we messed up (and how we can fix it)

The strength of tradition is that it reinforces what we’ve learned to empower us to build. You remember the Isaac Newton quote? The one about how his achievements were only possible because he stood on the shoulders of giants? Dude was one of the parents of classical mechanics and crucial to our understanding of the universe, and here he was saying “hey, I only got here because of people so much greater than me.”

Tradition is huge, but the problem with tradition is that sometimes, maybe people invented traditions because of incomplete understandings of something, and then we’re not reinforcing our ability to build well, we’re reinforcing our bad habits and building something inherently flawed.

In game design, there are a lot of traditions. I’m lucky enough to have friends at all sorts of game studios, and so many studios have so many different traditions. You’ve got studios that absolutely refuse to work with producers, for instance, so they spend a hundred million more dollars making a game than they need to and releasing every 5 years instead of every 3. You’ve got studios that have learned how to make a gun feel the way it should and those studios export that knowledge to their partners. Sometimes the tradition’s bad, sometimes, the tradition’s good.

On occasion, I’ve heard people say things like “this team is doing really amazing work because they don’t know what they’re not supposed to be able to do.” In the book Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott argues that there are two kinds of knowledge, which he dubs metis and techne. Metis, he says, is practical knowledge.

Poorly explained, metis is like… if you’re a farmer who grows wheat in a particular space in Kansas, you have knowledge of soil conditions and weather patterns that are difficult to accurately quantify. That knowledge becomes intuitive. You could live with it for a hundred years and be the greatest scientist in the world and there’s just some stuff that you can’t write down.

Explained even worse, techne is basically, like, rules n’ formulas and stuff. You say hey, this ought to work because science says it ought to work, we have all the rules and graphs and numbers.

The problem, as Scott pointed out in one of his books (either Against the Grain or Seeing like a State, I forget), was that when European scientists went to Africa to teach Africans how to farm in Africa, a place with the Africans knew a great deal better than the people who were from an entirely different continent with different soil and plants and weather, a lot of the crops died. Things just didn’t work. The ‘rules’ of effective farming for Europeans just did not work as well as the methods that had been adapted and handed down over centuries.

But, hey, those same scientific principles got us into space, so it’s not all bad.

(unless you hate space, i guess)

The famous architect Le Corbusier once lamented that his cities could not be perfect because they had to be made to accommodate humans. Cities like Chandigarh and Brasilia, designed by architects like Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, were planned, designed to be absolutely perfect… and… nobody wanted to live in them. The architects were focused on the beautiful, on the scientifically perfect, on the techne.

Fun fact about the scientifically perfect, sometimes it isn’t.

Sometimes, it’s just made up.

Take The Golden Ratio, for instance. We’re taught it in schools, we’re taught it resembles some form of beauty. It’s all hogwash.

Zeising’s theories became extremely popular, “the 19th-century equivalent of the Mozart Effect,” according to Devlin, referring to the belief that listening to classical music improves your intelligence. And it never really went away. In the 20th century, the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier based his Modulor system of anthropometric proportions on the golden ratio.

Some time ago, I was doing a lot of reading on attempting to live in planned cities and the inherent hostility of doing so. I found this really good, lengthy read on Le Corbusier and Niemeyer specifically, which talked about all sorts of things, like how human roads tend to form, why cities are structured the way they are, stuff like that. It talked a lot about grids and why grids are bad. Artists like grids because they’re pretty, but Scott’s focus was elsewhere: it was on city planning. A lot of his work is anarchist and economic, and he argued that the reason city planners like grids was because governments want to tax people efficiently (this is what Seeing Like a State is about, in a very small nutshell) and being able to organize human beings for effective taxation is something governments naturally strive for.

The problem with humans, of course, is that we are messy.

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one of the many design vs user experience pictures i googled

I really liked that article and I can’t find it anywhere on the internet and I would LOVE to read more on the subject because it was fascinating.

But the basic idea was, hey, a lot of people design things that are aesthetically pleasing and… well… not at all functional.

If you know my writing, you know that the one drum I love banging is the one about usability. I think that a great game is usable and a poor game is not. I know there are some people who are like “why should I make a game that people can engage with?” and like, ok, you are more than welcome to make Duchamp’s Toilet, but his toilet can only go so far, you know? If your art doesn’t really speak to anybody outside of people who get referenced on /r/iamverysmart, is it really that artistic?

My belief is this:

Things that humans make are almost entirely made for human use (even an exhibit at a zoo is made so animals can be displayed to humans; the animals were doing just fine out in the jungle, thank you very much), and as a result, things that humans make for human use must be, well, usable.

I think a lot of people forget about that.

(also, hey, humans are meaning generators, and the way to generate the most meaning is to create that which endures lifetimes — this is why there’s a lot of meaning in The Epic of Gilgamesh and not very much meaning in a direct to DVD movie released fifteen years ago that nobody remembers)

I think a lot of people, when they design video games, design for a specific experience — Le Corbusier’s perfect, unusuable city, which is really just a pretty concrete structure for us to look at and nothing more — and almost resent when those games are engaged with.

I think that’s a problem, because when the goal of a video game is to make enough money to empower the developers to make more games to keep their families fed and clothed and sheltered, a game that is not as usable as it should be is actively hampering the developer’s goal of a product that can be engaged with, and it’s actively hampering the player’s desire to be engaged.

You know how game discourse spent a lot of 2007–2009 asking “what is the Citizen Kane of video games?” Well, the guy who made and starred in Citizen Kane, the great genius Orson Welles, said this:

via https://twitter.com/mrsambarlow/status/1178436697039757313

A while back, a game design teacher argued that we needed to invent a new word for games that had ‘objectively bad design’ but were still good. His example of this was Shadow of the Colossus, a game that had platforming and boss fights. According to this guy, platforming and boss fights are objectively bad, but Shadow of the Colossus was objectively good, and therefore we needed to invent a new word instead of him just acknowledging that maybe boss fights aren’t inherently bad and really it’s just that Sturgeon’s Law applies to boss fights as much as any other individual mechanic.

I can’t fathom the ego it would take to want to reposition our entire understanding of language — to create the paradoxical “bad components that somehow create a good whole” — but hey, that guy sure displayed it.

He also argued at some point that he was not a formalist and that the word was difficult to define (it’s not, formalism is defined as a strict adherence to prescribed forms, and arguing strongly that Boss Fights Are Objectively Bad And We Need New Language To Describe Boss Fights As Good Without Acknowledging That Boss Fights Are good is a pretty darn strict adherence to the prescription, as it goes) so his takes are kind of weird.

I would say that formalists are people who think Games Need To Be A Certain Way And Damn The Usability.

I would like to argue for a more flexible mode of thinking, which is “does the thing as created serve the purpose it needs to serve?” Formalism does not allow you to do this. Formalism says “this game has this set of mechanics. we will make more games with similar mechanics.”

I prefer to exist in a discipline that is much, much, much more fluid, one where a designer targets a desired experience and then builds the entire game to support this.

There is a problem with my suggestion, of course. If you are making games at Ubisoft or Activision, you are required, in some way, to design games through techne — you must rely on a significant amount of preexisting knowledge and scientific (using the term loosely, it’s not like this is peer reviewed game design) methodology to build games that fit within a certain framework.

But maybe that should be more flexible.

Ubisoft recently released The Division 2, a sequel to a game that follows The Destiny Method, a style of game where players get gear with points attached and equip gear with more points to increase their overall power. If the aggregate score of the jeans, t-shirt, boots, hat, and three guns you’re carrying is, say, 500, you can survive most fights up until level 500, at which points bullets stop going through bodies the way you’d expect them to.

Then Ubisoft added similar mechanics to Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Ghost Recon. It’s particularly weird in Ghost Recon, a game where you’re supposed to be able to modify individual gun components and where a bullet is supposed to be a one-hit kill to the head, but all of this is done in the name of someone at Ubisoft deciding “this is how games ought to be,” and so we end up with an Assassin’s Creed game where you mostly just get into melee brawls instead of sneaking up and stabbing a single target and then disappearing into a crowd, a Far Cry game where you have to get a bunch of random crafting resources before you can shoot a man with a purple health bar in the head to kill him, and a Ghost Recon game that feels like it wants to be a Destiny style looter shooter instead.

The mechanics don’t fit the fantasy.

The great communications theorist, Marshall McLuhan, coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” His point was that the way you package an idea is just as important as the idea itself. In terms of video game storytelling, an opera of Resident Evil is very different than a Resident Evil movie which is very different than a Resident Evil board game.

A video game is a way of telling a story.

What’s your favorite story? How would that story be different if it was told in another medium? I love Once Upon a Time in the West, a movie that consciously utilizes audiovisual elements of other Western Movies to tell its story; it is a careful and intelligent remix of the stories that came before, feeling both fresh and familiar on every viewing. How would you do that in a book? How could you make the text convey the same thing as just seeing gold old wholesome Hank Fonda, the man who played Honest Abe Lincoln and Juror 8, being cast as one of the most vile and evil men on television? So much of what makes that movie work is the fact that it’s a movie. You couldn’t tell it any other way.

If the medium is the message, then games tell stories in ways that are unique to them. This does not mean a game should not emulate other media — many famous game people are fond of saying that games are the highest form of art because they incorporate all preexisting art forms, just as film people often said the same thing before games came along — it’s just that we should recognize that, hey, there are some things games are going to do well and some things games are going to do poorly.

I’ve talked about this before, but Alfred Hitchcock had this great description of suspense vs surprise:

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean. We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!” In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

In a game, what do you feel when you know there is a bomb under the table but you can’t simply pilot your character away from it? How do you craft suspense when you are a first party — the character near the bomb — rather than a third party, someone watching from the outside? How do you create suspense?

The rules are different.


Back to Le Corbusier, the man who seemed to hate the people he claimed to build the world for. This is a man who thought he was so smart and important and brilliant and he convinced a lot of people that he was ’cause he talked a big game but the stuff he made only really worked when it was designed to support human beings instead of oppose them. His cities? People didn’t like living there. His furniture?

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Darn comfy, amigo.

The city planners who tried to make cities that were ordered and ‘beautiful’ tended to fail because human foot traffic is weird and human needs and desires are for things like ‘a pub on the way home from work.’ Heck, we’ve dedicated a lot of research into ‘level design,’ which is the art of making spaces that are interesting to move through, because, like Old Man Welles said, all a work of art has to do is be interesting. Our level design has to be interesting in order to keep players running through it.

Software is interactive, therefore, it must be interesting — I would argue this also means pleasing — to interact with. Nintendo spent a lot of time getting you to enjoy the sense pleasure of having Mario run around wherever it is that he runs around. Yes, for some reason, I know that Nintendo spent a lot of time getting Mariofeel right, but I don’t know anything about The Lore, sorry.

I think a lot of people rely on techne to create something ‘fun’ because some guy wrote a book about game design that said it was fun. And it’s like, okay, let’s look at that guy’s games. Did he actually make the really really successful super fun games you enjoyed? No? Hmm.

In film, Robert McKee, Syd Field, and Blake Snyder wrote some books that convinced a lot of people This Is How Stories Need To Be Written and everyone who writes those stories sounds like everyone else who wrote those books. The business penguins love these guys because formulas make it easy to say “this is good, this is bad, ship it,” but the result is a ton of movies that always hit that Major Beat at the 14 minute mark because McKee said that’s where most stories do it.

None of those guys won any Oscars. In fact, among the three of them, they only made like two movies, I think? And one was Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!

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But a lot of people think that the screenwriter of a movie with an 8% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes knows what he’s talking about because he wrote a book that makes storytelling sound easy.

Storytelling isn’t easy. It isn’t techne. It’s metis.

Metis is hard to quanity. Metis is hard to sell. You know it when you got it.

The best stories are metis, not techne. You can’t science this shit.

Okay, so, to recap:

  1. I think a lot of people want to design games ‘objectively,’ but I don’t think it exists. I think, for the most part, all anyone can do is say “here’s a book on game design that says to do things this way so I guess we’ll do that.”
  2. I think the guys who wrote the rules aren’t as good as you think (did Shigeru Miyamoto write a book on game design? No? Who did? Do their games prove their thesis? I don’t think so)
  3. I think a lot of people are designing rules in a vacuum; they are designing systems that are beautiful in and of themselves, but systems that do not work with how humans engage with games.
  4. I think rather than acknowledging that boss fights are actually pretty great, we have people saying “they’re objectively bad and I’d like to create a new term to describe games that are MAGICALLY GOOD despite OBJECTIVELY BAD DESIGN” instead of just giving up on the ego trip and admitting maybe they didn’t understand what good game design is.

So, where’s all this going? What am I really getting at here?

I think we have this idea that there’s a kind of Platonic Ideal of Objectively Good Game Design out there that Pony Island shits all over.

And I think that maybe, just maybe (no I actually mean definitely, absolutely, 100%), a lot of game designers out there are adhering to rules and practices that, like the ‘golden ratio,’ are based on assumptions and hogwash. Like Le Corbusier, I think people are making rulesets that aren’t really that good for human engagement because they’re based on some weird grognard’s bad ideas about what games should be rather than sitting down and going, okay, hey, how do I make an interesting and compelling experience out of this?

I’d like to argue for metis.

I’d like to argue that we should sit down and go “how do I want players to feel?” and then design anything we want around that; are we making a miniboss before a boss because other games have that? Or are we doing it because that’s the right emotional call to make?

I think horror games are some of the most impactful and influential games out there because no game designer can lose sight of what they’re doing if they’re making a horror experience. When you sit down at you computer and decide to make a horror game, you know what you’re doing: you are going to terrify the player. See that grandfather clock? How do we make it look extra creepy? The lighting? What can we do to make it spooky? The creaking eaves of the house? How do we sear that fear into your brain?

Horror games got it figured out, man.

But I’m not sure the other games do. I think we’re too busy doing things because The Game Design Wisdom says to do that, and… do they really know what they’re talking about?

It’s comforting to work within systems; the suits in Hollywood like Save the Cat because it says “here’s a formula for success,” but the result is boring, safe, formulaic movies. For them, it’s an investment thing. It’s easy. Anyone can understand it. X + Y = Z? Easy. Going with your gut’s a lot harder.

But I think it leads to better results.

Fuck the rules, make games around the feelings you want your audience to have. If your game can’t achieve those feelings, then change that. Rules that don’t make your game feel the way it’s supposed to make players feel ain’t worth a darn.

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.

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