The first essay I wrote for Problem Machine described experiencing the design of a game in a sense analogous to exploring a physical space, as well as drawing comparisons between exposing game design elements (clumsily) and exposing narrative elements. I’d like to take that metaphor a bit further, here, and visualize these as three separate spaces, each of which can be explored: the world space, comprised of the actual in-game simulation of physical space, the design space, comprised of all of the game’s rules and mechanisms of interaction, and the narrative space, comprised of the game’s story and characters.
All games contain these three spaces to one degree or another, and exploring one tends to naturally lead into exploring the others. Even extremely minimalistic games such as chess still have these three spaces: World (an 8-by-8 checkered grid), design (the rules of each piece’s movement, the win conditions), and narrative (the names and shapes of the pieces, suggestive of medieval warfare).
Now, exploration of one or all of these spaces is one of the primary reasons we play a particular game. Different genres emphasize these spaces to various degrees: Exploring world space is primarily the domain of platformers, design space the domain of strategy games, and narrative space the domain of adventure games. What I find most interesting, though, is the interrelation between these spaces. Successfully exploring one space will open up new areas of another, and exploring those may open up new areas for exploration in yet another. For instance, say you discover a lost city (world), which gives you clues to the fate of the sunken fleet (narrative), and your character, reading ancient hieroglyphs, learns the Dance of a Million Excruciatingly Painful Cutting Edges (design). Or, maybe, you convince the syphilitic king (narrative) to give you passage through the border (world) and he gives you motorcycles and cocaine for your journey (design). Or, perhaps, you create a spell (design), which allows you to summon an eagle made out of smaller eagles and soar majestically through the sky (world) and over the walls of the monastery where your friend is being held prisoner by very polite and nominally pacifistic but probably evil monks (narrative).
The possibilities are as endless as a recursive eagle (which was, I think, a boss in one of the Megaman X games).
These three spaces are intimately interconnected, with each space you encounter holding keys to explore the others. Finding the grappling hook lets you get to the island. Finding the island lets you talk to the priest. Talking to the priest lets you summon fire from your fingertips lets you burn the village which lets you finally silence the pesky voices in your head once and for all which, of course, lets you finally sleep without being awoken by ceaseless screaming. Each space flows naturally into the next, with some objects even existing in more than one space simultaneously (for instance, a legendary sword in the stone might exist in all three). A game can be conceived entirely as the process of the player exploring these spaces. And, for good or ill, most games tend to only focus on one or two of them.
With this in mind, there’s two major pitfalls a game design can encounter in each of these spaces.
First, a space can be shallow– for instance, adventure games tend to have a very shallow design space, and strategy games tend to have a shallow narrative space. This might be indicative of a place where the game could be improved, but just as often the game can get by more than adequately on its two strong spaces and leave one space shallow to save time and effort. However, it is the rare game that successfully stands on one leg; most games need to be strong in at least two spaces to have a chance at succeeding. It’s not uncommon to see a game with the explicit purpose of exploring one of these fail because it neglects the other two completely.
Second, and perhaps more severely, a player can get lost in a large and poorly explained space. This is common with games aimed at an enthusiast audience, who want each followup title to be made more complex as they master the complexities of the previous title. Just as a huge detailed physical space can easily confuse and mislead a player in the world space, a complex system of interacting mechanics or an unnecessarily byzantine plot can lose players in the design and narrative spaces. It doesn’t help that most projects that are ambitious enough to lose a player in one space probably haven’t put much attention into the others, either.
Now, being lost isn’t necessarily a bad thing– in fact, a lot of my first essay on design space was about how being forced to explore a space with minimal guidance can be a good thing. There are some players who like being lost, who like charting realistically confusing worlds, or getting into the nitty gritty complexities of managing an army, or convoluted plots with casts numbering in the thousands. Maybe these are the people you’re designing for. However, you should be aware that you’re going to lose a lot of your potential audience by complicating your game this way, and you should be aware that even the enthusiast audience probably has limits on how much they’re willing to put up with (all evidence to the contrary aside).
A curious exception to this paradigm is the puzzle game genre, which seemingly exists shallowly in all spaces; Only a meager presence in the design space gives such games any exploratory weight at all. These games primarily appeal to our desires for practice, mastery, and affirmation rather than our urge for intellectual stimulation, and this is seemingly a completely different dynamic of appeal than much what we look for in other games. The difference in appeal is worthy of further study, since elements of this appeal also exist in most other games, but is beyond the scope of this essay.
In the end, this is just another way among many to visualize the process of game design. All of this is just another analogy, and it might be useful to you or it might not. One might just as easily base a description of game design on the tenets of, say, relevance, beauty, and skill and that might be just as valid and useful a way to describe games. But it would be a different way to describe them and that different perspective would be valuable in a different way.
If this perspective has helped you to re-evaluate your design in any way, to see a new way in which it could be made more amazing and wonderful and relevant and beautiful and skillful, then we have taken a step forward, towards… something remarkable. We shall see what it is when we arrive.
Up next: Ramifications of narrative space