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The Watery Pachinko Machine of Doom: Project Horseshoe's Thoughts On Story
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The Watery Pachinko Machine of Doom: Project Horseshoe's Thoughts On Story

January 17, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 7 Next

A Game Designer Think Tank

Late last year, a select group of experienced game designers, the unicorns of the game development profession, gathered at a remote ranch in the dusty hills of Texas. Their purpose? To solve the great game design issues of the coming decade. The event? Project Horseshoe, organized by Game Developer Hall of Famer George "Fatman" Sanger.

If you've been to GDC, some of your best moments will have likely been those crazily intense impromptu conversations that coalesce in the halls between sessions. The best way I can describe the essence of Project Horseshoe is to imagine an entire weekend of that sort of deep mind meld. Game designers, it turns out, love talking with other game designers. Upon meeting sparks fly, instant friendships are formed, and wildly dangerous ideas are discussed with great freedom and vigor. Add to the mix fine liquors and a Reagan-esque arsenal of projectile toys, and you have an ideal environment for brilliant discussions.

Your browser may not support display of this image. There is a structure. Groups self-organize with the help of some talented facilitators around topics of mutual interest. This year we saw one group form around creating the next generation of designers and another focused on game designs to yield alternative emotions. At the end, the groups are required to generate human-readable reports that are posted on the Project Horseshoe website for all to see.

The goal, despite the highfalutin nature of the event, is to create some very practical steps for changing the gaming world. The work of the attending designers will likely influence millions of players over the coming years. Of all the groups in the industry, senior game designers have a unique opportunity to promote new ideas and set forth a vision of how future games will be played.

This year, I participated in a session on that hoary old chestnut known as "story". Here's a brief report on what we discussed behind closed doors. This was the highly collaborative effort of about 10 different designers. We got stuck, we argued, we stayed up until 2 AM hashing out differences perspectives. What impressed me in the end was the passionate belief shared by everyone at the table that games are just starting to come into their own as a medium that has immense power to change the world, for both better and for worse.

Our problem statement

"Story." Now there is a word with immense baggage. For tens of thousands of years, people across the world have been telling stories to one another. The most respected and vibrant arts across all of human history involve traditional narrative storytelling. Our designers are steeped in the lore of movies, novels and comics. Many of our earliest, most influential games, like Zork or Adventure, are shown to the user as stories. Our blossoming new field of game design constantly finds itself forced to answer the question, "How do games and story intersect?"

Perhaps we are tackling the wrong problem.

What was addressed

We believe that game designers are in the business of experience creation rather than that of storytelling. The story that is generated through gameplay is the player's personal story that has been mediated by the game systems.

This is a rather substantial shift from the concept of the auteur sitting down and penning a tale of love and despair. Instead of writing about passion, our goal is to help the user experience passion. Instead of describing fear, our goal as game designers to is cause fear. We construct systems, whirling social and mechanical environments that lead, poke, prod, react, connect and encourage the player to reach, out of their own free will, a peak physiological and mental state.

Out of this experience, the player constructs their own very personal story. They digest the experience. They link the pieces together with their past life lessons. In the end, if the gelled memories of the game were rich with meaning, they'll share their narrative with others. Hearing our players' stories burst forth from our game is the clearest possible signal that we created a great experience. And yet, we must never lose sight that these stories are secondary effect. Story is the tail of what we do as designers, where the mediated experience is the dog.

Article Start Page 1 of 7 Next

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