[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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.