Truth in Game Design
February 2, 2010 Page 2 of 4
The Problem with "Just Fun"
So if we want truth in games, our task is to integrate rules into game systems so that they reveal something truthful about how the world works. Before we explore how to craft rules in this way, it is useful first to recognize how current design trends have caused truth in games to be obscured.
The problem is not that games are lacking truth; in fact, many popular games and mechanics already derive their fun from underlying truths.
Take for example everyone's favorite gaming trope: the health bar representing a value ranging from 0 to 100. By representing health as a simple, quantifiable number, designers have allowed players of all ages to build metaphors that help them understand a basic yet important concept: survival.
Interactions with a health bar show us that our health can deteriorate, that we can heal over time if we allow ourselves to rest after damage is taken, that sustaining enough damage can lead to death, etc.
Survival is a fundamental concept all humans have to master, though modern advances have thankfully made these lessons less immediately applicable to our everyday lives.
The trouble here is two-fold. At an industry level, it seems we only make games about survival. The primary genre of survival games, the shooter, sees hundreds of new entries released each year and at the core of each is some sort of simple health metaphor.
Occasionally new games come along that define new health paradigms, and some of those even shed light onto more subtle truths about survival (for example, compare Metal Gear Solid 1 to MGS3; each explores survival, but the latter explores an array of more detailed truths by allowing players to damage and heal individual limbs).
But ultimately these games end up exploring the same narrow band of truth, making the industry as a whole look uninspired and adolescent by comparison to other popular art forms. We could be exploring a broader set of truths.
Second and more important, we as designers have too often made the mistake of looking to other games for inspiration. We mimic a mechanic we like, tweaking it slightly without regard to the affects the change may have on its meaning. (See Jonathan Blow's MIGS lecture.)
This copycat approach has led designers to create games with truths that are largely indiscernible or incoherent. Like a non sequitur joke that breaks a scene in improvisational comedy, this new mishmash of game rules may sustain an initial burst of enjoyment, but it breaks down any sort of discernable metaphor that might be being built in the player's mind.
The player is entertained by the novelty of the new interaction, but they walk away from the experience with a disparate set of new understandings that have little utility outside of the game itself.
How to Build Rules from Truth
The key then is to develop a new process that takes truth into account from the beginning. I see the following steps as a place to start:
1. Understand the truths in your game, by drawing inspiration from your unique life experiences and not solely from other games.
2. Intentionally focus and simplify the systems that make up your games, to enable players to discover the meaningful metaphors they contain.
So how do we accomplish this? How do we encode a truth into a game, and how do we structure our experience so that players notice? Thankfully, there are already games and designers we can examine to help us understand how to build a game from the truth-up.
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