Game design

A week long Journey


"I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” –Joan Didion

It’s no fun being predictable. Writers savor the chance to stake out an unoccupied point of view, set up camp there, and launch word-flares into the air for all to see. It’s fun to bring people with you to a place they’ve never seen.

Journey makes that nearly impossible for me. I’m supposed to like Journey, and I do, just as you’d expect. I admire the game for predictable reasons. It’s artsy and beautiful and evocative. It has vision. It reaches up. To no one’s surprise, Journey is my cup of tea.

I loved Journey’s precursor, Flower, too and wrote evangelized about it. I interviewed Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago on my podcast, and I covered Chen’s presentation on his design philosophy two years ago at IndieCade. Now here I am waving my arms about Journey and urging all my friends to play it. I’m about as predicable as Bowser in a castle with a princess.

Lots have people have written glowingly about Journey; others, not so much. What’s left to say? Can I offer anything new?

You know what? It doesn’t matter. I’ll take a shot at writing about Journey (several shots this week, actually) because I have no choice. I’m compelled to write about Journey because I’m compelled to think hard about my experience playing it, and those activities have become inseparable to me, mainly because of this blog.

A few years ago I posted as often as I could to build an audience and, as they say, keep the blog monster fed. These days I primarily write when a game (or a designer, or an idea) occupies my mind so forcefully that I must write my way out of that place. A game like Journey disables me from considering any other experience until I clear my mental deck by figuring out how to fathom and articulate what just happened to me. It's like I need to get a game off me. Does that make sense?

I must write about Journey for a different reason too. I feel a powerful debt to the game and its creators. I can’t help it. I find this sensation of gratitude overwhelming. Have you ever watched an extraordinary performer exit the stage and felt an overwhelming need to say thank you? Have you ever just wanted to touch that artist, even for a second?

Do we compromise our critical credentials when we surrender so thoroughly to a game? Perhaps, but I say dispassion may not always serve best. Why should we not express humane sentiments when a game designed by humans (who devoted years of their lives to building it) genuinely evokes them? Maybe on rare occasions it’s good to bridge our critical distance when that distance separates us from our marrow of our experience.

So, this week, I’ll offer a post a short series of essays devoted to Journey. If I can manage to string together a few pertinent thoughts about the game, maybe I can more fully discern why I responded so powerfully to it. Maybe those reflections will shed light or connect me to others who may see more or see differently. Maybe I can produce something analytical that also functions like gratitude. I guess we’ll see. I'm hope you'll let me know.

As always, your thoughts are most welcome, including naysayers. For what it’s worth, most of my students shake their heads in dismay when I talk about Journey. They’ve seen or tried the game and just don’t see the point. I’m not prepared to dismiss them. Maybe I’m writing about Journey this week for them too. It seems we never reach the end of making the case.

The Brain Game


“I’m hungry for knowledge about the human mind." -Rich Lemarchand, Lead Game Designer, Naughty Dog

If you listen to game developers talk about their business, common themes emerge. Now that the dust has settled on GDC, I’ve been thinking about what I heard people say last week in San Francisco.

Last year everyone was buzzing about social games, the Zynga juggernaut, and Minecraft. This year, no particular issue dominated - though Minecraft still gets mentioned a lot - but I detected a prevalent thread winding its way through a variety of sessions and casual conversations: your brain. Or perhaps more accurately: your brain on games.

Designers have always been interested in why we play games and what keeps us attached to them. Salen and Zimmerman’s “Rules of Play” analyzes systems, interactivity, and “meaningful play,” among other design principles. Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens” (which predates electronic games by nearly 25 years) discusses play as a fundamental human function. Check out my booklist on the left for more titles devoted to game design.

Better games through Psychology
But lately developers have sharpened their focus on how and why we play, turning to human psychology and brain response mechanisms to better understand what happens to us when we play games. Rich Lemarchand set the tone at GDC with his talk, “Attention, Not Immersion: Making Your Games Better with Psychology and Playtesting, the Uncharted Way.” Lemarchand (notably, a Philosophy and Physics major at Oxford) believes we overvalue “immersion” and “engagement” when what we really want is to grab the player’s attention and hold it for the duration of the game.

Psychology teaches us that no single method can work effectively because attention occurs in different forms. It can happen reflexively (e.g. a loud sound or flash of light), or when something new or different appears. It can also occur when we’re prompted to make a decision, or when the environment itself provokes us to move or think with subtle cues (e.g. thatgamecompany’s Flower and Journey). Lemarchand believes a savvy combination of aesthetics, character stories and narratives, and gameplay systems must be weaved together to function cooperatively and touch each of these attention generators. Leigh Alexander wrote a helpful summary of Lemarchand’s talk for Gamasutra.

Jason VandenBerghe (Creative Director at Ubisoft) continued the theme in his talk “The 5 Domains of Play: Applying Psychology’s Big 5 Motivation Domains to Games.” VandenBerghe presented the OCEAN framework of personality traits - Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism - as useful models for matching players with styles of game design. While he acknowledges we can’t always make one-to-one connections between psychology and game design, his own research suggests a link between, for example, Conscientious personality types and players who enjoy games that emphasize Challenge.

The Unconscious Mind
In his micro-talk on Thursday, David Sirlin (Sirlin Games) discussed the power of the unconscious mind, especially in quick-reflex fighting games. He quoted Capcom’s Seth Killian’s observation, “I can learn more about someone from watching ten seconds of them playing Street Fighter than ten hours of them watching an RPG.” Sirlin believes we underestimate the versatility of the unconscious mind. When we think deliberately, we can handle only a few variables at once. “But when there are twelve variables, we do better with unconscious thought,” he noted. The top players in games like Starcraft and Street Fighter rely almost completely such mental processes. Sirlin believes game designers should do more to exploit this potential.

Dave Mark (Intrinsic Algorithm) and Brian Schwab (Blizzard) delivered a talk called “Less A More I: Using Psychology in Game AI,” and called for developers to reject sterile, robotic NPCs. They urged programmers and designers to consider the psychological biases players bring to their experiences and encouraged them to imbue these characters “with simple affects to exploit these expectations,” rendering more believable NPCs.

In a separate talk on player motivation, Scott Rigby from virtual environment think tank Immersyve presented research suggesting the importance of understanding players’ “specific psychological needs and understand the various categories of motivation,” such as autonomy, relatedness, and mastery. Naughty Dog programmer Kaitlyn Burnell picked up on the same three terms in her talk, citing studies that show players connect more with games that leverage these psychological factors.

The Emotional Puppeteer
Finally, the brain was the surprise focus of a famous, and decidedly NON-data-driven veteran of the games industry, composer Marty O’Donnell, best known for his work on the Halo trilogy.

O’Donnell believes the composer is the “Emotional Puppeteer” in games, and Bungie colleague Brandi House has been working with him to unlock how certain types of music provoke specific reactions in players. Through research conducted on Bungie employees, House was able to convince a skeptical O’Donnell that player-focused testing can map how music triggers specific emotional responses.

“Each piece of music has a unique emotional ’fingerprint,’” she observed. Harnessing this information can enable developers to more effectively trigger the responses they hope to provoke in players. “People are complicated,” O’Donnell noted. “Finding a common way of talking about emotions is not easy. We want to give composers some insight into people’s emotions, and we want this to be accurate.”

Quantifying emotional responses to music may strike some (e.g. this writer) as cold-hearted folly, but O’Donnell and House were plugging into a theme that received a lot of attention at this year’s GDC. Something tells me this data-munching genie won’t be put back into his bottle anytime soon.

Dear Eisenstein


I don’t think Dear Esther defies classification… We’re not claiming to be redefining the FP (First-Person) genre, we’re just presenting an alternative to the standard FP game… The problem is, when you think of FP games, your first thought will be of a gun and war. The perspective has become so interwoven with war, that it has become difficult for people to see beyond that convention. –Robert Briscoe, Dear Esther Artist and Level Designer 1

Everything we’ve done is inspired by FPS games… FPS games have an amazing history and there’s a ton of really incredible ideas about design, storytelling and worlds just there even at the most casual glance, going right back to very early days. So a lot of what ended up in Esther draws from this history. –Daniel Pinchbeck, Dear Esther Writer and Producer 2

The remarkable thing about Dear Esther is that both of these apparently contradictory remarks from its makers are true. Dear Esther is a game that leverages our experiences with first-person games dating back to Doom and simultaneously refutes those conventional expectations, paring down the player experience to its bare interactive essentials. It forces the player to construct meaning by interpreting images and audio/text juxtaposed on the fly.

A common refrain in reviews of Dear Esther is an assertion that the game offers an uncommon experience to players patient enough to appreciate its unorthodox design. No guns; no clock; no inventory; no quests - heck, you can’t even run, jump, or pick up anything - just an open world to explore and a series of audio diary/letter entries delivered at various points along the way. 

Walk around, trigger an audio clip, walk farther, trigger more clips. Repeat until the game ends. That’s it. That’s the Dear Esther experience in a nutshell. We can fairly describe Dear Esther as different, if by ‘different’ we mean “less stuff to do” than in other games.


Not so different
This is, of course, intentional. As game design, Dear Esther isn’t really so different at all. Its roots as a Half-Life 2 mod are well known, and its new visual makeover owes much to Stalker’s gritty/lush aesthetic. We’ve stumbled upon audio logs for years - BioshockBatman: Arkham Asylum, and Dead Space recently; but earlier in the original Metal GearSystem Shock 2, and the Fatal Frame series.

We also know what it’s like to feel alone in a big ominous world (Metroid, Portal, Shadow of the Colossus, etc.), and we’re immediately at home with Dear Esther’s familiar WASD control system. In other words, we know what to do here. In terms of narrative game design and mechanics, Dear Esther doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

On the contrary, Dear Esther is most notable for how it clears the table, merging minimalist gameplay with a decidedly non-minimalist visual landscape. In terms of player agency, it ventures a step beyond Tale of Tale’s game-poem The Graveyard, but barely more than a step.

Dear Esther is a strange bird: a closed, open-ended game. It is tightly authored environmental design - the player may wander, but there is a single path through the game - coupled with oblique, open-ended (and occasionally strained) literary passages that provoke the player to reflect and construct meaning herself. Open meets closed to enlarge the possibility space for meaning.

Interactive montage
Dear Esther
’s open-closed quality relies on a system of meaning-making that predates video games by fifty years. Dear Esther is a modern repurposing of montage theory, transposed for an interactive medium. Put simply, montage theory suggests that an image (a shot in film) has two values: 1) that which it inherently contains by itself; 2) that which it acquires in relationship to another image. Montage’s primary claim is that the second value is greater than the first.


The validity of montage was proved by prompting test subjects with a series of unrelated images (e.g. a picture of a mouth followed by a picture of food), which resulted in viewers linking and ascribing meaning to those images (e.g. a man is hungry). The ramifications of montage are profound because it establishes a dialectical relationship between artist and audience that assumes the viewer will construct meaning on her own, transcending simple sender-receiver communication.

If Dear Esther’s authors had wished to deliver a tightly authored linear story, they would have devised voiceover segments to be triggered at set locations in the world, gradually revealing what happened to whom. Instead, they chose to randomize these clips, handing off the job of assembling coherency to the player. A cryptic drawing in the sand is preceded by an audio clip about an explorer named Donnelly, so we may assume the sand drawing was left behind by Donnelly. A warning? A makeshift memorial of auto parts connects to a letter about a crash. A memorial to Esther?

All games are interactive, but Dear Esther’s creators are clearly grappling with how this relationship between game and player works. They’re trying something new without reinventing the wheel. As Pinchbeck explains, Dear Esther stands on the shoulders of previous games that have pushed game narrative in new directions:

The games we are making are rooted in the history of FPS design particularly… with Esther, we are extending design ideas that have been tried and tested in a number of very successful games, like System Shock, STALKER, Marathon. We just pushed them further, into a new design space.

More recently…you’ve got games like Metro, where you NEVER find out the reality of a lot of the situations… They just dumped you into this world and said ‘you’ll never understand most of it’, but the reality they put forwards is so engaging, so immersive, you just don’t care. Games are getting better at avoiding the mistake of feeling like they have to tell the player everything. 3.

Pioneering filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein described montage as “an idea that arises from the collision of independent thoughts.” Dear Esther is an interactive laboratory for provoking such thoughts, with meaning assembled by the player. If you’re curious about games and their capacity to host a powerful interplay among designer, player, game world, and story, Dear Esther deserves your attention.

Easy does it harder


If you’ve played games for more than a decade, you’ve undoubtedly witnessed the ongoing evolution of the medium. Some see technology as the primary driver, and there’s no question games look and sound better than ever. The rising tide of tech has lifted all boats, making it possible for even a small team of developers to produce polished, sophisticated games indistinguishable from work produced by the big studios.

As a player, I appreciate HD, pixel shaders, and dynamic AI, but none has produced a major shift in my actual experience of playing games. While the impact of tech is undeniable, I see a far more consequential, and paradoxical, shift in my play experience: games are easier than ever to beat, but harder than ever to control.

Across consoles, genres, and mechanics, games have gone soft. With few exceptions, games offer less resistance to serious players and are more welcoming to casual newcomers. I’m not suggesting this is necessarily a bad thing. Nintendo has recently incorporated “bail me out” features into nearly all its games, making it possible for less-skilled players to move past difficult levels. The evolution of this player-assist system illustrates the trajectory I’m describing.


Nintendo introduced the “P-Wing” in Super Mario Bros 3, which allows Mario to fly for an unlimited amount of time, overcoming tough levels. If, however, Mario is hit while flying, he loses the power of the P-Wing. The player must still complete the level. In New Super Mario Bros Wii, Nintendo offered an even easier path with the “Super Guide” - if a player dies eight times in a row, a green “!” block appears, and a system-controlled Luigi arrives to escort the player through the level. The Super Guide reappears in Donkey Kong Country Returns and also in Super Mario Galaxy 2 (where it’s called the “Cosmic Guide”).

Finally, in Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo takes it one step easier with “Assist Blocks” containing either an Invincibility Leaf or a P-wing. The Invincibility Leaf appears after Mario loses five lives in a single stage, rendering Mario invincible for the entire stage. If he loses 10 lives in a level, a P-Wing block appears, teleporting the player to the end of the level. Importantly, these items go into Mario’s inventory to be used when and where the player chooses.

Of course, these are optional, and players are free to ignore them. But it’s fair to say that recent Mario games, especially 3D Land, offer fewer stiff challenges to players than earlier SMB games, while still remaining fun to play. Other games in other genres illustrate a similar trajectory.

Among RPGs, two recent games employ different approaches to making things easier. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (which I’m playing now) can be seen as a noob-friendly introduction to console RPGs. It’s got all the formulaic pieces in place, but offers them up with glowing “look here!” and “do this” hints, friendly AI, auto-targeting, and an accessible level-up system. Amalur is an action-RPG purposefully designed to welcome newcomers, but still deliver an expansive world, storyline, and dozens of sub-quests. Even its color palette seems to suggest, “Come on in, you’ll have fun!”


Skyrim, on the other hand, eases the player’s experience through refinement of existing systems. Gameplay and progression may not be easier than in Oblivon (though I think they are), but everything, including combat, feels more fluid and easier to manage.

The attribute system, for example, has been overhauled. In Oblivion, points could be allocated to boost stats, but the benefits of this process were difficult to discern. Skyrim translates points into perks, which can be allocated to any attribute, and the outcomes of your choices are far more clear. Better maps, improved quest management, individualized skills - all refine Skyrim and make for a better and, yes, easier (defined here as less frustrating) experience.

Even the hardest of hard have gotten easier. Some may disagree, but I say Dark Souls is easier than its predecessor Demon’s Souls. More items, more spells, more gear don’t just mean “more stuff,” they also make it easier to progress. Black Phantoms drop better items, decreasing the need for grind to acquire rare gear. Elemental effects for weapons and upgradeable armor help too, and the game’s many shortcuts ease navigation. Dark Souls is still a tough game, but even this game isn’t exempt from the broad trajectory to easy. Or at least easier.

Even as games have gotten easier to beat or manage on a challenge level, they’ve also become more difficult to control. Experienced players tend not to see this because we’re accustomed to dealing with what games ask us to do. Complexity arrives incrementally, and veteran players accommodate additional elements of intricacy, barely noticing the changes.

Robert Boyd’s recent “The Complification of Zelda” illustrates how complexity creep has made its way into a series once lauded for its elegant controls. He states the problem clearly:

Some time ago, I played an indie…shooter with an obtuse control scheme. To mitigate the complexity of their controls, they displayed a picture of the controller on the screen...with information on what each button did. “How ridiculous is this!” I thought to myself... Zelda: Skyward Sword does the exact same thing in the default UI… If your game’s controls are so complicated that you feel the need to display the controller on screen at all times for fear of players forgetting how to play your game, YOU’RE DOING SOMETHING WRONG!

Boyd goes on to demonstrate Skyward Sword’s use of nine individual buttons to control:

  • Confirm/Run/Pick Up
  • Use Item (Select Item when the button is held)
  • Items Menu
  • Pouch Use (Select Pouch Item when the button is held)
  • Map
  • Lock camera
  • First person mode/Divining
  • Help Button
  • Call Sword Spirit/Resynch controller/Call bird

And these are in addition to the motion controls requiring individual moves for:

  • Slice sword (angle varies depending on how you wave the controller)
  • Thrust sword
  • Charge Sword with sky power
  • Sword Spin attack
  • Sword finishing move
  • Draw shield/Shield Bash
  • Roll

As a developer who introduced a new system (Wii) with the expressed purpose of easing player interaction with games and enabling more natural, intuitive control, it would seem they have lost their way.

Other games using standard controllers rely on similarly labyrinthine control schemes, insisting on prior experience. I offered to give my casual-gamer wife a shot at Amalur, thinking it may offer a more welcoming path to RPG goodness. When she noticed an item on the menu screen devoted to “Moves,” full of options and sub-options for controlling combat maneuvers, she handed me the controller and left the room.

Last year the Entertainment Software Association published a document called “Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.” It presented sales, demographic, and usage data to suggest the game industry is vital to the overall economy. While it’s certainly true that more people are playing games than ever, including women and seniors, unit sales of traditional console and computer games has stagnated, with only a modest increase since 2002 (224 million in ‘02, 232 million in ‘10).

What role do accessibility and complexity play in these numbers? Are we making traditional games easier in hopes of attracting players that will never come? When we make these games more welcoming to newcomers by decreasing difficulty, adding help systems, etc., are we focusing on the wrong things? Can a game like Amalur be too easy and too difficult at the same time? Does it make sense to design “easier games" if we aren’t really making them easier to play?

Put me in, coach!


Sports games are wallflowers at the video game dance. Routinely ignored or dismissed, they rarely appear on best-of lists, nor do they get much GOTY love by reviewers. Last year NBA 2K11 (an extraordinarily well designed game by any measure) got a few cursory nods from critics, but when we talk about important titles or influential games, we seldom pay much attention to sports games.

Lessons in Game Design
It’s a shame because sports games have much to teach us about game design - especially with regard to thoughtful iteration and sustaining player engagement over time. The mistake we make with sports games is to assume they’re all lazy sequels with minor tweaks and simple roster updates. Slow-witted Madden players will amble in a mindless herd to buy the latest version, regardless of quality, so why bother making a big effort? Or so the thinking goes.

The Madden series may too often herald minor changes as major features, but other franchises have more carefully iterated from season to season, listening and responding to player feedback. These games borrow  shrewdly from other genres to offer players a hearty menu of gameplay modes and options. While other game genres struggle to stay relevant, sports games like the FIFA series and MLB The Show continue to find news ways to add value to the player’s experience.

I’m a big fan of Sony San Diego’s MLB The Show franchise, and I believe it offers some valuable design lessons for anyone willing to look. Here they are in no particular order.

Rethink “Gaming on the go”
I’ve played handheld games for as long as there have been handheld games, and one thing about them has never made sense to me. Why can’t I use my portable device to extend play on my console? Shouldn’t this thing be able to grab my character - progress and stats intact - and let me continue adventuring, puzzle-solving, stealing bases, or whatever on the road; and then export that character - progress and stats intact - back to my console to continue playing? Given that most portable games are derived from console counterparts, doesn’t this just make sense?

The forthcoming MLB The Show 12 will let me do just that. If I’m willing to pony up for both the PS3 and Vita versions of the game, I can transfer my player, team, season, franchise - you name it - back and forth between units with the game’s cloud sync feature, and never miss a beat. The console and portable versions are 100% feature compatible, so when I’m on the road, I’m not playing a stripped down version of the game. Portable gaming can mean different things to different players, but this kind of gaming on the go is - ok, I’ll say it - a game changer for me.

Re-think “Persistent World”
JoeSports games have always relied on role-playing, but in recent years many sports titles have fully implemented RPG design into their core systems. “Road to the Show” mode in MLBTS includes character customization and baseball analogues for quests, leveling up, items and inventory, and even a dynamic story setting. A player-created character can live in this universe from high school to retirement, experiencing dynamic events from season to season, winning and losing, and gradually unfurling his own unique story.

Granted, sports games have the advantage of an unchanging play space (baseball diamond, football field), so designers needn’t endlessly generate new content or environments. But there is great appeal in creating a character whose player-earned properties span many seasons over many years. My favorite player that I created 15 seasons ago was recently sent down to the minors. His skills had eroded with age, and I did everything I could to keep him in the Bigs. But his day finally came, and I have to admit I took it hard. As role-playing goes, I couldn’t have felt more connected to him or more engaged with his story.

Re-think “Modes of play”
Most games have a binary concept of play modes: solo and multiplayer, typically with three available degrees of difficulty. Sports sims like MLB The Show (Out of the Park Baseball is an even better example) offer players far more granular control, as well as layers of play modes that are less about difficulty than modes of fun. If you enjoy choosing every pitch, you can do that. If not, the AI will take care of it. If you want to make every trade decision for every team in your league, you can do that…or let the AI handle it…or choose something between those two extremes.

Be a manager. Be a player. Be the commissioner. A good sports game positions you in a variety of settings, altering your play experience and enabling multiple points of view from which to exist inside the game’s universe. And, of course, if you prefer to play with live opponents, sports games typically give you many more options for controlling the parameters of such games, including minute control of the mechanical properties of your “weapons.”

Rethink “Player Agency”
If narrative games create a possibility space for players to generate or discover their own stories, sports games offer a captivating vision of that possibility space, unconstrained by branching-paths or author-driven plot points. I’m not suggesting authored narratives are a bad thing; nor do I think Mass Effect-style storytelling is broken or inferior. But a game like MLB The Show shares important characteristics with Minecraft, especially in the ways they rely on strict rule-sets that constrain player behaviors, yet also enable imaginative meaning-making within that space.

KoufaxI know the story of the 1962 LA Dodgers, who won 102 games, but still finished second, one game behind the San Francisco Giants. In a baseball sim I can attempt to change that story, and through my own efforts engineer a better conclusion by making different choices, assigning different roles to my players, and generally trying to be smarter than real-life manager Walter Alston, but limiting myself to only the tools available to him. Or I could make a few trades. Or maybe limit the season to 50 games. It’s up to me, but whatever I choose, a story will emerge.

Every game is a story. Every series. Every season. A good sports game lets me tightly adhere to “history” or go hog wild with possibilities. I once made a team that included Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and Ty Cobb. We won lots of games…but lost the World Series. How I managed to do that is a whole story in itself. My story. My humiliating story...

Who needs winners?

Skyrim  Minecraft

What can you find in an old picture except the painful contortions of the artist trying to break uncrossable barriers which obstruct the full expression of his dream? F.T. Marinetti, “The Futurist Manifesto” (1909)

Modernists ruin everything. Prior to the 20th century, visual art was mostly pictorial, depicting scenes and themes from the real world. Artists painted or sculpted images that anyone could recognize and understand. Then, in 1863 Manet scandalized the art world by painting a naked woman at a picnic. The Impressionists soon emerged and did their best to mottle everything up.

Then along game the Cubists. And the Dadaists. And the Expressionists. And the Surrealists. Manifestos whizzed by like flying plates, and suddenly nothing made sense. Reality was up for grabs and nobody knew what they were supposed to think or do anymore. Arguments raged over lighting and brushstroke technique. Critics praised or condemned in fits of unbridled vitriol.

It wasn’t just the painters. At the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1911, a riot broke out in the theatre between audience members who reviled the production and others who loved it. (I should note that the Theater has a longer history with hot-tempered audiences. In 1849 one patron expressed his displeasure with William C. Macready’s rendition of Hamlet by hurling the carcass of a dead sheep onto the stage.)

Hausmann_art_criticIt was a time of upheaval, ideological clashes, and reinvention. And it was wonderful. Art - and what that art meant or represented - mattered to artists and the public in ways it rarely does today. These days an occasional kerfuffle may arise over public funding for “offensive” art; or maybe a festering hip-hop feud re-erupts now and then - but it’s hard to find artists and audiences locked in spirited philosophical debate over “the future of art form X…” or “why artist X is advancing/killing art form Y.”

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Those kinds of heated exchanges (not always civil or enlightening) are a regular part of “the video game conversation” occurring all around us. It unfolds on forums, chat rooms, and comment sections, but it can also be found at the local GameStop, in dorm rooms, and even in the classroom. One of the most vigorous debates I saw this semester occurred among students focused on the question of whether The Legend of Zelda’s Link should ever speak.

More importantly, the debate (healthy and constructive) continues among designers. I’d say roughly a quarter of all sessions at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco could be classified as mini-manifestos, calling in one way or another for a change in thinking, a reassessment of methods, a challenge to assumptions. GDC and similar gatherings continue to ask fundamental questions about the nature, form, and purpose of games. Heck, we still have rip-roaring discussions on the basic question: “What is a game?”

This ongoing analysis of fundamentals distinguishes games from older media. I’ve attended theater and film conferences for many years. Trust me, we don’t spend much time asking those kinds of basic questions anymore. We’ve got that stuff figured out. Heh. Yeah.

The mistake we often make with games is to assume that one design philosophy must defeat all others. It’s the nature of manifesto. “I believe this to be true and ideal,” which, by definition, invalidates any alternate philosophy. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, quoted at the top of this post, also contains this lovely sentiment:

Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.

Out with the weak, stupid old. In with the bad-ass, superior new.

Jasper-johns-target-15783History shows that no single aesthetic approach or philosophy ever “wins.” Representational art wasn’t killed by Abstract Expressionism; nor was classical Hollywood narrative killed by the French New Wave. But when you see a painting by Jasper Johns or a film by Martin Scorsese it’s easy to see how each style lives in the work of artists with many influences.

In the last month, four major games arrived that exemplify four distinct approaches to narrative game design. At the risk of oversimplifying, I contend these games represent the four major pillars of video game storytelling. The lines separating them aren’t impermeable, but each game presents a viable approach to narrative that many players find valid and meaningful.

You may be an exception - because, of course, BG readers are exceptional! ;-) - but most gamers I know prefer one, or maybe two, of these games over the others…which may prove why there's an important place for each one.

  • The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - the latest edition of the definitive hero quest adventure game. Zelda narratives are rituals, with each game re-telling the same essential story, set in a familiar universe with recurring motifs. Exploration and puzzle-solving are similarly ritualized, with iteration gently rounding the edges of the series. Link remains the quintessential silent hero, a old-school convention in a game chock-full of narrative and ludic conventions.

  • Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception - the definitive playable movie. Sky-high production values, canny writing, and convincing performances elevate the series and punctuate its authored narrative with cinematic flair. The Uncharted games embed player-driven challenge sequences into the larger framework of a linear adventure story unfolding at breakneck speed. If you ever dreamed of stepping into the screen of an Indiana Jones movie, the Uncharted games offer a thrilling way to do just that.

  • The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim - the definitive open world RPG. A stunning universe built for a player to explore however she wishes. A central narrative thread is woven through the game, but the player is free to engage it, or not. Emergent possibilities arise at every turn. Listen to players discussing their experiences (telling their stories, really) in Skyrim, and you will hear nearly every account delivered in first-person. Skilled veterans of the series spend more time playing with Skyrim than playing the game as it was “meant to be played.” Authorship in this case is less about formal storytelling than about enabling player autonomy within constraints intended to spark imaginative, self-directed play. Engagement deepens through an avatar created and evolved through the player’s own actions and choices.

  • Minecraft - the definitive sandbox. A procedurally generated world in which players build, acquire, craft, and battle on their own, with no designer mandated directives aside from the single imperative: survive. So where’s the narrative? I’ll rely on Naughty Dog’s Rich Lemarchand for that answer, a fascinating observer, given his artistic connection to the Uncharted games, which, design-wise can be seen as Dr. Jekyl to Minecraft’s Mr. Hyde. As I reported in October on Lemarchand’s IndieCade keynote:

Lemarchand went on to consider the word ‘videogame,’ describing it a “a good word…but problematic.” 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 design. “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.”

I realize my claim that four games can stand for all narrative games is bound to fall short. My intention isn’t really to classify every storytelling game into one of these silos. But I do believe these games represent distinct and viable paradigms for storytelling.

Maybe the real value of such classification is to better understand how designers find inspiration (and unacceptable limitations) in these games moving forward. For example, it’s easy to see how BioWare positions its games somewhere in the space between the Uncharted and Elder Scrolls games. The artists I mentioned above understood it well. The real action is in the margins, crafting something new out of lessons learned from the old.

Take 3 - Uncharted the Director


The history of narrative game design can be fairly summarized as an ongoing effort to enable the player. Games enable choice, strategic thinking, moral deliberation, mechanical mastery, etc., all designed to make the player feel smart, powerful, responsible, or otherwise connected to a world where the player’s actions and decisions matter. In one way or another, all the major game franchises aim at this same brass ring. Mass Effect, GTA, Bioshock, Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Assassin’s Creed, Fable, Fallout - each unfolds a story (apparently) driven forward by the player. Each enables the player to impact the world…or at least delivers an illusion of impact.

But not Uncharted. From its opening moments, Uncharted 3 establishes a cinematic sender-receiver relationship with the player. Advancing the story is the game’s prime directive, and it also functions as the player’s reward. The game presents a steady stream of prompts (timed button-presses) action challenges (climbing, gunfights and hand-to-hand combat), and puzzles, each requiring the proper response. Get it right, and you get more story. Get it wrong, and it’s rewind and try again.

In this way, the player activates story sequentially, bit by bit, not by choosing sides or navigating branching dialogue options, but by earning it like Mario coins. The Half-Life games work similarly (sans cutscenes), but the Uncharted series builds such pot-boiler suspense and character intrigue into its narratives that the player feels swept up in a globe-trotting page-turner that insists on steady progression. If I don’t keep going, who’s going to rescue Sully? Missing a jump means I’ve delayed the story, which somehow feels more consequential in these tightly-paced games. Cutscene as carrot; Rewind as stick.

In this ‘play the movie’ system, cinematic fidelity is paramount, and each game has raised the bar higher in this regard. Uncharted 3 retains the colorful adventure-movie look of the previous games, but this time the virtual camerawork has a Paul Thomas Anderson feel, relying heavily on constant-motion Steadicam cinematography. As cinema, Uncharted 3 feels at once old-school-Hollywood and art-house edgy. Pay attention to the “camera” in this early scene to see what I mean. It never stops moving.

So, if cinematic interactivity is Uncharted’s raison d’être, how does this affect the player’s experience? I believe an apt parallel can be found in the relationship between a lead actor and director on a film set, with the Uncharted player as actor and the Uncharted game as director. Playing Uncharted 3 is less about watching a film than shooting a film.

Uncharted-3-game-art_290The actor must hit his marks and deliver his performance within a tightly constrained set of parameters. Autonomy is secondary to precision in this environment. I may have my own ideas of how to ‘play’ a scene, but if my approach violates the director’s (or cinematographer’s or art director’s, etc.) plans for how the scene must be executed, we have a problem. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. It’s simply the nature of filmmaking, and the Uncharted games rely heavily on this paradigm, both as presentation and as player experience.

Like a good movie actor, my job is to make what I’m told to do look like it was my idea all along. When I hit the triangle button to dodge a punch, or jump at just the right moments to escape a building crumbling beneath me, Drake looks fabulous doing it. When I deviate from that script or miss my mark, Drake dies in a pathetic rag-doll heap. Film actors quickly learn that a skillful performance matters, but nothing matters more than what the director (and editor) do with that work. A good director may redeem a bad performance; but a bad director usually makes everyone look bad. Uncharted 3 is a very good, but very prescriptive director.

Alfred Hitchcock famously remarked “Actors are cattle.” If you’ve watched a film being shot, especially on location, it’s a nasty, but mostly fair observation, at least in terms of what’s required to get film into the can. Hitchcock later amended his observation: “I never said all actors are cattle, what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle.”

So, does Naughty Dog treat Uncharted players like cattle? Well...maybe Hitchcock’s notion that we should be treated as such isn’t far off the mark if we see mainstream narrative game design as a certain kind of cow-herding: moving a mass of players from point to point, keeping them fed and happy, and trying hard not to lose any strays. This is the general feeling I get from Uncharted 3. At the risk of issuing damning praise, I believe the game is a spectacular exercise in interactive cinema. No game comes closer to delivering a truly playable movie, with AAA production values and a craftsmanlike grasp of film language.

But the total experience falls short for me, not because Uncharted isn’t enough of a “game” or because it relies heavily on cutscenes. There are lots of ways to tell stories in video games, and Naughty Dog executes its way better than anyone else. I just wish this director trusted me a little more with my performance. I’ve worked with him (I could as easily say "her") three times now, and I think he's terrific. I love the studio, and I love the ethos. But I need a little more creative input now. I need to feel less like a cow and more like a collaborator.

RameseA couple of examples highlight my point. A pirate named Rameses attacks Nate in Yemen, knocking him out with a piece of wood. He then takes Nate prisoner, transports him to a dry dock, and tortures him for information. When Nate refuses to cooperate, Rameses replies, “Perhaps your friend Sully will be more grateful for his life,” and departs.

Later, Nate is re-captured by Rameses’ men, but Nate manages to escape, steal a gun from one of the pirates, and shoot Rameses in the chest...with no input or interaction from me. Hey, Mr. Director! I could have done that! Given Rameses' treatment of me earlier, it would have been a pleasure. Why couldn’t you trust me to take care of the job?

A few chapters later, Nate staggers through the Rub’ al Khali desert - lost, alone, and dying of thirst. This section of the game is reminiscent of the Nepalese village portion of Uncharted 2: a tonal and mechanical shift occurs, and the player is free to explore and make sense of this apparently incongruous section of the game. But unlike the village, the desert in Uncharted 3 directs me ways that confine and confound me.

I admire how the control system breaks down in this scene, making it difficult to manipulate a staggering, hallucinating Nate. But all too soon, the game extracts me from the situation and moves the narrative forward, long before I’m ready. I wish the game had trusted me to explore, even aimlessly, perhaps encountering hallucinations that tell me more about Drake’s obsessions and fears. It’s a missed opportunity for me as Nate to wander confused, disoriented, and face myself. I might have learned something here. You gave me a place and situation to do that, but you didn’t trust me enough to make that time of wandering meaningful. Forty days and nights might have been interesting…

I like the Uncharted games. I'll begin playing Skyrim tomorrow, and I'm guessing I'll like that too. I don't need one game to be like the other. Vive la différence! But I'm a restless actor. I’ll happily accept another gig as Nathan Drake if the director wants to cast me again. But let’s talk about how to make that next performance more valuable for me. I’m happy to let you run the show. I just need a little more room to breathe. Work with me here, ok? :-)

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.”

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."

Tiny Tower: FAIL

I don’t think that having one wall completely missing is up to code.
                                    —Dora Spencer, Tiny Tower Bitizen

Tiny Tower is not a fun game. It just isn’t. Endlessly poking at a little screen, repeating the same tasks ad nauseum may be somebody’s idea of fun, but not mine.

Tiny-tower_3 Don’t take my word for it. Let me prove it to you. But first, hold on a second while I restock my sandwich shop with supplies...

Okay, I’m back. What was I saying? ...Oh, right. Tiny Tower is no fun, and here’s proof. Kurt Squire and Henry Jenkins - two of the most respected scholars in their fields - agree with me. In their seminal essay “The Art of Contested Spaces” they attempt to explain how games deliver fun. 

They cite “Spatial Exploration” as a key. Well let me tell you that staring at a static blocky tower for hours on end ain’t exactly my idea of exploring a space. Squire and Jenkins also mention “Virtual Romanticism” (good vs evil, heroic quests, etc.), and Tiny Tower comes up empty there too. 

It turns out that Tiny Tower fails nearly every Squire/Jenkins criteria (atmospheric design, social space, etc.) Okay, fine. But I know what you're thinking. Maybe I’m being unfair to the game by applying only one critical lens.

Let’s consult another respected source: Tom Francis - one of the best writers on games in the business. But hold the phone a sec, a VIP just showed up in my lobby, and I need to get her up to the 7th floor pronto.

...So, Tom Francis. Right. He wrote a clever piece recently called “What Makes Games Good,” and his list includes a bunch of other criteria that Tiny Towers chokes on. Here they are, accompanied by grades assigned by me, because I’m a teacher, which entitles me to assign grades to anything.

  • Challenge: After a few minutes figuring out how to play Tiny Tower, the only real challenge I can detect is remembering to check my iPhone every ten minutes. Grade: D
  • Feel: I’m poking a screen with an input device that obscures said screen. Fail. Holding my finger on the screen makes the elevator go up. That’s about it for “feel.” Grade: F
  • Freedom: This game delivers the opposite of freedom. Playing it makes me feel like an indentured servant. If I slough off even a little, everything shuts down. I'm buried in notifications that all deliver the same message: Get back to work!! Grade: F

Speaking of work, a tenant just moved in whose dream job is to work in a travel agency. Eureka! I just opened a travel agency. Supply discounts for me! Hold on while I evict a guy and move this keeper into his job...

Okay, I’m back. So, wrapping up Tom Francis’s list:

  • Place (“a world you want to be in”): Tiny Tower has no appeal here. In fact, keeping my distance from this place helps me keep tabs on the big picture. These blocky little people may like it here, but I’m definitely on the outside looking in. Grade: F
  • Promise (“the temptation of further possibilities”): Uh, no. The only “further possibilities” I can see with this game are more floors followed by more floors. I suppose building a ridiculously tall tower can be seen as promising to some, but I can’t see myself devoting that much time to such a repetitive game. Grade: D

So, as you can see, Tiny Tower fails the Tom Francis test. But wait. I made my own list of “Fun Factors” awhile back. Maybe this game delivers on some of those. Let’s check and find out...after I install some dollar slot machines in my casino. Because, see, if I get a celebrity in here any time soon, this floor will deliver major moolah that I need to open more apartments. Because I need more workers in this joint. Because I’ve been evicting dead-weight tenants left and right.

Well, I just consulted my Fun Factors Catalog, and guess what? That’s right, Tiny Tower stumbles badly again. Puzzle solving? Nope. Sense of danger/fear/surprise? Nope. Learning from failure (i.e. “the hard teacher)? Nope. Competition? Nope. Creating and feeling connected to a character? Nope. A heaping mound of fail.

Tiny Tower is hopeless. As game design, it’s a disaster. Clearly, the players who enjoy this type of game fall into one of two categories: 1) People with empty lives. 2) People who can’t handle real games. I’m glad I don’t fall into either category, because if I did I would feel worthless and pathetic. I play games like Outland - a game for people who truly appreciate video games. I’ll write about that one very soon.

In the meantime, I need to figure out if it’s possible to sync my Tiny Tower saves between my iPhone and iPad. This one feature would improve my quality of life dramatically. Because I can’t always carry my iPad with me, and those coins really add up when you’re not playing. Plus, somebody just delivered flowers to Dora Spencer, and how is she supposed to get them if I’m not there?

Bloody play


You enter a darkened room. With no map or HUD to assist you, navigation is a matter of trial and error. You turn aimlessly in various directions until you detect a small glimmer of light in the distance. You walk toward it and discover a small candle on the floor, lighting only the tiny spot around it.  

You search for other cues, but finding none you turn 90 degrees and begin walking. "Maybe I'm in a hallway," you think to yourself. Suddenly you hear a loud thunk, as if a large object fell to the floor above you. Muffled music can be heard coming from somewhere. You suspect you're being watched.

After a series of wrong turns, guesswork finally brings you to a bright light shining at the end of corridor. The music intensifies as you approach and you hear voices, so you follow the sound and light. Finally, quite unexpectedly, you emerge from the dark into a 1930s-era nightclub full of NPCs in tuxedos and gowns mingling and dancing. A beautiful woman offers you a cocktail. You take a seat and look around. "Why am I here?” you wonder. "What am I supposed to do?"

Sleep-no-more-prep A few minutes later a mysterious woman invites you to follow her. She leads you to an anteroom and tells you in hushed tones that she wants you to explore the building. "Something dreadful" has happened here, but she won't say more. 

A curiously formal man escorts you to an elevator, and you get in. After the doors close he urgently advises you to explore each room and examine every object. "Don't be shy," he tells you. "Bold action can reap big rewards in this place. Are you willing to be bold?" The doors open, you step out, and the man disappears. 

You're on you're own. No map. No instruction manual. No FAQ. What now?

We’ve devoted lots of time and ink to studying - and celebrating and bemoaning - all the ways other media have influenced video games. Narrative games clearly owe much to film, novels, folklore, and other storytelling systems, and these influences continue. I mean, who would have guessed the ancient Jewish Book of Enoch would inspire a game

But what happens when we turn the tables? What happens when a generation of artists emerges, reared on electronic interactive entertainment, with no memory of a world without video games? What kind of art will this generation produce?


The opening paragraphs of this post do not describe a video game. They describe a theatrical production called Sleep No More, a fully-realized convergence of live theater and real-time non-linear multiplayer horror-adventure game. Quite a mouthful, eh? Convergence can be a little messy. Another, more personal way to characterize the production: Sleep No More is the first time that both strands of my life’s work - theatre and video games - have coalesced to form something that feels at once deeply familiar to me and breathtakingly new.

Sleep No More is an “immersion theatre” event in which audiences are free to roam, explore, and investigate (almost nothing is off-limits) a vast space that includes 100 rooms spread over 6 floors of a transformed abandoned warehouse in Chelsea, NYC. Scenes and apparently spontaneous situations unfold throughout the building as 21 actors move from one stylized location to another, and each room is filled with period artifacts related to the story. The production's director, Felix Barrett, puts it this way: “In our world, every single drawer, cupboard, wardrobe that can be opened, should be opened because you’ll find something inside."(1)

SLEEP Sleep No More is based on Macbeth, infused with a heavy sampling of Hitchcock. Audience members arrive at the McKittrick Hotel from Vertigo; Mrs. Danvers, the diabolical housekeeper from Rebecca, appears to poison a pregnant woman; and samplings of Bernard Herrmann’s scores are woven into the complex bed of sound heard throughout the building.

It’s easy to discern the theatrical and cinematic elements mashed up to create Sleep No More, but the whole event begins to levitate when game elements are stirred into this witches’ brew.

The audience member (essentially a Player in this construction) explores the spaces of SNM, examines items, and seeks clues to explain what has happened in this place. She also responds to events that occur in real-time all around her. While her agency is limited (she cannot, for example, prevent Macbeth’s demise), she is free to go wherever she wishes and pursue her own interests, including interacting with the characters or other audience members.

In true adventure-game fashion, the joy of SNM is exploring, piecing together clues, and carefully observing the characters and environments around you. SNM is a giant puzzle to be solved by the player, with more than one possible solution. Meaning is assembled by the player, provoked by SNMs innumerable stimuli. Shakespeare's Macbeth is one possible narrative frame, but certainly not the only one.

SNM is an incredibly stimulating sandbox, chock-full of fascinating characters, artifacts, and narrative events. Throughout my time there (I saw it twice), I was struck by a familiar sense of open-world freedom, bound by intentional designer-imposed limits, but ultimately responsive to my desire to test those limits, tweak the system, and observe the results.

Sleep-No-More-3 At the second performance, I found myself digging to figure out how the system works; looking for the seams; seeking ways to give myself an advantage over the other audience members; developing strategies to overcome the system’s rules.

In other words, I played Sleep No More like a game, and its design encouraged that behavior. SNM isn’t a sender-receiver event. Like all great games, its system responds to player actions, including those that would seem to fall outside the “acceptable” range. SNM gets more interesting the harder you play with it.

What’s the best way to play Sleep No More? Follow one character from room to room? Remain in one room and see who shows up? Take notes? Stay with a friend, or purposely separate and try to locate each other (a challenging mini-game in this vast space)? Find a hiding place?

And how will you respond when the 4th wall crumbles completely? When a visibly distraught Lady Macbeth grabs your hand, pulls you down a flight of stairs, and leads you into a graveyard, what will you do? And how will you get that blood out of your shirt?

Sleep No More’s run in New York City has been extended into early October. See it. Play it. Whatever you do, don’t miss it.

Too much airplane, not enough peas


Didn't we have some fun, though? Remember when the platform was sliding into the fire pit and I said ‘Goodbye’ and you were like ‘NOO WAAYY,’ and then I was all ‘We pretended we were going to murder you.’ That was great. --GLaDOS, Portal (2007)

Set your wayback machine to 2005 and imagine yourself a Valve developer attending a DigiPen career fair in Redmond, Washington. Seven students present their collective senior project, a game called Narbacular Drop, in which a player navigates a dungeon using interconnected portals.

Intrigued, you invite the students to visit and demo the game at Valve HQ. Your colleagues love what they see, and boss Gabe Newell hires the whole team to build a new game for Valve. Two years later: Portal. Success. Acclaim. Huzzah.

It's a wonderful Cinderella story, but in this version Cinderella is no princess. She's a mechanic. Nobody at Valve fell in love with Narbacular Drop's looks. The charm was the portal gun, and it's easy to imagine the wave of inspiration that hit the folks at Valve when they first laid eyes on that device. This Cinderella also traded her glass slippers for heel springs.

Reasons to portal
When considered in this light, Portal's game design elements are brilliant, but hardly astonishing. If someone handed you a portal-making device and told you to design a game around it, what would you do? Chances are, you'd devise a bunch of environmental puzzles with a variety of challenges (moving platforms, sequential triggers, etc.); obstacles (turrets, deadly hazards, etc.); and constraints (countdown timers, no available weapons, etc.). In other words, you'd dream up as many playful reasons as possible to blast portals.

Portal was seen as startlingly original when it appeared, but it also treaded familiar territory. Silent hero enters dungeon room. Door locks behind him. Hero must "solve" room before moving on. But in Portal, Link is an acrobatic woman, and his grappling hook is a teleportation device. 

It doesn't diminish Portal's inspired mechanics or puzzles to suggest that they're predictably deployed. Like other well designed games, Portal's puzzles leverage the unique properties of the tools built to solve them. Portal is undeniably brilliant, but as a puzzle game it unfolds in familiar ways, with ramping difficulty and plenty of satisfying "I feel smart" fun.

Tricky levels and a novel gun make Portal fun, but they don't account for why the game soared so high. Valve's genius was situating the gun and the puzzles inside a world wherein they make perfect, maniacal sense. Setting Portal in a series of increasingly sadistic test chambers - overseen by a dispassionate computer AI bent on killing you - establishes a context that enables Valve to slowly reveal the true nature of the Aperture Science Research Facility. In the process, the narrative world of Portal uncoils - revealed and discovered by the player - and GLaDOS emerges as one of the great indelible characters in the history of video games. 

Natural flow
is an extraordinary game because its narrative, setting, and characters (turrets and Companion Cube included) flow naturally through its game design. The Enrichment Center's test chambers present diabolical puzzles, even as they gradually reveal a sordid history and an increasingly unreliable guide. Sharp writing, ironic humor, and a gleeful sense of computerized menace elevate the game even higher. Portal was a revelation when we first discovered it in '07, not simply because we didn't see it coming, but because it succeeded on its own terms even better than the acclaimed Half-Life 2 games that accompanied it in the Orange Box.

Narrative games have long struggled to forge a plausible bond between mechanics and storytelling. We shoot, drive, and fight in games because that's what games know how to do. We try our best to naturally fuse gameplay and storytelling...which works great if your game is about hunting down a Russian ultranationalist, but maybe not so great if your game is about finding a missing child.

The original Portal strikes this balance elegantly, and it does so by wisely limiting its ambitions. The only recurring criticism of the game was its length, with some reviewers bemoaning the fact that the game could be completed in four hours or so. Valve apparently heard this complaint and designed a sequel roughly twice the size of the original. Sadly, bigger isn’t always better.

Airplanes and peas
Portal 2
is a fun game, but it's burdened by a new array of mechanics that give the player more things to do, yet fail to add value to his experience. It’s a classic case of too much airplane and not enough peas. Let me explain.

Have you seen a parent entice a child to eat her peas by scooping them into a spoon and flying it around like an airplane? "Bzzzzzzzzzz! Open wide, here comes the airplane!" Enchanted by the flying spoon, the child opens her mouth and eats the peas. If all goes well, she discovers she likes them after all.

For many years games have employed a similar strategy delivering story to players. Run here, jump there, shoot that, cutscene! We entice the player with action, motion, and sensory stimuli...then sneak in a little storytelling while we've got his attention. Like the peas, we feed him story knowing he probably doesn't want it, but hoping he'll like it anyway. And sometimes he does. It helps if those peas are well prepared.

Portal 2 flies that spoon around with so many laborious mechanical gyrations that the savvy player begins to suspect something is wrong with its pea cargo. Stuffed in between all the new toys - hard light surfaces; excursion funnels, conversion gel, repulsion gel, propulsion gel, redirection cubes, etc. - is plenty of skillfully penned dialogue. GLaDOS turns berating into an art, and Wheatley yammers hilariously. 

But roughly a third of the way into Portal 2, one begins to sense that storytelling has been affixed, rather than fully integrated, to Portal 2's high-flying mechanics. To be sure, Portal 2's script is full of clever bits and inspired delivery, but it's mostly in service of the game’s shiny/bouncy/slick new materials. 

Integrated narrative
I'm not dismissing the importance of mechanics. It's not a question of which is more important. After all, without the portal gun, GLaDOS is irrelevant. It's a question of balance, and the original managed it better than the sequel. In Portal, testing had an integrated narrative function. In Portal 2 that function is hyper-extended through Cave Johnson's audio diaries and Wheatley's desperate ploys, all of which feel like excuses to protract and recombine Portal 2's new mechanical toys. 

Of course, storytelling needn’t be delivered via script and performance. In Portal, the player constructs a story by leveraging the game's mechanical elements and piecing together bits of evidence discovered along the way in hidden rooms with poems, graffiti, and desperate warnings scrawled on the walls.

Slipping between the cracks of GLaDOS’ carefully constructed artifice reveals ghastly events, and this process of investigation and, finally, evasion from GLaDOS’ control is enhanced by the player’s experience navigating a backstage she never wanted us to see. Her efforts to stop us - relying on the only method she knows: testing - become challenges we must overcome using the tools we were given in the game’s opening stages. We must use what she taught us against her, and there’s a certain poetry to that.

Contrast this with the 2nd act of Portal 2, essentially a travelogue through Cave Johnson’s career as a mad scientific industrialist. Again, the VO work is first-rate, and his remarks interspersed throughout are entertaining, but they don’t bear on our experience playing the game. His experiments with gels (and their convenient tendency to appear where we need them) feel less like organic storytelling than gameplay grafting.

Likewise, the most notable outcome of Wheatley’s descent to madness is an additional hour or so of puzzle solving. Even GLaDOS’ suffers as the game wears on. With each nugget of backstory delivery, she grows more human-like, which, ironically, makes her less interesting, funny, and distinctive.

Portal 2 has many virtues, and by no means am I suggesting it’s a failed game. If you enjoyed Portal, you should absolutely play its sequel. Even when it stumbles, Valve produces work of exceptional quality and craftsmanship. As a co-op game, it has no peer (excepting, perhaps, Valve’s Left 4 Dead) and I’ll try to explain why in a future post.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Portal 2. Thanks for reading...and eat your peas!