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A hands-on guide to how you predict and control the player's meaning-making by differentiating between cognitive and behavioral goals in sequencing a motivating game space.

Katarina Gyllenback, Blogger

December 16, 2020

15 Min Read

This post originates from the site Narrative Construction, whose goal is to offer a hands-on approach to designing an engaging and dynamic game system from a narrative and cognitive perspective. 

In response to the comments I received on the series Putting into play, I have produced a set of patterns showing the hands-on structuring of narrative and cognitive elements. Additionally, it keeps my time restraints from holding back curiosity.

At the end of the last chapter on pacing, I linked a talk with the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt lead quest designer Pawel Sasko explaining an "interpretation-hypothesizing" model helping the team set the gameplay's core based on how the player thinks, learns, and creates meaning.

Below you can see Sasko illustrating how the team predicted and controlled the player's thinking by making the player anticipate evil (see the gray-colored box) and where the desired outcome was to make the player feel guilt at the end of the quest sequence.

                                Pawel Sasko explaining an "interpretation-hypothesizing" model

It is unique to find examples where a team so outspokenly proceeds from a cognitive model. Mostly, the predictions (mind-reading) of the players' cognitive activities are handled on an intuitive level, making the overview of the player's process of causal, spatial, and temporal links tricky to discern.

To visualize how to predict a player's thinking, I will use the narrative and cognitive elements below and highlight the goal to show how the differentiation of cognitive and behavioral goals helps you control the player's meaning-making in sequencing a motivating space.

                                                    Narrative and cognitive elements

The elements are a part of the cognitive modeling method, Narrative bridging, which I use in various forms to depict how you create meanings that engage and motivate the player.

I will proceed from Sasko's quest example in the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt where the player plays a monster slayer looking for his missing adopted daughter. In addition to Sasko's example, I will show Lucas Pope's game Papers, Please, where the player works as an immigration inspector at a border control station, controlling travelers' documents and permitting those whose documents are in order to enter the country of Arstotzka.

                                                     Lucas Pope's game Papers, Please

To follow the designer's predictions, I will use green color, and to depict the player's thinking, I will use the purple color.

I recommend reading the series Putting into play to learn more about the theories and principles behind the narrative and cognitive elements. You can find the links at the end.

Cognitive - and behavioral goals

The key to predicting and controlling the player's meaning-making is differentiating between cognitive- and behavioral goals when sequencing time and space.

Cognitive goals concern our understanding, learning, and meaning-making. What is important to consider from a designer's perspective is that we are goal-oriented and can keep numerous goals in mind, which we organize by ranking and categorizing them. So when the player is processing information and comes to a conclusion, assumption, inference, hypothesis, or decision, the player isolates a goal to achieve an objective.

From a designer's perspective, the player's isolation of a goal is always considered to affect the player's behavior. The control of the player's isolation of a goal can either be strictly held by the designer or the player. By thinking in terms of goals to be controlled (isolated) by the designer or the player, broadens the understanding of the concepts of emergent (open) and embedded (closed) game spaces. The latter commonly refers to the canonical story structure's impact on the player's freedom to make choices and where the open space is considered to provide more freedom. But as we go, you will see more factors driving the experience that makes the space feel restricted or open.

From a cognitive perspective on the design of engaging and motivating experiences, a choice can be an internal or external activity. Meaning, the choice doesn't have to lead to a physical output and could stay in the player's mind (memory). So when you structure a game space, you consider the behavioral goal to be an internal or external activity.

Internal activities

  • expecting, anticipating, hypothesizing, interpreting, imagining, predicting, forecasting, estimating, planning, comparing, distinguishing, etc.

External activities

  • gathering, collecting, collaborating, finding, searching, surviving, harvesting, crafting, building, etc.

The control (isolation) of the player's internal and external activities is made by sequencing space and time to create dynamic gameplay. The control you gain from sequencing the space also explains why I removed the acts, turning points, etc., in Putting into play. The removal of the familiar elements of the canonical story structure helps you sequence directly for the game's media-specific elements and systems the player's internal and external activities in creating a motivating core loop.

Sequencing external and internal activities

To show how you organize the cognitive and behavioral goals, I will create a graph showing a learning-curve (1) and a timeline (2).

                                  Figure 1 Showing a timeline and a learning-curve

The learning curve (1) visualizes the space by how the player's understanding, learning, and meaning-making arrives at states of cognitive goals that affect actions and behavior.

The timeline (2) assists in overviewing behavioral goals' sequencing to be internal or external activities.

Sequencing external activities

Starting with Sasko's quest sequence, let's look at the timeline (2) and the sequencing of external activities as they are the easiest to discern.

                                   Figure 2 Sequencing external activities by breaking up the timeline

The sequencing of the timeline (2) is broken up into quests based on a canonical story structure. Each quest encompasses the external activity of finding (5), meaning the sequence isolates the behavioral goal of achieving an objective.

The start (3) and end (4) of the quest to find (5) the Baron is a part of a causal network of quests, whose overall goal is on finding (5) the adopted daughter at the end of the timeline.

In Papers, Please, Lucas Pope has broken up the timeline (2) into days and where the start (3) and end (4) of each day encompasses the external activity of permitting or denying (5) travelers entry.

But before we take a closer look at the cognitive goal of choice by how each sequence captures the dynamic interplay between permitting or denying (5), let's return to Sasko's quest sequence to see how the external activity of finding (5) merge with the player's internal activities.

Sequencing internal activities - Sasko example

To understand how you make the player anticipate evil at the start of the quest (3) and feel guilt at the end (4), I will illustrate how the player's thinking works from the position of a present when entering the quest sequence (3).

                                   Figure 3 Player’s thinking from a present position

By setting the position of the player at the start of the quest sequence (3), you can survey how the player is processing objectives from the past (6) to understand the future (7) from its present position (3).

The drive-state of anticipating evil from the player’s position (3) is a processing of the experiences learned in the past (6), which influence the internal activities of the player’s expectations on the future (7). Making the player feel guilt at the end of the sequence (4) concerns altering the experiences the player has learned in the past (6) that will change the expectations when the player arrives at the end state of the sequence. Meaning, the expectations of evil will change.

To make the player expect evil, it means there must be good, or at least some lesser evil, so you can alter the experiences and expectations. In the chapters on pacing in Putting into play, I explained how you engage the player’s meaning-making by employing causal contrasts. Creating a motivating core that engages the player’s meaning-making (learning) contrasts work as triggers. Applied to the timeline (2), contrasts turn cause (past, 6) and effect (future, 7) into a motivating propeller forming a dynamic core loop.

Through the causal contrasts, you control the player’s behavior by switching between the cognitive and behavioral goals over time. 

When defining the premise of what you want the player to experience or feel, the causal contrasts capture the core of the overall goal of the learning curve (1).

                                   Figure 4 Transforming experiences into expectations

The experiences and expectations (meanings) you want the player to learn (build) along the timeline (2) comprises the internal and external activities to form the dynamics of the overall experience (1).

When the player is undertaking the external activity of finding (5) the Baron, the internal activity of anticipating (expecting) evil means the contrasts of good and evil, and the nuances of the greater or lesser evil and greater or lesser good constitute the dynamic interplay of the behavioral goals.

                                    Figure 5 Altering experiences and expectations

The feeling of guilt at the end of the quest sequence (4) is an altering of the player's experiences and expectations (1). The external activity of finding (5) the Baron is to prove the player's internal activities of anticipating evil to be wrong (4). Usually, we call it a surprise, but from a narrative and cognitive perspective, a surprise is about changing behavioral goals (4) and deepening the emotional engagement.

As Sasko mentions in his presentation, not all players agreed to have felt guilt when the expectations of Baron's evil were proved wrong. When assessing the results of your predictions as a designer, you can't expect the player to agree on having felt sad, guilty, in love, worried, etc. If the player does not recognize the internal activities you created, don't worry. From predicting and controlling the behavioral goals, what matters is that the player moves to the next sequence and, in the case of the quest's ending (4), feels okay with being accompanied by the Baron to find (5) the following objective (the Botchling).

From the overall experience (1) the reason you alter the player's experiences and expectations in the meetings of objects is to create a bond/relation (also referred to as identification, sympathy, empathy). Making the player and the Baron share the overall experience of uncertainty from living in a world of greater and lesser evil deepens the emotional bond.

See also Putting into play and the chapters on pacing regarding creating a bond based on causal contrasts. 

Now, let's go to Pope's Papers, Please.

Sequencing internal activities - Pope example

By creating a choice based on the external activities of permitting or denying, Pope automatically captures the causal contrasts triggering the motivating engine to the player's learning, constituting the core to the overall experience (1).

                      Figure 6 The internal and external activities of a choice in Papers, Please

From the player's present position at the start (3) of a day, sequence (5) encompasses the external activities of permitting and denying travelers entry and the internal activities of comparing, distinguishing, and recognizing whose documents are in order.

Since the result from an internal activity of making a choice/decision can be stored in the player's memory and triggered/employed later, instead of thinking in terms of consequences as a result from making a choice/decision, the interface between cause (past, 6) and effect (future, 7) helps you control the behavioral goals.

Altering behaviors

With the help of Sasko's and Pope's examples, we can see how the isolation (control) of goals, made by the designer or the player, connects to the altering of behavior along the timeline (2).

                           Figure 7 Cause and effect on internal activities in the Witcher 3

With the help of the timeline (2), we can see how the differentiation between cognitive and behavioral goals in the Witcher 3 conveys a delayed effect by presenting the cause of the player's choices at the end of the timeline. Meaning, from the player's position (3) at the end of the timeline (2) the player's altered behavior is an internal activity of recapping past experiences (6) to understand the cause of the anticipations and behaviors that could have changed the outcome.

If the player decides to replay the game to change behavior and alter the outcome, the player's isolation of a goal by choosing to change behavior will become the "new" future (7). The player's isolation of the goal to replay the game can be noticed by the many spoiler alerts on the Internet enclosing guides describing how to achieve the alternative outcomes (objectives).

The cause behind the effect at the end of the timeline (2), is the dynamic interplay between the behavioral goals altered by the nuances of the greater or lesser evil and greater or lesser good along the timeline (2). The control concerns how you keep the player from isolating the cognitive goal from the internal activity of anticipating, which creates a feeling of uncertainty that aligns with the desired outcome of the overall experience (1).

Let's look at the altering of the behavior and isolation of the goals in Papers, Please.

                              Figure 8 Cause and effect on internal activities in Papers, Please

Compared to the Witcher 3, the effect of the day's choices provides the player with control to isolate the behavioral goal of permitting or denying travelers entry. The altering of the behavior occurs when the player from the present (3) learns (1) along the timeline (2) how the external activities create a cause (6) that has an effect on the future (7).

The cognitive goals through which the player understands, learns, and creates meaning intensifies the internal activities of comparing, distinguishing, and recognizing documents through the anticipation of effects the external activities could have on the outcome. Meaning, the control over behavior is in the player’s hands, leading to the player being able to isolate a goal to alter the outcome based on predictions.

The replayability of Papers, Please constitute the core loop forming the overall experience of altering behavior (1).

                          Figure 9 Player’s choice as an internal activity in Papers, Please

Based on the internal activities of predicting, the player can choose to replay a sequence to alter the outcome (7) based on the memories from the past (6). The player's choice to isolate the goal to achieve the desired outcome (effect) is an internal activity of moving the present position (3) to the past (6).

Conveyed by design, the player's ability to isolate the goal and move back along the timeline (3) illuminates how the game's space can be experienced as "open" by considering the cognitive goal's influence on the player's behavior and feeling of freedom from making choices. Meaning, the pivotal factor in creating a sense of freedom doesn't rely on building a world vast in scale and scope, but on how you allow the player's thinking, learning, and meaning-making to emerge.

Hands-on tips

Before ending this post, I want to give a few tips on tracking the core loop that triggers the player’s learning.

  1. Focus on the narrative and cognitive elements 1- 5.

  2. Whatever you base your game concept on, like studying an officer’s work at a border crossing or a canonical story structure, try tracing the contrasting elements (the triggers) when defining the experience you want the player to have. Make the contrasting elements part of the overall experience (1).

  3. You could call your sequences whatever you want: levels, acts, quests, days, missions, etc. What matters is how you employ the timeline (2) to settle a start (3) and end (4) that encompass the cognitive and behavioral goals of external and internal activities.

  4. Start with a simple contrast and the dynamic from the causality will follow when you define the behavioral goals within the sequences (5). Try avoiding external activities like “finding” without a contrast, such as “losing.” In this way, you can start with a simple core of “finding your lost shoe” instead of finding an adopted daughter.

Don’t hesitate to contact me and share your thoughts and reflections on the narrative and cognitive elements.

Until the next load of graphs comes, stay safe and curious!


Read this interview with Lucas Pope who shares his thoughts on Papers, Please
Watch Pawel Sasko's talk at Digital Dragon on Youtube
Interesting read on the evolution of quest design from the Witcher 3 to Cyberpunk 2077

To learn more about employing narrative and cognitive elements in game design, you can find the entire series Putting into play on Gamasutra or visit Narrative Construction:

Part 1 Putting into play - A model of causal cognition on game design.
Part 2, Putting into play - On narrative from a cognitive perspective I
Part 3, Putting into play - On narrative from a cognitive perspective II
Part 4, Putting into play - How to trigger the narrative vehicle
Part 5, Putting into play - On organizing thoughts and feelings
Part 6, Putting into play - On organizing engaging and dynamic forces

Part 7, Putting into play - The Hidden Art of Pacing 1 (3)
Part 8, Putting into play - The Hidden Art of Pacing 2 (3)
Part 9, Putting into play - The Hidden Art of Pacing 3 (3)


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