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Opinion: Designing Meaning in Games
Opinion: Designing Meaning in Games
April 22, 2011 | By Pete Garcin

April 22, 2011 | By Pete Garcin
More: Console/PC, Indie, Audio, Design

[Audio director Pete Garcin discusses how developers can communicate ideas and emotions in their games by manipulating the rules, in this #altdevblogaday-reprinted opinion piece.]

Often, many of the choices we make when designing games can be made unconsciously or based on intuition - which might be on the mark, but also might result in experiences that are uneven, subject to whim, or non-cohesive.

Can identifying how design choices function together as a system help us to design more meaningful game experiences?

If we consider that games are actually a communication medium, then if we want to make meaningful experiences, that communication needs to be clear and cohesive.

The choices that we make when designing games matter in ways that go beyond whether or not they are purely 'fun'. It sounds obvious, but the reasoning behind design choices is all-too-often overlooked and not scrutinized.

In music, everyone intuitively understands that minor keys are 'sad' and major keys are 'happy' (broadly speaking) - and that if I want to write an uplifting song - to communicate the emotion of joy or hope, that I'm not going to choose a minor-key (and if I did, that is a very meaningful choice - because I am obviously breaking the 'rules').

Like music, games also have a set of underlying rules that communicate ideas and emotions, some of which they have inherited from other media. Identifying, learning, and manipulating those rules is one of the ways that we can move towards designing more meaningful experiences in games.

Luckily for us, there is already a set of tools to help us discover and harness these rules. In the academic world, Semiotics is the study of systems of meaning. Someone who studies Semiotics, a semiotician, could decide to study the systems of meaning in games (and people do!).

I'm not going to provide the kind of lengthy and in-depth analysis here that an actual semiotician would (and I'll spare you the jargon too!), but here are a few early ideas on how we could use some of the principles of semiotics to approach game design, taking into account a few of the ways that a game can use symbols and style (its 'semiotic building blocks' so to speak), to create a meaningful and cohesive experience for players.

Tone and Style

When we take a look at the presentation elements of a game, we may think "Hey, that looks cool!" And certainly it may very well look cool. However, graphic and audio choices are deeper than just aesthetics or 'how they look.'

For example, think back to when all games featured 2D graphics. Well, many of your players will also remember all of those 2D games, and they bring all the knowledge of those games to any current games they may play.

So say if, in the year 2011, you decide to create a game using 2D instead of 3D, the game may not only 'look cool' but it will also trigger the memories and emotions that players have regarding those old games. Is that something we want in our game?

Do we want the player to compare our game to those classic games? Do we want them to remember what it was like to play one of those games for the first time? Are we simply on a platform that is better suited to 2D?

There's an entire level of 'meaning' embedded in the design and aesthetic choices we make, sometimes entirely on instinct - and learning to be conscious of those meanings can be a powerful tool.

Rules and Mechanics

One of the biggest differences between games and traditional media are the rules that govern your interactions with the game. These rules govern the world in a way that imparts meaning to every action.

In a game you have the ability to drastically alter the laws of physics, dictate the situations in which players live or die, design entire economic systems, and craft experiences that were never before possible.

It is worth considering then, that all of these choices that surround the mechanics of a game have meaning, and that they work together with all the other elements - audio, visual, input - in order to create the experience in subtle ways.

Designing rules and mechanics largely centers on whether or not it's fun, but each one also brings a level of meaning to the game. For example, a game in which you can win by diplomatic means creates a very different 'worldview' for the player than one in which you can win only by physically conquering the opponent. In other words, it is not simply a rule of play but also is imparting meaning by suggesting a particular view of the world for the player.

Tying it All Together

What we gain from thinking about these aspects of our designs is the ability to start to see the subtle interconnections between all the various parts, and how they work together as a system to create worlds.

If we think back to the example about major and minor keys, we can now hopefully see how that by spending some time reflecting and studying our design choices, we can begin to understand similar rules at work within games.

Creating games, like all other media, means making a lot of hard choices. It makes sense to delve into the impact of those choices, and to understand how both the things we choose to leave in, and leave out, impact not just the functionality, but the 'meaning' of a gaming experience.

The important point I hope I've conveyed here is that by breaking games down into their fundamental building blocks, and understanding how they function, we can learn to systematically approach game design so that game elements work together, creating a cohesive, meaningful, and fun experience for players.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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Alexander Jhin
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I'd love to hear more concrete examples of actual game play mechanics that communicate particular ideas or emotions. I can only think of a couple of examples: rapidly tapping a key to represent some frantic action. Or the adult/art game Ute, seemed to capture the feeling of guilt and fear of getting caught during sex, but it was an entire system that gave the feeling rather than some constituent parts (ie, it was an entire melody that portrayed the message rather than, say, just a minor key.)

September 12th (another flash art game) used the idea of a systemic Catch-22, no-win situation to portray the futility of the war on terror.

But none of these are nearly as universal, powerful or flexible as the minor key.

Rene Argoud
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Heavy Rain seemed to try and give meaning to player input (frantic button pushes, more complex entries for confusing or startling situations) but I'm hard-pressed to think of anything that makes these meaningful, they're relevant in terms of the instinctual reactions they bring out in the player but in the end I did feel like i walked away from a Dragons Lair arcade machine.

Maybe, the added freedom presented in the motion controllers for their respective systems will help this?

In much the same way that music derives meaning from all it's component's one could hypothetically set a rhythm to the experiance, that could make gameplay into something that derives meaning from an eclectic mish-mash. IE(the meaningful removal of distinct items/props, or in contrast added variation's in visual elements to force a player to regroup and find his barings, while simultaneously increasing the need for input) A lot of early MMO's had this present as a problematic side-effect to simpler textures. Meridian 59 comes to mind but that was accidental. I get a sense that this was present in Mirrors edge to a certain extent but it felt half-cooked.

Bart Stewart
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Bravo! I agree completely with this concept, which I liken to collimating a laser or a telescope: when all the systems aren't working together, the whole thing is out of focus.

On the other hand, by taking the time to consciously tweak every subsystem so that it supports every other subsystem, the output of the whole becomes much more coherent, dramatically increasing its power.

For example, suppose you want to communicate something on the theme of "freedom."

To emphasize this you could develop a first-person game set within a story of imprisonment and release. During the prison section you could keep rooms small and dark, with low ceilings and short movement paths. You could restrict options for interacting with the gameworld, and underscore this with low-pitched and minor-key or even dissonant music. All of these elements would work together to create a sense of oppressiveness.

Imagine the player's feelings then on leaving this setting and emerging into the bright sunlight of an open world, with birds flying lightly through the air to a few sweet major chords. Both Half-Life 2 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion made use of this process of bounding and then opening both the player's world and the available gameplay mechanics, and both became more memorable for it.

By carefully designing each of the elements of the player experience to cohere, to work together in support of the guiding vision, you make the whole experience much more powerful than if you simply implement the first or simplest thing that comes to mind.

This article by Pete Garcin makes that point very well. Nice job!