Games About Something

I’m super busy today, so I need a post I can write quickly.  I write quickly about things I’m feeling fired up about.  Today I’m feeling fired up about game design!  I hope this topic is still interesting to some of my readers, even if it isn’t exactly puzzle/mystery-related.  (Maybe I should just formally extend the genre of this blog to include games and game design in general…)

I have never designed and built a game, but I’ve been thinking about it more and more.  Games have always been a part of my life to a certain extent, growing up with an older brother who loved games and now being married to someone who loves and works on games.  I majored in Media Studies in college, and the current conversations in game design have really appealed to me in a Media Studies sort of way.  Even though I’ve never made a game and I don’t even play that many games, things like the Extra Credits series and pretty much anything written or spoken by Jonathan Blow present the challenges and creative potential of game design in such a fascinating way that my interest seems to be growing all the time.

Recently, indie designers Jonathan Blow and Chris Hecker gave a great Q&A session over at Kotaku.  One that stood out for me was the following question for Chris, and his answer:

Q:  What do you guys think is the biggest lesson indie games could learn from more mainstream titles (and vice versa).

A:  The biggest lesson indies could learn from mainstream games is to sit down, shut up, stop posting on forums, and type code into the game.

Mainstream games need to learn how to take creative risks and make games that are about something.

I’m pretty clearly violating his first lesson (it’s hard to shut up a Media Studies blogger!), but the second one keeps echoing around in my brain.  I read about “art” games, and serious games, and the potential of games to be treated with the same respect as other art forms like film and literature, but sometimes it can be hard to get a grasp on what that really means when thinking about designing a game.  Chris’s “about something” line kind of wraps the idea up nicely (or at least one aspect of it anyway) in a way that’s easy to understand, remember, and apply.

So what are some games that are “about something?”  We can look straight to Chris’s own game for a first example, it’s right in the tagline:  Spy Party — A Spy Game About Subtle Behavior.  (The extended tagline also includes deception, performance, and perception.)  You might say Heavy Rain is a game about self-sacrifice and choice.  Maybe Ico is a game about dependency.  (I won’t pretend I know what Braid is about, though I feel pretty confident saying it’s about something).

Whenever I’ve entertained the idea of making a game, I’ve had trouble thinking of an idea that I like.  I think that’s because whenever I have thought “Okay, what will my game be about?” my mind has immediately jumped to mechanics, gameplay, and genre.  Not only are these areas that I don’t have a lot of experience to draw from, they are areas that don’t have any intrinsic value to the player.  Instead, I can think “What is something I care about?” or “What is something I want to make the player feel?” and work from there.  I can say I want to make a game about leadership, teamwork, group/team dynamics, and roles within a team, and work from that point to design gameplay and mechanics that allow the player to experience those things.  It feels like a much more natural and authentic process, and it makes perfect sense.  After all, isn’t that the way other artists create their work?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these concepts!

3 comments on Games About Something

  • Chris Hecker

    Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad you found the answer meaningful!

    I should add here that there’s more to it than just the intent to make a game about something, obviously. There are plenty of examples of games purporting to be about deep and emotional themes, but where the gameplay doesn’t reinforce those themes or even runs counter to them. So, the art is to find gameplay that is consonant with the meaning you’re focusing on. This is hard, but it’s the future of games as an art form, in my opinion. I think you can start with the higher level aesthetic goals like you mention in the article above, or you can start at the low level and work towards (or even discover) the aesthetic goals as you go, but the key is to have those aesthetic goals in mind all the time while you’re creating the game. Here are the ones I focus on for SpyParty, as a concrete example:

    As I say in that FAQ, I think all game developers should post their aesthetic goals for their games, because I think so few games have them at all.


    • clavicarius (author)

      Wow, thanks so much for stopping by! What a surprise =)

      Like I mentioned above, the concept of games as an art form is very interesting to me, but I’ve been unsure of what that really means. I think the role of gameplay has been the biggest question mark in my mind. That sounds ridiculous, but it reminds me of another topic that came up in various places in the Q&A, which was taking advantage games and the unique potential they offer rather than trying to make them conform to existing fiction models to which they aren’t really suited. I’ve had trouble figuring out how exactly games are more than just another canvas for traditional storytelling.

      The thing that finally makes sense now is that gameplay is its own medium, and as you said, it can be used in ways that do or do not conform with your aesthetic goals and can also produce its own goals organically.

      Furthermore, being an active form of media rather than a passive one, it seems like games can satisfy those goals in a totally unique way and allow for the exploration of goals and concepts that wouldn’t really work as well passively. It’s one thing to watch actors playing characters that trust, betray, or deceive, but it’s something else entirely to be in that role and experiencing those relations directly.

      From what I’ve seen of Spy Party and heard from the people who have played, I can really see how the gameplay enables the goals you’re exploring, (and that really helps to further connect the dots for me on this whole subject).

      The future of games as an art form just sounds really exciting, a wide open field of creative potential. Thanks for all the enlightenment, and thank you to you and Jonathan for being such inspirations.


  • Jen

    Darn iiiiit – this is attempt #2.
    I think your ‘new’ questions in thinking about creating a game do make great sense. You want to think about what the consumer/player will “get” out of it, right? Just as with anything we consume, we feel like we want our time/money/effort’s “worth” out of it, that it means something. You think about what kind of experience you want to provide because it’s something that means something to you, and then hopefully the tangibles will flow from there. So awesome that Chris Hecker commented! I read his aesthetic goals and boy, they sure are something! If I even understand what he means :P, they sound quite intriguing and even that alone makes me interested in the game – to see how he accomplishes those goals through the gameplay. Fascinating!
    I think in general, this has a lot to do with why I have trouble with games that require me to do many repetitive actions – I just start to lose interest, because…what am I accomplishing? I feel like my actions become less meaningful. Besides just in-game goals/achievements, I want to feel something, care about something, experience something, all like you mention. Or maybe I’m not looking at games on a deep enough level and should start to ponder the possible aesthetic goals the creators had in mind. Hmm…

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