The USS Quad Damage

Ideas in gaming: Essential Games

I talk about how removing non-essential elements from games can make the effectiveness of game design concepts clearer.

Evolution requires two things to be true. The first is mutation: small changes in an existing set of genes which exhibits different behaviours. The second is natural selection: slowly removing from the gene pool the changes which are ineffective.

We can think about art and science as an evolution of ideas. While both “art” and “science” deal with the evolution of ideas, both have a different emphasis. Art focuses on the mutation: the creative process is basically just one where new ideas are attached to existing ideas or existing ideas are re-ordered to create new ones. Science, on the other hand, focuses on the natural selection: testing ideas against reality and removing the ones that aren’t true.

Just to re-iterate, obviously, science needs to generate new ideas, and art needs to be searching for a fundamental truth, but the fact is, in art you can get an answer that feels right, but the idea generation needs to be novel. On the other hand, in science you can refine an idea that’s already probably true, but the new idea needs to go through the gauntlet of truth.

Video games and movies are often compared, and techniques from one are increasingly used in the other. Recently, there was an argument between Gabe Newell and JJ Abrams in which is better. However, I don’t think it’s wise to directly compare games and movies. Science is to visual art as games are to movies. That is, movies are a specific kind of art, and games are all kinds of science.

What I mean here is that movies are art with a specific set of boundaries: you need to have moving pictures at a minimum, some audio, and perhaps some dialogue, but you cannot hand out food and call the food an essential part of film. Games, however, have precisely zero boundaries. They can do essentially what they like, given one constraint: They must have rules. The rules create a universe of possibilities which must be consistently enforced. In this sense games are like science as a whole. This is related to my games as fundamental truth argument. Dara O Briain talked a little about Video Games vs other types of media in this regard. You can finish any other artistic work without acquiring an understanding of it, but you cannot do so for a game.

What does it mean for game design to be “authentic”? People talk about it in many other fields of design: Removing ornamentation. In Cinema, you could see many types of ornamentation: 3D for example, which are inessential elements, and this is probably why many cinema lovers are against it. But this is hardly enough. What would an “authentic” game look like?

Firstly, let’s talk about cognitive dissonance. This is the idea that the game rules want you to do one thing (e.g. indiscriminately kill for points), but the game fiction wants you to do another (e.g. be a compassionate character). The downside of this idea is that cognitive dissonance is a negative concept — it talks about something a game designer should not do, not what a game designer should do. If a game is to avoid cognitive dissonance, how should a game designer go about design?

This is where the idea of “essential games” comes in. It means “design a game with its essential elements only”. That is, all elements of the game should only represent the essential game design concept they wish to. If a skeuomorphic metaphor (for example, a sprite of a character in a dungeon) does not support the game design in some way, simplify the sprite and game universe until the purpose of the sprite in context is clear, yet there is no additional metaphor on top.

I’m not claiming all games should be this way, but that this is a concept we can use to instruct the design of games. We create essential games, then we can slowly layer new elements which do not conflict with the game design, but for each design element, whether it be gameplay, graphics, or sound, the assertion is that in order to change one element, the other elements are involved somehow.

This maximises the efficiency of communication of game design between people who play games and people who make them. It means that you can create a game quickly and iterate. It also means that future designers can use the same building blocks and create more complex machinery in the future.

This doesn’t mean games like Thomas was Alone, incidentally. Thomas was Alone actually seems to go simultaneously too far and not far enough in this regard. The story seems to be entirely unnecessary, but the groundwork necessary to convey the idea that this is a “platformer” seems to be non-existant. How is it obvious that the blocks can move the way they can?

Perhaps gunpoint is closer to the idea. Every element is necessary to convey game design information, and the visceral elements play in concert with the deeper game design. In essence, all parts of the game are in “cognitive consonance”, but also necessary.

Essential Game Design is an idea which takes games and has the designer think about how to touch and push at the boundaries of what games can be. It can be good for sketching out ideas that the gaming community can digest, but it can also be good for creating an artwork in its own right.