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!

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.

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.

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.

The SSM Framework of Game Design

This article goes over a framework for understanding how videogames work. It divides games into systems, story, and a mental model, and then shows how these interact. Using this system makes it easier to make design decisions and enables one to have insights into the workings of a game.

I’ve previously talked about story and mental models, and now it’s time to wrap it all up into one neat framework. By looking at how these aspects influence one another it’s much easier to talk about a game, and it also allows us to draw some fresh conclusions. In this post I’ll go over the basic framework and then discuss how it can be applied to gameplay.

It’s worth noting that this is by no means the only way of looking at games, nor does it take into account every single aspect of what games are. I think it’s broad enough and covers enough ground to be really useful, though. In fact, it’ll be used as a foundation for many of my upcoming articles on design. With that said, let’s start.

The first thing you need to realize is that all games work in three different spaces: System, Story and Mental Model. These are the building blocks of the entire framework and I’ll henceforth refer to this as the SSM-framework. This theory derives a few of its basics from the MDA framework, so it feels right to briefly go over that. In the MDA framework, games are divided into Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics. The mechanics are the basic building blocks of a game, the dynamics are how they work together, and the aesthetics describe the user experience[1]. All of these different components are layered and dependent, so mechanics give rise to dynamics and dynamics give rise to aesthetics.

While I think the MDA approach to looking at games can be really helpful, it doesn’t properly separate the player’s understanding of the game from the actual behaviour of the game. That’s the main thing that the SSM Framework tries to fix. The way it does this is by viewing a game as something that takes place in the three spaces I mentioned earlier: Story, System and Mental Model. Now let’s go through each of these.

System

The System space is where all of the code exists and where all of the game simulations happen. It’s here that things get done. We can divide this space into two layers: Mechanics and Dynamics. This is incredibly close to the MDA framework, with the exception of the Aesthetics layer. It’s also important that the mechanics and dynamics here are abstract; we don’t take any account of how they are presented to and understood by the player. System space only concerns itself with functionality.

Story

Story, as explained in this previous post, is what gives context to the things that happen in System space. In Super Mario’s system space, a fireball is just an abstract object with bounds that trigger a particular event on collision. It’s in Story space that it looks like a fireball, which helps the player intuitively understand what sort of threat they are dealing with. Sometimes the Story space is very thin. For instance, in Tetris the visuals are basically just a direct visualization of the system space. In other cases, the Story space can be very thick. A good example of that is The Walking Dead where the systems are supported by hours of non-interactable Story-space cutscenes.

Just like the System space can be divided into two layers, so can Story space. At the bottom layer we find the Mis-en-scéne, which is basically everything that the player can see, hear, and in other ways reach their sensory organs. This is a term borrowed from film and I think it best encapsulates this component of the story layer. In the layer above that we find Drama. Just like the Dynamics of System space, this is something that is generated by the layer below, in this case the Mis-en-scéne. Here’s a quick example of this: In Super Mario, the character of Bowser is part of the Mis-en-scéne and the fact that he does not like Mario is Drama. Just like with Mechanics and Dynamics, there is some overlap between the two, but they are still separated enough for it to be a useful distinction.

Mental Model

Finally we arrive at the Mental Model space. It’s hard to quickly summarize exactly what a Mental Model is, and the best thing really is to read the previous blog that discusses the subject. In very simplistic terms the Mental Model is the player’s personal experience of the game, making it similar to the Aesthetics of the MDA framework. The big difference is that while it does derive from what happens in a game’s Mechanics and Dynamics, it is thought of as its own separate space. When you join together the three different spaces, it looks like this:

It is when the Story and System space are experienced together that a Mental model is formed. I think it’s incredibly important to think of this as a separate space, because just like System and Story have their components, so does the Mental Model. At the basic level you find Affordances. This is basically the functionality that the player attributes to a perceived object, e.g. that a door is something that can be opened. Then at a layer above that you find Schemas, which is how the player thinks they should behave in various situations and how these situations ought to play out.

This is a quite rough division of layers and as before there is overlap. There are also further details to take into account, such as the player’s emotional responses and so on. Normally, you wouldn’t think of these as part of, say, Affordances, and if you wanted to you could make the components of the Mental Model space quite complex. I feel that for a framework to be useful it needs to simplify things and as a start Affordances and Schemas work quite nicely. It’s not at all that different from Mechanics and Dynamics; these are widely used concepts in game design despite not being exact expressions.

A final important note about the Mental Model space is that it doesn’t necessarily need to contain things from either System or Story space, it can be things that the player makes up from their own imagination. For instance, certain items might disappear when they are out of view for a long time. The player might form the Mental Model that that this is due to some gnomes, despite neither System nor Story space contains any such information. This is very common, and a large part of the Mental Model space is usually taken up by these kind of imaginary entities, actions, etc. Sometimes a game is designed for this, other times it is purely accidental.

With the basics laid down let us discuss how the SSM Framework describes a game loop. Here is a an overview for how it all works:

The steps are as follows:

  1. The users triggers an input on the controller and this data is sent to System space.
    Example: The fire button is pushed.
  2. System space handles the data, does all the required simulations and then generates a bunch of abstract data.
    Example: The trajectory of the bullet is calculated, a collision is found, the hit points are lowered for the object and this causes the object to transition into the “exploded” state.
  3. This abstract data is sent to the Story space, where it is given context.
    Example: The game changes various numbers which are used by various graphics components to produce output. The “exploded” event triggers a particular sound file to be played.
  4. A collection of sounds, animations, graphics and so forth is produced.
    Example: The bullet is animated as a flying projectile. It is seen hitting a barrel which then explodes to the sound of a loud “Boom!”.
  5. This Story generated content gets sent to the various sensory organs of the player. The most common are the eyes and ears.
    Example: The player hears and sees the explosion.
  6. The player’s sensory organs sends the data to the brain where it is processed in various ways. We are now entering the Mental Model space of the game loop.
    Example: The player recognizes the bullet and barrels as those objects. It’s also clear that the bullet hitting the barrel caused an explosion event. This, together with the boom sound, gives the player a feeling of satisfaction.
  7. The player’s impressions are fed into the current mental model.
    Example: This is the first time the player witnesses a bullet making a barrel explode.
  8. Using the new data, the mental model is updated.
    Example: The player is now aware that shooting barrels will make them explode and cause satisfying effects.
  9. The player uses the most recent model to figure out what to do next and simulates what effects various scenarios would have.
    Example: The player is surrounded by barrels and knows that their goal is to destroy as many objects as possible. They consider what would happen if they were to shoot at more barrels. A mental simulation is made where the result of shooting the other barrels would make them explode as well, causing a lot of carnage, which brings the player closer to their goal. This feels like a good plan.
  10. With a plan for what to do next, commands are sent for the player to trigger the game’s input device.
    Example: The player’s brain sends signals telling their hands to move the stick and hit the fire-button in such a way that it should hit the nearby barrels.

And then then it all loops back to step 1 again and begins all over. Hopefully this gives an idea of how useful the SSM Framework is in describing the game loop. Once you have this sense of how data is formed and transported around as a game is played, it’s much simpler to see where something goes wrong. 

Now for a simple example of how this framework can be helpful when analyzing input. Hopefully this will also show how SSM can help us discuss certain game design problems in a much simpler way. 

Let’s start by imagining a System space that has the following: 

  • A character where the bounds are defined as an abstract cylinder.
  • An abstract device that will play sound files when certain events are triggered.
  • A couple of rules that will make the cylinder character stay at a certain distance from the player.

Now say that the Story space looks like this:

  • The cylinder takes the form of a cute rabbit.
  • The sound files played are cute quips that the player is meant to find endearing.

The designer’s goal is that the rabbit should be something that the player cares about. If the Mental Model gets constructed properly the player will think of the rabbit as a living creature and base their imagination mainly on the story aspects of the character. This makes the player protect the rabbit and makes sure that it never falls too far behind. This is a case of the Mental Model working as desired.

However, it might be that the player realizes that the rabbit is a great shield against incoming enemy attacks. The game becomes much easier to play if the player manages to position the rabbit in between them and any hostiles when it’s time to loot treasure chests. 

This radically changes the player’s mental model. Instead of being a living creature, a fantasy mostly derived from Story space, the player now sees the character mostly as an element of System space. The rabbit is now simply a handy game object that has various tactical benefits.

This sort of thing is quite common in games. Entities usually start out in story space and then as you play the game and discover how they actually work, your mental model becomes more influenced by System space. And since the story content can usually deliver a lot more emotional depth, the experience comes off as very “gamey”. In some cases this can be perfectly fine, but when you want to deliver a narrative experience it can be devastating. In this case it’s really important to keep our Mental model close to what we had in Story space.

These sort of story vs gameplay issues are really easy to discuss in the SSM Framework, and it also provides us with several avenues of attack for how to solve them. You need to make sure that System space doesn’t generate Mentally Modeled behaviors that directly contradict what is in Story space. By thinking about the flow of data in the game loop you can pinpoint where it all went wrong and then change things accordingly. While this doesn’t spell out every single step needed to fix the problem, it gives us a way to formulate it and a foundation on which we can lay a more detailed plan.

Next week I will go over how the gameplay is defined in the SSM Framework and how it shows us a way to give narrative games a great sense of play.

Footnotes:

[1] The MDA framework also brings up various ways in which games engage players, but that I felt no need to go over that in this article. Do note that there is more to the framework than simply 3 layers of components.

6 Reasons For Having a Defenseless Protagonist

Not having any combat can be really helpful to horror games and crucial in delivering the desired experience. This article presents the top 6 reasons for this and also explains how it ties into narrative games in general.

Outlast 2 has recently been released and has spurred a lot of discussions around not giving the protagonist any means to fight back. I haven’t played enough of the game to be able to give an overall impression of it (I’m just 30 minutes or so in), but I think I’ve seen enough to weigh in on the discussion. We at Frictional have been knee deep in this problem since 2006, and I’ve been up against the problem myself ever since I made my first hobby horror game in early 2000. This is something I’ve been thinking about for almost 20 years, and hence something I have a strong opinion about.

The discussions around weaponless protagonists is often focused on horror games. It’s really a question that concerns narrative games in general, though, and isn’t just about what sort of horror you want. It’s really about what sort of approach you want to take to storytelling. It also has a lot to do with my recent post on mental models, which makes this a good time to go into it.

Let’s start with the main reasons why you would want a game with a defenseless protagonist. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it brings up the most important reasons.

1. It makes the player assume the appropriate story role

To someone with only a hammer, every problem will look like a nail. The same is true for the tools that we give to a player. The actions that we let the player use informs them about the role they are supposed to play within the game. It’s really hard to make the player feel like a detective if they never get to do any actual detecting.

Why is this the case? Because the way we interact with the world around us is via a mental model. This mental model is built from a network of connected attributes, all having do with the various aspects of our world. When taken together this gives us a sense of how the world behaves and what we are dealing with. So when we see a character looking for clues in a crime scene, interviewing witnesses and trying to piece together evidence, it’ll point towards the idea that this person is trying to solve a crime. This creates a strong belief that the character is indeed a detective. If we are simply told a character is a detective but only see him chopping wood it is really hard to take the first statement seriously. You will never model this character as a detective. No matter how many times you tell me that a pile of sharp glass is a chair, I will not perceive it as one. It simply lacks any of the attributes that I associate with things that are chairs.

In the same way, in order for the player to feel like they are inside a horror story they need to have access to the actions of the protagonist of a horror story. In horror the protagonist is supposed to be vulnerable, uncertain, and out of their depth, and to get this across to the player you need to restrict their available actions to support this. A really simple way to do this is to simply skip any means of fighting back. Sure, you can always make weapons less effective in the game, but the moment you give them any sort of weapon it’s likely to awaken deeply rooted mental models in the player. We humans are really good at generalizing and unconsciously judge many situations on the first pieces of evidence we can get our hands on. So when you introduce a weapon in a horror game, the player will view the game as one where the primary action is combat and then by assumption add a variety of other attributes to the experience. This is something we experienced firsthand when making Penumbra: Overture where player would even treat an old broom as a potential weapon.

2. It make monsters feel like threats

Just as the actions at your disposal informs your role, so do your interactions inform what sort of world you are in. If the player’s main action is to shoot down monsters, the monsters become target practice. Again this is mental modeling. Just like we determine something to be a chair by determining its shape, how well it can be used for sitting, and so forth, we also evaluate any dangers by what attributes we can assign to them. When “thing that I shoot to generate fun gameplay” becomes a strong attribute for a monster, a lot of the horror is lost.

If, instead, monsters are things that the player interacts with only by running away and hiding from them, the mental model becomes quite different. You start to draw connections to other things that you would run away from, and this jacks much better into your primal fear response. The monster is no longer a game object connected to a core combat loop. Instead it becomes an unknown entity that you have no means to fight. This makes a huge difference to how the player perceives the threat.

3. It leaves more to the imagination

Another problem with being able to fight any creature is that this requires many close up encounters. You need to aim at the creatures, see feedback of them being hit and so forth. Most importantly, in order for this gameplay to work you need to have lots of actual confrontations. This goes against one of the most important rules in horror: leave the monsters as vague as possible.

When your gameplay doesn’t rely on combat, it’s much easier to keep the monster out of sight. When you are running and hiding, the monster doesn’t really need to be visible at all. You can just rely on the player seeing quick glimpses, hearing sounds, watching a motion tracker and so on in order to sustain the gameplay. This gives a lot more room for the player’s imagination, and allows them to conjure up far scarier monsters than what could be rendered using polygons.

4. It makes the player paranoid

Checking how much ammo you have left, thinking about what gun to have available, planning for ammo usage, looking for items and so on – all of these are activities that the player constantly has on their mind when playing a shooter. And all of these take up mental resources that could have been used for other things instead. It’s very important to know that the player has a limited amount of focus and whenever you tell the player to give something their attention, something else will have less attention. Remember this as a designer: whenever you say yes to something, you say no to something else.

What this means is that when you remove any form of combat, the player has a lot of mental focus to spare. In fact, many players will have too much. This almost leaves the player is a state of sensory deprivation. The outcome of that is that they start to pay a lot of attention to small details. It makes players more paranoid, more prone to invent reasons for small sounds and so on. This is an extremely good state in which to play horror. It’s also something you lose if you give the player too much else to think about. We noticed this ourselves in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, where many levels where made better by giving the player less to do. This encouraged them to fantasize more and gave the unintuitive result of increasing their engagement,

5. It makes it harder to optimize away emotions

A combat system is something that the player often has played hundreds of hours of before. Sometimes much, much more. There are lots of well-known tactics for dealing with encounters, and players often come with a huge instinctual toolset on how to bypass various dangers. What this means is that there is ample opportunity for the player to figure out ways to beat the monsters. In turn, this means that the monsters lose their core attribute, to be horrible threats, and instead just become standard gameplay objects.

It’s much harder to do this in a game without combat. When you don’t have a set loop that the player uses to interact with the game’s world, it becomes much harder to figure out underlying systems and to optimize. This means that the player has to rely more on their imagination to make a mental model of the world and its inhabitants. If the systems that drive the monsters are obscure, you have to think of them as living, breathing creatures and this greatly heightens any emotions that you associate with them.

Of course, if you use non-combat oriented gameplay in the wrong way, you will fall into the same trap. This is something I’ll go over in a bit.

6. It is a great design constraint

As I noted before, games are often too much fun for their own good. This is most certainly true for combat. In fact, combat is probably the most common core mechanic in games. It’s really easy to come up with engaging ways for you to do it. So the moment that you decide that you will have combat, it makes it so much simpler to come up with engaging scenarios for a game. This means that you are very likely to overuse combat and to drop focus on the narrative you are trying to convey.

When plot dictates that the player has to go through a sewer, how should we make this section engaging? With combat this answer is easy: just add some monsters and have the player fight them. Problem solved! You see this over and over in games that use combat, especially horror games. Even though it is clear that the focus ought to be on delivering a certain end experience, there are tons of areas that, by being satisfied with just having simple combat, counteract this goal.

If you don’t have combat, you don’t have this option. If your basic gameplay is just running and hiding, it’s actually quite the opposite: your core mechanics are not much fun. This means that you need to think of ways to vary them, you need to be careful when to use them and there need to be other activities involved. This forces you to avoid any easy solutions. Simply relying on “add some monsters for the player to encounter” will not work in the long run. It will soon become very tiresome to play the game, because you are relying gameplay that is, at its core, not engaging enough to be the driving force of the experience.

That concludes the list of the most important reasons why a defenseless protagonist is really good to have in a horror game. Now I will go over a few common counter-arguments, and respond to them.

Claim 1: “Without combat, the game becomes boring”

I think this is both true and untrue. 

It’s true in the sense that in order to get the player to experience certain things, such as the paranoia that comes with sensory deprivation, your game simply cannot be too much fun. This is how narrative works in other media as well. Certain experiences cannot simply be made into a super-engaging package. There needs to be a certain level of “boredom” for it all to work. The experience as a whole must of course be engaging, but not every game can have the moment-to-moment excitement like something like Doom. 

It is untrue in the sense that we haven’t yet seen what can be done without having combat. Many people simply compare the current state of games with defenseless protagonists to the current state of games with combat, and then take this as how it will always be. I think there’s a lot that can be done in order to make interesting defenseless horror, or other narrative experiences for that matter, and still have a level of “gaminess” on par with that of a shooter. The problem is that combat gameplay comes naturally and has had 40 years to evolve; gameplay without combat is much harder and has had much less time to evolve.

I have to admit that I am growing quite bored with the standard “run and hide”-gameplay. I think it can work when used in short bursts, but it’s far from an ideal solution. We need to think harder and dig deeper in order to improve gameplay for horror and other narrative games. That is basically what this whole blog is about and something Frictional Games is investing heavily in. This is uncharted territory and there is huge room for improvement.

Claim 2: “No combat leads to lots of trial and error”

If you look like a game like Outlast 2, this is certainly true. There are a bunch of sections where you have to replay over and over in order to continue. This all boils down to Outlast 2 using the “run and hide”-gameplay as a foundational element of the game, and it’s interesting to discuss why this must give rise to so much trial and error.

The first reason is that it is very hard to have a good analog feedback system. In a game with combat it’s much easier to have stats for things like health and ammo which you can vary during an encounter and use as feedback. But in a game where you are trying to not get caught, the situation is much more binary. You either get caught or you don’t. So the moment you need to give the player the feedback that they are “not playing correctly” that usually means killing them off, and forcing them to start over again.

The second reason is the fact that player failure means death and restart. This doesn’t have to be the case. Few things break our immersion as much as having to replay the same section over and over. In fact, in order keep a level of presence you are almost obliged to make sure this never happens. Every time you pull the player out of the experience, you break the illusion and force them to build up the fantasy from (almost) scratch again. Player death is a huge problem in narrative games, and despite this, very few games try to deal with it.

Again this is something I think that has lots of room for improvement. It is also something that we at Frictional Games are trying to solve in both of our upcoming games. The goal is to have an experience where you never see a “Game Over” scene, yet feel a strong sense of being able to fail and is very anxious about not letting that occur. This is not an easy challenge, but it is also one with huge potential. Staying immersed and feeling your actions have consequences are big reasons why interactive storytelling is so interesting, and even small improvements can come have great impact.

Claim 3: “Not having combat is unrealistic”

This claim is highly dependant on what sort of experience you are trying to create. Sure, if you are doing a videogame version of Aliens or Deep Rising, it’s a great fit. But as I have outlined in this ancient blog post, there are many different ways in which combat is featured in horror movies. If you want to do a videogame version of The Exorcist then combat will play a much smaller role – probably none. Most of the time, weapons are there as a last line of defense for the protagonist(s). From that angle it makes sense that you should have at least have some form of defense. But you also have to consider all of the negative aspects, many of which I listed earlier, that come along with having combat. If a horror story should “realistically” let the protagonist use a weapons in two or three places, then it might make more sense to try and make these places go away somehow.

Another way to approach this is to have combat in ways that doesn’t imply your standard combat mechanics. Weapons could be puzzle items that the player have to be careful about when they use them. It’s also possible to use the environment as a means of defense. The point I’m trying to make here is that it’s possible to retain a sense of realism without reverting to full-blown combat mechanics.

Either way, I think the most important question to ask is: “What is the best way to achieve the intended experience?”. If combat is the best way, even if you take all of the downsides into account, then by all means go in guns blazing!

Most of these discussions have centered around horror games, but really most of these things apply to any narrative game. It’s not just horror games that strive to keep the player’s imagination going or want to avoid players that optimize away emotions. These are foundational issues for any game that wants to try and tell a story. The problem of not being able to rely on an engaging set of core mechanics is also something that goes beyond horror games.

Thinking about why we want a defenseless protagonist in the first place and then figuring out means to make it better feels like a really important question to me. It connects to many of the core issues that face a game that wants to focus on narrative, and any improvements are bound to be helpful to interactive storytelling in general.

Next week I will present a system that will allow us to more easily think about these issues, and will hopefully also make it easier to find solutions.

Mental Models

Some images on this post have been lost.

The reality that we sense in front of us is a fiction created by our brains. A host of modules process information in various ways and the end result is a mental model of the outside world. Knowing how this works is crucial to game development as the shape of these mental simulations has a huge effect on how a game feels and plays.

Look around the room or the place you are currently in. It certainly feels like what you are seeing is really there, right? However, that’s not really the case. Reality is in fact made up by subatomic particles that constantly exchange various force particles amongst each other [1]. What you think of as a chair is really just a collection of particles that happen to form a temporarily semi-stable configuration. The reason why you see it as a chair only has to do with how your brain chooses to process the various data that it collects through its senses.

In the previous post on presence I mentioned how the brain is made up of modules, each of them having their own specific purpose. The results from these various modules are then used to form a collective image of your surroundings. For instance, there is a particular module that recognizes faces and, if damaged, it can no longer recognize people – the person affected will only see an object made up of some hair, a nose, two eyes and so forth. Recognizing individual people will only be possible if they have a particularly stand-out feature, like a large beard. Apart from that, all faces will look alike to this person. The normal flow of information is broken and something that most of us take for granted, an intrinsic part of our reality, is no longer present.

This is an extremely important point and it’s essential to fully grasp it. It’s not as if people who lose the ability to see faces still really see faces but don’t “recognize” them. This is the good old “homunculus in the head” fallacy. When you look at the world around you, you are not really seeing details. You are being fed a stream of information and that stream contains things like “that is a chair”, “the chair is made of wood”, “that is the face of your mother”, and so on. If the brain module that does the processing needed for a particular piece of information is damaged, it’s not like your “mental view” remains the same – information is what your mental view is made up from. To get a better idea of this, look at this image:

When first looking at it, most people see this image as simply a collection of dots. But if you look carefully for a bit you will see the form of a dog appearing. Once you have managed to spot this dog, it becomes impossible to unsee. Your brain has gone from interpreting the image as a collection of dots to seeing it as a dog. If you were to lose a brain module this process would be reversed. What was once an image of a dog would turn into a collection of dots. The dog would not still “be there” – it would be erased from your perception of reality.

Your view of reality is not what reality is like, it is a mental simulation based on interpretations of data collected by your senses. You are really living your life in a sort of virtual world that the brain constructs for you [2].

This doesn’t mean that your view of reality is a complete lie, though. It is still based on things that do exist and is a crucial tool for getting around and being able to make decisions. Even though a chair is a made up concept with no basis in reality, it still is very useful. It tells you something about what to expect and what your options are. For instance, if you are presented with either sitting down on a chair or on a pile of broken glass, your mental simulations are invaluable and can quickly give you pretty accurate estimates of what sitting down on each of the alternatives would mean. Note that these mental simulations are not confined to a single aspect of an object. There are things like shape, materials, current light conditions, the physical dimensions, emotional attachment, ownership and many other things that are all connected to an object. When you focus your gaze on an object, that is what you “see” – not some crystal clear pixel-by-pixel representation.

This array of properties is not always correct, though. For instance, if you try and pick up a carton of milk that your brain has modeled as filled (=heavy) and it turns out to be empty (=light), you will lift it with way too much force. But most of the time, because of the practice you’ve had at experiencing reality, your brain is pretty good at providing a good simulation.

Let’s move on to games. When you are playing a game, you are not playing the game that is presented on the screen. You are playing the game that you are currently modelling in your mind. The brain turns clusters of pixels into abstract icons (eg “a power-up”) and then attaches all sort of concepts to them. Just in the same way as it does when you encounter a chair in real-life. The modules in your brain use pre-existing knowledge and experience from interacting with the game and build up a mental model of how it is all connected.

The best example I know of this is from Brian Upton’s book “The Aesthetics of Play“. In the book he presents the example of navigating an environment in a game. What doesn’t happen is that the player bumps into every wall and object, trying to figure out the bounds of the simulation. Instead the player analyses the scene in front of them and then mentally figures out a path to follow. This means that there is a lot of gameplay that takes place inside the player’s head. In fact, unless the player is actively trying to test the systemic bounds of the game, almost all gameplay happens within the player’s mental simulation of the game.

What all of this means is that is that we should be less concerned about the data (images, sounds, etc) that we send to our players and focus more on the sorts of mental simulations it gives rise to. This is an extremely important aspect of game making, and it has far-reaching consequences. No matter how much more realistically you render an object, it doesn’t matter if the player’s mental model chooses to represent it as something else.

The mental model is closely linked to our ability to anticipate. This is something that happens in all kinds of media [3]. For instance when watching a film and a character steps on a banana peel, we predict that they will slip and fall. As we see the foot approaching the banana our brain is already simulating possible outcomes and various filmic tricks, such as editing, are based around this happening in our minds. All mediums rely on this, but creating anticipation in games is extra tricky because of interaction.

In order for us to work with this we need to learn how these mental models are formed. There are three basic ways in which this happens: by using built-in knowledge, extrapolating from past experiences or learning through experimentation. These three modes complement one another, but it is useful to start by looking at them one at a time.

Built-in Knowledge

This is what our brains come equipped to deal with when we are born. They’re essential to a human and you can pretty much assume that anyone playing the game will have them. Basic things like shape, lighting, perspective and so forth are all part of this category. It also includes behaviors like how pouring the content of a large glass into a smaller one will cause it to overflow, rotation of 3D shapes and how objects ought to act if you drop them. Social things like facial expressions are also part of this sort of knowledge. The facial expression connected to disgust is universal, hardwired, and does not depend on mimicking.

The one thing you need to realize about any built-in knowledge is that it’s extremely hard to break. It takes a lot of effort to convince a person that dropping a ball will make it fall upwards. It is basically impossible to make a person intuitively see a mad face as a positive response. This is all hardwired knowledge that comes with equally interesting pros and cons.

If you can tie some basic functionality of your game directly to some built-in knowledge then it will instantly come off as intuitive to any player. For instance, if you want the player to feel disgusted by an enemy it’s good to know that disgust is a disease-avoiding behavior. This knowledge allows you to trigger built in responses and also suggest what sort of events and interactions will strengthen a mental model that gives rise to feelings of disgust.

On the contrary, if your gameplay relies on something that goes against built-in knowledge, you either need to be prepared to spend a lot of time building the proper mental model or to ditch the concept altogether. Sometimes it is of course OK to break the rules, but remember that conforming to built-in knowledge is what makes a world seem believable. And if you want to focus on evoking basic human emotions, this basic believability is crucial. Without that you also lose a bunch of connections which are foundational to our emotional world.

Past Experiences

This is a huge area and it includes everything the player has learned throughout life. It is also something that can vary culturally. What I will focus on right now are two parts of this: past experiences with games versus past experiences with real life.

When you are first presented with a scene in the game there is a ton of stuff for you to process. If you see a red barrel and you have played games in the past, there is a big chance that you will think the barrel will explode when being shot upon. This interpretation relies on more than simply having encountered this specific object before. It relies heavily on what sort of game you are playing (point and click behaves differently from a quake-like shooter), what actions you think are possible (can you shoot it?), and so forth. So players come in with a lot of expectations and preconceptions on how things ought to behave. All of these will not just change how the player feel about the game, they will directly affect how the player think the game actually is like.

A monster can either be a horrible threat that you wanna keep away from, or it can be the source of what makes the game fun in the first place. The view the player takes directly affects how they behave and also has a long reaching effect on the experience of playing the game. For instance, in our game Penumbra the player has the ability to use weapons but they are very weak and inefficient. For players that interpreted the game as one where you’d best avoid any monsters, this worked great and they used the weapons as a last desperate effort to escape – as we had intended. Their mental model was one where the weapons and monsters were just like in real life. For other players the game was interpreted as a one where you could fight back. For these players it didn’t work at all. The weapons felt frustrating to use and the monster was an annoyance. Their mental model was based on how videogames usually work. Despite interacting with the same system, seeing the same visuals and hearing the same sound, these two types of players experienced radically different games.[4]

To combat this in Amnesia: The Dark Descent we started the game with a quick notice on how the game was supposed to be played. This, together with other design changes of course, made a huge difference in how players approach the game. Unlike built-in knowledge, things learned from past events are quite malleable and it is possible to adapt them according to new situations. Which leads us to the final foundational way in which mental models are formed.

Experimentation

From the moment we are born (and possibly even earlier) our brains are hardwired to analyze, generalize and make assumptions. Whenever we encounter a new object we try it out in a variety of ways (squeezing, chewing, throwing, etc) in order to figure out what it is like. We then store that information and pull it out whenever we encounter a similar object. Everyone who has been near a small child knows about this process, and so does everyone who has played an unfamiliar game.

As noted before, the moment we see a scene from a new game, we make a whole load of assumptions of what everything is like and how it functions. But it is not until we get to interact with the scene that our assumptions get confirmation and are cemented. Unless the game is similar to another game we’ve already played, we know that we have new lessons to learn. These first impressions are crucial to how the rest of our experience is shaped [5]. This is why the opening of a game is so important. If a player gets the wrong idea about something it can be really hard to get rid of that faulty mental model.

Once the player interacts with something it will tell them about some aspect of the object. For instance, if they can pick it up or not. The player will then try to generalize this knowledge, often by using pre-existing information. So if a glass bottle can be picked up, they will assume that it’s possible to pick up plastic bottles as well. Furthermore, if you throw a glass bottle and it breaks, it means the player will assume that everything made of glass is breakable. And so the experimentation continues as the game is played. Every new aspect is connected to other things the player already knows and an increasingly detailed mental simulation is built. The next time the player finds a bottle lying around,  a lot of attributes will be assumed the moment it comes into view.

The basic gist of the above shouldn’t be too surprising, as it’s pretty basic stuff. But the key thing to remember here is that these are not just things that form opinions. They form actual reality for the player.

To be able to look at an object and assume a bunch of attributes is what makes the world feel alive. It allows the player to use their hardwired brain faculties to explore, interact and make plans. The world might be rendered using toon shaders and feature talking rabbits, but if it allows for a rich mental model it will feel “real”. Remember, it isn’t about the objective facts of what you see (eg a teapot using highly realistic PBR-based shading), but what processing it gives rise to.

In order to make this happen, you can’t just put objects and interactions into a world at random. The player must be able to explore the elements of the world, and in doing so they must be met by a consistent set of rules. The brain doesn’t have an infinite amount of resources, and will therefore optimize when possible.

So if an object looks like something found in the real world, but you are unable to interact with it, it will not be given any further attributes. As it isn’t of any importance, it will simply become part of the background. In a similar vein, the simplest explanation will also be used when possible. If there are ten keys lying on a table, but only the one that unlocks the door can be picked up, then players will stop modeling these objects as any sort of real keys. They will instead be seen as quest items, possible to pick up when it is convenient for the designer. When there’s no consistency of any sort, the player’s brain will just skip trying to do any modeling and rely on direct experimentation when needed (trial and error, basically). In these cases, players will have a very fuzzy mental model of an object and the object won’t feel very “real”.

An important aspect of this is that it’s not always a bad thing that the brain optimizes away things. For instance, if you are making a simple shooter you don’t really need to take any wall ornaments into account. You should just focus on the overall layout and the positions of the monsters. Everything else is a distraction.

It is, however, crucial to keep all of this in mind. There may be many cases where you don’t want the player to optimize away certain objects. If you want the player to feel like the environment is a real place, you really need to make sure that as many details as possible can have intricate attributes in the player’s mental simulation. It becomes even more important for characters where you want the player to model internal emotions, needs and goals. If your goal is to make the player feel like they are encountering real people, you want those people to be part of their mental model. This is what it means to make something feel real and alive.

All of this doesn’t mean that one’s goal should be to model everything in as detailed a way as possible. In fact, in many cases this may be counterproductive. Details could mean the player makes more assumptions, leading to the structure being more fragile and more likely to crumble. Keep in mind that all we want to worry about is the end result – how the player perceives the experience. The actual content – images, sounds and so on – that we send to the player is just a means to an end.

It’s at this point where narrative-focused games become very different from classical ones. In a classical videogame, it’s almost always a good thing for the player to learn the systems exactly as they are. The better the player understands how all the underlying mechanics work together, the more competently they can play the game and the more fun they will have. Narrative-focused games are different. Here we often want to suggest a lot more than what is in the systems that we have at our direct disposal. Pulling this off requires a collection of tricks where the common thread is to try and make the player do the hard work. I will go over these tricks in future blog posts.

Next week there will be a discussion on how systems and story come together to form a mental model and more discussions on the most common pitfalls and opportunities when designing for mental simulations that feel alive.

Foot notes:

[1] It is actually much more complicated than this as your current reality is a sort of vertical slice of a much later Hilbert space where everything is modeled as waveforms.

[2] And even the idea of a “you” is a mental construct. Check the previous blog on presence for some discussion on this.

[3] Brian Upton goes very in-depth into this area in his book.

[4] The game was not this evenly divided into groups, but the general gist was this kind of behavior.

[5] There are a lot of psychological reasons for this such as the ultimate attribution error and anchoring.

Evoking Presence

Images on this post have been lost.

Playing a videogame can put you in a state where the borders between your self and the character gets blurry. This is one of the major differences that sets games apart from other mediums such as films and literature. When creating games, evoking this feeling of presence is worth trying to achieve.

Before starting on the concept of presence, I need to discuss why it’s so important to dig deeper into these aspects of games. This is not really needed in order to explain presence, but I think it is vital to know why it is so crucial to gain this deeper understanding.

I have talked about the concept of an “idea space” and how developing a game is basically about navigating this space. The most important concept that I want to get across is that developing a game is like going on a journey. You have a starting point and an idea of where you want to end up. When making a narrative game, having a clear focus on the goal is extremely important as there’ll be many occasions when you need to go against what has the greatest gameplay benefit in the short term in order to reach a better end result. But given that you can’t choose your next step based on what gives the largest boost to “fun”, what do you base your decision on? How can you achieve a high degree of certainty that you’ve made the right choice?

You do this by having rules and principles that you follow. A simple example of such a principle is to ensure that gameplay makes sense within the story. It might be more “fun” from a short-term perspective to give the player a flying unicorn, but if that seems silly within the story then this is a bad decision. However, it’s not always that clear-cut, and since you can’t simply “follow the fun” you need other things to guide you.

Evoking the feeling of presence is such a principle.

So what exactly is presence? Well, it isn’t the most well-defined term, but for our needs we can define it as something like “How much the player feels like they are present inside the game’s virtual world”. One way to measure this is to test the player’s unconscious reflexes and see if these react to events in the game. For instance, does the player flinch if an object comes flying towards the screen? It’s simple, but not the only way to measure presence. A more important aspect, in my opinion, is to evaluate to what degree the player feels they are their on-screen character. If the player views an in-game threat as something that is bad for them personally, then it means the sense of presence is high.

I remember playing Silent Hill 2 with my wife 6 years or so ago. As the intro sequence was over and she headed into the woods, she started to feel quite shaken. She went on for a minute or so and then eventually exclaimed that she couldn’t play it any longer. The game was just too scary. So I took over the controller and suddenly she didn’t feel as scared any more. I now decided to conduct an experiment and handed her back the controller. The moment she started controlling the main character she got scared, and again refused to play for more than a minute or so. This is quite interesting. Her feelings towards the game were quite different depending on whether or not she was holding the controller.

This is a great example of presence. When my wife held the controller she was no longer just a spectator of a scary narrative, she was the protagonist in a horror world. This sense of presence changed her view of the game drastically, and I believe this is what makes it a core component of creating good interactive storytelling [1]. So, understanding this phenomena is paramount in becoming better at making this sort of games.

To understand what it is that happens here, let us take a look at an experiment.

In order to conduct this experiment you will need a screen, a rubber hand and a hammer. You let your subject place their hand on a table and then place the rubber hand next to it. The screen is placed between the two so that the subject can only see the rubber hand.

You now start to stroke the rubber hand and the subject’s real hand in the same place at the same time. Once you have done this for a while the subject will start to feel as if the rubber hand is their own. You can now test this sensation by quickly grabbing the hammer and slamming it on the rubber hand. The subject will now, as an unconscious reflex, pull their real hand out of the way. You can see a video of it all in action here:

This is quite astounding. By just using some very simple manipulation you are able to change a person’s mind in such a way that they think of a rubber hand as their own. You don’t even have to use a hammer to test it. You can even threaten the rubber hand with a knife and see that the galvanic skin response (palm sweat basically) is the same as if it was the real hand that was threatened. There has really been a change in how a person perceives their body.

A bunch of similar experiments have been made by Henrik Ehrsson, above, who has managed to get people to have out of body experiences, by putting them in the bodies of mannequins and using very similar techniques to the ones explained earlier.

So why does this happen? In order to understand this you first have to understand a bit of how the brain works.

It is common to intuitively think that inside our heads sits a little man, a homunculus, who receives all of the input picked up by our eyes, ears and other sensory organs. When you start pondering this idea, it’s obvious it’s not the case – it just begs the question of how the little man is able to see, and you end up in an infinite regression. What actually happens is that there are a bunch of different modules in your brain that collect and process various data. This data is then sent onward for more processing or used as a means for decision making. There is no one thing that controls the brain. It’s all controlled by a bunch of different computational systems, each receiving different input and being able to give certain output. Marvin Minsky’s “society of mind” is a very good description of how it all works.

So what happens in the rubber hand illusion is that the input you get from your eyes overrides the kinesthetic sense. There is a sort of feedback loop going on between the constant sensation of being stroked, combined with the visual confirmation of seeing it being stroked. This provides a slight conflict with the kinesthetic sense, but the brain has to make a decision and decides to treat the hand as actually being the rubber hand.

Your sense of self is not set in stone. It’s something that is highly malleable and is under constant evaluation. At any moment, the brain relies on the information that it has available in order to form the concept of your self. The entity that you refer to as “yourself” is really just a mental construct that’s useful in making sense of the world, navigating it, and taking decisions. Most of the time it’s fairly accurate and gives the right picture, but as we’ve seen, it’s not always the case. It can be hacked.

This is where games enter the stage – because this sort of self-hacking is exactly what games do. When your current mental model of your self incorporates your in-game character, an approaching monster will make you feel afraid. This is extremely powerful and something that makes games very special. When you press down the button or stick that makes the player move forward, you instantly get confirmation that you are making a character move. Volition turned into action becomes a feedback loop and this causes your brain to change its view of your self.

In books and movies there is no such feedback loop. Information is only presented to you. In these media you are a spectator that watches as events unfold. But in a game you are an active participant who causes events and where things happen to you personally.

This is what presence is all about! And for me this is the core reason why interactive storytelling is so exciting. You are no longer just a passive audience but an active and present participant in the narrative. Being able to achieve a strong presence is a fundamental building block in an interactive narrative.

So does this mean that Virtual Reality is the ultimate device for doing interactive storytelling? Well, it is true that VR has a lot of potential to create presence. For one, it adds two senses, balance and peripheral vision, to the mix, It also allows a natural feedback loop to occur by looking and seeing the view move about. There is no denying that VR does things that games on your standard TV or monitor cannot. However, what is crucial with presence in games is what sort of activities it allows you to be present in. VR can increase the sense of presence when it comes to just standing and looking around. But I am not as convinced that VR will be as suitable for more complex narrative actions. For instance, a drawback of VR is that the game can’t really seize control of the camera – something that allows many games to provide contextual animations. This and other tricks are things that are effective in making the player feel present in story events. We used this a lot in SOMA in order to give philosophically complex events, such as the body swap, a more visceral feel.

Obviously if you use the VR medium to its advantage you can elicit responses that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. But what it all comes down to is that different mediums can do different things well, and that it’s not a case for VR always being better at conveying presence.

I am not bringing this up to be dismissive of Virtual Reality – I think it’s a very exciting field. I go over this in order to make it clear that a sense of presence is not just about recreating our normal way of being as accurately as possible. Ways to convey presence can take many forms, but what they all have in common is that they hack our brain into believing it’s partaking in something it’s not.

This also answers the common question whether or not a first person mode is better at generating presence: sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. Sure, we normally see our lives from where our eyes are situated. But this is really just a helpful mental model. Remember, there is no small man in your head that is witnessing everything. It is all just modules that process information in various ways. If it wanted to, your brain could construct your sense of reality from a third person perspective. This is in fact what happens during out of body experiences. The reason we don’t use this version during everyday life is because it is not the most optimal one. We cannot see everything that happens around us, and therefore it makes more sense to just let vision be modelled as if seen through the front of our face.

So really, the output from a game is just a stream of data that gets injected into our brains. The brain will then process the data and model the world accordingly. A third person viewpoint is just another way to be presented with that data. Sometimes it can be advantageous compared to a first person one – for instance when showing damage to the protagonist. This is something we normally get as a signal of pain, but as that is not possible [2] in a game, you can trick the brain by having the onscreen character limp and show big disgusting wounds on their legs. So again, it all comes down to different approaches being suited for different things.

So the sense of presence is a brain hack, and it can be done in different ways. Then what exactly are these different ways?

I will now go over a few basic principles that will help you maximize your sense of presence. There is a lot more to be said about these, but right now I’ll just summarize the most important aspects. I’ll go over each of these in more detail in another blog post later on.

Intuitive controls

The most important principle is to make sure that the controls can’t be overly complicated. What we want to achieve is a feedback loop where the player thinks of something and then sees it happening. We want to make a connection between the onscreen character and the player by connecting volition with action. This won’t happen if the player is too focused on pressing specific buttons.

In order to achieve a strong sense of presence, the controls need to be established as early as possible and be used for all future actions. Every time the player has to learn new ways to control their character, or has to look down on the controller to make sure they are doing an input correctly, the feedback loop is broken and presence is weakened.

A good example of a game doing this correctly is Limbo (and the more recent Inside). The player is taught the controls during the very first minutes of gameplay, and from then no new controls are needed. Instead the existing control scheme is used in intuitive ways to provide many different sorts of actions. This makes the player-protagonist connection very strong and I think it is one of the game’s big success factors.

Constant Feedback

Once you have the player-protagonist feedback loop up and running it is important to keep it up. If the player just sits with the controller in their lap watching as things happen, the feedback loop will be broken and their self will no longer be extended. So it is important to keep the player busy. It is especially good if you also make sure the input has a good correlation with the movements that you are doing. For instance, moving the mouse to look around creates a nice feedback loop, but if you just press a button in order to accomplish a complex manoeuvre you will not feel as present.

Experiments show this clearly. As soon as you stop stroking that rubber hand the illusion start fading away.

This is one of the reasons why we have the physical interaction in Amnesia. Not only does it allow for some interesting analog actions (such as peeking out from a closet), it also makes sure that the players are feeling a sense of presence as they open the door, pulling a lever and so forth.

Consistency

In order to hack our brains there needs to be a good pattern to follow. The key feedback loop has to do with desiring something and then seeing it happen. But in order for this to actually work, the thing that you want to happen must actually happen. If you press the jump button and the character doesn’t jump then there is not a connection any more. In fact, this becomes a negative stream of data to the brain which brings about the conviction that you are in fact not controlling the on screen character. The same rule also applies to interactions. The player will base their actions upon what they are currently seeing and what they know about the world. And if that set of beliefs is not accurate, then the player’s volition will fail.

This doesn’t just apply to actions that you input, but also to those where you don’t. It is really annoying if the character does some movement without you having provided any input for it. A game that does this the right way is Assasin’s Creed. Here the player’s character jumps without the player providing input, but it feels good because you press down on a button as it happens (hence willing the action) and jumping is sensible and handled in a consistent manner. Presence is maintained. However, the game also fails miserably at times and the characters can start jumping when you really just wanna walk close to a wall. In these cases the sense of presence is severely weakened.

Realism

Finally, it also very important that things feel real. By this I don’t mean that things should be photorealistic. But it is good if things happen according to how they are anticipated to happen, and that forms take a shape that make sense to us. In that way, the brain can more easily process the data using existing methods. For instance, presence works better when your character is walking like a normal human and not running around like some freak (as is the case in games like good ol’ Doom). In the same way it’s positive if as many of the actions as possible feel close to the ones we experience in everyday life.

Experiments can clearly express this by showing that it is much harder to make the subject feel as if the table belongs to them, than it is with the rubber hand. However, a super detailed hand doesn’t matter as much. The most important aspect is that it looks pretty close to a real hand.

Exactly what sort of level of realism required is hard to say. A good thumb of rule is that you should try and have enough room for the brain to fill out the details. If you go with overly photorealistic there will be too much focus on that, and you’ll end up with a problem similar to the uncanny valley [3].


Back to where I started. Now we have four new principles that we can follow in order to navigate the space of ideas. So instead of just trying to go with ideas that give us the most fun gameplay, we can instead try and get as much presence as possible. What is good about having principles like these is that we don’t have to be able to directly playtest the amount of presence added, we can instead just rely on making sure the game fulfils the requirements for creating lots of presence.

Obviously you’ll need to test at some point. A principle is not an absolute truth. But it allows you to plan further ahead and gives you more confidence to tread into uncharted territory. If you can see that a certain path through idea space means that the underlying goals of evoking presence is met, then that’s a good indicator you’re moving in the right direction. Of course, presence is not the only thing you need to work on, but it’s a fundamental part of creating an engaging narrative experience. If your game is going in a direction where the principles are not met, then you might be undermining any other features intended to accomplish interactive storytelling

That’s it for now on presence. There are more details to be explored, but those will be brought up in later blog posts. Next week, I will be going over something called the Mental Model. This will go deeper into how we as humans create a virtual representation of both our selves and the world, and how this can be exploited for making better narrative games.

Footnotes:
[1] This is how I see it and where I personally want to take games. There are other ways to approach digital storytelling. For instance, you can see the player’s role as someone who controls how the plot and pacing flows, and so forth. There is really no best way of doing it. But in order to get somewhere I need to take a stance, and games that puts the player in the shoes of another character are the ones that I find most interesting. Therefore, this is the direction that I want to explore. People who feel otherwise are welcome and encouraged to follow other paths.

[2] At least not without special equipment and not being afraid of a painful gaming experience.

[3] This is a huge subject and very interesting, but will have to cover it in a future blog post.

Navigating the Space of Game Design

Images on this post have been lost.

Designing a game spawns an endless set of ideas – ideas that need to be sorted. In order to do this, you need a method of evaluating them. The following discusses five different gameplay models – ways of thinking about game design – that can be helpful in choosing between ideas, and how they affect the final game.

I’ve previously talked about how games are, when it comes to narrative evolution, “too much fun for their own good“. I’ve also given a specific example of this by comparing Resident Evil 4 and 7 and shown how development focus can make a huge difference to the final game. But one place where I think I’ve been a bit vague is that I’ve been talking about a position taken during development. “Games are too much fun for their own good” is not a value judgement about games in general. It’s all about the effect this has when creating a game. This is an incredibly important distinction to make. While you can debate forever over fuzzy subjects like “is this a game?” and “what is the purpose of games?” it’s a fact that your intentions during design will have a huge impact on the final result.

When designing a game, or doing anything creative for that matter, you are basically navigating a space of ideas. At any point there are a bunch of decisions that you could be making and you need to base these decisions on some sort of plan. How you come up with this plan will be highly dependent on your values, processes, restrictions and so forth. What all this boils down to is a need to constantly evaluate the project’s current state and adjust its trajectory.

For a long time, the general advice in game development has been to “follow the fun”. But this is far from the only way to evaluate a project. In this post I’ll present a few different ways to go about it. Take note that it is very uncommon for any project to rely purely on a single method. Different aspects of a project usually require a slightly different mindset.  It is however very common to base the majority of design decisions on one type of evaluation.

Classical Gameplay

Let’s start with the most common way of working in game design: to follow the fun. When working in this way you normally try to find a good “core loop” that provides the basic engagement factor for the game. The rest of the development is then spent enhancing this core loop in order to make it as engaging as possible. This could mean that new mechanics are added on top (e.g. crafting or levelling) or that the core design is tweaked until it generates the most fun possible.

When creating a game like this, you can usually start by figuring out what works and what doesn’t early on. It’s also possible to hand it over to playtesters early, and to have continuous testing throughout development. The art and story are often also heavily based on how the gameplay works.

Metric-Based

This is the sort of design that you see a lot of in free-to-play games and it’s incredibly common in mobile games. Here the goal is not to make the game as engaging as possible, but to set particular goal metrics, and then tweak the game to adjust player behaviour so that the metrics measured reach those desired goals. Sure, you are often looking for a certain amount of fun in the game, but when it comes down to it, no matter how much fun a certain decision creates, if it doesn’t produce the right change in metrics, it is a bad choice.

When making a game like this, testing on users is paramount. You often want to release the game as early as possible and then start tracking things like retention ratedaily active users, and churn rate. The better numbers you get, the better the game matches your goals.

Deep Mechanics

While both of the above methods put some focus on constantly asking the question: “Is my user having fun?”, this type of design takes a different route. It’s quite unusual for this to be a major evaluation method, but games like The Witness (2016) and the upcoming Miegakure do just that. In their talk “Designing to Reveal the Nature of the Universe Jonathan Blow and Marc Ten Bosch (creators of the two previously mentioned games) lay out this way of thinking about the design. Quickly summarized it’s all about taking your game’s mechanics as far as possible. This makes it different in that it is no longer about creating maximum engagement. Instead, it’s all about maximizing the depth of the gameplay. When following this design you really want the game to squeeze every possibility out of your core mechanics.

Just like with classical gameplay, you want to start with the core loop, and you also want people to test early and regularly. When it comes to art and story, they are only there in order to enhance the gameplay. The main goal is not to aesthetically please your viewer, but to have the art and the story that are best at conveying the mechanics to your user.

Classical Plot

Another way to go about designing a game is to just view it as a standard story. Your utmost concern is to make sure that the end experience works in terms of classical ways of structuring film, books and other traditional storytelling media. When creating a game like this, you generally start out with a script and then develop the gameplay in order to support what that document says.

The interactive movie genre is something that very strongly uses this model. It is also very common in RPG games, which can be said to interlace this with sections of more classical gameplay. There are also many adventure games that mainly adhere to this approach when evaluating progress.

Narrative Driven

This is the approach that we at Frictional Games are following to the greatest extent right now. It is also the approach that this blog mostly refer to as a way of crafting better narrative in games. In this type of design the goal is to make the activity of playing the game produce a certain type of experience. The goal is to maximize the efficiency in which the intended experience is delivered. For example, in a horror game, the goal might be to make the player as scared as possible.

In this case you normally start with some sort of emotional or intellectual experience that you want to convey. After that you add features, both gameplay, story and art-wise, in order to make this experience come across as clearly as possible. What stands out when compared to other approaches is that there is no core feature, such as gameplay or plot, to fall back on. Instead you have a fuzzy goal that you are trying to reach, and many different parts of the game are needed before you can evaluate whether it works or not. Because this often requires a lot of high quality content, playtesting is made relatively infrequent compared to other approaches.

It is this approach that I believe is the future of interactive storytelling. We can only get so far by focusing on classical gameplay or storytelling techniques.

It’s worth noting that these types of games by no means need to be story-heavy. A great example of this is the game Duskers (2016), as explained in the creator’s GDC talk. While the game started with a classical gameplay approach, it later put a ton of focus on delivering a couple of core pillars such as feelings of isolation and realism. Because of this I think it is a good example of using a narrative-driven approach for development. The game is by no means a pure example of this approach, but it is an excellent example of how different it can make a game.

That sums up the approaches I wanted to cover today. I am sure there are other approaches, but these were the ones that felt most interesting to discuss.

As I said earlier, it’s very rare that a project will rely solely on one of these methods of evaluating progress. For instance, no matter how much fun it would be for Super Mario to have a shotgun to blast goompas with, it would never feel fitting to add it. But if you put aside stuff like that, a game like Super Mario bases pretty much all of its decisions on the Classical Gameplay approach. It therefore feels fair to say that it is a game developed using that approach.

I also want to make it clear that there is no best way to develop a game. All of these approaches have their pros and cons, and what it all really comes down to is what sort of game you want to create.

Hopefully these examples should make it more understandable what I mean by “narrative-wise, games are too much fun for their own good” and development being a navigation of an idea space. Consider how different the paths taken during development will be depending on the approach chosen. Some paths will be filled with constant confirmation that you are going in the right direction. These are often the ones you are most tempted to use. Other paths require long treks through uncharted territory and are filled with uncertainty. These are often less tempting, but can also lead to very interesting and unique results.

Now for some examples on how the evaluation process can have a huge effect on how a game turns out.

The first example is the sanity meter in Amnesia. At first the sanity meter was thought of as an important gameplay detail and it was evaluated through a Classical Gameplay lens. However, it started to become clear that the approach was clashing with our wish to have an immersive and very scary game. The lowering of sanity would often become annoying and it was very hard to balance it in way that meshed with our other goals.

Up until then we had focused on making the sanity as much “fun” as possible, and we could have continued down that route. However, due to our discussions, we chose to take a different approach: we asked ourselves what would benefit the intended experience best. This made us consider the whole sanity as an “atmospheric device” instead and we dropped a bunch of related features. The game took on a very different shape because of this and we continued to use the same narrative-driven approach for other things, like monster encounters.

The second example is from SOMA, where we from the beginning were very focused on the narrative-driven approach. This took a lot of different shapes throughout development, but one of the most prominent ones was that, once the prologue was over, the game must be a continuous first person experience without any camera pull-outs or cuts. The reason for this was that we wanted a narrative experience where the player could get a sense of what it was like to “switch” consciousness. This caused all sorts of issues during development, most likely making a few passages, gameplay-wise, less fun. But it was vital to get the right experience across and without this, and many other similar decisions, the game wouldn’t have been the same.

This should hopefully have given a sense of the many ways you can search between in the space of game design ideas. I also hope it’s given some more depth to my two previous entries on connected topics. (Check them out here and here).

It should also have given an idea on just how uncertain the narrative-driven approach is when compared to other ways of evaluating. Because of this, I think the need to understand how our medium works is much greater than it has been before. Next week I’ll try and help with this by talking about presence, one of the key aspects when crafting a narrative-driven game.


Notes:

I am not 100% sold on the name “Narrative-Driven”, but I’m unsure what works better. I thought about “Experience-Driven”, but that felt too broad. For me narrative is (as explained here) all about the emotional journey the player takes when playing through the game. It is a very holistic concept and not reliant on plot details or how much “fun” gameplay is. This feels like it fits well with the point I want to get across. However, the name could be very misleading to people and I suspect I’ll get at least one comment where someone is upset with the article because of it. That said, I don’t expect to use the term a lot and the categorization here is really just to better get the idea of “games are too much fun for their own good” across, so it should be fine.