Game design

Driven to abstraction


A powerful display of artistic vitality is unfolding before our eyes, but we're conditioned to overlook it. The game industry's obsessive focus on graphical fidelity has given rise to a counter movement away from realism and toward a purposeful abstraction that defines some of the best contemporary games. We're in the middle of an abstract design renaissance.

Because we routinely associate advances in graphics technology with progress in game design - many review sites continue to score "graphics" with a clear bias toward high-polygon whiz-bang visuals - we tend to describe abstract designs with easily-understood terms: "retro," "8-bit," or "arcade-style - or, worse, we associate them with hardware, e.g."NES-style graphics." Steven Totilo described Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP as "Ico meets Atari."

I'm not suggesting incompetence or dismissiveness here. We do our best to describe the games we play, and that can be difficult with the unconventional ones. "Ico meets Atari" is a clever characterization that says something true about S:S&S EP, and I sort of wish I'd thought of it.

The problem with such descriptions, however, is that they can devalue the aesthetic impact of these designs. Describing a game as "8-bit" may tell us something about its general appearance, but it doesn't say much about how that visual style communicates meaning. Fifteen years ago, primitive graphics may have suggested a concession to limited resources or inaccessible design tools, but no longer.

EverydayShooter_1 Today, games like S:S&S EP, Osmos, the Bit.Trip series, and pretty much anything designed by Mark Essen (aka, Messhof) represent designs that embed their "primitive" visual styles into the core experience of playing them. In other words, they look that way because any other art style would diminish them.

We are seeing a creative explosion of such games situated at various points on the abstract-to-representational spectrum, and these designs inevitably influence other designers across genres and throughout the game design space, from indie to AAA developers.

It's easy to see the impact of Pong, for example, on a vector-art inspired game like Bit.Trip.Beat, but Rez can also be found in the mix, as can Nintendo's unheralded bitGenerations design signature. We like to describe games with multiple genre influences as hybrids (e.g. Bit.Trip.Beat is a retro rhythm-based paddle game, aka Pong meets Rez).

CommanderVideo But play mechanics are only part of the story. The Bit.Trip games serialize a set of experiences meant to reflect the evolution of a human life as seen through its protagonist, Commander Video. Levels entitled GROWTH, DISCOVERY, DESCENT, DETERMINATION, PATIENCE, and FATE cast the player into playful experiences that reflect the hero's trajectory through life and all its hardships and rewards. Developer Aksys describes the Bit.Trip story this way:

Everything comes from something.
We were before we became. From life comes rhythm, and from rhythm comes life.
We are beings of information.
Everything is a conduit for learning.
We communicate in bits and bytes.
And we will return to something once we become nothing.

Pixelated abstraction makes this possible and communicates a kind of cold digital universe that eventually grows warmer and more colorful. Life flowers and pulsates as you progress, but the designers wisely trust the player to discover and assemble (or not) this experience emerging from abstract presentation. Some may see and enjoy the final game, Bit.Trip.Flux as a more accessible iteration on the original Bit.Trip.Beat, which it is. I experienced it as Epiphany and Catharsis, bringing the 6-part narrative to a fitting and satisfying conclusion.

Sloan 6th ave   Kline NY
Depictions of NYC: 6th Ave by John Sloan (1928) and New York, NY by Franz Kline (1953)

The surest demonstration of an art form's dynamism is dialectic creativity - a kind of call and response among artists who see, process, respond, and create - provoking a recurring cycle among other creators that advances on its own collective energy. We bemoan the derivative nature of games, and we're fed a steady stream of imitative designs that prove the point. But focusing on threadbare tropes and overused mechanics may cause us to overlook the astonishingly creative work being produced by game designers experimenting with form, representation, and abstraction.

User review of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, posted on App Store

In my next post, I'll take a closer look at Superbrothers: Sword & Scorcery EP and discuss how it exemplifies what I'm talking about...and why its design should be seen as more than retro hipster cool.

Let me count the ways


How do I ignore thee, Monster Tale?
Let me count the ways.
I overlook thy most generic of generic names.
I  scorn thy tedious kids-save-the-world conceit.
I disdain thy prosaic box art.
I yawn at thy derivative anime stylings.
I scoff at thy clinging to 2004 technology.

These truths evident, Monster Tale, tell me why
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach. Or at least as much as Castlevania.

Monster Tale does its best to make you ignore it. But take note. If you overlook this gem, you will miss one of the best games ever released for the Nintendo DS.

Dreamrift, the studio that developed Henry Hatsworth, has produced a splendid hybrid game (aren’t all games hybrids these days?) that fuses Metroidvania exploration with Pokémon husbandry, mixed with RPG elements (don’t all games have RPG elements these days?). It's a marvelous concoction.

Monster Tale’s hero is a young girl named Ellie who whacks baddies with her handbag and raises a little sidekick named Chomp from scrappy infant to thunder-brawling adult. Together they navigate an ever-expanding map, unlock new areas and power-ups, free monsters from captivity, and evolve Chomp into a variety of forms useful for specific situations. Along the way Ellie must overcome platforming and puzzle challenges and face off against several pathological kid-bosses.

Does any of this sound groundbreaking? Nope. Does it matter? Nope.

Hybrid design
Monster Tale illustrates how a clever hybrid design can do more than simply mash together familiar elements. Henry Hatsworth showed how genre fusion can be less about mixing and more about juggling. In that game, Dreamrift assigned the DS’s two screens to separate mechanical functions - the top for platforming and the bottom for Bejeweled-style puzzling. Activity on one screen impacted events on the other (often frenetically so) but each screen essentially hosted a self-contained game. It was stylish fun, but the two styles never quite clicked for me.

Monster Tale cannily iterates on that formula by reassigning the bottom screen to a monster pet sanctuary where Chomp eats, grows, and recovers. At any point in the action above, Chomp can be summoned to the top screen to help Ellie battle baddies. As you progress, Ellie acquires a battery of special moves, and Chomp evolves in customizable forms with strengths and weaknesses against certain enemies.

Deep pet simulator?
When you account for the branching complexity of the pet simulator elements of Monster Tale and combine them with the platforming and boss-battle challenges, you discover an accessible game rooted in a surprisingly deep core system. It's quite brilliant, actually. Lead Designer Peter Ong describes his approach:

We...thought the concept of pet-raising was interesting, but we were unsatisfied with the extent to which typical pet-raising games integrate the growth of the pet into an overall game that matters. Our goal was to explore the idea of an evolving pet that can help the player within a different type of game mode, producing a combination that we haven’t seen before.**

Wisely, the game constrains Chomp’s abilities - he grows tired on the top screen and must be sent below to recover - and sometimes Ellie is better off doing things herself. So the player must decide when to use Chomp and when to let him stay below. As a shrewd added benefit, Chomp can use items you collect for him (e.g. catapult, soccer ball, race car) from the bottom screen, launching them into the top screen to assist Ellie.

Against the grain
Dreamrift seems to relish unconventional protagonists. Henry Hatsworth was an aging, bluster-prone English explorer fond of tea. Monster Tale continues the studio’s nonconformist approach with a young, wide-eyed girl who simply wants to find her way home. This decision did not go over well with publishers, according to Ong:

This choice was actually somewhat controversial with some publishers. Our experience was that many publishers are looking to avert the risk of a main character that hasn’t been proven to capture large audiences. As a result, there was some concern from publishers that Ellie should change to a male or a more mature/sexy female.**

Kudos to Dreamrift for sticking to its guns, and kudos to Majesco for publishing this terrific game. Do we really need more hulking-badass men or sexy-dangerous women in our games? Yeah, I know. Nobody's listening.

I have only two minor complaints about Monster Tale. The game occasionally suffers from pedestrian level design (I love the colorful visuals, but the platforming can be unimaginative and repetitive). The game also requires too much backtracking, and the same enemies respawn in the same locations throughout. One upside, however (unlike other Metroidvania titles), is that you can use this backtracking to grind Chomp’s level up, so retracing your steps feels at least a little productive.

It’s fun to discover unheralded games and proclaim their merits, but I can’t take credit for this one. Brad Gallaway recommended Monster Tale on my last podcast, and I owe him a big thanks. I encourage you to give this wonderful little game a try. Reward developers and publishers willing to devote their creativity and resources to risky new IP. 

How do I love thee, Monster Tale? Let me count the ways.

**Nintendo Power, January 2011

The gamer's game


"For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."
--Song of Solomon 2:11-12, quoted annually at the start of spring training by Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell

Hear me out on this one, okay?

Today is my favorite day of the year. It's baseball's Opening Day, an occasion I joyfully greet every season. Winter is over. The boys of summer have arrived. Play ball!

I'm keenly aware that few BG readers share my passion for our national pastime. Whenever I hit "publish" on a baseball-related essay, I fold my arms, sit back in my chair, and watch my traffic plummet. I find this oddly satisfying, although I'm not sure why. Probably something to do with obstinacy.

Why do I like baseball? I could go on about the poetic symmetry of the diamond or the metaphorical grace of the sacrifice bunt. I could name-drop the great novelists and poets who've found lyrical beauty in the game: Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Earnest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ogden Nash, Bernard Malamud, Phillip Roth. 

But chances are, you'd remain unconvinced, and my efforts would smack of profundity over-reach. After all, what's so poetic about a bunch of guys in baggy pants trying - and mostly failing - to whack a 5-ounce cowhide-covered sphere? Baseball, to the non-fan, is a slow, dull affair with far more pauses than action. The nostalgia wears off by the 3rd-inning.

Okay. Most of you don't care about baseball. I understand. Nevertheless, give me one shot to convince you there are strong connections between the games you like - video games, I mean - and the game of baseball. In the end, you may not buy my argument, but maybe you'll better understand why nutjobs like me find the game of baseball so endlessly fascinating.

  • Baseball is a turn-based tactical role-playing game. Casual fans love watching Albert Pujols blast one over the fence, but hardcore fans like me derive our satisfaction from the strategic 3-way interplay that preceded that moment, determined by the manager, the pitcher, and the batter. A change-up on a 2-1 pitch; shifting the infielders to guard the lines; a hitter guessing outside fastball that he can take the opposite way.

  • The real action is in the tactics. The pitch/swing sequence is the dice roll.

  • Baseball is a 9-stage boss battle, and the pitcher is the boss. To defeat him, you must hit him repeatedly or gradually wear him down. He has strengths and weaknesses you must identify and exploit. If you can successfully guess what he’s about to cast, you can use it against him and deal damage. Near the end of the game, he may be replaced by an even stronger boss with a higher ATT, but much lower HP.

  • Casual fans fancy themselves the slugger with two out in the bottom of the ninth. Fans like me imagine themselves the manager in the dugout with a lineup card and a book full of statistics. The manager is the serious fan's conduit to the game. Players execute strategies determined by the manager. He chooses the lineups, and he develops in-game tactics based on the flow of the game and the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent. A baseball manager always thinks three moves ahead.

  • Baseball is for braniacs. No sport is more deeply embedded in numbers. Statistics and probabilities govern strategy, and baseball connoisseurs pour over these numbers like accountants searching for tax loopholes. Unheralded Gene Woodling batted .283 for the Yankees during the 1950 season, but clobbered the Phillies in the World Series, hitting .429. Why? The Phillies pitched only one left-hander in four games, and Woodling ate right-handers for lunch.

  • Baseball players like Woodling have attributes. A pitcher with a low ERA against left-handed batters, but high against right-handed batters might be thought of as +10 against lefties and -5 against righties. Similarly, a batter with three balls and no strikes might raise his line-drive attributes by +10.

  • Situational tactics are key. Knowing which batters are due up next inning will determine which reliever you decide to warm up in the bullpen - unless the other manager chooses a pinch-hitter, in which case your decision may change.

  • Managers position their players on the field strategically to account for their range of movement and what they expect their opponent will do.

  • After choosing and positioning your party members and executing your strategies, your turn ends. Then it’s your opponent’s turn, and you must play defense. The combined strength of your party members (eight players essentially buffing one pitcher) and your ability to anticipate your opponent’s moves will largely determine the outcome.

  • Some rare baseball players have the ability to cast magic spells on their opponents. Anyone who doubts this claim never saw Ted Williams hit, Sandy Koufax pitch, or Willie Mays play centerfield.

So that’s my pitch. Heh. Happy Opening Day everyone. Enjoy the game of baseball. It's a beautiful game. I’ll let Ernie Harwell have the final word.

Ernie long gone

When better isn't better


One of my favorite games, Beyond Good & Evil, has returned in a sparkly new HD edition. Curious about how the visual upgrade might impact my experience, I downloaded the game and played through most of it again. The verdict? Meh.

Without question, the HD edition is a graphical overhaul. The water effects look great, character models look sharper, and the new widescreen treatment makes Hillys look like a wonderful place to be hoodwinked by the Alpha Sections.

I don't object to the recent spate of HD makeovers. I'm thrilled to see Sly Cooper return for an encore; RE4 HD will undoubtedly lure me back to rural unnamed-Spain; and Ico/SotC in HD? Well, obviously, I'm there. If an HD upgrade entices a young player to try any of these games for the first time, that's justification enough for their existence.

But that's unlikely to happen with BG&E. Players uninterested in the game won't be swayed by visuals that land somewhere in the uncomfortable space between blocky last-gen and silky current-gen specs. The game looks better than the original, if enhanced textures and a 1080p resolution bump define what "better" means. But is it really better?

Part of the genius behind BG&E's design is a colorful art style that lived comfortably within the constraints of a 480p display. The original made no effort to render realistic characters or environments, nor did it adopt the cell-shaded look of Wind Waker or XIII, both released the same year. 

BG&E's distinctive art direction put a premium on character design, and while I suppose Jade, Pey'j, and Double H look smoother in their HD reincarnations, I'm not at all certain they look better. In fact, since some NPC characters don't get the HD treatment (e.g. the reporter near the beginning of the game), the visual collision feels jarring in ways the original never did. What's more, the HD enhancements are by no means consistent. I found blurry textures and weird geometry throughout.

Beyond skin deep
We can quibble over textures and polygons, but ultimately these matter far less than the game design elements a graphics overhaul can't touch. It pains me to say it, but BG&E's innovative-for-its-time open world feels confining and geographically unimaginative eight years later, and its stealth and combat sections suffer in comparison to most modern games, especially when camera issues arise...and they do. Often.

Jade remains one of my favorite characters in the history of video games, and her playful relationship with Pey'j still warms my heart. But if I'm perfectly honest, I must confess that BG&E's story seemed deeper and more resonant in my memory than in my experience replaying the game.

BG&E's storytelling relies heavily on plot twists and reversals that are telegraphed from the earliest stages of the game. "Beyond Good & Evil" ultimately functions as an odd title for a game with little interest in moral complexity. We quickly learn who's good and who's pretending to be good. From there, it's mostly a dash to the finish, with a few 11th-hour plot bombs that began ticking hours earlier.

BG&E still has more charm than most games I've played, and its first hour is a virtual clinic on how to build genuine empathy for a video game protagonist. One of these days I need to write about that. But it's hard for me to see how this HD makeover enhances the original Beyond Good & Evil. Sharpening it up and encouraging us to take a closer look may just do the opposite.

LittleBig artists


The "games as art" debate won't be settled by critics, conference panels, or forum philosophers. It will be settled by artists. There will be no seminal essay or winning argument. At some point, we'll look out at a vast body of work - amassed over time, built by skilled creators, unbound by classifications - and the fact will be obvious. Like the rising sun. We'll notice and agree it was there all along. We'll realize it didn't actually rise at all. We just needed time to turn and see it.

An inspired group of artists is quietly creating work of surpassing quality in the LittleBigPlanet community. These original designs bear the markings of artistry: imagination, self-expression, craftsmanship, visual coherence, architectural and kinetic beauty. Like all good art, these inspired creations stand out in a sea of shoddy, derivative, or merely competent work.

Of course no aesthetic taxonomy can suitably account for what is or isn't 'artistic,' and any attempt to define 'beauty' leads to a rabbit hole with no exit. Moreover, even among players who agree games can be aesthetically ambitious, few cite user-created LBP levels as worthy of such consideration. Their work is ignored for reasons similar to the ones gallery owners once used to reject quilts and other textile art. They don't require special talent to make. They re-use the same basic materials over and over. They all look alike. 

When I examine the levels conceived by the gifted designers featured below, I see ambitious and evocative creations. I discover ideas and surprises. I play inside worlds that fill me with joy, wonder, and even dread. I marvel at their cleverness and ingenuity. I dig for the secrets of their construction. As an artist from another medium, I well know what provokes this complex interplay of thoughts and emotions in me, and I'm accustomed to calling it art.

It's so much more than just a game isn't it? The fact I can sit in my little flat in London with a cup of tea, beavering away on some random Star Wars tribute level and a month later someone sitting in Japan, drinking HIS tea, loads it into his PS3 and plays what I've made. I still find that completely awesome.
                                                        --Level designer "julesyjules"[1]

So, who are these wonderful creators? I can't highlight them all, but I'll point to a handful of my favorites. If you're a longtime LBP player, you're probably already familiar with their work. All remain active in the LBP community, sharing ideas and helping others improve their skills.

These designers share certain traits common among artists. Each has created a distinctive body of work. Each possesses a recognizable signature style. Every inch of their work has been carefully considered. An unmistakable craftsmanship and design savvy elevates these levels above the work of less capable designers. Their levels are full of great ideas, beautifully executed. Play them and see for yourself.


Lockstitch created some of the most beautiful original levels for LBP1, and he continues to inspire other designers with his newest creations for LBP2 - one of which, Refuse Ridge, appeared just yesterday. Lockstitch has made judicious use of LBP2's new tools, utilizing some (bounce pads and camera options) while ignoring others (controllinator and sackbots). Budding creators interested in platform design would do well to contrast Refuse Ridge with his work on Vile Anchorage, one of my favorite LBP1 designs. Lockstitch demonstrates why restraint can be a virtue.


Poms may be the most imaginative designer in the LBP community. His work often stakes out a point of view, which has alienated some players who apparently think LBP levels should only be about 'fun.' Poms' creations are great fun, but they also explore (literally, in the case of The Miracle of Life) human reproduction and religion (Hell's Angels 1&2). Poms is a master of lighting and materials, and he frequently returns to his creations to tweak and improve them. His newest work for LBP2 is a series called Brainwash TV. The title speaks for itself.


Ruof is my favorite LBP level designer. His creations aren't the flashiest or most frenetic. He rarely builds complex gadgets, and his levels won't challenge anyone's platforming skills. But there's something unmistakably soulful about Ruof's work. He makes quiet little platformers that feel more like lovely toys than games. In Ruof's designs, the world responds to the player. Rather than presenting a series of obstacles, his levels unfold in lovely, clever little ways. Ruof has a thing for stairs that magically appear, descend, unfold or otherwise present themselves. If LBP makes a digital universe feel warm and tactile, Ruof is the best example of why that feels so good. Try his Starry Night (LBP1) and 2nd Li'l Platformer (LBP2).


Nobody said LBP needs to be sunshine and roses all the time. Ungreth brings a gothic, haunted vision to his creations. The self-written description on his page reads: "Ungreth is a turd. Don't trust him, don't play with him, and avoid his levels like AIDS. He's not as good as he thinks he is anyway...his levels are really confusing and frustrating to play." Don't believe him. Tenement: LBP2 Edition will take you far away from Media Molecule's Craftworld. Can a side-scrolling LBP level really depict tragedy, suicide, and loss with cuddly sackboy characters? Believe it or not, yes.


If you want to trace the maturation of an LBP level designer, check out the evolution of Lfiers work from his first LBP1 creation, Resident Raytech (LBP1) to his newest design, Symphony of Dissonance (LBP2), released last week. Observe what he's learned about varied level design, pacing, scenario presentation, and camera work. Symphony of Dissonance cleverly enables player-driven platform creation as interactive gameplay. This adventure is easily on par with the best of the story levels designed by Media Molecule.

I'll also mention a few individual levels that caught my eye recently:

  • Stereo/mono 2 is a rhythm-platformer that makes terrific use of LBP2's powerful lighting and sequencing controls. 
  • Industrial Platforms is a fabulous level created by a 10th-grader learning about game design. 
  • Cause and Effect 5 is the latest in a series of films built with LBP2's toolset. The entire thing relies on physics. "No buttons, switches or pistons. Just gravity and inertia."

This is the last of three posts devoted to LittleBigPlanet and its community of creators. You can find the previous two here and here.

LittleBig literacy


Everyone who has had in his hands a piece of film to be edited knows by experience how neutral it remains, even though a part of a planned sequence, until it is joined with another piece, when it suddenly acquires and conveys a sharper and quite different meaning than that planned for it at the time of filming.
                                                              --Sergei Eisenstein

Shortly after its release in 1916, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance was brought to Russia, but exhibitors rejected it. After the Revolution, the Bolshevik government arranged premieres of the film in Moscow and Petrograd, touting the film's "agitational" qualities. Lenin, who saw the film as a model of proletarian ideals, ordered that it be shown throughout the Soviet Union, and it ran continuously for nearly ten years.[1]

Prints of Intolerance were screened at the Kuleshov Workshop so frequently that they began to fall apart. Film stock was scarce in those days, so Kuleshov and his students began reassembling Griffith's sequences into hundreds of different combinations, creating different meanings from the same essential text. Kuleshov's landmark theory that film conveys meaning through the juxtaposition of shots was proven true even before he conducted his famous experiement with footage he shot himself.

I thought of Kuleshov and Intolerance last week while listening to Clint Hocking grapple with a question raised by Chris Hecker at a previous GDC: How do games mean? In other words, if film's basic unit of meaning is the shot, and the language of film is communicated via sequential editing, what is the language of video games? Can we understand how they convey meaning as clearly as Kuleshov came to articulate montage?

It's a valuable question worth pursuing, and Hocking's answer (simplified) - that dynamics emerge from player behaviors in response to mechanics and rules - helpfully articulates a relationship between player and game that's distinct from film, theater, etc.

But we tend to forget one important fact about those early theorists and filmmakers like Kuleshov and Vertov. They didn't discover the language of film. They were simply the first to articulate a theoretical description of it.

Griffith, whose film Intolerance was probably the most influential film of the Soviet era, instinctively practiced these principles in all his major films. He was instrumental in formulating the syntax of film by employing it - sometimes brilliantly, other times less so - in his own work. He came to understand film as an idiom by speaking its language himself. The framework he built, consciously or not, became the theoretical foundation for a lineage of filmmakers, beginning with Eisenstein, who studied these techniques and responded with his own refinements.

I mention all this because I see fascinating parallels between the creatively experimental work Kuleshov and his students did with Intolerance and the wild variety of creations currently being produced by the LittleBigPlanet community. In both cases, a brilliantly conceived set of assets is manipulated to produce original work that is unique and individually expressive, but channeled through a singular vision. The resulting creations are interesting by themselves, but more importantly they function as formal experiments that explore how to do and say different things with the same basic set of materials.

LBP 2's enhanced toolset offers more possibilities for breaking the platformer template, but even as designers try their hands at shooters and RPGs they continue to grapple with formal issues of design and construction. To extend the Intolerance parallel further, we can see this kind of 3rd-party experimentation as enormously useful if we assume it has effects beyond Sony's "Play/Share/Create" mantra. For those willing to dive in head-first (both creators and players eager to try original content), it promotes, for lack of a better term, video game literacy.

Such literacy produces more discerning players and more possibilities for progressive design ideas. It fosters an audience more receptive to both homage and experimentation. If you want to hear a creator reflect on the value of studying design from a player's perspective, ask Daisuke Amaya (aka "Pixel," creator of Cave Story) where he "went to school" as a game designer.

Maybe it's unreasonable to hope that "the Eisenstein of video game designers" will emerge from the LBP community, but as I've made my way through dozens of original levels recently, it's become clear that some of these designers are producing work of exceptional quality and refinement. Despite what you may have heard, not every LBP designer is working on a Super Mario Bros. level 1-1 clone. 

In my next post I'll feature a few of the most gifted LBP designers I've found, and I'll discuss why their work deserves your attention. In the meantime, if you haven't played LittleBigPlanet 2 you should remedy that at your earliest convenience. Yes, it's "floaty." Sackboy isn't Mario. You'll be fine. A game with so many wonderful ideas should be celebrated for what it is, not for what it isn't.

1. David Cook's "A History of Narrative Film" includes a fascinating account of Intolerance's impact on Soviet cinema, and I highly recommend it. I draw from Cook's work in this post.

Pulling their weight

Tug Of War 2

Do you wish your actions as a player mattered more in the game worlds you explore? Are you tired of the game industry copying Hollywood and spending more and more money on elaborate cutscenes for linear stories? Do you want to explore ways in which games can harness interactivity and take advantage of what's unique to our medium? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then this talk is for you! [1]

The schedulers for this year's GDC had a curious sense of timing. At the same hour David Cage was speaking about storytelling in Heavy Rain, Kent Hudson (lead designer at LucasArts) was across the hall speaking on the very same subject. It's tempting to suggest the two were a corridor apart, but miles away from each other philosophically. Tempting, but not quite accurate.

Coupled with LucasArts Creative Director Clint Hocking's session on dynamics, Hudson's talk offered a vision of interactive storytelling that would seem diametrically opposed to Cage's at Quantic Dream. And yet, Hudson's catalog blurb (above) could easily have been lifted from Cage's abstract. When Clint Hocking asks "What is the role of the author and of the interactor, and how do they share in the generation of meaning?" he is essentially posing the same question Cage addressed in Heavy Rain

In fact, it's easy to imagine Hocking observing "The player should play the story. I didn't want to make a game that the player would watch. ...I wanted the player to be the actor, the co-director, and the co-writer of the game," but those words belong to Cage, who might as well be describing Hocking's goals for Far Cry 2.

If Cage and Hocking ask similar questions, then we might assume the gaping divide we perceive between them appears in their answers. But here again a simple binary "who's side are you on?" characterization doesn't quite work. 

No doubt, Cage's cavalier dismissal of mechanics and rules flies in the face of Hocking's system-driven approach to design. Cage still believes classic literary techniques (authored narrative arc, conflicts and obstacles, closure, etc.) apply to games, and he's more comfortable relying on traditional dramaturgy than Hocking.

So I'm not suggesting both designers are essentially saying the same thing. They aren't. Nevertheless, I saw some noteworthy common ground emerge between Cage and Hocking at GDC this year, mainly due to the continuing evolution of Hocking's vision for interactive storytelling.

Clinthocking Hocking still clearly believes in player agency and the unique possibilities for emergent meaning that games can provide. But in his talk this year, Hocking focused more on people than systems. "Meaning comes from the application of skin to mechanics," he observed. "The mechanics don't, in fact, create meaning, but how we play does." 

Dynamics that produce meaning stem from a designed system, of course, but Hocking's example of clever authorship in this regard was telling. He referred to Hemingway's six-word short story "For sale: baby shoes, never worn," in which the author's meaning is clear, despite a lack of details or specifics. The balance between authorial intention and reader interpretation suggest essential roles for each, and that's a bit of a recalibration (if not a conceptual reversal) for Hocking. It makes the distance between him and Cage look more like an ocean than a galaxy. 

Hocking wondered how changing a narrative's dynamics might also change its meaning. Referencing Brenda Brathwaite's Holocaust-themed board game Train, Hocking suggested that it's possible to alter an abstract game like Tetris by applying a narrative layer on top of it. Attaching Train's narrative to Tetris (cooperate with the Nazis and pack together as many blocks full of people as possible; or defy them by creating as many gaps as possible) changes what Tetris means and suggests something important about how games impart meaning. 

"We must observe the game at run-time to understand what it means to the players," Hocking noted. Small choices made in apparently insignificant moments help define the player and his experience. Hocking related the story of a Go master who characterized a challenger's move as "ugly. …it was like smearing ink over the painting we had made." The player is how he plays.

David Cage sees such moments as opportunities to "bend" the story. Hocking sees them as expressions of a player's personality and sensibilities. Both see the potential meaning derived as synthetic and instantial, in-the-moment dialectics between player and game. "How you play the game matters greatly," observed Hocking. What the player brings to that experience will help define the meaning of that experience - sentiments Cage expressed in his talk as well.

I don't claim that David Cage and Clint Hocking are more alike than different as designers. But I am suggesting their ideas aren't as diametrically opposed as we might think. It may be fun to pit one against another, but creativity doesn't work like Parliamentary debate. One idea needn't invalidate another to 'win.' Both can be right. Both can be wrong. The other two outcomes are also in play.

If GDC has value as an idea incubator, it's because the conversations it hosts promote multiple points of view for broad consideration. This isn't about sing-along Kumbayah; it's about sharing and maximizing resources to make better games. To this end, Cage and Hocking are pulling more than their weight.

Rollercoaster bias


David Cage says Heavy Rain succeeds where other narrative games fail because it delivers an "emotional, story-driven, and meaningful experience for adults." Cage made his case in a talk at GDC entitled "Creating an Emotional Rollercoaster in Heavy Rain."

Before I get to the substance of Cage's talk, a little disclosure is probably in order. I didn't like Heavy Rain, and I'm dubious about many of Cage's claims about his game. I entered his talk skeptical and exited unconvinced. Nevertheless, I'm intrigued by his ideas about game design, and some of his assertions are undeniable. Cage makes a strong case for why so many narrative games leave us feeling cold and a little embarrassed. As a designer, he's shooting for something richer and more mature, and he's a passionate advocate for games aimed at adults.

The bias problem
David Cage is certain. He knows what he knows, and his proof is in the pudding Quantic Dream cooked up for us with Heavy Rain. Cage wants to deliver hard truths to a room full of designers invested in the future of narrative games, but his vision is impaired by three limiting biases:

  • Selection bias - Cage uses his own work as proof of his theories, so all the evidence for the validity of his claims traces back to Heavy Rain. The other games Cage cited in his presentation were used as foils against which the superiority of Heavy Rain could be seen.

  • Measurement bias - Cage measures his data toward an expected outcome. He doesn't account for alternative or negative responses to the game, so the measurement tools he relies on - "critical acclaim," "commercial success," and "industry accolades" - skew his conclusions toward his desired results.

  • Experimenter bias - Cage wants to prove that his own work points the way forward as game design, and he relies on qualitative evidence, which is not a problem per se. Bias is introduced when the experimenter fails to account for the variability inevitable in qualitative research. The experimenter must show that he understands this and has done his best to lessen its impact or account for it in his conclusions. Cage doesn't do this. Heavy Rain succeeds because he says it does.

Having noted these biases, Cage's ideas still deserve a hearing. In a nutshell, here's what he said:

Heavy Rain is purposely different from games aimed primarily at teenagers and based on violence. Cage noted that even ostensibly 'mature' games put the player in the shoes of a good guy, who then proceeds as a mass murderer through the game. Furthermore, according to Cage, most games rely on over-familiar, repetitive mechanics. "We've based games on the same handful of paradigms for 30 years. ...How much meaning can there be if all we can do is shoot people and jump on platforms?"

Technology, says Cage, has progressed much faster than the concepts behind games. Heavy Rain was an effort to be more ambitious, and Cage outlined four primary goals the game tried to achieve:

  • Feature adult themes and tone
  • Tell a meaningful story
  • Offer varied interactions
  • Experiment with new paradigms.

"It's about freeing my players from the interface," Cage noted. Heavy Rain was designed to keep the player inside the game and develop an empathic relationship to its characters. To achieve this, Cage wanted to steer players away from experiential tropes like competition, aggression, and win/lose. He also wanted to avoid cutscenes. "The player should play the story. I didn't want to make a game that the player would watch. ...I wanted the player to be the actor, the co-director, and the co-writer of the game."

Cage believes role-play reinforces involvement, and that's why Heavy Rain includes trivial tasks like shaving and drinking a glass of orange juice. Such activities glue the player to the character, according to Cage. When something important happens later, "it matters that you were in his shoes earlier" doing little things. This identification process is vital in creating an emotional connection. It makes later decisions more difficult and meaningful, Cage contends.

Cage described Heavy Rain's blend of old and new writing techniques. Classic elements like narrative arc, conflicts and obstacles, and closure serve narrative games, but they aren't enough when player interaction is added to the mix. "Most games we call non-linear consist of linear missions we can do in whatever order we like." Heavy Rain offers the player the possibility of "bending stories" with fixed start, middle, and end points, but "narrative space" in between for meaningful player choices. These options don't result in win or lose outcomes; instead they present different outcomes the player feels responsible for producing.

"We tried to create varied and subtle emotions." For example, Cage and team wanted to impart a strong sense of discomfort when the player must disrobe as a female character in front of a man - a significant behavioral departure from what most games suggest to male players. "Identification is everything," noted Cage. "You don't project yourself into an empty shell."

Cage sees Heavy Rain as a major departure from other narrative games. "Most games are about challege. Heavy Rain is about the journey. We tried to move the challenge from the controller to the mind of the player." In Heavy Rain, failure is not bad or good. Players bear with the consequences of their actions, which creates a more immersive experience. "The journey is what really matters," noted Cage.

Late in his presentation, Cage began to lob bombshells. "Game mechanics are evil." "Mechanics are a limitation." "Forget video game rules. Mechanics, levels, bosses, ramping, points, inventory, ammo, platforms, missions, game over, cutscenes ARE THINGS FROM THE PAST."

He also offered some poignant observations. "Killing someone in a game is the most unimportant thing you've done in your life. ...Actions should have consequences." Cage believes we must present genuine moral dilemmas, not merely branching path options as 'choice.' "We didn't ask you if you wanted to be good or bad. Our goal is to ask you questions that are difficult to answer." Cage described meeting one player who, when faced with the choice to kill a man in the game, turned off his console for two weeks to think about it.

"Why are we the only medium in the world that is so empty?" Cage asked. Video games exist as a niche medium because the industry has made them so. If a solution to better storytelling in games is to be found, several realities must be faced, according to Cage.

  • Narrative and emotion are generally not considered important by developers.
  • Action and narrative are typically disconnected.
  • Most games are too long.
  • Mechanics are a problem.
  • Characterization is often inconsistent.
  • Creators are not empowered.

"We need to have the writer ruling development. He should be the god."

Cage believes story and gameplay should be designed simultaneously from the drawing board stage. "Anything can be play; any story can be told. I made a game about child abduction. As long as it's sincere and done with talent, it can be done. ...Make games for adults. Seriously."

Saving the world


We who care and write about games face a conundrum. We want to make the case for games to a mainstream culture with narrow, often misguided perceptions about what cames can be and do. But if we ring our bell too often, persistently demanding that games be taken seriously, our pleas smack of desperation.

If games should be mentioned in the same breath with other art forms - if they possess aesthetic qualities and communicate meaning - why don't we just shut up and let the games do the talking? Is it possible that our collective effort to culturally elevate games is ultimately self-defeating? 

Reality is Broken
In her new book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal walks squarely into the middle of this conundrum, but manages to avoid being ensnared by it. McGonigal isn't interested in delineating the artistic merits of Shadow of the Colossus or the ideological dimensions of Far Cry II. In fact, she mentions only a handful of popular games (Rock Band, Halo 3, World of Warcraft), and does so mostly in passing. 

It turns out that McGonigal isn't much interested in making the case for games at all. She has set her sights on more than cultural respectability for games. McGonigal believes games can make us better people. But that's not all. 

The game-enabled experiences McGonigal wants to explore (specialized ARGs, crowdsourced "very big games") occur in custom-designed games intended to produce socially positive goals. Games - or more aptly for McGonigal, the application of game design principles to real-world problems - can save the world. "They are, quite simply, the best hope we have for solving the most complex problems of our time."

Remember that bell I mentioned? McGonigal traded hers for a Chinese Opera gong.

How can McGonigal possibly prove such grandiose claims? Well, she can't - at least not completely - but she's remarkably effective at targeting thorny problems and designing games to address them. The persuasiveness of her arguments relies on her ability to explore an issue (such as injury recovery or "happiness hacking - translating positive-psychology research findings into game mechanics") and applying game design principles that target and address its causes.

McGonigal has an uncanny ability to break down a problem, identify a structure (goals, restrictions, feedback), and assign core mechanics that enable fun/useful interaction with the problem. Her chapters devoted to "Leveling Up in Life," and "Fun with Strangers" are full of terrific examples of games designed by McGonigal and others to incentivize simple, but important activities like convincing young people to stay in touch with their grandparents.

Missions Impossible
Later in the book, when McGonigal expands her scope to include complex worldwide issues like poverty and climate change, her reach seems to extend beyond her grasp, and it's difficult to see how a "serious game" like World Without Oil could have a truly meaningful impact on geopolitical issues of deep complexity. But here again, McGonigal's focus shifts to a root perspective. Serious games that address serious problems aren't necessarily built to solve those problems.

Instead, they do what James Paul Gee and others have suggested all effective games do: enable us to understand complex systems and develop intelligence and imaginative strategies for harnessing them. McGonigal subscribes to Will Wright's notion that "augmenting our natural capacity for imagination" is vital at this precise moment in history. "It's a matter of survival, pure and simple."

Games provoke our imaginations, big-picture thinking, and problem-solving impulses in ways that we can leverage for the good of the planet. "We have been playing good games for nearly as long as we have been human," says McGonigal. "It is now time to play them on extreme scales."

Reality is Broken is a wildly audacious work, and McGonigal puts herself on the line throughout the book with exalted assertions like: "It seems clear to me that games are the most likely candidate to serve as the next great breakthrough structure for life on earth." That she managed to beat back most of my knee-jerk retorts is a testament to her persuasiveness as a writer and the carefully constructed logic of her ideas. McGonigal is prepared to defend the turf she has staked out, and she makes no apologies for the grandiosity of her project. I'm skeptical about the power of game design to save the world, but McGonigal makes me doubt my doubts.

I am dubious about a few of her claims, however. ARGs like Cruel 2 B Kind - a crowd game designed to increase the social well-being of a place by dispatching teams of players dispensing hospitality and compliments to strangers - certainly looks like fun. But I question the real impact when such actions lack authentic inspiration. An act of kindness to a stranger is diminished when that act is delivered to score points, defeat an opponent, or win a game. I should note that I've never played Cruel 2 B Kind, so I should be careful not to dismiss it out of hand. 

I'm also troubled by McGonigal's assumption that people who regularly play games have "opted out of reality." She quotes Edward Castronova's term: a "mass exodus" to game spaces, and asserts that this exodus is "more than a perception. It's a phenomenon." She goes on to cite statistics that show hundreds of millions of active gamers worldwide, and she suggests these numbers prove we have turned to games because they are "teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not."

I'm one of those gamers, and I must say this characterization rings false to me. I accept McGonigal's notion that "video games are fulfilling genuine human needs," but I'm not convinced we've all turned to them because the real world cannot satisfy those needs. In fact, it's quite the opposite with me.

I wish games were more capable of addressing, exploring, or satisfying me as a human in the world. Too often, the disconnect flings me back to the real world, grateful for its complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty. I do not play games as an escape from the real world. More often, I play them seeking ways to abstract, virtually explore, or amplify the non-virtual world I find infinitely more interesting.

Read it!
These objections do nothing to diminish my admiration and gratitude for Reality is Broken. McGonigal's mission couldn't possibly be more ambitious, and she succeeds to an astonishingly impressive degree. This is a thoughtful, generous, and forward-looking work that offers a path to a bright future if we're willing to learn the valuable lessons games can teach us. It's a hopeful vision supported by pragmatic ideas rooted in proven design principles. As McGonigal puts it, "Games aren't leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They're leading us to its reinvention." 

Sackboy packing heat


I'm an exhuberant inhabitant of LittleBigPlanet. I love both games with a devotion that borders on irrational. Almost as much as the games themselves, I love Media Molecule's two big ideas: 1) create an unapologetically whimsical world drawn from the materials inside our playful imaginations; 2) encourage players to design, build, and share their creations with the same powerful tools the developers used.

LittleBigPlanet isn't just a game; it's an expression of a design philosophy that actually makes good on Sony's "Play, Create, Share" buzz-phrase mantra. As long-time modders, Trackmania fans, and Minecraft aficionados know, LPB isn't the first or only game to offer players powerful tools to do creative things.

But Media Molecule is up to something different with LBP. They want to present a world that taps into our child-like imaginations and transform that exchange into a self-sustaining ethos. In its opening moments, LBP 2 puts it this way:

Dreams. Fantasies. Ideas. Where do they go when life brings you tumbling back to the now? One by one, they drift away to the cosmic imagisphere. From the atomic to the galactic, they dance and they whirl unfettered by worry and concern. The heavenly ballet of the wonderplane. And sometimes this dance creates something astonishing. Out pops a transcendental dreamverse. A remarkable place where the real meets the fantastic. And this vast expanse of imagination has a name. They call it LittleBigPlanet.

Imagispheres, wonderplanes, and dreamverses. It's an audacious and potentially laughable mission statement, but when Stephen Fry delivers it with such commitment and panache - when you get your first look at LBP's craft-world; when you're given control of the ridiculously adorable Sackboy; when you discover the faces of the game's creators scattered throughout the opening level - it all begins to make sense.

By the time you've met Larry Da Vinci and Victoria von Bathysphere, donned your first head-mounted cake-launcher, or ascended the Tower of Whoop, the world of LBP 2 feels like an oddly unified place, just as the original did two years ago. LBP 2 features fun new mechanics for navigating its levels, and Media Molecule has managed to expand and streamline the toolset for creating original levels. I'll take a closer look at these improvements in a future post.

Sadly, LBP 2 adds one element that I find disappointing and incongruous. After blithely grappling and grabinating my way through "Victoria's Laboratory" and the "Factory of a Better Tomorrow," I arrived at "Avalonia," for Sackboy's "armaments training." If you played the Metal Gear DLC for LBP 1, this level will look a bit familiar. Media Molecule introduced a gun in that pack called the "Paintenator," a clever addition (with accompanying MGS costumes) that hearkened to Snake and company without ceding to its violence. True to the world of LBP, the new gun shot blobs of paint instead of bullets, and players found all sorts of clever ways to use it in their own original levels.

In LBP 2, Sackboy is sent on a training mission in which he learns to fire laser shots from a turret mounted on the back of a camel. Soon, the Negativitron's minions attack, and Sackboy begins lining them up in his crosshairs and mowing them down from his turret. LBP 2 becomes a side-scrolling rail-shooter, and Sackboy mans a lethal gun. 

This sequence doesn't ruin LBP 2 for me, nor does it diminish the many wonderful aspects of the game. But I do find it disappointing. Given all its creators have done to build a lovely idiosyncratic world across two brilliant games, it's too bad this one bows to aping the gun-toting elements of so many conventional games.

I'm aware both LBP games include violence. Bombs, spikes, fire, electrocution - all exist as environmental hazards to avoid. I don't object to violence, especially when depicted in the cartoonish ways that typify LBP's aesthetics. It's just hard for me to make sense of Sackboy packing heat.

In many important ways, LittleBigPlanet functions as an antidote to the same-old-same-old we see across the game design space. Its creators have proven themselves geniuses at creating a self-contained playful universe that, delightfully, makes no logical sense. Sackboy blasting away from a turret just feels wrong. I fear that, in an effort to give players more design assets to acquire for original creations, Media Molecule compromised the integrity of the world they so carefully and lovingly built.

What a beautiful world we've destroyed


Metro 2033 isn't a great shooter, horror, or stealth game, although it tries its hand at each. Its shooting controls are too loose, its horror elements too sporadic, and its stealth options too limited. If we measure the game's value on its technical or face-value design merits, Metro 2033 probably deserves its 77 Metacritic score.

But Metro 2033 is like a pitcher who disguises a nasty cutter. Everything about the windup and delivery looks like a fastball...until the ball lands in the catcher's mitt and the batter stands helplessly at the plate muttering "What was that?" 

Metro 2033 does the unthinkable among modern narrative games. It holds the player accountable for a battery of decisions made throughout the game, but it refuses to reveal an optimal path or permit the player to game the system by framing his actions as "choices." 

In other words, the game offers its best ending only to players who genuinely earn it, according to the game's self-defined ethics system. The rules of that system are not imparted to the player via good/bad/neutral dialogue options, nor does the player receive behavior prompts from NPCs or reward/punishment for specific choices along the way. I like the way Christopher Thurston puts it on his blog Exit/Warp:

The solution to the game's macro-conflict is determined by the outcome of dozens of micro-conflicts, implicating any game with a push-button solution to an ethical impasse in a kind of hypocritical ambivalence. A man is not only entitled to the sweat of his brow, Metro says, but to the formation of his identity. Who you were before doesn't matter: what matters is what you do now. All of it.

And so in Metro 2033, you enter a world whose inhabitants live precarious lives, driven by altruism, greed, self-preservation, and fear. You are in the same boat (or, in this case, gutted Metro tunnel), and the game presents a variety of apparently inconsequential choices that, over time, define you. In the end, the game itself - or more properly, the world Metro 2033 enacts - determines whether or not you can be trusted to make peace. It's an especially startling and resonant ending because you never knew you were being tested.

In Metro 2033, stopping for a moment to strum a guitar - a simple act of beauty amidst dank chaotic suffering - will take you one small step closer to saving the world. Stopping to listen to a mother's plaintive cries (no button prompts, no exclamation mark above her head, no apparent feedback) is another step. 

Sadly, the game occasionally marks these events as "Achievements," which diminishes the meaning of such moments. It's an odd, incongruous concession to the absurd assumption that every game, no matter its nature, must reward us like trained seals at regular intervals. Fortunately, most of Metro 2033's Achievements are tied to combat-related events ("Kill 30 enemies using revolvers.") rather than the quietly consequential choices made along the way.

Most games present NPCs as information kiosks for the player. Metro 2033's NPCs play this role to some extent, but mostly they seem to exist separate from the player's presence. Kids draw pictures on the floor, share half-informed stories about mutants, and worry that their fathers haven't returned. Refugees sit around makeshift fires, sing and listen to guitar music, and awkwardly joke about their circumstances. 

Sure, if you look for the seams, you'll find looping dialogue and animations, but if you behave naturally and let your curiosity guide your movement through its environments, Metro 2033 will reward you with a rich array of characters and situations that seem impervious to your arrival. You're helpful, but you're no savior.

Metro 2033 leaves room for fear and doubt. A commander orders his men to take their positions, then follows with a quiet "I hate this so much." The artifacts of war, including shrines to lost children, are discovered along the way. The game communicates the human toll of war more convincingly than most. When you come upon the aftermath of a massacre, Metro 2033 unsettlingly expresses the moment. Something about the way the bodies are strewn about and disfigured. Disturbing.

A sergeant makes a stirring speech about holding the line against an advancing army of mutants. He exhorts the men to think of their children back home. They gird themselves for a fight...and they're immediately overwhelmed by a supernatural force. A few men survive, and as the mutants are about to arrive, one of the men begins to sing. It's a moment of fear and desperation few games manage to convey.

"Even the Apocalypse didn't stop us from killing one another over ideology." --Narrator

Late in the game, a philosopher named Khan observes, ""You reap what you sow, Artyom. Force answers force, war breeds war, and death only brings death. To break this vicious circle one must do more than act without thought or doubt." 

This statement applies to the in-game narrative, but the player soon learns to appreciate its extra-game resonance as well. One can blast one's way through Metro 2033 and watch the nuclear missiles fly at the end. But if you want a different, more hopeful ending - and more importantly, a more meaningful experience as a player - you must pay more careful attention to the people and world around you. You must "do more than act without thought or doubt" - and that's an approach shooters rarely ask us to adopt. Metro 2033 turns our conditioned FPS expectations on their heads, but refuses to announce its intentions. In a game full of anomalies, it's a perfectly anomalous approach to game design.

We've seen games struggle to embed an ethical dimension into gameplay using all sorts of techniques: binary choices, branching paths, virtue points, etc., and I don't mean to suggest these are all silly failures. Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age employ systems many of us have found engaging and enjoyable. Metro 2033 tries another way, and it's a refreshingly unexpected change.

We struggle to quantify the artistic value of video games because we don't have a reliable means for measuring intangibles, such as an uncommon authorial voice or an interactive system that conveys a distinctive ideological sensibility. Metro 2033 isn't just another genre mash-up FPS, but unless we account for these intangibles, it may seem to be just that - even to players who plow through to the end.

By the way, if you decide to try Metro 2033, I encourage you to choose the Russian voice-track with English subtitles. The Russian actors bring a gruffer, too-many-cigarettes characterization to their roles that enriches their portrayals. I found them more convincing than the English-speaking cast with Russian dialects, but both deliver solid understated performances.


The bedtime game


Last week our 3-year-old daughter Zoe moved from her crib to a "big girl bed." Some kids make this transition smoothly, but not Zoe. After discovering she could climb out of bed any time she liked, Zoe decided to fully exploit her newfound freedom. And so for six consecutive nights, Zoe exercized that freedom at all hours, and we became sleep-deprived zombies. Through sheer desperation, we also became game designers.

We attempted to gamify the transition from crib to bed, but we proved to be inept designers. We saw the transition from crib to bed as an end-goal - a victory in itself. But it was our victory, not hers. Zoe needed a stickier, more tangible outcome, and imparting simple praise ("We're proud of you!") wasn't enough to keep her dialed in. Zoe needed a progression system that made sense to her, with meaningful feedback and a win condition. We lost a lot of sleep before we figured that out.

Pre-release hype
Zoe's bedtime game started promisingly. We began talking about a new bed two weeks before Christmas. We perused catalogs with pictures of children's beds; we discussed how all of her older cousins and friends sleep in beds; and we read books about bedtime. By the time we arrived at the furniture store to make our purchase, Zoe was pumped. We walked in the door, and Zoe immediately approached the sales clerk and said "I want a big girl bed!"

Downloading the demo
We looked at bed after bed, and Zoe laid on each one, pretending to sleep. Soon, however, she lost interest in shopping and discovered a more fun activity: hiding behind sofas and recliners, challenging us to find her. We refocused her attention on the task at hand (with threats of leaving the store bed-less), and she finally narrowed the field to two kid-sized beds. She tested each multiple times before finally settling on her choice. We bought it and arranged delivery in three days.

Personalized content
While we waited for the new bed to arrive, we let Zoe decide where in her room it would go. She chose a quilt from her grandmother to hang above her new bed; she chose a new blanket and pillow; and she helped us shop for a new night-light. Zoe was ready for her new bed. Better yet, she was invested.

Upgrading the hardware
On the day her new bed was to arrive, Zoe watched me dismantle her crib. This was a far more emotional event for me than for her. As I removed each bolt, I wistfully recalled assembling it before she was born. Zoe's concerns were purely practical. "Where should we put it?" she asked. "It's going to the garage for now," I told her. "That's okay," she replied, "It can get snow on it because I don't need it anymore."

Removing the shrink-wrap
Zoe was at pre-school when the bed arrived, so we had time to get everything ready. When she returned home, she ran upstairs, dashed to her room, and gasped "My new bed!!" Frenzied bouncing and running around ensued. She was thrilled. We were thrilled. The new bed was here. All was well.

Mission failed
That night Zoe eagerly climbed into her new bed. We read stories and tucked her in. "Do you like your new bed?" I asked. "Yes!" she exclaimed. "Go to sleep now, and we'll see you in the morning." "I will. Night-night, mommy. Night-night, daddy" "Night-night, sweetheart." 

We turned off the light, closed the door, and gave each other a silent thumbs-up. Another parenting milestone passed. ... Thirty seconds later, the door opened and Zoe emerged. "Mooooommmy." This game had only begun.

Somewhere around the 15th time Zoe came out of her room that night, it struck me that we had identified the wrong challenge. We thought the bedtime game was about convincing Zoe to embrace change and accept her new bed. We were wrong. Introducing the bed was an easy test. The challenge was keeping her in it. We had no game plan for this.

Over the next several nights, Zoe ran us ragged, repeatedly emerging from her room and forcing us to put her back in bed. On the second night, in the space of less than an hour, I returned Zoe to bed 23 times.

Every resource we consulted advised a simple trategy: do not let the child win. Return the child to bed, no matter how many times it takes, until she finally falls asleep. Stay on this course until the child eventually learns that bedtime means sleeptime.

After five nights of heeding this advice with no progress whatsoever, we decided to devise an incentive. We drew a chart with pictures of her favorite things - ice cream, an iPhone game, a photo of her teenage cousin, etc. - spaced over time. We explained to Zoe that if she could stay in bed for one night, she would be rewarded with a trip to Dairy Queen. More consecutive nights would bring better rewards, culminating in her cousin (whom Zoe worships) arriving at bedtime to read her stories and personally putting her to bed.

This incentive system worked like a charm, and the last thing Zoe said to me as I left her room that night was "I get ice cream tomorrow." "Yes," I replied, "if you stay in bed." "I will," she responded. And she did. (Well, she did get up twice for a drink of water - a familar canard we chose to overlook). We went to bed happy that night.

Final boss
Five hours later at 1:00am, Zoe walked into our bedroom. "I don't like my bed." We calmly returned her to her room, tucked her in, and reassured Zoe that hers was the best of all possible beds. The next several hours were spent replaying that sequence until she finally fell asleep for good.

The next night was more of the same. We took turns returning Zoe to bed. We tried the soft approach; we tried the hard approach, but nothing worked. Neither of us us were sleeping, and we were losing our minds. Some parents lock their kids' doors. Some use gates. Neither of those options appealed to us. 

Help us, Jenova
In a state of desperation, my zombie-mind flashed on an idea - or, rather, an idea-man. For some crazy reason I thought of Jenova Chen. 

If you want to teach players not to do something, you don't need to smack them. You need to give them zero feedback.[1]

Negative feedback, Chen explained in a talk I attended last summer, is no less stimulating than positive feedback. Players often choose to "behave badly" in games simply to experience the resulting outcomes. If a designer wishes to dissuade players from choosing certain actions, he must associate no outcomes to those actions.

When Zoe walked into our room at 1:30am, was she essentially testing the system we had designed? In that system, she could interrupt our sleep at any time and receive a stimulating response, harsh or reassuring. What if we gave her nothing but dead air? What if, the next time she entered our bedroom after midnight, we simply ignored her?

And so the next night we went to bed and awaited Zoe's inevitable arrival. Right on cue, she popped in at 1:15am with "I don't want to sleep in my bed." We ignored her, and she repeated the line about ten more times. We remained still and silent. 

Zoe seemed stunned. She walked to both sides of the bed as if to examine us. "Daaaaaaaddy.... Mooooommy." Dead air. She paused for a moment as if to consider her options...then she turned, walked back to her room, closed the door, and slept peacefully until morning. In her new bed. Like a big girl. 

Thanks for the shut-eye, Jenova. We owe you one.