Stepwise Memory is a minimalist rogue-like in the style of Michael Brough. Find your way to the exit, but be careful: your turns are limited.
In Dungeons and Dragons, there is a set of expectations that together create an optimistic experience. The challenges the party faces will be appropriately difficult, and they will be rewarded with loot and experience for overcoming. If the party is inexperienced, death is unlikely, so long as the dungeon master is good; rerolling characters or forcing friends to sit out isn’t fun, even if it’s the consequence of a “fair” game. Similar grace is given in digital role playing games with the ability to reload saves, and sometimes features likes automated difficulty scaling. Given these rules, the experience is one of growth and accomplishment, yet the genre is also known for its story telling. Often the worlds are bleak, and the party or lone player character must overcome some looming threat and save the world. It’s serious business.
The problem is that these two things—gameplay about growth and story about the end of the world—don’t line up. If we want to tell a story of some bleak post-apocalypse, or pseudo-medieval feudalism, the player needs to have different expectations. It’s easy to imagine an alternative game: accomplishing the quest may have no effect on the greater problem, the dungeon may be a trap, the party or player character may suffer permanent wounds, and the only loot may be rusted beyond value. That could still be a role playing game, but those rules create a different experience. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games and—to a lesser extent—Dark Souls are close examples. Because those games’ rules create a bleak experience, the narrative fits.
On the other side are games like Skyrim. Due to the way external rules (such as saving and automated difficulty scaling) combine with the internal rules of experience and skill trees, the game creates an enjoyable experience. The player knows that if an encounter is too difficult, by spending some time gaining experience elsewhere, anything will become possible. Short of a level limit, the player’s potential power exceeds that of any non-playable character or monster, making the player a hero in the mythic sense.
This choice of rules in Elder Scrolls games is not a problem on its own until these games try to tell an epic story. Dragons may be returning, or gates to oblivion opening, or gods reincarnating, but none of these threats are real within their game’s rules. By the time the player faces the final enemy, the player character is so strong that the whole conflict becomes a joke, and the non-playable characters telling you to hurry clearly don’t understand the way the world works. There was never a serious risk; the end of the world will wait until the player is ready.
Now, there are exceptions. Although I would include Bioware games (from Baldur’s Gate onward) in this category of optimistic role playing games due to their design, the drama of their stories feels somewhat more honest because their worlds have more consequence. Characters can, and often do, die. Mass Effect 3 created such a strong sense of narrative urgency, I ignored almost all of the side quests. That said, there is still a limit on this when dialogue is separate from the role-playing gameplay about growth and power. The same story might be told more powerfully, or more honestly, with the structure of a game like The Walking Dead.
That said, most fantasy games try to imitate Tolkien, Jordan, or Martin. To various extents, all of them wrote bleak stories that thrive on uncertainty. At their lightest, they suggest the existence of some positive force of fate that will make things right. At their darkest, “good” and “evil” become indistinguishable, and the triumph of one over the other becomes meaningless. Unlike a player character in a role playing game, these heroes suffer wounds, age, and die. At best, their power over time follows a parabola. If role playing games want to tell these stories, their rules need to change.
There is another alternative though. I like the playful optimism allowed by many role playing games. There is an agency in those worlds that extends to my view of reality; I feel happy knowing that it only takes practice to become better at programming or writing or so on. The world is not always as bleak as the stories we write about it. Instead of changing the rules of these optimistic games, we could change the stories. They could emulate mythology or embrace child-like absurdity. The rules of Skyrim’s world have more in common with Adventure Time than Middle Earth, so why not treat it that way? In short, many of our games are already optimistic and silly by design; if we want their stories to improve, we should either accept the honesty of their silliness, or change the games themselves.
A few days ago, some game design folks were talking about the relationship between craftsmanship and artistry. Specifically, Elizabeth Ryerson and Adam Saltsman suggested some exclusivity in that relationship, that refined craftsmanship interferes with or detracts from artistic expression. It isn’t clear to me in Elizabeth’s post whether this is meant as a general rule, or one specific to indie games, or even more specific to Michael Brough’s Corrypt, and Adam’s post leaves his definitions of craft and art vague, but I think there are other points that should be included in the discussion.
My initial impulse—one to be cautious of—is that, rather than craftsmanship interfering with or detracting from artistry, it serves as a prerequisite. In this relationship, craftsmanship is a skillful, creative act that has no meaning beyond itself while artistry is the created meaning dependent upon craft. There are problems with these definitions, since they blur with intent and context. For example, Duchamp’s Urinal was a work of common craftsmanship given artistic meaning through context.
Despite the exceptions and edge cases, there is still a lulling sense of “truth” to this explanation. In writing, craftsmanship and artistry intersect in the works of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Steinbeck; in film, Kubrick, Scorsese, Kurosawa; and in art, Rembrandt, Monet, Michelangelo. These are the voices of the mainstream, where the relationship between craftsmanship and artistry is most accepted, if not usually in so many words.
The greater problem with this definition is that it can foster contempt of the experimental, especially when that means a reinterpretation of craftsmanship. Pollock, Mondrian, and Van Gogh are often dismissed because they do not meet an expected standard of “good” craftsmanship. They are, as my dad frequently says, “like finger painting.” He, like many in a mainstream audience, will not approach a work’s artistry if he cannot appreciate its craftsmanship.
There is still some confusion here, though. Although these artists had non-traditional goals for craftsmanship, their works are still skillful. Pollock may have splattered paint, and Van Gogh may have occasionally used his fingers, but their sense of composition is a mastered skill. Because of this, I think their goals of craftsmanship will gain (and have gained) acceptance over time, just as Picasso’s works have. But we are more willing to accept Picasso’s abstract works because he demonstrated that they were a choice rather than a limit of skill. The confusion here, to restate it, is due to a subjective sense of good and bad.
What about “objectively bad” craftsmanship? I’m not sure there is such a thing, but for the sake of argument let’s define bad craftsmanship as that which requires the least skill. If I placed a child’s clumsy and generic drawing of a house (smoke looping in ringlets from a chimney) next to an effectively identical work by an artist, there would be some justified confusion. The artist may intend to represent the suburban dream and its ironies, while the child may think a house would be fun to draw. This leads to the theoretical hells of death of the author and the necessity of metatexts, but that’s not my purpose here; the confusion alone illustrates that our senses of artistry and craftsmanship are more complex than my impulse definition.
Another example should help. If a writer wishes to indicate an unreliable narrator or stream of consciousness, they could intentionally decrease the quality of their craftsmanship, making it less refined to reflect the character. There are few alternatives to this approach, but succeeding in it is still a mark of craftsmanship. Writing in a dialect, for example, requires skill that is not visible in the language itself; the skill is to make the language feel natural. Specifically, despite Huckleberry Finn’s limited vocabulary, flawed grammar, and racism, there is a craftsmanship visible through Twain’s composition.
There are cases, however, where intentionally bad, or intentionally non-traditional, craftsmanship does not appear to serve an artistic purpose. This is the territory of style without substance or style separate from substance. I find these works difficult to accept. Specifically, Cormac McCarthy’s style frustrates me because it seems to serve no purpose but its own; it feels contrived. Similarly, I have difficulty reaching a conclusion about David Lynch’s films because they often seem weird for the sake of being weird, rather than always serving an artistic purpose. Generally this problem is visible in films where the traditionally accepted techniques are ignored or non-traditional techniques are used.
Yet the discomfort caused by these alternative definitions, or rejections, of craftsmanship still serves a purpose. There are many specific cases where this allows for new artistry otherwise impossible, such as unreliable narration indicated by “bad” writing or “bad” cinematography. But it also forces the audience to engage with a work in a different way. Once the expectations of craftsmanship are subverted, the audience has to either participate analytically, or ignore the work entirely. The use of montage, jump cuts, and color correction in film prevents the audience from watching it in the same way they might watch a mainstream film.
Even with this beneficial side to non-traditional craftsmanship, the relationship between craftsmanship and artistry is nuanced, as I have hopefully shown. A film like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color may need some “bad” craftsmanship to achieve its artistic goals, but the extent of this necessity is unclear. With establishing shots, the film would have improved its craftsmanship and become more accessible to a mainstream audience, but without them, the audience is forced to either approach the work critically or ignore it. Since a few changes probably would not have reduced the artistic purpose, we can imagine an alternate form of the film that would be “better,” but we can’t be certain.¹
Returning to games and the specific examples of Elizabeth’s post, the visuals of Corrypt serve a purpose by being non-traditional, but the same artistic purpose may have been served to a wider audience through some other (more comfortable and mainstream) approach to its craftsmanship. The best version of the game is impossible to know, given the infinite alternatives and extents possible, but it doesn’t hurt to imagine.
The more significant question, I think, is this: what audience are we trying to reach? There is a small audience that willfully seeks challenging works, an audience for whom artistry is less dependent of craftsmanship. Then there is an audience like my dad that will see finger paints or the video game equivalent, “it looks like pong.” With this question of audience is the question of purpose, and that’s something we all must answer on our own.²
TL;DR: Artistry without craftsmanship can serve a purpose, but sometimes greater craftsmanship only helps. But the best balance of the two depends on purpose and audience.
¹ See also Borges’s “The Library of Babel.”
² Money, the other theme of Elizabeth and Adams’ posts, resides in the intersection between audience and purpose. The “best practice” at this intersection is a topic for a different article.
Lately I’ve been updating my portfolio with gameplay footage. I’m a bit out of practice at UT3, but I think the videos give a better understanding of the design than screenshots and text alone:
In the following, I will analyze the gameplay experience of the original Super Mario Bros. as a demonstration of two analytical methods.¹ First, I will isolate the variety of goals common to all goal-oriented games. Second, I will use an overlooked object-based analysis to complement the more common action-based analysis. Through these methods, a better understanding of a game’s generalized experience can be accessed.
The Variety of Goals
Most video games have a variety of goals. Global goals (those that encompass the entire gameplay experience) are either internally or externally constructed. The internal goals are either based in the game’s narrative reality or in the game’s mechanics, while the game’s external goals are socially constructed.
In conversation, I might adopt a global goal to explain a game. “I’m trying to save the princess,” I might say, referencing the narrative goal. Or instead, “I’m trying to finish the game,” referencing a mechanic-informed goal. In yet another explanation, I might say “I’m trying to beat my high score,” or “I’m trying to beat my best time.” None of these explanations capture the essence of Mario, however. All are about reaching an end state, not about the process necessary to reach it.
To understand the gameplay and generalize the game’s individual experiences, analyze local goals instead. The way to access these local goals is by separating global goals into their elements. To achieve Mario’s mechanic-informed global goal (completing the game), a player must complete worlds, which depends upon completing levels. Assuming the player has basic familiarity with Mario, to complete a level, the player must not die. Avoiding death may be considered the irreducible local goal, but it is passive. Translated to an action, the player’s local goal is to gain lives.
Some of these steps from the global to the local were less than obvious, but the point is to understand a game’s experience more accurately. This division could similarly be performed for the other two global goals. I wouldn’t expect the narrative goal to provide much insight for Mario—the fiction has little bearing on the gameplay—but a social goal might lead to a very interesting (and very different) analysis. I will be focusing exclusively on the mechanic-informed local goal (to gain extra lives) from this point onward.
Actions and Objects
While designers such as Anna Anthropy and Chris Crawford have recommended an action- or verb-based analysis of games, this method overlooks aspects. Even though the platformer genre is associated with the act of “platforming,” it is just as associated with collectibles. I do not suggest either mode of analysis in isolation, but an object-based analysis is especially valuable for this genre.
For example, in level 1-1 there is a choice to descend a pipe into a secret area and gain 19 coins or to continue onward with the opportunity for a hidden 1-up, a mushroom (or fire-flower), a star, and 15 coins. What at first appears to be beneficial to the goal is comparatively detrimental. However, this judgment depends on the local goal; a speed-runner would take the “detrimental” route. An action-based analysis overlooks the experience of exploration created through objects.
Objects also affect player choice through the conflict of risk and reward. In level 8-2 there is a 1-up that, while easily found, requires the player to proceed past three winged turtles at an uncomfortable speed. Moving too quickly or too slowly will force the 1-up off screen, and the player will gain nothing. A similar risk occurs again in 8-2 with a mushroom surrounded by bullets and another flying turtle. Objects provide the framework for actions, and challenges imbue objects with value.
More specifically, consider the role of invisible blocks. From the action-analysis, they oppose the player’s expectations. The anticipated jump is interrupted, and the player potentially loses a life for their accidental discovery. Once a hidden block is made visible, however, it extends the range of the player’s actions by providing a new surface to jump off of. Often more valuable is the unexpected content, though. Discovering a secret 1-up or discovering coins concealed in brick is satisfying. This sense of discovery is a central experience in Mario that would be less easily understood from an action-based analysis alone.
The local goal is made meaningful through scarcity as well. In Mario there are three ways to gain lives. For objects, the player can either collect 100 coins or a single 1-up mushroom. This ratio creates value that only exists due to the comparison. For actions, the player can perform a turtle-shell trick. (This means hitting a turtle shell 9 times by either jumping on it repeatedly, hitting it against 8 other enemies, or some combination.) This trick requires several conditions, making it as rare as 1-up mushrooms, while inherently more difficult.
From this local, mechanic-informed goal of gaining lives, skilled play is characterized by creating optimal routes through objects and actions, risks and rewards. Mario becomes about much more than beating the game or saving the princess.²
TL;DR When analyzing games, it’s beneficial to ask “How does gameplay (constructed by the interaction of objects and actions) affect local goals and, by extension, the generalized experience of a game?”
¹ The version of Super Mario Bros. referenced is from the SNES Super Mario Bros. All Stars.
² This analysis also provides a baseline from which other Mario games may be compared. I will leave this for later, but in brief, a trend of devaluing bonus lives becomes apparent from Super Mario Bros. 3 onward.
Anna Anthropy’s “Level design lesson: to the right, hold on tight.”
Between classes I’m a writing tutor. Sometimes my students don’t show up. When this happens, I pull out my sketch book. That’s how the design for my latest level came to me.
I started by drawing several pillar figures (visible on the right page of the image above). I was thinking about the geometry style in Halo’s multiplayer levels. I started sketching ideas around it, and then hastily drew the general layout at the bottom of the page before I lost the thought. (The left page was from another day when another student forgot to show.)
The second page reiterated the idea with some variation. Rather than having all of the beams lead to the center, like the ramps in the Halo’s Wizard, some rose and others fell (more like the ramps in DM-Deck). The third page added complexity to the layout. There’s very little difference between this and the final level. Even the funiculars (written as inclinators) are noted. Next to this layout is a height analysis. I also started guessing color tones and texture styles that might work.
The fourth page cuts away from the wall to expose its depth, but there’s little here I hadn’t drawn before. I drew the fifth page later, once I had toyed with the brushes in the editor and remembered how bad Unreal’s curve collision is, so I redesigned the level as an octagon instead of a circle. The rest of the final page is nonsense doodling.
I’m frankly surprised at how well the level came together. Usually my levels see several iterations, and the transition from a 2D idea to a 3D space seldom goes so well.