I’ve been having a rough week or so, in terms of motivation. It’s been difficult for me to get much done. The silver lining to this, as much as there is one, is that it’s an opportunity for introspection: A life, lived day to day, has a mechanical aspect, where each activity leads one to other activities, each pursuit fuels other pursuits. Any time the machine of a life fails to produce the desired results (such as a happy and satisfied body and mind), it provides a glimpse into the machine. Something that’s running perfectly provides no data to diagnose, and thus difficult to improve: Something that runs unreliably, and provides interesting problems when it fails, provides a wealth of data with which to foster its improvement.

This isn’t particularly encouraging, when one is otherwise feeling like crap, but at least provides something to think about.

One brain malfunction, which I think everyone has some degree of familiarity with, is not doing things which you know will make you feel better, and which you even will probably enjoy while doing them. The longer you put them off the worse you feel about not doing them, until every positive association shifts towards a negative association. The importance of habit and routine is the ability to keep this destructive feedback loop from forming in the first place. Habit and routine, though, will always eventually be interrupted by circumstances. By themselves, they can only carry you so far.

The problem is, any positive association, any joy you take from an activity, can become inverted incredibly easily. For a long while I was walking a couple of miles a day just to keep from becoming too inert and to give my mind some space to work. I enjoyed these walks – and yet, once the habit was broken, I didn’t pick it back up. Examining it now, I think that it was partially the enjoyment that made it a difficult habit to keep – because how can I do something I enjoy, that takes a significant amount of time and effort, when there’s so much else around that I need to do and that seems so important?

And yet, without the momentum of pursuing enjoyable activities, what do I actually do with my time? Mostly sit around and do even less active things while picking away, bit by bit, at the tasks I actually need to do. The enjoyment of the task, which should have made it easier to perform, has been turned around against me, made it something that is in between a guilty pleasure and and empty chore, at times taking on properties of either.

Aside from the feedback loop that can sour my relationship with activities I enjoy, there’s the feedback loop that can sour my relationship with myself. Say there’s an activity which I still enjoy, without any weird guilty overtones or counterproductive reward mechanism. When I start feeling really shitty, it’s hard for me to reconcile the image of an enjoyable task with the image I have of myself. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that that I feel I don’t deserve to do things I like – more that the version of me who feels this way doesn’t have much in common with the version of me who would be doing those things. This disconnect seems wider and wider the longer it goes on, and again can feed upon itself, pushing me further and further from doing the things I think would make me feel better.

As each of these mechanisms progresses to make me feel more isolated and unmotivated, I start feeling worse and worse about not getting things done, and about the rapid pace I’m not achieving. I start thinking about how much great work other people have gotten done at this point in their life or about how much better at some particular skill someone else is and I get utterly frustrated with being so imperfect. This, too, is an impulse which, when properly controlled, can be very beneficial – I think I’ve learned a great deal from the mindset that I can always improve, and to always be able to respect and learn from the accomplishments of others – but when it gets out of control, nothing I can ever do will ever be good enough to satisfy me. This is probably exacerbated by the lack of recognition I generally get from elsewhere, but I think even if I were some sort of famous and respected genius I would still feel the same way… Sometimes, at least.

There may be other mechanisms at play as well, which I haven’t noticed enough to comment on. I feel better already, actually – perhaps writing this helped, or perhaps having the clarity to write this is merely a symptom of the natural ebb and flow of emotion finally going my way. Either way is fine. Hopefully the insight I’ve gleaned into my own inner workings by the trip will be helpful – sometime in the future, maybe, maybe for you, maybe for me.

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I want to be good at things. Obviously I would like to be good at art and music and such in order to make good art and to make money to support myself – and, yes, there’s the darker aspect to it, that I described before, where sometimes we improve ourselves just so we can consider ourselves better than other people – but I also just have a need to be good, or to keep becoming better until I find out what good actually is. I want to be an expert. I want to be a pro. I think expertise might be a carrot that’s dangling from a stick that’s tied to the back of our heads, that keeps step with us no matter how fast we move forward – and yet, once you have it in your sights, it’s hard to back down.

I’m not sure where this need actually comes from. Perhaps it’s part of how we’re wired, a need to feel useful, a need to feel that we are contributing to something. Perhaps it’s part of our capitalistic culture, demanding that at any moment we prove our value, prove our worth as an asset. Or, I guess, maybe we just feel a need for a purpose, some sort of guiding premise to our lives, some sort of narrative thread, and being an expert in something seems like the most approachable way to manage that. I don’t know. Whatever.

So, for a certain period of time, a decade or so ago, video games were constructed as primarily a way to feed this need for expertise and mastery with empty calories. For a certain period of time, we decided that all games had to be fun, and that ‘fun’ meant that they made you feel like you were amazing. The standard format of the video game was a simple, easily learned and mastered challenge, presented with a layer of fiction that portrayed it as some amazing and rare skill. Most games are still like this to one degree or another – even a difficult game like Dark Souls is still much easier to complete than it would actually be, presumably, to go on a quest to beat the shit out of an aging deity.

I am very glad that video games aren’t made to this specification any more. If they were I probably wouldn’t be playing them, and possibly wouldn’t be making them. If I was still writing about them, my already-notably-grouchy writing would be far grouchier.

Once you know what empty calories taste like, in terms of expertise, it’s hard to be satisfied with them. You want to become actually good at something, which is much harder than just buying a machine to tell you you’re good at something. Perhaps the most difficult part is that, in order to improve at a skill, you have to accept that you have room for improvement. In order to learn, you must accept that you are not all-knowing. In other words, in order to obtain expertise, you must abandon the idea that you’re an expert.

This remains the case even if you are, in fact, an expert. This part of the process doesn’t change. As Socrates suggested, you must be wise enough to admit that you know nothing – at least, nothing relative to what there is to learn, which is an awful lot.

So we say humility is a virtue. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of what you’ve accomplished – actually, it’s also an important part of the process, because pride is what drives you to define a ‘better’ to strive towards – but being humble enough to know that you are imperfect and can still improve is necessary as well. Know that you can do things others cannot. Know that others can do that which you cannot.

If you refuse to do that, you are trapped, and will never find a place beyond the one you’re at right now.

The new project is underway. I frequently miss working on EverEnding, and so far I haven’t gotten to do the sorts of things I really came to this project for, but I’m also getting really excited about some of the ideas I have for the future while I lay the necessary groundwork to proceed.

So, what have I been working on? There’s a lot, really. I got the basic collision system up and running, though that part is still glitchy as hell. I’ve created a simple but potentially very flexible scripting system which I’m going to use for all entity behavior in the game, which is going to make modifying entities in the editor largely a matter of literally copying and pasting the behaviors I want between entities and should make saving and loading pretty straightforward. However, the bulk of my time so far has been taking up on developing tiles, tools and editors for using them, and an understanding of how they’re going to be implemented in the game.

This is the tileset I’m testing with right now. It’s pretty ugly and rough around the edges, but right now I’m just trying to figure out a way to make all the tiles that I need for the game world fit into the minimum possible amount of space in a format that makes some degree of visual sense. If you do any art yourself, you may have noticed that the perspective here is, to put it mildly, kind of messed up. I’m working off the model established in the tilesets of the early Legend of Zelda games, particularly Link to the Past. The angles don’t really fit together or make sense, but it still creates a cohesive space for the player to navigate without obscuring anything the player needs to see. In the long run, the Escher-esque nightmare presented by this kind of world design may work in my favor, since I want the world to seem kind of surreal – but more on that later.

The big issue I’m facing at the moment is creating a tool to automatically fit these tiles together. There’s a small immediate and a big future reason I want to do this: The small reason is that figuring this out will allow me to build tools into the level editor that let me really quickly make rooms and connect them in a way that looks natural without having to individually place a bunch of tiles. The big future reason is that eventually I want to be able to generate rooms entirely using code using the same algorithm, and create procedural environments for the player to navigate.

That segues nicely into what my plans are for the project. Actually, none of these are plans yet, these are just ideas for now – plans will mostly wait until I have a playable chunk of game and can begin making hard decisions about what works and what doesn’t, what’s feasible and what isn’t. The setup I want to explore, here, is being trapped in a big creepy house – there are other people here, and it’s a bit up in the air how long they’ve been here. Some of them talk like they’ve been here a few days, some of them seem like they might have been here for centuries. Everything is blocked off in different ways though, bricked and boarded up, papered over, hidden behind secret passageways, and in order to begin to find your way out you need to explore and find tools both to open up passageways and to fight off the creatures that have taken over parts of the house.

That’s the basic idea. Let’s call that tier 1, where I just make a little Zelda clone and call it a day.

Here’s a more interesting version of that idea that I’ve been playing with. There aren’t monsters in the house, but in order to actually make progress you find different beds to rest in. Each bed you rest in puts you into a dream where you play as whoever the bed belonged to, and in reliving their story you can perhaps change it, and by so doing change the state of the house. Or maybe you just find the tool you need in the dream and bring it back directly, or perhaps you are able to recruit an NPC by telling them something they’d forgotten a long time ago. The dreams, of course, are infested with weird nightmare monsters, and you need to be able to defend yourself in the dream, so procuring equipment is still necessary.

That’s tier 2. This would be a much more substantial project, but I think there’s room to do some interesting things here.

I have an even bigger idea, though, and this is one that could get really out of hand. Take tier 2, but each dream world contains other beds, and you can keep pursuing nested dreams deeper. Past one or two levels, dreams begin to be procedurally generated, but the resources you get in each dream can be brought out of them and used to progress through the next. The game becomes an adventure game containing a roguelite, where progressing through the roguelite sub-game allows you to progress naturally through the world of the main game. Eventually, perhaps, getting lost in these many nested dreams could become a genuine danger.

Tier 3 is fun to think about, but for now I have to focus on tier 1 – or, really, tier 0, which is building the toolset that will allow me to build tier 1. That’s where I’m at right now, but if progress continues at this rate I should be able to have my toolset done by the time of the next devblog and can really start building out the most basic version of the game.

You’re writing a story. You know what happens next – what has to happen next in order to complete the narrative arc you’ve been planning out. You’ve got a Big Picture you’re trying to paint, here. The only problem is, your canvas is a video game, and players are so uncooperative: the surface you’re trying to paint on keeps moving under your brush. The question becomes, how do we make it stay still long enough to get the details right?

In a medium defined by the choices we proffer, one of the trickiest bits of designing a game comes when you need to force the player to do something. It sounds kind of ugly presented that way, but it usually needs to happen at some point in order for the game to progress – and normally these forces happen quietly, without being commented on. In Super Mario Brothers you have to run right, in Metroid you need to get the missiles – the player is channeled by means of the structure of the game itself to make the choice the designer wants them to make. The system works. Hooray.

It works less well the more ambitious the narrative gets. Say the story only works if you Kill The Guy – but maybe the player doesn’t want to Kill The Guy. Maybe they really like The Guy. Maybe they really hate The Guy, but he seems generally fairly harmless, and they don’t want his death on their conscience. Either way, the next scene takes place at The Guy’s funeral, so you better fucking figure it out.

You have a number of options.

One: Just make them kill the guy. Play a cutscene where the main character stabs him a hundred times and pushes him down an elevator shaft and then says some kind of snarky one-liner. This one doesn’t ever really fail but it never really succeeds either. It moves the plot to the next scene, and all the characters do the thing they’re supposed to do, but the player wasn’t really involved in any of it and no longer feels like they’re controlling the character – since they aren’t.

Two: Make the guy try to kill them, or otherwise make the desired action necessary in order for the player to survive. This is usually the go-to for most games, but it makes The Guy seem like a brave idiot with a death wish, which may be entirely contradictory to the character you’re trying to establish. Also, if you want to make them Feel Bad for Killing The Guy, having it be an admissible-in-court clear-cut case of self-defense probably ameliorates that instinct.

Three: Control the number of ways the player can act. This starts getting into a bit more interesting territory, but can easily go awry – this is the “when all you have is a hammer” of game design. If you’re in a room with The Guy and all you have is a gun and he has the keys, odds are that The Guy is going to get shot. Take care, though, that there is a logical obstacle to progression, like that key you need – without that, you’re forcing the player to do something they might not want to do, for reasons you’ve never bothered to explain.

Four: Control the number of things in the environment the player can productively act upon. This one is a lot like the last one, except you can still do all the stuff you’d expect to be able to do, it’s just that none of them get you anywhere. You’re in a room with The Guy and also there’s a pool table and some pinball machines. You can play pool with him, and you can try to rack up a high score at pinball, but eventually if you want to leave you’re going to have to get that key from him somehow, and all you have is a murder pistol and a pool cue – and it turns out The Guy has a fatal allergy to the exact wood that pool cue is made from. He normally plays with gloves. This one is, if anything, even worse if the logical connection to progressing the plot isn’t clear, because it’s impossible to guess which of five arbitrary actions you should be trying to do to move to the next room. Maybe if you get a high enough score he’ll be so impressed he just gives you the key? Who knows!

Five: Control the number of ways the environment can productively react. If the player presses the button to talk to The Guy, and instead of striking up a conversation the character immediately shoots him in the face, it definitely sends a message: Boy, this character was apparently Really Mad at The Guy! Next to doing everything in a cutscene this one takes the most agency away from the player, but it also conveys a lot more about the character and their internal state – this character is not just angry enough to kill, but is so angry they cannot stop themselves from killing. The main issue with this is just outright confusion, the player perhaps thinking they pressed the wrong button or that they missed a choice. That’s a pretty crude example, though. A more subtle version of this might just have talking to The Guy lead to a scene where the main character accidentally touches him after playing with the deadly pool cue, leading to anaphylactic shock, for which they are later guilt-stricken over his unnecessary death – either way he’s dead and they’re responsible, but the path taken to get there was very different. This is akin to the Magician’s Force, a staple of stage magic wherein you proffer a vague choice to the volunteer but the outcome of both choices is eventually the same.

In the end, whether any of these work is mostly a product of how logical the connections you’ve built up prior to the scene are. If your character is uncontrollably angry, you need to be able to convince the player of that. If The Guy absolutely must be killed in order for vital goals to be achieved, that needs to be communicated. If the guy fights like a cornered rat, that has to make sense for his character. Plan ahead: If you need to force the player to do something, try to make it make some goddamn sense.

The game mechanics compel Mario to run to the right, but Mario runs to the right because that’s where the castle is.

Much as I’d like to think of time spent enjoying good art as a sort of exercise of the mind and the spirit, there’s an assumption there that I wonder about sometimes – no, not the mental or spiritual benefits of art, I am generally convinced of those, but the benefits of good art in particular, as compared to bad art. Surely, while learning about another artist’s carefully conceived and expressed world view is worthwhile, so is picking apart a poorly formed piece of claptrap to discover aspects of your own worldview. Bad art, acknowledged as such, can be a path to self-discovery – simply finding the words to describe what it was you disliked about something can be as beneficial as any other experience engaging with art.

This is why I hesitate to class the experiences we can have with art into any sort of hierarchy of quality. The movie or book or game may have been clumsy and naive, but it might still have genuine insights which were not heretofore available to me – or maybe it was a masterpiece, but still contained niggling flaws which I am compelled to catalog and describe. This is all valuable. What is not valuable is deciding partway through what the experience I am having is and ceasing to engage with the work – to decide 10 minutes in that because I understood the particular narrative trick at play I have nothing to learn, or that because I didn’t understand how it was done there was nothing I can do but gawp in awe. It’s tempting though, to dismiss something as beneath notice or embrace it as beyond knowledge. It’s freeing, being able to enjoy something solely as an experience, in the moment – but it’s also constraining, believing most things to always be beneath notice or out of reach.

I guess if I could distill my general philosophy it would be this: Pay Attention. This doesn’t stop at art. People who are contemptible and unwise often follow some rule of behavior, and even if it’s an foolish and destructive rule it’s better to know what it is, and why it is, than to not. Every friend and ally and mentor and hero carries deep flaws and unseen scars: We are all different, and no one can really live someone else’s life or create their art. We can’t trace, we can’t copy, we can’t merely emulate, we have to actually learn how to make our own art and our own lives. No role can be sufficiently modeled before the fact: Eventually you have to become whoever you are.

All we can do is our best to learn what we can and give what we can. None of this can happen if my understanding stops at friend, ally, mentor, hero, just as it can’t if I write off someone as loser, idiot, asshole, enemy: Understanding cannot stop there, even if it’s easier that way.

We have to look closer. We have to not turn away. We have to see.

It turns out that the skill of making games is more than just the skills of making the components of a game. This is something I feel like I’ve had to confront more and more: Despite spending a lot of the last decade building up my game development skills, I have almost nothing in terms of actual finished games to show for it. For a few years, at least, I could reassure myself that I was just starting out, that eventually all my work will build to something – but, now, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a gap between the skills I have and the skills actually needed to do the thing. I have to think that maybe, rather than practicing making art and music and programming and so forth, I should have just been practicing making finished games, even if they were tiny, since that was the real skill I wanted.

This is not a new insight. I’ve heard similar things from lots of solo developers, people who get stuck in one project and only manage to shake free by creating lots of small projects. It’s easy to rationalize reasons to stay in your comfort zone, though – or, at least, a comfortable distance away from your comfort zone.

It’s a common fallacy to believe that every problem can be broken down into smaller components. We believe this because it’s necessary to believe this: Large and complex problems cannot be wholly comprehended in their entirety, so we develop methods of breaking them down to make them manageable, to allow them to be solved piece by piece instead of all at once. However, the map is not the territory: When you create a task list, when you write down every anticipated facet of the problem, it still isn’t the real problem you were trying to solve. You can solve every component of the problem as you understand it without solving the actual problem. You can know how long the boards should be and still cut them short, you can know how to perfectly cut a board and fail to hammer the nails in straight, you can know how to hammer the nails but not how to fit the pieces – in the end, you actually need to know how to make a chair if you want to make a chair. Making a chair is the skill you should be training – so why do I worry so much about practicing my measuring, my cutting, my nailing?

When you lose sight of the forest, it seems like the same trees keep showing up, over and over. I focus on architecting and crafting bits and pieces of my imagined game and yet very little of the game seems to get made. I plan what I need, build it, and then when I get there I realize it wasn’t quite what I needed and I go back and I rebuild it, and then when I get back there I realize it wasn’t quite what I needed and I go back and I rebuild it, and then when I get back there I realize it wasn’t quite what I needed and at some point, if you find you keep going back to the drawing board, maybe it’s time to invest in a portable drawing board. Maybe it’s time to buy an eraser if you keep redrawing. Maybe it’s time to buy a straight-edge, if the lines keep turning out crooked. What I mean to say is, I need to be working on the game, not the engine, not the animations, not the design, not the story.

It’s hard to know which one you’re doing sometimes. I was able to spend this much time working on these things because I convinced myself that this was the game and that this was how you work on a game. Indeed, I will probably be able to use much of this work at some point, I will be able to integrate these constructs at some point – but they’re not part of the game, not yet. It’s easy to rationalize an awful lot by saying “this will probably come in handy, eventually”. Even if it’s true, why not just do it when eventually happens, instead of now? How much time will you save by having it ready ahead of time, as compared to the time you will have wasted if the time you were ahead of never arrives?

This is why I put EverEnding on hiatus. I needed to get my hands on a project, to actually work on the game itself and expand it out from its core, to build something relatively simple and straightforward and develop it and see what it could be by slowly turning it into that. And yet, already, I see myself doing the same thing as before: Figuring out scripting systems, building editors, planning tilesets, prepping ingredients instead of cooking. To a certain degree these things are necessary, but certainly to far less of a degree than the one I’m cooking at. Maybe it’s worth it, too, because I’m building these tools with the intent of making the process of developing and expanding the game as rapid and iterative and intuitive as possible, so it’s really just one step removed from doing things the way I want to be doing them. That’s what I hope, anyway.

I think it’s mostly fear that pushes me away from the game itself, the core skill of making a game. Never asking means never being rejected, never creating means never failing, except in small ways, learning failures, failures you wanted all along because they were really successes. The technical problems I keep finding myself solving are imposing, but quantifiable. I don’t need to have anything to say, because I have a problem to solve – I don’t need to access beauty or meaning, because right now I just need to make the tools that I can use later to express that beauty and meaning. So I can kick the can down the road a bit longer, and not worry for a bit more whether I can actually make a game that people will care about. And, as long as I keep doing that, I never will.

One of the most common ways to evaluate a game design decision is in terms of “risk and reward”. Usually we assume that that whenever the player takes a risk it should be to attain a commensurate reward, and so we try to encourage the player towards risky play by offering such rewards. Risk-taking is something worth encouraging, so the logic goes, because it increases the tension and therefore the excitement of the gameplay.

This assumption raises some questions. Does risk actually make the game more exciting? Since there’s always a threat of failure in any challenge-based game, if the ‘risks’ provide rewards that increase the long-term chances of success, aren’t actually risky overall – they’re just the most dangerous inflection point of a strategy. If they’re risky because they have a random chance to fail, they likely fall into one of two categories: Either an unnecessary chance of creating a failure where none exists, or a necessary gamble to take in order to gather the resources needed for success. Either way, the risk is usually either always worth taking or never worth taking, and the game becomes just a test of luck and of the insight to know whether the coveted resources are necessary to victory. Conversely, if the risk is a test of skill, then it becomes something similar to the luck test but with unknown odds of success – but, again, the player either needs the resources or they don’t and they either have the skill to mitigate the risk or they don’t, and in either case the strategy is simple and straightforward.

The trade-off of risk and reward is, by itself, an incredibly tedious way of balancing a game. Once you know how a statistical game is optimally played, it stops being very interesting: Blackjack is not interesting because it’s a good game, it’s interesting because there’s money on the line, so unless you want to ratchet up the stakes of your game to include real life consequences (beyond wasted time), the risk/reward model exemplified by the casino is not one to emulate.

There are a lot of tools that are useful to describe some aspect of game design, but they are hazardous to use prescriptively as a blueprint for what a design should look like. Genres, as well, are great for describing fiction, but sticking too closely to their conventions is anathema to the imagination. The issue with “risk and reward” is that the risks and the rewards aren’t actually what’s interesting about the challenge of a game. There are two things that are interesting about game challenges: planning and mastery. The most satisfying experience in a game is coming up with a plan and then executing it – or failing to execute it and having to improvise a new plan and execute that. While viewing a player choice as a risk and a reward can give an insight into how these strategies will take shape, it almost never shows the whole picture.

You might be wondering what specific tree the branch up my ass came off of at this point – that is to say, you may be wondering what actual game design decisions I have in mind when I say that this faulty metric has led designers astray. The first example I have is probably a contentious one, because I know lots of people really like it, but I think that parrying in the Dark Souls games is garbage. You have a game that rewards careful analysis, positional play, and timing, and then you also include a mini-game that lets the player ignore all of those things if they can hit the button at the right time. “Do or do not, there is no try” may be helpful advice for space wizards, but it is a pretty lousy way to design a game. By the metric of “risk and reward” parrying looks like great game design – you take a risk of eating an attack to the face for the reward of distributing an attack to someone else’s face! – but in terms of giving the player something interesting to do it fails. It’s Guitar Hero with the sound turned off. It’s a Quicktime Event with no button prompts.

Shields in Dead Cells share most of the problems with parrying in Dark Souls (which makes sense since that’s what they were clearly inspired by), but a much bigger issue are the cursed chests. In Dead Cells, a roguelite game where each run is unique, you frequently find cursed chests. These chests contain a fairly useful reward – a bit of money and item-unlocking currency, a high-level weapon, and the equivalent of a level up – but in return they curse you, which means that if you take any damage before the curse is lifted you instantly die (the curse is lifted after you kill 10 enemies). These become an incredibly awkward piece of design, though, since both the risks and the consequences of those risks increase rapidly to the point where there’s essentially no way for the rewards to keep pace. Early on, if you find a cursed chest there’s very little reason not to take it: If you die you don’t lose very much, and it might give you just the item you need to pull your run into shape. Past that point, though, you start to risk completely losing 30 minutes or more of gameplay, and having to completely redo the relatively rote early levels, in order to get an item which you’ve already probably got something more useful than and gain some currency you don’t need. So, in this case, not only is the trade-off not very interesting, but the choice is usually obvious based on your situation.

So how do we try to make the choices in the game interesting, if not by measuring their risks and rewards? The key to whether a choice is compelling usually lies not in what we risk or we sacrifice, but in what we need to take into account to make that decision. If any given choice could be good or bad based on the situation, that generates an interesting thread of thought to follow – assuming those externalities themselves are interesting to navigate. If a choice will always be great in a particular scenario and you know that the scenario will be in play when you take the choice – IE if fire weapons are extremely useful against the ice monsters and the next level is populated entirely with ice monsters – then it’s not really an interesting choice whether or not to take it, since you know it’s optimal. These sorts of obvious best choice situations can be good for pushing the player to try a new mechanic, but aren’t interesting in and of themselves. Conversely, if you know the next level could have ice monsters or robot monsters or a dark labyrinth, and while the fire sword isn’t great against the robots it’s fantastic against the ice monsters and also can help light the way through the labyrinth, but the laser is more generally viable against the robots and ice monsters but has limited ammunition, but you’re really most comfortable using the poison scythe and generally prefer it – this starts to become a really interesting choice, one generated from the specific combination of the situation and how you in particular feel comfortable playing the game.

A great example of this kind of decision-making is the choice of whether or not to take a given card in Slay the Spire. When presented with a set of potential cards to take, you weigh them in terms of their general usefulness, their usefulness in the deck you have now, their usefulness in combination with other cards you might get in the future, the likeliness of getting those cards, what boss you’re expecting to fight, and more. Every decision has a risk and a reward, sure, but the designer didn’t determine what the risks or the rewards were in an excel document, these risks emerged from the nature of building a deck, and the reward is of seeing a machine you have built work flawlessly.

There’s a lot you can learn from thinking about a given player choice as a risk and a reward, but there’s even more that can be obscured if you trap yourself into seeing it only through that lens. Every player decision has to have context, has to have its place in an overall strategy that emerges from the player’s engagement with the game’s situations and tools. If it does not, it’s a coin flip or a Quicktime Event.