Hi, everyone. I’m Doc Burford, and for a long time, I’ve been making, consulting on, and explaining video game design to people. Today, I’d like to let you in on a little secret: because video games are an art form, they can be understood.
Over the years, as I’ve discussed art forms with people, I’ve seen something really weird happen: some people act like it’s impossible to understand art in any meaningful way, but that’s just not true; we can’t make great art if we don’t know what that means, so we must be able to figure it out, right?
I’ve seen this discussion play out in every single artistic field I’ve ever worked in. Theatre? Yeah. Film? Absolutely. Television? All the time. Comics? You bet. And, of course, it also happens in games.
To be real with you, it kind of sucks to talk to these kind of people, because they’re often incurious. They aren’t always inherently malicious — I think a lot of people who say “you can’t possibly know what the artist is thinking” are doing so because art feels magical and wonderful — but they are incurious. They don’t know how the sausage is made, and they don’t want to either. Maybe it comes as a surprise to be in awe of something, only to hear someone go “oh, yeah, I understand what’s happening here.” I don’t know, but what I do know is that any time someone says you can’t possibly presume to know what the artist was thinking, it’s someone who doesn’t know about art trying to bring the conversation to a screeching halt, and that’s kind of a dick move.
But here’s the thing: art is a discipline. Any work of art you’ve ever seen is the result of a series of choices, often conscious choices, that are made with the intent to create a specific emotional response in the audience. Because someone had to put thought into making it, we can put thought into understanding and learning from it. A capable game designer can say, for example, “I want the audience to feel scared here” and design a sequence that scares the average player.
You know where I don’t hear “it’s impossible, no one can understand this” takes from? Other artists. A lot of beginning artists are scared; they think of art as this sacred thing that cannot possibly have been created by human hands — hell, ancient people thought gods spoke through artists and lived within art itself due to a psychological phenomenon that philosopher Walter Benjamin referred to as ‘aura’ — but once any artist spends enough time learning about their chosen craft, they stop being afraid of it. They begin to understand not just the craft or other artists and how they use the craft, but themselves as well, and I think that’s where the real power of art lies.
We don’t need an augur to explain the mystic arts to us, we can learn the craft ourselves and apply it in order to make anything we want.
I’m here to reassure every one of you who’s nervous about art, whether consuming, discussing, or making it. What I want to do is explain how the magic works so you can perform magic of your own; I want to give you the tools to make the best art you possibly can, and I know that the only way to make great art is to understand what you’re doing in the first place.
The problem is, understanding can be really difficult! Recently, a friend and I were talking about the diminishing quality of a lot of movie scripts over the years, and he pointed out to me that scripts took a nosedive in quality around the time that Save the Cat and Story were both published, which was around 2004–2005. Both of these books offer prescriptive ways to help aspiring screenwriters write and help producers learn a framework for offering notes. The idea of these books, though their authors might disagree, is to be prescriptive — to make it seem like there’s an easy, one-size-fits-all approach to storytelling, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you’re reading or listening to these essays and thinking “oh, I have to do exactly what Doc says,” then you’re missing the point; I’m telling you about how things function, but what you do with that is your choice. If I say “here’s table sugar, it’s sweet,” I’m not saying that you need to put table sugar in every dish, I’m just telling you what it does.
On the flip side, I’ve had people respond to some of my essays with “that’s not a fact, art is subjective, that’s just what you think is true!” Well… yeah, dude. I’m not gonna say things I don’t think are true. You can trust that if I say something, I either think it’s true or I’m telling a joke.
Like, seriously, ask yourself: why would I write something about a video game in a persuasive essay that I did not believe to be true? What do I get out of that? Who benefits? If you’re going to assume I’m not being truthful in my assessment of something… ask yourself why that might be? What reason would I have to write essays — something people literally hate doing in school — to say shit that I don’t believe in? What’s… what’s the point? What’s the value? I’m tryin to build something here, I’m trying to help people understand how to make better games. There’s no point in being anything other than honest — no goal is attained if I lie to you and say some shit like “actually writing like garbage is good.”
I think if you ask most artists if art is subjective, they’ll respond with something like “well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.”
Think of art like cooking. I don’t personally like pickles, but I know people who do. That’s subjective. But I also know that there are numerous techniques and objective methods of doing things that lead to better food, like figuring out the best way to create an emulsion in order to make a tasty salad dressing, because cooking is a mix of personal taste and science — chemistry, especially. We’ve all had bad cooking — like, say, a cookie where someone accidentally swapped sugar and salt and poured in two cups of salt, for instance, and I don’t think anyone alive would reasonably argue that two cups of salt in a dish where only a teaspoon was required makes for a better dish.
When it comes to listening to what I have to say, please understand that like you, I’m a human being just doing my best. I have my own preferences, but all of this stuff is super fuzzy; you have to use your own judgement, and you will get better at judgement with time, so if you’re a beginning game designer and these things seem overwhelming, it’s okay to follow the proverbial recipe. You can come up with your own recipes when you’re more confident, and the only way to be more confident is just to keep at it.
Another way art is like cooking — and this is something I think is really important, so please take it to heart — is that sometimes what’s good for one thing is bad for something else. No ingredient or technique is the right or wrong choice 100% of the time. You cannot take a mechanic in isolation and go “this is always the right choice, it will always work” because that just isn’t true. If we’re making cream of mushroom soup, we don’t want to curdle our milk; if we’re making cottage cheese, we do.
Art is a discipline, and with that comes technique and science. You’ll always find that the good games come from the chemistry between their component parts; we can’t look at any one ingredient of the dish in isolation. Platforming being bad in Half-Life doesn’t stop Mirror’s Edge from being brilliant, after all. The dish is all the ingredients, mixed and cooked together, altered by the chemical interactions between them. So much of art is feeling; not everything can or should be explained. It’s why recipes say “add salt to taste.”
This means that I might do an essay on how to make shooting in a game feel good, but if you’re making a game like Devil May Cry, where shooting serves a completely different purpose, then those notes on game feel may not apply.
Like me, you’re probably going to spend a lot of time trying and failing to see what works. You can learn how to do this! Anyone can! All it takes is curiosity. If you want to understand things, you will.
With that explanation out of the way, I want to offer a disclaimer: over the years, people have heard my explanations of things and argued I can’t say this or that because “I like the game” or “that’s subjective” or whatever. When I say “a game ought to do x or y,” some people go “I can’t believe you’re demanding the game developer change their game to suit your interests.” Ya’ll, I’m a professional, I’ll do my best to give you my reasoning and it will be grounded in the realities of having had to actually make video games for human beings like you to experience and enjoy. I’m open to the possibility of being wrong, I’m open to the possibility that even if I make an excellent shooter, someone’s going to say “well, I don’t enjoy shooters.”
That’s totally okay!
I might ignore my old college writing teachers and include ‘weasel words’ just to soften up the opinions and make it clearer for the people who struggle to understand that all of this is educated opinion from an expert; they can take it or leave it. I am not trying to be prescriptive; I am trying to describe games as best I understand them in the hopes that what I’m saying is helpful. If I’m flippant or glib about something you care about, don’t worry about what I think; when it comes to game design, make what you think is worth making. I’m gonna be doing my best to tell you what I’ve learned in the hopes that it will help you with problems you may be facing, but I am not going to tell you what to do; I just want to let you know the things I’ve found that seem to work. If I say “I dislike pickles” or “red dead redemption sucks” and either of those things matter to you, it’s okay not to take my word as gospel. I’m not demanding obedience and agreement, I’m trying to pass on what I believe makes for good game design.
So that’s my goal. I want to make you a better chef. If you have no interest in understanding games and game design, then okay, maybe not you, but I’m going to be working on the assumption that the kind of person who is here to consume my essays is smart — and since I know how many people suffer from impostor syndrome, I’m going to add “whether you know it or not” — and interested in this subject.
Game design is the art of motivating people to take interesting action. You are creating a series of mechanics and incentives to encourage people to do things they find stimulating.
Here’s a contract: I will do my best to explain the chemistry of game design. All I ask of you is that you stay curious.
If you want to understand video games, I’m here to help.
If you think my work has value and you want to help me out financially, that would be great because being disabled in America is expensive. I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing: