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Designer's Notebook: Breaking the Rules (Ernest Goes To The Movies)
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Designer's Notebook: Breaking the Rules (Ernest Goes To The Movies)

July 6, 2000 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3


So what about science fiction like The Matrix? SF breaks rules all the time. How do we decide which ones we can get away with and which we can't? To start with let's again distinguish between fudging for the sake of gameplay and creating a premise that flies in the face of known science. Fudging is Ok. Impossible premises may or may not be Ok; it depends on how much you're expecting the audience to swallow. One thing that is not acceptable is that anything goes. That's one of the problems I have with Superman - his powers seem to be extremely elastic, and in the movie he even reversed the flow of time. Nope, sorry, they lost me there - if he could do that, he could fix anything and everything.

On the other hand, a time-honored SF technique is to break only one rule and then see what happens. H.G. Wells did it wonderfully in The Time Machine and again in The Invisible Man. His protagonists were fully human and subject to all human frailties, but one could travel through time and one was invisible. His novels explored the possible consequences of possessing these powers - sobering in the former case, tragic in the latter. I would suggest that you adopt a policy to break no more rules than you have to. The more rules you break, the more unbelievable and even ridiculous your game becomes.

The other thing to look at is how egregious the violation is and whether or not it's already familiar to the audience. Take hyperspace, for example. Most spacegoing science fiction stories depend on some form of faster-than-light star drive. Einstein's special theory of relativity seems to prohibit this in normal space, but that doesn't preclude us postulating hyperspace or wormholes or some other kind of gimmick that does an end run around him. Audiences are used to this, and you don't have to be specific about how it works - in fact, it's better if you're not. Han Solo talks about "making the jump to hyperspace" and that's all they need to know.

The Matrix: ten on style but is it credible?

However, you need to avoid things that the audience is going to find patently absurd. Hyperspace is not patently absurd because there's nothing in our everyday experience that explicitly prohibits it. I find the idea of farming humans for their body heat patently absurd, but I imagine most of the people who watched The Matrix didn't give it that much thought. In The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton postulated a life form that contained no proteins. Here I'm out of my depth. Biologists probably think this is hilarious, but I'm not educated enough to know, and so it doesn't bother me. But it didn't ruin the movie since it wasn't central to the plot. The key discovery in The Andromeda Strain (spoiler coming) was that the organism could survive only within a very narrow pH range - the balance between acidity and alkalinity. That's entirely believable, because Earth organisms have similar limitations.

When you do fantasy or cartoon-style games (and I put Sonic and most other action games in that category) then you throw away the rulebook. Magic exists, dragons breathe fire, and bears carry birds around in a backpack - whatever you want. That doesn't mean there are no rules, just that you have to write your own. They still have to make sense in the context of your world, and you still have to avoid causing the player to throw down the controller and shouting "Bullshit!"

You can challenge the player; you can frustrate the player (within limits); but you should try not to do anything that will anger him and above all, earn his contempt or disgust. Computer games are fantasy worlds where rules are made to be broken. But know that you're breaking them - think about it - and then choose wisely which ones you break.

Ernest Adams is an American freelance game designer currently living in England. He was most recently employed as a lead designer at Bullfrog Productions, and for several years before that he was the audio/video producer on the Madden NFL Football product line. In a much earlier life he was a software engineer. He has developed on-line, computer, and console games for everything from the IBM 360 mainframe to the Playstation 2. He was a founder of the International Game Developers Association, and is a frequent lecturer at the Game Developers Conference and anyplace else that people will listen to him. Ernest would be happy to receive E-mail about his columns at [email protected], and you may visit his professional web site at The views in this column are strictly his own.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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