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Gutters In Video Game Design

by Nikhil Murthy on 11/06/17 10:16:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The space between the panels is key to comic books. Asking the reader to interpolate between the images to get the full story is an integral part of the medium. In this article, I'm going to go over a parallel technique in video games and why I like it so much.

From Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

Gutters In Video Games

When a number of game pieces (such as a card or item) are given both semantic and mechanical values and their interactions have a gap within them, then the player experiences a gutter in the video game. A common example of a very small gutter is a giant with a lot of health. Here, both pieces reinforce each other. We expect giants to have a lot of health. Similarly, when we flavor a repeating resource converter as a chicken eating feed and laying eggs, that's something that players immediately grok and remember. Where this becomes really interesting though is when we widen that gap a little.

If the gap is too large, then it will just appear to be noise to the player, but when the gap threads the needle between indecipherable and immediately comprehensible, it can be both interesting and rewarding for the player.

Sunless Sea

My favorite example of this is from Sunless Sea, where Romantic Literature is illegal in Fallen London. This is a place where you can freely buy honey steeped in the dreams of prisoners and crates of human souls, but Romantic Literature is banned. Normally, when I think of the works of Barbara Cartland, I don't think of customs officers.

This little, unintuitive piece is incredibly evocative. Seeing something so unfamiliar naturally pushes the player to ask why and so makes the worldbuilding of the game something that the player actively collaborates with.

Note however that the game had to earn this. If you base a game in something that feels more like the real world, like Life Is Strange or Always Sometimes Monsters, then this is just going to seem incomprehensible to the player. This is a game in which London was stolen by bats and brought underground to the titular Sunless Sea. By having a world that constantly takes familiar elements and does the unexpected with them, the player becomes amenable to doing some of the work themselves.

The Shrouded Isle

Another game to use this well is The Shrouded Isle. In it, the members of your eldritch cult have virtues and vices. Some of these vices are things that naturally feel serious, such as embezzling. Some of them feel less serious though, such as being labelled a liar, and some of them don't feel like vices at all, such as being an artist or a scholar. Thus, the game states that in this world, lying and artwork are sins as serious as embezzling from the small community and so encourages the player to imagine a society in which this would hold true.

Again, the game is set up for this to work. The game leans heavily on the cultist themes and so the associated weirdness feels like it fits in.

The Quiet Sleep

My new game, The Quiet Sleep (available on Steam) threads a number of these through the game. It is a city builder/tower defense game set in a person's mind and so one of the more obvious gaps involves a pair of goals, one that lets the person reflect on failures and requires one measure of will, which is a very common currency, and the other that reflects on success and requires six measures of self-esteem, which is much trickier to get. The hope is that this asymmetry will both provide the player with some insight into the person whom they are playing and also give the player space to insert an analogous feeling from their own lives. This insertion should then help the player empathize with the character that they are playing and take more ownership of the story themselves.

Similarly, things like getting strength from love or developing your ambition to support callousness so as to help keep yourself calm are small gaps that the player can self-insert into after at most a brief moment of thought. When working as a cab driver or cleaner results in anger from casual racism, that's a thing that I can insert a number of my personal experiences into and I expect that a number of players can do the same.


To add gutters to your game, you require a setting that allows players to solve the gaps and you require the gaps themselves to be made. Once this is done though, they are a good way to get the player to take an active role in the world of a game and in the narrative reasons behind specific mechanical interactions and to give the player space to insert personal experiences into the game.

- @murthynikhil

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