I enjoy stories. Many years ago I stumbled upon the realisation that, since I enjoy stories, perhaps I would enjoy making them too. I did.
I enjoy games. I am now at a point where I am considering that, since I enjoy games, perhaps I will enjoy making them too.
Stories are for many things. For me they are sometimes about discovery or escape or explosive emotional payoffs. The best stories are for people mostly.
Games are for many things. For me they are sometimes about discovery or escape or challenge. The best games are for people mostly.
~ Let’s Unpack That ~
(The Joy Of) Discovery
There are many forms of discovey in stories, and while the narrative discoveries in murder mysteries and detecive thrillers are interesting, those are not the discoveries I am referring to here.
Many of the stories that compel me are set in future/magical/fantastic worlds and part of the story is discovering the rules of the world. From epic fantasy adventures such as Lord of the Rings to (relatively) quieter intimate struggles as in The Martian, the world is a character and as we learn more about that character we become more connected to and immersed in it.
The appeal of discovery is in part I’m sure related to Escape (below). In itself, though, the excitement and intrigue intilled by finding new things, piecing the puzzle together, in general unlocking the childhood part of you that picks things up and puts them in your mouth, is a strong part of storytelling in my books.
Just as in stories, in games I find this worldbuilding compelling too. Except in games I have agency over my discoveries, which makes them even more exciting! These aspects of discovery range from literally discovering things about how my actions can change the world (as in most RTS games), to the meta discoveries, easter eggs, that developers leave littered through games like Portal.
Since I am far newer to the world of games than the world of stories, part of this journey for me will be determining which aspects of worldbuilding will translate from storytelling (specifically filmmaking and writing), and what new strategies I will need to employ to create compelling worlds.
Story References: The Lord of the Rings, The Martian, Children of Time, Discworld
Game References: The Sims, Kerbal Space Program, Portal
(The Joy Of) Escape
Part of why I’m so interested in coherent, interesting, discoverable worlds is they make for great places of escape. In my younger years stories offered me a way to escape from bullying. Later, as a teenager they offered me a way to escape the terrifyingly close violence across South Africa. Not physically escape it, of course, but a way to escape the paralysing persistence of it. Later still, stories offered a way to escape family trauma, the awful world at large, and the general mundanity that existence becomes (see Joyful Militancy).
Stories offer justice, inspiration, hope. They show us the way things could be and the way things should be. It’s okay to escape into them, and bring back a piece of that world into this one. Or just to leave this one for a bit.
I found escape games much later than stories. The first game that really took me away from the world was Firewatch. Firewatch created a consistent, interesting, and oh so beautiful world to immerse myself in away from worldly concerns.
Since Firewatch I’ve found other games that have offered escape, and heard of many more (still have to get my hands on No Man’s Sky). The escape can be in the form of the narrative engagement of Mass Effect, the strategic engagement of Sins of a Solar Empire, or the purely aesthetic (in the both meanings) engagement of something like Firewatch. Or something that does all three like The Witcher 3?
Story References: Star Wars, The Lord of The Rings, Shakespeare, Discworld
Game References: Firewatch, Witcher 3, Mass Effect
(The Joy Of) Challenge
The idea of a resolution in stories is a well documented one. Aristotle got the ball rolling writing about the ‘Anagnorisis’, a moment where the true nature of the protagonist, antagonist, or world is revealed, resulting in a resolution to the story. In various ways the lead up to this moment can make or break it – the emotional payoff can be satistying or dissonant. Since then writers, poets, and filmmakers have honed the craft of building up to satisfying emotional payoffs in the context of fictional characters we identify with (or not). A good rule of thumb is the more challenges a character goes through, the more satisfying the payoff. As a former writing instructor of mine often caricaturedly said, “Raise The Stakes!”.
Games are fascinating to me because it’s no longer an identified character going through predetermined struggles. It’s the player going through them, and they’re not necessarily predetermined! The payoff for defeating challenges is direct; games cut out the middle person!
This is not groundbreaking news. Games are challenging and that is what makes them fun. What I am curious about is what we as designers can do to make the overcoming of a challenge more than the sum of its parts. In the same way that the reveal of Oedipus’ situation was far more devastating than merely stating the facts, how can we curate games where the accomplishment is more than the simple fun of, as Bernard Suits put it, “overcoming unnecessary obstacles”. This reveal could be something about the story or world of the game itself, or perhaps about the players playing it.
Story References: Oedipus Rex, Star Wars, Endymion, Harry Potter
Game References: Portal, Braid, Dark Souls?
(The Joy Of) People
It’s a little pithy to start with ‘stories bring people together’ but here we are. From massive cultural fandoms to quiet moments of geeking out with someone over an obscure foreign sci-fi book that you both chanced upon, stories do… bring people together.
I would estimate that > 97% of all my gaming time ever has been in isolation, in a dark room on my own forgetting time as I enter the flow of whatever adventure or exploration I am on. I am not part of any online gaming communities and during my heavy videogame years did not have the internet anyway.
Despite (or as a result of?) the above, with a few exceptions all of my favourite or stand out memories of gaming come from multiplayer, usually in-person experiences. These memories range from being 12 years old at my first Age of Empires LAN party to recent board game nights that offer a brief respite from the making/thinking/doing of ITP culture.
It is clear that to me the important games grow or catalyse relationships (in my case these relationships have mostly been friendships but I won’t be so limiting by using just that term). In the same way that ‘it goes without saying’ that stories bring people together, it goes without saying that play then bonds them together.
Story References: Star Wars, Harry Potter, MCU, Three Body Problem, The Martian
Game References: Age of Empires 2 (multiplayer), Risk Legacy, all board games except Monopoly
The Escape Manifesto
Here is my game design manifesto.
What to Make
- Make the world of your game discoverable, interesting.
- Fill it with ways to understand the world better.
- Make things that are hopeful and/or inspiring.
- Sometimes to see hope you must first see despair. Things don’t need to be peachy all the time.
- Make challenges interesting.
- Think: Is this just hard to do, or is this hard to do because it serves a purpose?
- Also think: what is the emotional payoff for overcoming this challenge?
- Make games that people want to play together.
- Or at least talk about together.
- Make games to form friendships or play on dates.
How to Make
- It’s okay to be a generalist. Discovery happens both at the cutting edge and when you mix stuff together.
- The Crunch is bullshit. Iterate daily and in small chunks.
- But also some of your best work is done as immanent deadlines approach so be aware of that.
- Use modern graphics technology, art in general, wisely and interestingly.
- Immersive worlds can be squares on a screen or stunningly rendered physically accurate masterpiece paintings. Use what fits your world.
- Don’t use exciting visuals as a crutch for a badly developed world.