Last week, Perth was very fortunate to have yet another special guest from over east: Dr. Chrisy Dena. Christy is both a Game Design Lecturer at SAE Brisbane, and Professor Adjunct at Creative Industries, QUT, who just earlier this week won the best “Digital Narrative” at the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Unlike the previous event with Surprise Attack that focused on taking a game to market, we were instead looking at the process of designing deep games.
To get things going, Christy gave us a brief rundown of some of the games she’s worked on in the past. In particular, an audio-drama called “AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS” (which won the aforementioned award), was a fantastic example to open with as the game is also about understanding death. Chisty explained that she suddenly lost her mother several years back, and talked about how games can be a fantastic way for creators to express and learn, as well as for the player to do the same. Creating this game was just as much for her as it was about engaging the audience.
“Games are becoming more pervasive in our culture,” Christy explained. For which she went on to tell us about “Magister Ludi“, a project Christy had recently been working on for an art space. The budget for this game wasn’t very large, so it was decided that an “escape the room” approach would be used. At this point, the group was shown a screenshot of the game and asked for our own suggestions on what themes we felt could be applied to the concept of “escape the room.” Together, we brainstormed ideas such as having an antagonist pulling the strings, as well as creating an easy way out that the player had to resist. Other ideas included the exploration of depression trapping someone in a room, as well as dealing with a bad job or relationship; both themes empowering the position of choice.
After the discussion, it was explained to us that the direction used in the final game actually had players placing items to escape the room. The idea was to have a narrator explaining the meaning behind each item: for example, by removing the contacts on your phone, it means your partner loves you more for isolating yourself. Christy went on to clarify that the requirement to actually escape the room was eventually removed as it wasn’t serving the message she was wanted to convey. This was a great example of the design process, especially for deep games, and how it’s sometimes necessary to remove mechanics and goals we might really like, if they don’t actively serve the message.
ABOVE: screenshot of the aforementioned room in Magister Ludi. Artwork by Marigold Bartlett.
To understand this process better, we examined what was referred to as the “Design Core” of a game. Super Meat Boy was the first example, which, from the perspective of the developers, was created with a goal to be challenging, but not frustrating, as well as very replayable. It was straightforward and suited a gameplay-centric experience perfectly. What was interesting, however, was that when designing a deep game, how many other elements of the game had to be considered in order to serve a more personal message. “Far Cry 3″ and “Spec Ops: The Line” were two relatively well known titles used to convey this type of approach; with both following a narrative concept called the “Hero’s Journey.” Basically, a personal journey that a central character embarks on in order to resolve a problem.
Another example which we examined a little more closely was “Journey”, and how the developers used a compelling “character arc” to deliver their message. As a group, we talked about the different ways in which a game designer can influence the growth and emotions of the player. Journey is a game totally based on instinct, but it also has a lot of subtle design elements hidden throughout the experience to influence the player. For example, the changing appearance of the main character, as well as the physicality of the landscape. I’d recommend anyone interested go back and replay the game to see what they might discover. This was the first game I ever reviewed, and while I knew a lot was going on behind the scenes, it was really cool to see just how much thought went into crafting the experience.
Next, we looked at “theme and character” in order outline the importance of developing compelling characters. Interestingly, Pixar was as an example for this as every key character in their movies always explore the main theme in some way. To further demonstrate this idea, Christy showed us chart from one of the games she had designed where the theme was “A meaningful life comes from being yourself.” Here, we were able to see how every character was addressing that theme in some way. As a group, we proceeded to discuss the different ways in which a good character could be challenged, such as doing something bad for the greater good or being forced to violate their own integrity. The goal when creating complex characters was the ability to explore both positive and negative experiences.
Once again, Christy referenced some well-known examples as a way to further demonstrate these ideas to the class. “30 Flights of Loving” was used as an example of following a theme, while “Valiant Hearts: The Great War” was used to convey the effectiveness in using different perspectives. One of the more interesting examples explored was with “The Walking Dead,” which demonstrated the power of choice. What made this game stand out in particular is that the player is forced to make decisions with a timer running out. Not only is their pressure put on the player, but also an immediate validation that there will be consequences for that decision: “Clementine will remember that.” Personally, my favourite choices are those which question the values/beliefs of the player, but are not necessarily bad or good.
After returning from a short break, we continued our exploration of deep games with a few gameplay demonstrations with notable titles such as “Papers, Please.” One game in particular which stood out to me personally, however, was “ImmorTall,” which is a flash game in which you play an alien caught up in the midst of humanity. It’s only a short experience, but it so effectively demonstrates both the kindness and cruelty of humanity in just a few minutes. During the conversation, an interesting question arose which was: “what is the difference between a deep game and serious game, if any?” It felt as if it was necessary to clarify this too, with Christy explaining that that deep games generally have some sort of personal/internal motivation, whereas a serious game tends to be driven by external motivations.
For the final part of the lecture, we looked at how to better understand and develop metaphors. Basically, creating and using analogies from concrete domain to map to more complex themes and issues. As an example, we were shown a game called “Lim,” in which the player has to navigate a multi-coloured block to an exit point. When the block is the same colour as the other blocks, the player can easily make their way past. However, when the colour changes, the other blocks become violent and do everything they can to push the player back. It was a surprisingly deep look at themes such as race, gender, and just simply trying to fit in, as well as displaying how effective metaphors can be.
As a final exercise, we looked at a process called the “Personal Growth Game,” in which we worked together with a volunteer from the group to analyse and deconstruct one of their characters. Basically, this process is used to define a “hero” in concept, but because the character chosen was a little more unconventional than a typical hero, it proved to be a difficult exercise to complete. However, in saying that, I felt it was just as informative to the group as a working example as our difficulties outlined the value of clearly defining a character before writing about them. Interestingly, the exercise also supported an earlier point about reconsidering ideas which don’t act to serve the message of the game.
From the perspective of a critic, it was fascinating to see how these sorts of games are constructed so I can better analyse them in the future. I also have to admit, what I learned from the class inspired me go back to a recent game I played called “Murasaki Baby” and reconsider its themes before writing my review. As a game designer, however, I think there was a lot to be learned and a plenty of fantastic examples to ensure it all made sense. Sadly, however, this was all the time we had available, but Christy did leave us with some additional resources on designing deep games. The first was to consider looking into the written works of David Freeman and Doris Rusch, but the best advise I felt was just to play as many of these games as possible. If you’re not too sure where to start, Christy has been compiling an awesome Pinterest page with lots of interesting games linked on it, so I definitely recommend you check that out!
* Many thanks to FTI for inviting us to report on the event, and to Christy for flying over to run the class with us!