GD Column 16: Stop Making Sense

The following was published in the December 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine…

Some of our industry’s most beloved games make precious little sense. Why, for example, do players battle the trolls, goblins, and skeletons of Puzzle Quest by challenging them to a two-player version of Bejewelled? Similarly, success in Professor Layton’s world seems to revolves disproportionately around one’s ability to solve classic logic and deduction puzzles, no matter the reason.

Game stories have fared no better. Mario’s canonical plot sounds like nonsense from Lewis Carroll – the plumber punches bricks to find magic mushrooms that double his size, so that he can battle an evil turtle who has kidnapped the kingdom’s princess. The less said about the Metal Gear Solid franchise’s various twists and turns – including the infamous possession of Revolver Ocelot’s mind by Liquid Snake’s old arm – the better.

However, games have their own internal logic that is more important than whether the game’s story makes sense, or even whether the game’s mechanics hold together logically, without bizarre juxtapositions like in Puzzle Quest. The traditional concepts of levels, lives, and respawns are ultimately constructs that support a designer’s vision, whether or not they have any logical real-world parallel or thematic metaphor.

Why, for example, should players respawn – coming back to life – after being killed in a team-based shooter? Shouldn’t players expect that their dead character stay dead after being killed? The reason is that the respawn mechanic matches the inviting tone the game’s designer wishes to strike. By softening the blow of death, gamers are free to play aggressively, which rewards risk and even experimentation.

A place exists for games which do not allow respawning – Counter-Strike being the most successful example – but the designer chooses this mechanic not in pursuit of realism, but to strike a different tone. When characters stay dead, players feel more tension during the match, which encourages them to play more carefully and with greater precision. Thus, games without respawns simply occupy a different location on the play spectrum.

Be True to the Game

Sometimes, these imaginary design constructs are necessary for the existence of entire genres. The classic real-time strategy design pattern, with peons, base-building, and rush/turtle/boom dynamics, little resembles actual warfare, even when ignoring the common fantastical themes. In what type of war does each side construct army barracks to train troops – and even research labs to discover technologies – on the very field of battle? Indeed, why is every scientific breakthrough forgotten between each scenario of a fictional campaign?

Ultimately, these questions are subsumed by the genre’s needs. Strategy games work because players are forced to make tough choices between a number of options, each with its own set of tradeoffs. Although the environments of most real-time strategy battle often contain nonsensical elements, such as economic infrastructure and research facilities, these elements each create important mechanics that increase strategic depth.

Creating infrastructure gives the player an actual location on the map to defend – without it, armies could roam freely across the map with no consequences for abandoning a certain location. Discovering technologies creates short-vs-long-term tradeoffs for the player to balance – should resources be invested in science for a long-term payoff of stronger units or spent on new units to attack the enemy and press an early advantage?

These tradeoffs make sense in a fundamental way – players understand that location should matter and that making long-term investments should succeed under the right circumstances. Therefore, the gameplay itself makes sense even if the game’s world does not, with workers planting farms within sight of a pitched battle.

Too Much Consistency

Indeed, designers who worry too much about a consistent world can often hamstring their own work. In StarCraft, the designers had no qualms allowing Terran players to team up with the Zerg in multiplayer, even if fighting against other Terrans. However, Company of Heroes only allows matches with the Axis on one side and the Allies on the other. Clearly, this decision makes sense thematically, but does it make sense that the players never get to pit identical sets of virtual army men against each other?

Assassin’s Creed famously went to great lengths to cover up as many standard game conventions as possible. A frame story put the player in the shoes not of a 12th-century Middle Eastern assassin (as the game’s advertisements featured) but of his 21st-century descendant who is somehow reliving the former’s life with advanced memory reconstruction technology.

This conceit aims to explain a number of typical design constructs. Discrete game levels are simply different memories while all character deaths must be false memories. The assassin’s movements are mapped to a physical gamepad because he is actually the puppet of a latter-day character trying to relive his memories.

Did these rationales broaden the game’s appeal by explaining supposedly arbitrary gaming cliches? Or did they unnecessarily burden the game’s narrative with a convoluted and unnecessary frame story that distanced players from the fantasy of becoming a medieval assassin? Surely, the average console owner would not be surprised that the game required controlling the character with a gamepad.

Indeed, the early arcade industry was a font of creativity largely because the games were not expected to make any sense – think of the dot-eating Pac-Man or the cube-jumping Q*Bert or the ray-running Tempest. As graphics became more realistic, almost all arcade cabinets were ghettoized into just a few concrete categories – racing, fighting, shooting – because the higher resolutions discouraged bizarre, abstract games. Only now that downloadable, mobile, and Web-based gaming have brought back lower resolutions is the old eccentric energy returning.

Go Your Own Way

Sometimes, manipulating a game’s story to paper over unusual design concepts can work. Certainly, the Dagger of Time’s ability to rewind time for a few seconds in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was an elegant way to integrate a quick-save system into the game’s core functionality. In the recent Torchlight, the character’s pet can run back to town to sell loot, nicely shortening a time-consuming element of most action-RPG’s while also staying within the game’s fiction.

Still, designers should feel comfortable going their own way if a mechanics makes sense for the game they want to make. Shiren the Wanderer is a roguelike dungeon crawler, which means that all character deaths are permanent as progress cannot be saved. Roguelikes are meant to be played repeatedly, with the player improving purely through increased knowledge of the game’s rules.

However, Shiren does allow a very unusual type of progress by letting the player stash loot – including powerful weapons and armor – in various caches found throughout the game that have persistence between sessions. Thus, although a character might die an unlucky death, he still contributes to advancing the game by leaving a supply of potions for the next character’s playthrough.

This strange mechanic, where most, but not all, of the world resets on death, has few parallels either inside or outside of gaming, and the story makes no attempt to explain it. Truly, no explanation is necessary because the game is being true to itself; the designers wanted a game that combined the tense atmosphere of permadeath with a touch of power progression from a traditional RPG.

BioShock is another game which gave no explanation for an absurd element – the audio diaries which are littered about the underwater city of Rapture. These bits of recorded speech from the game’s main characters provide important backstory for this Objectivist dystopia. Still, what type of person would, after putting their personal thoughts onto tape, decide to break up the tape into pieces and then scatter those pieces around the world like junk?

That the player discovers these scattered bits of audio in roughly linear order allows the designer to tell the story without relying on stodgy cutscenes, but their placement in the world simply doesn’t make sense. However, this problem doesn’t mean that the designers made the wrong choice; perhaps a more elegant solution was possible, but better allowing a little inelegance than turning the player into a non-interactive viewer who must be force-fed the story.

The Perfect Theme

One great advantage of not worrying about a game making sense is that designers are free to use the theme which best matches the game’s mechanics. The tower defense genre emerged from user-created scenarios designed for real-time strategy games like StarCraft and WarCraft III.

The limitations of these platforms gave the genre a distinct set of conventions – stationary defenses vs. mobile “creeps” – which had little narrative justification. Why must all defenses be static? Why are the creeps so slow and mindless? If only a thematic environment existed which matched this set of game mechanics.

In fact, one did, but the designers just needed the confidence to pull it out of thin air. What type of life-form can grow but can’t move? Plants! What type shambles along slowly in a straight line without a brain? Zombies! Naturally, the answer was to pit these two groups against each other.

With Plants vs. Zombies, PopCap found the perfect theme for a tower defense game. The fact that it completely defied common sense – why are players battling zombies with mutant plants, after all? – was beside the point. The important thing is that even someone not familiar with the tower defense genre would have an intuitive understanding of what to expect simply from the game’s title – all because the designer wasn’t afraid to stop making sense.

9 thoughts on “GD Column 16: Stop Making Sense

  1. So you’re arguing that designers should prioritize unrestrained explorations of game mechanics over a internally consistent world, thus relegating the role of fiction to providing an effective schema?

    If so I’d call that one viable approach, while arguing that the inverse has a couple of important benefits as well. One is that design restrictions in general tend to *enable* originality and innovation; as they say, nothing stifles creativity like a blank page. The other is that immersive sims can create a compelling world by arranging mechanics so that they represent that world’s internal logic rather than simply catering to the player’s experience. I’ve written a longer piece on this (http://bit.ly/9w2Qih), but one key point is that in a game like Stalker, a game-literate player will recognize that the world does not revolve around him.

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  3. Here’s an example. In Knights of the Chalice (indy D&D-based game) the monsters all intelligently target your cloth-robed wizard. Makes them feel like masters of strategy, but you end up keeping a suit of armor in your wizard’s inventory to thwart them. Whereas in Dragon Age: Origins, wearing heavy armor increases your threat generation so that monsters irrationally target your best-defended man. But that means you get to make bold knights who stand in front of everybody else and guard them — even if it doesn’t make sense.

  4. I also loved Prince of Persia’s take on the “continue” screen after you die — “No, no, that’s not how it happened,” the prince says. “Should I begin again?” Because the fact that your game is really the prince’s story isn’t just to explain why you can continue, it’s important to the ending. And it’s more immersive.

  5. How exactly do punching bricks, magic mushrooms and evil turtles express some kind of design vision, anyway? What kind of tone were they trying to create, or did they just take those elements from the original Mario Bros.?

  6. While in some cases creating fiction to justify game mechanics ends up feeding back and solidifying them, I agree that for many games it feels contrived, tacked on, and unnecessary.

    I have been wrestling with this very issue with one of my current projects. For its next iteration, I decided to strip out the skeletal “story” of how you got there and what you must do to win the game in favor of a more mechanics-grounded experience in the fashion of traditional roguelikes. Some of the inspirations for this project, UnReal World, Dwarf Fortress, and MineCraft, much as in the Puzzle Quest example, flourish without having to explain themselves.

    As you mentioned, “games have their own internal logic that is more important than whether the game’s story makes sense”. Don’t weigh down games with unnecessary fiction if it is not critical to the experience.

  7. There we go, that’s a good passage to be quoting. What I was trying to be say would be “Games have their own internal logic, which can be used to ensure that the game world makes sense- something that is entirely optional.”

  8. When I think about the interplay between theme and game mechanics, I mostly consider things in terms of player expectations. The most compelling reason to align themes and mechanics is to reduce the complexity involved in teaching the player about how the game rules work. For example, players quickly recognize that ladders let you move a character up and down, or that boomerangs will return once thrown.

    StarCraft throws out narrative consistency in favor of gameplay, and yet WarCraft places a much higher value on internal lore. Similarly, Company of Heroes trades-off gameplay flexibility for narrative consistency, to take advantage of a rich historical context.

    So my opinion on the matter is that games should first and foremost strive for internal consistency. Beyond that it’s merely an issue of cultivating player expectations.

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