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Truth in Game Design

February 2, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[What does "truth in game design" mean? Microsoft Game Studios producer/designer Scott Brodie explores the nature and implications of how truth can be created and communicated in game design, via several case studies.]

I'm sure you've heard the cliché "It's funny because it's true." As with many clichés, it turns out there is some validity to the expression, as there is an entire book written on the subject -- the aptly titled Truth in Comedy by Del Close and Charna Halpern.

Truth in Comedy's core insight is that meaningful and memorable comedy takes more than just cheap jokes, and has to have an underlying truth supporting it. While the book focuses on improvisational comedy, this insight is extremely relevant for anyone making entertainment. In fact, you can find similar lessons that have been passed down by writers, actors, musicians, film makers, and fine artists:

  • "Tell the truth, then go from there." - Stephen King, writer
  • "Good acting often implies endowing a role with emotional truth. Method acting is all about stimulating that truth." - Mariana Holy, writer
  • "So much of what I do is personal experience. There's a bit of poetic license, but it's always something that happened to me -- or somebody I know. It just makes a better song if there's some ring of truth to it." - Guy Clark, song writer and musician

As a game designer excited by the insights I garnered from Truth in Comedy, I went looking for similar examples from other game designers. I was dismayed to find that, with a few notable exceptions, truth is not a part of the game industry's shared vocabulary.

I'd like to make a case for why truth is not only something you should consider as a game designer, but that if you are interested in offering meaningful and memorable gameplay, truth is the critical missing component.

As an industry we've largely been making the game equivalent of cheap jokes; as I've begun to build truth into my own process, I've come to realize "just make it fun" as a guiding design principal isn't enough on its own. Games can have as much depth as other great forms of entertainment, but to achieve this we must push ourselves to make players say "it's fun because it's true."

Speaking to the Human Condition

Though I mentioned it was difficult to find references to truth in game design, Chris Crawford is a notable exception. In his book Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, Crawford explains how truth fits into entertainment and games beautifully:

The artist uses the medium to create metaphorical descriptions of the human condition.

Chris meticulously makes a case that for game designers, this means writing truths -- those universal facts about the human condition -- directly into the rules and mathematics governing gameplay. The designer distills truths from human experience into simplified rules players can interact with, so that through the experience of play players begin to build a model (i.e. metaphor) that can be applied to more complex yet related situations in their lives.

Through this model building process, the player experience becomes something meaningful because of its new found utility, and becomes memorable because, to paraphrase Chris, it has literally found a way to enter into the existing "webwork" of the player's memory.

I feel Shigeru Miyamoto also sheds light on this when he described how he uses surprise to entertain players in an interview with EDGE Magazine:

My way of surprising people is to give them some clue or trigger so that they are going to discover inside of themselves some hidden ability or interest, or something they already have but did not realize.

"A-ha!" the brain says, "It can be no other way." As Miyamoto implies, when a truth is discovered, it speaks so directly to our understanding of how the world works that it feels like it was already known.

But the way games bring about this understanding is unique. Whereas the comedian or actor evokes emotional truths by connecting with human experiences viewers have already had, games can create new experiences where players come to understand truths that they have no prior experience with. (See Daniel Cook's article.)

For example, it is well documented that Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired to make The Legend of Zelda because of his experiences as a child exploring caves near his hometown in Japan. Now imagine the experience of a child from a U.S. inner city playing Zelda, who has never left their neighborhood block, let alone seen a cave.

Through the trial and error of play, this child may come to understand a truth about the dynamics of exploring that they may never have been able to experience otherwise. This child may not understand the value of the new metaphor immediately, but if the play experience is meaningful and memorable, the model that has been built will have utility later when a relevant situation arises. This is the value of truth in games.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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