares an uneasy relationship with his audience, the player. Without her, his game doesn't exist. He needs her, yet mistrusts her. She will teach him things he needs to know about his game, but what will he teach her? What is she willing to learn? Can he challenge her expectations without losing her? Her confusion will be his mistake. How to balance the urge to please with the resolve to push, to innovate? Sometimes when his mind wanders, he recalls his days in QA. It's definitely better on this side of the fence.

Now he's on an airplane with the latest build on his hard drive. He's headed to an event where he will show and tell and show and tell. He's got the business cards and the pithy description, but his ace is the game, all by itself. Out of the kitchen before it's finished, he'll share it with people he's never met, hoping they will spend a few moments to consider a thing he's risked everything to make. He'll take notes. Maybe he'll get a meeting.

I know a game designer. His work lives in an unreal space. Call him an artist. Or don't. It makes no difference. His game is the thing. File it in whatever cultural drawer you like. I know a game designer. He acts like God. What a life.

Mother dough

Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.
                            –W. H. Auden

BakerAs a teacher and old seasoned gamer, I enjoy playing a simple 2-stage exercise with my students. Here’s how it works. A student describes a game he’s played recently, and I have one minute to identify the game. I can ask as many questions as I can squeeze into 60 seconds, but he is limited to one-word answers. Example:

Q: Is it a shooter?
A: No.
Q: New or old?
A: Old.
Q: After 1990?
A: Yes.
Q: SNES game?
A: Yes.
A: Yes.
Q. Tactical?
A: No.
Q: Square Enix?
A: …Sorta.
Q: Final Fantasy series?
A: No.
Q: Dragon Quest series?
A: No.
Q: Chrono Trigger?
A: Win!

It’s easy if we avoid obscure titles. But here’s where it gets interesting (pedagogically, at least). After I’ve identified the game, the students must collectively pull the game up by its roots. In other words, they must trace the game’s influences (e.g. Chrono Trigger’s active battle system derives from Final Fantasy IV, which used a fixed character class system derived from earlier games like Wizardry, etc.) as far back as they can. As you might expect, most of our electronic trails converge at games like Colossal Cave Adventure, Ultima, and Space Invaders. And yes, Dungeons & Dragons is Kevin Bacon.

Mario_shoeThe real goal of this exercise is to examine the game design process as an ongoing series of evolutionary steps emanating from pillar games that establish mechanical standards or paradigms. If we understand a game’s roots, we better understand how and why that game functions as it does. Or as my uncle advised me many years ago, you haven’t really met a girl until you’ve met her parents.

Historians have typically relied on a branching tree metaphor to illustrate this evolution, but (stick with me here) I think bread-making is a more apt metaphor. Let me explain.

Artisan bread-makers use a starter dough - a yeast-bacteria culture often called the “Mother dough” - to initiate the crucial fermentation process before kneading and baking, giving the bread a distinctively complex flavor. The Boudin Bakery in San Francisco, for example, has drawn from the same Mother dough culture for over 150 years. So when you bite into their sourdough bread, you are truly eating from the same batch of Mother dough brewed by the Boudin family in 1849.

Different types of Mother dough produce very different kinds of bread. I like this analogy because it suggests the game design process is less about branching from a fixed trunk and more about producing recipes and variations of recipes from identifiable organic cultures. You can taste the presence of the Mother dough in every variation of bread made from it.

DonkeyKDonkey Kong is platformer mother dough. Defender is side-scrolling shooter mother dough. One way of understanding later games - Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man, for example - is to see them mixing both recipes, but in different ratios. Both rely heavily on DK, but MM contains a cup of Defender, and SMB only a tablespoon.

I’ll try not to over-extend this food metaphor, but I hope you see what I’m getting at. To fully comprehend modern games like Trine (2D multiplayer action platform puzzler) or Spelunky (2D roguelike dungeon-crawling platformer), we must see them as complex concoctions with many flavoring agents (music, art style, etc.) drawing from identifiable mechanical cores. If you can taste or feel Thief while playing Mark of the Ninja, you are communing with Executive Chef/Lead Designer Nels Anderson on an essential level. It’s in there and your connection to it is more than intellectual.

Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity
You get three as a magic number.
                -Three is a Magic Number, Schoolhouse Rock

I’ve been thinking about bread and games and threes lately. Tending to an ill family member (on the mend, happily) left me with hours of time to kill in the hospital, so I played a lot of handheld and iOS games. If you spend any time perusing the App Store library, you’ll quickly discover a cavalcade of Match–3 games that draw their inspiration from Bejeweled. There are dozens of them.

One way of seeing these games is to dismiss them as derivative cash-ins aimed at the casual crowd. Plenty of Bejeweled clones deserve such contempt, especially those that do nothing more than re-skin the original. But what exactly is the original? Is Bejeweled Mother dough?

The answer is no, not even close. Matching tile games predate Bejeweled (2001) by nearly 20 years, including games like Panel de Pon (1995), Dr. Mario (1990), and Tetris (1985). And those are just the electronic games. If we got serious about this, we’d probably wind up back at Tic Tac Toe.1

Mother dough or not, I’m fascinated by Bejeweled as a recipe for designers to fuse or blend with other genres. If you’re interested in the iterative process of conceptual design, the games below are mini-case studies for how to successfully commingle genres, leveraging the familiar while producing something new and fun to play.

Puzzle Quest - Tile-matching strategy RPG (2007)

Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes - Tile-matching adventure RPG (2009)

WarGames WOPR - Tile-matching tactical war sim (2012)

Puzzle Craft - Tile-matching city-building sim (2012)

10000000 - Tile matching dungeon crawler (2012)

None of these games pioneer or revolutionize game design. At a glance, they all look the same; but they aren't. Each cleverly repurposes stalwart genres, forging something new enough and different enough to be worth playing. If games are like recipes handed down and modified over the years, these games let you smell the bread baking.

1. If you’re curious about the history of matching tile games, Jesper Juul produced one in 2007, and it’s typical of his work: carefully researched and comprehensive. I recommend it.

Why we JRPG


Modern games deftly conceal their complexity. Developers apply extraordinary expertise rounding edges off the spiky systems that underlie most games. We routinely praise games like the Mass Effect and Civilization series for balancing depth and accessibility, offering players a degree of control that makes them feel powerful, but not overwhelmed. Games that fail to strike this balance are typically described as awkward, difficult, or vaguely “old-school.”

The problem with this design approach is that it tends to sacrifice a kind of complexity many of us value. Too often ‘accessible’ translates as ‘easier.’ Such an approach may offer a safe landing for new and casual players, but for those of us who recall a prior console era populated with more intricate titles, it can be hard to find the kind of satisfaction we used to feel playing mainstream console games.

That’s why many of us play JRPGs. Despite all the ways developers have conspired to kill the genre - the formulaic design rut, the narrative clichés, the calcification of once-innovative franchises - we continue to seek out these offbeat games, finding meaning in the experiences they deliver. Sometimes that meaning arrives via characters and storytelling - JRPGs have long explored narrative spaces ignored by other genres - but more often it comes through the systems at the core of an expertly designed JRPG.

A good JRPG (any well-designed RPG, for that matter) envelops a player in a unified ecosystem that weaves together rules, mechanics, and storytelling such that each informs the other in the player’s mind. In other words, everything should feel interconnected and deliver meaning in the sphere of the game. When I’m determining my tactics in a real-time battle, my position, buffs, skills, spells, inventory, etc. all factor into outcomes, constrained by the game’s rules. Nothing new here.

But a great game plugs me into a super-system that adds momentum, stakes, and narrative consequences to those actions. I make this move here and now, not simply because I judge it optimal, but also because the relationship I’ve cultivated with my battle partner has made this move possible.

I care on multiple levels at once. Yes, I want to know how the story comes out, but in the big picture that’s only a small part of what’s in it for me. I play JRPGs for essentially the same reasons my uncle tinkers with cars in his garage. It’s not about where you drive the car; it’s about making that motor purr the way you want.

    “If you can’t drive a stick shift, you don’t know how to drive.”
    –My uncle Larry teaching me to drive his truck, circa 1982.

StephSmallThe more a game exposes its systems to me, the more possibilities I see to fully invest myself in that experience. Many of these systems could be simplified or automated, but I often don’t want that. I like to lift the hood and work on the motor myself. I want to drive my own way and feel the engine propelling me.

This is what the best JRPGs do. They let us feel the power and responsiveness of their systems, and they give us fun-to-use tools to access those systems. Complexity is a welcome trait in a game that encourages me to skillfully exploit its systems. For many of us, this is the real allure of gaming across genres. It’s why assiduously avoiding “spoilers” has never really made sense to me.

Lest anyone doubt the possibility of a new JRPG doing all the things I’ve described, along comes Xenoblade Chronicles, the best pure RPG of this generation. Tom Chick calls it “a landmark achievement in the genre,” and he’s right. Better than any game I can think of, Xenoblade Chronicles embraces its systemic elements and enables players to leverage them in fun, consequential ways.

60+ hours in, the game continues to astonish me with its conciseness and vision. No grinding, no superfluous subplots, no drippy sentimentality. Director Tetsuya Takahashi has fashioned a JRPG that preserves what serious players love about the genre and jettisons the stuff JRPG detractors hate. By focusing on relationships (character to character, and characters to world) he has found a way to render narrative from a level-up system. More importantly, he has created a world that, literally, conveys the values his game explores.

Others have reviewed Xenoblade Chronicles more meticulously, and I encourage you to read them. If you decide to play the game, I’ll offer one bit of advice: grab the Dolphin emulator, rip the game from your Wii disc, and play it on your computer in HD bliss. Xenoblade is a beautiful game with a vast world that beckons you to explore it, but the Wii’s limited resolution does it no favors. Do yourself a favor and run it through Dolphin if you can. Xenoblade Chronicles deserves the best visual treatment you can give it. A community-driven HD retexture project is also underway.

Tomorrow another ambitious JRPG arrives in North America, conceived by another veteran designer: Hironobu Sakaguchi’s The Last Story. I look forward to my first peak under the hood.

High Noon for Shooters

Searchersethan31   Max_Payne_3_-_1

"It's abundantly clear that we're living in the age of the shooter. The category dominates sales charts...gripping audiences with its versatility. The stories we remember most end up being told down the barrel of a gun." --GameTrailers

For over a decade - beginning in 1949 and ending in the mid-1960s - Westerns ruled the small screen. In 1959, 26 Westerns aired each week during prime-time. In March of that year, eight of the top ten shows were Westerns.

The same period was also the golden age of Hollywood Westerns (The Searchers, Shane, High Noon, Rio Bravo) with many of America’s greatest filmmakers producing their best work in the genre: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, William Wyler, among others.

But it didn’t last. History rarely offers a precise road map, but it can sometimes point us in a useful direction. The decline of the Western - the causes of its near-demise, and its reemergence in other guises - are worth noting because I believe shooter games are on a similar trajectory. It will be 1959 at E3 next week, and we will find ourselves awash in barely distinguishable shooters. But it won’t last. It can’t last, and that’s a good and necessary thing.

Westerns began to disappear in the late 1960s for reasons relevant to modern game developers: 1) Genre fatigue and homologous products; 2) High cost of production; 3) Public outcry over violence; 4) Narrow target audience.

Each of these factors apply to contemporary shooter games, but the most threatening is the mind-numbing sameness of these games. We’ve reached a saturation point where the dismissive cliché has become a valid claim: they all look the same. When a genre sustains itself by promoting minor tweaks as revolutionary features - and its hardcore fans claim ownership that typically resists change - death looms.

It’s worth noting, however, that death doesn’t necessarily mean disappearance. Gunsmoke, TV’s longest-running prime-time drama, died somewhere around 1965...and ran for another decade. It’s also worth noting that CBS received many letters from fans who opposed the series’ transition to color in 1966, claiming it would ruin the show’s rustic nature. Fanboys defending the realm are nothing new.

"We ask ourselves: if there wasn’t anyone to shoot in the game, could it still be fun?" --Jason Vandenberghe, Narrative Director, Far Cry 3

Want more evidence shooter games are mired in similitude? Here are publisher-penned descriptions of key features contained in their games, all released or forthcoming this year. See if you can identify the games. (Names and titles are xx’d out)

  1. “QUAD-WIELDING CHAOS - Slash, grab, and throw objects and enemies...while simultaneously firing two weapons, adding a new dimension to the FPS category.”

  2. “From automatics to handguns to rifles and explosives, XX wields (and dual-wields) a wide range of high-powered weaponry in both single player and multiplayer. XX provides devastating firepower for any and all situations that call for decisive and punishing action.”

  3. “Alternate Aiming Perspectives — Players can choose the shooting style that suits them with the ability to alternate between first and third person views to best pinpoint enemies"

  4. “Pervasive Environmental Destruction - XX has been specifically designed to allow for maximum destructibility using the “Havok Destruction” module. Blast through the environments, target your enemies’ cover blasting it to bits or even knock down overhead objects to crush the enemy below."

  5. "Blast your way in and utilize your military grade DART6 chip to breach enemies and the environment as you battle for market dominance and your life. Some takeovers are more hostile than others.”

  6. "50 WEAPONS, ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES - Get unlimited access to the most advanced arsenal in the world, with over 50 weapons including highly customizable assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and submachine guns. Choose from a wide variety of grenades to suit your mission objectives and context."

"When I remember Half-Life 2 I don't remember just shooting things, I remember moments, like the escape from the boat, or crossing the bridge, or investigating the farm or invading the prison." --4A Games’ Huw Beynon on the forthcoming Metro 2033: Last Light.1

So what happens when 1959 ends? Again, history could prove prophetic. The second wave of Western filmmakers (Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood) turned our deep familiarity with the genre in on itself, addressing existential questions and examining the nature of violence. These films were radical departures from the Hollywood formula, not because they rejected the familiar settings or the guns or the hero/villain dichotomy, but because they made these the very subjects of their scrutiny.


This is precisely where Rockstar has tried, but mostly failed, to go with its recent genre-inspired games. Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire contain the stylistic trappings of their filmic influences, but little of the complexity. To be fair, the interactive dimension goes a long way toward bridging this gap, and RDR, especially, makes inhabiting John Marston feel more personal than any film could hope to do. 

But it’s Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 that most painfully illustrates the shooter ball and chain. I’ve played many games I wish had skippable cutscenes. Max Payne 3 is the first to make me long for skippable action. Buried under hours of conventional designer-charted gunfights is a story with genuine noir sensibility, not merely cosmetic style. Rockstar jettisoned the campy (and easier to manage) noir-esque style of the previous Max Payne games in favor of something far more Robert Mitchum. Max takes weary self-loathing to new depths.

Consequently, it’s heartbreaking to see a character as potentially compelling as Max dropped off at a “shithole” hotel in the 3rd Act and instructed to “clear the place out” as if it was essential to the narrative. It isn’t, and I know it, Rockstar knows it...we all know it. The Imperial Palace Hotel is just another gunplay funhouse with waves of baddies for me to defeat. What a shame and what a waste.

Max Payne 3 is a game devastatingly at war with itself. All its smart, gutsy, genre-savvy ideas are wiped out in a bulletstorm of shooter game orthodoxy.

It’s High Noon for shooters, or as a certain Minnesota cowboy would say, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”

Games described above: 1. The Darkness 2, 2. Max Payne 3, 3. Resident Evil Revelations, 4. Inversion, 5. Syndicate, 6. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier

Comfy conditioning chamber


Diablo 3 is exactly the kind of game I should hate. Blizzard’s latest dungeon-crawling loot-fest relies on a checklist of design elements that typically drive me screaming into the night:

  • Derivative design
    We can’t accuse Blizzard of stealing from itself, but Diablo 3 is an essentially conservative game. It iterates on its predecessors in obvious ways - graphics, UI, streamlined path to leveling up, etc. - but in most of the ways that matter, Diablo 3 is a dressed up version of Diablo 2.

  • Repetitive play
    Click-Loot-Upgrade-Repeat. Diablo 3’s repetitiveness is woven through its design on both micro and macro levels. Everything you do in this game, you do over and over. Coins spill, and you pick them up. Every time. Stimulus. Operanda. Reinforcement. Skinner is grinning.

  • Sententious “lore” with no meaningful impact on gameplay.
    Diablo 3 throws a few winks at the player, but it doesn’t stray far from threadbare fantasy tropes. For the umpteenth time we must locate soulstones, defeat demon lords, assemble shattered swords - all to defeat Eeeviiil. I’m a narrative-loving player, but even I find myself challenged to pay attention to the arch codswallop this game dispenses.
  • Screen Shot 2012-05-22 at 9.57.34 AMChoking feedback loops
    When designers talk about gluing players to games, they inevitably reference the Diablo series and its effective feedback loops. Such loops occur when a player takes an action and receives information about that action, which in turn encourages the player to alter his choices or behavior the next time that action is performed. I appreciate the gamey-ness of this system, but Diablo 3’s feedback loops are so embedded into its design that they’re in my face at every turn, and many of them feel only cosmetically significant. I like meaningful choices, but this game taps me on the shoulder with the frequency of a 4-year-old in the toy aisle at Target.

  • DRM handcuffs
    Developers should not constrain where and when I can play my game. Lots of folks have complained about this, so I won’t rehash the argument here. If I want to play Diablo 3 solo, I shouldn’t be required to login to a developer’s server and maintain that connection throughout my play session…unless the game has a crucial reason for doing so that benefits me. So far, I can’t discern such a reason. A game that requires twitch reflexes should not suffer from lag that prevents me from playing it properly. In other words, it should not make me die.

So... A funny thing happened on my way to hating Diablo 3. It hooked me. Deep. Here I am, an hour into Act II, and the game is playing me as much as I’m playing it, like all the best games do. I play Diablo 3 when I should be doing other things. Like sleeping. I think about it when I should be paying attention to other things. Like driving. Last night I dreamed about my childhood backyard…in isometric view.

Diablo 3 overrides all my misgivings because it’s just so damned much fun. We often decry the game industry’s stubborn unwillingness to evolve, dishing out the same old stuff over and over. Sometimes, however, the same old stuff - and Diablo 3 is unmistakably SOS - hits the mark so squarely and elegantly that it quenches a thirst I forgot I had.

It is retro gaming without the stench of lazy design “retro” too often signifies. Diablo has always been retro (remember Wizardry, folks?), but the series has consistently looked forward too, mechanically and aesthetically. Watch Blizzard’s Christian Lichtner talk about Diablo 3’s art design at this year’s GDC to see how Blizzard’s artists developed a philosophy for the game’s visuals that carefully blended old and new.

The game doles out a skill or special trinket every time you level up. Loot is more varied, the environments are more visually stimulating, and the monsters are more interesting and fun to beat than in Diablo 2. Killing twelve enemies at once with one kick-ass spell never gets old. The music is beautifully evocative, and the character animations make the old Diablo games look, well, very old. If you experience any initial concerns about Diablo 3 being too easy or predictable, hang on until Act II. Trust me, things change.

I drank a bottle of Coca-Cola the other day. Wow. That is some good SOS. I remember now why I used to enjoy it so much. I don't drink soda any more, and I don’t plan to fill my refrigerator with Cokes, but I’m glad it’s still there when I’m thirsty for it.

Not every successful developer operates so conservatively. In my next post, I’ll discuss a game by another AAA studio bent on pushing the design envelope in ways Blizzard can’t or won’t. If Blizzard is the Ronald Reagan of developers, this studio is the industry’s Ted Kennedy. I hope you'll stay tuned.

Dissident designer

DissidentThe 8000-word profile of Jonathan Blow that appears in this month’s Atlantic Magazine reveals a game designer behaving as dissident artists have behaved for centuries: defiantly rejecting popular paradigms, brashly challenging his contemporaries, thoroughly consumed with exploring the nature and function of his art.

The article’s author, Taylor Clark, portrays Blow as a “difficult and spiky“ man absorbed in his self-expressive work, with ”no patience for coddling or bullshit," committed to producing something better, richer, deeper…and worthy of him.

Principled violence
For many, it’s a bit much. Artists like Blow are regarded as arrogant or overbearing because they’re spurred, at least partially, by contempt for the prevailing mediocrity they see around them - ‘mediocrity’ produced by lots of hard-working, talented people.

Dissident artists can seem bloated with certainty, dismissing opposing views as propping up the status quo. They come off as uncompromising reformists or, worse, self-absorbed zealots. Creators like Blow point at something on the distant horizon and warn us that if we don’t head in that direction, something we care about will die. Actually, it’s probably dead already. And good riddance.

Predictably, some find Blow’s truculence off-putting, but there is a bright and galvanizing upside. Vexed artists are vital to the evolution of art, and they always have been. The apostate doesn’t merely dismiss; he renounces. There is principled violence in this act. It is unavoidable.

Artist as bushwhacker
The Société des Artistes Indépendants’ motto “No jury, no awards!” was a middle finger thrust at the staid Royal Academy painters. Astruc’s ‘direct cinéma’ denounced the “tyranny of the narrative.” The Clash’s “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones” was a manifesto decree that the old must be destroyed for the new to emerge. Artist as insurgent. Artist as bushwhacker. Outrage pricks the side of intent.

A few months ago I interviewed Jon Blow on my podcast and found him to be thoughtful, personable, and refreshingly self-critical. He didn’t shy away from sharing his opinions, positive or negative, but he was reluctant to paint in broad general strokes. We spoke longer than the length of the podcast indicates, and I found it a thoroughly positive experience.

I don’t know Jon Blow well enough to draw conclusions about his motivations, so I’m hesitant to do it. But I’ve worked in the arts nearly all my life, writing and staging theater, and teaching film and dramatic literature. I’ve closely observed, first-hand, the work of uncompromising creators like Andrei Serban, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Sam Shepard. I’m a working artist myself, and I believe I understand a few true things about how and why many artists behave as they do.

Jon Blow expresses contempt for mainstream games and the industry producing them (“The de facto reference for a video game is a shitty action movie…”), because reinforcing torpid conventions is antithetical to his existence. When Blow says, ”I think the mainstream game industry is a fucked-up den of mediocrity," he feels it as much as he thinks it, and the resultant indignation fuels his drive to make something better.

That’s what progressive artists do. They get worked up. They express outrage. They see great untapped potential suffocating in a toxic cloud of derivative convention. Their determination to move the art/medium/industry forward carries with it a kind of messianic zeal that some perceive as presumptuous. But it comes from a principled fervent place. An artist must love a thing before he can hate it enough to want to save it.

Feeling it
It’s a cliche to say artists feel more than the rest of us, but they do often respond more forcefully because every creative idea they encounter is a new shred of evidence verifying or challenging their own hard-wrought aesthetic claims. For an artist driven to innovate, it’s a war of ideas and methodologies out there, and you can’t enter that fray indifferent or semi-motivated. Jon Blow is all in because he doesn’t know any other way to be.

Do video games need to be saved? Why should a guy like Jon Blow take it upon himself to do the job? If he hates games so much, why doesn’t he do something else? These are the wrong questions. Are Blow’s assertions about the current state of games valid? What can we learn from the work he produces? These are questions worth pursuing.

Blow is a theorist, but only to a point. Ultimately, he is a builder. Whatever else we might say about him, he is fully invested, literally and figuratively, in creating a game that embodies his ideas and aesthetic principles. Nobody needs to tell Jon Blow to put up or shut up. He’s on it. Let’s let him do his thing.

I have more to say about the Atlantic piece and its author’s characterization of games as “brain-dead digital toys” in my next post. I hope you’ll stick around.

Journey as Flow


Mapping out a sky.
What you feel like, planning a sky.
What you feel when voices that come
Through the window
Go until they distance and die,
Until there's nothing but sky.
       -Stephen Sondheim, "Finishing the Hat" 

In my previous post I tried to explain why I see thatgamecompany’s Journey as rooted in the Seven Principles of Enlightenment. This type of comparative analysis is inviting because it allows a critic like me to interrogate his experience with a game and account for why it resonates.

But it’s possible to see an imaginative game like Journey through other analytical lenses, and in this post I contend that the seeds for Journey were planted in 2006 when Creative Director Jenova Chen submitted his Master’s thesis at USC. To understand how and why Journey succeeds as game design, it’s useful to examine how it functions as an expression of Flow.*

What is Flow?
Flow is often equated with the catch-all “immersion,” but that term fails to account for the specificity Chen applies to the experience he wants to provoke. A better way to describe Flow is a feeling of deep, energized focus on a task, delivering a high degree of pleasure and fulfillment.1  Gamers know this feeling of being “in the zone,” thoroughly wrapped up in the experience of play.

Games that strike a perfect dynamic balance between their challenges and the abilities of the player are most likely to evoke the sensation of Flow. In his thesis, Chen argues this requires three core design elements:

  1. As a premise, the game is intrinsically rewarding, and the player is up to play the game. 
  2. The game offers right amount of challenges to match with the player’s ability, which allows him/her to delve deeply into the game.
  3. The player needs to feel a sense of personal control over the game activity.

To keep a player in this pleasurable state, a game’s systems must maintain a “flow state” that rewards players of various skill levels. According to Chen, “To expand a game’s Flow Zone coverage, the design needs to offer a wide variety of gameplay experiences. From extremely simple tasks to complex problem solving, different players should always be able to find the right amount of challenges to engage during the Flow experience."

Flow, Not Flow
So how does Journey deliver on these design aspirations? Interestingly, Chen acknowledges in his thesis that “Game Content” is “the soul of a video game,” but he focuses nearly all his efforts on “Game System,” or what he calls “the “body of a video game” - mechanics, interactions, puzzles, the stuff we generally call “gameplay.”

Journey’s systems beautifully convey a sense of kinetic flow, textured by the game’s natural elements. Wind, sand, and snow each alter the player’s movements, and the game’s keen sense of verticality keeps the player looking up. Journey builds on Flower’s subtle pathfinding system, offering visual clues that gently suggest, without insisting, where to go. You quickly learn what must be done. Simple things. Reach a high plateau. Liberate the magic carpets thingies. Follow the light. On a systems level, Journey makes it easy to do necessary things and more difficult do optional things - a design approach Mario has understood for years.

But Chen’s thesis suggests he may not have properly understood the overwhelming power of place, ambience, and atmosphere in 2006. Tracking the evolution of his work from Flow (a game design demonstration of Flow theory) through Flower to Journey, one can easily see environment grow in significance, communicating meaning through a subtle composite of lush visual texture, landscape design, and abstraction.

Thatgamecompany’s games grow exponentially as visual landscapes for exploration as they remain purposefully simple to play. I like Ian Bogost’s characterization of the studio’s signature: “Its games are about the feeling of being somewhere, not about the feeling of solving something.”

Journey certainly gives the player more things to do - and the addition of co-op play adds an essential dimension to the experience - but even more than in its previous games, thatgamecompany builds an enthralling place for us to be, and, surprisingly, that’s enough.

Reversing the formula
So is Journey a demonstration of Flow theory? I say yes, but not because of its dynamic challenge system. Journey’s “flow zone” accommodates all of us, not because it flexes to various skill levels, but because it essentially ignores the question of “skill.”

Journey presents a vibrant world in which mechanics serve aesthetics. Most “artsy” games (e.g. Limbo or Bastion) succeed by reversing that formula. Journey is very much a game, but it moves much further than Flow or Flower in the direction of “interactive experience,” with a significantly more cinematic visual style.

It’s always fun to watch artists evolve, adapt, and incorporate new ideas. Jenova Chen’s trek from Masters thesis to Journey suggests an expanding creative mind and a refining aesthetic. Regardless of one’s reaction to his work, we can praise an industry and a community of gamers that values unconventional work and embraces artists who give us more to see.

* The concept of Flow was first theorized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, whom Chen amply credits in his thesis.

Seeking the light


You’ll be on your way up! 
You’ll be seeing great sights! 
You’ll join the high fliers 
Who soar to high heights. 
–Dr. Seuss

The best games are travelogues. Returning home, we regale our friends with tales of the things we did and places we saw. We battled five rows of eleven aliens for thirty minutes on one quarter! We joined the IRIS network. We commanded the Normandy. We fought. We puzzled. We explored. We ascended.

Was there ever a game more aptly named than Journey? Two years ago at IndieCade, I heard thatgamecompany’s Robin Hunicke share the studio’s aspirations for its new game: “A sense of wonder about the unknown. A sense of awe about an environment. Somewhere you feel very small.”

Journey delivers on those aspirations, but other creators (Fumito Ueda, in particular) have charted similar territory. What makes Journey special? 

Journey goes to a transcendent place. It trusts the player to mine meaning from a set of experiences facilitated, but not determined by the game. Journey revels in purposeful ambiguity, but the game is far from a blank slate. It would be wrong to suggest, as Ian Bogost does in his must-read analysis of Journey, that Jenova Chen and company have built an arid, see-what-you-will space. Bogost puts it this way:

On the one hand…Journey gives no ground: the player must bring something to the table. On the other hand, the careful player may find the result as barren as it is receptive… [Journey’s story] could be a coming of age, or a metaphor for life, or an allegory of love or friendship or work or overcoming sickness or sloughing off madness. It could mean anything at all.

While I certainly agree that Journey refuses to communicate a facile moral lesson or adhere to a pat narrative structure - this game is not an interactive retelling of the “Hero’s Journey” - the game does embrace and communicate values that align with philosophical and ethical systems. Perhaps Bogost is right when he contends "surely every sect and creed will be able to read their favorite meaning onto the game.”

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. We find that after years of struggle we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. –John Steinbeck

Thematic ambiguity invites interpretation, but when I play Journey, I see specificity. From where I sit, Journey is the most vivid and succinct expression of dharma and its underlying philosophy of liberation that I’ve encountered in popular culture. More specifically, Journey elegantly conveys sapta bodhyanga, or the Seven Factors of Enlightenment in Buddhist philosophy:

  • Mindfulness
  • Investigation
  • Energy
  • Joy or rapture
  • Relaxation or tranquility
  • Concentration
  • Equanimity (the ability to face life’s challenges with a tranquil and dispassionate mind)

These align with, and are expressed within, Journey’s seven main chapters (I’m purposely omitting the opening “tutorial-ish” chapter). I don’t mean to suggest these alignments are hard-wired, and multiple factors function simultaneously in certain chapters. But my experience playing Journey maps the sapta bodhyanga this way:

  • The Bridge - Relaxation/Tranquility 
  • The Desert - Mindfulness 
  • The Descent - Energy 
  • The Tunnels - Investigation 
  • The Temple - Concentration 
  • The Mountain - Equanimity 
  • The Summit - Joy/Rapture

Does the road wind up-hill all the way? Yes, to the very end. Will the day’s journey take the whole long day? From morn to night, my friend. –Grantland Rice

Journey is about ascending. Journey is about seeking Enlightenment. At nearly every turn, the game establishes a beacon-like light, visible in the distance, glowing atop a mountain or seeping through a crevice. The player spends nearly every moment of Journey trying to reach that light.

Each trial tests one's resolve, but Herculean effort or force don’t work here. In this game you proceed mostly by letting go; sliding, gliding, floating, drifting - your movements reflect the values of this world. You will not be spared saṃsāra (suffering, decay, death), but you will also experience transcendent joy. Both are equally valuable, each adding meaning to the other. Both must be embraced.

Throughout the journey, we’re reminded of the interdependence of all things. The wind, the sand, the rocks, the water, the snow. Each hinders and facilitates. The environment itself is your awe-inspiring collaborator and your soul-crushing enemy. Working together with another player empowers both and can bring joyful communion, but in the end you make this journey alone.

The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time. –David Bowie

Games fire our imaginations in ways we’ve yet to fully understand, but gifted designers see a palette of colorful experiences richer than the ones we know. With Journey, Jenova Chen and his collaborators have given us a magic carpet ride that resonates deep in the consciousness of players willing to let go and take that ride.

In my next post, I’ll leave spiritual philosophy behind to consider Chen’s design philosophy, the architecture of FLOW, and “optimal experience.” As always, your comments are most welcome.