9 Years, 9 Lessons on Horror

It has now been over 9 years since we released Amnesia: The Dark Descent. That is a bloody long time, and feels like we should celebrate that by talking about the craft of horror games.

Horror games are quite a different beast when it comes to the game industry at large. Most other genres revolve around what the player does. In a turn-based strategy you take turns doing strategy:

Into the Breach

 In a first-person shooter you shoot things from a first-person perspective:

Doom

In a Match 3 game you match three thingies:

Candy Crush: Soda

In a horror game, the activity is not at all as important. What is important is that the experience is a spooky one. This makes designing horror games different from designing within other genres. Many times the standard industry tricks just won’t work, which makes one think about game design in a different light.

In the past 9 years we have learned a great deal about horror games, and to celebrate the occasion, I wanted to share 9 lessons we have learned over the years.

That being said, I don’t see these lessons as only useful for horror games. There’s quite a bit of overlap with other genres, especially any games that aim for a narrative-heavy experience.

And finally – this is by no means an exhaustive list. Still, the lessons here are at the core of the craft of making scary video games.

Lesson 1: Horror is not enjoyable

The basic emotion of horror is not a pleasant one – yet people play horror games wanting to experience horror. This is the paradox of horror as entertainment. This paradox requires game developers to be careful in how they deliver the experience to the player.

You could draw an analogy between horror games and rollercoasters. The basic purpose of a rollercoaster is to simulate the sensation of falling. Under controlled circumstances the experience of falling is thrilling and fun (at least for a good portion of people). But if you put someone in a barrel and push them down a cliff, chances are they will not find the experience fun at all. Even if they survive unscathed, the whole ordeal would be a horrible experience.

The same is true for horror games. If you have a game that only relies on jumpscares – figuratively throwing people off a cliff in a barrel – few people will consider that fun. This became apparent in certain maps in Penumbra. We thought it would be good enough for a scary gameplay section to have a maze and some monsters. Instead of becoming mazes of fear, they instead became mostly… annoying. Amnesia: The Dark Descent had similar issues towards the end, where the monster encounters were just that, not supported by any other aspects. At that point the game no longer felt as entertaining.

Well, a familiar face.

Lesson 2: Players are working against you

For a horror game developer, the worst enemy is… the players. Seriously, if we could sit around and make games without having to worry about what the players will do and think when playing the game, life would be so much simpler!

As mentioned before, being scared is not a pleasant feeling. Therefore the players will try to optimize the feeling away, often unconsciously. In the end, the players will ruin the intended experience for themselves.

Take the demon dogs from our first game, Penumbra: Overture. The game takes a bunch of time to build them up as creepy monsters that stalk the dark mines. However their AI has some weaknesses that some people are very quick to catch. Hence the dogs become easy to defeat, and are no longer scary.

Can’t get me. I’m on a box.

And the crazy thing is that the players complain when this happens! They probe the system for flaws and choose to exploit them, yet want the dogs to remain scary. So their behaviour ends up going against their will.

Some games solve issues of player exploitation simply by making the enemies extremely hard (think Dark Souls): they make sure the monsters are just as hard to beat as they look scary. Another approach is to instead skip much of the gameplay (think Dear Esther): if there are no mechanics, there’s nothing for the player to exploit – problem solved, right?

I don’t think either of these solutions is optimal. Instead I think one should aim for a third route: making the players think about actions in a more narrative fashion. More about that later!

Lesson 3: Scares alone won’t make a horror game

Horror is like a spice that defines a dish. You cannot do without it, but you can’t cook a dish solely out of spices either. That would be just gross.

As an example, let’s take three horror movies I consider to be at the top of their genre: Alien, The Exorcist and Ringu. All three movies deal with very different subjects, have different styles, and are overall different from one another. But there is one thing they have in common: they all have very few scares in them!

Instead each movie is mostly about the characters, the discussions, the anticipation of the horror – building up the atmosphere and the dread of things to come. Very little time is spent actually facing the horror.

Let’s get back to our roller coaster analogy. When you think about it, the actual roller coaster ride lasts a very short time. Most of the time is spent doing things like buying a ticket, standing in line, and hearing other people scream. All these actions are not superfluous extras – they build up for the actual ride, and are crucial to the overall experience.

When we first made the study section of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, we implemented a ton of jumpscares. Books fell down from shelves, doors banged, pianos started playing and so forth. But as the map became more complete, it felt like something was off. So we reduces the scares to just a couple, and instead focused on letting the player learn the castle’s mysteries. At first we were afraid this would make the level too boring – but as it turns out, spacing the scares apart made players much more scared than previously.

In horror, less is often more.

Lesson 4: Fun gameplay is just too… fun

In a horror game more than any other, the players go in expecting to have a bad time. And as designers we want them to feel anxiety, despair, and a whole array of negative emotions. But gameplay – because it’s so damn engaging – tends to counteract all these juicy emotions.

Let’s use Dead Space as an example. When I started playing it, I was really scared, walking around slowly and peeking around every corner. Then, about an hour in, I learned how to kill the monsters, and what tricks I needed to survive.

Dead Space 2 promo art
All of the fun, none of the horror!

Not only did I get good at killing the monsters, I thought it was great fun! The things that used to terrify me now became a source of amusement. Instead of dreading the monster sounds they now made me excited – oh great, another necromorph to dismember!

So where did the fear go? It was simply overshadowed by the rewarding gameplay.

Us humans tend to have this thing called attention, and we only have a limited amount of it. If the game is constantly engaging the player with thinking about their aim, checking ammo, and looking for loot, there’s no room left for much else. In other words, the players’ brain will lack resources to frighten themselves.

The early designs of Amnesia: The Dark Descent included genre-typical weapons, and even guns. We also experimented with very elaborate puzzle set-ups, everything from swinging chandeliers to redirecting rays of light. All these caused the same issues as Dead Space. They were too fun, and took attention away from what mattered: getting scared.

Eventually we decided to reduce the “fun” elements the gameplay had – and it paid off.

We saw this very clearly when watching Let’s Plays of the Amnesia games. Since players didn’t have things like combat to pay attention to, they reacted to things they might not have even noticed in other games. A vague sound, almost like a footstep, was suddenly a reason to look for the nearest cupboard to hide in. Had the players minds been filled with thoughts of loot boxes, they would have never reacted like this.

Lesson 5: Narrative is a core element in good horror

So if engaging gameplay can be counteractive to the horror, and you need to be careful with the scares, what do you fill a horror game with?

While no silver bullet, narrative is a big part of the equation.

By building up a narrative, us game designers can make game worlds bigger and more intricate than they actually are in-game. We can prime the player into doing a lot of the scaring for themselves.

In order to explain this, let’s take a random image let’s take a random image of a quaint town:

Aww, I wanna go there. 🙂

This feels like a great place for an evening stroll, right?

Now let’s give this image some backstory. Put on some spooky music, like the Amnesia soundtrack, and read the following:

It has been two weeks since a huge storm cut the town from the rest of the world. All means of communication are down.

Today, our emergency services received a call – it just started out as static, a joke that kids would play, but then the screaming started. The screaming of people, then an otherworldly roar, nothing a man nor beast on Earth could make. I had to find out what happened to these people up the serpentine road from us. 

I am now here, yet no one else seems to be. It’s like everyone vanished. But as the cold sun sets down over the mountain, I get a sense of unease…

…And now look at the picture again.

The worst monster of all is leaving the lights once you’ve been murdered horribly.

Not so cozy anymore, right?

A new context leads to re-interpreting the environment based on this information, and get into a different mindset based on it. While you previously admired the view, you are now scanning it for signs of danger.

A big part of horror takes place inside a player’s head. And by fueling their imagination, we can turn a cozy village into a place of terror and despair.

Looking back on which areas worked in Penumbra, this component became apparent. The most loved environments were those where players could use lore and environmental clues to fantasize what happened… and what could happen. The expansion, Penumbra: Requiem, lacked a lot of this background information. So despite us designing some of our best puzzles and implementing interesting visuals, Requiem was received quite badly. Without a strong narrative component, the players didn’t get the experience they wanted.

Penumbra: Requiem, or as we call it, The Marc Game.

Lesson 6: The world must feel real

In order for a horror narrative to have proper impact, the world it takes place in must be taken seriously by the players. But what does “serious” mean? Grey and brown tones with no cartoonish elements? Not quite.

Let’s draw a parallel between real and imagined worlds. If you suffer from nightmares, there’s a trick to that: make a habit out of knocking on walls, tables, or whatever is closest to you. Eventually you will start doing the same when you’re asleep. However, when you knock on walls or a table in a dream, your hand is likely to go through the surface – that’s how you’ll know you are in a dream, and no longer need to be afraid of the world around you.

Making horror games is basically a business of creating nightmares. But it’s hard to be successful when you have a bunch of players (those damn players again!) constantly doing the equivalent of “knocking on surfaces”, simply by playing the game. As soon as they discover some sort of glitch the immersion of a terrifying world breaks, and it takes a long time to build it back up again.

Let’s look at an example from Penumbra again. In Penumbra we want the players to imagine that the demon dogs are “real”, implying all the traits (demon) dogs possess. So, we want players to be worried about encountering a dog, and hiding from it. However, some players “knocked on surfaces” by messing around with the environments, and figured out that the dogs can’t reach you if you camp on top of a box. So, whereas a real dog could jump up on the box and chomp the player up, the AI dog cannot. Therefore the fantasy of dogs as “real” is lost, and the game loses a bunch of its scariness.

Penumbra: Overture by IsisMasshiro on DeviantArt
The intended reaction when encountering a demon dog

Because of this effect, game developers have to be careful about how they construct environments, and what tools they give to the player. There should be enough things to do to make the place feel real. But not so many as to aid players in breaking the illusion.

Lesson 7: Keep it vague

You know creepypasta and scary photos you can find on the internet? Almost always the thing that makes them scary is that they leave a lot to the imagination. Seeing a silhouette and glowing eyes out in the corner of a photo feels threatening. A close-up glamour photo of the same monster does not.

AAH! What IS that?
Oh, just our good friend Terry bringing us a gift. (by ThiccBoiMyers on Discord)

As mentioned before, much of the horror comes from simply not being sure what the hell you’re looking at. It’s when there is a gap in our knowledge, a certain amount of uncertainty, that horror can really shine. This is especially true when you combine it with some sort of danger element.

It is quite common in games to make sure the player understands the systems in place as clearly as possible. This often results in some really daunting tutorials. Of course for some games, like fighting games, it’s important to have in-depth knowledge about the systems to be able to optimise the game. In horror games we actually want the opposite!

A vague and uncertain game system is like a creepy photo. You can make out enough to get an idea of what’s going on, but there’s still room for the imagination to go wild. Let’s use the health meter in Resident Evil as an example. Internally it is an analog property, a decimal number from 0 to some value, but the player will only ever know that it has “three” states. This strikes a great balance between giving information and being vague, and helps crank up the tension.

The sanity system in Amnesia: The Dark Descent is similarly vague. You know scary things – whatever those are – lower your sanity, and bad things – whatever those are – will happen if it drops too low, so you don’t want to risk it.

This was not always the case. We started out with a pretty straightforward gameplay system, hoping players would play along with it. However, people either game it or got frustrated by it. When we tweaked it so it was much less clear how it worked, it sparked player’s imaginations and it was much more enjoyable.

Alex isn’t looking so good.

Lesson 8: Players need a role

All stories are driven by the characters that are contained within it, and how a plot plays out is determined by the characteristics of these characters. Just imagine how different Jurassic Park would be if the annoying lawyer guy was replaced by Judge Dredd! So, in order to get the most of any narrative, it is crucial to establish roles.

Games are no different. The role that a player inhabits will determine what actions they have at their disposal, what their goals ore, and so forth. Knowing the character is a vital component in order for the player to be an active part of the story.

Yet this is one of those components that many horror games forget. You are often thrust into a story as some generic character. Often the thought behind this is that the player would “play as themselves”, but this is not how any narrative really works. In order to properly parse a story situation, you need to understand what kind of person is dealing with it.

Say that you come across a corpse. You are playing as Sherlock Holmes, a corpse means a case! You will want to search for clues and try to solve the mystery of how this person died.

Now imagine you’re playing as a flesh-eating ghoul. Now the same corpse is suddenly dinner – yum!

An alternate universe where Daniel is turned into a ghoul. Bon appetit!

In most areas, horror games are well beyond your average game in terms of narrative. But for some reason, a large portion of horror games just fail to set the player role properly. It’s strange, relying on a narrative backbone, yet losing so much of the atmosphere by not defining the player role.

Another big reason for defining roles is that it can help with some of the issues addressed earlier. For instance, it can limit the number of actions the player feels is rational to take. For example Penumbra’s protagonist Philip is a physics teacher, so while he could perhaps fight some demon dogs, it would be more logical to run and hide from aggressive humanoids.

This lesson we clearly learned in SOMA. At first we thought about having a non-speaking Simon with very little character. However, this made player distance themselves from the events. Things got a lot more personal when they played as a character who was reacting to what was happening. While players previously wouldn’t ponder the strange events in-depth, Simon pushing them in the right direction it worked much better.

Lesson 9: Agency is crucial

When I talk about agency, I’m not talking about the CIA. What I mean is agency of the free will kind. A game that has a lot of agency lets the players make decisions and feel like an active part of the narrative.

This is closely tied to the previous lesson. Not only do we want to give players a role, we also want them to own that role. They need to feel like they really inhabit the character they are supposed to play. A game can achieve a lot by combining agency with keeping things vague – and letting players decide to take uncertain decisions.

Say that you are faced with a dark tunnel – dark tunnels are pretty scary!

Now imagine that the game explicitly tells you that your goal lies beyond the tunnel. There’s no choice, you gotta go in. And if the game forces you do something, it will also make sure you do actually have the means to complete this quest – in this case get to the other side of the tunnel.

What’s the worst that could happen? 🙂

But what if entering this dark tunnel was voluntary, or at least presented as such? The game vaguely tells you that there might be something important there – but you don’t know, and might also be a certain death. All of a sudden the tunnel feels a lot less safe. By adding agency and making entering the tunnel an uncertain choice, all sorts of doubts pop up in the player’s mind.

There’s also a number of other ways to add agency. Say the player needs to do something unnerving, like Amnesia’s Daniel drilling into a corpse to get blood out. In the game it is clear that there is no other option. Overall reactions to this was not very strong.

Just petting a guy’s head while the drill drills a hole in it.

Compare this to similar moments in SOMA, where intended course of action is much less clear. Here players are forced to actually think through what they need to do, and get emotionally involved in the process of it.

While SOMA did do this part better, it also had its shortcomings. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the game was divided into hub maps, so there was no one path or right order to do things. These choices increased anxiety. Whereas maps in SOMA were way more streamlined, and we noticed a considerable drop in scariness due to this.

In closing

And them’s the rules! As said before, these are not the only ones, but I believe these come out on top when listing the most important ones. You could also go into them with a lot more depth, but I wanted to keep this blog concise. A lot of my previous blogs in the design tag dive deeper into related subjects.

Finally, I want to close by saying that, because of all these special requirements for horror games, I don’t think you can approach them like other games. Instead of “finding the fun” and iteratively building upon that, horror game design needs to start with some strong principles.

When designing a horror game, you want to hone into what you’ve chosen as your core principles, be it atmosphere, theme, or something else. Then, as you progress in development, you don’t want to evaluate the game on how “fun” or “nice” it is to play – but in how well it fulfills its set core principles. And a cornerstone for being able to do that evaluation is to keep the above lessons in mind.

This in itself is a huge topic of its own, and will need to be dealt with in some future post. Stay tuned for more!

Releasing on Nintendo Switch: Unattainable dream to reality

This is one of my earliest memories. Eons ago, when I was about 5, my dad took me with him to his work, a department store. He then proceeded to dump me in the electronics department.

Nowadays you can find game test booths everywhere, but back in the day this was definitely not the case. Instead every single item was locked inside a glass cupboard. Usually these cupboards remained locked unless you bought something… but that day was different. Tony, my dad’s co-worker, let me try out a game.

As I trembled with the excitement of a 5-year-old boy, he jangled his keys, and took out the showcase version of a grey box called the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Ice Climber for the NES was my first video game experience, and from that moment I was hooked.

Since that watershed moment, Nintendo games have always had a special place in my heart. Super Mario, Zelda, Mega Man, Battle Toads, Blaster Master and many others were all a part of my childhood magic. The plastic feel of the controller, the chunky cartridges, and instant-booting games still evoke fuzzy feelings in me.

Because of these magical childhood memories, and how video games were perceived back in the day, Nintendo has always had a certain mysterious feel to it – like an enchanted factory in a far-away country, creating games through some sort of wizardry.

When I started making games myself, some 20 years back, I never thought the hobby would evolve into anything bigger. It felt highly unlikely that people would want to buy anything I produced. But, eventually, what started as a hobby turned into a job. That felt so surreal. There I was, with my stupid hobby, except it was suddenly a source of income to me. Game development still felt like that enchanted factory, full of people who knew a lot more than me with tech I couldn’t possibly afford to have. But it was real, as I came to realize over time.

Yet consoles, and especially Nintendo, retained a very illusory feel. While I released my games on Steam and similar stores, the birthplace of my childhood magic felt far off.

That’s why it’s so special to announce the following:

AMNESIA: COLLECTION IS NOW OUT ON THE NINTENDO SWITCH

Finally – Frictional Games has made it to a Nintendo console! What had, for most of my life, felt like a distant and far-fetched dream, has now become reality. Sure, it’s not shipped on one of those fantastic grey cartridges, nor will it have a Nintendo “seal of quality” slapped on top, but I’ll take what I can.

If the 5-year-old me heard about this, he would never believe me.

But this is by no means the end of a journey for me – quite the opposite! It’s thrilling to think just how far the company has come, and it makes me super excited for what the future will hold.

A huge thank you to our friends at BlitWorks for making the port possible, and Evolve PR (with special thanks to Ryan!) for the great trailer!

Thoughts on Detroit: Become Human

Quantic Dream learns with each game, and adresses their issues with new features. But with new features come new issues, and lots of juicy design lessons. In this blog post I will talk at length about affordance, then touch upon branching and themes.

Intro

It has been a while since my last design blog, and I felt it was finally time to write one again. And since I just played through Detroit: Become Human, that’s what I decided to write about.

First off, let me say that I quite liked the game. I had issues with how they tackled some of the themes (especially in regards to robots), and felt they could have taken some aspects of the world they created more seriously.

What made up for the so-so narrative bits were the production value (such as some very cool environments), and the myriad of exciting scenarios. It’s not an easy feat to create scenes that are not just narratively compelling, but also engaging play-wise – especially not in the sort of story that Detroit tells.

On top of this, the branching and the choice possibilities in Detroit are insane. It is a lengthy game, taking well over 10 hours to complete, and yet as the story unfolds there is a constant stream of differences that all depend on your previous choices. Everything to how crime scenes change to how characters make remarks depending on how you played some previous scene is amazingly well done. The scenes are constantly constructed from a wide array of options, but everything flows together into a coherent whole. Other branching games, such as Hidden Agenda, have a much more jarring presentation where the inserted lines and cuts in the flow are obvious. In Detroit, flow flaws are basically nonexistent.

So, it is fair to say that production-wise Detroit is quite a achievement. However, the game starts to stumble as it tries to be just that – a game.

Just like with previous titles from Quantic Dream, Detroit tries to be what is essentially a playable movie. Mixing film and games gives rise to all sorts of interesting design decisions and issues – issues that are hard to see in other games. It is clear that Quantic Dream are aware of the flaws they have had in their previous games, and there are a bunch of new feature that try to address the issues.

But with new features come new issues, and lots of juicy design lessons. In this blog post I will talk at length about affordance, then touch upon branching and themes.

Affordance

The first topic of this blog is how Detroit: Become Human handles affordance. The game takes place in one of the most challenging environments there is design-wise: inhabited real-life spaces. Spaces that contain a bunch of everyday items, such as drawers, pictures, tools, televisions, coffee cups, keyboards, clothes and so on and so forth. These are all objects we are not just accustomed to interact with – we also have expectations of their usage. As a player, you need to be able to figure out what objects you can interact with and in doing so you are constantly battling your ingrained notion of how these objects ought to work.

In Heavy Rain (2010), Quantic Dream’s earlier game, the only way to figure what you can and cannot interact with is to carefully check your surroundings and see if an interaction icon pops up. There are some objects that signal pretty clearly that you can interact with them, such as a corpse at a crime scene that you are able to examine. A design goal for a game should be to be able to use your intuition to figure out what sort of items you ought to be able to interact with – but the Heavy Rain never lets you train that intuition. Obvious objects are more an exception than a rule, and thus the player’s optimal strategy ends up being doing a brute force search of the room to try and locate all the hotspots.

So why is this bad?

There are two main issues with not being to identify points interaction. The first one is that it lessens the game’s sense of immersion. The second is that it doesn’t allow you to properly “play” the game. Detroit has some tricks up its sleeve to reduce both of these, but before we get into that it is worth to discuss just what is so problematic with these issues.

Immersion

Let us first go over the issue of immersion.

In order for a player to feel immersed in an environment, they need to internalize the surroundings. This is something I have covered in other posts, but basically it means that players need to actively take a part in the fantasy. And in order for a player to feel present inside a virtual world, they need to have what is called internal representation.

While it may not seem like it, real life also operates on internal representation. You don’t simply “see a chair”. The act of seeing a chair triggers all sorts of data about chairs: what their physical properties are, what you can do with them, what are your available actions and so forth. All of these combine into the actual sensation that there is a chair in front of you.

Here comes the issue. If you play a game where looking at a chair lacks any situational data, the player’s mental representation is empty. They fail to build any vivid fantasy for the virtual scene that the game tries to build. In turn the player is unable to place themselves, as in their actual selves, inside the game world. When games fail to take this into account it results in a world that doesn’t feel very immersive.

Play

Secondly, the gameplay issue with affordances is that the player lacks the ability to plan. I have gone over player planning and why it is so important for good gameplay in a previous post, but let’s do a quick recap: we don’t play games by just reacting to stimuli that the games send our way – instead, most of the gameplay takes place inside our heads. We survey our environments, go over long- and short-term goals, and decide what set of actions are the most optimal to reach said goals. The longer and more accurate plans a game allows the player to make, the better it will feel to play.

As a clear example, let’s compare a moment playing Dragon’s Lair (1983) to a moment in Civilization (1991). Civilization is filled with possibilities and room for planning. Dragon’s Lair on the other hand is just a linear path where you can only get good by memorizing a specific sequence. This is not the most fair example, but should illustrate the primal differences.

Games like Heavy Rain and Detroit, as well as classic adventure games, rely on putting the player in a real-life situation and making that the core of planning one’s actions. Taken at face value, it’s somewhat easy to understand what your options are when trying to find shelter for the night, because it is all based around elements that we know from real life. It’s much harder to know what to do during a laser-wielding vampire bat robot attack.

The issue is that the real world is incredibly complex, and a game cannot possibly recreate all the alternatives that a person could think of. This means that even though you might intuitively make up a certain plan, you can’t be sure whether the game will actually support it or not.

Solutions?

The main trick of Detroit, and Heavy Rain before it, is to simply make each scene feel like a movie scene. It gives the player a feeling for how the scene ought to evolve next, and how the character(s) ought to react. So the player gains their affordances not from how they view the scene, but how they imagine the characters (and to some extend the director) doing it. On top of that, the very cinematic structure pushes a narrative that makes up for the lack of immersion.

The player’s feelings here depend a lot on how they play the game. If they play as if they are the protagonist, these problems can become quite severe. It is a lot less damaging if the player views their role as a director. Then they are distancing themselves from the game and viewing the whole experience differently. Most of the discussions I bring up in this post are mainly centered around the former playstyle where you actively take on the role of a certain character.

Therefore, imagining yourself as the character in Quantic Dream games doesn’t really hold up – especially when the player is supposed to have a more lengthy interaction. In Heavy Rain it is easy to fall into optimizing behaviour and do brute force search to see what you can interact with. This sort of searching turns what is supposed to be a realistic environment into an abstract play field. Heavy Rain also has real trouble giving you a sense of your options. So, most of the game is played based on moment-to-moment reactions rather than deliberate planning. More Dragon’s Lair than Civilization.

It is clear that Quantic Dream know about these issues, as Detroit does quite a lot of things to try and fix this. The two major ones are explicit hotspots, and quest lists. The hotspots that pop up make it feel like a “batman mode”, where the time stops and the environment gets a line-mesh overlay. When in this mode, all nearby possible interactions display glowing icons. On top of this, all of the character’s short term goals are displayed as well, including those that haven’t been unlocked yet. Detroit also shows various goals, and even characters’ feelings, as big in-world text throughout the game. This gives the player a better idea of what they are supposed to do, and what are the available tools to achieve their goals.

Problems

The problem is that these new features don’t really try to fix the underlying problems of affordance. They are more like crutches, propping a flawed system. In a perfect world, these systems should be used as a sort of tutorial for the player. Once they get a better sense of how the game works, they should be able to stop relying on them, and instead rely on their intuitive understanding.

What happens instead is the opposite. The further you get into Detroit, the more prone you get to use these systems. In my playthrough of Detroit I used the “batman mode” quite sparingly for the first few hours – but as time went on I used it more, to the point where I almost stopped trying to intuitively parse the environment at all. Why? Because if I didn’t use it, I was more likely to miss hotspots and tasks, and therefore not get everything I wanted from the scene.

In the end, this style of play actually made me plan more. But all of this planning was happening in an abstract realm. I was playing a game of “choose from explicit options given to me by the game’s designer”, rather than actually making decisions based on the world that was presented to me. This often lead to weird situations where I did tasks that I didn’t know existed (eg. go look for a bag I didn’t even know was there).

Worse still, it made me act less like the characters I was supposed to be playing as. Detroit features a fair bit of detailed crime scenes that I was supposed to search, but because of the crutches I never tried to analyze the scenes as an actual detective. Instead I was simply searching for abstract hotspots. To make matters worse, the game often told me just how many hotspots there were to find, making me feel and thing even less like a detective.

The important takeaway here is just how important it is to find a way to create a game that actually makes the player engage in the game as it is. Detroit is not the only game that uses this kind of crutch, it’s quite common. And it is not always bad, either. For instance in Metal Gear Solid you have exclamation points pop up over soldiers’ heads when they spot you. However, they key difference here is that it adds information to the scene that is already in front of you. There are actual character models, sounds and so forth that play into the scene.

When you try to design crutches, you need to make sure that they supply something extra to the fantasy. They shouldn’t act as a substitute for the game’s actual world.

The magic of narrative

It might seem like I didn’t like the gameplay in Detroit – but the fact is that I found it quite engaging. I think this is really interesting. Despite all of the apparent flaws in the system, it still felt like I was part of the narrative. This was especially true for the detective work. The same was also true in the 2018 Call of Cthulhu game. There the detective scenes were even more simplistic, almost like playing a basic “hidden object” game, and yet I found them strangely compelling.

How is this possible? I think a lot of this is in line with the 4-layer approach that I’ve written about before. The foundational thinking with the 4-layer approach is that when you put any gameplay in the context of story, doing that gameplay feels like playing a story. Detroit does a lot of things right when creating this sort of merger between systems and narrative.

First of all, Detroit is very good at setting up the context. A scene always starts with some sort of cutscene (“cutscene” feeling like a weird word in an interactive film game, but working as a distinction in this context), that lays out the story reasons as to why you are doing the investigation. So when you are essentially searching for hotspots, the whole setup makes it feel as if you are doing detective work, even if you are not mentally embracing the detective role.

Secondly, when you find a hotspot, you always get information that has something to do with the narrative. The actual value of the information varies a lot: sometimes it’s useful and sometimes it’s just techno babble. But in all cases it feels like narrative feedback. When this is combined with the explicit – and very gamey – feedback that says you just found one of the three clues, it feels more like progressing a case than fulfilling abstract game requirements.

Finally, when you manage to find all the clues, the abstract (game-y) accomplishment always comes with some sort of narrative reward. For instance when searching a corpse, you get to view a reconstruction of what happened to this person. In many other cases you may unlock a new dialog option. And in every case you feel like completing the tasks makes you progress the narrative. So, even though the gameplay is abstracted, you still feel like you are inside a story.

The power of holism

On the surface all of this feels a bit like cheating. But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Instead it’s something to be embraced.

In fact, on our journey to progress the storytelling potential of games as a medium, I am of the position that trying to do it without any form of “cheating” is a dead end. All entertainment is based on fooling your audience. Illusion is an essential part of the craft. The trick is just to cheat in such a way that it goes unnoticed.

What feeds into this illusion is the fact that humans tend to be bad at understanding why they’re feeling something. As an example: one tends to find a potential partner more attractive when drinking something hot while around the person. That is because hot drinks activate responses similar to arousal, eg. increasing the blood flow. The brain just tends to attribute these responses not to coffee, but to the potential partner, tricking you into thinking you are feeling aroused.

In a similar manner, when you feel accomplished for finding one of the three abstract hotspots, that feeling gets entwined with the detective narrative. These two parts get mixed into a single whole, and that whole becomes a compelling experience. It is worth to note that both sides can help the other. The narrative makes simple gameplay feel exciting, and the feedback on the other hand can make flawed narrative feel compelling. It is larger than the sum of its parts in the purest sense.

You can get an especially good sense of how this two-way feedback works when the system starts breaking down. I find that this can happen quite a lot in Detroit’s action sequences. There the narrative stops being the focal point, there are less narrative rewards upon success, and the input gets less clear (as it is merely about split second reactions). As long as the goals and actions are easily identifiable, eg. hiding and closing a door, the narrative-system symbiosis remains in place. But once it turns into blocking and returning punches, the player (or at least I) get distanced from the action. It becomes more of an abstract challenge than a piece of interactive storytelling.

So in a way, the increased abstraction actually works for Detroit’s benefit. By showing some numbers going up, and clear objective pointers, the game manages to add a more concrete feedback loop. As explained above, it also comes with issues, but also gives the game more opportunities for narrative-system symbiosis.

Detroit uses the symbiosis to simulate all sorts of situations, often with quite pleasing results. What stood out for me was an interrogation scene with a stressed-out android, and a scene where I had to make sure a police officer didn’t become too suspicious of my character. The success of those scenes came from mixing simple, gamey systems together with narrative in a holistic manner.

If you want to dig deeper into various ways to achieve this sort of merging of elements, Detroit is an excellent case study. Since the scenes featured are quite diverse, the ways of combining systems an narrative vary, and the results vary along with that.

Improvements?

While there are many interesting aspects about the game, it does have lot of room for improvement. I want to discuss that a bit.

Detroit relies heavily on increased abstractions (such as the aforementioned hotspots and objectives), and I don’t think that’s the right way. I find it better to try and achieve the same kind of affordance by using a story-like world. It is not the abstraction per se that allows to combine systems and narrative, but the player’s understanding of cause and effect.

Using abstractions also comes with a lot of issues. In my opinion, the biggest issue is the negative effect on immersion. If the world the player navigates is just filled with simple, systems-specific abstractions, the player can never transport themselves into the world.

At best, the actual rendered world (environments, characters etc.) just becomes narrative background. Instead as a designer, you want the world’s elements to be what the player uses in order to be an active part of the game. The aim should be for the player to gaze at a rendered scene, and have a mental model of all the interaction points and how these can be used for various plans, as I have written earlier.

Just compare a scene from Detroit…

…to a scene in Super Mario Bros.

Editor’s note: this is the 3rd time Thomas has used the exact same Super Mario picture on this blog.

In Detroit, I am not sure what things I can interact with, nor how they would affect me. From just looking at the world as-is, it is impossible to make any sort of concrete action plan. On the other hand Mario is very accessible, at least to anyone who has ever played the game. You can easily see every object, imagine how you can interact with it, and plan your progress accordingly.

The sort of readability that a Super Mario game has is what you want as a game designer. The thing to learn from Detroit is that you don’t need incredibly complex actions in scenes to create an engaging narrative. In fact, the actual gameplay can be simple and “dull” – as long as you are able to combine it with a narrative. However, there would be a huge difference if the interactions you partake in are grounded in the game’s world, instead of just being abstractions.

There are obviously other things to improve, especially the player’s ability to plan. But as a first step, I think having Super Mario level of affordance in the game’s world would be a huge improvement.

Branching

Now before I end this article, there are two more topics I want to cover. The first of these is branching.

Before making Detroit: Become Human, Quantic Dream made Beyond: Two Souls (2013). This game took a slightly different approach to the idea of a game as an interactive movie – especially when it came to branching. The game’s story had a ton of different ways to play out, but as recounted in this article by Press X to Story, it went mostly unnoticed by players.

It feels like Quantic Dream really reacted to this because damn, they are now really pushing the branching angle. There is a node tree at the end of each scene, there’s visual cues when conversation subjects unlock, there are lists of things you could do, the latter scenes obviously change, and so on.

And it really does feel like the open story and the branching matters. Especially interesting are the node maps. In the maps, all the choices you could have made are laid out, but the ones you didn’t make in your current or previous game are blanked out. At first I really didn’t like it, but the more I played the more it grew on me. It seems like it had a certain ad-hoc effect, and I can still sort of feel it. Remembering a scene often feels cooler than actually playing it. To me, the Detroit showing you potential paths I could have taken make my choices seem more compelling, when viewed in retrospect.

This might feel a bit like a cheat. But as discussed before, cheating is how entertainment works. Still, a part of me wonders if Detroit could have handled it in a more subtle way. Sometimes it felt like too much to get all the possible courses of events shoved in my face. I would have liked it if the would have treated the overall branching as it did the special dialog and changes in scenes. But at the same time, I wonder if that would have given across the feeling that the story was indeed open-ended and had tons of options – as Beyond: Two Souls failed to convey.

The best way to get away from the trap of being overly explicit is to, as explained above, up the level of affordance. In a perfect scenario, the player should know about the ways the scene could have gone simply by having mentally analyzed the scene. For instance, Civilization doesn’t need a node map at the end of a round for the player to know that there are many other ways things could have gone. This is not the most fair comparison, as I don’t think it’s possible to make a storytelling game that is as systemically driven. But it does give you a sense of what sort of feeling games could strive for.

Themes

Given that Detroit deals with a few themes similar to SOMA, it feels like I need to say something about Detroit’s themes to close this off. It would be too much to go over all aspects of the game, so I will just focus on one: robot and human similarities.

I think the game would have been a lot more thematically interesting if the robots didn’t look so human. Instead I think it would have been much better if they looked like the robots from the movie I, Robot (2004), or perhaps something out of the Boston Dynamics lab.

Right now it’s just too easy to sympathise with the robots. It would be much more fun if the player started the game thinking the robots did not deserve any rights, and the thinking would evolve throughout the game.

The robots’ thinking is also too human. Again, it would be much cooler if they felt more alien in how they handled their emotions and so forth. There is actually less neurodiversity between humans and robots in Detroit than there is among real humans overall.

For example, right now it doesn’t make much sense for a player to want for Connor to stay an obedient robot. The story pretty clearly pushes the player to want Connor to become a deviant (a robot free from human masters). If the Connor had looked a bit more spooky, or had weirder ways of thinking, it would have made the choice less obvious and forced me to think more about my alternatives.

It would also seem weird that people would want to buy servants that look so human. People can already feel bad for a Roomba, let alone something that looks like a fellow human. It would make more sense for the robots to actually look like robots.

I know that Quantic Dream wanted to show off their facial animation tech, and make sure it was easy to relate to the protagonists. But the point stands: a version of Detroit with robots that are clearly not human would be damn interesting to play.

What is SOMA’s Safe Mode?

Tomorrow we will be releasing SOMA for Xbox One and along with this comes Safe Mode. This is a new way of playing the game that will also be available via Steam and GOG at the same time.

Since we announced Safe Mode there have been a lot of questions about it, so we thought this would be a good time to answer some of those and to clear up a few things. Here goes:

What is Safe Mode?

It is a version of the game where you cannot die – you are safe from harm. The game’s various creatures are still there, they just won’t attack you. If you’ve heard of the SOMA Steam mod “Wuss Mode”, by steam user The Dreamer, then you should know the basic idea. The important thing to point out is that we don’t simply turn off the creature’s ability to attack and harm you. Instead, we’ve redesigned their behavior. Our goal has been for Safe Mode to not feel like a cheat, but for it to be a genuine way of experiencing the game. So we’ve considered what each creature should be doing, given their appearance, sound, and voice.

You can pick between Safe Mode and normal mode when starting up a new game.

Is the game still scary?

This obviously depends on what scares you, but the short answer is: yes, the game is still a horror game. However, since you can explore without a constant fear of failure, you will no longer have that type of tension. For people who aren’t great at handling that aspect of horror gameplay, their journey through SOMA will be a lot easier in Safe Mode. But if it is the overall atmosphere that gets to you in a horror game – and, above all, the central themes – then game will still have plenty to be scared of.

What is the major difference in gameplay?

All of the puzzles, events, and so forth are still there. The big difference is that you’ll no longer have to sneak past enemies. You don’t need stealth in order to complete the game. Monsters might sound and act more threatening if they spot you, so there is still an incentive to being careful, but it’s no longer mandatory to keep hidden. This will also allow you to explore some of environments more carefully.

Why release it now?

We actually considered releasing something similar at launch, but chose not to because we felt it would make the core intent of the game too unfocused. As people started to say that they really wanted to play the game and experience the philosophical sci-fi narrative, but couldn’t because of the monsters, we started considering doing something about it. People liking the “Wuss Mode” mod was a good sign that we could solve this. However going back to a game you have already completed is not tempting so we put it off.

What eventually tipped the scales was the Xbox release where we wanted an extra feature to make the launch more interesting. Adding some sort of no-monster mode felt like the best option, and so Safe Mode was born! It also felt like it had been long enough since the original release, and the intended version of the game had been played and evaluated enough. Adding a new play mode wouldn’t be a problem.

Will it come to PS4?

Yes! We hope to have it ready about 2 months from now. Sorry for not releasing it now, but a couple of issues have kept us from doing a simultaneous launch of Safe Mode.

I hope that clears things up! Let us know in the comments if you have any other questions!

SOMA – Two Years Later

It’s over two years since we released SOMA, so it’s time for another update on how things have been going.

First of all, let’s talk about sales. As I’ve said many times before, sales are not straightforward to count, and the number you come up with is reliant on many different factors. For instance, SOMA was part of the Humble Monthly Bundle, which meant that everybody subscribing to that service was able to download a copy of SOMA. These are not really “sales”, so should we count them? It’s also worth noting that pricing differs a lot between different sales. A single unit sold at full price means more than one sold when the game is 75% off. I think it’s important to think about these things, and remember you can’t directly compare the sales of two games.

With all that said, what I’m going to do here is to basically take every single download of the game as a sale. Doing so gives us a total of 650 000 units, a 200 000 units increase since the the same time last year. This is a very good result.

It’s interesting to compare how sales have changed across the two years for SOMA. The normal day-to-day income, when there are no discounts or anything, is 33% of what it was the same time last year. However, when the game is at a discount (such as a Steam summer sale), the generated income is about 75% of what similar events generated last year. This means that discount events are extra important this year.

Taken as a whole, the sales that we make from all our games will cover all our expenses every month, and even make us a profit. This is quite amazing. Given that we currently have about 16 people working with us full time, we have a pretty high burn rate, and to still be able to support all that on your ongoing sales is great.

This means that we still have a good buffer from our launch sales. While it will by no means last forever, it gives us peace of mind and lets us take the time we need. While we’ll continue to generate income next year too, I’m not so sure it’ll be enough to cover all our costs. This is when that initial buffer comes in handy, and will let us continue working on our projects without any monetary worries. To put things in perspective, it is worth noting that most companies start using up their buffer just a few months after release, so we are in no ways in a dire situation right now – quite the opposite!

However, this also makes it very clear that we need to be able to release games at a more regular rate. We were lucky that SOMA was a hit, and that the money is easily able to sustain us for the time we need to complete our next project. Had SOMA been a flop, the situation would have been a lot worse now. That’s why we are focusing on becoming a two project studio, and the goal is to be able to release a game every two years. Had we managed to set that up prior to SOMA, we would be in the process of releasing a game right now. Needless to say, it would makes us a lot more financially stable, and able to handle a less successful release. In turn this should allow us to take greater risks, which I think is a key element in being able to create great games.

This leads me to another thing that’s been on my mind. A few months back someone asked me: “How do you get people to buy your game?”. This is a fairly basic question, but it really made me think. When it comes to sales made during launch, the answer feels quite self-evident. We generate a lot of buzz, there are reviews, let’s plays and so on. There are a number of fairly obvious ways that people learn about our game.

But what about the customers that buy our game two years after release – why do they do it? That’s a much harder question. I think most of this is via word-of-mouth recommendation. When the right circumstances arise (e.g.: “I feel like playing a game tonight”) and when external influence (e.g.: “your friends said they liked our game”) is strong enough, that’s when a sale happens. I know that Steam and other stores have some forms of discovery tools, but I don’t think they play a major factor. What really matters is not a single source, but the slow build-up of good will around a game – eventually this will make a player consider buying it. Discovery tools, such as “you might also like”-adverts, surely help, but they are just part of a much larger process [1].

Because of this, and considering the sheer number of games that are currently being released, I think the best strategy is to focus on unique experiences. You want to create the type of experience that is not only hard to get elsewhere, but also leaves a mark on those who play it. This is now a core philosophy here at Frictional. I guess we sort of always had it unconsciously, but we have now made it official. Our goal is to create games that are more than forgettable escapism. We want people to come out of their experiences feeling changed. A lofty goal? You bet. While it’ll be impossible to make sure every single player has this type of experience, it feels like the perfect thing to strive for.

Now I will round of this post with a brief discussion on the status of our current projects.

The first project is in full production, and about 80% of the team is currently working on it. The focus for most of this year has been on creating the first few maps of the game to create a solid vertical slice based on our experiments last year. However, we recently came up with some new avenues that we wanted to explore. The stuff that has come out of this recent detour is feeling really great and I am certain it’ll make the game feel very special. All of this came out of what I just discussed: our focus on making games that leaves a mark on the player. I’m not sure we would have gone down this route if we hadn’t explicitly stated that goal, which makes me confident it’s a really good way of thinking. I’m afraid I can’t go into any details on this, other than to say that the project will be horrific in nature. There will be no release this year, but we hope to announce something during the first six months of next year.

As for the other project, that’s also going well. We’ve been a bit delayed due to new tech taking longer than anticipated to develop [2]. The upside of that has been that the game has had  more time in pre-production than any of our previous games. This has been incredibly valuable, as the things we aim to tackle in this game are quite difficult, and allowing it all to brew for a bit has meant many of the basic aspects are clearer for us. This game will be less about direct, visceral horror, and more about the player gaining an understanding of different concepts. This can, as we know from working on SOMA, be quite tricky to get right and requires a slightly different approach than when working on a more direct horror game. Release for this game is quite far off though, so don’t expect to hear any concrete details in the near future.

That’s it for this update. I’m incredibly excited about the things that we have planned, and I’m very eager to give you all more updates. I also want to thank everybody for the support over the years, and rest assured that while we might not reply to every single mail, tweet, etc. that you send us, we make sure to read every single one!

Notes:

1) For games that are heavily based around online communities, such as a Rocket League, I think things work slightly differently. There is still a word-of-mouth zeitgeist going on, but a lot of it comes from your game become a habit for your players, something that they participate in on a daily basis. This forms a feedback loop that helps drives new buyers, which I think is quite different from how our games work.

2) We are currently working on the fourth iteration of our HPL engine for this game, and due to some of the things we need to be able to do for the game, we’ve been required to make some major adjustments. These things take time, but luckily we have most of it done now.

The Illusion of an Analog World

There is something about unclear options which make choices a lot more interesting. This post goes into the reasons behind this, and various ways of achieving it in games.

Warning: this post will include some spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.

The typical example for a choice in a game is something like this:

The situation is clearly set up and you are explicitly told what your options are. While they are most common in interactive movies, these sort of choices existing in just about every genre. They are easy to setup and can easily give a sense of moral drama. However, they miss out on a really important aspect of making real-life choices: that you are almost never aware what your options are or what they lead to.

Here is another example of a choice:

The player could avoid the incoming bullet by going down, or they could do it by going up. This is a choice very much in the same vein as the one from above. However there is no explicit prompt that asks the player what direction they want to go in. Instead the choice is implicitly stated through the use of the game’s mechanics. And in contrast to the explicit choice, it is unclear just what the options are. The choice might lack the ethical implications from the previous one, but the choice itself is way more interesting. It also feels like an ingrained part of the play experience instead of something that is an obviously designed situation.

Super Mario derives this choice purely from the functioning of its basic mechanics. Simulation is another game genre that does this, but manages to add a bit more philosophical depth to the choices. For instance, in a simulation game focused on survival you might not have enough food for all your party members and have to make a decision on who lives and dies. When these things work well it can have a tremendous impact – but more often that’s not the case. Letting your simulated party members starve to death very rarely give rise to the same strong feelings as a scene in a game like The Walking Dead. Let’s unpack why this is so.

In order for a choice to be made, the player need to understand that they are making one. The cornerstone of this is the player’s access to affordances. The player must have a robust mental model where they understand how the various aspects of the world work, and what abilities they can use to affect it. A choice then arises when it becomes clear to the player that there are two or more separate ways in which they can progress. Basically, the player understands that are at least two distinct plans for them to make, and they need to chose one of them. When this is crystal clear, the player has a choice on their hands.

Most games feature these sort of choices all the time. “What ammo should I use?”, “What path should I take?”, “Should I sneak or just attack?”. As I explained in an earlier post, the selection of plans is a fundamental part of gameplay. What makes a choice carry depth is that there’s something major at stake. So not only does the player need to understand that a choice is happening, but also that a major decision is happening. And in order to elicit the correct emotional response there needs to be a particular setup and framing.

A game like The Walking Dead has an easy time of it setting up all of these requirements. First of all, the game is explicitly stating that a choice is happening. It is impossible to miss. Secondly, since there is so much focus on the choice, it is quite clear that it is of major importance. Finally, The Walking Dead is heavily plotted and the designers have a great deal of control over what happens before the choice. It is relatively easy for that game to make sure the player is in the right frame of mind.

Things are much harder for a simulation game. Here the player takes part in choices all of the time and it’s harder to work out which ones are crucial and which ones are minor. The player might miss entirely what their choice is about. For instance, take the choice where the player needs to choose whom from their group to let die. It might be that the player doesn’t understand that they are running out of food, or thinks that they have some ways to survive. So at the crucial moment when the player decides who lives and who dies, they might be thinking about other things entirely. On top of that, even if the player grasps what the choice is about, it might be lacking proper build-up. The player might not be in the right mood, or have a suitable level of affection for the characters and so on.

It may of course be possible to improve the simulation to take things like this into account. However, this is very likely to run up against the complexity fallacy which I wrote about last week. Chances are that these additions to complexity will not be noticeable and instead just make the game harder to design and code.

Instead, there’s a middle ground here. Instead of explicitly stating the choices, it is possible to set up a situation that is driven by established gameplay mechanics. Since the setup is not something that happens dynamically, it’s possible to properly signpost the scenario. That way you can make sure that the player is in the right mood. But when the actual situation arrives there is no menu popping up that flags a choice moment. Instead the instruction to choose can come from the story mechanics (e.g. a character can speak), or, better, arise from how the situation is designed. The actual options are then chosen, not through an abstract menu, but through interacting using standard gameplay mechanics.

The best example of this sort of design is a scene from Spec Ops: The Line. Late in the game the player finds themselves surrounded by civilians. These people are not too happy that you are here and start throwing rocks at you. It is a very dangerous situation and it is clear that you need to get out of there. At this point, the player basically only has a single verb at their disposal: “shoot”. So what can you do? You really don’t want to shoot civilians, but you also don’t want to die. The player really has two options here. One is to shoot at the civilians, killing a few of them and making the others run away. The other option is to simply shoot in the air and scare them off, killing nobody.

The thing is that, since the game doesn’t tell you what your options are, shooting in the air is not obvious to a player. And that is what makes this choice so interesting and makes it feel like a real choice. Had a prompt popped asking you to choose between “fire at civilians” and “fire in the air”, the situation would have been radically different and would have lost a lot of its impact. But since you select the option with a gameplay mechanic, it not only feels like a proper part of the playable narrative, it also means that you are uncertain of what your options are.

Having choices like this makes the game feel analog. Under the hood the choice is just as discrete as the ones you would make in The Walking Dead, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like there are a spectrum of choices to be made, a continuous space of options, and not simply “this way or the other”. This concept of choices feeling analog is really important and I’ll talk about it more later on.

Spec Ops: The Line features half a dozen or choices of this kind. For instance, there is one where you are to chose which of two prisoners lives or dies by shooting one of them. But what the game doesn’t tell you is that there is a third options, which is to target the men that are holding the prisoners captive. Another scenario has you deciding whether or not to kill a war criminal. And again, it’s unclear just what your options are. The game simply puts you in a situation where it is possible to kill him. That there is a choice to be made is something you have to make up your own mind about.

Another interesting aspect of Spec Ops: The Line is how it handles the consequences of its choices. The solution is that it simply doesn’t. It just sets up the situations in such a way that either choice makes sense for what happens later in the story. While I don’t think it is possible to always shy away from showing consequences, it can be very helpful in maintaining the analog feeling. Because the moment you show a consequence, it makes it clearer that there is a discrete aspect to your choice. But if you keep consequences hidden, the possibility space is larger and the player is free to fantasize more just about what took place.

It’s worthwhile digging a bit deeper into this. What is it that makes the choices in Spec Ops: The Line different from a game where the options are explicitly stated? The key difference is that in the former, the player is in a position of uncertainty. There’s no clear-cut information to go by and the player is forced to fill out informational gaps using their imagination. When the options are explicit there is no need for this. The brain always wants to optimize, so any concrete piece of information will remove any mental guesstimation. This leads to Spec Ops: The Line having a much more vivid mental model of the scene. Remember, we play the game based on what is in our heads – not what is in the actual systems – so that means the game itself becomes a more interesting experience.

This is what the “feeling of analog” is all about. By having situations where not everything is clearly cut and where the player is free to imagine a wide range of freedoms. The goal is for it to seem like there are a continuous space of possibilities. This makes the situation feel real and organic. It lessens the feeling of there being a designer guiding your every step, despite the experience being just as guided as in the more explicit case.

It’s worth noting that there can be drawbacks to this approach. Just like in the pure simulation case, the player might misunderstand what the choice and its implications are all about. An explicit approach with a prompt laying out all the options will always be better at this. But it will also never feel analog. So there may very well be situations where an explicit choice is the right way to go. As always in design, one shouldn’t get hung up on the manner of implementation, but to focus on what the end results are.

In SOMA we tried to make all of the choices feel analog, and used a similar approach the one in Spec Ops: The Line. We presented a situation and then used common game verbs to let the player make their choice. The idea was to make the choices feel embedded in the game experience, and judging from feedback we have gotten, it feels like it worked out very well.

The only choice in SOMA that didn’t work properly was when you decided the fate of Wau. Here we failed create a proper emotional setup, and didn’t spend enough time on implementing consequences. A lot of this was due to this choice coming quite late in design, and it feels like it shows. It is a good reminder that you can’t just casually throw in these sort of choice-moments. One needs to make sure that the player is in the right mental state when they occur, and that you follow up on them in an appropriate matter. Just because something is supposed to feel analog doesn’t mean it doesn’t require a strict, and guided, implementation for it all to work out.

It is not only moral choices that can take advantage of becoming more analog. There are a wide range of other types of gameplay where it is worth considering if it can be made more analog. A good example of this is in interactive fiction (ie, good old text adventures). Normally these are controlled by simply typing commands into a parser. The type of commands are things like “pick up lamp”, “look under the carpet”, “remove dust from the table”, and so forth.

So, normally, there is no explicit prompt saying what sort of commands are possible. You have to infer the space of possibilities by reading the descriptions you get as you explore the current environment you are in. You are building up a mental model of the place at hand, and the character you are playing as, and using that to build a sense of what is possible to you. When this all works out, it feels great. It really feels like there is a living, breathing world for you to interact with. It feels analog.

This system comes with issues though and the most common one is the “guess the verb” problem. The player might know exactly what to do, but can’t figure out the right commands that allow them to do it. This is really frustrating and it breaks down the sense of immersion. A way to fix this is to make it clear exactly what the various verbs at your disposal are. This solves the problem, but it adds a new one: the game loses its sense of being analog. 

I think it’s worthwhile to give this a test yourself. First try a normal interactive fiction game. I would recommend something like Lost Pig as it allows a lot of commands and, especially in the beginning, shows just how engaging it is to play something that lets you type whatever you want at a blank prompt. After you have done so, try out Walker and Silhouette and only use the highlighted words to play. The two experiences are very different. Sure, the latter makes it a lot easier to progress and removes some frustration. But on the other hand, it removes a lot of what makes the medium interesting in the first place.

I think this is a really good example of just how important the feeling of analog is. Implementation-wise, these two interactive fiction games are really similar, to the point of basically being the same. But the way that they chose to do their user interface radically changes the experience. By forcing the player to build an internal mental model of the game’s world, the experience becomes so much richer.

There are lots of other instances where the feeling of analog can be useful. Another good example are puzzles. I recently played through 999 which has “escape the room”-like puzzles. While these can be quite fun to play, the way they are set up it is incredibly obvious that the game wants you to reproduce a specific number of steps. You are basically trying to read the designer’s mind to find a very specific chain of actions that lead to a success state. This doesn’t feel very analog.

A big reason this is so is because the game will only respond to very specific commands. Most of these commands are not part of a generic verb-set either. For instance, you only ever use a screwdriver in a specific place and so forth. So you never really build a mental model of how the world functions, because such a model would basically be worthless. It is much better to think of each object as a specific case of “what does the designer want me to do with this?”.  As such the world becomes stale and never gets a rich mental model. This is a very common problem with puzzles.

However, there are puzzle games that manages to work around this. One of the best examples is Portal. In this game is rarely feels like you are following a set path. Instead it feels like you are discovering a solution. It feels analog. And this is despite the solution being no less designer-directed than your average escape-the-room game. A core reason why Portal is different is that it always uses a foundational set of mechanics for solving the puzzles. You have your portal gun, the ability to pick up certain objects and to move around. That is it. Nothing else is used in order to progress. On top of that, there is a coherent design to all of this encouraging you to build a mental model around it.

There might only be one specific sequence of events to solve a puzzle. But when playing Portal you are not as aware of this. Much of the time it’s not even clear after you have completed a section. Because the puzzles are based on foundational verbs, it is much less clear whether there were other possible solutions available. There is often the sense that you could have completed it in another way.

This consistency in actions also means that you can mentally simulate a number of possibilities. You know up front the type of interactions that are possible and can use that to work out the sort of things that you can do in order to progress. And that without needing to interact with the world at all. What this means is that you are able to make plans. You can think about what steps to take in advance and be fairly confident all of these are possible to execute. As discussed earlier, making plans is a core part of what makes gameplay engaging. This is another reason why making choices feel analog is good – it also makes it feel more like proper gameplay.

The consistency in actions is not the only thing that makes Portal feel analog. The level design itself also plays a big role.  By just giving the right number of hints, the player never feels pushed along a certain path, nor are they completely bewildered about what they are supposed to be doing. By not pushing the player too much, the game makes sure that the player comes up with ideas on their own. This gives a much greater sense of picking one solution out of many, instead of going along an intended route. And by making sure the solutions never feel too obscure, players refrain from trying to brute force a puzzle. Brute forcing can be quite damaging to the feeling of an analog world as this forces the player breaks down the world to its basic components, revealing the non-analog nature of it all.

Getting the level of handholding right is not an easy task and how to achieve it varies a lot from game to game. The basic idea is the same, though: you want to make the player understand what to do without revealing what your preferred route is. There needs to be enough uncertainty for the player to start building a vivid mental world around a situation. But there can’t be too much uncertainty as that means there is nothing to build a world on.

Another example of crafting analog worlds is the closet-hiding in Amnesia. We chose to simulate this using a physics-based interaction system. We also tried to make the behavior an implicit part of the gameplay, and never directly state how it is supposed to work. Despite this, a great number of players still entered closets to hide and opened the door slightly to see if the coast was clear. We could have just had an explicit prompt and some specific controls when you are hiding behind doors, but it doesn’t feel like that would have been the same kind of experience. This way, the world has a much great sense of being an analog one.

There are bound to be tons of game mechanics that could make good use of becoming a bit more analog. One obvious example is dialog response, where I think there would have been a lot more to gain if the options could be chosen by using core mechanics instead from an explicit menu.

How could you go about making a scene more analog? I think there are two main aspects that you need to implement:

  • The choice selection must be made by using a set of core mechanics. The number of ways in which these mechanics can be used must also be so large that the player can’t easily grasp the options available. For instance, if the player can only punch red objects, and you enter a room with a single red object, the situation doesn’t feel very analog.
  • The hints on how to complete the scene can’t be too direct. There needs to be a certain level of vagueness so the player feels that they have come up with the solution themselves. It’s also important to teach the player (through play if possible) how the core mechanics functions. The idea is that when they encounter a choice moment (be that a puzzle, moral choice, etc.) they have an intuitive understanding of they ways they can approach it.

It’s also important to not just focus on the interactions at hand, but to think of it as a multi-scene setup. In order for the player to be in the right state, and to have the right mental model, there’s a lot of setup required. It is really important to think holistically about these things.

I think there’s a lot to be gained by thinking in terms of making a world more analog. I also think that it’s something that hasn’t really been explored enough. It is quite common to just take something that works through explicit means and stick with it. Crafting scenes in an analog way is a lot more work, but I also think it can be really rewarding. It’s also a very good concept to have in mind when trying to merge more standard narrative approach with proper gameplay. Analog worlds are a core part of evolving Interactive Storytelling.

The Complexity Fallacy

It is easy to think that the player sees all of the complexity you put into a game, but nothing could be further from the truth. A game’s complexity is basically meaningless when it comes to the end experience. All that matters is what the player actually perceives.

Brian Upton once told me the following anecdote about a game that he got pitched to him.

The game presented to him was a space sim where the player took on the role of a space pirate. A big part of the pitch was the virtual economy that the game had. It determined what sort of goods that planets needed, what the prices of various things would be and so forth. In turn this then determined the trading routes that ships would take and what sort of cargo you were most likely to find on them. This was a really complicated system and I guess they planned on devoting quite a bit of development time for it.

Sounds cool, right?

Problem was that none of this complexity was really apparent to the player. The only feedback that the player got from the whole system just boiled down to what sort of ships and cargo they would be encountering. From this meager data it was impossible for the player to get any sort of insight into underlying systems. If all of that system was replaced with a random number generator, the player wouldn’t notice. So in essence, all of this complexity was a waste.

The reason something like this happens is quite easy to see when viewed through the lense of the SSM Framework. In this framework we divide the game into three separate spaces: system, story and a mental model. Something like the virtual economy would go into to the system space. But the problem is that these systems would never end up in the player’s mental model. Understanding how this works is a fundamental, perhaps the single most important, part of the game design. The player doesn’t play a game based on what happens in the computer, they play it based on what happens in their head. Any feature that doesn’t have a mental representation might as well not exist.

Tynan Sylvester, who is currently working on the popular Rimworld, has a great article that addresses this very issue.

In play, the Game Model is irrelevant. Players can’t perceive it directly. They can only perceive the Player Model in their minds. That’s where the stories are told. That’s where dilemmas are resolved. So the Game Model we create is just a pathway through which we create the Player Model in the player’s mind.  

The Player Model Principle indicates a source of risk. Namely, anything in the Game Model that doesn’t copy into the Player Model is worthless. That’s what happened with the ecologies in Ultima Online and BioShock. They didn’t enter the Player Model and so degraded into noise. This is a fairly obvious risk and is common in game design – all designers have seen players not understand a piece of their game. […]

What we want to do is create systems that are smaller and simpler than these giant hairballs, yet have more interesting, comprehensible interactions than simple systems like orbiting planets. What we really want is not a system that is complex, but a system that is story-rich. 

This is coming from a developer that is developing a hardcore simulation game. If it this sort of thinking applies to that genre then you can be sure that it applies to the entirety of game development.

Adding a feature is not about adding art and systems. It about is adding content that when played with will create a certain mental model in the player’s head. In this sense, it’s quite a bit like being a stage magician. Just like in games, the important thing in magic is not performing a hard trick, it is making the audience believe that you did one. In fact, many spectacular-seeming magic tricks have really boring explanations. But since the audience is never directly exposed to the method of implementation, it doesn’t really matter. The only thing that matters is that the magician has a high chance of succeeding and what sort of reaction it gives the audience. Games works exactly like this too.

Most of the time, an increase in complexity is a bad thing. There is a higher chance of bugs, and it is less likely that you can maintain control of the system. This is why things like artificial neural networks doesn’t have much use in games except for in very specific areas. While a neural net could accomplish a lot of cool things, robustness is more important. As a game developer you want to be able to intuit how a system works in order to properly use it in design. Go past a certain point of complexity and the output might as well be random. The KISS-approach is almost always the right one to take.

The simplest way of designing a system is, of course, not designing a system at all. It cannot get more simpler than zero. While this might sound a bit silly at first, it’s a crucial part of game design. Last week I wrote about utilizing gaps of the imagination, which is really all about replacing something with nothing. The best way of understanding how to do this is to not see your features as concrete content, as complex machinery, but as experiences you want to evoke in the player. This is not just limited to fuzzy things like NPC emotions, but every single aspect of the game.

As I explained in the previous post, gaps have a lot of advantages over an explicit systemic implementation. Not only are they cheaper, but they are also more malleable and easier for the player to fit into their idiosyncratic view of the game and its virtual world. It is not always the solution, and sometimes the goal cannot be reached without having an actual system managing everything. The only way to make this decision is to look at games in the right way and understand that what matters is not the underlying machinery, but the mental states it gives rise to.

In games, if a tree falls and nobody hears it, it is a feature you should cut.

Gaps of the Imagination

We don’t perceive every single piece of information around us. Instead we must constantly fill in blanks in our knowledge to properly create a mental image of the world. This processes of filling in gaps is really important to understand and to exploit when crafting games.

At the very core, games are driven by systems. We have extremely powerful machines that can quite accurately simulate various forms of physics, economics, group dynamics, intelligence and so on. This means that at our fingertips are the tools to create entire worlds. It is therefore very tempting to use these in order to solve every single problem. But this is not always the best approach. Sometimes it’s best to just leave gaps, and let the player’s imagination handle the rest.

There are five core reasons why this is so:

  • We are all unique individuals with different needs and likes. By leaving things unsaid, players can personalize their experience without any asset requirements from the creator. A typical example is that players can envision the sort of monster they personally are the most afraid of.
  • It is impossible to simulate things on an atomic level; there always needs to be a cut-off at some level. Since highly complicated things tend be unstable and encourage scrutiny, it is often better to make the cut off at a higher level.
  • There are certain things which are, for various reason, not possible to implement properly. In this case a lot can be gained by simply leaving it to the imagination. This includes everything from creating immense battle scenes to conveying a particular emotional state.
  • For the sake of pacing; sometimes it’s simply not possible to give the player all of the required information and it’s better for them to just work it out for themselves. This could be things such as background story, details on a map, or the areas that it’s possible to visit in a location.
  • There is an inherent enjoyment in filling out blanks in various forms of art. The reasons are a bit fuzzy, but you can clearly see it in all art. It’s fun to wonder what a character is really feeling, what events lead to a scene, and to mentally picture what a shadow is hinting at.

All of this works because of how our brains is constructed. We are all equipped with highly capable pattern-matching machines. Our brains, and therefore we ourselves, want the world to make sense and will always try and fit things into a coherent and convincing narrative. The simplest example of this at work is motion.  Just consider this animation:


This is really just a series of circles that we see in rapid succession. Despite the fact that it’s quite easy to notice the individual frames, we still see it as a ball jumping up and down. We fill in the gaps between the frames and see it all as an animation. Notice that this doesn’t really take any conscious effort – it comes naturally. In fact, it is quite hard (possibly impossible) to not see this motion. When done right, gaps of the imagination never really feel like such – they simply get incorporated into the overall experience.

Here is another classic example:

There is no white triangle pointing downwards, but the other shapes suggest that there should be, and hence we see one. Again, this is something that we carry out automatically and while we can rationally understand that there really is no triangle, we cannot mentally unsee it.

Closing gaps like this is not just a fun side effect. It is a crucial way in which our brains function. Taking decisions on incomplete information is an essential skill in the function of our day to day lives. In fact, most of the information we receive is incomplete – it’s quite rare that we are directly exposed to situations where we have all possible information to hand. So it’s not so strange that closing gaps should come so naturally to us, we literally wouldn’t be able to survive otherwise.

As I have said before, any decisions we make are based around a mental model. In our heads is a mental simulation of how we think the world works, and before we do anything we first run through the action in our model to see if it would have the effect we intend. However, it is not possible to get complete information about our surroundings. So in order to get a working map of the terrain we need to fill some of the information. That is what the gaps in imagination are all about – our process of crafting a working mental model.

Given that this is a foundational part of how people work, it is essential that we always have it in mind when designing games. After all, the end result of a game is really to create a specific mental model in the player. This can be done through direct system access, sensory input or, what this post is all about, through suggestions of something unseen.  I will now go over the most common, and most important, ways in which gaps can be used.

Sensory Gap

This is the most common one and also easiest to understand. When we are presented with sensory information that is somehow incomplete, we try and fit it into a working context. There are many different ways in which to do this. It can be quick, disjointed shots of something, events seen through the eyes of a monster, a character reacting to a smell. or a sound that is so loud it shatters glass. Normally you build this sort of gap up by presenting a negative space where one or more object/events/reactions/etc. all related to something unseen. 

We tend to use this sort of gap more than we realise, simply because it is such an ingrained way of working with various artforms. But that just means you have to be extra aware of how it works. For instance, it’s good to know that we are extremely prone to seeing familiar shapes, such as faces, in just about anything. 

It’s actually quite hard to not see anything in an image. We have evolved in an environment where there was nothing like pure noise, everything we saw was part of the environment somehow. Therefore, when we see random patterns the brain goes into overdrive to find a connection. Of course, it is not just the direct information received that we use to do this, but anything related is accessed as well. Because of this, you can often get away with very little if the scene is just set up in the right manner. Learning to do this is incredibly important.

Informational Gap

This is very similar to the sensory gap, but instead of sensory data it deals with information in the abstract. Jeff Vogel recently wrote a blog post on how games often have too many words [1], and properly using gaps is the best remedy for that. It is often easy to underestimate just how much information a player is prepared to fill out for themselves. You might think that a player really needs to know details of everyday routines in order to fully understand how a certain society functions. But often it is just as good to simply have some brief glimpses (visually or through text) of what they are doing along with something that sets the tone (music, animation, etc). 

This sort of advice might seem a bit obvious, but it is worth keeping in mind how good we humans are at filling out these sort of gaps in information, especially if it comes in form of gossip. Gossip is something that has probably been part of our lives since before we evolved into modern humans. We are social animals and gossip serves as a tool to keep track of the group we are living in. This means our brains are extra-sensitive to this sort of information, similar to seeing shapes and motion, and can easily assess even the smallest hints.

Spatial Gap

Games are often very spatial and requires the player to navigate various places. Because of this it is often very tempting to accurately represent every single area to give a proper sense of place. However, for various reasons this might not be feasible or required. It is then important to note that spaces can also be created from gaps, just as much as sensory information and lore. Spatial gaps are a bit trickier though as we are now messing with the actual play area which means you you have to be extra careful.

The sloppy way to implement is to simply have a lot of locked doors that the player cannot access. But this can be bad for pacing and, worse, it can lead to a weak mental model. The brain is usually quite lazy and will try to optimize. If the pattern becomes ‘locked door equals the room is irrelevant’, it will be noticed and incorporated into the model. After all, dismissing these spaces is much easier than assuming they are there.

Instead it is better to vary the ways in which the rooms are blocked off, and to build up a negative space hinting that it is there, such as glimpses into it from a small window. It is especially effective to make the player believe that room might contain something of value. That way it is much more likely it will be part of the mental model. Remember, what matters is not what is actually there, but what the player perceives to be there.

Causal Gap

This next time is very similar to the animation example from above, but happens over longer time scales. As I said before, closing gaps is all about creating a working mental model. Where the previous gaps where are all about what we see, causal gaps is more about why we see it. Just like we humans are quick to see familiar objects in random patterns, so are we quick to correlate two events with one another. A black cat runs over the street and then you get a headache. We humans often correlate the most strange occurrences and it is quite hard not to. Many of our psychological fallacies are really based around this fact, and it takes effort to learn not to do this. Why is this so? Because for our ancestors it was okay to have a few weird beliefs if it meant we could pick up on dangerous situations and survive better. If you are a skeptic about the cat causing the headache, you might also be skeptical towards the signals of an impending avalanche. 

This is obviously the sort of brain glitch that we can make use of in art. Film is a medium that uses it all the time, in editing. See a gun fire, and then a person being hit, and it is obvious what has happened. Correlating these two events into a single event comes naturally to us. But because games are so driven by the player understanding the flow of input and output, or how the player’s actions correlate to events in the game world, it gets a bit harder to deal with gaps.

The simplest way to do it is with events taking place. For instance, say the player suddenly notices that a door is blocked, and hears the sound of feet running away. They will now assume that whoever is running away is also the one who blocked the door. 

A little harder is for us to provoke imagined causal connections from actual interaction. What I mean by this is that you actually leave out certain information when actions take place, and ask the player to fill in the middle. For instance, if I click on an object in a game and it simply pops into my inventory we would like the player to mentally simulate this as “I picked up the item” and not “the item got magically teleported into my inventory”. The three key elements for achieving this are consistency, negative space and optimization-avoidance.

Consistency means that we need it to happen in a way that makes it possible to distil it into a couple of universal rules. For instance, is the distance you can pick up items at consistent with the player using their hands? Negative space means that we use other events to reinforce the fantasy. These can be sounds effects when you pick up, feedback messages when you are too far away, and cutscenes where we see this happening for real. Finally, optimization-avoidance means that our intended mental model, that of the player actually picking these objects up, must be the “simplest” [2] available explanation. If there are too many edge cases, weird behaviors or simply not enough supportive negative space the “magical teleportation”-theory will win.

Anticipatory Gap

This one is quite similar to causal, but worth having in its own category. These are basically events that might happen to the player in the future and that they will take into account when planning. As explained in an earlier blog, planning is a core reason why gameplay is engaging, and thus it is important to shape what sort of consequences the player can conceive of taking place. When the player plays a game, they will generate their mental models not just based on what they are playing, but also what they know from before. This is gives us an opportunity to make the player think certain things are possible, without them never having witnessed them.

Suppose that the player hears footsteps from afar. These might just be coming from a couple of scripted sound effects, but the player doesn’t know that. Given the right context the player will conjure up a monster that is making these sounds and assume that it might attack them. Now the player will start making plans based on a few sound effects and project a lot more onto the game than what is actually there. This is something that we saw a lot in Amnesia. The player could create long, and engaging, gameplay situations for themselves only because of a few sound effects. 

Of course, this sort of trick can’t last forever. As I have mentioned several times, the brain likes to optimize and once the pattern gets to clear the illusion will go away. So it is important to constantly update the negative space, to not make the events so predictable and to setup situations in ways that feel exciting to partake in. Even more important is to make sure that this trickery is not the only gameplay there is. If the player has a baseline of actual planning  and execution going on, this sort of illusory anticipation can be sustained for quite a long time and add a lot to the experience.

Agency Gap

If you are in the jungle and the high grass suddenly moves. Do you:

  1. Assume it is a tiger with the intention of eating you?
  2. Be skeptical and consider that it might just be the wind playing tricks?

In our ancient past, the people who thought like number 2 were much less likely to survive. Sure, they escaped the embarrassment of being afraid of grass from time to time. But they also got eaten a lot more by tigers. Thinking of events as being caused by something with agency (e.g. an animal) is powerful concept for survival. It is also something that leads to all sort of weird beliefs like tree spirits and demonic possession. For many events it comes naturally to think of them as caused by intentional beings. And once again, this is great stuff to use in games.

This video that is a great example of the whole thing in action. Just note how you directly project agency on the shapes.

The most common use of this is in enemy AI. Most of the time, AI that feels smart is because the player thinks it is so, not because the underlying systems are complex [3]. F.E.A.R. is a great example of this. While the AI does have some clever systems at play, it derives most of its impressiveness from being good at giving the player feedback. For instance, by saying “cover me” while a grenade is thrown, it gives the impression that much more is happening than what actually occurs. The player projects a set of thoughts running through the soldier’s mind and incorporates that into their mental model. But in reality it is just very simple code that is executed.

This is an area where the brain works a lot to our advantage. We are ill-equipped to mentally simulate things like state machines, but it comes naturally to think in terms of people. This means that we can get a lot of content to the player only through suggestion. The player’s brain is really apt at simulating people and can do so much better than any existing computer system. So the more of that power we can use, the better.

All of this get harder when we get away from combat though. While players want to think of other characters in games as entities with rich mental lives, there is a limit to how far they are willing to go. If animations start to look weird, if responses come out as canned or if interaction possibilities are too limited the brain gets lazy and optimization kicks in. Characters go from intentional beings to simply being objects.

A big problem of interactive storytelling is how to keep this from happening. Just as I discussed with causal gaps, the key elements in achieving this are consistency, negative space and optimization-avoidance. How exactly to achieve this with characters is still too unclear and complex to cover this time around – I will go over some possible directions in a future blog post.

Volition gaps

Finally we have arrived at the last gap type, which is similar to causal gaps. Previously we have mostly talked about things happening when the the player is the one causing it, but volition gaps contradict that. These are events that the player thinks they cause when in fact they don’t.

This is something that I think currently is quite unexplored and has a lot of potential. It is quite hard to construct control interfaces that allows the player to take all the possible actions. Therefore it would be nice if we could have actions that the game does automatically but that the player believes they used their volition to cause. This is what this gap is all about.

Just like we construct a mental model of what is happening on the outside world we are also constructing a narrative of what we are doing ourselves. While we are not conscious about it in everyday life, a lot of the time we have reasons and beliefs because we do certain things, instead of the other way around.

For instance, take choice blindness. In an experiment the subject had to pick which face they thought were the most beautiful, and then when handed back a different picture, most subjects continued to explain why they had chosen it. So a lot of the time, we make up reasons based on the actions we find ourselves doing. And as always, whenever there is a brain deficiency, we should try and exploit it for art.

The best example of this effect in use is in Assassin’s Creed. When you run across the roofs in a city, the game will automatically make the character jump. Despite that, it always feels like you are the one who is willing those jumps to happen. This works as a great way of streamlining the controls and making the experience more fluent without taking away a sense of agency in the player. Another example of is in games like Uncharted where the character will interact with the world in ways that make sense and enhance the feeling of being there.

I believe that these sort of gaps can be taken further, though. An interesting example of this is The Path, where the protagonist will carry out actions of their own choice when you leave them alone. It is by no means perfect, and doesn’t really provide an illusion of volition. But I think it shows the potential of this and I think causes the player to feel intimately involved with various events if used correctly. Currently, though, it is too unexplored to say for sure what the possibilities really are. I will explore some more thoughts on this in a later blog post.

That should summarize the basics for the various gap types. I am sure there are even more than these, but this selection is what I found most useful for games. In upcoming blogs I will dig deeper into some aspects of this and give more examples on how it affects gameplay.

Until then I recommend reading Ian Thomas’s excellent article on the subject where he discusses gaps for LARPs, SOMA, and much more.

Footnotes:

1) The follow-up post that looks at the game Pillars of Eternity specifically is also well worth reading:

http://jeff-vogel.blogspot.se/2017/06/games-have-too-many-words-case-study.html

2) This is simplest in terms of effort used by the brain, not in a strict theoretical sense. For instance “a witch did it” is a simple explanation for a human brain, but in reality is quite complex because it assumes a lot of attributes for the witch. But we as humans are great at just ignoring this, making the silly explanation seem simple.

3) This video shows it off nicely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bbhJi0NBkk

Choices, Consequences and the Ability to Plan

This article goes over why it is so important for choices to matter in a game and how it all has to do with planning. If a user perceives that their actions have no consequences, you remove a core component of engagement – the ability to plan.

Say you are playing a game like The Walking Dead, or any other interactive movie, and you are faced with the choice whether or not to help someone who is hurt. You decide that you want to help the person, after which you never see them again for the rest of the game. Reloading a save and playing through the scenario you find out that if you chose not to help, the same thing plays out. Simply put: in this case, your choice really has no consequences.

While the scenario is made up, it presents a very typical situation that opinions are heavily divided on. Some people are totally okay with it for various reasons. But others will argue that this lack of consequences ruins the entire experience, as your choices doesn’t really matter. It’s really easy to say that people who feel this way are simply playing the game the wrong way or are not properly immersed. However, I think it’s really important to investigate this reaction further as it gets us closer to some fundamental problems of narrative games.

The argument from people who get annoyed by these non-choices goes something like this: if every branch leads back to the same path, then you really don’t have any say in how the game plays out. You are not playing a game, you are only pretending that you are. It’s like when you are playing a split-screen game and notice you’ve been watching the wrong side. The feeling of play is just an illusion. Nobody would tolerate a Super Mario where a pre-written script – not the player’s skill – determines whether or not they survive a jump, so why tolerate games where all choices lead to the same conclusion?

One could counter that by saying the intention is to put you into a hard position and the game is about your varied emotional reactions as you ponder the different choices. It isn’t about affecting how the game plays out – it is about making an emotional journey. If you require the game to show you the consequences of your actions, you are not immersed in the game’s story – you are simply trying to optimize a system. This might sometimes be the case, but I also think this line of thinking is missing what the actual problem is: the failure of the player’s mental model.

Let’s start by breaking down the problem. A mental model, as explained in this previous post, is how the player perceives the game’s world and their role in it. As you are playing a game, you slowly build a mental model of the various objects and systems that make up the game and attach various attributes to them. At first a box might just be a piece of the background, but as you learn you can destroy it in order to gain items, attributes are added. The object gains complexity. The reverse can also happen. For instance, when you first see a character you might think that you are able to speak to it and therefore label it with various attributes you know that humans usually have. But when you find out that the character is really just a piece of the background without any sort of agency, most of those attributes are lost.

Your mental model of a game is something that is continually revised as you are playing, and it is something that always happens, no matter what the game is. In fact, this is a process that is a core part of any medium, including books and films. So, obviously, when you are playing an interactive movie game, you are not simply reacting to a direct stream of information. You are answering questions based on your mental model.

Take my “will you help your hurt companion?” scenario from above. The knowledge you take into account about that choice is not just what is currently projected at you from the TV screen. It is a combination of everything you have gone through up to this point, along with a bunch of personal knowledge and biases. Even basic concepts like “hurt” and “companion” aren’t just created in this moment. They are ideas that the game has spent a lot of time building up, be that for good or bad, from the very moment you started playing.

When you are faced with the hypothetical scene of  a hurt companion, you are not just dealing with an animated image on a screen. You are dealing with a whole world constructed in your mind. This is what your choice will be based around. While it might objectively seem that everyone is reacting to the same scenario, they may in fact be dealing with quite different setups.

So when someone gets annoyed by the lack of consequences, it is not necessarily the direct consequences that are missing. The issue is that they have constructed a mental around a real person in need, along with that person’s future actions. So when it becomes apparent that the game doesn’t simulate that as part of its own model, the player’s mental model is broken and it feels like a big let down. Remember that we don’t play the game that is on the screen, we the play game as we perceive it in our heads. So when it turns out that your imagined world is fake, it has a huge impact.

It gets even worse once we take into the fact that planning is fundamental to a sense of gameplay. As explained in a previous post, engaging gameplay is largely fueled by the ability to make plans. The way this works is that the player first simulates a course of action using their mental model, and then tries to execute that in the game. This is a continuous process and “planning and executing the plan” is basically the same as playing. Interactive movies normally don’t have a lot of gameplay and it is really only in the choice moments that the player gets to take part in any actual play. Hence, when the choices turn out to have no consequences, it becomes clear that planning is impossible. In turn, this means that any meaningful play is impossible and the experience feels fundamentally broken.

As an example, take this experience I had with Heavy Rain:

[…] one scene I had made a plan of actions: to first bandage an unconscious person and then to poke around in his stuff. There really was nothing hindering me from doing so but instead the game removed my ability to interact directly after caring for the person. The game interpreted me wanting to help the guy as I also did not want to poke around, thinking that they two were mutually exclusive actions. Of course I thought otherwise and considered it no problem at all to do some poking afterward.

I think that people to complain the loudest about the lack of consequences are extra sensitive to situations like this. But, as I said, this is not due to lack of consequences per se, but due to the impact it has on the consistency of their mental model and sense of play. It is really important to note that this is not due to some sort of lack in immersion or ability to roleplay. On the contrary, as I have described above, many of the issues arise because they mentally simulate the game’s world and characters very vividly.

So the problem that we are faced with is really not a lack of consequences. It is because the underlying systems of the game are not able to simulate the mental model for a subset of players. One way of mending this is of course to add more consequences, but that is not a sustainable solution. Additional branches increase exponentially, and it quickly becomes impossible to cover every single possible outcome. Instead it is much better to focus on crafting more robust mental models. Sure, this might entail adding consequences to choices, but that is just a possible solution – it is not the end goal.

As I outlined in the previous blog on the SSM framework it is incredibly important to keep track of how systems and story help form a mental model in the player’s mind. For instance, if you start your game saying “your actions will have consequences”, that will immediately start filling up your player’s imagination with all sort of ideas and concepts. Even how pre-release PR is presented can affect this. All of these then become things that lay groundwork for how the game is modeled in the player’s head and it is vitally important to make sure this mental model remains stable over the course of the game.

One of the main things to have in mind is consistency. Remember that as someone is playing a game, they are building up a mental simulation for how things are supposed to work. If you provide information that certain events are possible when they are in fact not, you are running the risk of breaking the player’s mental model. You either need to remove this sort of information or to make sure that they never take part in situations where these sort of events feel like a valid option.

However, the most important thing to keep in mind is the ability to plan. A major reason why the lack of consequences can feel so bad is because these consequences were part of the player’s gameplay plans. So when it becomes apparent that they don’t exist, the whole concept of play breaks down. In all fairness, this might be OK for certain genres. If the goal is to simply to make an interactive movie, then losing a subset of player might be fair. But if the goal is to make proper interactive storytelling, then this is of paramount importance – planning must be part of the core experience.

That doesn’t mean that every choice is something the player needs to base their plans on. But in that case then there need to be other things that lie on a similar time scale and which are possible to predict and incorporate into plans. I think that one way around this problem is to have a more system-focused feature that runs alongside the more fuzzy narrative choices. When the players make choices, their mental model will have the best predictive skills around this more abstract system, and play revolves mostly around this. Then when more narrative choices are presented they will feel more game-like and part of the a solid simulation, despite not really having any consequences.

A simple and good example is the choices you have to make in Papers, Please. This game is driven by a type of survival simulation where you need to gain credits (though doing proper passport check) in order to keep your family live. Entwined into this are choices about who you will allow into the country. Many of these don’t have any far reaching consequences, but that that doesn’t really matter because your ability to plan is still satisfied. But despite that, these choices still feel interesting and can have an emotional effect.

 This sort of approach relies on combining several elements in order to produce the feeling of something that might not actually be there. This is something that is used in a wide range of applications, from how we view images on a TV, to how films can create drama through cuts. We don’t always have to have solve problems straight on, but often the best way is to split the problem into many and to solve each problem on its own. The combined effect will then seem like a solution to the original problem. This is a technique that is super important for not just this, but many other narrative problems. I will write a blog post later on that goes into more details.

Once you have a game that is consistent and that has some sort of planning apart from the more narrative choices, the probability of satisfying the people will be greatly improved. And not only that, your narrative experience will improve over all, for all players, not just a subset. In this case I think it is fair to view these extra sensitive people as canaries in a cave, something that is first to react on a much bigger issue.

This blog post by no means presents the solution to end all problems with choices and consequences. But hopefully it will give a new way of thinking about the problem and some basic directions for finding a solution. I don’t think we will ever find a perfect way of dealing with choices, but the better informed we are at underlying causes, the better experiences we can provide.

Planning – The Core Reason Why Gameplay Feels Good

In this post I dig into planning, and how it is a fundamental part of what makes a game engaging. Planning affects many aspects of what is so special about games and why we enjoy playing them. This post will go over the reasons behind this, and explains why planning is so important for narrative games.

I think we can all agree that there is a difference in how certain games feel to play. There are just certain games that feel “gamier” than others. Just compare playing Super Mario to something like Dear Esther, and I think it’s clear that the former feels like it has more gameplay than the latter. What is it that causes this? My hypothesis: the ability to plan.

The more a player can plan ahead in a game, the more engaging that game will feel to play.

Before I cover some evidence of why this is most likely true, I will need to get into some background information. In order to understand why planning has such a prominent role in games, we need to look into the evolution of our species and answer this question: why are fish so stupid?

This is how the world looks to the average fish:

They can really only see 1-2 meters in front of them and often it’s even worse than that. This means that a fish can’t do much planning. It just reacts to whatever pops up in front of its face; that’s really what their lives are all about. If a fish’s life was a game, it would be a limited version of Guitar Hero played to random noise. This is why fishing works. Fish don’t think like us, they’re mainly just driven by hardwired responses.

For a large part of earth’s history this was what life was like for organisms. But then 400 million or so years ago something happened. Fish started to move on to land. Suddenly, the view looked more like this:

This changed their world. Suddenly it was possible to plan ahead and to properly think about your environment. Previously, smart brains had been a waste of energy, but now it was a great asset. In fact, so important was this shift that it is probably a big factor in how consciousness evolved.  Malcolm MacIver, who as far as I can tell originated this theory, writes about it like this:

“But then, about 350 million years ago in the Devonian Period, animals like Tiktaalik started making their first tentative forays onto land. From a perceptual point of view, it was a whole new world. You can see things, roughly speaking, 10,000 times better. So, just by the simple act of poking their eyes out of the water, our ancestors went from the mala vista of a fog to a buena vista of a clear day, where they could survey things out for quite a considerable distance. 

This puts the first such members of the “buena vista sensing club” into a very interesting position, from an evolutionary perspective. Think of the first animal that gains whatever mutation it might take to disconnect sensory input from motor output (before this point, their rapid linkage was necessary because of the need for reactivity to avoid becoming lunch). At this point, they can potentially survey multiple possible futures and pick the one most likely to lead to success. For example, rather than go straight for the gazelle and risk disclosing your position too soon, you may choose to stalk slowly along a line of bushes (wary that your future dinner is also seeing 10,000 times better than its watery ancestors) until you are much closer.”

 To showcase the above, he has the following image:

This images nicely shows the conceptual difference in the processes involved. In one you basically just use a linear process and “react as you go”. In the other one you scout the terrain ahead, consider various approaches and then pick one that seems, given the available data, to be the best one. 

It is not exactly the same, but there is a striking likeness to the following image comparing old school and more modern FPS design:

I know that this is not a completely fair comparison, but the important point here is that when we look at these two images, it feels pretty clear which of these two designs ought to have the best gameplay. The image on the left represents a more complex and interesting landscape, while the one on the right represent a linear sequence of events. And just like the worlds of a fish compared to that of the world of land animals, this means a huge difference in our ability to plan.

There are other interesting connections with the ability to see far and to plan. Malcolm MacIver replies to a question regarding the intelligence of octopi:

“It’s incredible what being an unprotected blob of delicious protein will get you after eons of severe predation stress. They, by the way, have the largest eyes known (basketball size in the biggest deep sea species). Apparently, they use these to detect the very distant silhouettes of whales, their biggest threats, against the light of the surface. 

The theory is committed to the idea that the advantage of planning will be proportional to the margin of where you sense relative to where you move in your reaction time. It then identifies one period in our evolutionary past when there was a massive change in this relationship, and suggests this might have been key to the development of this capacity. It’s interesting that octopuses and archerfish tend to be still before executing their actions. This maximally leverages their relatively small sensoria. There may be other ways, in other words, for animals trapped in the fog of water to get a big enough sensorium relative to where they are moving to help with planning.”

Sight is of course not the only reason for us humans to have evolved our current level of intelligence and consciousness. Other important factors are our upright pose and our versatile hands. Standing up meant that we could see further and allowed us to use our hands more easily. Our hands are the main means with which we shape the world around us. They allowed us to craft tools, and in various ways to change parts of the environment to optimize our survival. All of these things are deeply connected to the ability to plan. Once we learned how to reshape the world around us, our options opened up and the complexity of our plans increased immensely. 

It doesn’t stop there. Planning is also a crucial part of our social life. Theory of mind, our ability to simulate other people, is both a reason for and a product of our planning abilities. Navigating our social groups has always been a careful activity of thinking about various paths of action and their consequences. 

Planning also underlies two other phenomena that have been discussed recently on this blog: Mental Models and Presence. The reason why we have mental models is so that we can evaluate actions before we make them, which obviously is crucial to planning. Presence is a phenomenon that comes from us incorporating ourselves into our plans. We don’t just want to model what happens to the world, but also to ourselves.

So, to sum things up: there are lots of evolutionary reasons why planning would be a fundamental part of what makes us human. It’s a big part of who we are, and when we are able to make use of these abilities we are bound to find that engaging. 

So this background is all very well, but is there really any good evidence that this is actually a thing in games? Yes – in fact, quite a bit of it! Let’s review the ones that I find the most important.

There is a model of player engagement called PENS (Player Experience of Need Satisfaction) which is quite rigorously researched. It uses the following criteria to evaluate what a player thinks about a game.

  • Competence. This is how well a game satisfies our need to feel competent – the sense of having mastered the game. 
  • Autonomy. How much freedom does the player have and what options do they have to express it?
  • Relatedness. How well is the player’s desire to connect with other people satisfied?

Measuring how well a game performs on the above metrics has been shown to be a much better indicator of various types of success (sales, how likely people are to recommend the game, and so forth) than simply asking if the game is “fun”. 

And, more importantly, two of the above factors are directly related to planning. Both Competence and Autonomy heavily rely on the player’s ability to plan. Let’s go over why this is so.

In order for a player to feel competent at a game they need to have a deep understanding of how the game works. Sure, there are games where mere reflexes are enough, but these are always very simplistic. Even in most rhythm games there are certain rules that the player needs to learn and understand in order to play well. A big part is also learning the melodies that make up each level. Why? In order to optimally place your inputs (be that fingers or feet) to hit as many beats as possible. All of these aspects boil down to one thing: being able to predict the future.

You see the same thing in most games. You get better at Darks Souls when you understand how monsters attack, how levels are laid out and how your own attacks work. Learning how a world operates and gaining the ability to predict is a cornerstone of competence. Sure, you also need to develop the motor skills to carry out the required actions, but this is almost always less important than understanding the whys and whens of the actions. Simply being able to predict is not enough, you also need to have a sense of what goal you are trying to achieve and then, using your predictive abilities, to carry out the steps required to reach it. Or in other words: you need to be able to plan.

Autonomy is also highly dependent on the ability to plan. Imagine a game where you have plenty of freedom, but have no idea how the game works. Everybody who has booted up a complex strategy game without understanding the basics knows that this is not very engaging. In order for the freedom to mean something, you need to have an idea what to do with it. You need to understand how the game’s mechanics behave, what tools are at your disposal, and what goals you want to achieve. Without this, freedom is confusing and pointless.

So in order to provide a sense of autonomy a game needs to not only provide a large possibility space, but also teach the player how the world works and what the player’s role in it is. The player needs to be able to mentally simulate various actions that can take place, and then come up with sequences that can be used to attain a specific goal. When you have this, you have freedom that is worth having. It should be pretty obvious that I am again describing the ability to plan. A world in which the player is not able to plan is also one with little autonomy.

Similarly, if the game only features a linear sequence of events, there’s not much planning to be done. In order for the player to be able to craft plans there need to be options. This is not the case if only a certain chain of actions is possible. This scenario is a typical example of having no freedom, and unsatisfactory in terms of autonomy.  Again, planning and autonomy are intricately linked.

One could make the case that Relatedness also has a connection with planning. As explained earlier, any social interactions heavily rely on our ability to plan. However, I don’t think this is strong enough and the other two aspects are more than enough. Instead let’s look at evidence from a different angle.

One trend that has been going on for a long time in games is the addition of extra “meta” features. A very common one right now is crafting, and almost all big games have it in some way or another. It’s also common to have RPG-like levelling elements, not just for characters, but for assets and guns as well. Collecting a currency that can then be used to buy a variety of items also turns up a lot. Take a look at just about any recent release and you are bound to find at least one of these.

So why do games have them? The answer to that is quite easy: it makes the game more engaging. The harder question is why that should be the case. It can’t solely be because it gives the player more to do. If that was the case you would see games adding a random variety of mini games to spice things up. But instead we are seeing certain very specific types of features being used over and over again.

My theory for this is that it’s all to do with planning. The main reason that these features are there is because it gives the player a larger possibility space of plans, and more tools to incorporate into their planning. For instance, the act of collecting currency combined with a shop means that the player will have the goal of buying a particular item. Collecting a certain amount of currency with a view to exchange it for goods is a plan. If the desired item and the method in which the coins are collected are both connected to the core gameplay loop, then this meta feature will make the core loop feel like it has more planning that it actually has. 

These extra features can also spice up the normal gameplay. Just consider how you need to think about what weapons to use in combat during The Last of Us. You have some scrap you can craft items from, and all of those items will allow you to use different tactics during combat. And because you cannot make all of them, you have to make a choice. Making this choice is making a plan, and the game’s sense of engagement is increased. 

Whatever your views on this sort of meta-feature are, one thing is certain: they work. Because if they weren’t we wouldn’t be seeing this rise in them persist over such a long time. Sure, it’s possible to make a game with a ton of planning without any of these features. But that’s the hard way. Having these features is a well-tested way to increasing engagement, and thus something that is very tempting to add, especially when you lose a competitive advantage by not doing so.

Finally, I need to discuss what brought me into thinking about planning at all. It was when I started to compare SOMA to Amnesia: The Dark Descent. When designing SOMA it was really important for us to have as many interesting features as possible, and we wanted the player to have a lot of different things to do. I think it is safe to say that SOMA has a wider range of interactions and more variety than what Amnesia: The Dark Descent had. But despite this, a lot of people complained that SOMA was too much of a walking simulator. I can’t recall a single similar comment about Amnesia. Why was this so?

At first I couldn’t really understand it, but then I started to outline the major differences between the games:

  • Amnesia’s sanity system
  • The light/health resource management.
  • Puzzles spread across hubs.

All of these things are directly connected with the player’s ability to plan. The sanity system means the player needs to think about what paths they take, whether they should look at monsters, and so forth. These are things the player needs to account for when they move through a level, and provide a constant need to plan ahead.

The resource management system works in a similar fashion, as players need to think about when and how they use the resources they have available. It also adds another layer as it makes it more clear to the player what sort of items they will find around a map. When the player walks into a room and pulls out drawers this is not just an idle activity. The player knows that some of these drawers will contain useful items and looting a room becomes part of a larger plan. 

In Amnesia a lot of the level design worked by having a large puzzle (e.g. starting an elevator) that was solved by completing a set of spread out and often interconnected puzzles. By spreading the puzzles across the rooms, the player needs to always consider where to go next. It’s not possible to just go with a simple “make sure I visit all locations” algorithm to progress through the game. Instead you need to think about what parts of the hub-structure you need to go back to, and what puzzles there are left to solve. This wasn’t very complicated, but it was enough to provide a sense of planning.

SOMA has none of these features, and none of its additional features make up for the loss of planning. This meant that the game overall has this sense of having less gameplay, and for some players this meant the game slipped into walking simulator territory. Had we known about the importance of the ability to plan, we could have done something to fix this. 

A “normal” game that relies on a standard core gameplay loop doesn’t have this sort of problem. The ability to plan is built into the way that classical gameplay works. Sure, this knowledge can be used to make such games better, but it’s by no means imperative. I think this is a reason why planning as a foundational aspects of games is so undervalued. The only concrete example that I have found[1] is this article by Doug Church where he explains it like this:

“These simple, consistent controls, coupled with the very predictable physics (accurate for a Mario world), allow players to make good guesses about what will happen should they try something. Monsters and environments increase in complexity, but new and special elements are introduced slowly and usually build on an existing interaction principle. This makes game situations very discernable — it’s easy for the players to plan for action. If players see a high ledge, a monster across the way, or a chest under water, they can start thinking about how they want to approach it. 

This allows players to engage in a pretty sophisticated planning process. They have been presented (usually implicitly) with knowledge of how the world works, how they can move and interact with it, and what obstacle they must overcome. Then, often subconsciously, they evolve a plan for getting to where they want to go. While playing, players make thousands of these little plans, some of which work and some of which don’t. The key is that when the plan doesn’t succeed, players understand why. The world is so consistent that it’s immediately obvious why a plan didn’t work. “

This is really spot on, an excellent description of what I am talking about. This is an article from 1999 and have had trouble finding any other source that discuss it, let alone expands upon the concept since then. Sure, you could say that planning is summed up in Sid Meier’s “A series of interesting choices”, but that seems to me too fuzzy to me. It is not really about the aspect of predicting how a world operates and then making plans based on that.

The only time when it does sort of come up is when discussing the Immersive Sim genre. This is perhaps not a big surprise given that Doug Church had a huge part in establishing the genre. For instance, emergent gameplay, which immersive sims are especially famous for, relies heavily on being able to understand the world and then making plans based on that. This sort of design ethos can be clearly seen in recent games such as Dishonored 2, for instance [2].  So it’s pretty clear that game designers think in these terms. But it’s a lot less clear to me that it is viewed as a fundamental part of what makes games engaging and it feels like it is more treated like a subset of design.

As I mentioned above this is probably because when you take part in “normal” gameplay, a lot of planning comes automatically. However, this isn’t the case with narrative games. In fact, narrative games are often considered “lesser games” in the regard that they don’t feature as much normal gameplay as something like Super Mario. Because of this, it’s very common to discuss games in terms of whether you like them to be story-heavy or gameplay-heavy, as if either has to necessarily exclude the other. However, I think a reason there is still such a big discrepancy is because we haven’t properly figured out how gameplay in narrative games work. As I talked about in an earlier blog post, design-wise, we are stuck at a local maxima.

The idea that planning is fundamental to games presents a solution to this problem. Instead of saying “narrative games need better gameplay”, we can say that “narrative games need more planning”.

In order to properly understand what we need to do with planning, we need to have some sort of supportive theory to makes sense of it all. The SSM Framework that I presented last week fits nicely into that role.

It is really best to read up on last week’s blog post to get the full details, but for the sake of completeness I shall summarise the framework here.

We can divide a game into three different spaces. First of all we have System space. This where all the code is and where all the simulations happen. The System space deals with everything as abstract symbols and algorithms. Secondly we have the Story space which provides context for the the things that happen in the System space. In System space Mario is just a set of collision boundaries, but then when that abstract information is run through the Story space that turns into an Italian plumber. Lastly, we have the Mental Model space. This is how the player thinks about the game and is a sort of mental replica of all that exists in the game world. However, since the player mostly never understands exactly what goes on System space (nor how to properly interpret the story context), this is just an educated guess. In the end though, the Mental Model is what the player uses in order to play the game and what they base their decisions on.

Given this we can now start to define what gameplay is. First of all we need to talk about the concept of an action. An action is basically whatever the player performs when they are playing the game and it has the following steps:

  1. Evaluate the information received from the System and Story space.
  2. Form a Mental Model based on the information at hand.
  3. Simulate the consequences of performing a particular action.
  4. If the consequences seem okay, send the appropriate input (e.g. pushing a button) to the game.

A lot of this happens unconsciously. From the player’s point of view they will mostly view this sequence as “doing something” and are unaware of the actual thought process that takes place. But really, this always happens when the player does something in a game, be that jumping over a chasm in Super Mario or placing a house in Sim City.

Now that we understand what an action is, we can move on to gameplay. This is all about stringing several actions together, but with one caveat: you don’t actually send the input to the game, you just imagine doing so. So this string of actions are built together in mental model space, evaluating them and then if the results feel satisfactory, only then do we start to send the required input.

Put in other words: gameplay is all about planning and then executing that plan. And based upon all of the evidence that I showed above, my hypothesis is: the more actions you can string together, the better the gameplay feels.

It isn’t enough to simply string together any actions and call that a plan. First of all, the player needs to have an idea of some sort of goal they are trying to achieve. The actions also need be non-trivial. Simply having a bunch of walking actions strung together will not be very engaging to the player. It’s also worth pointing out that planning is by no means the only thing that makes a game engaging. All other design thinking doesn’t suddenly go out the window just because you focus on planning. 

However, there are a bunch of design principles that go hand in hand with planning. For instance, to have a consistent world is crucial, because otherwise it isn’t possible for the player to form a plan. This is why invisible walls are so annoying; they seriously impede our ability to create and execute plans. It also explains why it’s so annoying when failure seems random. For gameplay to feel good, we need to be able to mentally simulate exactly what went wrong. Like Doug Church expressed in a quote above: when a player fails they always need to know why.

Another example is the adventure game advice that you should always have several puzzles going at once. In planning terms this is because we always want to make sure the player has ample room to plan, “I will first solve this and then that”. There are lots of other similar principles that have to do with planning. So while planning is not the only thing that makes a game engaging, a great number of things that do can be derived from it.

Let’s quickly look at some examples from actual games.

Say that the player wants to assassinate the guy in red in this situation. What the player does not do is simply jump down and hope for the best. They need to have some sort of plan before going on. They might first wait for the guard to leave, teleport behind the victim, and then sneak up and stab them. When that’s done they leave the same way they came. This is something the player works out in their head before doing anything. It isn’t until they have some sort of plan that they start acting.

This plan might not work, the player might fail to sneak up on the guy and then he sound an alarm. In this case the plan breaks, however that doesn’t mean that the player’s plan was totally untrue. It just meant they didn’t manage to pull off one of the actions of. If presented properly, players are okay with this. In the same way, the player might have misinterpreted their mental model or missed something. This is also okay as long as the player can update their mental model in a coherent fashion. And next time the player tries to execute a similar plan they will get better at it.

Often this ability to carry out your plans is what makes the game the most engaging. Usually a game starts out a bit dull, as your mental models are a bit broken and the ability to plan not very good. But then, as you play, this gets better and you start stringing together longer sets of actions and therefore having more fun. This is why tutorials can be so important. They are a great place to get away from that initial dullness by making the experience a bit simpler and guiding the player to think in the correct manner about how the game works.

It’s also worth noting that plans should never be too simple to carry out. Then the actions become trivial. There needs to be a certain degree of non-triviality for engagement to remain.

Planning doesn’t always need to happen in the long term, it can also be very short term. Take this scene from Super Mario, for instance:

Here the player needs to make a plan in a split second. The important thing to notice here is that the player doesn’t simply react blindly. Even in a stressful situation, if the game works as it should, the player quickly formulates a plan and then tries to carry out that plan.

Now compare these two examples to a game like Dear Esther:

There are a lot of things one can like about this game, but I think everybody agrees that the gameplay is lacking. What’s harder to agree on, though, is what’s missing. I’ve heard a lot about the lack of fail states and competitive mechanics, but I don’t find these convincing. As you might guess, I think the missing ingredient is planning.

The main reason that people find Dear Esther unengaging is not because they cannot fail, or because there is nothing to compete against. It’s because the game doesn’t allow them to form and execute plans. We need to figure out ways of fixing this.

By thinking about the planning in terms of the SSM-framework we get a hint at what sort of gameplay that can constitute “narrative play”: When you form a plan in Mental Model space it is important that the actions are mostly grounded in the data received from Story space. Compare the the following two plans:

1) “First I pick up 10 items to increase the character X’s trust meter, this will allow me to reach the ‘friendship’-threshold and X will now be part of my crew. This awards me 10 points in range combat bonus.”

2) “If I help out X with cleaning her room, I might be able to be friends with her. This would be great as I could then ask her to join us on our journey. She seems like a great sharpshooter and I would feel much safer with her onboard.”

This is a fairly simplistic example, but I hope I get the point across. Both of these describe the same plan, but they have vastly different in how the data is interpreted. Number 1 is just all abstract system-space, and the number 2 has a more narrative feel, and is grounded in the story space. When the gameplay is about making plans like the second example, that is when we start to get something that feels like proper narrative play. This is a crucial step in evolving the art of interactive storytelling.

I believe thinking about planning is a crucial step in order to get better narrative games. For too long, game design has relied on the planning component arising naturally out of ‘standard’ gameplay, but when we no longer have that we need to take extra care. It’s imperative to understand that it drives gameplay, and therefore that we need to make sure our narrative experiences include this. Planning is by no means a silver bullet, but it’s a really important ingredient. It’s certainly something that we’re putting a lot of thought into when making our future titles here at Frictional Games.

Footnotes:

1) If anyone has other concrete resources describing planning as a fundamental part of games I’d love to hear about them. Please post about them in the comments if you know any.

2) Steve Lee had an excellent lecture called “An Approach to Holistic Level Design” at this year’s GDC where he talked a lot about player intentionality. This is another concept closely related to planning.