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Truth in Game Design

February 2, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

[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:

  • "Tell the truth, then go from there." - Stephen King, writer
  • "Good acting often implies endowing a role with emotional truth. Method acting is all about stimulating that truth." - Mariana Holy, writer
  • "So much of what I do is personal experience. There's a bit of poetic license, but it's always something that happened to me -- or somebody I know. It just makes a better song if there's some ring of truth to it." - Guy Clark, song writer and musician

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.


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Comments


Ryan Wade
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Great post. My company is actually working on our first game now, and this was definitely a great read.



Thanks again,



Ryan

Bruno Bulhoes
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Excelent article. It's something akin to what Jonathan Blow said once in a keynote at MIGS 2008, about a concept called dynamical meaning (I can see it is in your references). Another similar concept is procedural rhetoric from Ian Bogost. Also, it's a interesting related read an article from Bogost himself about the what he calls Proceduralism as an artistic "movement" in video games. You can read it here at Gamasutra.



I'm also studying for my graduation thesis the underlying nature of meaning/expression through game design and I must agree that even though it is a complex topic to address it is a critical one to the progress of video games as a creative, expressive and culturally relevant medium.



--

Bruno Bulhões

Creative Director - Aduge Studio

www.adugestudio.com

Simon Ludgate
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Sadly, the article (and some of its analysis) is based on factually incorrect information. On page 3 about Poker:



"5. The player makes a final poker hand of five cards using the two cards in their hand and three of 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 forces players to act upon the two cards they receive at the start."



As it happens, you DO NOT have to use the cards you are dealt in Texas Hold 'Em Poker. You can use both, just one, or none of the cards you are dealt to make the strongest Poker hand. From Wikipedia:



"On the showdown, each player plays the best poker hand they can make from the seven cards comprising his two hole cards and the five community cards. A player may use both of his own two hole cards, only one, or none at all, to form his final five-card hand."



From http://www.learn-texas-holdem.com/questions/using-both-cards-in-h
oldem.htm



"When you do the showdown you take the best five cards out of the seven. What that means is that you don't actually have to use any of your personal cards."

Simon Carless
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Simon, thanks for the heads up - we made a temporary fix, since we don't think the GENERAL intent of that section is taken away by that mistake - most people do use the cards in their hand, though not all. We'll follow up with the author to see if he wants to clarify further.

Leo Gura
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...and such as life, you can choose NOT to use the cards you start with, making the best of what's comes along latter. That's analogous to being born with a disability, but making the best of it and coming out on top. As in Poker, exceptional people can do this. It's interesting how sometimes the most gifted and affluent individuals make the least of their "hand", while their down-trodden counterparts rise to the challenge.



Don't get caught up in minutiae; Scott's point is valid. Games hold value in allowing you to abstract away details and apply lessons in different contexts. The only trick is making such games, and still having them sell.

Glenn Storm
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I agree with the core thesis. I've been a strong believer that anything that is compelling contains an element that can be learned. Truth is just another way of describing something that could be taught, learned or understood. My short-hand, if somewhat abstracted, example is the difference between audience reactions to a joke as opposed to a pun. This also falls in line with the notion of Flow introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and some of the basic needs outlined in Self-Determination Theory (Competency).

Sean Parton
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@ Leo Gura: You said "...and such as life, you can choose NOT to use the cards you start with, making the best of what's comes along latter. That's analogous to being born with a disability, but making the best of it and coming out on top."



I suppose that means that if you have a grievous disability (ie you're not using your cards to make a hand), the best you can hope for is a split pot?..

Kemp Lyons
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I very much agree with this article. It's a concept that I have been thinking about for some time but haven't been able to find the right words to express.



My concern with the idea of truth in games is the same as my concern with truth in other media. Consider film, for example. When a filmmaker is overly conscious of their views on truth and is ready and willing to use all of his artistic might to express that, they tend to produce work that is too on-the-nose. (For example, the well-intentioned Christian movie makers...)



In the examples above, the truth is there. The average player doesn't even consider it, nor are they beaned over the head with it. But it's there. As long as designers can maintain that sort of distance, I'm excited to see what kinds of truth statements we can create.

Matt Riley
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I feel like this article chose examples that reinforced its point and ignored those that didn't. I'd bet good money that there was some intense Googling for "truth" quotes. How easy would it be to find authors, musicians, and directors who talked about making others believe their lies?



If the premise of the article is that to make meaningful games, we need to reference truth in them, then why is Texas Hold'Em being used as an example here? Clearly the author of Gravitation wanted the player to take away that meaning. Miyamoto wanted us to feel how he felt as a child. Texas Hold'Em is a CARD GAME. I'm going to assume that it was included because it is currently popular, and therefore has that "wide appeal" mentioned. However, the "truth" aspects of hold'em are not unique to that strain of poker. Seven-card stud has been around far longer, but isn't nearly as popular. Most attribute Texas Hold'em's mass appeal to its accessibility, NOT its truth. On the other hand, a game like Connect 4 has great mass appeal, and virtually no connection to truth.



On Comedy:

"meaningful and memorable comedy takes more than just cheap jokes, and has to have an underlying truth supporting it."

This is true of some comedians -- but then you have Mitch Hedberg, whose act is almost entirely cheap jokes and one-liners. George Carlin is almost entirely truth, and yet many people feel he's just ranting.



The real irony of the article, however, is the continual reference to Jonathan Blow. What is Braid, if not an example of "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."?



The article mentions that the game industry hurts itself by continually making "the mistake of looking to other games for inspiration."

Honestly, I think the much larger mistake is relying on other genres for that inspiration. Why should games be like Hollywood? Why should games be like books? Why should games be like music? Each of these mediums does what works best for itself, and games should learn to do the same. If anything, the success and impact of Braid might serve as an example that you can create meaningful experiences out of random game mechanics.

Bruno Bulhoes
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@ Matt Riley



Braid is exactly trying to use game design as expression. I think what the author is trying to say is that game design can be used as a expressive medium in itself, where you can embed meaning to mechanics and rules. I interpreted where he says "the mistake of looking to other games for inspiration" is the mistake of simply using "what works elsewhere" in your game without any consideration. This creates noise, conflicts with the game design and any underlying theme happening in the game. This creates the "just make it fun" fallacy. Well, saying it is a fallacy is a bit harsh, since it works commercially (a game made "just to be fun" sells well, as much as a generic summer flick), but it does not help games to be taken seriously as a medium when every game with any mass publicity and media spotlight does this.



And yes, games need to be more games, not more Hollywood, nor books, nor plays, nor music.





--

Bruno Bulhões

Creative Director - Aduge Studio

www.adugestudio.com

[User Banned]
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Corentin Lemasson
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@ Bruno Bulhoes



I agree with you.



What I have understood about this article is that you must use the game mechanics and rules fitted with your purpose. It doesn't matter whether it is an innovative feature or not. To make the truth the central aspect of the creative process is enough. It allows to avoid a confusion for the player about the meaning of the game by conveying it with a part of reality that make sense for him. I think it is very different from "just make it fun" because we keep in mind this idea and choose carefully our conducting in the game design. Moreover, nothing stop the discovering of a new game mechanic during that process or the inspiration from other games. It could be an important step to make games thoughtful like other kind of culture ( At least, it seems appealing on paper ).

E Zachary Knight
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@Bob Dillian



I think you are in the wrong article or most likely the wrong site. I fail to see what your comments have to do with anything in this article.

Kevin Reese
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There sure is never any shortage of stimulating and engaging articles on Gamasutra.

Scott Brodie
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Thanks Simon & Simon - I did flub the rule description, thanks for calling this out and fixing the error (the edit looks good, thanks). That said I do not feel this invalidates my analysis or takeaway. If I'm not mistaken, when a hand is over a player must make the best hand available out of the total seven cards, so the player does not really have a choice in whether or not their two hidden cards are used. Even if they could choose to not use these cards, the player experience would still largely be based around the choice of how to project confidence based upon the information that is available. That experience is very useful in other life situations outside of gameplay itself.



Though the particular example has flaws, the reason I focused on Texas Hold'em over other games is to shed light on the fact that truth is not a new invention. Truth has already been used to add depth to games; popular, multi-player, non-digital games at that.



Thanks for reading, and thanks for the thoughtful feedback!

Matt Riley
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@Bruno Bulhoes, @Corentin Lemasson

"To make the truth the central aspect of the creative process is enough."



This is exactly my problem with the article. We're replacing one gross assumption "just make it fun" with another: "just make it true". The author makes it pretty clear: "if you are interested in offering meaningful and memorable gameplay, truth is the critical missing component. "



Why? Where do his examples back this up? For the sake of argument, let's assume that Braid (he cites Blow enough that Braid is fair game) and Miyamoto games are actually meaningful and memorable. Now what about the games made them that way? Do you really believe most people who liked Braid found the meaning in the small slivers of story spread throughout the game, tying the mechanics to the gameplay? I think its far more likely people were interested in the novelty of the "new interaction" and/or loved that last level. Do you really believe most people who liked Mario found the meaning in stomping goombas? Or is it more likely that we had something new and shiny at the time, and now have some severe nostalgia? And then we have the far-fetched example of Texas Hold'Em...



Yes, you CAN "embed meaning to mechanics and rules." But I'm not sure that makes a game any more or less meaningful as a whole. Think about it from the reverse perspective. Wouldn't it feel obnoxious if every game mechanic had some obvious meaning? There's a lot missing in the "just make it fun" equation, but I don't think truth alone fills that gap.

Simon Tai
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After reading the article and all the comments, my own takeaway is that there exist many philosophies, ideas, perspections to what games really are, despite the certain qualities that games possess. It's because each of us, gamer and game developers/producers/designers, build ourselves this great market one game at a time. Like any other types of media, games hold its own unique place in our culture and experiences. As with other types of entertainment, we hold our value, we build what we think are fun, and hope that the audience will appreciate our efforts and share our views.

Andrew Spearin
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Excellent article. I think it's an approach that most designers take whether they are conscious of it or not. It certainly is the approach I am aware of taking.

Brian Handy
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Beautiful article, and a definite reminder of how amazing this website is: both the article as well as the community response.



Regardless of if truth deserves as much of a focus as it gets in this article or not, it's good to see this article being written, because truth certainly doesn't get enough attention in the industry as a whole. How we translate that truth into the game... whether that's fun, depth, plot, immersion, etc, or all of the above, ends up being in the hands of the craftsman or the artist who plays the role of the designer.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Bruno Bulhoes
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@ Bob Dillan



You are pretty misinformed and I suspect you are just trolling but oh well. Wind Waker and Twilight Princess are both designed and directed by Eiji Aonuma. Since Ocarina of Time Miyamoto is not involved with the core design of the Zelda franchise (he justs produces and overlooks development pretty much).



The last great game Miyamoto designed was much probably Pikmin which is inspired by his gardening experience. And it is a very clever take on the RTS genre using gardening as a strong metaphor to long term planning, patience and whatnot.



Nintendo has a big hard time making a great game without Miyamoto at the helm since Gunpei Yokoi died. They really need that second party support (people from HAL, Intelligent Systems, Retro Studios, Alpha Dream etc.) or they blunder since Miyamoto likes long dev cycles. He is not overrated by any means, he solidly delivers greatly designed games. If you do not find them fun, oh well, join the group. I personally find Sid Meier's and Will Wright's games pretty boring but I can't say they are overrated designers and whatnot because they aren't. They are great, they just don't make games for my tastes.





@ Matt Riley



Yes. I agree with you on this. I usually do not agree with "doing X this way is right, doing any other way is wrong" mentality. For me "just make it fun" is a valid standpoint. It created great (and meaningful) games already and will be able to create great (and meaningful) games from time to time. I think it's is a fallacy not as a standpoint but in the way it's used by some designers. It's like they don't want to think too much about their craft, and that makes me sad.



On the other hand the "just make it true or meaningful" is another valid way of designing games that are very poorly explored as of now. That's what I'm actually defending: let us explore this way of doing things. And this kind of discussion is what will actually make games relevant, more than the games themselves. Discussing the power, the mechanisms, the functions, the effects and etecetera of our craft is what will make games more than a young male fantasy pastime or a simply leisurey waste of time in the eyes of the general public.



--

Bruno Bulhões

Creative Director - Aduge Studio

www.adugestudio.com

[User Banned]
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Toby Hazes
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@Sean: nah you'll just have to bluff all other players out of the game so that the grievious hand you have never becomes an issue, is never seen by anybody ;)

Glenn Storm
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@Matt Riley: "This is exactly my problem with the article. We're replacing one gross assumption 'just make it fun' with another: 'just make it true'. The author makes it pretty clear: 'if you are interested in offering meaningful and memorable gameplay, truth is the critical missing component.'"



You bring up an important point that could be completely lost from this article and I thank you for pointing it out. Wholly apart from the content or subject of our efforts in art, which is the real focus of this article, the purpose of design is to craft the presentation of that content appropriately. Truth by itself is rather dull, but truth presented artfully is largely what we do. It's the difference between George Carlin and a dictionary.

Bruno Bulhoes
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@ Bob Dillan



Miyamoto oversees pratically all Nintendo games. He is the one that suggested Retro Studios to make Metroid Prime in first person, for example. As I implied on my post, I don't think Miyamoto is perfect (or my hero). His last great game was in 2002, a long time ago already. Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy are on a ultimately dead end creatively (having a lot of problems) and the New Super Mario Bros. even with all the good things are just cheap streamlined nostalgia rides.



What I was saying is that I only try to analyze Miyamoto's games when he take helm by himself. The japanese model is like this. Total control for the director. Period. Aonuma directed Majora's Mask which is arguably the best game in the series. Wind Waker suffered from rushing and other bad decisions, and Twilight Princess is what you get when you put fanservice (specially western audience fanservice) as the #1 design principle in your game. Miyamoto also contributed to these games, but he didn't control every aspect of them as with things like the main Marios, Yoshi Island, Pikmin and others.



I think comparing Zelda and God of War are as comparing apples and oranges. It's like comparing Halo and Metroid Prime. But enough of that. We are simply flaming each other for nothing.



And even with all the flaming and all, I must agree with you in one thing. Japan need to learn a thing or two from the western industry. The flexibility of the western industry on the design, use of conventions and specially the more loose development hierarchy is the edge that is making the western games getting more acclaim and sales than the japanese this current generation.



--

Bruno Bulhões

Creative Director - Aduge Studio

www.adugestudio.com

Sean Parton
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@Toby Hazes: Well put, sir. Well put.

Jordan Wood
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Great article. Like a commenter before me said, this article reminds me of Bogost's work in procedural rhetoric. If we, as a gaming community are going to make any forward progress toward full and authentic human expression, then we must learn the process of "truth inscription" as soon as possible.



However, I'm not sure I agree with your conclusion, or rather, I'm not sure I understand the significance of it. If inscribing truth in a game had to do with drawing from "unique" personal experiences, then I don't know how any game could be said to be more or less truthful than another. Of course we make games from our personal experience. Anything we craft inherently draws from our personal experiences. What, more specifically can the gaming industry do to streamline to those authentic human parts of our existence?

Jonathan Gilmore
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@Bruno-Well put, that was a very mature and thoughtful post.

Bart Stewart
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I thought the most important comment might have been "the designer's perspective is revealed through the way he crafts the rules."



The implication here is important: what's revealed is not "the" truth, but simply "a" truth about the human condition. A game, like any other creative work, is a reflection of the designer's personal understanding. If you're honest and your design communicates effectively, then you have a chance that others will see in your work something that resonates in their own lives.



That's when a game moves beyond being merely a way to kill some time and becomes art. But like all art, it's an expression of the artist's perception of reality -- it's not necessarily "the truth."



That's an important point about humility that game designers, like any other artists, should keep in mind when plying their craft. Being shown something the designer finds interesting can be fun -- being lectured at or condescended to is not.

Mark Venturelli
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In my opinion, you can't "write truth" in an interactive medium and just hope that it will work. What a game designer can really do is prepare the moving parts so that the players can act in a way that speaks to the human condition.

Jason Johnson
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This reminds me of the case of the Buddhist who attains enlightenment, but when other followers ask him how he did it, he is unable to tell them anything other than what they already know,



Or, of that time you took psychedelic mushrooms in the woods and through hallucinations discovered the meaning of life, and knew it for a fact, but the next day when you rushed off to tell your friends about it, they looked at you in obvious bewilderment, or pretended to understand and politely agreed, though you could tell they really didn't.

Jeanne Burch
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What I find so powerful about interactive media is that the player also has a series of "truths" that are brought to the table. Sometimes the player's truth and the developer's truth collide; sometimes they meld. When the latter happens, the game designed by the developer becomes an experience for the player instead of a way to pass some time.

Maurício Gomes
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@Bob



You are a troll...



And who said that Zelda was supposed to have a exciting combat experience? Zelda is supposed to have puzzles, not combat...



God of War: Kill stuff, sometimes press a lever...

Zelda: Play with lots of levers, sometimes kill stuff...



Same elements, diffrent focus.



And no, I am not a Zelda fan, in fact I hate Zelda, I did not complete any single game on the series, and in fact the only one that I played "significantly" was Majora Mask minigames that my roomate and I would compete in who did it better. But I still see Zelda as a worthy series, well done and well crafted.

Scott Brodie
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@Jordan Wood said: "If inscribing truth in a game had to do with drawing from "unique" personal experiences, then I don't know how any game could be said to be more or less truthful than another. Of course we make games from our personal experience. Anything we craft inherently draws from our personal experiences. What, more specifically can the gaming industry do to streamline to those authentic human parts of our existence?"



I can try to clarify a little. As in the Chris Crawford quote I reference in the conclusion, I think to be of any value the truth a game explores must be non-obvious. Life experience is probably fruitful ground for finding something that is non-obvious to some set of players, because we are the only ones that have seen life from that exact perspective. The real design exercise is to take that unique perspective you have and present it in a way that an unfamiliar player can make fit into their world view. This is hard. I guess to answer your question directly, I think designers can "streamline" towards this by more ruthlessly scrutinizing the meaning of their game and how it is presented, and by striving to approach human truths that we haven't yet addressed in games.



Also, drawing from your own experience is not the only way to find truths worth basing a game around, but I do think it is a good way for designers to transition their approach, and it’s at the core of what allows creators in other forms to have their work perceived as artful. For example, you could probably discover something from a random prototype, and then consider what the truths are in the system afterwards. It’s just approaching the problem from a different angle, but you must still consider how the rules affect the model the player builds while playing at some point.

Ron Newcomb
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"the designer's perspective is revealed through the way he crafts the rules."



Like Bart, I thought this assertion stood out, but perhaps for different reasons. I find the activity of designing coherent and enjoyable rulesets almost at odds with a designer stating a message regarding his personal understanding of the world, for precisely the reason that Mark V. expressed: the interactivity allows players to inject some of themselves into it. That can muddy any message. Or, by constraining the interactivity, the work can frustrate a player who doesn't see things in the same way the designer does, and so dismiss the game as slight, or broken, or just so much preaching.



I'm warm to the sentiment. "Make the player think, 'it's fun because it's true'" is my takeaway from the article. I see this in simulations: they reflect an aspect of the real world, perhaps not completely faithfully (given hardware constraints and/or concessions to fun), but like SimCity are true enough that the player understands tensions and tradeoffs.



But simulations don't deal with areas of *human* truth. They deal with mechanical / economic systems, with the truths of physics. Games that try to deal with the fuzzier & deeper parts of life, like Gravitation purports, are necessarily so simplistic it seems like the message is the only thing there. It feels like the designer is beating me over the head with a kindergartner's Christian allegory.

Tjien Twijnstra
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Great read, thanks for a bucket full of inspiration :-)

Tjien Twijnstra
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Great read, thanks for a bucket full of inspiration :-)

Jasper W
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A really interesting and valid point you make here. It's a shame so many reactions are made with such a superficial understanding of the word truth. The autor nails his point with a good perception of truth through rules. When I started reading I thought the article would plea for more stimulation of moral development in addition to the strong stimulation of cognitive development through current gameplay. But this article made me realize that in games moral development can and should actualy be caused by cognitive experiences. This interaction and experience with the rules is the unique strength of games as a medium.



btw, I liked the cases. Gravitation is a great meaningfull game. The example of exchanging features of your creature in Spore to earn DNA-points is the one I like the least actually. DNA-points represent an evolution-rate and you can't accelerate that by ditching features. It actually would cost DNA-points! The other rules are much stronger in this sense as they represent qualities necesairy for evolution. When you are able to fight off other creatures and engage socialy with others, the continuity of your creatures' rase has good prospects, hence there are possibilities for evolution and you earn DNA-points. I would like this more in Spore as it would mean that when you are weak, you would have to be social and protective. But off course the designer has creative freedom to change the rules. I just don't like the vision behind the rule of selling your features.

Bruno Bulhoes
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@ Mark Venturelli



Theater, specially the brechtian epic theater, is a interactive medium and, even so, the writer, directors and actors can "write truths" just fine. It's funny because the epic theatre defends that the "truth" in the message of a play is better conveyed by an audience the more this particular audience interacts with the play itself or distances themselves from the drama, thus escaping the feeling of catharsis. Funnily enough, games as an "interactive medium" are getting into a trap where inducing catharsis is the only way of making a compelling game (see all current AAA blockbusters and their mindless action, sit-back-and-watch cutscenes and etc).



Wake up people. Games are not the only interactive medium out there. There is music, architecture, theater and even some modern and post-modern painting and sculpture permit highly interactive experiences, sometimes with the feeling of interaction more empowering than most games. And they usually have a deep meaning conveyed from the author(s), or "truth", or whatever. The interactive experience that games employ are not that special in the world of art, and that's why interactivity is not enough for legitimacy.



Even so, I agree with you (haha). Games can be collaborative, in the sense that you can make the player be an author of the piece as much as you. As a designer it is your decision to make the interactivity of game in the realm of the game only or make it transcend the game and make the meaning of the work as interactive as the game itself. How to do this is what is moving me forward in the realm of game design and not of other crafts.



-



The use of the word 'truth' in this article and in the discussion is not effective I think, as it is causing a lot of misunderstandings. It's not a imposed truth, it's an investigation. You can't impose truths on any form of art, interactive or not. The user always has the power to interpret what he wants from a piece. The 'truth' is honesty from the crafter. Is embedding your work with your understanding of the world, with your meaning, with your opinion (or any other opinion you think is valid to express), and so on. The player will infer things from your work, and will compare his 'truth' based on his experiences and the experience taken from the particular work. This is the dialectic of art.



--

Bruno Bulhões

Creative Director - Aduge Studio

www.adugestudio.com

[User Banned]
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Rick Kolesar
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Thinking back to the games that really "moved" me emotionally makes me they were designed by people who were pulling from an emotional background (like this article says). I wonder if Portal was designed by someone who was in the hospital as a kid and/or was isolated a lot. I still ponder all the meanings behind Braid and wonder were Jonathan Blow got that inspiration from… or, what truths he was pulling from.



Great article Scott.

Richard Putney
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Very cool article, thank you.

Altug Isigan
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"Truth? What is truth?" :)



I have three points to raise about the whole truth in games issue:



1) In fiction we do not deal with true truth

Like in other kinds of fictional worlds, the truth in games only needs to be self-sufficient. It should explain itself by referring to itself in first stance, and not necessarily by referring to the real world or to some external universal principle believed to be common to humanity. So, a game designer's business is not to capture truth, but rather to make his fictional world truthful. He can use the real world (truth) to some extend to achieve this, but it is not necessary.



Aristoteles says that we should strive to create the possible impossible. In other words, you can have a story in the 26th century with space ships and all that stuff (like in Buck Rogers) and there is nothing true about it. Yet, if the story can explain the presence of space ships or at least make us stop questioning that they exist, then we have a possible impossible. You don't need more truth than that.



2) Games are representations.

One might claim that they are reflections of truth or that they contain a certain truth, but that "truth" will always be an interpretation of "truth". Mechanics and systems are abstractions and they reflect the ideology of their creator. Even in simulations with high fidelity we can still witness a process of selection by the designer.



Most mechanics re-create cliches or stereotypes. Since these are easy to recognize, they can be easily thought of as truth or wisdom or "human nature". Often these are biased assumptions on "human nature"... such as people are violent in essense, that they like to possess, or like to spend or like to maximize profit. These are huge claims for a world that knows war and money only for the past few thousand years. When you consider that Bentham wanted "deep play" to be prohibited by the state to protect humans from their own "irrationality", we see that truth is a tricky issue.



A designer herself is born into the "truth" of a certain age. She can't escape the prisonhouse of language, the values of her own culture easily. She herself is being shaped of the zeitgeist etc. And that counts for your audience as well. Again, "truth" is a problematic concept.



3) Finally, Truth is political

If you look for universal truth, then you find yourself in trouble. What's the truth about the war in Afghanistan or Iraq? Would you like to play an America's Army type of game created by the Taliban? What is the truth about Spore? Would you like to play a version created by the Vatican in which you don't evolve but are created by god? These are all truths.



In my opinion, this article is more about the first point that I raised, the believability issue. But as it starts to speak about universal truths, it starts to lose it's truthfulness. It could gain back most of its meaning if truth is seen as something on the verge, subject to struggle and change, created and communicated by the signs of a certain age which themselves are the result of certain historical conditions. Then I'd say it's ok to speak of "truth".



Otherwise I stick with Pilate ;)

Jalane Farrington
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Interesting artical indeed. Upon many works or creative ways, everyone seeks a specific thing in out life that we try to uncover the truth. For example, one may search for an understanding love potential, a magnificent fame, or something in our life that we may shed a meaning. For my personal reason, I only delve in dept for true stories and their power to bring the characters and places to life. Video Games and Movies are the major keys of transporting my eyes, my vision, and mind to a world we could never touch or taste with our own fingers.



Everyone can debate among themsleves of games that aren't realistic enough to produce or rather it's memorable to even mention. Game producers can even make in dept sequels, but could never realize the empty meaningful morals or themes that players haven't notice. Heh, but what about games that we DO remember, like Tetris or Ping Pong? How do they become memorable or dept?



The reason why Tetris and Ping Pong is still meaningful or indept is because these types of games connected people outside the game itself. The pleasure of accompaning a friend and enjoying the simplisty of entertainment.



We don't create stories to not share, or games made not to be played; we strive through our own truth in reasoning.



-Jalane Farrington

Jonathan Lawn
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"You can’t handle the truth!"



Sorry - couldn't resist.



I liked this article. For me it was a reminder that the mechanics in the game should match the concepts. Don't get fond of quicktime events in one game and then adding them to your grand strategy game to try to make it more exciting.



I was never been very fond of the old football (soccer) games, and I think it's for this reason. You play as whoever is on the ball, so you are trying to show off skills that belong to an individual, but you're playing the whole team, so it feels like your should be more concerned with team issues like tactics.



Similarly, "god games" have to be very careful how they insert the player and what they ask them to do.



And I think that relates to this article! The truth isn't that football manager would want Wayne Rooney to possess whoever is on the ball at any one time; the truth is that he'd want eleven players on the pitch all showing their skills and working together. Or, looking at it the other way, the truth isn't that Wayne Rooney wants to be everyone in his team; the truth is that he wants to play with ten talented individuals who can get him the ball whenever he gets any space.

Scott Brodie
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Thanks for all of the comments, the discussion here has been great.



Another thing I should clarify is the way I have summarized game truths as short, high-level axioms ("you must make the most of what you are given", "creative pursuits and personal goals must be viewed in light of other responsibilities"). I did this to try and describe the “truth space” each case study game's rules created, but this is not the exact form players take truths away in.



I think the player receives more of a personal memory of existing and making choices within the game system. Usually players describe this memory as a personal "story" they experienced during play, such as "I had these really bad cards, but I pushed all-in and still beat out two of my friends." But even that is the player trying to put into words what they experienced during play.



Paraphrasing Jon Blow yet again, if the truth in a game could really be described this way, why would we need to make the game?

Reid Kimball
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[UPDATED @1:32p]

Scott, I really enjoyed this and I see similarities in this piece with my thinking on using a Moral Premise in game design. http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/ReidKimball/20090706/2235/Infusing
_Games_with_a_Moral_Premise.php



In the article, I wrote, "The game mechanics must be constructed in such a way that through play, the player experiences the truth of [a Moral Premise]."



If I ever re-write the article I will put more emphasis on how it can communicate truths about human experiences. Thanks for your contribution to my thinking.



Forgot to add, that after I played Gravitation, I believe its truth can also be expressed in a Moral Premise as such:



"Selfishness leads to loneliness and stagnation, but generosity leads to companionship and growth."



Selfishness = player pursuing the stars, which represent personal projects or goals.

Loneliness = cold snow environment and small view of the world.

Stagnation = limited jump ability, can't move far through the world.



Generosity = spending quality time with the girl.

Companionship = feelings of love received by the girl.

Growth = ability to jump higher to access more of the world quickly to see more and do more with the stars/cubes.

Anand Chotai
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Excellent article. It's actually very similar ideas to an article I submitted two months ago to Gamasutra, that will hopefully be posted soon. I'd like to hear what you think of mine.



The basic concept of my article was identical, that art is about more than just being fun, but being useful and true as well. There are some differences though I think.

Pin Wang
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IMO some of the best game design comes from the creation of representative systems. In fact, I think most modern games are based on this: creating games based on some sort of real-life (or fantasy) concept as opposed to straight-forward design of rules. In this sense, the article is very correct in saying that understanding this relationship and putting priority on the source of the "inspiration" for the system should be a high priority when designing. You may also be correct in hinting at the fact that as developers have created more and more games based solely on other games, game designs have are increasingly influenced by usiness models as opposed to life experience.



However, there are definitely many game designers out there who understand and practice what you talk about here. It is clearly evident in the work of the best games, as well as most classic games. When it comes down to it, an understanding of this concept definitely helps to create a better game, but does not replace a need to design a game based on fun. The challenge of creating a representative system is in simplifying a "life experience" to be modeled in an accessible way (to expose the "truth" as you would say) without over-simplifying it. That process just so happens to be the process of making something fun.



I think the word "truth" here is an oversimplification of what you are trying to say. Truth does not equal fun, and you may consider the possibility that both are needed :)



That being said, I generally agree with your article and was happy to read it. For sure you are attacking one of the core issues preventing more games to be created and judged artistically. A lot of the issues you mention are also old problems that need to be brought up again. The health bar example, in particular, is something I (and many others) have been ranting about for a long time. Creating a "better" theoretical damage model was one of the first things I did when I got into game design. Glad to hear yet another person rant about it, and maybe we will eventually see innovations on this front be adopted into more mainstream games.



edit: Just realized I run a blog called "Truth Collective," so maybe I shouldn't be criticizing choice of words :)

Josh Foreman
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Aw crap. I got here late. But I enjoyed the article and comments. My take on the subject is that it reflects a general bifurcation appearing in the game development community. I think the basic idea Scott is promoting is a connection of game to life. I think this is simply a preference in game philosophy. Experiences from your life are great idea-fodder and should be utilized more often, rather than cannibalizing existing games. But there is another kind of game out there that is so abstracted that it truly is the rule-set that provides the fun. Any meaningful connection to real life must be extracted FROM the rules, rather than the rules being inspired BY real life. The Zelda/Poker duality illustrates this: Boyhood spelunking experience leads to Zelda. But no life experiences lead the designer of Poker to create those rules. (I assume. I wasn’t there when Poker was invented.) Rather, Poker leads TO lessons that can be applied to life. There is a type (or genre, or kind) of game that is simply fun because of its mechanics. Connect Four, Twister, Baseball and Midget Tossing are all purely mechanics-based games with abstract rules that present abstract challenges which offer satisfaction when overcome or performed well. The new wave of “art games” is taking a different approach to gaming by starting with a strong premise or purpose that guides the mechanics. I think these are two ends of a spectrum, with games like Chess, Alter Echo and Operation filling in the middle ground. Scott prefers one end of the spectrum. It’s a valuable thing to have innovators pushing the boundaries, and their fruits inevitably trickle down in the squishy middle ground where most games dwell.


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