The first thing I do is set aside my experience. It is only mildly useful, a single data point, when everyone’s experience is subjective. Oh, I’d like to think it is in some ways more valuable than that of a typical player. After all, I have a very specific set of experiences to bring to bear. But in practice, it probably makes my subjective experience well-informed, but therefore less than helpful.
Looking at the experience is like seeing the top of a mountain without knowing about tectonic plates. I use that analogy because the typical analogy is that of seeing only the tip of an iceberg. But an iceberg is substantially similar above and below the ground. Sure, there is a lot hidden under the waterline, but it’s not different in nature
. When we look around the world, what we see, what we experience, is powerfully shaped by things that we do not see
. Without understanding fault lines, volcanic activity, and all the rest, we won’t come to understand why a chain of mountains is where it is, and why it takes one form versus another.
That’s why I start with the stuff “under” the experience. Mechanics, inputs and processes, rules and tokens and actions. I strip away the surface until Gone Home is a game about flipping over cards on a desk to see what is underneath them. Papers, Please is a Spot-The-Difference game. The Stanley Parable is a choose-your-own-adventure where some of the options are written in invisible ink.
In all of these cases, I set aside a whole bunch of stuff you do in the game, for a moment. Moving in The Stanley Parable isn’t even a means to an end 99% of the time. It is empty decision cycles going by mostly for the sake of experience.
What are the systems?
Now I can examine that core mechanic. Odds are extremely high that I have seen it before. New mechanics are rare in game design. Press a button before a timer runs out. Move an asset from one pile to another pile. Make a choice to move in one direction in a simulated environment or another.
Sometimes you get pleasantly surprised; Papers, Please
is the most robust version of Spot-The-Difference you’ve ever seen. It unfolds more ways of being different over time; it forces tension between mousing time for accuracy and speed for maximum efficiency; it forces games of memory on you, layering difficulty as you advance.
What am I looking to understand? I want to know what the possibility space is, extrapolating how the curves I see will develop. I don’t need to play all the way to the end of the game to see how every variation unfolds — I just need to see how broad the space for variations is. I want to know what choices I have to make, and how much consequence they will have in the system. Just the system, mind you, not the experience. I want to know if I can exploit the system I see. I want to know if my skill matters at all. I want to know if I am learning something as I go. I want to know how the systems build a mental model in the player, how they scaffold.
All of these things are elements on my tuning checklist for my own work. I look for them so I can look at the craft at this mechanical level. That’s because I analyze games in order to improve my own craft, above all. Sometimes I am doing it in order to help someone else improve their craft. There are many other reasons to analyze a game, but those are mine.
What are the systems about?
Now that I can see the skeleton, the tectonic plates, I look at how systems interact. I ask myself, “what was the designer trying to accomplish here?” And I make a guess. It is no more than a guess, unless there’s some explicit signal telling me the answer. That said, the guesses aren’t that hard, because usually it is telegraphed in a dozen ways. The commonest things that the designer is trying to do are
- get the player to keep playing
- get the player to pay money
- get the player to pay attention to the experience rather than the system
- get the player to feel good, usually by making them feel powerful
There are many exceptions, of course, but those four are the biggest ones. I get excited when I see a purpose at this systemic level that is more interesting. For example, when I see a systemic structure designed around
- making the player want to help other players
- making the player suspicious of the rules themselves
- making the player understand a new “language” — a fresh way of thinking about problems
- making the player feel good about things other than power: altruism, cooperation, creativity, their own intelligence, etc
Most systems are not like these. Most are the familiar first four. And not every game needs to do more than those first four, not if that was the intent. You can have an unambitious systemic design there, and execute it really well, and analyzing the game in this way will tell me that.
How do I touch the system, and how does it touch me?
Once I understand this, I can then assess two distinct aspects of interacting with it: the inputs I can perform, and the feedback I get back. We tread dangerously close to “experience” here, but with care we can consider these things in terms of “game feel,” responsiveness, reward signals, learning scaffolding, and so on, without actually embracing the particular fiction the game might offer up. In other words, I can look at things like whether the controls feel good, given the system that the game wants me to engage with. I can draw the conclusion that the best way to mark my own progress in Gone Home is to trash the house, because the game provides fairly minimal affordances as to what is clickable, and zero indication of what has been previously examined.
I now have enough to make a judgement, which is really just for my own craft purposes. I have decided to view the work through the lens of an intent, or an artistic goal. And I have looked at how the game’s systems allow me to relate to it. So I can decide, for myself, whether the game is Good At, or Bad At, meeting its own apparent intent.
For example, I can look at the opening bank robbery scene in Grand Theft Auto V and note that it acts as a tutorial. I can see that it gates advancement by getting me to perform specific actions correctly. I can note the fact that it doesn’t tell me which button performs a given action, but simply assumes I have read the manual or played many other games before that happen to use the same mapping. I can see that it tells me to “take cover” in an area where there are many plausible “hiding spots,” but that the game expects me to be in a specific particular one that is only indicated on a minimap via a dot that has not been previously explained. I can observe that in some areas of this tutorial, not performing the right action has no negative effect, and in others it results in an instant mission failure and reset.
All in all, this leads me to a judgement that there could have been more usability work done on this tutorial.
It is always possible that I have the intent wrong (though in general, assuming the opening to a game is meant to teach you basics is usually a safe bet, unless you’re playing 868-HACK or something). More on that in a moment, because now I can turn around, and look at the experience.
What is the game experience?
The experience is an altogether different kettle of fish. I now try very hard to suppress everything that I now think I know about how the game works underground. Now I want to look at the majesty of mountains, feel the fresh air, smell the rock and the snow. Oh, not for enjoyment! No, I want to smell the snow to figure out how pure the water that went into is. I want to know how these mountains were made.
I have multiple things to look at. I have visual storytelling. I have graphics rendering. I have music. I have writing. None of these are specific to games. The game-specific bits of the experience were pretty much all covered already under game feel and feedback. No, here I am deploying the craftsmanship analysis of other media. Whether a texture has good color balance, and whether the overall screen picture has so much saturation (like, say, in the opening island of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag) that telling what my next destination should be is hard. Does the level design provide “weenies?” How is the voice acting?
My standards here are not the standards of games. I am going to hold the story up to stories from other media. I am going to hold up the art direction to that of a film. I have many reference points here, and I am going to use them. This means, I will usually be disappointed. I mean, for all the really cool character design in Rayman Legends, the storytelling of the opening sequence is kind of abrupt.
What is the experience about?
But again, I need to ascertain what the various disciplines were shooting for. And here, intent is generally far more telegraphed than it is in the systems. In fact, seeing what the intent is here usually corrects any misapprehensions about what the system’s intent was.
It is pretty rare to see deep symbolism going on in games. When we do see it, it is pretty rare to see it be accessible. As it happens, I personally value the on-ramping quite a lot. When a game’s experience is intentionally obscure or obfuscated to make a point, that means that the intent is to speak to only a relatively small audience, one which is already clued in on aspects of the “language” that the work is using. I think of that as a form of “preaching to the choir.” To me, empathy and understanding lie at the core of art, so a work that demands all the work on the side of the player, rather than the game experience having empathy for the unaware player, for me falls down to some degree. That may have been the intent of the creator, but it’s not an intent I agree with, so I note it and move on.
Most experiences in games are what I would term “impositional.” The goal the developers had in mind is for the player to have exactly the emotional experiences they intended. There is a set of craft techniques that you can use for these. When they are good, these experiences prompt thought or reflection, leave the player changed. At their best, they do not leave you with pat answers. That’s what I expect from great stories in books, so it is what I expect from great stories in games.
There are experiences designed to be “expressive” instead. These involve a different set of techniques, and therefore have to be looked at on the basis of the strengths and weaknesses of those techniques instead. Here, I am more likely to use the great toys of history as a benchmark.
Either way, if I can’t tell what the intent is, I consider it a failing.
So now I look for the synergy between these different media of experience. Music and art and story pulling together, towards the same goals? And how lofty are those goals? Something like Tomb Raider has to reinvent a very familiar main character for today’s world, show a character arc (vanishingly rare in game stories, alas!), live up to a sort of cinematic vibe, and be beautiful to look at. A good understanding of the limitations of the platform help here. I can’t possibly ask for the same sort of experience on a big screen TV versus a phone.
Do these things all match up?
We’ll get a story that makes gestures towards great significance: big mountains! Sitting atop a generic power fantasy game. These are hollow mountains, built atop a foundation that cannot bear the weight.
And now comes the crux of it.
- I know the intent of the systems.
- I know what the systems actually teach.
- I know the intent of the experience.
- I know what the experience actually says.
Do these intents match? All too often the answer is no. We’ll get a story that makes gestures towards great significance: big mountains! Sitting atop a generic power fantasy game. These are hollow mountains, built atop a foundation that cannot bear the weight. We’ll see cases where the gameplay and the experience have literally opposite intents, or radical mismatches. These are a problem.
I try not to think about the ultimate “theme” or “moral” or “lessons” of a game until this moment, because it is so common for the answer to be muddled. But now is the time where questions arise about things like what the “politics” of the game are, what it implicit ethical opinions are, what it is saying about how the medium works, how it pushes at our understanding of form. It’s only here that I can form an overall opinion.
It’s not at all unusual for me to think very highly of a game that has put all its attention on experience, and very little on mechanics. The converse is also true; happens to me all the time. But I reserve my highest consideration for games that execute on every level. I am most interested in games that have ambition on both sides, where the intents on these very different levels of craftsmanship line up: in a word, like Papers, Please.
It is here where I say “oh, tedious mousing here is because it ties back to the narrative’s point. This system being out of balance is intentional. And the story doesn’t wrap up because the mechanics wrap it up for you.” That sort of thing.
What about fun?
And, in the end, what does this have to do with whether I personally enjoyed the game? Pretty damn little. Like I said, my own enjoyment is deeply suspect. It’s not only subjective, but it’s driven in huge part by having walked through the above process. Once I have looked at all the above, it is hard to unsee it. I am more eager to finish playing Tomb Raider than Papers, Please. I think I have more raw fun in Rayman or Forza. Because once I am done, I want to have fun too. And everyone’s fun is different.
In general, this analysis will tell me how likely a game is to be fun for the people it’s meant for.
All of this is how I analyze games because it is how I wish my work was analyzed. I want to know how I did on each part, and I want to know whether it works together. Criticism or commentary that only touches on a part of the above is useful to me, but only to a limited degree, precisely because these elements are all interdependent.
Most game criticism only looks at a fraction of these things in one given article. There is almost never a technical critique. The typical reviewer most readily touches on the basic subjective experience of fun; the more thoughtful may consider the experience layer. Very few think about the artfulness of the system design. These individual lenses are all fine, of course. It does mean that a creator must gather together a lot of separate analyses in order to get a picture of the whole.
A final thought
I recognize that this entire lens and process is deeply craft-centric. There are modes of criticism that are more about putting the work inside a cultural context, or focusing purely on the response a player has. I happen to think all of those are flawed for my purposes unless they engage deeply with the craft side; without an understanding of the creation process, the analysis is very likely to involve some big assumptions.
I also recognize that the language is largely missing for talking about all the systemic level stuff. It’s cast as reductionist formalism, or as less important than the player experience. Some of us are trying to change that. On the flip side, we have lots of language borrowed from other fields for talking about player experience. We typically give the experience a pass, though, by considering solely the parts that are obvious: the story, the graphics, the fun factor. We don’t look at the synergy enough.
One thing I will say is that this sort of analysis works equally well on an “art game” or a commercially-oriented blockbuster, because it is about assessing how the work is doing what the creator intended.
So, that’s how I analyze a game. I wish more people analyzed them that way, for purely selfish reasons. It would make my job as a designer much easier.
*Every game mentioned here is in my Top Ten Most Interesting for 2013 for one reason or another.