Truth in Game Design
February 2, 2010 Page 4 of 4
Case Study 3: Gravitation
Jason Rohrer's Gravitation is on the cutting edge of truth in games. The game explores new and sophisticated truths drawn directly from Jason's life experience. If you haven't played Gravitation, I'd suggest giving it a try before moving on; it's free and takes exactly eight minutes to complete.
Rohrer describes Gravitation as "a video game about mania, melancholia, and the creative process." The game is constructed from only the rules that are necessary to achieve this vision. The primary rules of the game look something like this:
1. The player character can move left, move right, and jump. This movement is gated by a jump range value (represented as a field of view).
2. The player may increase the size of the field of view by maintaining a resource, represented by a child throwing a ball. Returning the ball makes the child happy. The field of view decreases while the player is away from the child.
3. The player may collect stars. Collected stars fall to the ground level and turn into blocks.
4. The player must push blocks towards a goal (fireplace) to earn points. Large groups of blocks take longer to push. The player cannot return the ball while pushing blocks.
5. (Spoiler) If the child is not kept happy, the child disappears.
So what do these rules have to do with "mania, melancholia, and the creative process"? Abstractly, rules 1, 2, and 3 set up a system where players balance between venturing out to collect points and maintaining a resource that enables those ventures. Like the voting of confidence in poker, it is this underlying balancing experience that players takeaway.
However, as Miyamoto's earlier quote suggests, it would be difficult to understand the value of Gravitation if it did not provide some clues. Gravitation hints at the utility of this balancing experience through very intentional choices of visual feedback. The resource is represented as a child with a ball. The player character's head lights on fire when the field of view is full, as if to signal "there is a fiery idea in my brain that must be attended to!"
Though the representation provides clues, the system remains abstract enough to allow all players to discern the underlying truth of "creative pursuits and personal goals must be viewed in light of other responsibilities." For example, I was able to relate the experience to a similar balancing act in my own life. The experience provided me with a model by which I could understand the non-obvious family dynamics I must consider before pursuing my own game ideas.
However, this is not the only way the game can be interpreted. Since some important elements were left abstract (stars, the environment), other players are also able to find utility in the game even though their life experiences are different. Whereas for me the stars make sense as game design ideas, they could easily represent writing, fishing, research, or any other personal interest people balance.
Gravitation explores a few other truths, such as "it is a taxing process to turn ideas into concrete projects", and "being a good friend or family member can feel like a thankless task." There are many other truths that Jason could have represented, yet chose not to.
As Jonathan Blow (creator of Braid) points out in his own analysis of the game, any unnecessary additions would have made understanding the game's core truths much more difficult to comprehend. It is this level of focus on the truth throughout the rules and representation that makes Gravitation so successful at leaving an impression.
Gravitation demonstrates the value of drawing from life experience and the value of focus. Rohrer looked at the dynamics of his own creative process, and identified the truths about it. He then built a system with only the rules and representation that were necessary, so that the player could discern its value.
The explanation has been long, but the truth about truth in games is quite simple. To embody a game with truth, draw inspiration from the truths around you. In other words, draw from your life experiences.
As Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired to make Zelda because of his adventures exploring caves as a child, and as Jason Rohrer created Gravitation because he was struggling with the game's truths in his own life, our best ammo for putting truth in games is to draw upon the truths we know most intimately.
Though easier said than done, drawing from your life experience will help you find a unique perspective on a truth that, in turn, can change the perspective of the player who experiences it. If you work hard to research and understand your truth, you can find a way to abstract it just enough so that a wide audience can relate. To quote Chris Crawford again:
To be of any value, the artistic expression must be unconventional, or at least non-obvious; at the same time, you must see your truth from many points of view. You must be able to see how your truth fits into many different webworks of knowledge.
Drawing from life experience and finding your truth is the wisdom passed on to new painters, musicians, film makers, comedians, and writers, and it is equally worthwhile wisdom for game designers. If you believe that game designers are artists, and that games are art, then it makes sense to look to this approach to the creative process and include truths wherever possible within your games.
Games do not have to be just fun. They can be fun because they're true.
1. Del Close, Charna Halpern, Kim "Howard" Johnson. Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation. (Meriwether Pub., 1994)
2. Chris Crawford. Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling. (New Riders Games, 2005)
3. Shigeru Miyamoto. "Remote Composer - An Interview with Shigeru Miyamoto." (EDGE magazine, Issue 196, December 2008)
4. Daniel Cook. "Constructing Artificial Emotions: A Design Experiment." Gamasutra, 2007. See http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/1992/constructing_artificial_emotions_.php
5. Jonathan Blow. "Conflicts in Game Design." 2008. See http://braid-game.com/news/?p=385
6. Dustin Clingman. "If you knew how hard it would be..." 2009. See http://www.dustinclingman.com/journal/2009/11/3/if-you-knew-how-hard-it-would-be-you-would-never-have-starte.html
7. Jonathan Blow. "Game Recommendation: Osmos." 2009. See http://braid-game.com/news/?p=621
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