Game design is the art of building systems to generate an expressive and aesthetically interesting output. Challenge is often implied, but isn’t a necessary trait of these systems – usually challenge is the product of stated or implied rules of engagement with the systems, with the punishments it imposes policing the boundaries of proper play. However, when you build any complex system with a human participant, the outcomes aren’t necessarily predictable – rules and punishments, boundaries and rewards which seemed on paper to produce the desired result could end up producing different results altogether. Sometimes these results are fun, are interesting and resonant with the designers intent – and sometimes they aren’t.

Thus, as a game designer, we have to approach problems with an eye towards how they will interact with natural human impulses and what outcomes may emerge from the incentive structures we place. It may seem that the last few essays I’ve posted here, structure and systemic criticisms of the world we live in, are rather far afield from the normal stated goal of Problem Machine: That of understanding art (especially the art of game design), its processes, and how the process and impact of art crosses over into our lives and shapes them. I don’t see these critiques as separable from my normal writing: If you bring analytical tools to bear on your art, it’s hard not to use them elsewhere in the world. I see systems at play, I see their degenerate outcomes, how those outcomes emerge naturally from the ink of the rules and the meat and bone of the adherents to those rules – and sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone else sees these things, or at least sees them the way I do, and that others may find utility in this perspective. I find it useful to write out these thoughts both to formalize them for myself and to share this conceptualization of the otherwise extremely abstract problems we face.

The first thing that must be understood to understand the systems we live in is the idea of feedback. In game design we usually avoid positive feedback loops. The people who participate in our legal and economic systems are those who were born into them and raised with their value set, and as they gain influence the same factors that emerged from the system to shape those people flow back into the system to shape how it functions. If we’re raised to believe that wealth is merit and admirable in its own right, those raised that way will work to knock down any barriers to the acquisition of wealth that exist in the system, treating those barriers as a fundamental evil, a violation of the tenets they were raised on. Over time, we optimize – which is a wonderful tendency when what we are optimizing is made to meet the needs of our fellows and help them through life, but monstrous when it is made to crush them and extract capital from their bodies. So over time we cut into the world the same way that rivers cut into mountains, bit by bit, trying to find the shortest paths dictated by our personal gravity.

The second thing that must be understood is that this may or may not have anything to do with the original intent of the designers of the system. Sometimes the results that emerge once the feedback loop is firmly in place has no resemblance to what was once intended, and thus saying that a system has become degenerate is not necessarily a slight upon its originators – though it may be.

When you try to describe these outcomes and the intent behind them, though, it often sounds paranoid. When you speak of ‘intent’ others tend to hear conspiracy – however, the situation is not so much that a few people have captured and control the system through underhanded means but that the system itself is set up to produce people who have broadly shared intent and priorities, and that their aggregate behavior tends to push the system further in those directions. This same struggle emerges whether you’re talking about the hostile forces of wealth or of patriarchy or of racism (inasmuch as those are separable) – People hear these descriptive terms and assume they must be describing some sort of shadowy cabal rather than an outlook, a belief, a set of behaviors, all which work together and reinforce themselves to create a hostile society. The only way to change the long term outcome of systems like these without destroying them outright (a rather traumatic process) is to divert the flow, to redefine the collective outlook, to, as they say, change the conversation – but this is difficult when everyone already bought into the system is motivated to maintain the status quo they were brought up in.

Just because the system is intentional, predictable, and produces output, though, doesn’t mean that it makes sense. We have favored systems which provide short-term profit at long-term costs to ourselves and the environment we live in (thus also to ourselves). Everybody accepts that that’s true to some extent – rather than even arguing against the external havoc wreaked by unrestrained industrialization and exploitation, it’s more frequently argued that taking care of our environment (which we, again, rely on for living) is unnecessary, or that the environment is somehow so resilient we couldn’t possibly change it in any way. Yet, even in light of this evidence, we still try to convince ourselves that this system is not dysfunctional, merely being lead astray by bad actors, and that if we remove them we can just go back to normal.

There is no normal to go back to. Normal was built on an ice cube that has melted. We’re running out of time to build something that lasts – we’re losing leverage to maintain a livable world. The status quo has enough adherents that it’s an uphill struggle. It’s a matter of survival to dismantle and reroute the current structure of power – the only question that ought to remain is how.

A lot of people perceive these problems on some level, but if one doesn’t have a systemic perspective the conclusions one often jumps to tend to be… problematic. When the world is supposed to work a certain way, and it clearly isn’t functioning, it’s natural to try to look for obvious culprits – and, if you’re not seeing the problem as systemic, that culprit is probably going to be an individual or narrow group that is largely unrelated to the problem itself. Thus we see, in times of trouble, a proliferation of usually racist conspiracy theories, a vapid desire to blame everything on the Jews or the Chinese or the Russians or whoever, when the problem is so much more insidious and so wide-spread and obvious it becomes invisible to us like the air we breathe.

This is also why I’ve been writing a lot about the role of games themselves in perpetuating this system and its ideals. Everything is, in fact, connected – not in some grandiose mystical way, but in the merest terms of the stories we tell ourselves every day to make sense of the world.

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It’s very frustrating, sometimes, being an artist who is both terrible at and temperamentally disinclined from all forms of self-promotion. There’s a yearning to make people look and listen paired with an absolute aversion to the actions that could actually make that happen. However, as much as that bothers me sometimes, I’ve been thinking more and more about what success would look like to me, and what would come with it, and I have to admit that some of the things that might accompany it are worrying to me – and perhaps not the sort of things one might expect.

I think the part that scares me, and this probably explains a lot about why I’m so bad at self-promotion, is that if people are actually listening to you then you need to be extremely careful about what you say. I don’t mean this in a “oh boy you can’t say anything without offending anybody these days” way. I mean it in the sense that, when people are listening to your words your words become, effectively, actions. If you have an audience of millions any little thing you say might, potentially, have life and death consequences. The fact is, I don’t think I could continue to write the way I write now and feel ethically okay with it: When maybe 20 people read my blog a day, I can throw my thoughts at the wall and see what sticks. I’m sure that if I went back through my archives now I’d find many of my old posts naive or ignorant or completely idiotic – and, for me, that’s okay, because what I’m primarily interested in here on Problem Machine is just posing questions that interest me at the moment in a hopefully thought-provoking way. But if thousands of people were hanging on my word? Tens of thousands? Millions? I wouldn’t be able to do it. Any random thought could justify any unconnected action. I’d be pouring something into the ideological makeup of the world without having any idea of what effect it might have, dumping mysterious glowing goo into the water supply just to see what happens.

The point of which is to say that the ethics of art creation don’t necessarily scale. You can create a lot of art as a small creator with a small audience that you really can’t if and when that audience grows, and this constantly trips up small creators. In many ways, staying small is in your best interest if you care at all about creating ethically – just as the spider men say, with great power comes great responsibility, and thus if you feel unprepared to shoulder that responsibility without causing harm your best bet is to avoid great power.

And yet, we have so many incentives to become bigger. Not only are we told that success for an artist looks like having a big audience, it’s also, for most of us, a prerequisite for being able to survive while creating. If you can’t find a patron (or spouse) to support you while you work, you have to build a fan base large enough that you can float off of their contributions or page views – if you want to work full-time as an artist, anyway. This is why we keep seeing the pattern repeat itself of some small-time entertainer becoming hugely popular through Youtube or whatever and then saying something stupid and reckless which makes everyone mad at them: The kind of personality it takes to rise by force of personality from a small-time celebrity to a big-time celebrity is largely incompatible with the awareness it takes to actually be responsible with the power that reach confers.

The strip of available space to work in is narrow: The art you’re capable of making, the art you want to make, that art which is ethical to make, the art you are comfortable making, each of these shape the space of the art you can actually make – and the context of your place in the world changes the range of each of these. I don’t think it’s rare at all for this narrow strip of fertile ground to completely disappear as peoples lives change, as they run out of time or emotional space to express themselves. The time and context we have available to us to freely create is, over the course of our lives, potentially extremely limited.

No matter how much you might wish to, you will never know for sure your work is harmless. If it makes you feel any better, you’ll also never know that anything else you do is harmless. It’s all guesswork, of hope and leaps of faith that maybe we won’t do too much harm without meaning to. So, what, are we to sit in place and molder? Are we to always be paralyzed by a sea of choices with consequences with consequences with consequences?

But we do not essay forth into a void. There are already people creating, and many of them creating irresponsibly. Even having some awareness that you might have great power and, if so, it ought come with great responsibility puts you ahead of the game.

It’s better to go into it with eyes open. It’s better to worry about whether you’re relevant than to be loudly irrelevant, to worry about being unethical rather than being violently unethical. Even if it makes it harder to create, narrows the range of what we can create, it also opens up new possibilities and helps us better evaluate the real quality of our work. When you observe the world, you see a few people who are brilliant and many people who spout bullshit with unearned senses of self confidence. It’s easy to cast yourself as one or the other in your imagination, and to never end up saying anything out of fear of being unable to live up to the ideal of brilliance, or fear of unintentionally becoming another bullshit peddler. However, even as the world is full of vapid braying, the world is also full of people who never say anything because they’re not sure if what they have to offer is valuable, and the world is also full of people who try to be heard and cannot because the level of noise is too high, and all of them have so much more of value to offer than those buffoons who usually hog the spotlight, who are certain beyond question that it’s worth everyone’s while to listen to what they have to say.

The question is not whether you can be brilliant or a buffoon, but whether you can speak out at all. As long as you approach your words with care and thoughtfulness, they will always be worthwhile in a world where so many words are produced without thought, without care.

hearthstoneI’ve been playing the beta for Hearthstone, Blizzard Entertainment’s upcoming online collectable card game. It’s actually difficult for me to justify this as time well spent. It’s not that it’s a bad game – quite the opposite, in fact. I am extraordinarily impressed by how elegantly they’ve streamlined the mechanics of a game similar to Magic: The Gathering while still allowing for a wide range of nuanced options. I’m completely engrossed while playing it, often playing for several subsequent hours in a day, which is unusual to my recent gaming habits.

And, afterwards, it feels like a waste of time.

That’s what’s interesting to me: I play a lot of Team Fortress 2, and after playing I sometimes feel angry and frustrated, sometimes feel rejuvenated and energized, but I never feel like that time was a complete blank. In fact, the last game I felt this way about was FTL, after spending 40 hours mastering all of the systems, which implies something very strongly: My brain is no longer learning anything from Hearthstone.

This is not as damning as it may sound, coming after less than 10 hours of Hearthstone play. I knew a fair amount about the game going into it: I’d watched coverage of it on Youtube channels, read an article or two about theories of optimal play – and, most importantly, I had hundreds of hours of experience playing Magic, which is in many respects a very similar game. I basically had the entire deck stacked in my favor going into this, so to speak.

Now, I don’t mean I never lose a game or anything like that. Nor do I mean to imply that I have reached the theoretical maximum level of skill. What I do mean, however, is that when I am playing the game, I rarely feel challenged: Either I draw the resources I need to win or I do not. I make occasional misplays, but recognize them quickly after the fact – this happens sparsely enough that I do not perceive myself to be learning.

The component of the game I would find most interesting, I suspect, is deck construction – formulating strategies, rather than merely executing them. This is still a path which is  largely blocked off to me due to limited amounts of cards. Even if I could build my deck without obstruction, I can’t help but suspect that it would quickly become tedious testing it against the few statistically determined ‘best’ decks that must inevitably dominate the higher leagues of the game.

Looking back on what I’ve written here, this is apparently a review. I had no intention of writing one, but that appears to be what I have written. So let me sum up this review: If you want a game that’s like Magic, but formulated to work particularly well online in real-time, this is probably about as good as you’re going to get. If you are tired of Magic because it has become tedious for you, you will probably find this game tedious as well.

Not bad, perhaps – just not exciting.

… All that being said, I’m probably going to continue playing for a while yet. Arena, a mode which forces the player to construct a deck from a pool of random cards, keeps the strategic game fresh and interesting for me, and it’s always cool to learn how to play the deck you found yourself tied to. Given how not-great I tend to feel after playing, I’m not sure how long I’ll stick with it, but…

Well, I’ll say this for Blizzard. They sure know how to make it painless to keep on playing a game.


We are connected, each day to the last, by the path of our history. Your memories are the map, and every so often you compare the landmarks of your life against what you see on that map and, invariably, if only ever so slightly, you find the two do not align.

Did something move the landmarks? A silent earthquake, someone constructing their own path, or the mischievous whim of a wanderer or deity?

Or: Is there something wrong with your map? Was it damaged, or censored, or sabotaged without your knowledge or your consent? Did you just draw it wrong in the first place?

These maps, our memories, are never perfect, and that is inherently discomforting. We cannot see the path behind us, nor in front of us, and if our map is wrong we can predict neither where we’ve been nor where we’re going.

Some of us see a path so terrible that we redact or modify our maps so that we may pretend they were never there.


Is it weird to have nostalgia for an error code?

In games, our memories start when the experience does – however, in the narrative of that game, your history frequently extends back through the years. Games hand us fragments of memory piecemeal to allow us to construct a map, or they show us our characters’ past effects upon the world, landmarks, by which to trace their steps: Neither of these can, necessarily, be trusted, but they never seem to lie.

This is somewhat ironic, because in our own lives our memories so rarely tell us the truth. The truth is, we can’t handle the truth. Our memories aren’t just a record of events, they’re a part of the story that you tell yourself about yourself. And, just like the stories that we’re raised on, certain roles need to be filled: Friends become Companions, enemies become Villains. Everything becomes bigger and simpler and more important in the Story of Who We Are.

Most of us achieve a degree of emotional maturity and are able to recognize that these personal narratives aren’t always reliable, but in games they are simply seldom questioned. Oh, there are twists and turns, enemies turn out to be friends, friends enemies, someone is not who they seemed to be, you’re working for the wrong side, etcetera. None of these affect your character’s history before the game starts. That map of the past may be vague, but it is set in stone.


No matter what you say, you still killed that dude. You monster.


Games have to work so hard to build a convincing world in the first place.  Every facet of the world is crafted to be convincing, feel real. Their sense of verisimilitude created is dependent upon the player believing what they are told about their character. The salient difference between games and other media is that, in those other media, the audience isn’t expected to directly inhabit the character, to treat them as an avatar: Under those circumstances, forcing them to question that character’s perception of the world in no way makes that world itself less believable. However, in games, if they are told to question the false history they are given, they are working directly at cross-purpose to the game’s attempt to establish a believable world. Attacking the false history, calling the character profile into question, calls into question the very basis of the player’s engagement with the game. It is shaking the experience at its core.

The player’s response to being told their memories are lies could go in one of two obvious directions:: First, “Well, why did you lie to me then?” or, second, “Of course they are, I’m just a dude in a chair playing a video game, duh”. Neither are especially conducive to a compelling gameplay experience.

Is it good enough to say that this is just something games aren’t good at? Is it satisfying to declare that this is territory that our medium cannot explore due to its nature?

There has to be a way to frame the narrative of a game such that a player can be fed unreliable information about their character’s history without calling into question their entire basis of interaction.

Well, in point of fact, I can think of a single good example of a game that does it well: Final Fantasy 7, of all things. In FF7, the main character, Cloud, tells his story relatively early on in the game, in the form of a playable flashback. Much later in the game, he realizes that he, oh, shall we say, ‘misremembered’ the specifics of the events, and we watch as the changes ripple through the flashback we played earlier.


Haha, look at that guy! Funny hair! Big sword! Silly! Gaming humor, am I right?

I believe that there are two reasons why this works: First, the back-story is couched in a gameplay section instead of being passed directly to the player. This presents it as part of the work itself, to be actively parsed and digested, instead of just being offered as an assumption to the player. Second, the information is being offered up by the character instead of by the game itself. Because the player relates to the character as a person, to one degree or another, he or she understands that that character may end up injecting bits of their personality into the narrative, and doesn’t feel betrayed when, ah, misrememberings occur.

It’s curious, though, that despite Final Fantasy 7 being a massive hit, very few games have seemingly sought to emulate that particular bold narrative stroke. Though games have their own intriguing narrative experiments, they tend to erect a wall between the present and the past, and to treat their pasts as we wish we could treat our own: Immutable. Untouchable. Sacrosanct. Eternal.

Ratatouille Controls

I’ve been thinking about bad controls in games. What does it mean when people say that a game has bad controls? Usually, more often than not, they mean that it’s difficult to control. The more games I play, though, the more I begin to wonder: Is a game being difficult to control really ‘bad’?

This seems to be the assumption. As time goes on, though, I find myself less and less willing to dismiss a game as having bad controls: The question is not, I suspect, whether the controls are easy or difficult to master, but whether they are appropriate or inappropriate to the context of the game.

Allow me to elaborate with three examples:

Thanks Obama

Dark Souls is a punishingly difficult RPG that has recently achieved a surprising degree of popularity. One of the foundations of this challenge is the player’s slow moving attacks and battle maneuvers: Many people, when first faced with this, recoil in dismay when their character takes a full second to recover from an attack, or when they’re forced to stand still for a moment to use a healing potion (have you actually tried jogging and drinking at the same time before?) These restrictions seem galling to many players who are used to the freewheeling hack and slash antics of other action RPGs, but play a valuable role: Unlike in most games, heavy equipment in Dark Souls feels heavy. You can use a ridiculous giant sword, but it will attack slowly and it will weigh down your character’s movement. The slow, deliberate, ‘bad’ controls reinforce the idea that Dark Souls’ world is a world where every decision has drawbacks and consequences, and actions must be undertaken judiciously if the player is to survive.

Organ Trail

Organ Trail, a zombie-themed riff on the classic educational game The Oregon Trail, has a peculiar mechanic for shooting: Instead of the straightforward point-and-click of its predecessor, you are required to click on your target then drag back to your character to fire a shot in that direction. This is both more difficult to program and more difficult to control than simply allowing the player to shoot where they click – but the difficulty is the point. This system requires the player to invest a moment of time and effort to shoot accurately. Shots taken quickly frequently miss, since the angle of the drag is off, and panicked shots often fly astray, but a calm player who is used to the game mechanics can shoot straight every time. This emulates, in an admittedly but appropriately low-fidelity manner, the challenges of operating a firearm in a high pressure situation, and makes missing shots, in an environment where ammunition is a scarce and valuable resource, a real concern.

Surgeon Simulator 2013

The most blatant and hilarious example of this principle, though, is in Surgeon Simulator 2013, a game which is entirely premised on the idea that bad controls can be fun. In this game, the player is tasked with completing a surgery while being only allowed the use of one hand and being forced to control each finger, along with the position of the arm and inclination of the wrist, all using the keyboard and mouse. Fortunately, the surgery is rather open-ended: A heart transplant usually consists of bashing the ribs away with a hammer, pulling the lungs out and tossing them in a corner, gouging the heart out, and dropping a new heart in. Even just requiring this level of ‘surgical’ precision, trying to complete the surgeries is a hilarious slapstick, as the hamfisted surgeon that is you drops vital tools and organs, accidentally injects himself with anesthetic, and leaves his watch inside a patient’s chest cavity.

These are a few major examples, both serious and satirical, but this is an avenue of game design that is being pushed in a lot of different directions right now – something I find particularly interesting since, for a long time, controls in games were just good or bad, easy to use or difficult to use. I think it’s exciting to see this conception of what controls in a game can mean, through silly or satirical games like QWOP and EnviroBear 2000 to more sincere approaches like Receiver or Heavy Rain, sometimes forcing the player to experience the game through ‘bad’ controls can completely change their perception of the world,

Now: All of this isn’t to say that good controls aren’t important, that you shouldn’t try to spend time making your game control as well as possible, that no matter what you do it will work out – rather the opposite, in fact. I am suggesting, instead, that there are no universal best practices when it comes to game controls, that each game’s needs are unique and tied intimately to what it is trying to convey. I am suggesting that what makes a game’s controls good or bad are how well they work with the game to convey an experience, rather than how easily they allow the player to complete any desired action.

Games are all about interacting with systems: How tiresome, then, do you think it would become if all games allowed the exact same interactions, in the exact same way, forever?

It would be an endless monochrome gallery.

We have many colors.

We can do anything.


Usually it’s a tennis ball: Sometimes (not often), still recognizable as such. She digs it out from among the tall weeds and brings it to me, and I throw it, and she runs out and grabs it and brings it back, and so forth, over and over again, and for some reason this is basically the only thing in the world she seems to care about at all. Her name is Willow, my mom’s dog: I take her out to the park twice a week because otherwise she would explode like a poorly maintained nuclear reactor. She’s a black lab border collie mix, so I guess fetching is just in her genes.

Why do we like to do the things we like to do?

You know, in the endless debate between nature and nurture I’ve really always been more of a nurture kind of guy, but dogs make that kind of hard sometimes don’t they? Each breed so incredibly distinctly different physically and mentally, both in terms of what they can do and what they want to to do – the latter being, I think, the more interesting. What does it say about us humans when what dogs find compelling is so clearly written into their genetic material? We want to believe that our desires are the results of our beliefs, our thought processes, our understanding of the world, but can we justify that outlook when our canine companions are so obviously controlled by something written into the very foundation of their existence?

This is not fatalism. I do not believe in fate. This is determinism. This is acknowledging that, even on the rare occasions in which we are in control, we are still controlled by our history in ways which are inscrutable to us.

Error: Cannot scrute.

Error: Cannot scrute.

Of course, talking about genealogical background controlling humans the same way it controls dogs is pretty tricky territory – and for good reason, as similar arguments have been used to justify some heinous shit in the past. But, as fun as it is to talk about how our personal histories affect our tastes, at some point it must also be acknowledged that our deeper history, our family history, our genetic heritage, also plays a role.

On the plus side, this definitely takes some of the pressure off of justifying our personal taste.

"Fetch? You like fetch? Hah, that's not even a real game! Fucking fake gamer dogs! I play real games, like chasing my tail!"

“Fetch? You like fetch? Hah, that’s not even a real game! Fucking fake gamer dogs! I play real games, like chasing my tail!”

On the other hand, for me, who is trying to consistently say things which are interesting about why and how we come to gaming, this is kind of a distressing insight. When you’re trying to craft a critique of a game, how can you evaluate aspects of it as being clever approaches or a foolish missteps when they may simply be, perhaps, decisions targeted to appeal to such a deep and obscured part of the developer/audience that it would require computational assistance to express? It’s not that I accept the premise that in art everything is taste, that there are no mistakes: Rather, that I am worried anew that an ability to discern what are mistakes, versus what are cognizant approaches to an aesthetic that I simply don’t understand, may be difficult or impossible to acquire.

Okay, maybe I’m being a bit reductionist here. Humans enjoy engaging in a wide range of activities, several of which are more complex than fetching a tennis ball. And, because we have more activities to enjoy, we can enjoy progressively more intricate and complex amalgamations of those pastimes. And, because we can enjoy those amalgamations, it certainly makes sense to critique how seamlessly they are integrated, how they clash or complement with each other, and how that final experience comes through to us, the audience.

Perhaps that is the fundamental difference in the way humans engage with our pastimes as opposed to the way dogs do: Dogs pick one activity which is compelling to them and stick with it, like a single worker on an assembly-line. Conversely, humans like to entertain themselves with an amalgamation of smaller sub-tasks, like an artisan crafting a piece of… well, art. Thus, while we can’t really objectively analyze how appealing those sub-tasks are to one person or another, we can evaluate, in a cogent way, how well the sub-tasks interact with each other and work together to form a cohesive whole!

If this is the case, then that suggests that each game can be broken down into a series of elemental tasks which are fundamentally enjoyable – to some people. It’s a matter of tastes differing when different people either enjoy or dislike those basic tasks which comprise the game, but an objective flaw when those tasks get in each others’ way and make engaging with them more difficult (though figuring out how to resolve conflicting tasks like that could, perhaps, be a compelling task unto itself).

This all might also sound reductionist, but I don’t think it is: What I am saying here is not to devalue the overall structure of a game, or to say that creating an entertaining or fulfilling game is any less of an art, but merely to suggest that there are some atomic ‘entertainment components’ that tend to determine whether the audience finds the activity fundamentally enjoyable or not. The relationships between those components, in terms of proportion and shape, in terms of order and arrangement – that is the domain of the designer, of the artist.


Well: I’d like to believe that there’s more going on than just gamers running back and forth, grabbing an old worn out ball and bringing it back, over and over, back and forth, forever. I’d like to believe that analyzing a game and its impact and its style and methodology is a worthwhile thing to do, and not just picking through the guts of a mouse your cat left on your doorstep for reasons nebulous and cat. I’d like to believe that we are more than the sum of our ancestors. And, for today, I can convince myself that it’s true, that I am my own master, and that every aspect of what I like hasn’t been written in a book the day I was born.

Man, though: That dog sure does like to fetch.


Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is how games and other works ask us to engage with them. Each work of art exists within a greater context, and how we parse the messages those works engender is affected by this context: In fact, one could go a step further, and declare that any work devoid of context is also devoid of meaning.

This seemingly bold declaration actually emerges quite naturally when one considers how meaning is generally created in art– that is, by portraying a set of objects or events which are somehow analogous to objects or events in our world and then demonstrating, by posited developments to those objects or events, a hypothetical relationship between them. This method is no longer available when one discards the option of drawing parallels to real world objects and events– though, as it’s essentially impossible to create a narrative work of art under those constraints, that’s a rather hypothetical argument.

I like hypothetical arguments!


And pizza!

All of that is just to say, though, that no one comes to a piece of art as a stranger. We’ve all seen movies and played games– or, even if we haven’t, we’ve talked to people and observed their body language– or, even if we haven’t, we’ve heard birdsong and moved about our world, or otherwise had some experience which we can, however vaguely, compare this thing we are encountering right now with. And, this is the important point, the make-up of those prior experiences strongly affects how we’ll engage with this new experience. This is one of the most important parts of creating a work of art, yet is seemingly one that people seldom think about, at least in these terms.

One could create the most beautiful and elegant piece the world has ever seen and have it fall completely flat if no one understands what you’re trying to achieve with it or knows how to engage with it in a way that makes sense to them. These kinds of misengagements are incredibly common: It’s dangerous to make something too similar to the things everyone else is making because it’s boring, and it’s dangerous to make something too avant-garde because no one will get it, but the middle ground is also dangerous– people may try to enjoy your work the way they would enjoy a trite-but-enjoyable trifle with the end result that your bold variations on a trite theme come off as merely tone-deaf and stuttering. This often tends to be the way cult classics get started, when a work overlooked by misengagement is lucky enough to have a small but vocal group understand and champion its merits.


Uh, whatever those may be

The inverse happens as well. Some works come out and do relatively well, if unremarkably: However, due to the behavior of the creator afterwards, a particularly incisive parody, or a late critical takedown, they are retroactively downgraded to laughingstock in the minds of the audience. Even if that audience enjoyed it unironically the first time, they will engage with the work again on the basis that it is, colloquially, a big steaming pile of crap, and will be far less likely to genuinely enjoy it on this basis.

Because of all this, reputation can become incredibly important: If you’ve heard of something before, this can provide invaluable clues as to how you should approach it. For instance, before the series became well known, many people tried and immediately discarded Demon’s Souls, the precursor to Dark Souls. Because it was superficially similar to an existing genre of hack and slash games, a number of very conscious decisions made for its design were regarded as flaws by an audience looking for a different experience. However, now that it’s common knowledge that the series provides a slow-paced, deliberate, and brutally challenging experience rather than a God Of War-style murder-roller-coaster or abstract WoW-style number-crunch, people who are interested in that kind of experience know to seek it out and are unsurprised and perhaps strangely pleased to find their faces quickly stomped in by its unrelenting wall of challenge. The fact that the publishers decided to name the PC port the ‘Prepare to Die’ edition may indicate they took this lesson to heart.


Basically the Dark Souls experience

Another example which I find interesting is the somewhat recent Pixar film Brave. Now, I believe this was a very good film, but it underperformed, both critically and financially, by Pixar’s admittedly high standards. I think it’s worthwhile to explore why– particularly as it relates to engagement and misengagement. There are two trends to pay attention to here: First, Pixar’s track record of strange and wonderful animated films. From Toy Story to Up, the high concepts behind these movies were consistently imaginative and off the wall. This forced audiences to engage with their work in a very open way because of lack of precedent, and they were rewarded with stories of surprising emotional depth and complexity. The second trend to pay attention to in general is that of 3d animated children’s films in general: At the time Brave came out, many other studios were producing fun but shallow adventure films with different historical or semi-historical settings. Now: Brave comes out, and it has a far less outlandish premise and setting than previous Pixar films, a relatively prosaic medieval Scotland, not too dissimilar from the settings of other competing films. Because it didn’t have the cues of the bizarre premises or settings of earlier Pixar films, and because it had a world most readily similar to that of the other competing 3d children’s films, most audiences tended to engage with it in the same way they engaged with those other adventure films, and to judge it on those merits, rather than to judge it as a Pixar film and engage with the depth and complexity of character, in Merida and Elinor, that we have come to expect from their work.


Also it had a fucking bear so I don’t know what you people want

Now, it’s easy to believe that you’re the exception– that you’re the free spirit who sees through the hype, that if you like something it’s because it’s good and if you hate it it’s because it’s bad and that the context, the reputation, the advertisement, the critical consensus, all of that around a work won’t affect you one way or the other: Well, sorry, you’re super fucking wrong. This is why the intellectually masturbatory tangent at the beginning is actually an important point and I guess I’m actually real smart for leaving it in instead of self-indulgent for not cutting it out: it’s all context. You can never, never, never separate your love or hatred of a work of art from the context around that work of art, because that context forms the basis on which you engage with it. Of course, you can claim that your experiences make you a better critic, that for whatever reason you have more insight, or that your experience might at least be a common one, but that’s pretty difficult to prove, wouldn’t you say?

Next time someone says they want an objective critic, rather than call them dumb, just link them here so that they can benefit from my patient explanation of why they’re dumb.

Oh, were you linked here? I may have some bad news.


The tricky thing about procrastination is how satisfying it is. Say what you will, when your problem is that you’re stressing over a deadline, just doing nothing and letting the deadline slip is a definite solution to that problem, and feels satisfying in its own perverse way.

Not everything which feels like an accomplishment actually is. We like to feed the part of the brain that craves to get things done with false victories, the same way curare feeds false signals to our neural receptors until our muscles slacken and we asphyxiate, having forgotten to breathe. Games, in particular, like to feed into these tendencies: This is one of the ways they are powerful and compelling: This is one of the ways they are dangerous.

Is it okay to feed people false accomplishment? Even if these accomplishments are nothing more than illusions, the mind craves their satisfaction and finds it difficult to resist their allure. The satisfaction which achievement offers is, by its very nature, usually quite difficult to acquire, but games provide a method to circumvent this– to the extent where the term ‘achievement’ has been trivialized into a structure of meaningless rewards games offer players who submit themselves with sufficient aptitude and enthusiasm to the whims of the designers.


I hope you like fetch quests

What is it that makes the accomplishments that games offer false, though? The obvious response is that they affect nothing outside of themselves, but the same could be said of reading literature, of doing calculus, of any form of deep thought: Certainly the things learned by the process of doing these things can be applied to affect the outside world, but completing these things in and of themselves is as false, is as totally housed in the mercurial processes of the mind and the medium it interfaces with, as completing a game. The distinction is only the common consensus on whether the things learned can then be applied to affect the world around us in some way.

Is the same not true of games?

Here… is where things fly off the rails. This next part is difficult because each question leads to another question, and the whole thing begins to consume itself.


First: Is it possible for a game to be unethical by offering ’empty calories’? By offering the sensations of achievement, learning,  and exploration without the external benefits? If so, how? Which games are unethical? How is it possible to know what games really offer us, that we aren’t secretly learning things which are beneficial to us, such as patience, research, or abstract social skills?

We spend our time doing so many different things and we never know which of these will benefit us in the long run. Sure, study is nice, but maybe that time spent hanging around with your buddies bullshitting will develop the sense of humor that charms the guy at the party who eventually hires you. Yeah, hard work is swell, but maybe taking a sick day to get that game you’ve been looking forward to will grant you the latitude to perceive your flawed approach to a problem that has been stymieing you. Of course reading the great work of literature is an enriching experience, but reading cheap pulp tells you more about the tastes of the people you have to deal with every day than Faulkner would. Though we can make smart guesses, it’s impossible to unwind causality this way and to know what’s truly the best thing to do: Who would be so arrogant as to suggest otherwise?


Yeah, okay, well. Whatever.

Second: Even if games offer us nothing but happiness, or satisfaction or what-have-you, is that a problem? The problem with pursuing virtual achievements in our current reality is primarily that we, most of us, cannot support ourselves by these worlds alone, but what about the future, and what about those of us who can afford do so now? Why shouldn’t they? Most of our pursuits in life seek to achieve happiness for ourselves and for others, why is it a bad thing if we are able to circumvent the challenges that obscure this happiness using a simulated reality?

There is a thought experiment that explores this very topic, called the Experience Machine (oh, I rather like that title). it suggests that even if a machine were possible of giving flawless and eternal pleasure to the populace of the world, many would not volunteer to submit to it. The reasoning behind this, though, suggests that the machine is not actually flawless: That those under its thrall would be able to tell the difference between false and real experience and be unsatisfied by the former, that there would be limits to the kind of world it could create. Given the option to build a world on top of this world, though, a boundless paradise without suffering that all could partake of, would we choose not to live in it? Isn’t a perfect world, safe and happy for all, precisely what we’re supposed to be working towards?


Won’t anyone think of the virtual cows?

Third: What are the real benefits of achievement, of creation, of accomplishment? Are they, in the long run, any more tangible than the virtual achievements we cull from our games?

Throughout our history, we have constructed vast monuments to ourselves, lest we forget. We will forget. Eventually, there will be none of us left to remember, and eventually there will be no universe left to remember us. Everything is transitory, but it’s all a matter of degree, isn’t it? Our children’s children’s children are basically strangers: Fuck those guys. How many generations are we supposed to give a shit about? In the long run, constructing a pyramid is only a mildly less transitory accomplishment than getting 100% in Super Meat Boy.

Oh, I hope you didn’t come here for answers: Here, we specialize in questions.


Interestingly, according to Valve’s user metrics more people have constructed gargantuan monuments to themselves than have gotten all the achievements in Super Meat Boy.


Playing Dark Souls has gotten me thinking about the different ways that games structure their world. I really want to describe, in a concrete way, what makes exploring the world of Dark Souls feel like such a different experience from most game I’ve played, what made it feel like such a unique space.

The first thing I thought about was freedom. There’s undeniably a prevailing trend in game design to force the player down fairly linear paths, where he works his way through one environment, then another, and so forth, until the end of the game is reached. Dark Souls is open to the player to approach in any order, as long as the obstacles blocking the way are cleared or bypassed. It gives the player a large degree of freedom to choose how he wants to approach the game. It’s hardly unique in this regard: Sandbox titles like GTA afford the player this freedom, as do Metroid/Castlevania style exploration platformers. Dark Souls is certainly similar to those games in some ways, but also distinctly different somehow…

So, next, I focused on continuity. Most areas in games are broken into discrete chunks, connected to each other by loading zones which may or may not represent an actual spatial relationship. It’s often not clear where these environments are in relation to each other, nor is it usually considered important. Even games which give the players a great deal of freedom, such as Deus Ex or Metroid, still have at-times arbitrary level breaks which separate areas from each other and give the player no real idea of the space being covered. Dark Souls takes place all in one large area: Beautiful backdrops which, in most games, would be mere pleasant looking skyboxes, end up being the next challenge area after a few hours of gameplay. This is another aspect in which sandboxes like GTA offer something very similar– and yet, exploring the world of Dark Souls still, somehow, feels completely different…

Well, yes, the vaginadragons are different too, but that's not what I was talking about

Well, yes, that’s pretty different too, but not what I was talking about

Finally, I thought about the complexity of the environment, how difficult it is to navigate, how twisted and byzantine its pathways. This is one a lot of games tend to shy away from nowadays, I guess under the somewhat misguided inference that making the player lost and confused is intrinsically bad design.  I was struck by how similar playing Dark Souls, exploring its ruined environments and being forced to find alternative routes because of pathways being blocked by wreckage was, at times, to playing the original Half-Life, exploring the ruined Black Mesa mid-disaster, being blocked by wreckage, and being forced to find alternative routes.

This gives three metrics to evaluate way games use their world space:

Freedom vs Guidance

Continuity vs Segmentation

Complexity vs Accessibility

Let’s look at some games from the perspective afforded by these concepts.

Dark Souls has a high degree of freedom, but there are certainly games which offer more, since the player is restricted in a number of ways based on what routes are opened up. However, all restraints on the player’s movement are within the diegesis of the game, so it rarely feels unnaturally constricting. Dark Souls is nearly perfectly continuous, with each part of the world having a spatial relationship to each other part– there are a couple of exceptions to this but these, too, are within the diegesis, special portals which lead to mystical worlds that would be inaccessible by any other method. Dark Souls is also highly complex, the continuous world is twisted in upon itself and requires complicated detours to navigate. All of these together produce a very unusual and rewarding environment to explore, but one that can easily become overwhelming and confusing.


Sickening vertigo is basically the same thing as nostalgia it turns out

Half-Life 1 and 2 have moderate levels of freedom: There is always a pre-determined path forwards, but each area has room for exploration and is amenable to several different approaches. The second game has a lower level of freedom in general, but the two are comparable. They have middling degrees of segmentation, with the second a bit more questionable in this regard: Whereas in the first game the environments, at least early on, have a definite and understandable spatial relationship with each other, in the second game each area is so strung out and linear that we kind of have to take the developer’s word that these places are spatially related. Finally, they are of moderate complexity, with navigating tricky environments being one of the primary challenges faced in both games– although, because of its more segmented design (and its infatuation with its at-the-time outstanding physics engine), the environmental challenges in the second game tend to come off as a bit more contrived. The overall effect is very much as though someone has outlined an adventure and you’re just filling in the detail

The Grand Theft Auto games are an interesting example, since they provide both a low-moderate freedom main story path and an extremely high freedom sandbox which both occupy the same space. The world is perfectly continuous, with every game location within the boundaries of the game world having a clear spatial relationship to every other location, though the boundaries themselves seem at times to be rather artificial. These game worlds are also extremely accessible, flat and easy to navigate: For most locations within the game world, once you know where they are it is a trivial challenge to reach them. Navigating the environment is easy and can be done in a number of ways.

A number of ways

A number of ways

The split approach to freedom/guidance in the GTA games provides an experience that is sometimes schizophrenic, but also allows different kinds of players to take what the game has to offer at their own pace.

I think those examples are particularly interesting, but one could view any spatial game in this manner and perhaps gain some valuable insight into why these environments are interesting to exist in (or not, as the case may be). Heck, maybe there’s a whole extra axis one could analyze environments on that would be just as interesting, but one that simply didn’t occur to me.

I don’t make any value judgments here, and I think that freedom is as interesting as guidance, complexity is as useful as accessibility, and continuity offers different benefits than segmentation. However, that being said, I certainly believe that, right now, most games out tend to overrepresent and overprioritize guidance, accessibility, and segmentation. It’s worth taking a long hard look at the benefits that can be reaped from both ends of each of these three spectra, and to design your game world accordingly.

peanutshaxThe discipline of game design is only recently, spurred by the financial and popular success of modern video games, beginning to be explored in a formal way. Because of this newness, there tends to still be a lot of ambiguity in the terminology we use. Though this is probably a source of confusion, it is probably also, by the same token, a good place to start seeking insight into the form. Why would one choose, when discussing a game, to use one term over another term which is similar at first glance? What are the colloquial assumptions we make that gives one term preference over another, and what do those assumptions tell us about the art we pursue?

Games are, at their heart, systems. They take a player input and process it in some way and then output something, and the player explores how to achieve different outputs by means of different inputs, usually with the purpose of achieving some explicit end goal. This is an extremely dry interpretation of what a game is, and it leaves a lot of important stuff out, but it’s a good place to begin conceptually.


This is basically GDC in a nutshell

How are these systems constructed?

There’s an interesting split here. If we were discussing board games or sports, one might say that the game’s systems are the product of the game’s rules, but in video games most prefer to describe them, instead, as being the result of the game’s mechanics. Thus raising the question: What is the difference between a mechanic and a rule? Is there one? This is a kind of question of semantics, and it’s impossible to say for sure what’s in the head of all of the people who use these terms, but it’s an important distinction and one worth looking at. What is it in these terms that make us prefer one over the other?

‘Rule’ is imperative. It implies a ruler, one who creates the rules, and casts the player as one who obeys them. This is necessary, whether or not it is desirable, for most traditional games, as they require the player or players to drive the progress of the game. If the players don’t observe the rules, the game loses coherence and, if pushed far enough, ceases to be a game. A rule is a directive of behavior that must be observed for the game to proceed. Conversely, ‘mechanic’ is distant and impersonal, implies something that happens as a natural consequence of something else occurring. A mechanic is an automated reaction of a system to input, and will behave consistently regardless of the nature of the input: An intentional tap, a malfunctioning space bar, or a cat walking on your keyboard are all interpreted by the game mechanics the same way, without bias.


I think he wants to open and close his map repeatedly 1800 times a second. That’s the only way I can interpret this.

To clarify the difference:


  • Are intimate: They require the player to actively participate in order for the game to continue, thus requiring the player to have an understanding of the game in order to play.
  • Imply judgment: Because the game cannot progress properly when players violate the rules, rule systems also imply that some game behaviors are inherently desirable or undesirable.
  • Can be broken: Whether intentionally or unintentionally, a player can disregard or misunderstand a rule. The game may or may not survive this and still be enjoyable, but it will not proceed in its intended manner.


  • Are impersonal: Do not require player participation and react identically to all similar input. The player does not need to understand the game in order to play.
  • Can be mysterious: Because the player isn’t required to understand these components of the system in order for the game to progress, the behavior driving these mechanics can be completely opaque.
  • Can be complex in real time: Behaviors which would be impossibly or impractically complicated were they left up to humans to determine can be implemented using physical or computational systems.

While board games and sports primarily utilize rules and video games primarily utilize mechanics, this is not an absolute division. One facet that sports have in common with each other, and one of the main ways they tend to be differentiated from other games, is that they use the physical properties and behaviors of objects in our world, such as different forms of ball and club and turf, to create gameplay. Board games have dice, which use the uncertainty of physical object behavior to do the random number calculations that video games use processing power to achieve. Most mechanics in use in traditional games are based on physics, a system which can be tremendously complex in real time.


No one remembers, cares about, or even learned the rules to this game. The rules were entirely redundant to the experience.

On the other side, applying rules to video games, most multi-player games have explicit rules against certain griefing behaviors such as team-killing: The player can break them, but they are certainly not supposed to, and the game will not progress properly if they do. Video games tend to try to avoid rules because they can be broken, but this can also reduce player engagement, since they are technically not required for the game to proceed– often to proceed in a rather dull manner, but proceed nevertheless. There are many instances, as well, of pseudo-rules: Behaviors which the game advises the player to do or to avoid, and which there are punishments for doing incorrectly, but which the game fully expects to be ‘broken’ and is designed with that outcome in mind. Strong examples of these include the push for the player to be stealthy in Thief or to stay close to her team in L4D. This also includes, it should be mentioned, the ‘rule’ system in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, where a judge informs the player of specific rules that are not to be broken before every combat, which punishment is meted out for transgressing. Because the game is built with transgressions against these rules in mind, they are instead pseudo-rules, no matter how explicitly they are stated.

While it’s worthwhile to point out the advantages each of these tools has over the other, one must also recommend some degree of caution: Though mechanics support a greater degree of complexity than rules, more complex isn’t always better. And, while rules can be more intimate and bring more of the player’s personality into the game, if done poorly this can feel invasive while serving no real purpose. In the end, these are tools, nothing more and nothing less. And, in the end, when you’re the designer, it’s your call whether to use rules or mechanics to build your system, where and to what degree to use each. They are both powerful, meaningful, and interesting: But they are not the same.

With this insight, you can utilize both more fully.