Dogma 2001: A Challenge to Game Designers

The game industry has an arsenal of production techniques at its disposal, and they're getting more spectacular all the time. Yet how many games on the store shelves can genuinely claim to be innovative? They may have innovative algorithms, but very few of them have innovative gameplay. We're depending so much on the hardware that we're starting to ignore the bedrock foundation of our business: creativity, especially in devising not merely new games, but new kinds of games. In this installment of the Designer's Notebook, Ernest Adams offers a thought-provoking "Vow of Chastity" for the game industry.

Back in 1995, two Danish filmmakers named Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg stepped back from their industry, took a hard look, and decided it was time for a change. The film business, they concluded, had become overly dependent on special effects, fancy camerawork, and other techniques of production. Rather than being built on the bedrock foundations of drama - actors playing real human beings in a story - movies were becoming more and more dependent on gratuitous action, special lighting, impressive sets, optical effects, audio engineering, and all the other gee-whiz paraphernalia of showbiz. The vital essence of film, dramatic narrative, was in danger of being submerged in glitz. And as if this weren't enough, they also concluded that the cult of personality surrounding the film director was detrimental to making good films. Movies are not the work of a single visionary, they argued, and too many directors spend time making "artistic statements" to gratify their own egos when they should be concentrating on characters and story.

A scene from the Dogme film Julien Donkey-Boy.

Von Trier and Vinterberg devised an outrageous challenge to the film business: a set of ten rules, called the Vow of Chastity, which would place certain limits on filmmaking technique. Directors who took the Vow of Chastity would become "brothers" in a new movement called Dogme (the Danish spelling of "dogma") 95 and their films could be certified as "Dogme" films. The vow was as follows:

"I swear to submit to the following set of rules drawn up and confirmed by DOGME 95:
  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).
  4. The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden
  6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.

Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a 'work,' as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.

Thus I make my Vow of Chastity."

This vow is clearly impossible to live by using conventional movie production techniques. Hollywood, of course, completely ignored it - after all, they've got money to make, and challenges from art-house film directors contribute nothing to a studio's bottom line. Still, it did cause a great deal of talk. The Dogme Manifesto was written in a very tongue-in-cheek style, and it was difficult to tell whether the authors were serious or just pulling the industry's leg. Is Dogme 95 a worthwhile exercise, or merely a publicity stunt? Regardless of what you choose to believe, nineteen Dogme movies have now been made and there are more in production. Visit the Dogme 95 website for further details.

I believe it's time for a similar debate in the game industry. We, too, have an arsenal of production techniques, and they're getting more spectacular all the time. Yet how many games on the store shelves can genuinely claim to be innovative? They may have innovative algorithms, but very few of them have innovative gameplay. How many first-person shooters, how many war games, how many run-and-jump video games do we really need? We're depending so much on the hardware that we're starting to ignore the bedrock foundation of our business: creativity, especially in devising not merely new games, but new kinds of games.


How many run-and-jump video games do we really need?

This isn't a graphics-versus-gameplay argument; it's a technology-versus-creativity argument. Over the years I've observed a regular sine-wave progression: every time a new generation of consoles comes along, creativity and diversity drop through the floor as everybody scrambles to learn to use it. Designers spend far too much time trying to figure out how to take advantage of new machinery, adding gratuitous features just to exercise the hardware. Even though implementing the technology is the business of programmers, not designers, it still consumes attention that the designer should be spending on the game's world, rules and behavior. We're just entering another new generation of hardware, so it's very likely to happen again.

Thereore I'm going to issue my own three-word manifesto: Technology Stifles Creativity - at least temporarily. I'm also going to commit a colossal act of hubris and propose my own outrageous challenge to the game industry, Dogma 2001. Although the Dogme 95 rules don't translate directly to interactive entertainment - film is, after all, a different medium - my objective is similar: to reduce the process of game design to its fundamentals, to encourage designers to concentrate on nothing but the vital elements of a game.

Dogme 95's goals were twofold: first, to uncouple filmmaking from technology (by denying it its technological tools), and second, to remind the director that he or she is not a demi-god (or demagogue), but part of a collaborative process whose primary aim is drama, not the aesthetics of film itself.

Dogma 2001's goals are twofold also, but they're not exactly the same two. There's much less of a cult of personality in the game industry than there is in film. Although there are a small number of well-known designers, I don't really believe that they distort their games in the name Art, or to gratify their egos - or if they do, I don't think it hurts the games that much.
The first goal of Dogma 2001 is similar to Dogme 95's, to reduce the emphasis on technology so that the game designer will tend to concentrate on the game itself: gameplay, rules, the user interface, the game world and the player's role. Obviously computer games use technology by definition, but that doesn't mean they have to be designed around it.


A game designer's primary concern should be inventive gameplay, not gimmicky new technology.

The second goal is quite simply to suppress derivative works. The game industry has become hugely, horribly derivative. There are far too many games on the shelves that play the same way, and there are far too many of them that are set in the same kinds of worlds. Dogma 2001 explicitly forbids certain kinds of games and certain kinds of worlds, forcing game designers to design new kinds of games and to set them in new places.

Herewith, the rules of Dogma 2001, for the interactive entertainment industry. After each rule I've included a justification to explain its presence.

The Dogma 2001 Vow

"As a game designer I promise for the good of my game, my industry, and my own creative soul to design according to the following Dogma 2001 rules:"

1. The design documents shall contain no reference to any object which is installed inside the outer case of the target machine. Input devices and the monitor screen itself may be mentioned in discussions of the game's user interface. Minimum acceptable machine specifications shall be determined by the programmers during development.

Justification: Self-evident. Dogma 2001 game designs are about the game, period. As a Dogma designer, you renounce technology as part of your game's design.

2. The use of hardware 3D acceleration of any sort is forbidden. Software 3D engines are not forbidden, but the game must run at 20 frames per second or better in 640 x 480 16-bit SVGA mode or the nearest available equivalent.

Justification: By adopting a simple, well-known display standard and sticking rigorously to it, both designers and programmers are freed to concentrate on tasks of real importance.

3. Only the following input devices are allowed: on a console machine, the controller which normally ships with it. On a computer, a 2-axis joystick with two buttons, or a D-pad with two buttons; a standard 101-key PC keyboard; a 2-button mouse.

Justification: Most games that depend on gimmicky input devices are crummy games. You must not waste your time trying to design for them.

4. There shall be no knights, elves, dwarves or dragons. Nor shall there be any wizards, wenches, bards, bartenders, golems, giants, clerics, necromancers, thieves, gods, angels, demons, sorceresses, undead bodies or body parts (mummified or decaying), Nazis, Russians, spies, mercenaries, space marines, stormtroopers, star pilots, humanoid robots, evil geniuses, mad scientists, or carnivorous aliens. And no freakin' vampires.

Justification: Self-evident. If you find that doing without all of the foregoing makes it impossible to build your game, you are not creative enough to call yourself a game designer. As proof, note that it does not exclude any of the following: queens, leprechauns, Masai warriors, ghosts, succubi, Huns, mandarins, wisewomen, grizzly bears, hamsters, sea monsters, vegetarian aliens, terrorists, firefighters, generals, gangsters, detectives, magicians, spirit mediums, shamans, whores, and lacrosse players. One of the games that made it to the finals of the first Independent Games Festival was about birds called blue-footed boobies, so forget you ever heard of George Lucas and J.R.R. Tolkien and get to work.

5. The following types of games are prohibited: first-person shooters, side-scrollers, any action game with "special attacks." Also prohibited are: simulations of 20th-century or current military vehicles, simulations of sports which are routinely broadcast live on television, real-time strategy games focussing solely on warfare and weapons production, lock-and-key adventure games, numbers-heavy role-playing games, and any card game found in Hoyle's Rules of Card Games.

Justification: It is your duty as a Dogma designer to create new genres of games, not simply to make more technologically impressive games in old genres.

6. All cinematics, cut-scenes, and other non-interactive movies are forbidden. If a game requires any introductory or transitional material, it must be provided by scrolling text.

Justification: The secret desire of game designers to be film directors is deleterious to their games and to the industry generally. This desire must be stamped out.

7. Violence is strictly limited to the disappearance or immobilization of destroyed units. Units which are damaged or destroyed shall be so indicated by symbolic, not representational, means. There shall be no blood, explosions, or injury or death animations.

Justification: Although conflict is a central principle of most games, the current "arms race" towards ever-more graphic violence is harmful and distracting. Explosions and death animations are, in fact, very short non-interactive movies. If you spend time on them, you are wasting energy that could be more profitably spent on gameplay or AI.

8. There may be victory and defeat, and my side and their side, but there may not be Good and Evil.

Justification: Good versus Evil is the most hackneyed, overused excuse imaginable for having two sides in a fight. With the exception of a small number of homicidal maniacs, no human being regards him- or herself as evil. As a Dogma designer, you are required to create a real explanation for why two sides are opposed - or to do without one entirely, as in chess.

9. If a game is representational rather than abstract, it may contain no conceptual non sequiturs, e.g. medical kits may not be hidden inside oil tanks.

Justification: The conceptual non sequitur is not merely sloppy; it is one of the things that actively discourages non-gamers from playing games. Gamers know that you're supposed to blow up everything in sight to see if anything might be hidden there, because they've played a hundred other games which have followed this pattern - games which were designed by adolescents for whom blowing things up is an end in itself. Ordinary people use their powers of reasoning to decide what should be blown up or not. Since it would not occur to a reasonable person that a medical kit could be found inside an oil tank, a reasonable person will not needlessly blow it up, and is therefore at a disadvantage when playing the game. A Dogma designer must to do the design work necessary to reward reason rather than brute-force approaches.

10. If a game is representational rather than abstract, the color black may not be used to depict any manmade object except ink, nor any dangerous fictitious nonhuman creatures. Black may be used to depict rooms in which the lights are not switched on.

Justification: Artists who make things cool by the simple expedient of making them black should be sent back to art college with a swift kick in the butt. This is also true of chrome and gunmetal grey, but black is the worst offender.

"Finally, I acknowledge that innovative gameplay is not merely a desirable attribute but a moral imperative. All other considerations are secondary.

Thus I make my solemn vow."

Now I realize that, as with Hollywood and Dogme 95, nobody at EA or Sony or Blizzard is going to pay the slightest attention to Dogma 2001. This isn't a formula for commercial success, it's a challenge to think outside the box - in our case, the standardized boxes that are on the store shelves right now. But the rules are actually far less draconian than the Dogme 95 rules for filmmakers, and it wouldn't be that hard to follow them. I think it could do both us, and our customers, a lot of good.

If anybody takes the vow and builds a Dogma 2001 game, let me know!

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