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Let's Talk About The 'Experience' Of Playing Games
by Dolgion Chuluunbaatar on 01/19/11 11:43:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


(This is a post from my blog TheDoglion)

In Shanghai on the second day of GDC

What is experience? I don't mean experience points or the improvement of a skill by being exposed to real life situations. I mean the entirety of the feelings, the emotional states and the mental states that something can put you through.

Last month, I went to GDC China, which meant I had a trip from Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar to Shanghai. I went to the border with a night train and my friend and I shared a compartment with an older couple. They were fun people and told us about life in socialist times.

Then, they told us about their kids and their work - prison inspectors. We had a lot of fun conversing and when we came to the border we parted ways. Going over the border it was the first time I went to China, and I remember the border troops directing the cars, the Chinese scripts and how empty the town (Erlian) was from the Mongolian one (Zamiin Uud).

I remember how it was so early that there were no cars, no people and it was a little bit eerie. Then we went to Beijing with a sleeper bus, which was so uncomfortable, and stinky. I remember how we made a stop in the middle of the night somewhere in the country side of Northern China and didn't want to have food, because we weren't hungry and willing to deal with the others who were hustling to get their meals quickly.

Jumping forward, I remember when we were in Beijing, we missed our train to Tianjin, from where we had to catch our flight. In the hurry, my buddy lost his phone, then we lost each other, found each other, went to Tianjin only to realize that it was too late and we missed out flight. Oh man, that was a bummer.

We had to go back to Beijing, get tickets for the night train to Shanghai, which we did. I remember how we bought one 100g bottle of strong Chinese alcohol each, drank them in the train to stop stressing that much and celebrate our adventure. And we didn't know the smallest amount of Chinese during all that.

THAT is an experience.

A sequence of ups and downs, a sequence of differing feelings, complete shifts of states of mind. Seeing new things, actually having to actively deal with your surroundings, because things are so unusual and new and interesting.

A movie can be an experience. I believe that the art of film making is a lot about putting people through different states of mind by exposing them to dialog and imagery designed to lead them to the desired states. Why was it so shocking in From Dusk Till Dawn when it turned out they were all vampires?

Because the movie spent so much time making us believe that it was a cool gangster movie. It had George Clooney being a rogue type guy, it had the pacing, the elements of such a movie, and then it completely broke with that flow to shock the audience. I felt that this was damn cool.

What I believe needs to change in games is that designers should realize that every little thing that is in the game that can be sensed by the player is their arsenal. It can be music, it can be graphics and a new weapon. But it can also be a camera angle, it can be a line of dialog said to the player at the right moment, it can be the proportion between the size of objects vs the player and so many other things. Designers are free to tweak everything if it serves the purpose of pushing the player into an emotional state.

Some of the memorable moments I remember when playing games were:

  1. A puzzle in Half-Life 2 where I lifted a plane of wood drifting on water by putting a canister filled with air below it, effectively building a ramp for myself. The first time I encountered a puzzle based on physics. It made the game feel scarily real. 
  2. The f*cking dog in Resident Evil 1 jumping out of the window. 
  3. The first 3 seconds of GTA3 when I drove the car down that bridge and realized I could go anywhere in that city. It was like a breath of fresh air - no more limited levels! I can go on a rampage and escape with a car 3 miles from here! It was a feeling of freedom. 
  4. The first time I got out of Midgar in FF7 and saw the world map for the first time. All that stuff before happened in ONE city?! And now I can go to ALL THESE OTHER CITIES? A feeling of epicness overcame me.
  5. Omaha Beach in Medal of Honor Allied Assault, the chaos of the fighting, comrades dying around me constantly and the feeling of achievement getting behind the covers. 

These are just some of the moments in games that really stuck, because they were by themselves real experiences. None of these were cut scenes, and none of these were actually connected to the stories their respective games had.

Today you have so many games just telling you about the experience the characters in them go through. Sarah Kerrigan was betrayed and sacrificed. Oh well. She is really pissed off. So? I don't feel betrayed. I mean, I understand that somebody would get really angry about such a thing, but nobody betrayed me, so I don't feel a personal motivation to get my revenge. Most games are just telling stories, and they borrow the means of other media (text and cut scenes) to get their point across. Games should not tell stories so much as put us through them.

Why was Half-Life a cool experience? Not because Gordon Freeman was such a likable guy and it was interesting controlling him through those hard hours at Black Mesa. It was cool because I was going through hard hours. Don't get me wrong - games that just tell stories to the largely passive player aren't actually bad. They just aren't living up to the potential experience a game could offer. Instead of getting better and better at telling stories, game designers should get better of creating the circumstances that allow players to stumble into their own personal experiences.

The thing is that cut scenes are not an entirely undesirable pimple upon the game's face. They have their use. They can sit us down and introduce the personality and way of thinking that the hero we are playing has. Things that are too hard, and not always wanted to do by interactivity. But the actual action in a game should always be highly interactive. Again, designers are free to utilize whatever they have in their arsenal.

Imagine a game where you play as a little girl who feels inadequate and small. She feels like the world is big and bad. One could simply show her in a cut scene being wimpy and shy. But it could also be done be actually making everything else subtly bigger than it usually would be, just a bit, enough to put the player just that small amount off center. Make the player feel inadequate, without clearly stating that the girl they're playing has that mind set. Make the player enter that mindset by themselves.

Look at Clarice Sterling in the Silence of the Lambs. She is a youngster cop, and she is always confronted by male figures throughout the movie. They intimidate her and make her feel like an alien with the cold and sometimes disrespectful way they treat her. But then there is a scene where she has the authority over a room full of male cops, and she has to send them out. She is not a wuss, but she is clearly uncomfortable. The camera goes into her point of view, and has those cops looking into the camera the way they look at her. For a moment, the audience clearly gets to feel and understand what Clarice is going through and has to deal with. We get her.

How could a game make you feel betrayed like Kerrigan? Well, have the game betray the player! Build up the player's expectation that they'll be helped in a moment of trouble. Have the game help the player (reinforcements, bonus items lying around and what not) build up that mindset that "Oh that's a lot of enemies, but it happened before and somehow I'll get a power up or a cut scene will appear and reinforcements will arrive like in the previous level." and then have the player deal with the enemies, have them coming and coming and coming and the player will micro for his life.

He might even push the button to call his mercs, but they won't arrive. He'll drown and it's game over, the player feels betrayed, angry and doesn't know why this happened. And THEN you can have a cut scene showing Raynor's fury at Mengsk.

To be fair, StarCraft was never about that kind of experience, what with the hopping between protagonists etc, but you get my point.

I want to play a game that puts me through an adventure. It doesn't have to be killing monsters or people. It can be something as unspecial as my little trip to Shanghai. But make it so that the player gets to feel the frustrations and euphoria and stress and discomfort and fun that I had when going there. Make it so that the player actually feels like he/she had the almost exact same experience I had (given the constraints of technology).

For every emotion and frame of mind I was in, the game designer has EVERY freedom to change what the hell he/she wants in order for the game to achieve that effect. If the game must change from first person to third person, so be it. If the game has to change into a 2D platformer for a few minutes, so be it. If the game has to frustrate the player with an unreachable objective and have him try and try and try just to realize it isn't possible, so be it. Make the player go through an ordeal if only to blow the happiness of actually arriving at the hotel at the end out of normal proportion into the actual proportion, so be it!

Because believe me, it was SO relieved to check in there.

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Joshua Sterns
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"(D)esigners should realize that every little thing in the game, that can be sensed by the player, is in their arsenal."

Great sentence.

Experience is..."A sequence of ups and downs, a sequence of differing feelings, complete shifts of states of mind. Seeing new things, actually having to actively deal with your surroundings, because things are so unusual and new and interesting."

This has occurred in every good game I've played. Games are intense and mellow. I can be bored or excited. I can go from fighting as a soldier to running away as a criminal to being completely insane. Never stop exploring, interact with your environment, and deal with the results.

Do you think games really need to change, or are the features/ideas you mentioned what differentiate a bad game from a great one?

I also feel that your analogy to a real life situation is a bit of a stretch. In the real world you have direct assaults on your well being. This can put a ton of stress, which results in feelings of anxiety, anger, frustration, pain, etc. Videogames rarely produce such strong feelings. I've never gone hungry for a night, or slept in an airport because of a videogame. Travel problems, however, have resulted in both.

Do you believe videogames should take that next step in interaction? Do you want to feel the impact of a fall, or the heat from a volcano?

One of my favorite moments...SPOILERS ALERT

KOTOR: Save or conquer the galaxy? Never before was I presented with this option. Plus the plot twist....THE PLOT TWIST!!!! Discovering you are Darth Raven (might be spelled wrong). You are Darth Raven. The old master who was betrayed by his pupil. Now the student wants to finish of the teacher. Hell yes!!! The game builds up on a character who you think is different from yourself. Then you find out he/she is you. Awesome.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Yeah surely games put you through experiences. What I feel though is that the spectrum of experiences in games is still not as broad as it could be. I can't remember a single game that made me feel genuinely guilty, for example. There are tons of games that make me feel badass. There are games that make me feel angry, though some invoke the wrong kind of anger. A game like Flower is one that goes already in the right direction, by exploring the ways of making a player feel at "peace".

Of course my analogy is a stretch, but I felt it was useful to clearly point out the general idea. It would be immensely hard to make a game, given with the technology we have nowadays, to put a player through the experience of travelling to a foreign country.

This kind of scenario is puny and insignificant when compared to settings as grand as save-the-world game for example, but it is also a much more personal experience. It would be way hard to put it into interactive form in a convincing way. It would be a real challenge, to make something that isn't inherently interesting for the masses genuinely interesting.

When I heard that there was a movie coming out about Ballet, and it was a thriller, of all genres, I was skeptical. But Black Swan was a gripping experience. The point is almost anything is interesting, the challenge is in making it interesting for an audience.

"Do you believe videogames should take that next step in interaction? Do you want to feel the impact of a fall, or the heat from a volcano? "

Yeah, it would widen the scope of what games are about and expand the medium into new directions. Just because an experience isn't "fun" doesn't mean it shouldn't be experienced. Nobody forced me to watch Requiem for a Dream. It wasn't fun at all, but it was still a worthwhile thing to do.

Shelly Warmuth
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I don't think your analogy is a stretch or that the things you seek are hard to create. I believe a slice of life story has its place in gaming. It doesn't always have to be pure fantasy. It may need a wee bit more embellishment as far as motivation and inciting incidents, but it's do-able.

I also think that, while you think it's hard, a team of creative minds could easily come up with a usable solution. Too often, solutions are copied and pasted onto a problem and they're cliche' or don't work. All you really need is a team with the vision and the will to make that happen.

And, Requiem for a Dream is totally messed up! I'm wrecked for life after watching it! But, you're right, it was worth the experience.

Kamruz Moslemi
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You, my good sir, get it. I have been looking at game developers try to focus on story with their clumsy narratives ripped straight out of movies and litrature, E.G. text dialogs and movie sequences and think this somehow helps make their games more powerful experiences with a shake of my head.

For gods sake game makers should not try to be storytellers, they should instead focus on crafting an experience for gamers. But most still think that this is best done the same way that movie directors and authors do it. No, games are a unique medium and they specialize in giving a player an experience not tell them a story.

I have been working on a piece trying to convey this idea, hope to have it up soon.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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I don't remember where I read it, but someone said a true thing about films. Films actually don't tell stories. They are only a sequence of images and sounds that imply a story. The story itself is only created in the audiences head.

In 12 Monkeys, the 2 main characters are sitting in a cinema watching a Hitchcock classic and one of them says (loosely out of memory) "I love this movie. It never changes, and yet, every time I watch it, it is different. I guess that is because I changed"

Games can be taken apart as well. They basically a bunch of visuals and audio, but the player has influence to a defined degree over the sequence. Of course there is a lot more, but those are the most basic elements. The game designer has thus even more freedom than the film maker, and this larger spectrum of things to design brings up even more challenges.

A good gaming experience should be a concerted effort of all these elements (graphics, audio, level design, etc) to drive the state of the player's mind towards the designer's vision. If it is done successfully, the player will realize that the developer knew what he/she was doing, that they owned their craft.

Therein lies the art. It's the skillful manipulation of the player's thought processes, expectations and emotional states.

Kamruz Moslemi
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It is too bad then that there are still so many game developers who feel that their function is to tell a story, or relate some grand narrative, and spend too much time trying to shoehorn this grand narrative of theirs, often borrowed wholesale from other mediums, with some form of rudimentary game design. Others take it to further extremes of thinking that gameplay is only a mechanism that gets in the way of good story telling and relegate it to some secondary role.

You can go about giving the player an unforgeable experience without utilizing even a sliver of narrative or plot. Take Shadow of colossus and ICO for an example. Those games are universally high regarded while being almost entirely devoid of characterization or narrative.

Fumito Ueda is a game creator that understands his efforts are better vested trying to immerse players into the experience that he is trying to give players. In fact almost every single one of my most favorite games have terrible, bland and rudimentary plots, but still manage to be amazing experiences because their creators understood this importance.

Alan Jack
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I actually talked about the implied narrative of cinema in my last blog post! Wonder if you were thinking of that, or if maybe we were both inspired the same thing. I like the 12 Monkeys reference, anyway.

The things about it, is that playing a game is much like "experiencing" a story. There's a lot of technical similarities between the structure of a play experience and that of a story. The two don't oppose each other, and it isn't a balance or a choice. They're one and the same thing. If we got rid of the words for each, they'd all just be experiences of one kind or another.

What I'm surprised at in this article is that the idea a designer needs to tie everything in a game into creating the experience for the player is a new concept to people. I'm pretty sure any designer worth his salt should appreciate that he or she will have to work closely with artists, audio engineers and everyone else attached to ensure that the experience matches the feel they intend to create in the user.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Of course it's common sense that the designer's task is to work closely with the artists and engineers etc. What I meant is that designers hardly ever think outside genre restrictions, for example.

Often for a game a genre is chosen at the beginning, or a mixture of genres - the gameplay formula. "Okay, we got a fun mechanic here. We'll make it harder and harder each level by amping up the obstacles, so the player really needs to master the mechanic and refine his skills." It's a recycling and iterating on a single mechanic.

Why not make the gameplay the "slave" of the designer's larger vision for an experience? Why not change the gameplay as needed to convey the state of mind/emotion or feeling that is needed at a certain point in the "narrative"?

I'm sure it can be done, but could easily fail too.


Yeah that must've been your post :)

Alan Jack
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That's a very good point, but you do have to realise that people who want genuine innovation (like you and I) are in the minority.

People want to pick up a game and be able to play it. So there's two options: make your game really easy to understand and play (and risk it being too simple) or use genre conventions to make it easily recognisable to your customers.

There are genre conventions in all media for this reason. Working between the two ideas - usability and innovation - is the delicate balance we have to strike each time.

Shelly Warmuth
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Yeah, but, don't you think that, while we must stick to the expected "rules" of the genre, we can have both? Can't we have both simplicity which allows the player to make the story leap while also having a rule set that we must obey?

Simon Fraser
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I like this article. You make a very good point about using *every* aspect of the game to reinforce a feeling. Usually designers just try to make every aspect of the game "good". But we could create some much stronger experiences by establishing a vision and using *all* parts of the game to push towards that vision.

Shelly Warmuth
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This is an incredible piece. I love the way you tied your story to your point. Stories aren't as much a straight arc as they are a series of ups and downs. It is all about the inciting incident and the gap between what the player expects to happen and what actually DOES happen. I agree with Kamruz; you get it!