Playing through Titan Souls, I was impressed by the constraints that the designers had chosen to work within. The concept of Titan Souls is that it’s a game where you can die in one hit or win in one shot, and the difficulty emerges from avoiding that hit and setting up that shot. Now, technically, in order to get that shot sometimes you have to shoot to disable a defense or otherwise change the scenario, but you never have to shoot quite the same target more than once. This is a game design that centers around fighting a large number of unique and differentiated opponents – ‘bosses’, by the standards of most game design – while removing the main tool designers have used to make boss fights long and, if you will, ‘epic’.
And yet, within these constraints, it flourishes. Because each ‘boss’ needs special defenses, special weaknesses, special movement, they’re far more memorable and distinctive than bosses in most other games. A battle can be over in a second or take place over a minute or two of fierce dodging and frantic counter-attacking, but either way you feel like you have to know your opponent to achieve victory, and you know that slipping up for even a moment means failure.
This is an unusual game: its gameplay and its content far more closely intertwined than is common, especially given its relatively traditionally gamey presentation. You couldn’t use these boss designs with any other gameplay; you couldn’t have these fighting mechanics with any other boss designs. In this, we can see how the designer started from certain principles to design the game’s content, and used those to enable a very specific set of mechanics. What are these principles? First, a boss can have no hit-points: Each successful attack either creates a vulnerability or kills the boss. Second, the boss must have some recognizable weakness: Ideally something that is easy to perceive but difficult to reach. This is one reason why the game has so much eye-poking, which I still find amusing.
There are other principles to the design, but most of them are shared with other games, and I’ll get to those in a minute. In thinking about designing from principle, I tried to think of other games that took this approach. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell, outside of extreme cases and instances where the game’s design is well-documented, how a game’s particular design choices were made, but certain examples do spring up: The first Deus Ex tried to always give the player three possible ways to clear each obstacle, which in turn enabled the gameplay design convention of having multiple upgrade paths giving the player different world-navigating abilities, from fighting to swimming to hacking to acrobatics; the original Thief ensured that killing was never necessary to complete a level, and this allowed them to create gameplay that made the player character physically weak and rewarded them for avoiding confrontation; Undertale gave each battle multiple routes to peaceful resolution, ensuring the player’s decisions, violent and non-violent, were actually decisions and could be treated as such.
Most principles, though, aren’t really unique to a given game, and are just generally considered ‘good game design’ now – of course, saying ‘good’ game design doesn’t have any more intrinsic meaning than saying a ‘good’ game, denoting personal preference and enjoyment and no more. These principles come and go, based on our current understanding of what players want, but are still often treated as somehow being unassailably good or bad depending on whether they’re currently in or out of favor – the possibility rarely being acknowledged that, as with all things, the conventions of genre and game design shift with time and context. Still, some are evergreens: “If the player dies they understand why”; “All damage can be avoided”, “The path ahead shall be clearly marked”. Titan Souls shares principles like these: taking pains to ensure that everything we understand about ‘fair’ game design is strictly observed – which makes sense, since having a game violate these unspoken rules when the stakes are always instant death could quickly become very tedious indeed.
Because most games follow these shared principles, to create a new design principle and really stick to it is a bold and striking choice. Indeed, it could be argued that, just as the principles by which a game is designed largely tend to fall in line with its genre, choosing a new principle and designing to that is intrinsically a genre-defining choice. Of course, many genres get defined and never really catch on, so that may not be as impressive as it sounds.
In looking for precedents to this approach to creation, I noticed something else interesting: ‘Traditional’ games design, such as in sports and board games, doesn’t really have this concept, since these games don’t have content which the players play through but, instead, pit the players directly against each other, whereupon older concepts such as fair play and sportsmanship keep the game interesting. These are related but distinct ideas: Teasing out the relationship between sportsmanship and game design principles could be an interesting essay to pursue in the future but let’s just leave it for now.
Rather, let’s look a bit further afield, where something like principles of game design do exist: Literature. If you’ve read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, certainly the idea of adhering to aesthetic principles must sound familiar: Avoid cliché, cut out unnecessary words, and so on. And, if you’ve studied creative writing at all, surely other injunctions have shuffled themselves in alongside those in your mind: Don’t resolve your plot with a deus ex machina, avoid these tedious character archetypes, show rather than tell, and so on. If you carry on and look at each individual genre, they usually have their own principles. Most notably and obviously the murder mystery genre has many formalized conventions for creating a story that is satisfying to the reader’s expectations of the genre, but other genres have similar conventions – if, perhaps, less clearly marked and advertised.
The message I’m getting at here is that these common, shared design principles should be actively acknowledged by the designer, and new, untested principles should be undertaken with caution. Either adding a new principle or removing an old one could be a bold new take on game design, but also could easily lose those players who, like frustrated whodunit readers, have very specific expectations of the genre. Just realize that these invisible pillars of game design exist and serve a purpose – and that, furthermore, that purpose isn’t to be ‘good’, to prop up some perfect ideal of game design, but to serve the needs of their audience and genre. Just remember that every one of the principles of good and clear writing has been broken by great authors in works of genius, that each principle serves a purpose and each purpose has a scope – and that, if we want to push the boundaries of what is possible and expressible, some day we may have to move past that scope and into the unfamiliar.