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Game Design

Death is omnipresent in games, but they mostly don’t like to acknowledge that. Dying in games is just a way of keeping score, a nice easily understandable failure state, something to be avoided, not experienced. In life, death is omnipresent in a different way – not as an obstacle, threatening and concrete, a risk to be managed – but as a patient specter, a cold and solid certainty. Wherever we decide to go in our wild lives, we can be certain of finding at least one thing at the end: The End.

Last night I played What Remains of Edith Finch, a first person narrative around the same length as a feature film, wherein we explore the tragic history of Edith Finch’s possibly cursed family, of which she is the sole surviving member. As you explore her weird convoluted family home, you find documents and artifacts showing how each family member died – and, more often than not, experience their final moments from their perspective. Or some version of their final moments, from some version of their perspective: Who knows? The knowledge of what part of these stories was true has passed from the world long before we got there. Much is unknowable, and the stories are as much family mythology as family history.

This game is charmingly surreal and macabre, which I had expected, but also left me with a piercing sorrow, which I had not. It’s a sensation that I never get from games; it’s a sensation I rarely get from art of any sort. It’s the sensation of death as we know death to be but prefer not to acknowledge, something which we inherited at birth and will pass on to any descendants we may have, the sensation of every joy we have being borrowed against a future sorrow. I think what makes the difference in how mortality feels in Edith Finch is that every character we play as is, we know from the start, doomed. We are them, and we are about to die, and we have no choice but to step closer and closer to that destiny – and this may be a fairy tail retelling, but we’re all taking steps towards our own far less whimsical doom. Building up a mythology of our own deaths is perhaps the only sane way to keep moving forward – though it’s not like we have a choice. We’re all on the train track, all on the conveyor belt, and there’s only one way to go from here, whether we want to go or don’t.

Death that feels anything like real death is for the most part scrupulously scrubbed out of video games. I got a whiff of it from The Walking Dead, Season 1, particularly near the end, where the stakes and sacrifices became more clear. There were the barest remnants of it in the famous post-nuke death scene in Call of Duty 4, though the developers tried to strip out, as they always do, any sense of actual death, any sense of the friends and family left behind, dreams left unfulfilled. The realities of death are largely incompatible with enjoying war on a conceptual level. This is how we relate to death in art, usually: The dying are plot devices, not people. Dying Person is a role that requires an unfortunate to play it, a character written to be a heroic sacrifice or the hapless victim, to show the act of violence rather than its consequences. We care more about killers than die-ers, usually.

What Remains of Edith Finch made me uncomfortable in a way I usually forget I can feel, in a way I usually put away in a drawer for later to forget about. It’s a sensation I mostly only get from dreams nowadays, dreams of death and of loss. A shard of ice buried under the chest and over the belly, and difficult to forget once remembered. It pierces the lungs, makes us breathless, and an ancient yell or groan bubbles up, a word born before language. I want to yell for things lost that will never be found again once they’re gone, even though they are not yet lost. I want to yell to expel the cold I already feel setting in. I want to yell to reject how comfortable the cold is, a welcoming linen pillow or a slab of stone, what dreams may come.

We were built around this yell. Someday every artifice and edifice will slough away. Under hot soft flesh is cold hard bone. We might fly, for a while, but we cannot escape gravity. There is nothing to be done, except to live a life of love and pride and happiness.

It is difficult.

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I’ve been playing Cuphead. If you’ve somehow managed not to hear about this game, Cuphead is a 2D platformer styled after the cartoons of the 1930’s – although I frankly think it manages to realize that aesthetic far better than most of the source material it pulls from. It’s also punishingly difficult. Cuphead is impressive both how good it is and how much worse it would be if it was any less beautiful than it is – I have never seen a game rely on aesthetic quality to this extent, and it is fascinating to me that it does, and that it does so so effectively.

These aspects, beauty and difficulty, lean on each other like a pair of cards, prop each other up to create an incredible experience. This super-hard game would actually just not work if it wasn’t so incredibly beautiful in every respect, visually and aurally – the losses and restarts, the trial and error, cheap shots and bullet hells, would quickly become tedious. Some people would still enjoy it on those merits, but it certainly wouldn’t have found the huge audience it has now. At the same time, if the beauty was all there was, if there wasn’t this sort of punishing difficulty, the game would feel like fluff, would show up and disappear in an instant and would leave no lasting impression – though, of course, this version of the game, too, would find its own following. However, because the game is so brutal, you’re forced to really look at it, really closely look at everything that’s happening on-screen, lest you be caught off-guard – and, because you’re forced to look at something so damn lovely, it’s hard to actually be mad at what happens next – which is usually that you get your ass kicked by a medusa or a bird or something.

I find that idea, that sheer aesthetic beauty can be a core component of a game’s design, very interesting, because that’s not how we tend to think about the audio-visual component of games. There’s a lot of discussion over exactly how and how much the narrative and the design of games are discrete from each other, but it’s largely taken for granted that the aesthetic quality of the experience can be evaluated more-or-less on its own merits.

When we discuss the cross-section of aesthetic and game design, it’s usually about how the art style of the game realizes the core goals of the game’s design – not about how the game’s design enables the core goals of the game’s aesthetic, or in how the sheer quality of that aesthetic presentation can make the design goals click. Despite being a tremendously conservative game in many ways, Cuphead has thus exposed a huge gap in how we talk about the intersection of visual and mechanical design in games – or, at least, a huge gap in the way I’ve seen people talk about them – as, rather than a gaming experience enabled by an aesthetic layer, being an aesthetic experience enabled by a gaming layer. It’s an inversion of the way we usually think about what a game is.

I am curious to see what sort of impact this game has, a few years down the line – on video games in general, but also on the way I think about games. It’s strange to me how a game so straightforward could contain such revelatory implications.

I have been spending the last 10 days or so playing way too much Slay the Spire. They say write what you know, and right now my brain knows nothing but the pleasures of building a badass deck to kill monsters with in a video game, so here we are.

Slay the Spire is one of the newer games of the roguelike-like-like-like-etc set, still in Early Access, which uses a card game for all of the combat. Go through a dungeon, which is set up as a series of nodes with various type of encounters, fight enemies, and pick one of three cards after each battle. Along the way there are potions, which are helpful one-shot boosts that can get you out of a tight spot, and relics, which provide powerful passive benefits. Usually, from your first few cards and relics, some sort of theme begins to emerge which will define the rest of your run, whether it’s intentionally damaging yourself to become more powerful, drawing a bunch of cards and using something to play all or most of them, or stacking up huge amounts of defense and either letting your enemies beat themselves to death against your defense. Or something else! I’ve beaten the game 7 times now, and each run still feels extremely different from all the others, based on its own synergies exploiting different game mechanics.

Currently there are two character classes, with a third to be added, and each character class has a unique pool of cards to draw from which the other cannot use. Unlike other card games with a similar class system, like Hearthstone, the main purpose to the classes beyond theming is to firewall off cards which would have game-breaking synergies together while pooling together those which have more moderate synergy. This greatly increases the consistency of each individual run, ensuring you mostly get cards that play well together, keeping the overall experience from degenerating into just finding one killer synergy to break the game.

The connected-node map reminds me a great deal of FTL, another rogueish-like-ish game, and I think there’s some basis for comparison – not just in the map, but in the multiple-choice encounters and in trying to scrape together the components needed to build something powerful enough to last until the end. However, in FTL I very frequently felt there was only one path to victory with minor variants – many offensive options became useless against late-game defenses, and certain defensive options were almost strictly necessary in order to stand a chance against late-game offenses. In Slay the Spire, everything is far more contextual, and I’ve had cards that would have been borderline worthless in one deck become completely game-breaking in another. I’m sure that once in a while, by random chance, there is the occasional run that is essentially unwinnable, but these occurrences are far rarer than they were in FTL – in every run I’ve lost so far, I can point to some poor decision, some key overreach, that precipitated my failure. Usually choosing to fight an elite enemy instead of resting, because I’m greedy like that.

On successive playthroughs you get points, based on how far you got, which contribute towards a bar that unlocks new cards and relics. I’m not a huge fan of this particular implementation, since it feels a bit grindy, but the unlocks themselves are very interesting, the cards usually themed towards some particular game mechanic which opens up new types of decks to experiment with. In this way its structure is similar to The Binding of Isaac, where each playthrough unlocked new items, enemies, and encounters, gradually opening up the design from something fairly simple and straightforward to something bigger, weirder, and more complex. Though, unlike Binding of Isaac, all of the unlocks are things you probably want to have, they also increase the odds of making a misplay as it becomes more difficult to consider all the available strategies. Something I’d like to see the developers approach, as it comes out of Early Access, is both unlocking these things in a more organic way, through special encounters and achievements rather than a grindy EXP bar, and increasing the range of things that can be unlocked to include new enemies and random encounters. Still, despite the less varied nature of these unlocks, in some ways their impact is more notable than in Isaac, since they open up entirely new ways of playing the game.

Because you construct a deck with a series of discrete decisions, each run feels much more something that belongs to the player, that was constructed with found parts, rather than something that the player just uncovers by happenstance. While each Isaac run feels unique, very little of the way the run develops, past mere survival and getting into the treasure room, is in the hands of the player. With every card you take and relic you find the context of the game shifts, and influences every future decision you make along the way. Perhaps it’s because of this that I regret having to give up my deck, the deck I fought for and with for two or three hours, when I succeed on a run. It doesn’t feel right for this beautiful machine I’ve constructed to just fade away and be forgotten. Maybe, though, that’s what keeps me coming back: I have nothing to keep, so the only thing left is to build another beautiful machine and let that, too, fade away. There’s probably some sort of life lesson there. There usually is.

Most of all I appreciate that Slay the Spire demands I pay attention to what I’m doing, in how even when I know the game well it’s easy to make a huge misplay that kills my run, just by carelessly playing cards in the wrong order or forgetting to use a potion. I have little patience any more for games that demand nothing from me. I don’t want to do things anyone could do without paying attention, in doing busy-work, in grinding away. Art that demands nothing gives nothing, and when nothing pushes back against my touch I can’t feel anything. It feels like there’s more room for that now than there was ten or twenty years ago, more room for art that demands attention rather than merely eye contact, but maybe it’s just that I seek it out more now.

Slay the Spire is a great game, which is especially exciting when it’s not finished and there’s still room for interesting things to be added. Aside from the things mentioned, there’s one other thing I’d love to see added: Some sort of hall of fame for winning decks. Even just being able to look back on your winning decks would be cool, but why stop there? What about some endless gauntlet challenge mode to play those decks in? Or a PvP mode for winning decks? A boss rush? New Game+? The idea of the game being not just an end unto itself but a method of building decks that could then be used for other purposes seems like something that could be explored in many interesting ways.

Anyway. Slay the Spire is currently $16 on Steam. If any of this sounded good you should go check it out.

I recently played through Alpha Protocol, which is an experience I don’t know whether or not to recommend. It is not a good stealth game, but it is a hilarious stealth game: Once you actually level up your character the gameplay largely consists of turning invisible and jogging around punching guys in the throat while they stand next to you yelling “where did he go!?”

Anyway.

Alpha Protocol’s most notable features aside from that are its branching narrative and timed dialogue system, both of which went on to inspire Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and thereby basically every game made by Telltale since, as they’ve adopted that model as just the way they make games now. There’s one huge difference between the two dialogue systems, though: In The Walking Dead, the default dialogue option is always to just remain silent and let the conversation go on without you, and in Alpha Protocol the default option is always to say… something. I’m not sure how much of this is an intended effect, but combined with the way the main character of Alpha Protocol is written – an obnoxious jerk – the end effect is that Alpha Protocol’s weird dialogue system ends up really effectively conveying the experience of being an impulsive idiot. It is incredibly easy to end up saying something crass and ignorant or accidentally hitting on someone or just going ahead and making out with a coworker just because the timer for dialogue is so short and some of the choices are labeled extremely ambiguously – and, with a bit of distance from the momentary frustration caused by accidentally doing the wrong thing, I can appreciate the characterization created by these systems.

I can’t say how much of this was intentional on the part of the designers, but it’s intriguing how different the Alpha Protocol and The Walking Dead dialogue systems end up feeling, all while being essentially identical. A relaxed timer, letting a natural amount of time elapse between dialogue beats before prompting response, simulates the pressure to keep up a discussion, while the faster timer suggests a pressure to say something ANYTHING the very moment the person you’re talking to stops talking for even one moment. The addition of the option of saying nothing, along with generally more generous timers, sell the idea of Lee, the protagonist of The Walking Dead, as a calm and thoughtful person being overtaken by events outside of his control – while Alpha Protocol’s Mike Thorton inevitably ends up coming across as a walking HR complaint waiting to happen.

This raises the question of how else dialogue systems can express the personality of the speaking character – that is, how character is expressed by the way we choose what to say, as distinct from what is actually said. The timing and defaults of The Walking Dead express someone pensive and reserved while systems of Alpha Protocol express someone reckless and boorish, so what do other dialogue systems suggest? Most adventure game dialogue systems, such as that used in the Monkey Island series, suggest alternately either a clever character backed by a team of writers, selecting the choicest rejoinders, or an inspector with some sort of predetermined checklist to get through. RPGs like Fallout are similar, except the choiceness of those rejoinders and number of inspection points tend to vary based on your character’s stats.

Though these dialogue systems became a bit rote after a while, you occasionally get flashes of how they could be used much more expressively – even if these expressions usually come in the form of one-off gags in the Monkey Island games. In the first game, when one of your mutinous crew asks if the word ‘keelhaul’ means anything to you, you have the dialogue choice of either saying “I see your point” or of reciting the dictionary definition: Whichever one you choose, the main character says “I see your point” and the conversation ends. In the second game, in one scene you have a choice between four dialogue options, pictured below:

Differing from each other only in emphasis in a moment of impotent anger. And, in the third game, you have a clearly unwise dialogue choice in a conversation with a reformed cannibal, and if you hover your mouse over it a secondary dialogue pops up next to it saying “not that one, it will be the death of you!” and other similar warnings – only for it to be essentially ignored by the character you’re talking to if you actually say it, since they’re off on their own tangent by then.

All of those are amusing and expressive moments, but they all involve making you unable to do something – unable to say what you want or be heard when you say something stupid. This is kind of the opposite of the problem that Mike Thorton has, of saying stupid bullshit given a moment’s opportunity, and well-expresses the more nebbish personality of Guybrush Threepwood. A similar approach is used to much less humorous effect in the game Depression Quest, where the deeper you fall into depression the more productive and healthy choices are locked off to you. Even at the beginning of the game, where you’re still feeling mostly okay, the most sociable and lively choices are unavailable – which is certainly something I can appreciate as someone constitutionally unsuitable towards being the life of a party. Not only is Depression Quest’s approach to conveying depression similar to the techniques Monkey Island uses for jokes, but those specific jokes could easily be repurposed towards more such dramatic ends. Having whatever you try to say come out differently than intended; only being able to express yourself with emphasis while being stuck saying essentially the same rote thing; being unable to stop intrusive second thoughts when thinking of something to say, and then being ignored when you finally do speak – all of these are things that real people experience all the time, frequently to a painful degree.

There are other ways we might tweak existing dialogue systems to express character, or even do so dynamically. The Alpha Protocol system could be leveraged in a game like The Walking Dead, where as a conversation gets more heated the timer begins to shorten and more neutral options start to disappear – perhaps Telltale has explored this already, I haven’t kept up on their games. Or maybe dialogue options could change over time, so the player is pushed to balance between a rushed and imperfect line or a more thought-out line that is perhaps said too late. It may seem absurd, but perhaps dialogue could even be a mini-game, a frantic scrabble to, in an emotional moment, dig the right words out of a pit of brusque idiocy and callous vapidity.

For now, we mostly just go through the check list – and, though this expresses a character, maybe it’s not the character we’re actually trying to create.

Way back when I started this blog, one of the first essays I did was about conceiving of a game as the combination of three related spaces – physical, mechanical, and narrative – and gameplay as the act of allowing the player to explore these spaces. I think this perspective is still useful, though sorely in need of revision now, five years later (I’ll likely return to it at some point in the future). However, whenever I think about how different games emphasize one or the other of these attributes, whenever I try to draw a hard line between where one space begins or ends, I run into a bit of difficulty making that division. The mechanical and narrative spaces are fairly easy to delineate – one is the actions you can take in an environment and how that environment reacts to those actions, the other is the story that is told about those actions and the context in which they take place. However, the physical space, which one would expect to be the most intuitive of the three, is a bit more difficult to delineate – and I think it has to do with how we create physical space in games.

The problem I keep running into is that the physical space of the games is actually created by means of mechanical and narrative elements. The mechanical aspect of the space is your ability to move around on some parts of it and to have your movement blocked by others, and the narrative aspect is the colors and textures and what they suggest about the world you’re in. Together they create something that feels like a chunk of physical world to explore, but there’s nothing actually physical there. A sense of physical space is created, but it is not separable from the mechanical and narrative elements that contribute to it – not in the same way that the mechanical and narrative elements are separable from each other.

It may be extremely obvious that the physical reality of the game world doesn’t exist, but it’s suggestive that we create the illusion of a physical reality through recreating the parts of reality which interest us most as humans. That is, when we encounter an object, our concerns are a) what can I do with this? And b) what does it mean that this is here? This, of course, has very little to do with the actual material world, where objects are made of many different bits and pieces, covered with bits and pieces of everything else, subjected to forces we have an incomplete understanding of. What’s noteworthy is not that we are simulating a reality, but that we are simulating outwards in, out from the superficial aspects we find ourselves most interested in, down into the more fundamental aspects such as mass and warmth only as we find those necessary to power the superficial simulation.

Tangentially, I am now quite certain that if we had any way to simulate texture and taste in games we would have done so long ago, as these are also superficial aspects of great interest to human perception.

It’s fascinating that we so many of us consider what we’re doing to be realistic. What we do with games is render exclusively that which can be seen: every 3d object is an empty shell, every character who is modeled is simply their exterior with nothing inside, and interior parts only created as they become necessary to render when they are ripped apart from the exterior (a common scenario in games). We see what a human, or a house, or a rock, looks like, and reproduce what we see, when that is inherently only the most superficial possible version of that thing.

Something from physical reality is translated into signals for our brain, is stored as a symbol representing that object; then our brain conducts our body to create an object that can reproduce those signals in another brain. That is what we call art – or, at least, representational art.

So, with games, we started from the simplest version of the most superficial reality, and from there we’ve managed to make more detailed and convincing forms of that representation. Perhaps we could simulate a reality based more on what we know to be there than what we see to be there? Even a primitive simulation of a more complete reality could lead to new and interesting artistic pursuits. Or, perhaps, since we are unmoored from the physical basis of reality, we could create a simulated world far wilder and stranger than we can while paying lip service to material reality.

Mostly, though, I just find it amusing how much we like to act like we’ve come anywhere near a reality simulation when our approach is in essence purely superficial. How very human of us.

Among other ways to think about games, one that I rarely hear spoken of is their capacity as attention engines. Among the many social and emotional needs we have as human beings is our desire to be heard – even more than to say anything specific, we just yearn to be able to jam a flag into the dirt for people to see. Having someone listen to you, even passively, can be hugely rewarding, emotionally and even intellectually, as you feel connected with the world.

Before most games, we had ELIZA. ELIZA is a simple chatbot made to emulate a psychotherapist, one who answers every question with a question. “What are you thinking of?” “How did that make you feel?” “Why do you say that?” Despite being created with an almost parodic intent, to show the superficiality of human-machine communication, people felt a genuine connection with ELIZA, and sometimes even a degree of therapeutic benefit. Now, in 2017, there are lots of ways to be listened to by machines. Most of us have a machine in our pocket who will answer our questions as best as it is able, and will listen and respond to anything we say no matter how inane – though, perhaps, not in a very satisfactory way. Still, unsatisfactory answers are not necessarily too different from what we’ve come to expect from genuine human social contact either.

A lot of what we want from games is for them to just respond to what we say to them. a game lives or dies on its ability to react to us, to listen to what we are trying to say. Because real artificial intelligence is a very long way away still, our methods of communication are usually greatly restrained in games to enable them to react in a satisfying way. A game’s controls are the language we use to speak to it: Frustration ensues when a game misunderstands what we are trying to communicate, or when it doesn’t allow us to communicate the thing that we desperately want to. We describe these sorts of problems as control issues, which I suppose says as much about us as it does about them.

This is what people really want a lot of the time when they ask for non-linearity. They don’t care about replay value and they don’t care about getting the sex scene for the character they like, they just want the sensation that they are being listened to. They want the video game equivalent of someone nodding along and saying “Mm, wow. Interesting. Huh. I see.” That those multiple branching paths and endings and romantic partners are available is chiefly valuable because it reifies that sensation, makes it feel solid and responsive – that there is, indeed, someone listening. And, perhaps, there was, 18 months earlier, a designer who listened to them by way of the player proxy voice who lives in his head, who he designs for.

A little while back the game Passpartout: The Starving Artist became a small-scale hit. Passpartout is a game where, playing as the titular starving artist, you paint using an extremely simple art program, and passersby choose to either buy your paintings or not, occasionally giving explanations as to what they like or don’t like about the picture. Now, the engine for evaluating these paintings is seemingly pretty simple, apparently rewarding the artist more frequently for time spent than for technical skill, but it serves its purpose, effectively convincing the player that the game is paying attention to what they are creating, that they’re not just creating into a void – which it all too often feels like artists are.

Unfortunately, Passpartout is quite similar to a prototype made by Jon Blow called Painter. He released this prototype for free on his site, and in talking about it he described it as a failed prototype because it failed to realize his vision of a strategy game where you create paintings to appeal to different gallery owners and curators and achieve success. Some statements made on Twitter suggest that he was dismayed that a game so similar to his failure could be a success – but there was no actual reason for the Painter prototype to be a failure except that it failed to achieve the vision he’d had in mind. The element of trying to appeal to tastes was never actually very interesting. What’s interesting was making a painting and having it be seen and acknowledged, of being told that something you’d made had worth. All the judging algorithm had to do was make it so the game could reasonably successfully determine which you’d worked hard on and which you’d hastily crapped out and evaluate them appropriately, just to ensure that you knew it was paying attention.

This may seem fake or trivial, but this loop of the player communicating something and the game responding is the core of what a game is. It doesn’t need to be a real or detailed response, it just has to be real enough to show the player that someone, or something, is listening.

A game is a collection of symbols and rules for how those symbols can interact with one another. I described these as being obstacles and tools, one of which defines the parameters of success and the other of which are used to navigate through those parameters – but the division between the two isn’t necessarily as harsh as I implied. Sometimes obstacles and tools are the same – that is, sometimes you can use one obstacle to navigate another.

There are a number of interesting examples of this – you could jump off of an opponent’s head to reach a higher platform or, inversely, you could jump to a higher platform to cut off an opponent’s pursuit. You could lead a group of enemies from one faction to encounter a group of enemies from another faction so they start fighting each other, or you might reposition a trap to activate another trap safely. You might even intentionally jump on an exploding trap to boost yourself to a normally unreachable rooftop. In addition to obstacles sometimes behaving like tools, on occasion a tool will take on the characteristics of an obstacle. The most common example that we encounter in games is probably the hand grenade, which is both an extremely potent weapon and also a convenient way to quickly separate the component parts of your bloody carcass.

There’s no reason for tools and obstacles to be different at all, in fact, when they all just boil down to being a set of physical properties and behaviors. There’s no reason for an object to know what its purpose is, only for it to behave in accordance with a set of instructions. In Spelunky, for example, you can pick up and throw almost everything in the game – rocks, pots, laser turrets, unconscious yeti – and, once an object has been thrown, it affects the environment in pretty much the same way no matter what it happens to be – well, unless it happens to be explosive, in which case its effects will be more dramatic. It’s actually fairly commonplace to throw a rock to set off an explosive only to have the rock blasted back in your face by the explosion and hit you… into a yeti who throws you onto a collapsing platform which falls on top of a mine which blasts you into a pit.

When items are agnostic of their origins and purpose, surprisingly intricate interactions become possible. In many other games, rocks would only be useful for hurting opponents or for setting off traps – in many other games mines would only be activated by the player, enemy bodies would be inert, explosions would only affect things which could be damaged. It’s fascinating what can be achieved when we allow items to be exactly what they are, instead of design them specifically to fit a particular role in the game.

Another interesting example is Phantom Brave, a tactical RPG from Nippon Ichi Software: In this game, the main character Marona is the only living character you control, with all of your teammates being ghosts she has befriended and which she can summon to help. The catch is, to summon a ghost she has to have something to summon them into, which can be something as ordinary as an everyday bush or rock or as ornate as a cursed sword. Whatever they get summoned into, they gain properties of that object so, for instance, if you summon someone into a tree they’ll probably be more vulnerable to fire damage. The other catch is that literally any object on the battlefield, including other characters, can be picked up and used as a weapon. These systems, interacting with others such as a system where every item comes with a stat-modifying adjective before it, enable some really strange and intriguing strategies. Sometimes it’s necessary to pick up one of your characters and toss them across a pit, pick up an enemy and beat up his teammate with his body, or summon a weak character holding a really nice rock you’ve found and have them drop it there for you to summon a more important fighter into. Later in the game some enemies are even scripted to start picking up and throwing powerful items off of the stage to keep you from summoning allies into them.

In some ways, this functional agnosticism of game objects is the default – when I say a game is a collection of symbols and rules, I’m not just speaking conceptually, but also in terms of how games are made, what the internal programming logic that goes into their operation is. So, one might ask, if this is the natural state of the game, and if this creates so many interesting and emergent situations, why do so few designers allow their games this kind of leeway? Unfortunately, when you increase the possibility space in a game this way, you also increase the odds of something going haywire, of an uncontrolled feedback loop or absurd dominant strategy that completely undermines the intended game design. Part of why this openness was possible in Spelunky and Phantom Brave is that these are very tightly controlled designs – Spelunky through having a small set of game elements with only a couple of methods of interaction and a straightforward and minimal progress path, and Phantom Brave through presenting a restrained and traditional tactical RPG interface. For a look at what this ends up looking like without this sort of restraint, take a look at Dwarf Fortress – which is an important and fascinating game, to be sure, but is not easily accessible to most audiences and results in scenarios which, though they are amazing stories, frequently represent bizarre and illogical breakdowns of the symbolic logic as the system recursively interacts with itself.

Still, it’s worth considering: How am I restraining this object, making it behave in a more constrained way than it has to – and a less interesting way than it could? How would it affect the overall design if these constraints were to just, maybe… disappear?