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Designers across the industry dig into designing games for empathetic players and how to evoke suspense and discovery in game design.

Justin Carter, Contributing Editor

February 28, 2024

2 Min Read
A conversation with NPC Lara Ravel in Pathologic 2.
Image via Ice-Pick Games/Tinybuild.

At a Glance

  • For the designers who want more resources, and different viewpoints, on how to make games.

The annual Polaris Game Design Retreat released its four design-focused reports for the year of 2023.

First started in 2022, the "think-tank style" gathering is a revival of the now-defunct Project Horseshoe. Like that year's event, the 2023 PGDR brought together numerous industry designers, who offered different approaches to standard game design.

2023's reports cover topics such as making a framework to focus on early prototype features during development and design strategies to support more "nurturing" players.

Citing games like Stardew Valley and Pathologic 2, the latter report highlights how games get players attached and empathetic. Some, like XCOM 2, do this by making the player suffer on a mechanic or narrative level; others like the Animal Crossing games make nurture a core mechanic.

In the case of Animal Crossing, the writers argue the player's island is "much more fulfilling" as a nurturing subject. NPCs, they said, have a more "transactional" cycle because they're static and don't really change.

A third report digs into how designers can build their game without a colonial framework. While a "complicated" topic, it explores how modern games, and specific genres like strategy and MMO games, have colonialism baked in.

Pocketpair's Palworld is used as such an example. The report notes how it brings more troubling elements of Pokémon to an "extreme light," in turn potentially muddling any satire the game is trying to make.

"Rarely can designers afford to be idealists even when our hearts are in the right place," it reads. In using these mechanics without critical thinking, designers will get a "default, perhaps undesired cultural expression."

The report's ultimate aim is to "start interrogating and evolving the underlying values of our work." In turn, a coloniast-free mindset will "bring about a future abundance of innovative, decolonized video games."

All four of the Polaris Game Design Retreat's 2023 reports can be read here.

About the Author(s)

Justin Carter

Contributing Editor, GameDeveloper.com

A Kansas City, MO native, Justin Carter has written for numerous sites including IGN, Polygon, and SyFy Wire. In addition to Game Developer, his writing can be found at io9 over on Gizmodo. Don't ask him about how much gum he's had, because the answer will be more than he's willing to admit.

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