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Here I draw attention to the game spaces that are “in-between” core game play: between fights, battles, attempts, in-level play. Those spaces where your heroes rest a while before the next exploration.
In the game design process it can be quite interesting to design in-between spaces beyond designing the core mechanics. There are many kinds of such spaces, so many that the definition itself starts to leak, as we’ll see in the end. These home places can have their own mechanics, and can even become the main focus of the game.
I also ask myself: does this relate to play as learning?
I am designing a game based on the novella collection The Decameron, Prince Galehaut, by Giovanni Boccaccio, written in 1353. The Decameron is a lively literary masterpiece, composed of 101 short novels, full of wit, eroticism and tragedy, elegantly structured and (quite remarkably) motivated by gender equality concerns. Was immediately prohibited by the Church and (hence :D) became a European “best seller”, widely translated and read.
The Decameron is written in early Italian and the aim of the project is training students of Italian as a foreign language using good quality literary works, as part of a wider initiative on teaching language with literature.
After discarding a couple of mechanics based on branching narratives, I settled on this core mechanic: generate a shuffled universe made of fragments of the novels, represented by tiles. The aim of the player is putting novellas together again, by rearranging the tiles on a plane. This has several advantages as it uses existing narrative material, allows for progressive learning, and is modular in development.
The player has a limited number of attempts to sort a novella on the plane, which she uses up when the shifted tiles don’t fit. If all available attempts get consumed without completing a novella, the player has to start again with a new shuffled deck on a plane.
So with Pino Panzarella we outlined a game concept:
Now finding a core mechanic and producing a concept is just the very beginning of the game design of a game, as this continues along all asset production, development and prototyping. You will have to work on balancing formulas, defining required game feel, progression. Along the process even the core mechanic may change, sometimes more than once.
Yes I am getting close to the point – keep reading, patient friend.
While I was thinking about the game design above, I listened to the traditional recap podcast of Best 2016 Strategy Games by Three Moves Ahead, where they discuss the wonderful game Darkest Dungeon and remark that in it “you never die”.
You don’t die because between one attempt at “clearing” a dungeon and the next, you get back to Hamlet town, where you form, train and cure your roster of adventurers for the next dark dungeon. Here “you” is the player as the manager of a changing team of adventurers; the single adventurer does die in fact.
The resting and training part is quite curated, and whatever has happened in the previous attempt, you always get a new chance for assembling a new roster of adventurers to be sent into the various expeditions needed to reach and purge the Darkest Dungeon.
Thinking about this dynamic made me focus on an aspect where the preliminary ideas around The Decameron where particularly lacking: what happens between an attempt at putting a story together and the following one? I started to question the implicit assumption that the “in-between” is secondary or that it doesn’t need specific game design attention.
The Decameron is structured as a frame story: the reader gets immersed in a main narrative where a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death start telling tales.
Things happen in between the tales told... uh yes, the point about my game design lacking treatment of the “in-between” was staring at me right from inside the work I was working on!
So the presence of “meta in game” is not an invention of videogames: I realized that a technique was missing in the game design that was in the original media, from eight hundred years ago.
Now activities where “in-between” spaces are important and structured abound: think about sports! Training, recovering and studying in between matches in time got more and more important, for example in football it got so important and gets so much media attention that people are actually a bit fed up with it.
(I’m actually developing a narrative game on football with the help of Daniele Giardini, and indeed there the story in between matches may end up being more articulated then the match part.)
What happens in in-between spaces also strictly depends on how failing / dying is handled in your game design. There is wide spectrum of choices in how to handle failure, from permadeath (just restart from the very beginning) to restarting any number of times from about the same point where you died. I’ve schematized the choice below.
The graph is partially misleading as in many games there is progress anyway even if you die, as say you collected stuff or learned new information. We’ll get back to this in the following.
The permadeath choice has had its revival (:D) in latest years, a beautiful example being FTL: Faster Than Light
See the FTL screenshot above? Just “restart” on fail, no save / load. It’s permadeath. Just like humans.
Now permadeath may be terrible or fine for your players – it depends on how the game is structured and to which genre it belongs. It may be frustrating or stimulating – it is hardly an inclusive choice. Its opposite, permalife may work very well too, see Pippin Barr.
The worse possible way to have permadeath is by having neither a path nor a generative environment, and forcing the player to play a canned story each time she dies. Believe it or not, I recently had to go through exactly that penitence playing in the promising VA-11 Hall-A.
So if you are doing permadeath, there is little to design specifically as in-between space, as the game just restarts. But if instead you preserve game state, in-between land can testify and articulate player progress.
For example in multiplayer games, in-between pauses may or may not work as socialization opportunities, as discussed by Koster here.
Let’s consider the game Archon: The Light and the Dark: a classic game (I still play it), where you make strategy moves on a chess-like board and real-time battles when two or more pieces meet.
Now, soooo... the strategy part is in-between the real time battles. Is a preparation for the battles. Well, actually the battles are the in-between spaces between the real battle, which is the strategic conquest of the magic points.
Hmm. Which way round? Maybe this example is confusing.
Let’s then consider The Banner Saga, a “single-player campaign of turn-based combat engagements”. The game has a complex structure, where through a dialogue interface you guide characters in quests, strategic battle choices, evolve personal relations and manage various kinds of resurces. And at time you end up managing a small set of fighters in turn based combat.
Now, asking here what is in between and what not would not be fruitful: it is all so deeply integrated that you cannot mark any part as the main one – maybe that is symptom of good design.
So this shows how designing “spaces in between battles” may end up creating mechanics specifically for those spaces (like in Archon) that may be quite complex and refined, and this will raise the quality of the resulting game. And one may indeed work the other way round, by a posteriori adding simple puzzle or battle mechanics in between a main evolving narrative.
This final de-construction is a usual path when you reason about games in general, where you can find counterexamples to just about any thesis / classification. But that is fine with me, and I’ll go on using this in-between inconsistent concept anyway.
A good learning framework allows you to fail, retry, getting ready, improve and try again. Failing should not be a catastrophe. For example, the idea that exams are a once only opportunity is awful, and against the very idea of learning.
A good in between space can help foster a culture of error: how is player error handled? Games are error tolerant: replay! Or even better: something gained anyway! Learning happens, consolidates, and seeds in the in-betweens.
So looking at playing as learning, which is a perspective I always take about the games I design, curating what happens in-between is an opportunity to settle the knowledge acquired, give a chance for in depth studies on other media and maybe getting back to previous knowledge and attempts.
So attention to the in-between makes it particularly relevant for games with a purpose, applied games, which rely on the playing as learning parallel (these are the games I mostly work on).
Now I am inspired and confused enough to go back to The Decameron design: what happens in between the attempts to put together a novel? Which level of word knowledge is required for the novels proposed? Should I offer a vocabulary revision between the attempts? Word definitions? Bonus help points?