Programmer, game developer, musician, nerd.
I am not making a game, I’m making an interactive experience. This post is basically about how restrictive the term “game” makes you feel restricted as a designer, and also (often) puts false assumptions in the user’s mind when approaching a “game”.
Also, check out the last segment for some nice guidelines to make more interesting things
I have been thinking about “video-games” lately as I usually do, but more deeply than most of the time because I am actually in the process of making one. In times like these, I need to know where I stand when it comes to “video-games”. In my opinion it feels like most of the games being made the past few years have barely innovated anything for a very long time (even when it comes to indie games for the most part). Note that I am not talking about graphics here of course, since that area been advancing in an almost exponential rate (although, I would predict that it will finally slow down now, almost entirely until we have a paradigm shift - but more on that some other time perhaps). Take a moment to think about an old game like the first Half Life game for example, think about how little we’ve advanced when it comes to interacting with the world in a way that makes us feel like we play a part. We have really only scratched the surface when it comes to sucking you in and making the player truly immersed and emotionally invested in our creations. The only genre that I think is really starting to get somewhere (after doing so much things wrong when previous horror games did so much things right) is the horror genre. Which is partly why I am curious to explore what more can be done with it.
Routine - an extremely promising upcoming horror game by Lunar Software.
Evoking emotions in someone is something that is not easy to do, at least when it comes to complex emotions. For example, a comedy movie can make you laugh or at least feel a bit entertained with not too much effort, while a David Lynch movie makes you experience very esoteric feelings, you don’t even really know what they are. In movies you have to be a real master to accomplish something like that. However, I feel that our medium is a much better tool to invoke feelings in someone. Simply because we have interaction, thanks to this a player can be given (the illusion of) responsibility for what they do for example. I think you are more likely to feel things when you are interacting and have to take action on different events - rather than passively observing something, like you do when watching a movie. We are barely using this fantastic tool that our medium provides us with, even though it is such an advantage compared to what other forms of art and entertainment have… Why?
I think this comes from multiple different places. When designing games, I think we are looking for answers in the wrong places for many things. While there are things to learn from other mediums, there are also a lot of things that should be avoided, just because something works very well in a movie, doesn’t mean it belongs in an interactive experience. So having the goal to create a cinematic experience is for the most part not a good idea. Although it could definitely be interesting if experimented with properly. We need to almost ignore other mediums for a while and try to establish a good foundation for interactivity and true immersion. One of the most significant problems with video-games are that they are called games. Think about that for a second, what does a game mean to you? The word “game” is usually coupled with “challenge”, “competition”, “score”, “winning” and so forth. If you look at our roots, it has always been about beating the game or getting a nice score, being skilled, mastering the game - primitive things like that. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but it’s harmful to think that all “video-games” should be this way. But if you remove those things and the things related to it, do you still have a game? No, no you don’t, you don’t get a game. That’s the problem, we are only making games. We currently don’t really have a suitable word for what we are doing. I use the terms “interactive experience” and “interactive art” a lot because I think it’s a more fitting term. You can have any interactive experience be of type “game” but not “game” be any kind of interactive experience. I think it is important that we go beyond “games” and create other things too with our medium in order to take advantage of its full potential. We shouldn’t ditch the concepts of games completely, you can remove a lot of the game like stuff but keep some things and it might end up not being a “game”, but it might still be an interesting experience. As long as we keep the term “game” we will also put the player in a certain mindset that grants them false assumptions about what they are about to experience, and for some people when things don’t go as expected: they rage.
Admittedly, something else that is holding us back right now is what we can do with current IO devices. It should be interesting to see what the future holds. Luckily it seems like VR is finally making some progress, which is one of the things I am the most excited about so I just had to slip it in here. Still, we can’t blame that much on this because we don’t really use our current stuff to its full potential.
John Carmack using his VR headmount to play Doom 3 BFG.
The thing that separates our medium from others is interaction, so why not start with just that and build from there. Don’t decide to do something like creating a first person shooter, or an RPG - it will only limit the scope of what you can do. It is important to sometimes forget what you’ve learned to come up with something new. You don’t need to challenge the player’s skills, and you certainly don’t need a way for the player to fail. Most designers are so occupied with creating something that will be “fun” for the user, which again is not a bad or evil thing or anything. But it does limit their ability to create something with meaning quite significantly. Keep in mind that there are many ways to challenge a human, I’m not saying that you need to challenge someone at all - “traditional” challenge comes with the possibility of failure, so you should probably consider how failing would affect the player - will that say something that you want to say with your “game”? If so, by all means challenge the player! But again, there are a lot of other ways to challenge someone, it might be mentally, intellectually, or emotionally or something else. I think emotionally is probably the one with the most impact, because if someone feels, they are reflecting on what they are experiencing.
What I am trying to make is something that will be challenging emotionally and mentally (fear can be very mentally draining), but also intellectually - although not as much the way we are usually doing it. For an intellectual challenge we usually rely on puzzles, I’m not saying that I won’t have any puzzles, just that it isn’t a big focus for this project. I want to challenge the intellect of someone by speaking to them through the environment and through more or less everything that will happen. So the “challenge” would be to interpret why things are the way they are and why things happen. Of course, many people might ignore this completely, which is fine (but maybe slightly disappointing for me) and focus on the experience!
I am also hoping to eliminate the possibility of failure breaking immersion, you will still be able to die in the game, but I won’t have the game yelling at you, saying that you failed, it will simply be your death. The protagonist is you, you died - end of story (this time). Some call it permadeath, but that usually comes with frustration over the fact that you died, I’m hoping to get the player in a state where it can accept that it reached the end through death. It will probably be difficult though because gamers already have it tattooed on their forehead that dying means failure - I don’t see a reason why it always have to be.
I think it is important to keep all things like this in mind very early through the process of making an interactive experience. It is so easy to fall into the same patterns that everyone makes just because that is what we are used to, and it is good to constantly remind yourself of what you are actually out to achieve. It is just too uncommon to find a game that says exactly what it needs to say and nothing more. Not that we shouldn’t draw inspiration from other works, that is of course extremely important too - but it’s too easy for it to go overboard so it is best used with caution if you are directly drawing inspiration (I am saying directly because all works are inspired by something, even if it wasn’t intended) from someone else. Just keep in mind that you might quickly find yourself working on something that someone has already done, and at that point you will have a hard time separating yourself from the crowd - unless you are willing to strip some things out; killing your darlings is also extremely important to be able to do, but that’s not a subject for today.
When I talked earlier about the fact that we need to think carefully about implementing the wrong things from other mediums for example movies, it’s easy to point your fingers at storytelling and blame it for the problems that are introduced. I mean when a player can’t advance to get to know about the rest of the story the experience can be ruined entirely; and with heavily scripted set-pieces that can and would be memorable if everything goes as expected, are interrupted because of a mistake by the player it causes devastating repetitiveness and completely takes you right back to reality. There is a whole slew of problems caused by traditional storytelling. So why not ditch it entirely? Well you could do that, and it often ends up great! But I don’t think storytelling is the problem, it is our current approach to it that makes us feel like games kind of have grown stuck in a way. If you approach it correctly, I think, nay know that it can have a positive outcome! Just the other day I bought and played a “game” called “Thirty Flights of Loving”, a sequel to one of my absolute favorite mods: Gravity Bone. It performs an interesting take on linear video game story telling and successively avoids all frustration that we usually see, and I highly recommend you check it out. It costs around €5 and will only keep you busy for 15 minutes at most ( speaking of which, I should talk about game pricing some day). It might sound like a lot of money for such a short game (although I don’t agree with that statement) but it tells a great story and actually covers a lot within it’s timespan, so it is a great example of a game that does nothing more than it set out to do - and it is so well done.
Thirty Flights of Loving.
I am not trying to tell anyone what to do with their games, I mean it is your game, not mine. I am just trying to spark some thought to help us all get out of this rut I feel like we have been stuck in for many years now - and I want to change that at least with what I make. So to sum it all up in what i just decided to call “BitPuffin’s guidelines to progress”:
Proteus, a fantastic experience.
And there you have it. I just threw that together really - I am getting a bit tired of writing this post because it is getting loooooooooong! There is lots more to say that I’m having trouble putting to words right now; and I don’t want this to be too overwhelming (like it’s not already!). I’d love it if we could start a grand discussion in the comment section or something, but not too many read this blog, and I doubt too many will read the whole thing, there’s always hope though! At least we can all laugh at the lack of comments if no discussion occurs! You can also send me an email (BitPuffin@lavabit.com) if you don’t wish to have a public discussion, or just want to tell me to fuck off and do not have the balls to do it where everyone can see what an ass you are if that’s what you decide to do; just remember that you won’t get anything out of it if you do - I have immunity.
I am glad we could have this talk, son.