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Gaming Syntax: Using Sentence Construction to Think About Level Design

Sentences only make sense when the words are organized using syntax to create meaning. This post explores what game designers can learn from sentence construction to create truly engaging levels that say something meaningful to their customers.

I try to make it a habit to always be in a state of learning. Whether I am studying game design or some other discipline, I find that constantly consuming new information and treading over new ground gives me valuable insights that are useful in my professional endeavors.

So instead of filling my driving or exercise times with music or other idle distractions, I’ve made it a habit to listen to educational audio series. You can find a huge body of free lecture series on a variety of topics on iTunes University, but I also recommend picking up series from The Teaching Company ( if your pocketbook allows. Their series are presented by top lecturers in fields of study including mathematics, philosophy, history, religion and as in my most recent study, writing.

It is from this most recent study, an audio series called Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft (, that I found my understanding of game design develop further based on an idea from another discipline. The lecturer in the series is Brooks Landon, who discusses very early in the series about how one could describe the construction of a sentence using an XY graph. Along the vertical or Y axis, the words of the sentence appear. The lower on the graph you go, the less specific the word is.
For instance, the word “food” might be quite low on the graph, while “linguini” or even “linguini in lobster sauce” would be much higher. Depending on the idea you want to convey or the image you want to put into the mind of your reader, you will choose words of varying specificity up and down that Y axis as you construct a sentence. The X axis then becomes about syntax, the ordering of the words into something meaningful.
Depending on where the words are placed in a sentence, how they are ordered to express ideas as a series of steps, the same words can create quite different experiences for the reader.
I won’t rob you of the opportunity to listen to this excellent series yourself by going into further detail, but I found myself thinking that this observation about the plotting of a sentence on a graph is particularly useful when approaching level design. If we apply the same type of graphing exercise to a multiplayer experience, our version of the sentence, then the game features, geometry, colors, etc all become part of the Y axis.
As a designer selects what features to include in a game and what types of environments the game will include, that designer selects the specificity of the game and gives the player very distinct feelings and experiences as a result. For instance, if one is designing a sports game that includes power-ups, field hazards and a variety of characters, this will give the players a much different experience than a game that is designed to mimic reality. The differences created by these types of features define whether you are playing something like Super Mario Strikers or the latest FIFA title.
Likewise, if a designer is building a shooting game that includes sci-fi style weapons but chooses to put the player in a WWII themed environment, the experience created for the player will be quite different than if the environments are futuristic as well. These “gaming vocabulary” choices suggest a different story, different enemies, different objectives and evoke different expectations from the player as soon as they begin engaging the game.
So far, most game designers are completely on track with me here. They are quite aware that selecting different features for their game will create a different experience for the players. In fact, this is how I feel great deal of game designers seem to approach their titles. Many designers start by imagining the vocabulary of their game.
They think, “I want to make a steampunk game where you fight dinosaurs” or “I think it would be fun to having a fighting game featuring characters from Image Comics.” These are great starting places for games, funny little points of inspiration that allow a game to evolve into something fun and exciting, but if these designers do not stop to consider their “gaming syntax” along the way, they can end up with a boring, repetitive or completely ineffective experience as a result. While the specificity of the words creates feelings, it is the syntax that gives the sentence meaning.
Consider for a moment this cluster of words:
magical red liquid, jane took a sip, savoring the scent, swirling in her glass, Pinor Noir, deep sigh of satisfaction, washed away, as she lifted it, pepper and black cherries, feeling as though, after she swallowed, the troubles of her day, as she lifted it, as though the wine had
These words contain all the ideas necessary to convey how much a woman named Jane enjoys her wine. That is, if you work at it, you can figure out all the propositions that make up this game. There are ideas here that want to be conveyed, but they do not flow into a meaningful sentence because they have not yet been organized using syntax.
Now read these words with syntax applied:
“Swirling the magical red liquid in her glass as she lifted it, savoring the scent of pepper and black cherries as it approached her face, Jane took a sip of her Pinot Noir and exhaled a deep sigh of satisfaction after she swallowed, feeling as though the wine had washed away the troubles of her day.”
See how much more clear the ideas are conveyed? Notice how you can almost picture Jane savoring her glass of wine? The experience has changed drastically now that the words have been organized into a sentence. There is a meaningful experience created by these words now that syntax has organized them into something that makes sense to the reader. Likewise with game design, syntax is incredibly important to give the player a meaningful and engaging experience that will cause them to tell a friend “this is fun.”
We can then think of “gaming syntax” as the way a level is organized to create an experience. This is fairly obvious in single-player content. Designers script missions so that the player can unfold a story by engaging the game elements in a specific order. How well these mission details are organized, their ebb and flow, their ability to gradually increase the engagement of the player, determine the experience the player will have as he or she plays through the content.
Companies like Microsoft, Ubisoft, Nintendo and others spend a great deal of time and money on analytics to get these experiences right and to keep the player engaged with the content. Bungie calls these “gaming propositions,” the smaller ideas and phrases that make up the experience, their “30 seconds of fun.” They focus on finding ways to engage the player at the right times with specific ideas to create a masterful sentence that actually seems to pull the player right into the game. Just like almost being able to taste the wine with Jane in the sentence above, gamers almost feel as though they ARE Master Chief, battling to protect humanity from extinction.
However, multiplayer sentences are quite a bit more difficult to construct. In fact, many game designers settle for a cluster of words like:
big level, two bases, sniper rifles, big rock formation, beautiful mountain scenery
...instead of actually constructing a gaming sentence that makes sense. With their limited budget and testing resources, they throw something together based on a cluster of gaming propositions, perhaps even copying something they’ve seen done in another game, and then make some minor adjustments based on how the sentence feels after it is played a few times.
If the level doesn’t feel quite right, they throw a few more grenades in a corner, put a rocket launcher in the middle of the level and stick a few more bits of cover to eliminate the big problems and then move on. Just like a sentence that doesn’t consider its syntax, these levels can fail to engage the player in a meaningful way. There are some general ideas that the player can identify like “I’m supposed to use a sniper rifle to succeed,” but without specific syntax, the sentence might just go ahead and contradict itself, frustrating the players because they do not understand what they are really being told.
So I believe that multiplayer level design can learn quite a bit from good sentence construction. First, you must start with your base clause. What is this sentence saying? What is this level about? For instance, a sentence might be about a boy sitting down at the dinner table. A multiplayer level might be about hectic and fast-paced capture-the-flag.
Then, depending on what additional information you include in your sentence, the additional propositions, the boy could be tired, excited, dirty from playing outside, perfectly clean and proper or disgusted at the food in front of him. Depending on what weapons, geometry, power-ups, and spawn points you put on the level, that fast-paced CTF experience could be about close-range battles in tight corridors, long-range battles across a cluttered battlefield or use of teamwork to trap the opposition and escape with the flag before they do the same to you.
So just like how additional phrases and clauses enhance and change the base clause of a sentence, the careful selection and organization of gaming propositions can completely change the way the players experience a level. As a designer, we must consider what it is we are saying to our players when we organize multiplayer levels.
I want to continue to explore gaming syntax in future posts, so for now I’d like to conclude with a famous example of how small syntactical details can make a huge difference in the meaning of a sentence or level. Consider this famous example about the importance of proper punctuation:
“A woman without her man is nothing.” This sentence makes a very specific point, stating quite plainly that a woman is valueless without a man. We can completely invert the meaning of this sentence using simple punctuation:
“A woman: without her, man is nothing.” Now the sentence suggests the exact opposite of the previous reading of the same words. With a little syntactical funny-business, the sentence now says that it is the man who is without value if a woman is not with him.
Consider that the next time you put a rocket launcher dead in the middle of a level or a spawn point out in the open. Gaming syntax gives your levels meaning. If you want your players to be engaged, to have fun every time they boot up your game, consider what it is you are expressing when you create a level. Are you settling for a cluster of words or crafting a master sentence?

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