I’ve noticed that when I get frustrated with playing a game, there’s usually a very specific way it happens. When I play, I keep in my mind a model of how the game works, what optimal and interesting play is, and how to achieve that. I attempt to play using that model: If I succeed, then great! I’ve made progress. If I fail to execute on the approach I have in mind, that’s also fine, since I just need to try again. The point of friction, though, comes when I succeed in doing the thing I had in mind, but the thing I had in mind completely fails to work – because that means the entire mental model I had of the game is skewed somehow. There’s a desync, somewhere, between the game I’m playing and the game that actually exists. This is a dangerous moment, because now it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that the game that exists is just an inferior version of the game I’m trying to play in my head, one which fails to account for being played in the way I expect this game to be played.

This point of friction usually emerges sooner or later, to lesser or greater degree, even in games I love. With Dishonored it came when the game provided me no avenues to non-lethally disable an opponent once they were alerted to my presence (a lack thankfully rectified by its sequel). With XCOM 2 it came with the realization that flanking tactics were sometimes far more dangerous than they were worth simply because the cost of accidentally revealing an enemy unit could be so high. At some point, inevitably, the actual design of a game tends to diverge from what I believe the most beautiful, elegant, or intuitive way to play that game to be – and, being a stubborn person in certain very bizarre ways, I still try to play it in the way that I perceive it should be played, even in the face of the actual designers of the game obviously disagreeing with me.

I may be a bit of a standout in how stubborn I get about these things, but I’m hardly unique in my initial approach. Everyone has an idea of what ‘good play’ is supposed to look like in a game they play – whether it’s based on other games they’ve played, movies they’ve played with similar theming to the game, or just on the way the first couple of times they played went, very quickly they build a mental model of what’s desirable and what isn’t. Hypothetically, that model could even line up perfectly with the game’s systems – more often than not, though, there’s a disconnect here. The ‘right’ way to play the game, from the player’s perspective, is not the same as the way most likely to actually achieve success. In order to do well, they might have to do something that feels wrong, incorrect, suboptimal – that can be a bitter pill to swallow.

In this way, it pays to be aware of what baggage players are likely to bring to your game. This is why the history of similar game designs matters to your game design, because the expectations fostered by those games are going to affect how people see, understand, and play your game. This is why understanding what your art style conveys about the nature of your design is important, because people who find the style appealing are going to come in with certain expectations about the gameplay. This is why it’s important to ensure your player has some way to understand the breadth of the design, rather than just giving them one sample encounter and leaving them to infer that the rest are pretty much like that one.

When a conflict between the player’s conception of the design and the realities of the design occurs, it can only be resolved by the player changing their mental model of the game, and not everyone’s going to be interested in doing that. There’s an art of persuasion to it: The game has to, by its design and theming, forward an argument as to why its way of doing things is better than the way the player has in mind. Does it make more sense? Is it because the opponents have some special countermeasure grounded in the narrative? Generally, players are going to be more accepting of their approach not working because they haven’t accounted for other factors in the game (such as not defending adequately against a new technique) than because the game doesn’t reward, or even punishes, their approach (such as not having an old technique work when one would expect it should).

There’s a sense, as designer, that the design of the game should stand alone, should contain all the context it needs to make it make sense to the player, and that everything they learn about how to play the game should come from the game itself. Even someone who has never played a game before, though, comes to a game with some conception of how the game should be played. If you want people to learn the game, to stick with the game, then it is your job to, no matter what these preconceptions are, guide them and endeavor to reshape them to align with what the design of the game actually is.

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In art, characters are designed and presented – every aspect of the character’s design was considered at some point along the way, and most have some sort of significance. Even in live-action films and theater, people are cast to embody the traits of their character: Thus, every line, every curve, every bulge, every tone of skin and voice has Significance. Every dimple, every freckle, is a Chekhov’s gun. This causes problems, though: We learn things from art, inevitably, and in most ways people’s bodies have very little to do with who they are – or, at least, have a far more complex relationship with their personality than the simple stereotypes usually mined by character artists and directors.

Much has been written about the impacts this has. The way people with more fat are frequently portrayed as unhealthy and lazy, the way darker people are frequently portrayed as criminal and unambitious, the way more feminine people are portrayed as deceptive or as hapless victims, and so forth. But even though fat people aren’t unhealthy or lazy by constitution, the dismissive inattention of doctors gives them worse health outcomes and saps their energy: Even though darker skins don’t lead to criminality, they do lead to loss of opportunities in a bigoted system, sometimes leaving crime as the only option for those whose ambition refuses to die: Even though femininity isn’t deceptive or weak, those who show it frequently have their feelings dismissed and their vulnerabilities preyed upon, so they eventually have deceit and victimhood thrust upon them. These embodied character traits end up having a cruel backhanded truth to them: The systemic disadvantages people with these bodies encounter in their lives come to become wholly aligned with their fictional representation.

So just ignore all that stuff, right? Color-blind casting, age-blind casting, body-type-blind casting, gender-blind casting, and so forth, just make everyone draw their character names from a hat. And yet, if we do that, we lose the entire visual channel of communication about who a character is, where they’re from, and what they do – because these things do affect our bodies in certain ways. If we do that, we sacrifice the ability to have conversations about how our society treats different bodies and different backgrounds, sacrifice any real discussion of our real world in favor of making every world an aspirational one where there is no background, no history, no context, only the melting pot.

To some this conflict might seem intractable. It’s very simple, though: Your characters do not have to be statistically representative samples of their respective populations. Your characters have the freedom to be from any race, body type, age, preference, and still pursue their ambitions and hobbies, and these things will have an effect on their bodies that will modify their appearance. A blacksmith will probably have strong arms regardless of sex or weight. A bicycle courier will probably have strong legs. Someone who performs a desk job all day might put on a lot of weight – then again, they might not. Someone who hikes over mountains as a hobby might be very slender – then again, they might not. All it takes to make a character design that doesn’t propagate shitty ideas about who can be what and how is to separate the improbable from the impossible. Aren’t improbable characters more interesting, anyway? Most of the things we often tend to think of as improbable really aren’t very unlikely at all, anyway, especially at the level of serendipity fiction tends to operate at.

Even a character who’s a realistic embodiment of a societal ill, though, would be far better than what we get right now: Punchlines and cardboard cutouts, characters whose only role in the story is to be exactly what we expect them to be. If you still want to make one of these archetypal characters, at that point you have a duty to at least pay some attention to the systems that make them what they are. The cruelest villains and most pitiful victims don’t emerge from nothing, but from the societies of their worlds, their oversights and acceptable losses and untouchable elites.

I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM 2 recently, and after a discussion on the differences between it and its precursor the other day I started thinking about the nature of decisions in games. In XCOM (the first one), you’re expected to make a few very clear-cut decisions in the strategy layer – what to research, what abilities to train, what missions to take, and so forth. Each of these has extremely clear trade-offs. The tactical layer, similarly, has fairly clear-cut decisions, though the effects of decisions can be a bit confusing – it’s not clear, for example, whether you’ll be able to see an enemy unit if you reposition, or see why your odds of hitting are particularly high or low. In XCOM 2, the strategy layer has more decisions with murkier effects: Rather than having a choice of three missions pop up periodically, events you can investigate are constantly popping up all over the map, and since it takes time to investigate these or to do anything else on the map you can realistically only get to so many of them. The tactical combat, however, is much more clear-cut: You can see everything that affects your shot percentages, and the UI will tell you whether you can see an enemy or not when you move, and helpful icons will show if you’re moving a soldier into harm’s way.

It’s interesting to me, given all this, that players generally seem to prefer XCOM to XCOM 2. I think there are a few reasons for this, but the confusing unquantifiability of XCOM 2’s event system is probably the main turn-off, especially nestled, as it is, within the highly regimented and quantifiable decision-making that defined XCOM and, to a lesser extent, its sequel.

It all just goes to make me think about the old Sid Meier quote (or misquote?) about a game being a series of interesting decisions. Though I love XCOM, a game with a relatively few important decisions, a lot of the games I like most have you making little decisions constantly, all of which add up to a big effect in aggregate. In a game like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the decision to crouch or not to crouch, lean or not to lean, go full-auto or single-shot, equip an angled or a vertical foregrip, run into the circle at a 5 degree angle or a 6 degree angle, any one of these can be the difference between life or death – and that’s what makes it, despite its many flaws, still so fun to play for me.

In thinking about this, I started classifying the differences in decisions. In general, I think a decision in a game can be considered in two parts: One, how the decision is made (choice properties), and two, the effects of that decision (effect properties). Each of these have three parts – that I’ve thought of so far, anyway.

Choice properties:

  1. Frequency: How often decisions are made
  2. Quantity: The number of options available with each decision
  3. Temporality: How much time pressure there is to make the decision

Effect properties:

  1. Impact: How much they can change the game state
  2. Clarity: How evident these changes are beforehand
  3. Expression: How much the player can express themselves using the decisions

Different games prioritize aspects of decision-making differently. XCOM has medium-low frequency decisions with little temporal pressure and high impact and clarity, with little focus on player expression. The Street Fighter games have fairly high frequency of decisions, making choices at each moment of where to position yourself and which attack to use, with a fairly high quantity of different attack maneuvers, high temporal pressure and impact and moderate clarity (since move effects depend on what your opponent is doing) and a small-moderate amount of player expression… except, that is, in the menu where you select which character you want to use, which is a single (minimal frequency) choice with large quantity, no temporality, and huge impact, clarity, and expression. Super Hexagon is a game with extremely frequent decisions with almost no quantity (left, right, or neither), unbelievably high temporal pressure, high impact and clarity, no expression. The Walking Dead, Season 1 has low-frequency, low-quantity decisions, with some temporal pressure, moderate impact, relatively little clarity, but a huge amount of player expression.

Genres start mapping pretty closely to different decision models, when viewed in this respect. Strategy games prioritize low frequency and temporal pressure with high impact and clarity, tactical shooters like PUBG value high frequency, quantity, temporality, and impact with moderate clarity, RPGs like Fallout medium frequency, impact, and clarity, high quantity, low temporality, and extremely high expression.

From this viewpoint, it becomes clear why many of the decisions made in XCOM 2 rub people the wrong way. The decisions presented to the player in the strategic layer of the game don’t hew as closely to the ideal of what strategic gameplay decisions look like, and though they’re valid as a design in their own right, and I still find them enjoyable, and while they don’t necessarily make it a worse game, they may, in fact, make it a worse strategy game.

It’s important to know what sorts of decisions you want to present to the player, and what sorts of decisions they came to you to get. Trade-offs which may seem like good design when viewed through the lens of balance or of excitement may simply not fit the type of decision system the game is most suited to.

 

Today I was buying groceries along with my mom – she has a working car and I do not. After leaving her for a bit to find something I missed in the last aisle, I started heading back to where I last saw her when a woman of about the same height, build, and coloration wearing similar clothes turned the corner, and before noticing the difference (I am a bit nearsighted) I said “I found it!”

The woman was confused. I was mildly embarrassed, but just kept on walking like I hadn’t done anything unusual. Maybe she eventually convinced herself I was talking into a bluetooth headset or something. That part’s not important. I started thinking, though, about how our narrative of a situation shapes our perceptions. This woman would ordinarily not have been noteworthy to me, and I don’t think I would usually make the mistake I did – the resemblance was really not that strong – except for it would have made all the sense in the world for it to have been my mom turning that corner. I had no reason to question it. It’s such an echo of childhood, of getting lost in a store and finding the Wrong Mom just because a woman nearby happened to be approximately the correct shape and color.

Preconceptions shape everything we see before we ever see it – not only how we interpret the things we see, but whether we actually notice certain things at all. Those things which fit our expectations we never question until the point where they no longer line up – that is, either our understanding changes or they change to no longer fit our expectations. The mystery woman is deputized mom until further notice, usually approximately the time she turns around to notice a strange child clinging to her.

This whole thing reminded me, as really far too many things do, of the experience of playing Spy in Team Fortress 2. As the spy, if the enemy team ever suspects what you are they can usually kill you quite easily. Much of success as the spy, then, is in never being suspected. It requires knowing what people expect to see at any given moment, and being that for just long enough to achieve whatever mischief you can. I like to say that if they even have the chance to wonder if you might be a spy, you’ve already failed. It’s not a matter of blending in to your surroundings, it’s a matter of blending into your opponent’s ongoing narrative about their surroundings. Or, anyway, that’s what it is ideally, under optimal circumstances. Pragmatically it’s just as often about waltzing in when there’s too much bullshit going on for anyone to pay attention.

We have two blind spots. One, we cannot see anything that fails to fit into our world-view. Two, we can never question anything that fits too perfectly into our world-view. Both of these are indescribable anomalies to us until we make adjustments in our understanding to accommodate them. There are things we don’t see because they’re not what we expect: There are things we never question because they’re exactly what we expect.

So you have to wonder: How much of the big picture am I not seeing? How much of the world around me is invisible because it exceeds my expectation, cannot be heard because it’s outside of the audible spectrum? How much of it is unquestioned just because we’re used to it, sunk into our lungs like oxygen? This question seems more and more relevant, as the injustices that founded our history accrue interest.

To us artists, it presents a conundrum. All of our art, to the audience, is seen in the context of all the art they’ve seen before. If we depart too much from the vocabulary of that art, our creation starts to seem like gibberish: No matter what clarity of thought we put into it, they simply do not have the tools to interpret it – no, not even the tools necessary to want to interpret it. At the same time, if we hew too closely to that vocabulary, we lose the words to say anything for ourselves, anything different than what has already been said. We doom ourselves to become propagandists.

It’s a tricky needle to thread. The better part of art is learning how to be seen – and, as someone so habitually drawn to invisibility, someone who always preferred to play Spy in Team Fortress 2, that doesn’t necessarily come easily to me.

I always hate doing these updates where there’s not a lot of progress to report. The last couple of weeks in particular have been devoid of any progress on the project, or even any work on it – at first because of a shoulder injury, which was making it particularly difficult to focus on any of the complex problems I needed to solve to work on the code part of the project, and then on a short family vacation. Before that, I was working regularly on the project – well, except for the week or so where the new meds I was trying out were making me too groggy to think straight – but, still, not making a lot of progress.

Part of the problem with working on a project the size of a game is that sometimes even the components of the project, the discrete chunks you’ve written down as tasks on a task list, come to substantial undertakings in their own right. Especially when one’s focus is split between several of these, it can be entirely possible to spend a lot of time working on them, not running into any particular roadblocks and making what feels like good progress in the moment, and look back and not see anything new actually finished. This is basically how things have been for the last month – In particular, the storytelling system has taken much much longer than I’d expected it to, leading me to do a bunch of rewriting of the music system. The reason why the music system had to be rewritten was so that I could readily sync the storytelling lines with the music when I wanted to, in a way which I didn’t have to custom code for every story and every music track. I now have a system where any music track playback can intelligently jump around – that is, once I put in a number of valid points it can jump to in a track, say if a certain section can end in three different ways, I can give it a destination range in the music and it will find the shortest path to get there. I didn’t expect to have to read up on pathfinding algorithms for my music code, but here we are.

Now that I’ve got that component of the storytelling system figured out, there’s still one major roadblock to finishing it: Text rendering. This is something that should be easy in Flash/AIR, but just due to how I have entity rendering set up is a bit tricky. At this point, I have two options: Either I modify the entity rendering system, which would be a nuisance but not too difficult, or I find a way to convert the text into graphics rendering commands that I can send to the entity draw command queue. I’ve found a library that does this, but it hasn’t been updated for 8 years, so it might not be an ideal choice. If it doesn’t work out and I don’t find an alternative, though, then I’ll just have to rewrite the entity draw command system, because writing a whole text renderer to handle this problem would be an obscene waste of time, albeit presumably an educational one. At some point, as well, I’ll have to create a typeface for the game to use, possibly several. I think that will be fun.

The other two major things I was working on last time were the health bar and the awakening animation. The awakening animation has turned out to be a bit of a quagmire as well – I had the motion of standing and grabbing the weapon looking pretty good when I realized that I hadn’t really planned out how it was actually going to fit into the level where it was supposed to happen. This was something I can only describe as an extremely foolish oversight on my part. I’ve begun reworking the animation and I think I figured out a way to do so without completely starting over (again), but it required me to redraw the tree which was the main prop in that area. Honestly, I’m glad I was forced to do so, because the previous tree looked pixelated in a way which I had thought looked okay – but, I can see now, really did not. It looks much better now.

Of course, now I have to be concerned that making this tree look better will make the rest of the game look worse in comparison, and lead to an endless cycle of revisions. For now I’ll just have to enjoy the journey I guess, because I can’t say when things will start looking ‘good enough’ to me.

As for the health bar, progress is being made on it, but the storytelling code took priority and I didn’t want to split my attention between two programming tasks. I’ve also been working here and there on music for the next area, but though I have a number of promising ideas down, most of which will probably find their way into the finished version somewhere, none of them really feel like the right place for the song to start. For now, there, too, I keep experimenting, waiting to be visited by the spirit of satisfaction.

So, for this next month, I intend to finish the storytelling system, finish the awakening animation, finish the health bar. From there I’ll probably start in on other necessary animations – though I also think it quite likely that I’ll look at the tilesets I have to bring their level of quality up to this tree asset. It’s gotta be about the pleasure of the journey, because at this point I have frankly no idea when this project is going to go anywhere. I wish I knew how to work on it faster, but at this point it seems like it’s work slowly or not at all, and hope one day to accidentally, habitually, fall into a more rapid pace.

Context-sensitive controls have been around a lot longer than we tend to think. The phrase became commonplace when used to describe third-person action games around the early 2000’s that used cover systems and the like, implementing one button press for a wide array of mutually exclusive maneuvers based on the player’s position relative to environmental objects. However, the idea existed long before that, with many games using a generic ‘action’ button to talk to NPCs, search bookshelves, flip switches, and so forth.

It’s a common experience, playing a game like this, to have the character you’re nominally controlling do something you didn’t want or expect them to do. Occasionally this is entirely your fault, if you just panic and clumsily mash the wrong button or forget what does what, but just as often it’s because, when the game’s controls are context-sensitive, that context is liable to change or to be misread – say, when two objects with different interactions are right next to each other, or even when one moves to intercept your interaction with the other.

Because of this, these control systems can lead to frustration. There is an alienation between the player and the character they’re controlling when they aren’t sure quite what that character will choose to do when they press a button. Sometimes, this can be interesting! If a character interacts with an object in a way we don’t expect – by stealing it, by commenting on it, by breaking it – this can help to separate the character from the player in a way that communicates story and personality. More often, though, an unexpected action just makes the player feel lost, unable to understand the relationship between the character and the world they occupy.

So where is the division between when these schemes work and when they don’t work? They can be said to completely work when the outcome of a button press is clear beforehand, and to completely fail when the outcome is completely unpredictable, but seldom are either of these true. Many developers try to add on-screen prompts telling the player what action the button press will take but, at the speed of gameplay, when the context starts shifting quickly, these stop being very useful. An approach to ameliorating this is to have the contextual action be intentionally obscured, but to fall within a fairly narrow set of expectations – for instance, an ‘up’ button that climbs onto small walls, jumps over railings, and climbs up ladders, or a ‘down’ button that crouches, climbs down ledges, and hides under tables.

The outcome of a button press is not necessarily directly derived from the action the character takes – that is, though the player may know that when next to a window the ‘dodge’ button is supposed to dive through it, they may have not noticed that the window has bars on it and give their character a concussion. Perhaps this is a silly example, but the important point is that the player’s decisions are respected, even if they’re bad decisions.

Poorly implemented, these systems can cause frustration. Well-implemented, they can boil a control-scheme down to its essential elements and preserve a sense of intuitive flow. Creatively implemented, they can determine the emotional distance between the player and the character they’re controlling, and give them a new insight into that character’s internal world.

Context is a powerful thing.

There’s a way of talking about games that’s begun to bother me – most games, when we describe and discuss them, particularly in comparison to one another, tend to get boiled down to one or two focal points, a gimmick or two, that become the only things they are known for. Whatever the game’s most distinctive trait is comes to stand in for the totality of the work, obscuring all other aspects of the experience it offers.

This may, perhaps, be a reflection of the medium of discourse: Twitter especially tends to lend itself to this memetic distillation of art. However, regardless of its source, this understanding of what a game is extends outwards. And, to be fair, this isn’t always a problem: Even great works of art tend to be discussed in terms of the novelty they brought to the medium, and it is always necessary to make a case for what a work has to offer before it can help to ever earn an audience. There’s something wrong, though, when the elevator pitch remains the dominant mode of discourse long after we’ve gotten off of the elevator – that is to say, when we still boil games down to gimmicks long after we’ve played them and gained the opportunity to understand them in more detail. Dark Souls becomes that really hard game, even though the difficulty is one of the least interesting aspects of it. UNDERTALE becomes that cute pacifist game, even though only half the content is pacifistic and much of it is decidedly un-cute. Braid becomes that game where you can go back in time, even though it was not the first game you could do that in and the actual puzzles involve much more sophisticated manipulation of time than just reversal.

Of course, if you look at these examples, you’ll note that this issue is in no way an impediment to success: Each of these games were, in their own right, huge hits, and having some handy descriptor of what they brought to the table was probably part of that success. And yet, if that becomes the way people understand the games even after they have found success, it’s that much harder to actually discuss these games in comparison to others – and harder for other games to riff on their ideas without being dismissed as copycats.

While this happens to some degree with all forms of art, games seem to be especially susceptible. There are a couple of reasons I think this happens: First, with more strictly narrative forms, there’s usually an effort to keep from exhaustively discussing the narrative before someone has had a chance to experience it for themselves – so, since any novelty these forms bring to bear is usually rooted in the narrative, they are protected by the specter of the spoiler warning. Games are not afforded the same protection, however, because the mechanical aspects of the game are conceptually separate to the narrative – and, even if a game pulls narrative tricks, we often tend to regard these as still being somewhat in the domain of ‘game mechanics’, of smoke and mirrors. Second, because of the way we tend to describe games, we’re used to evaluating them as a consumer product first and an art form second, assigning numerical scores based on how well they perform – so, for games, any element is regarded as a feature for the front of the box just as much as it is regarded as a technique used in the creation of art.

A lot goes into every game that is created: Not only the broad strokes of groundbreaking ideas, but the narrow strokes of detail, the music and character design and animation, traditional bits of craft and smaller elements of game design that make a game function and make it speak to people. Without these, the gimmicks mean nothing, and it does a disservice to the game to only describe it using its most obvious elements. What really makes the game work or not work isn’t the big ideas or the small details, it’s how well the small details are fitted to the big ideas. UNDERTALE’s pacifistic ideals wouldn’t mean anything without a lovable cast of characters and systems and assets that express those characters, Dark Souls’ difficulty would seem merely cruel outside of its sad and stately world, Braid’s time reversal would be just a toy without the intricate puzzle-craft that provides the meat of the experience.

How much a game suffers from this tendency depends on how much it breaks from the established norms. In an industry that focused for so long on empowering players at all costs, the mere unforgivingness and weight of Dark Souls was exceptional. In an industry so focused on violence, merely making a game where violence was a choice instead of mandatory was exceptional. In an industry where powerups were rare and limited, giving players the ability to instantly reverse any mistake was exceptional. These ideas were sticky! And, similarly, in an industry where every game had to be fair, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds gave players a 1 vs 99 fight, and they loved it.

But: PUBG isn’t the 1 vs 99 game any more. It was for about 6 months, and then other games with the same premise started coming out. All of a sudden, it was a genre: The Battle Royale. Now people talk about PUBG differently. Well, most of them talk about it as “Fortnite, but worse” I guess, but it’s still distinguished from its competition by the details, the movement and gun behavior and vehicles. Probably worse for the game, but probably better for the discourse.

Maybe every time a game gets boiled down to this one narrow idea of what it is, what we are witnessing are the birth pangs of a new potential genre. I suppose in many cases, rather than becoming genres these ideas just filter out bit by bit into other games, slowly becoming unexceptional. Either way, I suppose eventually, case by case, the problem goes away on its own.