Monthly Archives: January 2008

Portal and Austere Design

I just played through Valve’s Portal. Here’s some stuff I noticed.

Austere Design

For a long time, the progression of game graphics has been towards more polygons in view. For decades, our goal was always more detail, more objects, more stuff. Something has changed as of late. We’ve finally reached the point where it is computationally possible to add more detail than is ideal. Just in the last year or so, it has become widely possible to over-detail an environment.

This is a new problem for us. For decades, over-detailing has simply been impossible because of slow hardware. We’re entering a new era, where adding more detail is an actual decision that must not be taken lightly.


Portal showed off this concept perfectly with its extremely austere, but quite effective visual design. The developer commentary indicates that every part of the game went through many, many iterations. What’s interesting is that as the iteration happened, the world became less detailed, not more. And why not? The purpose of this game was not to wow us with graphical details. The purpose of the graphics was twofold:

1. To support the innovative puzzle gameplay

2. To create an impression of a real place; to create suspension of disbelief.

In these two goals, the extremely sparse visual design of Portal succeeded admirably. I wonder what else we could do if we refocus our efforts away from maximizing detail, and into creating environments which support holistic game design goals instead of providing pretty views and ostentatious detail. (Not that there’s anything wrong with pretty views, of course. I’m in the process of executing a pretty hardcore futuristic Hong Kong sunset cityscape right now, actually. You’ll see.)

I see a new visual design challenge in games: attempting perfect execution of fundamentally simple environments.

Say you’re doing a level with an alleyway. Classical design sense says you put as much stuff in the alleyway as possible to make it more interesting. Dumpsters, garbage, boxes, fire escapes, locked doors, lights, broken bottles, cracks in cement, and so on. Of course, if we pushed this as far as possible today, the alleyway would be two feet deep in garbage and there would be so many posters, signs, doors, and windows on the walls that you probably couldn’t even see the bricks. This does not support any kind of gameplay, and it feels ‘gamey’.


So what if, instead of packing detail in, we take a simple, almost completely empty alleyway, and spend all of our graphics computational power on perfectly executing subtle details? In our alley, there is a subtle lumpiness to the concrete, indicating poor quality pouring and multiple patch jobs. There is a tiny plant in a crack, and it waves when the wind gusts through. The wind also forms tiny ripples on the surface of puddles which have formed in the depressions in the lumpy concrete surface. The bricks on either side are marred by layers of sprayed and washed-off graffiti. A brick has a chunk broken off one corner. Torn bits of poster are stuck on here and there, and a few cans float around on the floor. Even the atmosphere moves with the wind: a slight, smoky haze changes in character and speed when the wind gusts through.

You could spend just as much time working on this ’empty’ alleyway as on the junk-filled one I described earlier. The difference is that none of the details in the empty alleyway will jump out at the player. Instead of spending our time adding more stuff, we perfectly execute the stuff that really belongs there. A large part of the design process would be spent thinking through the history of this alleyway, the people who have walked through it, the things it has seen. We build the alleyway to tell all of these stories in its own subtle way. We are willing to accept wildly varying levels of detail, just as occur in real life – a large flat concrete surface may only demand one polygon, while a hanging clothesline may demand thousands of polygons, semi-transparent light-scattering cloth materials, and a complex and expensive physics simulation.

If we can do this successfully, the resulting environments may seem mundane at first glance, but they will achieve an unheard of level of immersion. It’s the difference between adding polygons and creating a strong narrative context for the gameplay.

I’ve digressed somewhat from Portal. Portal removes details but it does not attempt perfect execution of subtlety. I can only imagine what the game would have been like if it had.

And finally, I want to point out this completely awesome and totally hilarious video I found, A Day in the Life of a Turret. It captures the irreverent, absurdist humor of the game perfectly, and adds its own flair.

Blathering about Portal to be continued…

Going to the GDC

I have won the IGDA GDC scholarship! See me on the winners’ list here:

Plane and hotel is booked. If anyone wants to meet up in San Francisco this February, email me!

I am stoked.

Knytt Stories

I serendipitously found myself playing Knytt Stories recently. This was great luck for me not just because the game is fascinating and well done, but because the game closely some ideas in my last post, Interactive Music Videos.

Knytt is a hyper-simple game in every respect. The character is about eight pixels tall. No anti-aliasing. Tile-based world. Simple sound effects. On the surface it looks like a rather excessively easy classical platformer.

But there is something about this game. Those simple elements come together with a strange, austere perfection.

In an odd way, the design strikes me as being fragile. If any part was missing or significantly changed, it would be destroyed. This reflects the skill and luck of the designer. Most games already are destroyed in this respect. They may still be fun, but the elements rarely ever come together with such fragile perfection. Knytt manages to create a deep impression on the player with incredible efficiency. There is just so little there, I almost can’t believe I liked it so much.


The game is free, and quite short and approachable. Go play it now.

Welcome back. The way this game ties in with my Interactive Music Videos idea is that this game creates enjoyment by eliminating conscious thought with an almost hypnotic combination of chillout music and simple, satisfying, continuous gameplay. There is nothing that breaks flow in this game. The dialogue is extremely austere. Saving is accomplished instantly with a single button-press on a save location. Dying brings you back at your last save within a few seconds. The game is never nerve-wrackingly difficult to the point where you need to lean forward and really pay attention. You simply sit down and fall into the game, and let yourself enjoy the pat-pat-pat of the protagonist’s feet and the ambient music.

I said the game was fragile. I think that if you removed the footstep sounds, the game would instantly lose a large portion of its effectiveness.

Some guy named George Bernard Shaw said, “I am sorry to have written a long letter, but I did not have time to write a short one.” I feel like some game people, having played Knytt, should be publishing an open latter saying “I am sorry to have made a complicated game, but I did not have time to make a simple one.”

Interactive Music Videos

In movies, sometimes there are sequences with no sound except music. This allows the music to fill up the auditory space, independently from the images. I really love these sequences when they are done well. It feels like a purer form of emotional communication. Just images and sound, without the intervening dialogue and plot.

Lately, I’ve been listening to the excellent Aberdeen City album The Freezing Atlantic. I decided that some of these songs could work as awesome tracks for an otherwise silent part of a film. Naturally, I ended up trying to figure out how we could apply this to game design.

Music in games is usually incidental. It comes after everything else. The design is created, and the music is designed to fit around it. But what if we tried to work the other way around. Is it possible to create the game version of a music video?

Let’s look at the problems with this idea.

First, games are interactive. This means that they require player attention for anything to happen. This attentive state often requires intense thought. Being busy thinking could destroy the player’s ability to fall into the slightly trance-like state that you get from the best music videos. You’re too busy playing to feel the music.

We can solve the player attentiveness problem by making the gameplay easy and imprecise. The musical section of the game should give up any difficult, competitive, strategic, or mentally challenging aspects. It should simply be play, in the most basic and pure form. Don’t think Starcraft. Think Jenova Chen‘s Flow or Cloud. The sequence does not need to be tranquil or dreamy, though these could work for tranquil or dreamy songs. The sequence needs to require minimal higher-brain thought on part of the player. We want a person to be able to just sink into the music, and play without their mind being consciously active at all. Conscious thought destroys emotion.

The second problem is synchronization. How do we synchronize dynamic and unpredictable game events to a music track, so the feel of what is happening on screen in the gameworld matches the feel of the music?

Mono-Emotional Song/Sequence

The first solution is to simply step past the problem by choosing a song with a consistent feeling throughout, and then creating a gameplay sequence that matches that feeling for its whole length. In this way, if we envision the gameplay as a strategic space, each node in the space has generally the same feeling, which is the same feeling as the song. There obviously can’t be a mismatch.

For multi-part songs that change feeling over time, this obviously isn’t going to work. We need to adapt our approach. The goal is to make sure the player can’t get to a node/situation in the strategic space that doesn’t match the feeling of the music.

Serially Poly-Emotional Song/Sequence through Prescripted Gameplay Shifts

The second solution is thus to set up a gameworld where some pre-scripted external event (an explosion and the arrival of enemy soldiers, a character in a hospital bed closing his eyes for the last time) changes the whole gameworld, opening up a whole new strategic space and pushing you into it, while simultaneously cutting off the old space completely.

For example, say the song is somewhat tense and edgy at first, and later explodes into full excitement. You and team-mates are fighters, lying in wait for an enemy attack. The arrival of the enemy attack begins with a large explosion which perfectly matches the cymbal crash that comes at the start of the exciting part of the song.

Note that in this scenario, the game needs to be simplified to the point where it can be played without thought by even inexperienced players, so they can achieve conscious disconnection and fall into the music. Do this by removing options. Put the player in a fixed position in a vehicle. Wound the player, and have them watch from a stretcher. Bind the player as a prisoner. Leave the player without a weapon or ammunition, their only duty being to cower in a hole and watch the carnage, or let them get pulled along, away from danger, by friendly soldiers.

Designing this type of sequence smacks heavily of mental simulation (my pretentiously academic name for the practice of evaluating a game design by mentally envisioning some part of it being played). These sequences also stand in severe danger of quickly breaking a player’s immersion by having unrealistic things going on. In my example, the player needs to be able to plausibly survive the enemy attack. If they see other soldiers dying at X distance from an explosion, they better not end up surviving an explosion at less than that distance. D-Day landing sequences in World War 2 shooters tend to suffer from problems in this area.

The final issue is with the players themselves, who will often feel the need to walk into gunfire and die deliberately, just to see what will happen. The first solution is to simply ignore the problem. Players play far from perfectly, we can’t always protect them from themselves. If they don’t want to enjoy the sequence as it was intended, maybe the music wasn’t that good to begin with. The alternative is coming up with a plausible reason why the player physically has no choice but to take actions which will lead them through the sequence in a coherent way. It’s hard to do this without seeming contrived.

Serially Poly-Emotional Song/Sequence through Player-Controlled Pacing

Now consider a third, mixed system for synchronizing the music with the gameplay. We let each emotional segment last for a length which is mostly controlled by the player. When the player hits some defined trigger condition, the music proceeds to its next feeling-segment. This means that a song needs to be written, recorded, and programmed in such a way that any segment of it can be extended or contracted gracefully. This actually implies a new type of music composition, and a close relationship between game designer, writer, and composer.

This will allow us to not force the player or gameworld towards certain actions as much, thus reducing the contrived feeling of the game. That contrived feeling is one of game design’s greatest enemies.

This seems a lot like the classical context-sensitive music which we have seen in games since near the beginning of gaming. It is not. What I am describing is a single gameplay sequence which matches a single dynamic song, not a game with an endless music loop that roughly matches the ‘excitement level’ of the gameplay. It is not a game plus music, it is a holistically absorbed emotional experience.

An example. Consider a song that gets progressively more mournful. In this example, you enter the hospital. The song is slow. The nurse directs you to your father’s room. As long as you wander the halls, the music remains generally slow and tense. When you finally enter your father’s room and see him, his frail body barely clinging to life, the music takes on a deeper, more mournful quality. As he speaks to you, the music quiets so you can hear his strained whispers. Finally, he closes his eyes for the last time. The music and the whine of the heart monitor come together into one fading, final note.

Elemental Conflict Video!

I just finished putting together a little demo video for my old mod Elemental Conflict. It just seemed such a shame that I would work so hard on this project, and learn so much from it, and have it simply fade into nothingness. The mod was made back in 2003.

Here’s the video. I also posted it on my portfolio.

In Canada

I’ve finally returned and settled in from my 5-month jaunt in Southeast Asia. I am now unemployed young Canadian talent.

I’m currently looking for a full time level design/game design position. Check out the portfolio page to see my skills, and read some of my published articles at the left. If you think we could work together, shoot me an email.