Monthly Archives: December 2008

Jon Blow’s MIGS Keynote and Thematic Iteration

I didn’t get a chance to take in Jon Blow’s MIGS keynote from November until now. Well, I just listened to it.

First, you need to listen to this talk. I’ve heard (and said) a lot of ideas that orbit around much of what Blow discusses, but I’ve never heard these concepts crystallized so effectively. It’s worth listening to on it’s own, and you also won’t get this essay if you haven’t listened to it yet.

I’m going to offer a solution to Blow’s “hard problem” of creating an interactive system that coherently expresses meaning.

Blow says that games have more trouble than other media in conveying meaning because we have so many other things to worry about. For a coherent meaning to emerge, he says, the “dynamical meaning” expressed by the design and gameplay must dovetail with the meaning of the embedded story. This is difficult because we can’t predict a priori what the design is going to look like when the game is finished.

Furthermore, the player himself is an agent of chaos. He will destroy all of your carefully-crafted pacing and story beats. He will ignore important dialogue, or strip his clothes off before the funeral scene. How do we create an experience which will express our desired meaning with this madman running amok on stage?

The hole in Blow’s reasoning is that he seems to assume that we need to decide on the meaning of our games before we create them. He explicitly condemns the simple “message-centric” type of story, but he still thinks that authors need to have a priori control over the meaning of their creation.

They don’t. The first part of the solution is to let go of the idea that we can or must be able to make a game to convey an arbitrarily chosen meaning. As Blow correctly says, it’s nearly impossible. But this doesn’t mean we can’t add meaning to our game.

Other media have exactly the same sorts of problems in combining different elements which are pulling the meaning in different directions. A filmmaker may want to characterize someone with some dialogue, but what if the pacing demands an action scene? A novelist may want to characterize the doctor as the bad guy, but what if the plot requires him to save someone’s life? These creators don’t have to deal with a beast as unpredicable as an interactive game design mucking with their stories, but the problem is still there. And they’ve developed ways of solving it. So let’s learn from them.


Stephen King has sold 350 million novels. He practices freewriting – writing without planning and allowing the story to emerge during the writing process. The Dark Tower series was started when King simply sat down at a typewriter in 1970 and wrote a single sentence: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” King wrote a seven-book megasaga from that one line, without planning any of it. When a dying woman asked him, before he had finished the saga, how the series was going to end, he couldn’t tell her. He didn’t know.

How does King create meaning, then? He iterates.

After he writes the initial draft, he goes back over it and tries to figure out what themes and motifs naturally emerge from the plot. He then tweaks the story to emphasize those concepts.

For example, King freewrote Carrie straight forward, without planning. After he finished, he read through his draft and noticed that blood appeared repeatedly in the story. He then went back through and emphasized the blood even more, adding it to other scenes, describing it more deeply, and imbuing it with meaning. Thus blood became a repeated motif, and concepts associated with blood became themes of the story. He didn’t know that blood would be important until after he had written the story.

We can do this in games. In fact, we already have. Blow mentions the Little Sister Adam harvesting mechanic from Bioshock in his talk. I work at 2K Boston and though I didn’t work on Bioshock itself, I’ve talked with the designers who were around when Bioshock was being created. For most of development, the save/harvest Little Sister mechanic did not exist. Originally, Jack could only save the little sisters, and there was no narrative reference to any kind of moral dilemma between surviving and saving the little girls. The save/harvest mechanic was only introduced late in development as a gameplay choice. It then became part of the story, and finally was threaded into the theme of the entire game.


Certainly, this could have been done better – Blow specifically criticizes the save/harvest mechanic because the story seems to contradict the design. I still think that the mechanic was a success, if only because so many people gushed so much about it. Imagine how much stronger the game could have been if the developers had chosen a theme that arose even more naturally from the design.

Iteration is one of our bread and butter tools, but we currently only iterate to maximize “fun”. There’s no reason, however, why we shouldn’t be willing to iterate on theme as well. Take a “theme pass” on the game in the last three months of development, just as Stephen King did with Carrie. Play the game, figure out what you think it means, emphasize those concepts in the art, the dialogue, and perhaps even the gameplay.

Imagine doing this for Left 4 Dead. Stop reading now. Think about Left 4 Dead as it exists. What is it about? What does the design want to say?

My first thought was to say that the game is about the inevitability of death. I wanted to make one of the characters a mortician and add a bunch of nihilisitc dialogue about the heat death of the universe. But this theme doesn’t fit. Death is not inevitable in Left 4 Dead. It’s not what the game wants to talk about.

Recognizing this, I started searching for another thematic seed. This is the beauty of choosing theme after finishing most of the design. If the design contradicts the theme, just change the theme!

Next, I chose to think that it is about how strangers come together (or are forced together) in a time of crisis. Now imagine we do one more development pass on the game to grow this thematic seed. The theme already exists naturally in the game. Now we’re making it much more important. Imagine dialogue revealing that Bill and Francis were enemies before the infection, but were forced into a friendship afterwards. Imagine that pills and ammo are given by wounded NPCs who donate their last supplies to try to help people they don’t even know. Imagine that the news chopper pilot and the boat captain are given dialogue to indicate that they are risking their own lives to come help the four player survivors, who are total strangers to them and to whom they owe no loyalty. Imagine that the chopper pilot dies if you don’t survive to the end of the No Mercy campaign. Imagine the guy in the church in Death Toll, instead of trying to kill you, tries to help you, but draws the zombies accidentally while doing so and dies because of it. Imagine making Bill a racist who doesn’t trust black people. Suddenly, the game isn’t just fun, it’s about something.

None of these changes would corrupt the design. Blow says, “Late gameplay changes are very expensive!” This is true. But you don’t need significant gameplay changes to emphasize a pre-existing thematic seed if you choose the seed well. It takes very little. My Left 4 Dead example doesn’t include any real gameplay changes at all – only some new animations, art, and dialogue.

We can do this for any game. They all have seeds of meaning that we could grow. We only need to listen to and emphasize what the design wants to say, instead of trying to force it to say something we decided on beforehand.

Video Games Feed the Male Need to Dominate

A new study apparently reveals that popular video games satisfy men’s need to dominate.

First, I’m happy to say that I called it first.

Second, I’d be interested to see if video games would be less popular in a society that provides more outlets for these instincts. Aside from rough sports, we’re pretty starved for ways to express our dominant instincts. This type of repressed aggression and boredom probably contributes to youth crime. Maybe our ancestors, who had many more outlets for male aggression, might have had no interest at all in playing shooter games.

Game Word of the Week

Degenerate (adj)

A degenerate game has very little strategic depth. Tic tac toe is a good example.
Degenerate games can be played using very simple strategies with no meaningful decision making. These are known as degenerate strategies. A good game design does not allow degenerate strategies.

Usage: I wish we could include an exploding squirrel character, but it would open up a whole slew of obvious degenerate strategies.

Comment: Degenerate strategies can be fun to add here and there, but only as a temporary exception to the rule. If players have been fighting monster X hard for the whole game, they might enjoy a few minutes with an exploding squirrel gun that kills him in one hit. The game wouldn’t work if he had that gun the whole time, though. A real example of this is the invincibility star in the original Mario games.

Escaping the Black Swan

There are fundamental differences between games and life.

Games have defined boundaries. All the possibilities are known. Cause and effect are clear and well understood. Progress is consistent and tends to be permanent. You always know how to move forward, and you can always feel your progress.

Real life is the opposite of all this. There are an infinite number of possibilities. Cause and effect are almost always muddled, and frequently impossible to sort out. Progress is slow, random, often invisible, and frequently reversed.

There’s a fantastic book called Black Swan. I read it a few years ago. It crystallized a lot of ideas that had been floating around in my head for some time. It’s been a strong influence on my thinking ever since.


The basic idea is that unpredictable events – called black swans – are the most important factors affecting how the real world changes over time. It is human nature is to deceive ourselves with the idea of cause and effect through stories and hindsight. We like to think that we can track trends, see where we’re going. That the future isn’t an impenetrable fog.

In real life, nothing is predictable. Most of the things that will change our lives over the next 50 years don’t have names yet. Take the financial crisis. A year ago, what would people say if you told them that the low price of oil would be causing problems today? They’d think you were crazy. But it’s exactly what’s happening now. Oil-dependent economies are in trouble now that their product is suddenly worth so little on the market. They were bitten by a black swan, along with the rest of us.

Black swans are disturbing. They bother people, me included. I like to feel like I’m getting somewhere in life. Like I know where I’m going. I want to see the path. I don’t like seeing my progress reversed in my bank account, my learning, or my social life. I’ve accepted that growth in all of these areas is unsteady and noisy in real life. But it’s still annoying.

Games allow us to escape from the black swans. There are no black swans in Albion or Azeroth or Rapture. All threats are predictable and quantifiable, progress is measurable and permanent. We design games this way. Don’t hurt the player unless he really asks for it. Make sure the player knows what he’s receiving and what he needs to do. Draw a glowing line on the floor for him if you need to.

Perhaps this is one reason why people play games. People often say that games are escapist entertainment, but usually don’t say exactly what we’re escaping from. We’re escaping from the black swan.

Game Word of the Week

Strategic Depth (n)

The complexity of the strategic space that the game creates. Basically, it is a measure of how many viable strategies there are, how many ways they can interact with other strategies, and how many decision branches there are that require players to choose between strategies.

Usage: Chess has a fantastic level of strategic depth for such a fundamentally simple game.

Comment: Strategic depth sounds great, but there is such a thing as too much of it. Don’t overwhelm people who are just out to have a good time blowing shit up. I honestly don’t play Starcraft very often – a game with incredible strategic depth – because it is so mentally stressful. And I usually like intellectual challenges.

Game Word of the Week

And (adj)

A gameplay concept that has too many different things thrown into the pot. Lacking in focus and design discipline.
Usage: There’s a lot going on in this system. It’s very ‘and’.

Comment: It’s common for projects to be ‘and’ early in the design phase. We just need to make sure we know that almost everything we come up with will be cut. Cream of the crop, baby. Sometimes it’s amazing how tiny the functional feature set of a good game really is.

Game Word of the Week

Minmax (verb)

To play in a style a player tries to achieve a mathematically optimal gameplay result by systematically working out the best way to play the game. Derived from Minimax, a common algorithm used by brute-force AIs to find the optimal next move in a game.

Usage: I used to really minmax the Star Wars Galaxy auction system.

Comment: Some players really like minmaxing because it lets them feel like they’re “beating the system”. In reality, we know exactly who you are. It’s fine to let a few minmaxers beat the system, as long as it doesn’t become so prevalent that they’re ruining the experience for casual players. These guys tend to be community opinion leaders as well, so it’s good to keep them happy.