Monday 15 February 2010

Exploring Deeper Meaning In Games

This post aims to be a deeper look at my earlier rant about meaning, narrative (plot) and gameplay. After considering feedback and thinking about it some more I would now like to write a more constructive text. In this post I will outline some steps and ways of thinking that I think are needed in order to achieve deeper and more varied meaning in games. "Deeper meaning" is of course a highly subjective thing, but what I mean is simply games where the core is not just about a gameplay mechanic, showing entertaining gore or similar. Instead, the focus should be on exploring something other than pure "fun".

should come first
Instead of starting out with a gameplay mechanic, one should find some other kind of meaning to have at the core. Note, that "meaning" does not have to be something hard to understand or extremely profound. "The joys of snowboarding" is one kind of meaning and "What is it like to be homeless?" is another. Note the difference in meanings here, one is pretty mainstream while the other is not. Also note that I would consider both of these meanings "deep" as they do not concentrate on the gameplay directly.

I think having this kind of meaning can be crucial in order to create a good work, and many (all?) great films and books are based around it. For example, take books like Animal Farm and Grapes of Wrath, both of which are very compelling stories and also have a strong meanings. The meaning that lie at the core of these works is what is essential though and not the plot. Grapes of Wrath tries to describe the problems poor farmers had when they where forced to move to California. Animal Farm is at one level about corruption in governments after revolutions and at another a fairly accurate description of the Russian revolution. The important thing is that the plots are not what is essential in these books. Instead the plots are merely vessels in order to bring forward the meaning and have been written to do so in the most effective manner. Without the strong meaning at the core, the novels would have never been written. The engaging stories has grown directly from their respective meanings.

It is worth noting that just because a meaning lies at the core, a game does not have to turn out different from how they normally are today. For example, the "The joys of snowboarding" could be made into an ordinary game like SSX or something more experimental like Stoked Rider (that does not contain goals, scores, etc). What is essential though is that the meaning is never sacrificed for other features. If a score is added to the "joys of snowboarding" game then it should increase the meaning and if doesn't, it should be discarded! Ignoring this cause problems in many games, some of which have been discussed here.

Fun does not need to be in focus
When designing a way to bring forward the meaning, one should use all tricks that are available to the medium and not feel forced that everything must be fun gameplay mechanics. Focusing on having some kind of entertaining activity at the core of the game tend to take away the meaning and instead let the mechanic take over. A recent example of this would be combat and upgrading in Dead Space that takes away quite bit of the Alien/Event Horizon-like atmosphere ( which I assume is what the designers where after).

When designing our upcoming game Amnesia we first focused on having a core gameplay which the rest of the game could be built upon. However, every type of gameplay we tried out weakened our core meaning of creating a scary and disturbing atmosphere. It was not until we just let go of the concept that something "fun" needs to lie at the core that we really felt the project coming together.

It's not all about events
What drives the meaning in books like Animal Farm is basically a string of plot events. This is because linear media, like books and movies, are pretty much all about plots and therefore events is the most common way to bring forward a meaning. However, this is not true for games, where we have interactivity, non-linearity and generated content to work with as well!

I think many game designers look too much at books and films, and mimics their ways of communicating a message. Instead I think that one way to move forward is to look at the meaning and then figure out the best way to convey it. (Of course this also means that one must have a meaning from the start...)

Consider portraying a dangerous neighborhood. In a linear media a character might be mugged when walking in the area, and in that way conveying that it is a bad place by using a plot event. In a game this could be done through interaction instead. For instance, NPC:s can give more hostile answers to questions asked, showing certain objects will make people stare with greedy eyes, etc. These kinds of interactions all enhance the meaning that is portrayed and makes the mugging event irrelevant.

What I wanted to show with the previous example is that instead of a scripted event, interaction with the world can provide the same kind of meaning. It is also worth pointing out that some games (Fallout comes into mind) already use this method, but I would like to see used more often. Also, it is very important to be aware of this possibility and not just assume that an event is important for the story. There are bound to be many plot events in a story that could be changed this way. One should not focus on having everything as interactivity though; the method to be used should always be the one which best conveys the intended meaning.

Winning is not everything
All ancient games like go and backgammon are at the core about one thing: winning. This is something that seem to have followed ever since and most games rely on some mechanic where the player either succeeds or fails. While it suits some types of games, it can devastate the experience in others and it also sets up a sort of barrier on who can play the game. Many games effectively say: "Either you complete this task or you won't proceed!". There seems to be some kind of common knowledge that this type of mechanic is a must in order for a creation to be called a game and if the player cannot loose the game is pointless.

I believe it is time to stop thinking in terms of "beating a game" and instead focus creating an experience for the player. For example, I have discussed chase sequences in a previous post and the main problems with these is that they loose their impact when replayed. There is a very simple solution to this problem: make sure they are only played once! I think it is possible to still create tension even if it is predetermined whether the protagonist dies or not. It is all about immersing oneself and it works great for films and books. Another way is to continue the game regardless if the player wins or looses, changing the game accordingly. Both of these methods are implemented in Heavy Rain and while I have not tried the game, reviews seem to show that it works quite well. Also note that it is possible to fool the player into believing that there are grave consequences if failing in certain sequences. As long as there is some rare occasions where it really does matter, the player will never be sure if the current situation is "for real" or not. This approach makes it easier for the designer as large amounts of narrative permutations does need to be supported.

This thinking can be applied to just about any sequence that is supposed to have tension. Every time "game over" is shown immersion is broken and the player is pulled out of the game world. One can give the experience more flow by skipping the old notion of "trial and error" and instead make sure that the game always progresses. At the same time the game is made accessible to more people and not just hard-core gamers.

As a final note on the "win or loose" topic I want to add that this is of course not true for every type of game. But I do think that designers should carefully consider if a trial and error mechanic is really needed and if it might not be for the best to skip it.

Existing for existence itself
The interactions performed in games are almost always connected to some kind of gameplay mechanic. Often just about all the actions available in a game are relevant to the core rule system and actions are not often present only because of their intrinsic value. I think this is something that needs change and would like to show why by considering how graphics has evolved in games.

In the first games, all graphics had some kind of relevance to the gameplay (e.g. Pong). However, as technology advanced graphics where added just to enhance atmosphere and for the viewing pleasure of the player. Today very little of a game's graphics are there strictly for gameplay and are mostly there to make the game attractive. The same has not been true for interaction and there has been very little improvement. Often when more "superfluous" interactions have been added, they have still gotten some kind of gameplay connection (like eating various food items in System Shock 2).

Notable exceptions are for instance Max Payne where sinks, driers, etc can be turned on in a public toilet. Another examples is Half-life 2 where many of the objects have physical properties, allowing interaction, but no relevance to the gameplay. While these interactions add a lot to immersion they are pretty simple and I think more complex actions could and should be added.

Consider a game where a male protagonist has a child following him and certain actions can make the child sad or happy. The mood of the child has no impact on the gameplay, but would just be a mean for the player to connect to the father-child relationship. Some might argue that adding some gameplay relevance would make the impact of a happy/sad child stronger, but I think this is false. First of all, gameplay comes with balancing issues and instead of focusing on making the child believable and on creating a certain experience, one might end up focusing on making it all work gameplay wise instead - in the end decreasing the impact. Secondly, adding a gameplay mechanic easily make the player focus on the underlying rules instead of evoking feelings. Because of this, only having the happy/sad boy interaction for its own sake can make it a more emotional experience.

Just as adding nice graphics, for no other reason than their beauty, can make a game more compelling and attract more people, adding gameplay wise "meaningless" interactions could help make the game medium reach new places.

End notes
I do not want to stop games from being made as they are now. Neither do I want all future games to have deep meanings. However, I would like to see games that take the medium to new places and explore deeper subjects . I would like to see games that can provoke deep thought and feel as something other than "pure entertainment". As I mentioned in the earlier post on this subject, the current state of games, where the core experience is almost always be about hero induced genocide, is just sad. There needs to be some change to this or else a lot of potential will go to waste!


  1. I don't know if this was mentioned in the previous post, but I disagree with you that games designed with "little meaning" really have "little meaning" at all. Even the simplest games, from my experience, can contain meaning that no one ever really thinks of.

    Take "Super Mario Brothers," for instance, a game about an Italian plumber who constantly needs to rescuse the princess of the mushroom kingdom from King Koopa. The game itself just focuses on running, jumping on things, sliding down flagpoles, and cutting rope bridges with conveniently placed axes. The game is simple, there's not much plot to interpret, nothing to really dig deeply in.

    Now, let's think about a fairy tale story we all know about, in one form or another--"Little Red Riding Hood," a simple story about a girl walking to her grandmother's house (for ease of reference, I shall be discussing the Brothers Grimm version). She encounters a wolf in the woods, and tells the wolf where her grandmother lives (who then runs off and eats the grandmother). Upon arriving at the house, Little Red Riding Hood climbs into the grandmother's bed, next to the wolf disguised as her grandmother, does her "My what large/furry 'X' you have!" thing, gets eaten, gets rescued by the hunter and then exacts justice on the wolf.

    We have a literary analyst by the name of Bruno Bettelheim, who then goes on to describe this story as being one of changes for the life of a young woman. He states, paraphrasing, that Riding Hood is a girl undergoing puberty, and does not yet fully understand the sexual changes she's going through. The wolf is representative of a sexual predator, who tries to take advantage of the girl--the girl, in her state, wants to be seduced and wants to break the rules of her mother, who told her explicitly to "stay on the path." To make a long story short, the girl is almost seduced, almost strays from the "moral" path, and is rescued by the ideal father figure, the hunter. The story itself, according to Bettelheim, is about learning from one's mistakes, and understanding one's own sexuality.

    Now, what the hell am I trying to get at in this ridiculously long post? Well, the meaning we get from any form of text--whether it be a novel, a short story, a movie, or even a video game--can be ANYTHING, even if the meaning is obscure. If Bettelheim were to look at "Super Mario Brothers," he would probably give the same overall assesment of this video game. A girl (Peach) strays from the path, and because of her own desire for sexuality, "allows herself" to be captured by Bowser (the wolf, the sexual deviant), who must then be rescued by Mario (the hunter). What does this simple story imply about Peach's sexuality? Why does she get captured so often? What do stories like these say about American/West European society or culture? Why do we ignore the sexual nature of "Super Mario Brothers," or on some subconscious level, why are we so fascinated with it?

    Everything you said, Thomas, I thought was very well thought-out and stated, but I just wished to mention that, even in a game that focuses so much on "gameplay" and "fun," one can still access deep meaning in a game, and conjure deeper questions about psychology, physiology, and morality. One must simply be able to reach in deep enough. ;-)

    I wish to note however, that although Bettleheim's discussion on the sexual nature of "Little Red Riding Hood" brought up many good points, I don't necessarily agree with everything he states. I mean, I didn't even mention that Riding Hood apparently had an oedipal complex....

  2. Graykin:
    I agree with what you are saying that something might look very simple on the outside yet be very complicated when examined some more. I think that Animal Farm, as I mentioned, also goes under this and without the right prerequisites one will not get the full depth of the story's meaning. I have not read the orginal "Little Red Riding Hood" so hard for me to judge, but I find it very possible that it contains just the themes and meanings that this Bruno guy says (Tale of Tales even made a game using a similar interpretation).

    One might also find what ever strange/profound meanings in Super Mario Bros that one wants if one twists is in the right way (I have feeling of having read something similar, but cannot recall where...)

    However, I very much doubt that SMB was created with any other meaning than "lets explore some fun gameplay" in mind. When writing Animal Farm there was a very strong and conscious meaning that was not "just" about pigs being cruel. The same could perhaps also be true of "Little Red Riding Hood".

    The really important thing is that the reason I think Animal Farm is so good, is because they have this strong meaning from start and can be a powerful stort even if you do not get the intended meaning. I think that when something is created with a deeper meaning at the start, there is something special put into that work, even if nobody notices. It is not the same as finding meaning where there was none from the start.

    That said, I do not really disagree with you. I just wanted to make my stance on all this clear. Also, this meaning I am looking for does not have to be something abstract or very complex, as I said it can just be "the joy of snowboarding", something a lot more lighthearted than sexual predators and maturing girls :)

  3. I think it's a bit problematic to compare authored content with fairy tales. The latter are basically "written" by many generations, even across many cultures and as such fairy tales have accumulated a lot of meaning over centuries. Authored works, such as Mario and Animal Farm may also achieve this status after several centuries. But at this point, the best bet for real meaning is the effort of the author, who can, through mere effort, "simulate" centuries of meaning.

    This of course doesn't stop the player from finding all sorts of meaning in any type of work. But that's stuff for an entirely different article.

  4. I'm not one who is very adept at conveying my thoughts, but here goes:

    The difference between Thomas's post and Graykin's comments is that, Thomas's is talking about building the game around the meaning, while Graykin's is the intepretation of the meaning behind the game, AFTER the game or whatever medium has been made.

    Novels, games, movies, they are all products of human intellect and our culture. There is bound to be some sort of meaning behind these works, whether the author is conscious about it or not.

    It is inevitable that if these works are prominent enough people will tend to find the meaning behind it or the motivation of the author, but this will always be an intepretation unless the author explicitly explains them.

    Now the tricky thing for the authors, if they intend to instill a particular meaning in their work, is to ensure that the users / readers understand them and intepret them correctly. Therefore as far as gaming is concerned, my personal opinion to keep it as straightforwards as possible as anything complex would be lost entirely or be misintepreted.

    Like Thomas's example, "The Joy of snowboarding" would be pretty simple to convey, whereas "what is it like to be homeless" would simply be lost or intepreted as something else at best, or accused of some scandalous undertone at worst.

  5. 2bit Bones:
    Another interesting thing about meaning is that impact of a meaning can be different for different people. For example take the "what is it like to be homeless"-meaning. A game/book/film based a around this could make some people feel very sad for homeless people and others might think that homeless people get what they deserve and not feel sorry for them at all. What I mean is that a meaning does not necessarily need to give the same reaction to all people experiencing it and instead just expose people to something and make them make up their minds themselves.

    For example, this is how I felt after reading "Starship Troopers" which is basically how a society ruled by military would be like and the book convinced me that it would not be good, although the author thought that it would be a good thing. I would not say that the author failed here, instead I think this is a very good thing to convey a meaning and let the audience decide. Otherwise meanings can be very propaganda like.

  6. > All ancient games like go and backgammon are at the core about one thing: winning.

    Winning is there for a reason - all games are about learning + entertainment. The whole process just works better when player is rewarded for his actions and winning still is the ultimate reward.

    What you describe is not about "winning" but about "failing", the overall axiom "Fail sequence = game over" is just primitive and sometimes designers avoid it. For example System Shock and Bioshock all have player respawn devices which make him almost immortal.

    As a side note, I haven't seen any mentions about Amnesia or Penumbra in this article - I'd love to read about how this paradigm influences Frictional games.

  7. infidel:
    Nothing wrong about having winning as an ultimate goal, but I think that it is used too much and often seen as a must (which is not). The approach in Bioshock is quite nice and I think it is on the right path. Problem is that it kinda forced me to do several melee charges on big daddies since I was so low on ammo and adam (that was the "mp" right?) and I do not think developers intended that. However, it gave more room to experimentation and trying out different ways of taking out baddies when ever you had ammo / adam to spare, so it was not all wrong :)

    How does this influence us? Well we are taking things step-by-by and have change the way we handle death a bit because of discussions like this. In Penumbra we had the common load-last-save after death and in Amnesia we a different approach where the world is changed after death. Going to get into this later on when we are getting closer to release.

  8. Focusing on the one element most essential to the experience is good advice even if the game is conforming to common conceptions of "fun". I think the clearest example I can possibly give is the Sonic the Hedgehog series over the past decade. Presumably the intended "meaning" of the game is "running really fast". That is fun, and levels which focus on this experience are fun by extension. But with each member of Sonic Team adding another element to the game -cutscenes, minigames, other kinds of gameplay, exploration, etc.- without any regard for how it fits in with the point of the game, the game as a whole becomes cluttered and pointless.

    This example clearly shows that the idea you're hitting on in this post is not so much "fun vs. other kinds of meaning", but rather "focusing on the point vs. losing sight of the point", this being a concept which is applicable to all games of every type. For that matter, it applies to all non-game art and entertainment as well. If you don't focus your efforts toward a particular goal, you end up achieving nothing.

    With this in mind, I think Graykin's literary analysis of Super Mario Brothers is missing the point a bit. The meaning of Super Mario Brothers is not any part of the plot, but the feeling of momentum in its controls. (I would argue that the meaning of most platformers is how their controls feel.) If you take out all the characters and even all the worlds but keep in the controls, it is my opinion that you'd still have the core "meaning" of Super Mario Brothers intact right there. The princess being kidnapped is a convenient excuse for the creation of many worlds which highlight the fun of the controls by providing obstacles which can only by passed through an understanding of the proper usage of momentum. I personally feel that that story was entirely unnecessary: the point of a platformer is sufficiently abstract that no excuses are called for.

  9. Mory Buckman:
    Sonic seems like a good examples of how later developers did not get it and just added stuff because it "seemed fun". There might also have been a sort of fear of making the game short (since sonic rushes through maps in earlier games) and hence they put a lot of effort into finding ways to make it longer, not thinking about how it affected the "meaning" of the game.

  10. Giving a deeper meaning to a game is in my opinion very important. That makes it different from the mainstream and i think that's what ambitious people want to play. Anyway, i have a different question about this topic. As i already mentioned in another of your articles, i'm an author. My plan is to finish my first book til september, which means the book will be released 6 or 12 months after that (next year). And well, i think my stories are also going above the mainstream. But i'd like to know, how the whole process about writing the story for a game works, how it works for you. Because i know how i write MY stories. I have different ways. It depends on the story i write at a specific moment (my first book isn't finished yet, but i'm already working on three other stories at the same time). I'm writing my first book for example step by step. I started at the beginning of the story, after that comes the main plot and now i'm writing the end of the story. But others of my stories are written from, lets say, another direction. Most of my ideas are coming from dreams or from thoughts i'm having. I mean, i can get ideas everywhere and at any time. Because of that i'm always taking a notebook with me. I can for example start a story at the end. I already write the "scenes" i have in my mind and later i add things, like the beginning of the story and so on. This almost works like filming a movie, where you start with scene 107 and later you film scene 35. But how do YOU write a story? Is it more like writing a book, step by step? Or is it like filming, for example starting at the end and going back to the start? Or is it totally different? How did you write the story for the Penumbra-Series? Was it different from writing-process of Amnesia?

  11. Mario:
    A lot to say on that and I think it will have to be a blog post in the future :)

    For quickly summed, the progress is extremly messy. It often starts out as some simply idea that gets detailed, scrapped redone, re-worked by several persons and then refined during level design and then finally implementation.

    Also, I find writing for a game different from a linear story. In a linear story I would can sort of start of with characters and some set events and then work it from there and let characters live through these. For games it is the player that has to live through the events and the same sort of thinking does not apply. Instead it is a matter of filling the environments with things of interest and set up events that work with all that. Levels are usually designed from start to end in a "chronological" order, and design is not finished when we start implementing. We are many people involved in this process.

  12. That is interesting, I was always confused as to why they went to the effort of adding the feature of "tapping" every surface in Myst IV Revelation, because it never once comes in handy.

  13. This article inspires me incredibly. I've reread it possibly ten times, and I keep coming back.

  14. I have to say, those are some pretty deep thoughts.
    I just wanted you to know that I enjoy reading your texts, because they are somewhat - I wouldn´t say eye-opening - but, let´s put it this way: They clothe a thought, which I have for a long time now, in words, and I feel confirmed that I´m not the only one thinking in this way.

    A while ago I just didn´t find "casual games" (shooters, senseless games in general, not to say every shooter is senseless) appealing anymore, because there had always been something that bothered me. I did enjoy Bioshock Infinite, to give a recent example, but I just wasn´t convinced to slay a wave of random enemies every now and then just.. well, because it´s a "game" and "games" HAVE to be that way.
    I like your approach and I give my best to support indie-developers who try to create something different, something that has an impact on one's own life: Thought provoking games!

    Because that is was I currently miss when playing tripple A titles. But I´m deeply convinced, that, in a few years, this present state of a barely-existent genre of games will have changed.

    Sorry for possible grammer/spelling mistakes. Din´t read the text again, right now it´s late in the night.
    And I´m a foreigner, so I am allowed to do as much mistakes as I want..probably.

    Thanks for writing those truely inspiring blog-posts!
    *subscribe to newsletter*

    Greetings from a guy sitting infront of a laptop in a small town in southern Germany ;)


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