Truth in Game Design

By Scott Brodie

[What does "truth in game design" mean? Microsoft Game Studios producer/designer Scott Brodie explores the nature and implications of how truth can be created and communicated in game design, via several case studies.]

I'm sure you've heard the cliché "It's funny because it's true." As with many clichés, it turns out there is some validity to the expression, as there is an entire book written on the subject -- the aptly titled Truth in Comedy by Del Close and Charna Halpern.

Truth in Comedy's core insight is that meaningful and memorable comedy takes more than just cheap jokes, and has to have an underlying truth supporting it. While the book focuses on improvisational comedy, this insight is extremely relevant for anyone making entertainment. In fact, you can find similar lessons that have been passed down by writers, actors, musicians, film makers, and fine artists:

As a game designer excited by the insights I garnered from Truth in Comedy, I went looking for similar examples from other game designers. I was dismayed to find that, with a few notable exceptions, truth is not a part of the game industry's shared vocabulary.

I'd like to make a case for why truth is not only something you should consider as a game designer, but that if you are interested in offering meaningful and memorable gameplay, truth is the critical missing component.

As an industry we've largely been making the game equivalent of cheap jokes; as I've begun to build truth into my own process, I've come to realize "just make it fun" as a guiding design principal isn't enough on its own. Games can have as much depth as other great forms of entertainment, but to achieve this we must push ourselves to make players say "it's fun because it's true."

Speaking to the Human Condition

Though I mentioned it was difficult to find references to truth in game design, Chris Crawford is a notable exception. In his book Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, Crawford explains how truth fits into entertainment and games beautifully:

The artist uses the medium to create metaphorical descriptions of the human condition.

Chris meticulously makes a case that for game designers, this means writing truths -- those universal facts about the human condition -- directly into the rules and mathematics governing gameplay. The designer distills truths from human experience into simplified rules players can interact with, so that through the experience of play players begin to build a model (i.e. metaphor) that can be applied to more complex yet related situations in their lives.

Through this model building process, the player experience becomes something meaningful because of its new found utility, and becomes memorable because, to paraphrase Chris, it has literally found a way to enter into the existing "webwork" of the player's memory.

I feel Shigeru Miyamoto also sheds light on this when he described how he uses surprise to entertain players in an interview with EDGE Magazine:

My way of surprising people is to give them some clue or trigger so that they are going to discover inside of themselves some hidden ability or interest, or something they already have but did not realize.

"A-ha!" the brain says, "It can be no other way." As Miyamoto implies, when a truth is discovered, it speaks so directly to our understanding of how the world works that it feels like it was already known.

But the way games bring about this understanding is unique. Whereas the comedian or actor evokes emotional truths by connecting with human experiences viewers have already had, games can create new experiences where players come to understand truths that they have no prior experience with. (See Daniel Cook's article.)

For example, it is well documented that Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired to make The Legend of Zelda because of his experiences as a child exploring caves near his hometown in Japan. Now imagine the experience of a child from a U.S. inner city playing Zelda, who has never left their neighborhood block, let alone seen a cave.

Through the trial and error of play, this child may come to understand a truth about the dynamics of exploring that they may never have been able to experience otherwise. This child may not understand the value of the new metaphor immediately, but if the play experience is meaningful and memorable, the model that has been built will have utility later when a relevant situation arises. This is the value of truth in games.


The Problem with "Just Fun"

So if we want truth in games, our task is to integrate rules into game systems so that they reveal something truthful about how the world works. Before we explore how to craft rules in this way, it is useful first to recognize how current design trends have caused truth in games to be obscured.

The problem is not that games are lacking truth; in fact, many popular games and mechanics already derive their fun from underlying truths.

Take for example everyone's favorite gaming trope: the health bar representing a value ranging from 0 to 100. By representing health as a simple, quantifiable number, designers have allowed players of all ages to build metaphors that help them understand a basic yet important concept: survival.

Interactions with a health bar show us that our health can deteriorate, that we can heal over time if we allow ourselves to rest after damage is taken, that sustaining enough damage can lead to death, etc.

Survival is a fundamental concept all humans have to master, though modern advances have thankfully made these lessons less immediately applicable to our everyday lives.

The trouble here is two-fold. At an industry level, it seems we only make games about survival. The primary genre of survival games, the shooter, sees hundreds of new entries released each year and at the core of each is some sort of simple health metaphor.

Occasionally new games come along that define new health paradigms, and some of those even shed light onto more subtle truths about survival (for example, compare Metal Gear Solid 1 to MGS3; each explores survival, but the latter explores an array of more detailed truths by allowing players to damage and heal individual limbs).

But ultimately these games end up exploring the same narrow band of truth, making the industry as a whole look uninspired and adolescent by comparison to other popular art forms. We could be exploring a broader set of truths.

Second and more important, we as designers have too often made the mistake of looking to other games for inspiration. We mimic a mechanic we like, tweaking it slightly without regard to the affects the change may have on its meaning. (See Jonathan Blow's MIGS lecture.)

This copycat approach has led designers to create games with truths that are largely indiscernible or incoherent. Like a non sequitur joke that breaks a scene in improvisational comedy, this new mishmash of game rules may sustain an initial burst of enjoyment, but it breaks down any sort of discernable metaphor that might be being built in the player's mind.

The player is entertained by the novelty of the new interaction, but they walk away from the experience with a disparate set of new understandings that have little utility outside of the game itself.

How to Build Rules from Truth

The key then is to develop a new process that takes truth into account from the beginning. I see the following steps as a place to start:

1. Understand the truths in your game, by drawing inspiration from your unique life experiences and not solely from other games.

2. Intentionally focus and simplify the systems that make up your games, to enable players to discover the meaningful metaphors they contain.

So how do we accomplish this? How do we encode a truth into a game, and how do we structure our experience so that players notice? Thankfully, there are already games and designers we can examine to help us understand how to build a game from the truth-up.


Case Study 1: Spore

Will Wright's Spore presents us with a simple example. Spore broadly explores the concept of evolution, and allows you to control a species you create across multiple stages. I'd like to discuss one piece of the game, the early game creature creator.

Rules

I had one of those Miyamoto "a-ha" moments while upgrading my first creature, which had just exited the ocean and begun walking on land. My creature was optimized for surviving in the ocean, and was getting killed by the predators that had made it onto land before it. I had to deal with the reality of helping my creature survive in its new environment.

To cope, I went into the creature editor to make some adjustments. The core creature upgrade rules in play were:

1. Creatures may add components, which cost DNA points.

2. Creature components have a set of functional attributes. Attributes offer buffs to skills in social and combat categories.

3. Components on the creature can be traded in for DNA points.

4. Creatures can earn DNA points by completing various game tasks, such as killing rival creatures, or befriending neighboring species. (This allows creatures to grow in overall complexity)

Analysis

Effectively, Maxis distilled their understanding of the rules of natural selection into a simplified model, and put the player in the role of the selector. My creature was dying, showing that if I wanted it to survive, I had to adapt. I needed claws for defense, but I did not have enough DNA points to make the addition.

To accommodate claws, I had to trade in old fins. To accommodate eyes, my creature's antennae needed to go. I was able to play with thousands of years of progress in a few seconds. By interacting with a simplified model, I was able to experience successes and failures that shed light on why species on earth adapt like they do.

Takeaway

Spore demonstrates the unique way we come to understand truths from playing games. In this example I actually learned about natural selection through failure. By poking at the edges of Spore's possibility space, and taking in all of the feedback on how its system works, I was able to build up a clearer and clearer model that was useful for understanding evolution on Earth-or at least the model that Will Wright chose to represent.

In fact, it would be fair to disagree with the model Spore presents, because the rules of a game do not need to be "correct" in the sense that they perfectly reflect reality. Since all designers have unique life experiences, the rules they choose naturally reveal their point of view, and players may find they have a differing perspective. But this is precisely where the art in game design lies-the designer's perspective is revealed through the way he crafts the rules.

Case Study 2: Texas Hold'em Poker

A friend, Dustin Clingman, made this claim about being successful in business:

It takes a lot of guts to put your future at risk for a chance on yourself... You need to be playing like you don't need the money all the time, and be sure you learn to play poker. It did wonders for my business skills.

He's not the first to learn something useful from playing poker. With the Texas Hold'em variant's rise in popularity, people from all walks of life have noticed the game's utility. What about this simple card game's design allows its truths to resonate with such a broad audience?

Rules

Once again we find a simple set of rules giving way to a deep yet understandable possibility space. For ease of discussion, I'm going to assume you are somewhat familiar with the rules of poker. As a refresher, here are the high level rules of Texas Hold'em:

1. All players are dealt two cards down (hidden).

2. Players must make a decision based upon the strength of their cards - Bet, Check, or Fold.

3. Multiple betting decisions are made over the course of four rounds.

4. Over these rounds, five cards are revealed to all players.

5. The player makes a final poker hand of five cards using any of the two cards in their hand and the five shared cards.

Analysis

Though the intentions of the original designer are unknown, the rules of poker put a focus on the truth "you must make the most of what you are given", a.k.a. "you must play the cards you are dealt." This is particularly true of Texas Hold'em. Whereas some poker variants give players the option to swap out cards from their hand, Texas Hold'em generally forces players to act upon the two cards they receive at the start.

What makes Texas Hold'em interesting is that its model makes a point to show that players can still be successful with weak starting cards. The rules around how cards are hidden and revealed (rules 1 and 4) give way to an implicit rule: players can bluff.

Bets are interpreted by opponents as a vote of confidence in how strong a player thinks their cards are, in relation to the cards visible to everyone. A small bet is weak in confidence; a check decision is viewed as a player revealing their uncertainty. When played live against other people, players with weak cards can project misleading confidence information by using both their bets and body language.

It is this underlying experience of detecting and showing confidence that stays with players after the game is over. Players have connected playing Texas Hold'em as a metaphor for understanding how to be successful in a variety of life situations, such as negotiating, interrogating, and of course, business.

Takeaway

Texas Hold'em's mainstream usage as a metaphor shows that with elegant rule design anyone can discern the truths underlying gameplay, not just academics. It also demonstrates that games of all formats (digital, non-digital, single player, multiplayer) can contain truths, because the truths of a game are stored in its rules.


Case Study 3: Gravitation

Jason Rohrer's Gravitation is on the cutting edge of truth in games. The game explores new and sophisticated truths drawn directly from Jason's life experience. If you haven't played Gravitation, I'd suggest giving it a try before moving on; it's free and takes exactly eight minutes to complete.

Rules

Rohrer describes Gravitation as "a video game about mania, melancholia, and the creative process." The game is constructed from only the rules that are necessary to achieve this vision. The primary rules of the game look something like this:

1. The player character can move left, move right, and jump. This movement is gated by a jump range value (represented as a field of view).

2. The player may increase the size of the field of view by maintaining a resource, represented by a child throwing a ball. Returning the ball makes the child happy. The field of view decreases while the player is away from the child.

3. The player may collect stars. Collected stars fall to the ground level and turn into blocks.

4. The player must push blocks towards a goal (fireplace) to earn points. Large groups of blocks take longer to push. The player cannot return the ball while pushing blocks.

5. (Spoiler) If the child is not kept happy, the child disappears.

Analysis

So what do these rules have to do with "mania, melancholia, and the creative process"? Abstractly, rules 1, 2, and 3 set up a system where players balance between venturing out to collect points and maintaining a resource that enables those ventures. Like the voting of confidence in poker, it is this underlying balancing experience that players takeaway.

However, as Miyamoto's earlier quote suggests, it would be difficult to understand the value of Gravitation if it did not provide some clues. Gravitation hints at the utility of this balancing experience through very intentional choices of visual feedback. The resource is represented as a child with a ball. The player character's head lights on fire when the field of view is full, as if to signal "there is a fiery idea in my brain that must be attended to!"

Though the representation provides clues, the system remains abstract enough to allow all players to discern the underlying truth of "creative pursuits and personal goals must be viewed in light of other responsibilities." For example, I was able to relate the experience to a similar balancing act in my own life. The experience provided me with a model by which I could understand the non-obvious family dynamics I must consider before pursuing my own game ideas.

However, this is not the only way the game can be interpreted. Since some important elements were left abstract (stars, the environment), other players are also able to find utility in the game even though their life experiences are different. Whereas for me the stars make sense as game design ideas, they could easily represent writing, fishing, research, or any other personal interest people balance.

Gravitation explores a few other truths, such as "it is a taxing process to turn ideas into concrete projects", and "being a good friend or family member can feel like a thankless task." There are many other truths that Jason could have represented, yet chose not to.

As Jonathan Blow (creator of Braid) points out in his own analysis of the game, any unnecessary additions would have made understanding the game's core truths much more difficult to comprehend. It is this level of focus on the truth throughout the rules and representation that makes Gravitation so successful at leaving an impression.

Takeaway

Gravitation demonstrates the value of drawing from life experience and the value of focus. Rohrer looked at the dynamics of his own creative process, and identified the truths about it. He then built a system with only the rules and representation that were necessary, so that the player could discern its value.

Conclusion

The explanation has been long, but the truth about truth in games is quite simple. To embody a game with truth, draw inspiration from the truths around you. In other words, draw from your life experiences.

As Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired to make Zelda because of his adventures exploring caves as a child, and as Jason Rohrer created Gravitation because he was struggling with the game's truths in his own life, our best ammo for putting truth in games is to draw upon the truths we know most intimately.

Though easier said than done, drawing from your life experience will help you find a unique perspective on a truth that, in turn, can change the perspective of the player who experiences it. If you work hard to research and understand your truth, you can find a way to abstract it just enough so that a wide audience can relate. To quote Chris Crawford again:

To be of any value, the artistic expression must be unconventional, or at least non-obvious; at the same time, you must see your truth from many points of view. You must be able to see how your truth fits into many different webworks of knowledge.

Drawing from life experience and finding your truth is the wisdom passed on to new painters, musicians, film makers, comedians, and writers, and it is equally worthwhile wisdom for game designers. If you believe that game designers are artists, and that games are art, then it makes sense to look to this approach to the creative process and include truths wherever possible within your games.

Games do not have to be just fun. They can be fun because they're true.

References

1. Del Close, Charna Halpern, Kim "Howard" Johnson. Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation. (Meriwether Pub., 1994)

2. Chris Crawford. Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling. (New Riders Games, 2005)

3. Shigeru Miyamoto. "Remote Composer - An Interview with Shigeru Miyamoto." (EDGE magazine, Issue 196, December 2008)

4. Daniel Cook. "Constructing Artificial Emotions: A Design Experiment." Gamasutra, 2007. See http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/1992/constructing_artificial_emotions_.php

5. Jonathan Blow. "Conflicts in Game Design." 2008. See http://braid-game.com/news/?p=385

6. Dustin Clingman. "If you knew how hard it would be..." 2009. See http://www.dustinclingman.com/journal/2009/11/3/if-you-knew-how-hard-it-would-be-you-would-never-have-starte.html

7. Jonathan Blow. "Game Recommendation: Osmos." 2009. See http://braid-game.com/news/?p=621

[Photos by Thomas Hawk and Peter Hopper, used under Creative Commons license.

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