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Visioning games – what we can learn from games like Dear Esther and Journey

An article exploring the possible bright and artistic future of video games, using Journey and Dear Esther as case examples.

Statement: The procedural, interactive and (potential) non-linear nature of games allows for them to address the human mind in ways none of the more static and linear media of the past can. But very often, because games are locked up in a cage of conventions and expectations to their design, they don’t cover even a fraction of the emotions or narrative of their artistic counterparts.

I am both a gamer and game developer, but I still look at the vast majority of games today as merely “fun” gimmicks. With only a few notable exceptions, games are still structured around juvenile stories and rigid, competitive gameplay. As a result, to quote Scott Brodie, “the industry as a whole looks uninspired and adolescent by comparison to other popular art forms”. I completely agree with Scott, and I think it’s such a pity, such a waste.

 In that regard, here are a few questions I think is important to discuss. Can one make incentives to play video games that are not driven by progress bars or high scores? These are mechanics that go well with an emotion like fun, but do they blend well with other complex or serious emotions? Might the fanatic pursuit of extrinsic rewards be the reason we don’t have game equivalents to the contrast between a romantic comedy and a documentary film?

After waiting for what felt like an eternity, the gameosphere recently got to play Journey and the remake of Dear Esther. I found a number of similarities in their approach to game design. Similarities that seem to follow a few growing trends, though mostly in the indie scene. On a personal level, games like these bring me much hope for the future of our medium, and I find them to be perfect examples from which to vent some thoughts I’ve been having for some time, about games in general.

Hopefully, my grave portrayal of current affairs is about to change. A lot of recent games’ approach to form, pace, playtime and focus are well worth discussing and possible to learn from.

Gameplay focus

All too often, it seems as though games are made with an exclusive focus on fun. They are designed to be fun, and most people expect them to be fun. This is not necessarily bad per se, but if all developers succumb to this focus I believe it gravely hinder the mediums potential diversity, and excludes a lot of people with interests other than the traditional gamer. Both Dear Esther and Journey are bold enough to change this approach.

One example is that they don’t hesitate to put the player in uncomfortable situations. Such as the part in Journey where you walk for minutes against the freezing snow, slower and slower, until you drop from exhaustion. This part is not included to be fun or entertaining, but is still an essential part of the struggle and experience. The same goes for the entirety of Dear Esther, where the gameplay will only let you walk slowly through an environment.

This type of gameplay forces the player to start interacting with games through exploration and analysis, and not only through mastery of rigid systems and extrinsic awards (a shift in focus at least I find very appealing). It is not hard to see how hordes of enemies or a progress bar would ruin this accomplishment completely.

Many game enthusiasts criticize gameplay like that of Dear Esther and Journey as having no challenges at all. Apparently, the only acceptable challenge for a game is fear of punishment, like losing fictitious points when failing. Have we become so accustomed to games as meaningless, unforgiving, cold-blooded and rigid goal-based systems that we miss the point so easily? Or maybe we just don’t appreciate the point, while narcissistically expecting (and demanding) all games to fit us specifically?

It’s refreshing to see how thatgamecompany and thechineseroom are bold enough to take their visions seriously, even while designing gameplay. This is an obvious contrast to a lot of huge blockbusters like, say, the Uncharted games, that in my opinion do not follow their own visions at all. Beyond all the brilliant details, the core gameplay (and what one actually does during 70% of the games) ultimately makes me feel like a sociopath committing genocide. I would be surprised if this didn’t directly contradict Naughtydog’s main design goals, even though it might have supported some immediate wallet goals.

Rewards

Related to the last section, but more specifically – might the current shift towards more extrinsic rewards ultimately limit the game designer’s palette of emotions? Might this be one of the reasons games end up exploring the same narrow emotions again and again?

Through examining what the player are thinking about and striving for while playing, we can find out what the games are really about. And in the end, the subtitle of most games could just as well be ‘The Epic Adventure of Numbers and Progress bars’. In other words, most games’ core goal is to satisfy its player by letting him or her master the manipulation of mechanical rules and maximizing the right numbers. This is a description of sports (which of course has it place) but it is not necessarily art, or something good at provoking new emotions. For instance, one would have to change the gameplay of chess dramatically if you wanted the player to feel remorse when killing an enemy pawn.

A recent trend, and obvious example of extrinsic rewards, is the achievement systems integrated in almost every digital distribution platform. While they indeed work for some game types, these rigid systems are ruthlessly imposed on all games regardless of whether it fits, thus compromising their communicative integrity. Just imagine if book publishers demanded 10-word sentences every 20 pages, or movie publishers required specific dialogue every 10-minute during a movie! Most people would, and rightfully so, find these scenarios absurd, and we shouldn’t accept it in our medium.

Eventually most games might end up looking so much like everything that they start looking like nothing. To be blunt, this is not intelligent design. Actually it feels more like publishers are designing our games, rather than game designers. It might keeps games fun and addictive (as if this was a positive trait), but not much more. And I digress, this is not really unlike the strategies employed by drug dealers to build their customer bases, and we might just as well defend the “value” they provide to their customers.

Pace and imagination

Journey and Dear Esther include a lot of spaces where the player is allowed time to dwell, explore and let his or her imagination roam freely. When games dare to linger and to leave the space needed for thought, something really special happens and you are free to “fill in the gaps”.


“We build all this detail into the world, and in many cases the player whizzes through it at a breakneck pace. Puzzles and ‘down time’ are like a sorbet in a multi-course meal, in that they allow the player to better appreciate whatever comes next. Without those pacing contrasts, everything becomes a numbing blur of relentless action[…]” – Josh Weier (Valve)

It’s not about making incoherent and cryptic experiences, but that spoon-feeding the player every last detail often removes a lot of the intended impact. Remember how the simple “graphics” of letters in a book can create whole worlds and emotions. I think one would reach a deeper level of thought, if gamers were encouraged to interact more by imagination and analysis.

Playtime

Both Journey and Dear Esther have been criticized for their short length. I can see why this supposed “value for money” is a logical preference for some hardcore players, but why on earth is a longer playtime still considered a mark of quality? Are we making easy entertainment and not experiences? Or maybe it’s about time we start judging literature by how long it takes us to read it and not by its content?

If the real goal of your project can be achieved in one hour of playtime, I cant imagine why you would want to waste your player’s time for 7 hours extra. It is indeed unnecessary, and does not respect your player at all.

The solution: design a vision and not a hit!

It is obvious that thechineseroom and thatgamecompany kept their visions as a basis for all design choices during the development of Journey and Dear Esther respectively. And I mean for every single design decision. If an aspect of a game comprises the project’s intent and vision, it should of course be discarded – even though some people might find the feature to be fun. This comes quite naturally to all other forms of expression, isn’t it about time it becomes the norm in games? Just imagine what Guernica would have become if Picasso decided to include some slapstick for broader appeal.


"Braid isn’t about trying to appeal to the maximum number of people — it’s about appealing to exactly the right people." – Jonathan Blow

This approach became the solution for Frictional Games, and part of what makes Amnesia so disturbingly successful. They decided to remove things like combat, death penalties and competitive gameplay (watch this great talk) because these seemingly natural aspects of their game conflicted with Frictional Games core immersion goal. Hence these aspects were scrapped, and thus, they replaced plain action (mastering a system), with real emotion (making it so scary on its own that it doesn’t matter if your death has no in-game penalties) — to great success.

The audience in a movie theater is not exposed to any real threats or punishment, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be engaged in the experience. If emotional immersion is one of your goals, please remove superfluous mechanics that ultimately hinder this!

Also, gameplay and narrative often seem to be held separate, when they in fact should be a result of the same vision. We say things like “I’m making a game about [insert narrative] and its going to be a [insert genre]”. And just like that, gameplay is plastered on top like wallpaper, when it in fact should be designed from the ground up in relation to the projects vision. This is not easy, but people shouldn’t be playing a vastly different story from what they are being told.

In other words, I would like more designers to approach narrative and gameplay inextricably. I strongly believe core goals and visions should come first, always, and a lack of doing this is gravely limiting our medium from reaching its full potential. It’s not about hard-to-grasp cryptic meanings — the vision could both be extracted from the deepest chasm or a shallow stream, and be both hard to grasp and obvious. What’s important is that this intended vision is kept at the center of every single design choice during the whole process. Quite unlike the Uncharted series, that naively expects you to feel like a hero while slaughtering a country. I mean, how can we sacrifice the most basic of expressions and expect to keep our integrity as a serious expressive medium?

Does high score, multiplayer or even death penalties support your visions? No? Scrap it. Make the game about experiencing it, not beating it! It’s after all an interactive medium, so instead of punishing players with rigid systems I would love to see more games role-playing along with me.

As we have seen, intrinsic rewards can also be a strong motivator to continue playing, and gameplay that is not designed exclusively to be fun can actually enhance the experience greatly. Also, if superfluous content is removed, people are given the space to experience what you really want them to. I think that remembering these facts will result in more awesome games, as well as give games the potential to appeal to a much broader audience. (Publishers, that was for you!).

Concluding thoughts

Today it seems as though game enthusiasts almost blindly defend their medium if someone as much as hints towards critique. This is a tendency I find very destructive, and I think we have the responsibility take most critique seriously (as well as a lot to learn from it).

The fact that the industry is structured around commercial profit makes it quite conservative and hard to change, but as many recent games have demonstrated — maybe one does not need to follow yesterday’s principles that slavishly to be successful today?

As mentioned, points made do not apply as strongly to all kinds of games, like those aiming simply to be competitive. But I wholeheartedly think all games, regardless of genre, has a lot to gain from studying some of these growing trends.

With the increasing average age of players (not surprisingly by one year, every year), the audience’s preferences shift. Big publishers often seem to be swayed by economic arguments, and there is both the audience and demand for more of these kinds of experiences today!

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