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Game Design

Most games only give us weapons. Yes, some also give us a button for talking, and a handful allow us to guide a conversation but, more often than not, all we can do is shoot or cut. Our only windows into the worlds of these games, then – worlds of love and loss, myth and legend, tragedy and comedy – are the holes we carve into them for ourselves. Our perspectives of violence shape these worlds, and our experiences within them, but a world far vaster and more meaningful than our small, mean, and violent place within them can still be implied. Even if a vast cathedral becomes just set dressing for a gunfight, even if it has nothing to do with us at all, it still implies a religion, still implies builders, still implies history.

It’s impossible not to feel a little out of place, even if this church is made explicitly to have a gunfight happen in it. We are still intruders against the spirit of what this place might once have been.

Game designers have started acknowledging the strangeness and off-puttingness of this innate violence more explicitly in their designs. Yet, despite knowing that these constructs will always seem weird and artificial, we are still loath to pass beyond the types of games we once loved. We still want to fight nazis and zombies, dragons and aliens – but now, perhaps, we’re more interested in having a good reason to do so. It becomes difficult to ignore the suggestion that every enemy must once have been a person like us – and, if so, what does it mean about them, and about us, if we kill them? Even when it’s all make-believe, it still has to make a certain amount of sense – and what’s implied when you think about it too much, or think about it at all, was all to often very ugly.

So now we play ghosts, terrifying beyond comprehension, imbued only with the power to deal death. Revenants, returned from the grave to right wrongs. The last few games I’ve played, Dark Souls and Axiom Verge and Hollow Knight, feature a protagonist who stands at the boundary of life and death. These characters return from beyond the clutch of the grave to fix the world that wouldn’t allow them rest. We, as players, occupy these border characters, avatars of the boundary separating life from death, and fight to bring peace – even if it’s the peace of a shared grave. We are recontextualized from a murderous opponent into a kind of shaman, helping long-restless spirits find peace at last.

As I develop my game, write out its story and characters, I find myself walking this same path, creating this same archetype. The framing is different but, still, my protagonist stands at the boundary of life and death with the others, poised to guide misplaced souls from one side to another.

This might not seem new. After all, heroes have brushes with death all the time: “No one could have survived that” is a cliché for a reason. What’s changed is there’s an explicit acknowledgment that even if we fight for the right reasons, even if there really was no other way, we are still beyond the pale. We have no place in the world we are fighting for. We are remnants of the trauma that made us. At the end of the ghost story, the ghost is laid to rest, the haunting past uncovered and resolved.

Perhaps, as time moves forward, we will create games more comfortable with non-violence. Perhaps, as well, we’ll find new and interesting ways to contextualize our violence into a world and story in ways that don’t seem crass and tone-deaf. If so this may be a discrete generation of games we can look back to: The twilit years of Dark Souls, where we all stood on the boundary of the afterlife and judged who might live and who must die.

 

As someone who likes games, I find the vocabulary that people use to describe games that they didn’t like, or that they found frustrating and infuriating, quite interesting. When you describe a game as mean-spirited, unfair, or disrespectful of your time, you probably mean something different than if you were to use similar terms to describe a written narrative like a book or film. We ascribe malice to the designer, call the game sadistic or cruel or condescending, based on the challenges it presents to us.

This is particularly curious because one of the main reasons we come to these games is to be presented with challenges – and yet, when the challenges prove to be, well, challenging, there’s a common reaction of declaring those challenges invalid. At the extreme end, those challenges may be declared unfair or the game may be accused of cheating – but, just as often, saying that a particular challenge is poorly designed or that the player isn’t given adequate tools to prepare for it.

The common thread through most complaints, extreme and minor, is usually that of fairness. And what we consider to be fair in game design is something that has shifted a lot over time. In the 80s, as the scope of game design rapidly exploded, anything went. People got frustrated, sure, but because their expectations were largely unformed by other games and they were approaching each game largely as a new experience they didn’t feel especially put upon. As the language of game design established itself and came to be understood by its audience, people grew angry when games would disregard those established conventions of game design. Then, on into the end of the 2000’s and beginning of the 2010’s, it started to become clear that a lot of what we had considered ‘good game design’ was really just the most facilely approachable style, that we’d created an industry of the interactive equivalent of children’s books, made with large type and short words to be simple and enjoyable – and there was a backlash.

It is, perhaps, helpful here to distinguish between fairness and game balance. Game balance is not so much a concession to the player, to make sure that they don’t feel put upon, as it is a way to ensure that the different aspects of the game work well with each other, that the player isn’t encouraged to just always pick a dominant strategy and stick with it. The clearest difference is in the intent behind them: The intent of fairness is to avoid frustrating player, while the intent behind balance is to ensure that the player is encouraged to explore the design thoroughly.

A game like Dark Souls, would have been considered fair and fun if it was introduced in 1991, unfair if it was introduced in 2001, and was considered largely fair again when it was actually released in 2011 – though the consensus there is far from complete. Demon’s Souls, its predecessor, came out just a couple of years earlier – and, while people were starting to get on board with what the series could offer, at the time many people still regarded it as little better than an arbitrary and cruelly punishing curiosity.

Thus, while I tend to dislike the approach of selling Dark Souls as the most difficult game ever, as with the ‘Prepare to Die’ edition of the first game, this presentation does serve a purpose. While it may mislead the player as to what’s actually good and interesting about the game, this cues the player to modify their expectations regarding what to perceive as fair. What’s we expect in a fantasy action RPG and what we expect in a fantasy action RPG that says “Prepare to Die” on the cover are vastly different: for one thing, we are prepared to die. Within this framework, we can expect that much of the constraint that many developers take on in the quest for fairness will be lacking. The irony is that in a post-Dark Souls world this kind of signaling is no longer quite so necessary, since these games have redefined genre norms to an extent where, as long as you communicate some degree of reflex challenge and obtuseness of systems in the game’s description, people will largely be on-board with what you’re selling – especially once word-of-mouth about a new Souls-like game spreads to the eternally hungering fan base of the series. If Dark Souls were released now, it probably wouldn’t have such a ham-fisted subtitle – but that ham-fisted subtitle is part of what it allowed it to have the success that now obviates the need for a ham-fisted subtitle.

Another trend away from fairness and towards unpredictability was enabled by the modernized incarnations of the classic ‘Roguelike’ genre. With Spelunky and its ilk, because the game environments were no longer created by the designer but by an algorithm players quickly came to accept that some situations would be unfair and regarded them as opportunities for clever inventiveness rather than frustration. Any challenge was allowed as long as it wasn’t literally impossible to solve. However, some designs realize this more effectively than others: Whereas in Spelunky a challenging level generation is brutally difficult and dangerous in a way that is exciting to overcome, in The Binding of Isaac it’s merely slow and tedious, forcing the player to slowly chip away at opponents a few points at a time for potentially a couple of hours – one of the few flies in the ointment of an otherwise very exciting and interesting game design.

While it may seem obviously desirable for a game experience to be as fair as possible to the player, trying to always present a fair experience will inevitably tie the designer’s hands. A world with no unpleasant surprises, where all choices are equally valid, where nothing is ever out of reach and every problem has an immediate and obvious solution, sounds like a paradise. However, in the context of a medium that thrives on presenting its audience with interesting problems to solve, it more often than not creates a flat, dead, world, so painfully blandly sweet it rots the teeth from your jaw.

Not only does it remove life and spirit from the experience, it also sends a kind of weird mixed message. The plots of video games are frequently about a loner, outnumbered and outgunned, fighting for what’s right – and yet the mechanics of these games are tortuously dedicated to fairness, to making sure the player never actually feels endangered and alone the way their character does. To put it in the words of dads everywhere: Life Isn’t Fair. Creating games whose main purpose is to create worlds that are merely fair, at the expense of creating worlds that are challenging or interesting, is one of the least rewarding ways to use the resources we have as designers.

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A work of art is both a single object and a collection of individual choices – sentences in a novel, assets in a game, instrumental parts in a piece of music, each of these is added and shaped with intent to achieve the overall goal of the piece. This is pretty self-evident, but often is not explicitly thought about by the creator during the creation. In some ways, it’s better not to think about it – for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

You have the theme or message or whatever of the work: Sometimes you know exactly what this is, sometimes you have to hone in on it carefully in the process of working on the piece. With each new stroke you add to the composition, you can choose to support this theme, to add to its message by echoing it; you can contrast with this theme, to push against it and by so doing ground and emphasize it; or to layer new elements onto the theme, add details that seem completely disconnected but add complexity.

Say you have a picture of a gigantic statue: To support how gigantic this statue is, you could add comparatively tiny human figure to show how it dwarfs the scale of humanity; to contrast, you could add a field of stars behind it or pull the viewpoint back, to show how even the greatest creations of humanity are minuscule in the greater scale of the universe; or you could add something different, a mural or a small scene between characters or some strange creature, to show that the story of this statue and the world it lives in is more complex than we might at first imagine.

Naive artists will, given the choice, always pick the first of these. I have been this kind of naive, and still often discover this kind of naivete in myself. It makes sense: I’m an artist, I know the impression I want to create, I should use everything I have in my toolbox to create the feeling I’m going for. And yet, most of the time, this kind of approach leads to something which feels flat, manipulative, and obvious. All bombast, all sorrow, all silliness, with no leavening by contrasting or diverging emotion, will inevitably feel flat and numbing.

This is why I said it’s probably better that most artists don’t think explicitly about their high-level intent and how to achieve it most of the time: The mindset of trying to achieve a specific emotional impact is difficult to separate from the mindset of how to most effectively bolster that tone in each particular instance. Much better to take freely from the chaos of the mind, to harness opportunities to create threads that flow alongside, flow against, or flow perpendicular to the main thread of the narrative as they occur to us.

However, for those of us who have a hard time not thinking about intent, have a hard time getting out of our heads and have a hard time not hammering the same points home with each individual component of a work, it might be worth it to keep these three thoughts in mind: Support, Contrast, Layer.

A tapestry is not woven out of only threads in parallel.

tboiab

I’ve been watching old videos of the original The Binding of Isaac, and it’s strange looking back. As many huge improvements as Rebirth, the remake that came out a couple of years after, made to the base game, still it feels like something was lost in translation. Several things, actually…

Maybe it would be best to start with talking about all the reasons people generally regard Rebirth as categorically superior to the original. The first game had notorious framerate issues, many items didn’t work properly with each other, and it was built using technology that made it impossible to expand – many people say it reached the limits of Flash, Adobe’s multimedia tool, but Isaac was actually not just built in Flash, but built using Actionscript 2, the version of Flash’s scripting language that was deprecated in 2007. Since I’m building my own game in Flash (technically AIR, the standalone equivalent), this is a narrative that I feel compelled to correct whenever it comes up. Rebirth could have easily been built in Flash. But I digress: The point being, Rebirth fixes all these issues, so when viewed entirely within the scope of the shortcomings of the original it definitely seems like a superior game.

Looking back though, something seems off with what we have now – and it’s interesting to examine why that is. There are aspects of the design, art, and music that just fail to click in quite the same way.

The least contentious of these is the music. Nearly everyone preferred the music from the original game, composed by Danny Baranowsky, to that in Rebirth, composed by Ridiculon (Matthias Bossi and Jon Evans). The new soundtrack actually does some cool stuff, with music layers that fade in and out based on what’s currently happening in the gameplay – but this actually undermines part of what made Danny B’s score so amazing. With parts fading in and out, it becomes necessary to create a consistent base track for these to play on top of, which makes it impossible to construct an overall narrative flow to the music. Consequentially, Ridiculon’s music is background music in the truest sense, just providing accompaniment to the experience of the game, whereas Danny B’s score actually defines the tone of the game and creates its own narrative high and low points which interplay with the gameplay highs and lows to create a more complex experience. Combined with a generally more melancholy and creepy tone, it makes the overall musical experience of playing Rebirth rather lacking comparatively.

Aesthetically, I have a bone to pick with the game similar to that regarding the defamation of Flash. When they announced that Rebirth was going to have a “16-bit” art style, I thought that was a peculiar choice, but was willing to see what they came up with. What they came up with was, unfortunately, kind of a pathetic excuse – which seems harsh, but I promise I have a reason for saying that.

First, let’s talk about the art in the original. Isaac used vector art, a specialty of Flash: Vector art is a style of rendering that stores images and a set of drawing instructions, a list of lines and colors. This is a powerful tool because these instructions can be easily rotated, scaled, color-shifted, and so forth with no loss of quality, but it pays for this in making detailed art very processor intensive. Rebirth, conversely, uses raster images for its assets: Raster images are what we’re generally used to working with in photoshop and other editors, just a grid of colors which can look realistic at its native resolution but looks notably blocky at lower resolutions. 16-bit games used raster images at a set low resolution to create a crunchy but vibrant look that is still beloved today. However, the entire design of Isaac was based around arbitrarily scaling and coloring assets which, as mentioned, works a lot better with vector images than raster images. However, for whatever reason the Rebirth team didn’t want to work with vector images, so to conceal the shortcomings of scaled, rotated, or otherwise processed raster images they used super low-resolution raster images and called the resulting look “16-bit”.

This is kind of insulting. There’s no coherence to the resolution – even when the pixels align along the grid the objects that own the pixels move with subpixel accuracy, creating a smoothness that’s impossible in a true 16-bit environment, and as game objects scale up or down in accordance with the mechanics they turn into grotesque pixellated bullshit. Also, because they use such low-res assets, there’s no room for detail in any of the enemies: The original enemy designs, though crude, have an expressiveness to their lines that makes them creepier and more compelling. While pixel art has a great deal of expressiveness in its own right, within the context of Rebirth that expressiveness is curtailed by being constantly squashed and stretched, one of the ugliest things you can do to pixel art.

globin-comparison

The design issues with the game snuck up on me. In general, the gameplay choices made in Rebirth are very smart, limiting boring and overpowered tactics in favor of more interesting and aggressive ones, expanding the possibility space for encounters by adding lots of new items and enemies and rooms, and generally spicing thing up by adding new interactions. However, something weird started to happen as more and more items were added. I first noticed it with the item “Gimpy”, which is… exactly what it sounds like.

gimpy_plain

…And this comes to a fairly fine point about what Isaac is and is not. The Binding of Isaac has a lot of kind of gross and shocking content, but all of it is contextualized by the understanding that this is a child’s conception of the world, and all the weird gross things in it are exactly the sorts of weird gross things that kids tend to develop obsessions with – bodily functions, deformities, and so forth. Up until Rebirth, Isaac items tended to fit one of three themes: Everyday objects granted extraordinary significance, religious symbols, or video game references. These make total sense from the perspective of a weird shut-in kid who only knows his toys, the random things he finds, and the creepy religious stories his family tells him. But once you add S&M gear to the mix, it no longer becomes about expressing Isaac’s character, about life in the mind of an isolated and possibly abused child, but just about being weird and gross for the sake of weird and gross. By itself Gimpy is just one item, but it indicates an overall trend away from being expressive and meaningful and towards adding stuff to the game just for the sake of having it there.

In the end, Rebirth’s flaws are covered up by the simple expedient of repetition. Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t care that the music lacks narrative flare, you don’t even hear it any more. Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t notice that everything is in a different resolution – the game just looks the way the game looks, why would it look any different? Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t see a gimp mask, you see a way to restore health in difficult situations. You see the frame rate stable at 60 frames per second, you see the hundreds of weird and interesting item interactions. It may have made total sense to prioritize the things they did in developing the game: In so doing they’ve made a game that people who love Isaac can play for thousands of hours and still enjoy.

However, they’ve also made it so the chill I felt when I first played the game, the genuine sense of visceral discomfort and confusion and striving understanding, are now obscured behind a layer of generic video game.

pong

Pong and other early arcade games feel so primitive to us now in 2017. It seems intuitive to credit technological advances for the massive difference in complexity between the light arcade games of 35 years ago and the many more complex forms of video game we play today, but how much does technology really have to do with that shift? Complexity of input and gameplay systems increased over time, but not nearly in proportion with technological advances. No, the biggest difference between games then and games today is that today’s games are made to be played by ‘gamers’, people who have played other games before and been shaped by the experience.

When Pong succeeded, it did so because it was a game that could be played by anyone. Though many think of Pong as being the first arcade game, many players today would likely prefer to play the actual first arcade game, Computer Space, a game of careful movement and twitch reflex which was released more than five years before Pong – however, it was not especially commercially successful – not the way Pong was – likely because it was too complicated and unintuitive for the mass audience, who were by-and-large not technically inclined and were also slightly inebriated.

With no prior exposure to video games, members of the general population had not built up the dexterity and coordination required to successfully play a multi-button interactive game. “People learned how to play video games as a group over time,” says Bushnell. “I think they could have handled it much better two or three years later.

45 years after Pong, as much as game technology has progressed, game literacy has progressed much further. Most people with any interest in the medium have built up huge specialized skillsets that allow us to appreciate nuanced designs that would be universally mystifying 45 years ago. We have progressed beyond the two-directional wheel, to the four-directional joystick with one button, to controllers with a directional pad and 4 buttons, to controllers with a directional pad, two joysticks, and 10-buttons-plus-you-can-click-the-joysticks-down-like-buttons-too. In the meanwhile, games were developed for PC which had the keyboard as standard equipment, a controller with 50 buttons and nothing else. For a while games tried to use as many keys as possible, but developers eventually realized this was ridiculous and tried to mostly restrict themselves to the left side of the keyboard – particularly as the mouse gained popularity as a standard input mechanism.

Video game complexity increased hand-in-hand with video game literacy until the early 2000s, at which point popular games were intricate or finicky enough that only people who had been playing games for much of their lives understood them. A kind of equilibrium was reached, for a while, where the really complex games mostly went to PC for a smaller but more dedicated audience and gaming consoles got most of the lighter more arcadey fare. However, game companies tried to unify these audiences, and managed in so doing to create games that were still intimidatingly complex to people who had never played games, but at the same time insultingly condescending and easy to people who had been playing games all their lives, thus satisfying exactly no one with the precision only the way the invisible hand of the market can achieve.

Now we’re at an interesting point: Because games can be readily developed at many different team sizes and price points, we have something of a reemergence of the console/PC paradigm but with a softer barrier: Very simple games like Super Hexagon mostly find their way to mobile platforms as primary targets, and very complex games like XCOM mostly find their way to PC and, to a lesser degree, consoles as primary targets, but both also find themselves frequently ported to each other’s dominant platform. We’re finally beginning to establish, however haphazardly, a curriculum of game design, by which new players can discover how to engage with a vast and expanding medium

It’s strange now to look back and realize that no game experience is really self-contained. Each game teaches us to play itself and, as game developers learn by playing games, the many clashing ideas of what a game is or can be propagates through them memetically. Every game you have played before contributes to the experience of the game you are playing now, for good or ill, by shaping the vocabulary you use to explore it. And like that we build a bridge into the future, trying to construct a path to the experience we imagine a game can one day make manifest.

sistine

One of the hardest lessons for me when it comes to art is that it’s not always possible to take a piece that is unsatisfactory and work on it for long enough to make it good. This is counter-intuitive, especially when it comes to digital work: After all, it’s just a collection of pixels, infinitely malleable, so surely if I just work long enough the pixels will come aligned in just the right way, come together to form the incredible work of art that I know could be there. So they may, given enough time and effort, but it’s just as likely, or more so, that all that work merely serves to blur the outline that first gave it energy and potential.

At first I was hesitant to work in physical media for this reason. It terrified me to think that each stroke, each movement of the brush and each fleck of pigment, was an irrevocable decision that shaped the piece, with no undo button available. Well, I’m still not entirely comfortable with that, but it’s become more apparent to me over time that pixels aren’t so different. In theory, they are completely controllable: In practice, that is not how artwork is made, and each stroke, each randomly generated fleck, becomes part of the history of a piece, shapes its final form in subtle ways.

Though I’m speaking here in terms of visual art, the principle holds true in all forms. The words we choose matter, even if they are edited out later; the code we write matters, even when it gets refactored; the melodies that go unused, the frames that are redundant, the level that gets cut for time, these all still make their mark on the finished work. Every step we take in creating changes the creation, even those we take pains to erase – perhaps especially those we take pains to erase.

However, no stroke matters more than the first. The first motion of brush or pen, the first sentence, the first object you orient in your program, these form the shape of all that is to come. This is why there’s such a focus on doing quick works, in gesture drawing and game jams; it’s all about practicing that initial motion, so that when the time comes for polish we find ourselves polishing gems rather than turds.

Thus artists have a complex and tense relationship with ideas. The idea is the spirit of that first stroke, and placed properly it can form the basis of a masterpiece. Or, perhaps, rather than being the first stroke it might be the accent, the perfect twist that adds the character that distinguishes a work. However, ideas are in all cases worthless without the effort and mastery to put them into practice.

Additionally, the difference between an idea and the idea is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning*. Bereft of context, there’s no such thing as a good idea: It is the context within which an idea is made manifest that makes it a fumble or a master stroke. An idea is simultaneously invaluable and valueless, priceless and worthless; we write them down and hoard them because we never know which idea we will need, but also know that no idea is valuable unless it can actually be realized.

paintedworldbridge

The scariest thing about art to me now is not the tyranny of the blank page, but the certainty when I begin that I have no real idea where I’m going.

I have meticulously planned out every moment of my game, and right now the version of it in my head is good but I don’t think it’s great. This is scary to me, because this is a huge chunk of my life to spend on something if I’m not going to be satisfied with the result – I suppose that’s true for a lot of game development, but since I’m not sharing the development with a team all that weight falls squarely on my head. However, what I know about art and what I know about game development is that the magic isn’t in the plan, it’s in the moment of creation, in the poignant details and pivotal moments.

Nevertheless, as Eisenhower said, plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable. Every decision I make now is still going to be important, just not important in the ways I expect. There’s a butterfly’s lifetime worth of hurricanes between here and there, and my control over how this plays out is simultaneously absolute and negligible.

Right now, I have the blueprints for a bridge, but I don’t know where I’m going to be building it or what I’m going to be building it out of. With what I have now, I know that – depending on what comes next – it could either collapse or it could create a pathway to someplace no one has ever been before, and which of those happens depends partially on me, my expertise and artistic instinct, but just as much on chance and happenstance.

And I have to build it. This is how the job is done. This is how art is made.

We walk by falling forwards into each new step, over and over again*. To expect to be ready for the fall, to be certain of the recovery, is too much to ask, so each step we take forward is a tiny leap of faith. We keep doing it because to do otherwise is to stand in place, and any room can be purgatory if you stand there long enough, and with each moment you wait to take a step your legs will just get heavier.

So what I’m saying is that this is scary, and I think my game could be bad, but it’s also necessary, and I think my game could be great – and that I expect to always feel this way, forever, even after EverEnding, and that if I ever lose this feeling then something has gone wrong, and I will find that all of a sudden I am standing in place – and, even if the scenery looks like it’s moving, it’s just the flickering of a screen that someone forgot to turn off. Then it’s time to walk, or fall, again.

*Thanks Laurie Anderson