Verbosity and Concision


With game design, as with any sort of design intended for human use, simpler is, generally speaking, better. The history of game design is a history of streamlining and simplifying, merging similar ideas together and glossing over the technicalities.

Firearms reload with impossible efficiency, tracking each individual round, ignoring the minute or so of finicky fingerwork it would take to load individual rounds into a magazine to achieve that efficiency. Interstellar spaceships are easier to use than an automatic transmission sedan. Hacking a terminal is frequently no more complex or involved than pressing a button. There are exceptions to each of these approaches in the world of game design, but the trend over time has been overwhelmingly towards these simplifications and away from more detailed simulations.

To some extent, the reduction of player action ‘verbs’, the constriction of action vocabulary, is a direct result of improvements in graphics and the commensurate increase in player expectations. Using the adventure gaming genre as an example: When the puzzles were solved via parsing text, literally any verb the designer imagined could be implemented in-game with little additional overhead, though frequent player frustration when obvious ones were missed: When parsers were deprecated in favor of graphical interfaces, this limited the number of available verbs to those that would fit on that interface: And, when graphics improved, devoting a quarter of the screen to an interface interfered with the quality of the visual experience, so the verbs were instead constrained down to the five or so that could be easily scrolled through or remembered as keyboard shortcuts. At the logical conclusion of this trend, several adventure games used a single “interact” action, and would interpret that generic interaction in the most intuitive way possible.

From this perspective, games can be described on a spectrum defined by the number of verbs they provide to the player. Games like Zork at one end, maximally verbose, and games like The Neverhood, at the other end, maximally concise.

There are drawbacks to both verbosity and concision. Verbosity adds complexity and frequently makes games more difficult to learn. Many verbs make no sense in a given situation, and if the player attempts to perform an action and the game responds in a manner inconsistent with their intent it can cause frustration. Conversely, a concision which interprets each action as the most intuitive interaction to make with a given object shuts out the possibility of counter-intuitive interaction.

As an example of both sides of this, let’s discuss a game that sits near the middle of the spectrum, Full Throttle. In Full Throttle, the mouth icon was generally used to talk to other characters but, occasionally, also performed other counter-intuitive actions, such as sucking on a hose to siphon fuel. If the player’s intent is to bite a character, but a dialogue starts instead, their intent is thwarted and the game world feels less real. However, the existence of the mouth as a separate verb allows the player to perform a counter-intuitive action and discover the surprising and unexpected fuel-siphoning solution.

In short,  the concise approach’s predictability, intuitiveness, and designer control are both strengths and weaknesses. Predictability of response reduces frustration, but means the player is seldom surprised. Intuitiveness makes the game easier to learn, but keeps the player from attempting unorthodox solutions. Control means that the designer can keep the game progressing in a manner consistent with the design vision, but means as well that the game can never exceed what the designer imagined, have its systems truly come to life.

It’s a tricky decision. It’s not simple, deciding what decisions to afford the player. But this choice, deciding the player’s vocabulary, is the heart of the game.

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