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Are we Game Designers or Game Definers?

The NeverEnding Story as a parable for what can go wrong in the initial stages of video game design.

(Hint: TNES gets it right!)

Jennifer Canada, Blogger

March 27, 2013

4 Min Read

This past week, one of the most striking posts I read online concerned an interesting fact noticed by the poster:  aspiring authors often appear more interested in creating the history, culture, and character backstories of a narrative’s setting than telling affective and moving stories within that world.

“It’s like people really want to write a wiki, and have to come up with the pesky “moving, powerful, imaginative literature” stuff out of obligation.”
        original here by Sean T. Collins via Vorpalizer

The NeverEnding Story

I will confess that I may have starting reading his post because it frames its argument using as a contrast The NeverEnding Story, one of my most cherished and formative childhood movies.  He argues that the opposite approach, a world such as NES’s Fantasia, brimming with crazy, beautiful, terrible, astonishing, and above all—disparate—elements seems more real and more moving to its audience because any real world contains both huge variety and a lack of connection and cohesion by the very fact of its size. And as every element of Fantasia showcased within the movie exists for a narrative purpose, not simply to fill out a history, so is every scene and character moving and memorable. (Luck Dragons, anyone?) This is a movie that started with a story to tell, not as a ‘wiki’ to compile, file, and organize the facts of a world.

So, why am I, a game designer, so interested in this article? … I would argue this ‘wiki first’ approach also runs rampant in the world of game design and not to our benefit as an industry. Like novels that put classification and backstory first, games that focus on an organized and justified world ironically feel less real even though likely more time has gone into finding that ‘real’ feeling.

Since I don’t want to throw stones at games where I don’t have first-hand knowledge of how they were developed, I’ll just say, I’m sure we can all think of some tremendously detailed game worlds that felt like they were missing a soul. By contrast, games that have gone in the opposite direction have brought us living and emotional experiences likeBraidFezLimbo, and last year’s episodic The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead

Anyone who’s worked with me or been in one of my classes knows I would never advocate that time spent on backstory is a waste. Indeed, all of the above games contain references to and are infused by backstory, and in the case of Braid, the entire game is based around working through a problematic past, versus Limbo which leaves the player to puzzle out what the present implies about the past. However, where these games stand out, at least to me, is that the backstory serves the narrative and emotional needs of the gameplay first and foremost. The classification and set up of the game’s world was never an end of itself. Nor can I imagine any of those designers was most excited by the prospect of enumerating facts about the world in a list.

As game designers, anytime we lose site of the experience as the main goal, our work and our games suffer for it. Fundamentally, we aren’t purveyors of bulleted lists and definitions, spreadsheets and algorithms. I think because a game idea often starts in that medium, it can be easy to lose sight of that. I will finish up with a slightly reworked quote from the original article:

“I submit that the drive to classify everything, to treat [a game world] of whatever stripe as a code to be cracked rather than a [game] to be [played] and [experienced] and [felt], is, like the great black wolf-thing Gmork, a servant of the power behind the Nothing. It leaves you with a single grain of sand. Imagine that grain in your hand. The imaginations we need to rebuild Fantasia are wild and unafraid. We need Love, not Law. “The more wishes you make, the more magnificent Fantasia will become.”

Also, confessions  …yes, I did dress as the Childlike Empress for Halloween 1989 …and I almost bought a necklace at Kohl’s two months ago because it looked the Auryn  …and yes, I did like The NeverEnding Story 2, but not 3. I’m not crazy.

Now let’s all enjoy the song together—and try to ignore the mullet…


P.S. What games do you think may have originated ‘wiki first’? And what games do you think likely originated ‘story first’? Any thoughts on which way is better?

(You can also see this post on my blog here: http://www.jennifern.net/blog/?p=13)

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