Choices. “[T]hrough non-linearity of environments, significant and gameplay-defining differences in character progression, or both.”
Tools. “[P]rimarily through interactivity of the game world and advanced physics-based systems”.
Systems. “[W]hich result in emergent and sometimes hardly predictable gameplay situations”.
Focused Design. “It usually puts players in believable, meticulously designed locations which make sense as actual places”.
Message. “[E]mploys mature storytelling and conveys certain ideas and messages through advanced narrative mechanisms without limiting interaction”.
On the MUO-site, writer Ben Stegner has this to say about what makes an immersive sim:
Player Agency at the Core. “An immersive sim gives the player a goal to accomplish, but doesn’t tell you exactly how to do it.”
Immersive Sims Are Built on Systems. “Systemic design means that you feel like you’re in a realistic world that plays by its own rules, instead of a location built for a video game.”
Emergent Gameplay. “As long as it plays by the game’s rules, any idea you have will work.”
Consistent and Reactive Design. “As a continuation of the above points, immersive sims have consistent rules. You won’t find invisible walls that block your progress because you ‘aren’t supposed to go there yet.'”
Though you can find countless more interpretations of what an immersive sim is, these are pretty solid and will get you pointed in the right direction. But it can also be relevant to consider it from another perspective.
An immersive sim is a game that does its darnedest to put you in a believable, functioning space. It reduces as much of the gamification as it can, eliminates as much abstraction as possible… all so it can put you in another reality. Because it wants to be a holodeck.
Doc’s points are extremely valid, and accentuate the previous points made. A believable functioning space. Reduction of gamification (like experience points and other extrinsic motivational systems) and abstraction.
What *is* an Immersive Sim?
Let’s look back at the pickings from Part 1 and what will probably serve as my own “definition” of what a game can do to strive for an immersive sim design paradigm. It’s not a checklist to tick off. It’s not a definition at all. But to recreate the magic of some of these titles, or at least what feels magical to me, you need more than just a stealth mechanic. You need a philosophy conducive of a simulated, systems-driven, and player-focused game experience. A game that creates an experience based on the player’s actions and doesn’t try too hard to tell a story except on the game’s own terms.
The following are then some of the things you can strive to include, if you want to make imsimlikes.
Coming from the late-80s dungeon crawls, the perspective was somewhat inherited, but it stuck. For many fans–myself included–the first-person camera remains one of the most important things to define an “immersive sim.” But for Weird West, and highly systemic games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Divinity II: Original Sin, there’s really no reason to stick to this perspective.
If you want to make an experience similar to a specific game, then you need to consider this carefully. If not, it’s not that important for the design paradigm itself. Not if we’re honest with each other.
Movement retains momentum. Crates can fall over or stack. Things that are wooden float on water; things that are made of metal sink. You slip on ice. Dry grass and wood can be set on fire. You sink in mud. If you find an open fire, you can fry the raw food.
Simulation can of course take many different forms, and all of the games rarely include all of them, but the core principle is that the game simulates a reality. This doesn’t have to be the same reality as the one outside your window. Many games appeal to our intuitive notions of physics instead of real physics. Like how a kilogram of feathers intuitively weighs less than a kilogram of lead.
Another area where simulation matters is in how a game handles items. For context, please refer to this excellent forum thread on Ultima VII‘s inventory management.
Richard Garriott occassionally described his intentions for the later Ultima games to be “world simulations.” You will find all the things in a home that you’d expect from a home. Candles, buckets, kitchen utensils, some food; anything. As a player of these games, you engaged with this world as a simulation. If you needed water, maybe you’d pick up a bucket. If you needed light, maybe you’d grab a candle. But in modern role-playing games, nothing is placed in the world without an inventory intent behind it. You can usually trash items for their constituent parts, making everything worth picking up.
These two mentalities around objects and their use illustrates simulation perfectly. In a simulation, each object has a role to play in the larger whole. In the modern (typical) role-playing game, things are part of an abstract high level economy and not actually parts of the world or how it works.
A system, in game design, can be thought of as a collection of inputs, outputs, and feedback callbacks. A level up system takes XP as input, outputs your current level, and fires a LevelUp callback when it hits a certain threshold.
Inside a system there are also rules. For example, “fire burns wood,” or “heavy items cause knockback.” These may be almost anything. The idea is that you can teach a player the rules and then let them engage with the systems on their own terms. Have them figure out that, if they set fire to the door so it burns, they don’t have to find the key. Or that, if they get the crate rolling, they can knock their target over the edge of the wall.
Maybe the most systemic game of all is Minecraft, but many of the best-selling titles of the past decades have had large systemic components. The pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto V, and how the police operates based on your activities are both systems, and you will gradually learn the rules that control them. For example, what happens to civilians when you wave a gun around.
Developers as Designers
Small teams with few developers, where each developer becomes a specialist. The strengths of this approach are many, and evidenced prominently by how many of these games we still refer to decades after their original launches. Looking Glass and the many companies it inspired has provided us with a long succession of great games.
But this is also a double-edged sword. The good thing about modern game design sensibilities is that accessibility, user experience, and onboarding, have entered our design vernacular. We quote Don Norman, and we consider accessibility.
If you want to make player-centric systemic games, you must start from the systems, and systems will always be technical development work at some point in time. So it’s probably a good idea to avoid thinking too much in high level design terms, making the modern “game designer” ideas-person redundant.
People who care deeply about fictional canon, when paired with the meme tennis of modern social media, bring us to the worst part of the immersive sim legacy.
As an observer, the past five years or so have seen an explosion of this term. “Immersive sim.” People of every age have begun playing them and praising them (or hating them) for every reason in the book, and old fans have resurfaced as bona fide experts of what makes an immersive sim an immersive sim. (Just like me!)
Suddenly, the self conscious in-jokes of the communities who used to praise these games (like the brilliant TTLG community), become memes. Even rules that have to be followed.
The 0451 codefrom System Shock, if you forget to make it your first passcode, your game can’t possibly be an immersive sim. If you don’t include a basketball court, it’s obviously not an immersive sim. If it doesn’t have stealth, it’s not … You get it.
This stuff? It just has to stop. You can both love the old games and see the harmful effects of postmortem canonization at the same time. These games were born from experimentation–boiling them down to a bunch of memes harms their legacy more than anything else.
This is the worst part of fandom, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. I’m sorry. What we need isn’t 0451 passcodes, it’s newfound experimentation.
In many modern games, there is only one possible outcome allowed for a specific scenario. If this outcome isn’t reached, the scenario is failed completely and a recent checkpoint reloaded. As a player, you have to replay over and over until you succeed as the designers intended.
This is the complete opposite of open-endedness! An open-ended scenario means you can solve it however you want, whether explicitly given the option beforehand or not, and what you choose to do may or may not carry an impact on future scenarios.
How Dishonored lets you find alternatives to killing your targets, for example. Or how Thief had many different ways for you to figure out where the key loot of a scenario is located.
Even if there are just two or three actual ways for you to end something, in reality, the sense that you decided on your own is incredibly empowering. Not to mention the conversations you can have with fellow fans. How did you solve that thing? Ah, that’s not what I did. Cool!
Though looting and inventory management are big in many of these games, some of them take a different approach where you pick your tools before the game begins. Rather than constantly looking for new weapons, or new something else, you have your pack of arrows, and you get your flashbombs and other things, and that’s all you get.
What this does is that it gives you Easy Fun to engage with when you are choosing your loadout, casually, and lets you focus on the Hard Fun engagement while playing the actual mission and with fewer distractions.
This isn’t a universal thing, however. Many imsims didn’t do this but had lots of inventory management. It was Thief that did this.
Carrots over Sticks
Punishment is a pretty universal game design tool. Death followed by checkpoint reload, for example. But some classic imsims did things another way.
In Thief, your choice of difficulty didn’t give enemies more health. Instead, it gave you tougher restrictions to follow. On the highest difficulty, you must collect a considerable portion of a level’s loot, you are not allowed to kill any innocents, and you must find the hidden collectable treasures (often with story attached to them) that are normally optional.
This approach is once more player-focused and provides ways for the player to feel incentivized to play a certain way, rather than forced to. Same as how the stealthy approach in Deus Ex usually costs you much less resources and makes it easier to continue your mission.
With game design being more experimental and the medium still trying to find its way, the hybrid designs of the late 90s were probably a product of their time more than they were a conscious part of any paradigm. But they were amazing!
It’s too easy to think of games in terms of genres and tropes, and to design games by plucking cherries from your favorites. But true hybrid design happens in the weird convergences between player experiences. Like how the first-person shooter/point-and-click adventure hybrid of Realms of the Haunting seems like such a strange match, yet somehow works.
Of course, we shouldn’t compromise on our higher standards for accessibility or simply having good controls. But it would be amazing to see what happens if we start mixing things up, and no longer only talking about games as clones of other games with minor tweaks.
In the Thief games, you are a thief. In Dishonored, you play an assassin. Extrapolating on these roles, many of the features and options that the game provides you with become intuitive.
What could’ve been an artificial points-based reward system for exploring (“+50 xp”) is instead a shimmering golden bottle, or tiara, that adds its value in gold to your loot purse for the current missionIt’s the same thing, but fits infinitely better within the mental model of playing a thief than would an xp system or achievement unlock.
If you can find such a clear role for the player to play in your game, and build everything around that role, you have come a long way towards making an immersive sim. Role-play, in a very real sense.
The exception would be a role that’s too complicated to explain, in a narrative way.
Instead of an abstract “escape” mechanic, like the gauges in the corner of your screen in the Rockstar crime games, Thief had a flash bomb you could throw that disabled local AI long enough to let you escape. This style of tool is diegetic, because how it behaves is logical from world context alone–it doesn’t really need any extra GUI or other non-diegetic elements.
The same goes for how System Shock 2 does hacking, for example, and how Deus Ex does “leveling up,” using items you find in the world rather than arbitrary points values.
For me, ambient storytelling and game atmosphere played a huge part in why I became a gamer. Thief, in particular, when listening to the stupid guards’ banter, it felt like I was part of something much bigger than the moment.
Again, just realizing that Janice Polito shot herself by finding her slumped form in her office and the gun in her lap. Understanding how insane Constantine must be simply by visiting his terrifying Escher-like mansion, stealing his sword, and realizing that he was the customer who wanted it stolen to begin with.
These games managed subtlety. They managed to let you experience things and not just have them told to you in too many words. For me, this is one of the defining principles of the paradigm.
In some ways, I’ve saved the most important principle for last. Many games talk about choices and consequences. Mass Effect, where branching choices may lead to the deaths of certain characters or worldshaking narrative events. Until Dawn or The Walking Dead, where characters may die or Clementine may remember what you just did. But this is just content. It’s the player as a passive observer pressing B instead of A and seeing what happens.
An immersive game gives you tools, and it puts the choices in your hand all the time. What if you kill an agent near the door, so that when it explodes the door is destroyed? What if you put a long line of metallic weapons between these two points to connect them with electricity? What if you shoot a water arrow into the moss patch you just made with a moss arrow, or if you shoot a water arrow at a pool of blood?
Much of this is never explained to you, the player. It’s just consequences of the many rules and systems that are interacting and that you are invited to experiment with at your leisure.
This is exactly what it’s about in the end: to let go of your control as a developer, make interesting systems for the player to use, and be fine if that means they can bypass whole areas of your game. Because next time they play, maybe they don’t. Or they bypass it some other way.
Whatever they decide to do, it’ll be way cooler than anything you can ever come up with.
I have an obsession, and it’s playing immersive games. Games that put me in an interesting pair of shoes. Games that allow me to interact with systems that behave in predictable and thought-provoking ways. Games that let me experience a world or act out an interesting role.
I like feeling as if it was I who did the thing or made the choice. Even when my subconscious knows it’s just smoke and mirrors and that there is no choice (or spoon), I still enjoy it. The failures and successes were all mine.
Chances are I called this ‘realistic’ in the past. I’m sorry about that.
Few games have ever done immersion quite as well for me as those released in the 1990s and early 2000s. “Immersive sims.” A label that’s been invented much later and become a fashionable term among self-professed luminaries in recent years. But it’s poorly defined and subject to the same navel gazing as other poorly defined design paradigms. “‘Hard’ is not a genre,” as someone lamented the trend of many Soulsborne clones to simply turn the damage dials up and the health dials down, thinking that making things more punishing is enough to emulate From Software’s popular game feel. Incidentally, ‘immersive sim’ isn’t a genre either.
What I wanted to do when I started writing this rambling walkthrough was to sample a range of games that defined some of the values of the highly venerated original Looking Glass imsims and try to trace why they weren’t more successful at influencing our game design of today. But what I’m actually doing is showing you that their legacy lives on and that nothing has been as damaging to this legacy as its own most avid fans. Myself included. For some reason, we’ve conflated stealth with immersion instead of looking at the core elements of what make these games what they are.
More importantly, I’ve found what I think is a clear trajectory forward. We’ll see more systemic games in the coming years. More than ever, in fact. The Minecraft generation will demand it. Which is good, because it means I’ll be able to treat my obsession.
Writing this has been an incredible trip down memory lane. It’s also given me something to aspire to in my own work.
Throughout this piece, some words will be marked with bold face (example). These will provide the foundation for a conversation on what makes an immersive sim what it is. You find a summary in Part 2: Game Design.
But it’s also relevant to see why these things matter, from their historical context. So to be able to argue about it, I’ve gone back and replayed a long list of really good games. Some which I haven’t touched since they first came out. Some that I had never played, ever.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (Looking Glass, 1992)
Let’s go back 30 years, to 1992, when a small mostly unknown studio named Blue Sky (later Looking Glass) released Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.
The first-person dungeon crawl isn’t a new genre in 1992, but it’s a relatively popular one. People are resting outside doorways in Eye of the Beholder to get their spells back, and they’re playing or at least fondly remembering Dungeon Master.
But Ultima Underworld takes it several steps further. Not only can you freely look around in a 3D environment and interact with this environment and have it respond; you also have factions and factional agendas playing a role in the game’s story. Your decisions and how you make them shapes an experience that’s decidedly yours, and it does it through systems that the player can interact with in surprisingly intuitive ways.
The studio made flight simulators before Ultima Underworld, and the fusion of simulation and fantasy dungeon crawling is a natural step forward for both the studio and the style of game. How you move, and how you interact with this underworld, borrows heavily from simulation.
What the two Ultima Underworld games helped establish is the concept of a systemic game. It wasn’t a new thing, but in many ways, Ultima Underworld revolutionized execution and focus. Have things behave in consistent ways and let the player do what they will. If that means whole sections of the game are bypassed because the player found a clever use of magic, all the better for the player!
Of course, gaming at large will be playing an entirely different first-person game that you may have heard of, called Doom, which will dwarf Underworld‘s influence on gaming at large. (The first in a long history of having systemic games get second place, unfortunately.)
Something else that can’t be underestimated as we kick this off is also the value of developers as designers. At this point in time, game design decisions are often made by developers knee deep in the implementation of what they’re designing. Code, art, or level design. This allows for a very practical and holistic focus that has been gradually lost in the decades since. But let’s also admit that it led to some of the worst UIs that gaming has ever known, so this isn’t entirely for the worse.
King’s Field (From Software, 1994)
King’s Field‘s Ultima Underworld inspiration is fairly opaque. It even started out as a PC game but was instead released for the PlayStation, and it was FromSoft’s very first game release. The atmosphere and something in King’s Field‘s clunky and “weighty” tone foreshadows the Soulsbornes to come. Even more so than I could’ve guessed before booting it up in 2022.
King’s Field wasn’t nearly as revolutionary as Ultima Underworld was, but it’s an interesting sidetrack for the coming walkthrough and something that will run parallell to the evolution of this design paradigm. It also helped me value many of the highly systemic choices that FromSoft do even to this day.
System Shock (Looking Glass, 1994)
This game will give us the ubiquitous 0451 passcode (allegedly the door code to one of Looking Glass’ offices at the time). It’s a progression of what the company had been doing with the Ultima Underworld games and an attempt to make it more cohesive as a whole. It also introduces one of gaming’s best villains in SHODAN. Thinking of that distorted voice still makes me feel like an insect to this day.
As a game, it’s a fascinating continuation of the immersive sim legacy and also a great genre game: it does cyberpunk in a highly playable way.
TerraNova: Strike Force Centauri (Looking Glass, 1996)
The most interesting thing about TerraNova, a game inspired by Robert A Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers, is its mission structure. You can fail objectives and still get extracted and continue playing the game. Not all objectives, mind you. Some are important for the game’s cheesy and sadly forgettable story (told through poorly acted full-motion video, as the 90s would have it). But you can play most missions in the moment, use the tools at your disposal, and take it more as it comes. It’s open-ended, and even if this open-endedness is restricted it’s a lot more forgiving than has since become the norm.
There’s also an early version of achievements included, in that you gain medals by completing subobjectives. So rather than force you to replay until you succeed, you’re rewarded for playing “right.” Carrot over stick, as a design paradigm. Something we’ll see more of in Thief: The Dark Project and its clever treatment of difficulty.
TerraNova is a glimpse into how missions will be treated in the immersive sims to come, and the custom loadout and reliance on preparation will also return in later games. But maybe more than anything, TerraNova‘s failures at retail will exacerbate Looking Glass’ financial woes.
If you haven’t played it, try it. It’s a surprisingly competent tactical shooter, still to this day, albeit with clunky outdated controls that remind you more of Ultima Underworld than modern first-person shooters.
Realms of the Haunting (Gremlin, 1997)
I loved this game when it came out. It’s a messy mix of horror game, full-motion video, point-and-click adventure, and first-person shooter. One of those hybrid games that turns everything on its head and somehow still makes it work. This willingness to ignore the tried and true is the thing I miss most about late 90s game design.
If you try playing it today, it feels old and dated, since we’ve since come to expect certain control schemes from games played in first-person and have mostly moved on from full-motion video. But this game is interesting as an example of an immersive game simply because it’s a strong hybrid design that manages to surprise all the way through its unusually long campaign and leaves much of the exploration and discovery to the player.
That sense of feeling stuck only to figure out the convoluted in-world solution just as frustration is about to take its toll? This game nailed it. But you can’t have it anymore, because of the wikis and walkthroughs and playthroughs you’ll eventually go to instead. If that makes me sound nostalgic, you’re reading me wrong. No one should miss that feeling or the terrible interface of this type of game. But the search for more interesting hybrids, that we should miss.
Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass, 1998)
For many imsim fans, myself included, Thief is the game series that most accurately represents the paradigm’s qualities. It did many things incredibly well but is mostly remembered as the stealth game with the thick carpets and water arrows.
Thief‘s style of immersive sim provides you with a clear and distinct role, and intuitive features packaged as diegetic tools–like the Flashbomb that lets you escape and the Rope Arrow that lets you climb. It then sets up a few different ways for you to find relevant information that allows you to play however you want. It emphasises systemic interaction, ambient storytelling, and does it through level design and sound design. Many modern level designers, and Max Pears’ work on Cyberpunk 2077 comes to mind here, seemingly take their cues from similar paradigms. Build levels to accomodate different playstyles, and then let players own the experience. Even if the path they take is one of just three available, they will feel smart for figuring it out. The existence of multiple paths makes it feel more alive. More realistic (sorry, again).
To me, Thief represents one of two divergent subtypes of immersive sim. Where Deus Ex will build on microsandboxes with a closer relationship to Ultima Underworld‘s open-endedness, Thief in its first installment focuses on tighter and more focused level design. You’re at Lord Bafford’s Manor, The Bonehoard, and you case The Thieves’ Guild (in Thief Gold). This subtype will come back later, with Dishonored, and you will often see among imsim fans that they may prefer Deus Ex over Thief or vice versa, even if they may like both. This change in dynamic–level design vs semi-sandbox–seems to be part of that.
Thief remains one of the best games ever made, in my opinion, especially in the more subtle nuances of its design, and how it doesn’t explicitly tell its story but rather lets you experience it. Even if many of the design decisions were made not because it was what the team wanted to do, but because of practical restrictions, it still makes for a fantastic game design that should have inspired more games going forward. Instead, we probably have Thief to blame for every forced stealth segment that’s annoyed us since.
Sadly, Looking Glass’ tenure as a game studio ends after the sequel, Thief II: The Metal Age, released in 2000. But developers from the company will go on to work on some of gaming’s biggest franchises.
Trespasser (EA Los Angeles/Dreamworks, 1998)
Trespasser represents part of why systemic design didn’t “win” the late 90s. It’s a technically complicated and performance-intensive game (for its time), where many of the game’s interconnected systems are driven by physics and prone to exactly the kind of issues you imagine when you read that sentence.
If you look past the problems of the game, such as the quirky controls and the even quirkier (and misogynous) UI, it’s a highly suspenseful survival horror first-person shooter where the systems provide a unique experience. It has its feet firmly on the ground of experimental and systemic game design, where ideas of procedural animation and a dynamic AI powering clever dinosaurs are central to the experience of playing the game. If you want to get rid of the raptors, you can kill another dinosaur that they will eat while you sneak by.
It carries many of the paradigm’s best ideas, but fails miserably due to its technical shortcomings, and was allegedly a problematic project. It’s now more of a curious imsim memento and maybe partly to blame for the persistent reluctance of publishers to fund technically ambitious games.
Half-Life (Valve, 1998)
There are many good things to say about Half-Life, so before I begin this tirade please understand that it’s a game that has many merits and definitely deserves its spot in the 1998 all-star lineup. But it’s arguably also the game that causes the first “death” of immersive sims.
The best way to describe Half-Life is as a rollercoaster ride. Not only is this literal at the very beginning of the game, where you get a long-winded tour of your workplace (and future game level) while riding a train; but as an entirety. At the time, this was jaw-dropping. You got to experience the things yourself right in front of you. The scientist getting pulled into the vents. The bossfight in the missile silo. So many cool things–and you were right there!
Unfortunately, this style of closely directed experience is more or less anti-systemic. Though there are certainly systems at play in Half-Life, such as the squad-based AI behaviors, this is really not what anyone took away from it. Instead it became a stepping stone towards cinematic gameplay: the grand nemesis of immersive sims and the direction many games took from Half-Life and forward.
The real tragedy of this, beyond Half-Life simply being a good game that deserves praise, is that the cinematic aspect is never allowed to take over in Half-Life. It’s not the punchline. Game developers worldwide made the wrong takeaways from this classic, and it is still affecting the games we play.
I like Half-Life, but I have come to resent its part in “desystemifying” mainstream game design.
Hidden & Dangerous (Illusion, 1999)
Tight mission-oriented level design, tools-oriented, and loadout-based. But most of all, Hidden & Dangerous (H&D) is still to this day one of the best cooperative multiplayer experiences I’ve ever had. You may now roll your eyes and name one of the bazillion cooperative games released since, but bear with me.
The highly systemic and almost completely open-ended nature of H&D‘s missions meant that you could forget to pack the explosives you needed to destroy the silos in your mission, and become forced to improvise. You could give someone a sniper rifle and they were now the sniper, or pack someone with a belt-fed machine gun and enough ammo to fight all the nazis. All of this without making it complicated.
It’s a game that sets up a scenario and then lets you play it however you want. Exactly the type of things that makes me excited to play a game. If that means stealing a car and barging in through the main gates, then so be it. Let me have my own crazy ideas.
Most importantly: it didn’t have any experience point unlocks or deep rabbit holes of upgrades and unlocks. A scoped rifle had a scope, and it was a tool–not a reward.
System Shock 2 (Looking Glass, 1999)
This game brought me one of the most vivid in-game experiences I can remember. It’sspoiler warningtime, of course, but if you haven’t played the game already you’re probably never going to have the same experience I had anyway.
From early on, you’re guided by a certain Janice Polito who tries to help you survive the zombie-infested hellscape that is the post-catastrophic UNN Von Braun. Hacking, breaking, sneaking, and log-reading your way through an obvious disaster. Dr. Polito becomes your only friend. The soothing voice in your head that gives you a beacon of hope in the storm. Once you’re about to meet her, it’s a genuine moment. A sense that you’re about to reach safety. Maybe you’re about to complete the game.
But of course, the rug is pulled, and as you step into Dr. Polito’s office, you find her body with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Then the walls slide down to reveal SHODAN, uttering “the Polito form is dead, insect,” causing your world to collapse. It’s been the evil AI all along, reeling you in by impersonating Janice Polito.
When I experienced this scene in early 2000, it was one of the most powerful moments I had ever experienced in a game. Because I was there–it wasn’t just a cutscene, or someone telling me how shocked I should be. It was pure unmitigated fear. One of the best plot twist developments ever executed in video game form. Unfortunately, the pacing is off by modern standards, and it’s probably hard to get the same feeling from that moment today. But that’s not the point. Looking at something so perfectly executed in our medium, we should strive to make it even better in our own games.
I’m so very sorry, Janice Polito, but we haven’t really tried since. Your sacrifice on the altar of video game narrative didn’t mean much.
The Operative: No One Lives Forever (Monolith, 2000)
These two games are two of the most interesting systemic games from their era. They do sacrifice some of the openness for a more linear narrative structure, but many of the missions play with features in the type of set-piece way we have come to expect from modern video games–except it still leaves you in charge.
Some of the missions are extremely linear plot beat affairs, but when you get to navigate on your own terms, handle alarms at your leisure, and deploy whimsical spy gadgets disguised as lipstick or perfume, this game is at its best.
I played it when it came out, and fell completely in love with it. I remember making the dialogue choices, getting on an airplane, dealing with quarantines, and of course the Statue of Liberty. Hacking, shooting, talking, betrayal, and conspiracy.
The big deal with Deus Ex, even more than System Shock 2, was its open-ended level structure. The areas that were constructed more to resemble a type of location or act as a hub than to merely be a level that you ran through and forgot about. Not the sprawling traversal space of a completely open world, but a much more focused location space, where nothing was there without a good reason.
For me, Deus Ex was a revelation. It was one of the first games where I peeked behind the curtain and saw how much immersion depended on smoke and mirrors. Immediately after finishing the game for the first time, I restarted from the beginning. I wanted to see the sights I thought I had missed out on. But what I quickly realized was that much of the branching dialogue–though it felt profound at the time–amounted to the same scenes, only with different dialogue on top. A second playthrough was interesting for the gameplay choices I could make, but not as much for the narrative content. A lesson I wish other games would’ve learned.
Arx Fatalis (Arkane, 2002)
Rafaël Colantonio will become an immersive sim household name. This is his first imsim outing, and the beginnings of Arkane.
Arx Fatalis brings many interesting things to the genre, and you can clearly see its roots in the Ultima Underworld legacy of the design paradigm. The attention to detail, the simulated nature of many of its systems (like how you can fry fish over a grill), and also the interesting use of free-form mechanics like the glyph-drawing for magical spells.
For some reason, it never quite clicked with me personally. But it’s a good game, and with the source code available it’s a great way to see what can make these kinds of games tick under the hood.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay (Starbreeze, 2004)
For full transparency, I worked on the sequel to this game, The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (2009), but I never worked on the 2004 original. When the original came out, I actually got it on launch day and it became the main reason I wanted to work at Starbreeze a few years later.
Riddick was a push towards the same hybrid-style of game that immersive sims often were, but combined with a much more cinematic feel. (Thank you, Half-Life…) Even voice-over from prominent Hollywood actors like Vin Diesel, and writing by real screenwrights. Elements of stealth, action, first-person shooters, and some platforming are thrown in, and it begins with what may be one of the best tutorials in gaming history. Fitting, for what may also be the best movie tie-in video game ever made.
Riddick demonstrates what could’ve happened with games going forward if they kept their systemic shoes on while going in a cinematic direction. A kind of best-of-both-worlds version of a hybrid game, even if the systemic bits are mostly downplayed. I wouldn’t call it an immersive sim, but it definitely carried the hybrid legacy forward.
F.E.A.R (Monolith, 2005)
I refuse to use the silly meaning of this game’s titular abbreviation. But beyond the silly abbreviation, it’s a game that was way ahead of many of its competitors. In its time, it was loudly celebrated as having the best video game AI ever made.
What makes this AI great is that it’s systemic. Rather than designers controlling the low-level underpinnings of every action an enemy undertakes, an AI has a goal and iterates backwards from that goal to find its plan of action. It wants to kill you, it needs a weapon. Weapon isn’t loaded, it has to reload it. Weapon isn’t drawn, has to draw it. Rewind this as a plan, and the AI will now draw its gun, reload it, and then attack. (It’s called Goal-Oriented Action Planning.)
Paired with ideas of having AI communicate current state rather than be scripted, they will provide dialogue as feedback to the player on what they are doing. For example, one may yell “Flanking!”, not because it’s been scripted to do so, but because it realizes it just did. This makes the AI seem smart to the player, because ohmygod I’m being flanked!
Are these AI systems and their highly interactive nature enough to make F.E.A.R an immersive sim? Not really. But it demonstrates the difference it makes to apply systemics to parts of your design.
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (Arkane, 2006)
What makes systemic games tick is having simple rules that can both be easily understood and easily combined. The first-person melee madness of Dark Messiah is an excellent example of this.
Cast a spell that generates a patch of ice on the ground, and see a battlement guard slip hilariously and tumble over the edge of the wall. Kick someone into a fire. Set fire to a crate, kick the crate. Lots of kicking, in general. And sharp sticks.
The more “modern” style of game that prevails at this time is the linear story and Dark Messiah tries to juggle linearity and some more open hubs together in a way that isn’t entirely successful. But the gameplay is fantastic and can maybe be seen as a spiritual precursor to Dishonored.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (GSC Game World, 2007)
So many things about S.T.A.L.K.E.R are simply amazing. The atmosphere and mood, of course, but also the way you can play it almost however you want. If you decide to go toe to toe with soldiers with just your crappy handgun, it’ll be rough. But you can manage it, if you’re smart.
You are usually free to approach scenarios however you see fit, such as when rescuing someone’s friend, and the game’s several separate levels strung together into a kind of open world do a great job of providing variety and interesting scenarios.
It has more of the free exploration, where you can just wander around searching for artifacts and fight monsters, than most of the classic imsims, but it fits the slower more atmospheric pace really well.
Demon’s Souls (From Software, 2009)
The selective openness. The smartly constructed hub. The many times it lets you ask “what if?” and has an answer ready for you. This is definitely a systemic game at its heart, and even managed to turn multiplayer on its head by removing lobbies and queues from the frontend and making it a diegetic process to aid or invade.
Of course, like Thief and its contemporaries, Demon’s Souls and its sequels are thoroughly misunderstood games. Beyond how hard or skill-based they are, they also put much of the experience at the player’s own fingertips. If you think it’s too hard, you can grind. If you think it’s too easy, you can fight the boss wearing only your knickers. But people don’t talk about that. They talk about how hard it is. Just like Thief is synonoymous with its stealth mechanics.
So are the Soulsborne games really immersive sims? That’s not a question that matters, in the end. The point is that they’re systemic games, and in ways that can trace their roots back to the early days of immersive sims in a very practical way.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal, 2011)
When imsims were set to make their big return, this was the game that was supposed to start it. Unfortunately, it misunderstands many of the principles of the imsim design paradigm or even what made the original game such a classic.
The misunderstandings start immediately, when you get your brain nagged into goo by a steady stream of forced staging and cutscene sequences. There’s even a bunch of nonsensical technobabble thrown in for good measure. Something the original mostly avoided. Story doesn’t have to mean words, and it doesn’t have to be on the nose. Subtletywas something the classic imsims excelled at, that Human Revolution fails completely. Which is a pity, because the neobaroque world building and transhumanism concepts are really compelling–they could’ve made an excellent foundation for a great immersive story. It’s just that the player is rarely invited.
But beyond the lack of subtlety and its heavy reliance on taking away player control in its narrative stages, it’s a decent game. It’s not all bad. The bossfights though? They should never have been in the game.
Dishonored (Arkane, 2012)
I love all three of the Dishonored games, though I think the second one is my favorite (screenshot above is from the second one). Largely due to its incredible level design. These games are flawed gems, not quite reaching up to the standards of their spiritual predecessors. Not because of some pink-goggled fandom either.
There are two areas where I think the Dishonored seriessimply falls flat:
First of all, they’re not stealth games at all but insist on pretending they are. You can kill everyone in the room if you want to, and fairly easily if you have a few traps or grenades in your pocket. So to be able to play the games as stealth games you have to act like the situation is dangerous when it actually isn’t. As if Corvo is playing hide-and-seek with the guards, who are also in on it. This also makes you lose a majority of the games’ powers and features, which are clearly focused more on defeating enemies. Combined, this makes the experience a fragmented one. Particularly for a grizzled old imsim connaiseur like moi.
This stealth problem could’ve been a non-issue by simply not having it be an option and embracing the game’s nature as a story about a highly competent assassin. It feels like the somewhat crippled stealth game that’s stapled onto Dishonored is there for legacy reasons. The classic misunderstanding that stealth is the same as immersion, as has already been mentioned.
Secondly, the Dishonored games interrupt gameplay both often and arbitrarily. Not just with dialogue states or similar, but with action cutscenes, forced staging like the overly long boat rides in the first game, and by taking over direct camera control. This is a complete no-no for me, and considering the somewhat convoluted story of the games it doesn’t really show it from its best side either. There is usually no point being made in these staged scenes, and I bet they were some of the most expensive content the team had to produce.
The atmosphere, the world building, the atmosphere, the character writing, and did I mention the atmosphere? There are things that I absolutely adore in Dishonored. I’m sorry to say that the story isn’t one of those things. It’s largely forgettable. Something that exacerbates the second issue.
Thi4f (Eidos Montreal, 2014)
Few games fail harder in reinterpreting their legacy than the 2014 remake of Thief. What was always a clever systemic game has now become a carefully directed linear game about shallow characters doing predictable things with the loosest interpretation of what The City was always about. This once emergent experience, maybe illustrated most effectively by the rope arrow that attaches to any wooden surface, is now a context-sensitive mess.
It’s not without merits. Its version of The City is incredibly atmospheric, looks gorgeous, and it’s a more competent stealth game than Dishonored. But since it falls so short of its legacy, it’s still a forgettable game. Against literary sense, it would’ve smelled much sweeter with another name.
There are some things it does do extremely well, however. How it handles first-person character interaction is incredibly atmospheric and places you in the game world in a way many first-person games fail to do. Pushing curtains aside, using your fingers to find hidden levers, lockpicking, looting; Garrett’s long fingers pluck the wealth from The City in a more immersive way than ever before. It’s just a shame that the rest of the game doesn’t meet this expectation on equal terms.
That the game’s developers had such poor confidence in the originals that they decided to kill their best ideas blows my mind.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017)
In any game that’s heavily systemic, you want the systems to behave consistently. One of the often celebrated modern games that do this incredibly well is Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But the one thing I think is most important about Zelda‘s design is even simpler than that.
The classic Ubisoft-style open world mechanic is to climb a tower and unlock a bunch of icons representing chores. This unlocking is a mostly passive experience and one that gamers have been making fun of for the past decades as it’s found its way into so many game series.
The Zelda version is to leave it in your own hands. You still climb towers, but you bring out your binoculars to search for the telltale orange glow of the shrines you’re looking for, or place markers where something else piques your interest. This is again all it’s about: systems, and player choices!
Prey (Arkane, 2017)
I did play the original Prey on Xbox 360, and as I’m a big fan of the in-world UI of Doom 3, I remember it fondly. I also briefly followed Prey 2 since it seemed to become a pretty awesome science fiction bounty hunting game. But when I booted up Arkane’s take on Prey a couple of years after it released, I was hooked within minutes.
What I liked most was the way the space station was structured. Once I had most of it unlocked, I could figure out my own ways to navigate both inside and outside its confines. The system around fabricating items from their constituent parts was also interesting, and it succeeded with the sense that I could experiment to my heart’s content with all the tools the game gave me and be rewarded for it. Whether by making goo stairs or setting up motion-tracking turrets to fight my mimic enemies for me.
In many ways, I think it’s the best “modern” take we have on the immersive sim. Particularly where it starts blending into social dynamics with the other survivors on the station. Because social interaction, and making decisions based on those, seems like it could be a next step for immersion.
Weird West (WolfEye, 2022)
Labeling has done more harm than good to the legacy of these games, and few games more than Weird West. The community is highly divided on whether Weird West even deserves to be called an immersive sim.
It’s not first-person, therefore it’s not an immersive sim. It uses modal dialogue that you must read, and is therefore not an immersive sim. It doesn’t have a basket ball court or use the 0451 code, and is therefore not an immersive sim.
Mr. Colantonio of course has his own take on this, leaning on 20 years of experience, and that it’s strange to try to overrule his own authorship in regards to Weird West‘s imsiminess. But at the end of the day, the divisive discourse around Weird West highlights the problematic nature of the label.
As a game, I found Weird West a bit flawed. Many scenarios where I thought I could do a cool thing, I did the thing, but the scenario didn’t allow me to continue. I had to retrace my steps and do something oddly specific instead. There were also many instances where the systems behave way too unpredictably for me to have fun with them, instead going into frustration. For example when my coat caught fire simply by having me pass by a candle while I was sneaking.
It does demonstrate a difference between simply having many systems interact and putting them in the hands of the player. Too unpredictable, it may cause frustration. Not unpredictable enough, it can be boring. A very hard balance to achieve.
There’s one thing that the most iconic imsims did that has stuck. Stealth. But something that saddens me is that many also embrace the visual styles and forget that many of them were early 3D games with extreme restrictions and that many stylistic choices were made for practical reasons.
Gloomwood is one of those games that becomes more like fan service to me than a game that tries to build on the design paradigm of immersive sims. You will consider how well it emulates Thief rather than what Gloomwood‘s own design or gameplay merits may be. Even to the point where some fans were angry that the first safe code wasn’t 0451.
Personally, I don’t like nostalgia as a reason to do things. This means Gloomwood doesn’t click with me, even if it’s well made and probably much better than I will ever know. It tries too hard to conjure memories of the classic games, for me, and I already played those.
I will probably play it more one day, but there’s something oddly off-putting about this appeal to nostalgia for me. Maybe I simply don’t like feeling old?
Since my first days as a roleplayer, improvisation has always been what it’s all about. There was never a plan to make it that way, however. I just couldn’t afford the expensive campaigns and adventures that other groups played. So I took my core book or box and I used it in every way I could think of.
As an adult arguing about role-playing with other roleplayers, many have found this strange. It seems that the hobby is often deeply synonymous with big popular campaign releases. Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play isn’t a game standing on its own two feet but gets defined by The Enemy Within. What did you do in “Mistaken Identity?” Ah, cool! We did that too.
But that’s not my fun. I wanted to write about my fun!
There are many ways you can talk about improvisation in role-playing. It’s not uncommon to describe it in negative terms, such as a Game Master (GM) “pulling things out their ass.” Or to equate improvisation with the fudging of dice rolls. Improvisation of this kind is simply the same as the much-lamented “rail-roading” of a despotic GM.
The rest of this rant will explore how to structure your gaming not just to facilitate some improvisation, but to turn player and GM improvisation into the main attraction.
Truth and Storytelling
There are two types of roleplayers who are most adamant against improvisation. I’ll call them truthers and storytellers. Ultimately, these two types of roleplayers are completely incompatible with the type of improvisation I like, and they will often figure that role-playing requires things that are not all that important to an improviser.
Truthers consider objective truth a central external value that must be established for the game to be playable. This makes any presence of improvisation outside safe bubbles—like what is said in a conversation with a non-player character—dangerous. A truther can’t improvise the existence of a village, for example, or who the murderer is in a murder mystery. Truthers often play adventures where investigation or puzzle-solving plays a central role, or explore lore-heavy worlds from favorite fiction or of their own making.
Storytellers, on the other hand, have specific stories in mind and want to tell them through role-playing. Improvisation may become harmful against the intended story, since it may derail everything or shift focus away from what the author intended. This style of play will often require fudging of dice rolls and other ways of minimizing the impact of failed rolls.
If you recognize the truther or storyteller approach as your preferred play style, it’s highly likely that the rest of this article will seem alien to you. But please read it anyway!
Bounce and Social Contract
The first thing to do is distribute ownership. When a player asks, “Is there a jukebox at the diner?”, it shouldn’t be met with a flat yes or no, but become a case of bouncing the question back to the player. “Do you think there should be a jukebox?” for example, or “There can be if you want—what would it be playing?”
The only rule around bounce is that it shouldn’t take up too much time. But anyone should be allowed to add something. The question is being bounced back, not just to the player who asked it, but to the whole group.
Some player types will abuse this, of course. “Yeah, there’s a jukebox, and it plays a magic tune that auto-persuades everyone to give me their money.” This type of player illustrates the most important part of distributed ownership: the social contract.
To make improvisation part of your play, you must be gathered to share a cool experience. Not just to win, defeat, or prevail. Players who misuse the bounce or try to optimize their gains, no matter what, are a poor match with this style of play. They may still learn, but chances are they prefer the truther or storyteller approach.
Say Yes, or Roll the Dice
I returned to role-playing much too late to know where this expression came from originally, but I ran into it in the excellent science fiction game Diaspora. There, it’s said that it originates from Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard. For me, it was more validation than revelation. I had often done things this way, and no one had told me to.
It works like this. When a player wants to do something you (as the GM) either say yes, or you make them roll dice to achieve what they wanted. You never go for a flatout “no.” If you consider the jukebox example, you could simply say “yes,” or you could have someone roll an appropriate skill, or some other rollable thing. Even just a d6 where 1-3 means no and 4-6 means yes (a mechanic the venerable TOON has).
An extension of the same thinking is the use of random tables, even if that adds a layer of abstraction. In that case, you wouldn’t answer “Is there a jukebox?” directly, but you’d roll on the “Things you can find in a diner” table. The objective is still the same—to inject creativity and some measure of neutrality into the decision-making.
Following the Rules
When you fail a roll, or you don’t have the skills needed to do a thing, this gives you important rules output. Alright, lock is too modern to be picked with a lousy pick. Maybe there is a jukebox, but it’s broken and you can’t fix it.
Suddenly, you’re not improvising in a vacuum—you’re taking logical in-game events and you’re extrapolating from them. Bounce or no bounce.
Failure should mean that the specific way of doing a thing, or the whole thing, is now moot. Even that a situation escalates. Maybe as you stand there kicking the jukebox, the diner’s owner gets angry and demands an explanation. Failure should never be an invitation for players to do the exact same thing again using a different modifier to the dice roll.
Similarly, rolling D&D-style Reactions, or social skills in general, will constantly move the situation and game forwards without relying on arbitrary GM fiat. Successes can introduce new interesting situations and change situations in ways players had never thought of on their own or even intended.
Basically: embrace the rules! Look at failures not as showstoppers but as opportunities to take your experience in new directions.
You’re following the rules for their output and you’re bouncing things back and forth. Improvisation is already made easier. But one thing that may also aid improvisation is immersion.
In this context, immersion isn’t about the experience around your table or the fiction you’re building through play. It’s about you as a player or GM being immersed in the fictional source material. Not in the way a truther searches for facts in the fiction, however. More as a way to find fitting expressions, good grounds for character behavior, goals, agendas, and styles of play.
For an example of what I mean, you may check out Bargains & Bloodshed (it’s free), which is my own thoroughly researched sword & sorcery game. With just a few one-page sheets of rules, and some random tables, this was designed to generate an experience as close to the literary sword & sorcery genre as possible. It clicks with the improvised style of play and does so by having few established truths beyond the rules and the assumptions made through those rules.
The game itself isn’t an example of immersion, by the way. Rather, I personally read lots and lots of sword & sorcery classics and tried to glean as much as I could from their style of writing, their pacing, conflicts, etc. I immersed myself in the genre to be able to represent it in a form I personally found close to the source material.
Whether it’s successful or not is of course entirely subjective, but the process of immersion is an extremely important aspect of improvised play. It’s intended to make you comfortable improvising, because you have already trained your brain. We can jokingly refer to it as method roleplaying.
Improvisation can be more or less informed. If you’re not immersed, you have nothing planned, and you make things up as you go, we can refer to this as “full” improvisation. There’s hardly anything at all. Freeform role-playing.
More informed improvisation means that some aspects of the game’s play space are prepared in advance. A very good example of this is character agendas.
A good agenda lets you make decisions on what the character would prioritize and how a character would respond to certain events. It can be opaque, or completely obvious. But it’s very important that it doesn’t explicitly include other characters or imply an outcome. You’re not writing a plot—you’re motivating a character.
An agenda can be as simple or as complicated as you want, and may be prepared well in advance or can be written down as it clicks in place during play. Let’s say we have the diner owner who is a bit pissed at you for kicking the jukebox. This diner owner may have been completely improvised in the moment, because of the bad jukebox repair roll, or may have been a predefined named character. In both cases, it helps to give the character an agenda.
That diner owner may have an expensive mortgage to pay off, and the broken jukebox has been a constant reminder of the diner’s deteriorating financial situation. This could turn kicking it into a personal insult; almost like kicking the diner owner.
Use agendas, write them down if you want, and then refer to them whenever things happen in the game. Whether they’re questions being bounced, dice rolls, or something else. You’ll get to know these characters through play.
Representation and Relationships
There are two things you should do with characters that also helps improvisation.
First of all, you should use characters that represent important things in the game. Having someone that’s accused of being a double agent will show that infiltration and double agents are a thing. A diner owner with a heavy debt may be a way to establish a poor neighborhood, or a character with questionable economic judgment. Anything you want to represent in your game should have a character represent it. Factions, ideals, conflicts; if it’s important, it should be represented.
Secondly, you take all these representative characters and you spread them out. They can be player characters, non-player characters, friends, spouses, contacts, relatives, and so on. Somehow, they should be tied to the group in an as intuitive way as possible.
The reason for this is that the social network of the play space will become grounds for improvisation for everyone, and not just for the GM. It also makes it less of an “us against them.”
When the group understands that the diner owner may cause a scene over the jukebox beating, one character steps forward, and says it’s fine and that the violator didn’t mean anything, sorry about it cousin! “Ah, I didn’t see you there,” says the diner owner, “how’s the goldfish? And okay, just don’t let it happen again. Things are tough as they are.” (See there? Both agenda and relationship used to improvise what the diner owner would say.)
For improvisation to work, it has to be consistent over time. If we say the jukebox is broken and we also rolled dice and failed to fix it, it can’t suddenly work a minute later if there’s not a very good fictional reason for it.
We can improvise that our visit to the diner next day, there’s suddenly a jukebox repair team in place, and it’s playing some classic tune we’re all annoyed by. But that’s still building off the established fact of the jukebox being broken.
As play continues, and the conversation around the table evolves, improvisation will be easier simply because of the accumulation of facts, characters, relationships, etc., that you are continuously doing through play. You may not even notice that it gets easier to improvise, because it won’t feel like improvising anymore. It’s just play informing continuous play.
Once you reach this point, you have mastered the art of TTRPG improvisation. Believe me–it’s way easier than you might think.
No relationships around the game table will be as dynamic and unpredictable as those between the players themselves. So let’s push this improvisation one step further. Let’s add player vs player to the mix.
This is an extreme version of bouncing. You’re no longer bouncing questions to the GM back to the table, but moving the whole ownership of agendas and character relationships to the players. Each player will have their own answers and become responsible for what is true and what isn’t.
Depending on the dynamics of the rules you are using, this may be more or less disruptive. But most games will handle it much better than you think. But naturally, it doesn’t work at all with established truths or prewritten stories.
There’s a consistent theme throughout the previous headlines that may or may not be apparent. The whole reason to rely so heavily on a combination of informed improvisation and game rules is that it generates a smooth table conversation. Without established truths to check, or a written story to second-guess, the most important things we can achieve are continuity and agency.
Continuity by informing our improvisation through play. Agency by bouncing questions, leveraging character relationships, and not saying no.
When you put these things together, you have the hobby I call role-playing. But as with everything based on decades of preferences, your mileage may vary.
Video game storytelling is a nascent field. If we’re honest about it, we don’t really know how to do it. At least not well. Most of the time we just give up and copy film.
Because it’s comfortable to wrap ourselves in the cozy vernacular of the Hero’s Journey, three-act structure, and cinematography in general. It feels much safer. When we look at the interactivity of our medium and how it’s going against the grain of the stuff we’ve borrowed we are forced to excise the interactivity violently because it risks disrupting our carefully constructed “cinematic” experiences.
One of the worst offenders is dialogue. Something screenwriters have basically perfected for their media, but something we struggle with to such an extent that we still can’t agree whether we should even give our protagonists a voice or not.
So let’s talk about talk. In video games.
In parser-based adventure games like Leisure Suit Larry, and in many text adventures, a significant part of the attraction is to experiment and explore. To find your way through the game one misspelled sentence at a time and see what happens when you decide to say stupid or offensive things, or to come ever closer to the story’s conclusion.
With the ELIZA Effect in mind, there may even be a certain level of emotional connection involved. But beyond even that, a parser-based game will often seem larger (or smaller) than it really is, based on the types of answers you get.
At their best, you’ll feel that anything is possible. This was certainly my own experience playing Starship Titanic. Clever or hilarious responses that made me feel like I was interacting with the game world. Like the designers had anticipated every clever profanity I could conjure up from my teenage mind.
At their worst, it’s the same as the trial-and-error segments in many adventure games where you try to figure out where to use the odd things in your inventory and you’ll have to bash your head against the keyboard until the right sentence falls out.
But one thing to be said about this style of dialogue is that it was a ton of fun, and though it requires typing – which is somewhat awkward in modern gameplay – it was a very direct form of communication. Certainly more direct than what we’ve gotten used to since.
“It is important to remember that your story is working in unison with gameplay. The more your story can be told through gameplay, the better. Much like the film axiom ‘Don’t say it, show it,’ you should be thinking in a similar fashion for the game: ‘Don’t show it, play it.’”
Flint Dille and John Zuur-Platten
Including many of the games that did parser-based dialogue, games have always done a lot of exposition for some reason. You know what I mean:
In the world of Fantasyland, the slime elves come from a 1,000-year lineage. Before they arrived in the land of Snowplace in the southern parts of Fantasyland, they spent several centuries Frowning and Despairing onboard Seaweed Ships – boats made not of wood but of seaweed from the bottom of the Dark Evil Ocean – sailing across stormy seas and sometimes resorting to piracy out of boredom. Then the mysterious Crown of Mystery suddenly shattered into three fragments for reasons, and you – our only hero and hope – must venture forth to find those fragments before it’s too late. Also, if you want that broadsword, that’ll be 500 gold pieces please.
It can be called lore or background or even be confused for narrative depth, but it’s really just information dumps and they rarely serve any purpose beyond feeding you the stream of words many narrative designers somehow insist on having. They’re there partly because they’re insanely cheap to produce when all the systems are in place, and partly (presumably) because many writers simply enjoy writing the stuff.
Of all the things we’ve taken from Hollywood, the ideal to “show, don’t tell” is somehow a thing we skipped. For all that is holy, we should stop doing infodumps.
Basically, if something needs to be stated directly and explicitly, it’s most likely too convoluted to be worth keeping.
“Us game designers are envious about movies for some reason – but film and cinema, they can’t do a lot of emotions because it’s simply an empathetic thing, theater, it’s technology. The format doesn’t allow certain emotions nearly as well as games.”
Film excels at empathy. When the monster in a horror movie shows its ugly mug, we don’t get to see it – we get to see the reactions of the protagonists. But not before the monster’s been hyped up by the characters’ mounting distress. The suspenseful music helps too, of course.
Characters can be sad, happy, angry, or they can display a wide range of other emotions, but you – the viewer – will only ever display empathy. Good actors will make you feel, but you’re not an active participant. You’re not there in any active sense.
This is the style of media we grow up on, making it more intuitive to go straight to our cinematic inspirations when we want to tell stories in games. And we don’t just emulate it conceptually, but concretely. We have long-since introduced the idea of a separate dialogue state where the game pauses, potentially zooms in, and the camera work can then be directly influenced by Hollywood cinematography (in 3D). Or at the very least, set the game into a restricted state where we can maintain directorial control.
The button-to-action immediacy of real gameplay is turned off, and the camera snaps to a view of whoever is talking. Usually kicked off with an impersonal greeting or a reminder of central story beats to make sure that the player is on the same page as the character about to speak.
You know the ones. “Have you done the thing I asked you?”
Mass Effect, which is the game in this screenshot, does address one issue that most state-based dialogue suffers from, but it doesn’t solve it. The problem of repetition, where you have to convey the same dialogue line multiple times even though it’s only said once in the presented fiction.
Typical state-based dialogue interaction looks something like this:
A Non-Player Character (NPC) starts the conversation. Usually prompted by player activation, and sometimes by an initial Player Character (PC) dialogue line, but it’s often an NPC that starts a conversation from the perspective of the content being displayed.
The NPC speaks a line.
A number of alternative dialogue responses appear. The player must read each alternative to understand what can be said.
The player selects one of the possible alternatives.
The PC speaks the chosen line, repeating the same content that the player has already read and selected.
The NPC responds, either taking the player back to 2), or ending the dialogue state.
It needs five separate steps for a single conversational exchange. It’s as if we had to watch actors quietly reading their script before saying their lines. Not very cinematic at all.
Mass Effect addresses #3 by stating the intent of each option instead of reprinting the whole prompt. This eliminates part of the reptition, but not the requirement of having to first read and then choose before a line is spoken. But it can sometimes cause frustration as well, when the shorthand doesn’t reflect what the player actually intended to say.
If you’d watch the dialogue state and not read text, these steps invariably makes state-based dialogue look more like drawn-out staredowns than conversations. But the alternatives aren’t necessarily better. Not as long as we have very specific stories to tell.
Please register for the court, evidence exhibit #2: a screenshot from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The cinematic heritage is probably never clearer than in The Witcher 3. What makes it different from Mass Effect is that it embraces it more fully. You’ll often have several characters take part in the conversation, and you only choose the lines for the usually brief and very direct Geralt of Rivia, The Butcher of Blaviken. It’s a much more passive experience, but actually benefits from this since it leans into its cinematography. Embraces it. It’s using the game’s systems for cutscenes wholesale and therefore blurring the lines between the different types of narrative content the game offers. You can’t draw a clear line between cutscenes and dialogue, and this increases the value of both.
It’s much more fluid, but through production value. It’s more like a movie, and therefore its “movie parts” feel better. The dialogue is still experienced in a separate state and still suffers from the same problems of any other state-based system.
Though the production values have improved dramatically, this style of dialogue is what we’ve been stuck with. Those five steps haven’t changed at all between 1992 and 2022.
The very worst that dialogue states have to offer is where you need to say very specific things because the writer or designer demands it. The whole game won’t progress until you have eliminated all the wrong choices and been forced to make the right one.
In some types of interactive fiction, this is perfectly fine, because your interaction prompt serves mostly to parcel out text into more easily acceptable pieces.
It also makes sense from the perspective of cinematic inspiration, of course, since the intentions of the writers and designers take precedence over those of the player playing the game. In film, the frames will always be served in the right order. If you look at it like that, it’s the logical conclusion to a decades-long battle between systemic interaction and cinematic gameplay; the two arch-rivals of video game direction.
Sometimes we do have dialogue that’s allowed to stay free from the state-based restraints. But we do tend to use this very irresponsibly. A nag line is a style of repetitive and often extremely obtuse calls to action from the game system, communicated using lines of dialogue.
Once “I think we need to open the red door” has played, you’ll soon hear, “maybe the red door should be opened,” followed by “the red door must have been placed here for a reason,” and finally, “open the red door damnit before I quit this stupid voice acting job!”
For an absolute master class in both satirizing and perfectly gamifying this style of voice over, you should do yourself a favor and play The Stanley Parable.
If you’re playing any other game and you hear nag lines you should back away slowly from your gaming hardware and call the cops on yourself before you are forced to do something drastic.
“The guiding principle behind combat banter in FEAR is that whenever possible, AI characters should talk to each other about what they are doing. Rather than having an individual character react with a bark, multiple characters carry on a short dialogue that broadcasts mental state and intentions to the player.”
For years, if you talked to anyone about Artificial Intelligence (AI) in video games, they’d toot F.E.A.R‘s horn. An action/horror first-person shooter, F.E.A.R (which’s ridiculous acronym I refuse to spell out) did many interesting things. But it’s maybe even more interesting for what it didn’t do.
Many of the people who praised the AI were saying that it did such smart things and seemed to really understand what it was doing. But as the lead AI programmer – Jeff Orkin – explained, all they really did was tell you what they were doing.
As an example that may or may not exist in the game’s content, imagine two enemies approaching the player at roughly the same time. They’re on opposite sides of the player and one of them starts shooting. Since the AI can use perfect information, it can know the situation and respond to it. Maybe one plays the dialogue line “I’m going in,” and the one shooting responds “I’ll cover you!”
This isn’t because they’re smart, but because those lines are triggered by what gets collected in the game’s current state space. State triggers the dialogue and not the other way around. This type of dialogue is dynamic, interesting, and can make the situation seem more human. For example when an AI can’t reach a certain area and simply says “hell no!”
One tier below combat dialogue you find what’s often called “barks.” Things AIs decide to say as immediate responses to what they’re doing or experiencing. Things like “grenade!” or “reloading!” or other things that advertise changes in their local state.
This is something many games do really well, and the perfect stepping stone towards what modern video game dialogue could be exploring instead of staredowns.
Like Nicole Lazzaro points out, empathy is the thing that film does best. When we borrow from cinema it’s natural to think that we also need to do empathy. But when we try to use the empathetic tools employed in this other medium, it falls apart.
This happens in many games, but I’ll use FallOut 4 as an example. As the game begins and you make your character, you’re introduced to your spouse. Once the introduction reaches a close, this spouse is killed brutally in front of your eyes.
In a film, you’d see the sobbing shaking form of the protagonist as the tragedy of the event sinks in. You’d feel for that character. Understand some of what that character goes through, especially if you have a partner of your own.
But in FallOut 4, it’s forced to the point where you’re hammering ESC because you just want to play. You don’t care about this polygonal 3D model since it’s not your partner – you’ve just been told that it is.
All we have to do to see how empathy can become player motivation is go back to the earlier instalments of the same game series. In the first two FallOut games, the village where you begin the game is your home. Full of people you care about and who care about you. Later in the story, when those villages are attacked, this becomes personal. A thing you really don’t want to happen.
Please do borrow from cinema. But don’t try to borrow the one thing cinema will always do better than games.
Payload vs. Delivery
I love well-written games with good stories. Unsurprisingly, I’m not alone. People praise the thematic delivery of God of War, the depressive angst and fanaticism of Ellie in The Last of UsPart 2, and how their choices in Mass Effect affects the cultural complexities between Mordin and Wrex. There are many game stories that we remember just as fondly as those from Hollywood or our favorite authors.
But we also often confuse the payload, meaning the content, with the delivery; the state-based dialogue and cutscenes.
We didn’t have the strong experiences in these games that we had because they had cutscenes in them or a clever director saying how things should be. We had them because we were there – we made the choices. If there were no choices to make, then we were at least present enough to not turn off our consoles.
This is the trickiest part of the entire conversation, as most of the praised story games do in fact deliver their content using state-based dialogue. Passive observation. This often makes us equate the delivery format in the games we like with the payload of the delivery. In other words, if we like God of War, our first instinct is to tell our game stories in exactly the same way. Maybe even with the same plot beats or motivations. For example, making a game about delivering someone’s ashes.
It goes the other way too. Where you can fail to see clever features in a game you don’t like because you conflate payload and delivery.
I want to argue that this conflation is the reason we get so many games with state-based dialogue in the first place. When we sit down to make our dialogue-heavy games, we think about the stories we remember, and rather than considering how to invite the player into the experience we assume that our game has to use the same delivery if we want to get the same results.
We keep the staredowns because our favorite games had them too. It seems intuitive that, if you want to make a game that captures the emotional payload of God of War, you copy the delivery. Or even parts of the payload. But that’s really not how storytelling works, or how video games work.
“[G]ood games writing does three things at the same time: 1. characterizes the speaker or the world 2. provides mechanical information and 3. does this as succinctly as possible.”
When it comes to dialogue, there are some outstanding attempts to make dialogue more interesting that I want to highlight. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but it shows that new thinking both isn’t new and doesn’t require a whole lot of thinking. There are countless small experiments we can do before we decide to stick to our beloved staredowns.
Left 4 Dead
It surprises some, but L4D has a fantastic dialogue system. The techniques used are not unique – and they have been around in some form since the early days of immersive sims – but they are unusually well-documented thanks to Elan Ruskin’s excellent GDC talk from 2012. (It’s probably the link I’ve shared the most in my entire career.)
I consider this dialogue interactive because it responds to what’s happening as it happens rather than requiring the five-step process described earlier. It serves as contextual feedback to things in real-time, just like how Jeff Orkin describes F.E.A.R.
Kingpin: Life of Crime
No one remembers this feature when they think back to Kingpin, but it had what may be the most dynamic dialogue system in video game history.
Here’s what it did. The Y and X keys were mapped to context-sensitive positive and negative responses that you could press whenever you wanted while playing the game and looking at an NPC. It could lead to fights, it could disarm situations; even trigger questlines (such as getting a drunk a bottle of alcohol).
It didn’t work flawlessly, but it promised something that games still haven’t delivered on 23 years later: dynamic freeform dialogue. Something that can stay interactive every step of the way and completely avoids the staredown.
Whenever I write something positive about Cyberpunk 2077, people like telling me I can’t have played many games. But I have, surprisingly, and still think there are tricks used so well in CP’77 that it speaks of what games can be able to achieve with dialogue in the future. It’s a crucial first stepping stone leading us beyond the staredowns.
Ironically, it’s because it leans into its cinematography. Something I’ve already used too many words complaining about. But the difference from other state-based dialogue systems is that it does so carefully and – most importantly – with a great deal of subtlety.
In the scene pictured above, you are introduced to Evelyn for the first time. A character that plays an important role in what’s to come, though maybe not in the way you think. She won’t greet you immediately. She’ll simply sit there and watch, waiting to see how you make your move, and blending into the noisy nightclub background. Instead, you speak to the bartender and ask for Evelyn. Once he hands the conversation over to her, he takes a step back and lights a cigarette as Evelyn leans forward.
This is carefully directed every step of the way, and the lighting and the way the characters signal who you should pay attention to using body language and staging is part of how cinematographers make a living. It’s a bit too locked down and restricted to truly come into its own, but the promise of these types of stage-directed set pieces is that we can finally find a form language informed by how games are played.
Because, what if the stage-direction could be systemic? What if the careful lighting and the conscious choices of idle states tailored for 1v1, 1v2, 2v2, and other dialogue dynamics could become part of our own ludography, so we can finally leave our obsession with film by the wayside? This is what CP’77 promises, by taking a first tentative step.
The other thing that the game does is that it carries its factions, missions, and major plot beats through characters and not through exposition. It borrows from how TV shows can go back and forth between plots and weave a coherent tale through the whole rather than as a linear constant. There’s so much subtlety in writing and presentation at work here that it’s a shame that the game’s other flaws have probably scarred its reputation permanently.
Games rarely let time affect their storytelling. There have been some examples through the years, from The Hobbit, via Dead Rising, leading up to the example here: Citizen Sleeper.
Taking a cue from the use of clocks in tabletop role-playing games like Blades in the Dark, this title often both communicates things that wait for you around the corner and things that you want to prioritize. It’ll give you a clock and say that it provides a bonus at the end, but it can also simply leave a cryptic clue about something bad that will occur.
Once you reach the conclusion of a clock, usually based on the number of work cycles you’ve completed on the game’s broken down space station, there’s always a tricky tradeoff or some consequences to deal with based on how you handled the clock along the way.
By making choices be more about tiny interpersonal decisions in multiple situations, and the consequences follow based on the sum total, this game manages to tell a very different kind of story and it does so almost entirely through conversations with the game world’s various NPCs.
Beyond the sometimes excellent writing, there are actually few things I like about the Telltale games. It always felt like a style of game that didn’t evolve but simply stuck to a formula that gradually lost its charm.
With the Game of Thrones outing, and the first episode’s disappointing lack of choices that actually mattered to the story, I stopped playing these games. They were narrative games of the sort where a writer has a story to tell and acts like your interaction makes a difference. I lost the illusion, and couldn’t get it back.
But two things I adore about the Telltale games is that they tell you what matters and they compare your choices to those of other people playing the game.
It’s been said many times that the “Clementine will remember that” cues are not always true, but it doesn’t really matter, because it shows that the characters in the game’s simulation feel how you treat them. The ELIZA Effect again – we care that they care.
It demonstrates that we don’t need to make complex systems to turn dialogue into something more interactive. Sometimes it’s enough just to give clear and timely feedback.
My favorite out of all the Telltalelikes is Until Dawn. A skillful tribute to the college slasher genre of and one that tells a tight and interesting story about teenagers going to an isolated cabin. The story develops in exactly the ways you’d expect, but what matters is that the ending will vary greatly depending on how you play.
The spectrum goes almost all the way between no one surviving and everyone surviving, all based on how you manage the relationships in the group and whose sides you pick in the group’s many conversations. Clever use of stereotypes, great writing, and dialogue that branches in exactly the right ways. It’s funny, scary, and carries its tropes extremely well.
Structurally, it’s maybe nothing special. It makes use of many passive observation techniques, including quick-time events. But it also shows you how far you can push dialogue as a game mechanic when you respect both your inspiration and the strengths of video games as a medium.
Red Dead Redemption 2
RDR2 is primarily a cinematic experience in its storytelling (just like CP’77 is). But the context-sensitive interactions that you can access during sandbox play make both for interesting situations and for a sense that you’re part of the world. If it wasn’t for the separate mode that requires you to hold a button to access it, it would conjure memories of Kingpin: Life of Crime!
As with R* games since time immemorial, the controls will never quite sit right and you’ll still accidentally rob people when you just wanted to say hi even after several hours of play. But as has also always been the case, this is a big part of the core experience. So many times where things snowballed out of control and I tried to make things right again, the usefulness of dynamic dialogue in a sandbox truly shines.
The clever thing about Disco Elysium, or at least one of the many clever things, is that it lets the world and your own mind talk to you. Much of the game’s dialogue is informing you of things about the world, but filtered through the different often untrustworthy parts of your character’s own conflicted mind. You’re literally arguing with yourself.
It gives the game a somewhat dreamy atmosphere, where it can be hard to separate voices in the world from the voices in your head. Not to mention separating truth from fabrication. Furthermore, the whole game is focused around dialogue. You can talk yourself through every scene and feel clever doing it. A confident modern take on what Planescape Torment did at the close of the 90s.
The lesson to learn from Disco Elysium – beyond making sure to have great writers – is to ask who each voice in your game belongs to. What kinds of conversations can be had beyond nag lines, combat dialogue, and state-based staredowns.
There are so many neat tricks in Oxenfree that deserves mentioning that it feels hard to cover them all. The greatest thing it achieves is to make the ongoing conversation feel thoroughly natural. Characters can switch subjects, abort each other, stay quiet instead of responding, and just keep the stream of words flowing in a way that sounds and feels like real conversations.
As it does this, you’re also exploring an island and getting to know the cast of characters. It’s a great game in many ways, maybe mostly because it blends real-time interaction with an ongoing conversation. Much like an Aaron Sorkin show or The Gilmore Girls, but with interaction.
I must personally admit that I didn’t play this game until this year (2022), because of this very article and someone’s surprise that it wasn’t listed. Alpha Protocol definitely has a state-based dialogue system, but it has a couple of tricks in its storytelling that are well worth playing it for.
First of all, all dialogue is on a clock. A countdown starts every time you get an option, making it impossible to just sit and wait. To abbreviate the state-based experience it gives you intentions to choose from rather than full sentences (Provoke, Curious, Explain, and Execute in the screenshot below). Your reputation with each of the game’s central characters is clearly tracked, and both positive and negative extremes have potentially far-reaching consequences.
Second, the story is told in quick location-based mission beats. You go to bug a computer center. You go to meet with a contact. You raid a warehouse. This framing provides excellent context for your conversations, and makes the overarching plot move at a fairly rapid pace.
But rather than sticking with things people understand from contemporary politics – like a good Tom Clancy novel would – Alpha Protocol becomes almost like a narrative pastiche of the same. To remedy this, it does a lot of exposition and often becomes a word salad composed of names, locations, and concepts that must be painstakingly elaborated through in-game documents.
It does carry an air of espionage paperwork with it, of course, but it never quite makes sense. Instead, it feels like a make believe crisis where all the characters of the game are LARP:ing espionage rather than playing games with global conspiracies.
A bit tongue in cheek, but if I didn’t take this moment to praise Interstate ’76‘s fantastic poem button (yes!) I’d be committing a crime.
Stampede, the main character’s good friend and radio operator, responds to your requests for poems with surprisingly deep and thoughtful pieces. They always felt like a clever way to emulate how talkative cars can make you.
Games are not movies, and they should stop trying to be. But we should keep borrowing the good parts so we can make them better suited for our own work. We just have to remember that our medium is interactive and experiment more, so we may see where it leads us.
Let’s just agree that, 30 years from now, we’re not still using the same state-based dialogue as we’ve been using for 30+ years already. But let’s also agree that you don’t have to do all of that innovation in a single stride. It’s possible to take small steps forward, all the time. We just need to take more of them.
Some cool news in Playtank-land (since I can’t talk about what happens in Tic Tek Toe-land): I’ve signed on with CRC Press to write a game design book!
It’s a book I feel is currently missing and that will fill a critical gap in the knowledge sharing around game design. But to clearly state where I’m coming from, this post will be dedicated to some fantastic books on game design that already exist and that you should read and keep around for future reference.
These are far from all the great game design books out there, but they’re the ones I most often come back to.
Advanced Game Design A Systems Approach
By Michael Sellers
This is one of my personal favorites. I picked this up after the Frostpunk team recommended it greatly in an article on their procedural systems. Systemic games are growing in importance and relevance. Partly because content-driven games have a limited lifetime and are expensive to make.
My biggest takeaways are the practical ways to look at systems as Economies, Ecologies, or Engines, and what this means for your game.
The Deck of Lenses
By Jesse Schell
Not technically a book at all, but a deck of cards serving as a companion to Schell’s The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. The book does a great job of holistically describing games, but the deck turns an interesting read into a practically useful tool.
Each card is a “lens,” with a set of questions you can ask yourself in order to more deeply inform your design. Even questions that may not seem immediately relevant will always make you think.
Challenges for Game Designers
By Brenda Brathwaite (now Romero) and Ian Schreiber
Another favorite and one that I often quote. Not about game design as much as how game design is something you must practice and turn into a practical skill. It’s not about winning armchair duels or playing reference tennis.
Or in the words of the text, “A painter gets better by making lots of paintings; sculptors hone their craft by making sculptures; and game designers improve their skills by designing lots of games.”
Game Programming Patterns
By Robert Nystrom
I know. Your instinct is to say, “but I’m a designer, I don’t need to know programming!”
Yes you do. If you want to make digital games, knowing how games get made and some of the tricks that enable them is extremely helpful. At minimum, it lets you talk to programmers in a more constructive way.
This small book opened my mind. Its examples aren’t exhaustive and many I’ve talked to have argued that it doesn’t have much content. But it doesn’t need to.
It talks about uncertainty as a key element in what make games so compelling to play. You may know it as randomness, competition, hidden information, or in one of the many other forms that the book brings up. The book makes a compelling case for why you should make sure to consider which uncertainties you are employing for your own designs.
The Pyramid of Game Design
By Nicholas Lovell
Games as a Service (known as GaaS) are here to stay. The Free-to-Play business model is compelling for a variety of reasons, all of which Lovell mentions in this book.
Among gamers, these practices are often lamented. But Lovell comes from a different perspective and talks about how turning a game into more than a game – a hobby – is the path to success. Not just introducing mechanics designed to optimize monetization, but rather to hook the player and make them want to come back for more.
Even if you don’t like GaaS, Free-to-Play, or any other of these models, it helps to understand what makes them work.
The Missing Book
Books that focus on specific topics will usually be my favorites. This is why I don’t list Schell’s The Art of Game Design, even if it’s a great book. Because what it does is done by many many books out there: it explains the theory of game design.
For various reasons, I’ve felt that a practical guide to how you do game design is still missing, formatted as accessible tools that game designers use in their everyday work. This is what I’m trying to write and have been trying to write for the past couple of years, even before I was contacted by CRC Press.
“Game design, like most forms of design, is an iterative process. That means that the game is quickly prototyped, played, and refined again and again before it is finalized.”
Brathwaite and Schreiber; “Challenges for Game Designers”
Iteration is a word game developers use to describe the magic that makes games happen. But what we actually do when we iterate, and what we iterate on, isn’t exactly consistent. Rather, “it’s an iterative process” is a dismissive and handwavy equivalent to “God works in mysterious ways.”
There are dangers to iteration as a solution rather than a process and some may even seem like they’re good things when they’re not.
The Dangers of “It’s an Iterative Process”
One common problem comes from iterating on late-stage production content. Say, a character that took twelve weeks to make and has to be remade because someone wants some large changes; or an in-engine cinematic that’s already been put together and turns out to be too long, too short, or uses the character that needs large changes.
Editing on late-stage content isn’t easy since in-game assets and engine tools are used. Redoing a cinematic can be a painful process. Redoing a character may require revisiting every moment in the game where that character is used, making sure the sword on its back doesn’t cut through its leg while moving or making sure that the colors match what the art director wants.
It may seem trivial to “just” rotate a thing or change a color value, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it snowballs into disaster faster than you can spell overtime. If you need a specific card from a house of cards, just pulling it out collapses the whole thing. Same with late-stage iteration.
At one point, this once went so far that a director said “if this is still a problem closer to launch, let’s revisit it.” But, as everyone knows, anything that gets pushed “closer to launch” will be put way down on the list of priorities and the problem will persist into the finished game. In that specific unnamed case, the problem did persist and is in fact in the finished game.
This place is where we often end up when we say, “it’ll be better later,” or some variation of the same. When we hide behind the iterative process itself without thinking too closely on the hows or whats of iteration.
The Dangers of Cheap Iteration
Some things are much faster and cheaper to iterate on than others and can therefore be iterated on for too long during a project’s lifetime. Sometimes because we have people hired to do the iterative job. (Sorry, but game designers are often the baddies here.)
Three specific things stand out:
Theoretical design. “Wouldn’t it be cool if” is another theoretical design iteration that doesn’t necessarily have any practical meaning for your project but can still be pushed through at late stages. Designers without practical skills tend to be the worst culprits here.
Writing. Writing is rewriting, as they say. A writer can come up with literally anything at a moment’s notice. When writers drive the content, this is what often happens. Five minutes putting words in a document and suddenly there’s another six months of work.
Sketch art. Good sketch artists can draw things faster than you can blink, and can similarly introduce new coolness and greatness with very short notice. Of course, they rarely do this spontaneously but because a director/designer/writer-person asks for it.
These three are so cheap to iterate on that it often causes another kind of problem: you never stop iterating on them and by extension the features or content they affect. Especially if you have many meetings of the sort where you talk about your project in abstract high level terms.
Even deep into production of your game, you can still backpedal on some story element, introduce a new character that the creative director came up with for some reason, or change fundamental designs because “wouldn’t it be cool if?”
This is where much of the bad type of iteration comes from, and trickles down through production like acid rain. If you want to know where game development delays come from, this is often it. You probably know it by the name “feature creep,” or “creative vision.”
You should do less of these three once you reach production. Preferably none at all. Do spend a lot of time in preproduction iterating on these three cheap things, and prototype them to your heart’s content while they remain cheap. But once you hit production, you must stop.
The Dangers of Deliverables and Iteration
Deadlines are like Terminators. They can’t be bargained or reasoned with, and they won’t stop until you are dead. This makes them completely incompatible with the loose approach to iteration, where we’ll “fix it later.”
Once you hit the deadline, what you have is what you have – if the iteration didn’t work out, you have nothing, or you are forced to fall back on the bare minimum. Or, worst case, what you have simply isn’t very good.
There’s an idea that things can only be known to be good at the end of a project, when all things come together. But this is only because we often spend our whole project time iterating on production content and don’t force ourselves to iterate early and cheaply.
How Nintendo works on their controls for a very long time, and how art direction can be constructed carefully around communicating your gameplay, are examples of good iteration. Once you hit your deadline, you must know what you have, and you must have already finished all the iteration you needed to do.
If not, whether your game is good or bad will basically be a coin toss. A coin toss based on professional experience, surely, but still a coin toss.
The Dangers of Third-Party Game Engine Iteration
There’s a natural inclination to jump straight into the scripting or programming tools and churn out a playable demo. You open up a third-party engine, throw some ready-made templates into a project, and voila: you can move and shoot stuff!
This is often great, because it lets you answer hard questions and push your design forward. But chances are that you create a kind of illusion of progress, where making the bare essentials work feels like good progress because you didn’t have it before. But once you try to take the next step, you get bogged down in minutiae that are entirely irrelevant for the iterative work you aimed for. Especially if your engine of choice relies on ready-made packets of logic that can become black boxes for your implementation team. Say, a ready-made AI feature packed with extraneous functionality or a system for handling input that causes high latency.
What happens is that you spend more time fixing the ready-made solutions than you do iterating on your game. There’s also a great risk that you start skipping features you wanted to make because the engine doesn’t have good support for them, or they are too hard to make without extensive refactoring or source code additions.
Or the opposite happens and you start building features based on cool stuff in the engine rather than the game you had in mind. All of it is problematic.
The Dangers of Stakeholder Iteration
For most of us, some kind of external stakeholder pays our salaries. Bless them for that. But they can also be hard to please or not really know what they want. There can also be multiple tiers of stakeholders that are equally hard to please and may have their whole employment hinged on making your life difficult.
There are three specific situations where an external stakeholder will typically ask you to “iterate,” except it’s usually in a visual way and doesn’t necessarily help the game itself move forward.
Best case, you can allocate specialised resources or even use the stakeholder’s own resources to do this iteration. Worst case, you have to reallocate parts of your team from production onto the request.
The following are three situations where stakeholder iteration risks sidelining your project:
In advance of announcements, marketing events, and so on. It’s not unusual to be asked to make a video for E3 or some similar event. Some stakeholders – like game publishers – have marketing departments that do this for you; others will require you to do it yourself. Sometimes it’s planned for way in advance; sometimes you learn about it two weeks before the fact and you have to work overtime or pay expensive outsourcing to do the overtime for you.
When you pitch, game publishers can be especially awful to work with. Sorry, game publishers, but it’s true. They want to see a video, you make a video; now they want gameplay. You make gameplay; now they want to see more, or they invent a buzzword they need you to realise. All for the sum total of $0. Pitching can be desperately frustrating, or as Guillermo del Toro phrased it for movie-making; “it takes Hollywood two fucking years to say no.” Game publishers are the same. This can change to some extent if you have other kinds of stakeholders, but convincing people that you can in fact do what they are paying you to do is an incredibly frustrating process.
Scrambling against competition. Some stakeholder requests are complete shots in the dark. On one project, we were asked to add a train level because Uncharted 2 had just come out to some fanfare, and it had a train level. If you fail to see the correlations in that sentence, you understand how we felt. If you have a good relationship with your stakeholders, you can push back against these types of requests. If not, it’s something you simply have to do. I call these “spot requests,” and they run the gamut between useful fixes and complete waste of time.
Should We Not Iterate?
Yes we should! In fact, we should do a lot more of it. In the past year (2021), I spent a lot of time working on prototyping and finding out where the boundaries are. What is it you need to iterate on? What tools are there to use? How can you iterate faster and in a more focused manner?
I’ll be sharing my findings in a series of posts on prototyping frameworks, in the coming months.
Projects I’ve worked on, large and small, have often demonstrated similar issues with game design in their later stages. Beyond having me in common – which is hard to do anything about when you’re me – one issue has been that the role of game designer changes throughout the project but not all game designers adapt to this change.
When they don’t, they can be part of the cause for delays, miscommunication, and overtime.
To illustrate why, let’s sort a whole game’s creation from idea to launch from the perspective of what a game designer should do. (In my opinion that is – remember subjectivity!)
Many designers thrive on ideation. Coming up with crazy mechanics and clever solutions to theoretical problems. Having ideas and working through them at breakneck speed. But ideation has a time and a place, and it’s not a full-on brainstorming meeting three weeks from launch.
Keep it short, sweet, and early.
With all those ideas done ideated you take them to your media of choice and you explore them. In-engine rapid prototyping, storyboards, one-pagers, session prototypes, role-playing game prototypes – there are countless ways to explore the fruits of your team’s ideation. This is where you do it.
What needs to come out of this is a means to communicate what your ideas are actually about. Not just material for more ideation.
This headline looks scary. Maybe it is. But the thing is that you need to commit to the things that work during exploration and abandon the rest. This is where you do that. In the best of worlds, you can commit gradually through a revised exploration process. More realistically, whatever you have time to explore will also have to be what you commit to. The sad truth is that most games have very little budgeted time for design exploration.
The word ‘commitment’ in the previous section is no joke. When you’re done committing you’re committed. What you have by now is some final form for your game. On paper, in prototypes – something. You absolutely cannot go back to exploration or ideation once you pass this line:
If you read this, you’re on the other side of the line. Just remember you chose to cross, wipe the whiteboard clean, and get to it. If you’re caught ideating or exploring on this side of the line, you should be (humanely) punished for it.
Design is still needed. Ideation and exploration isn’t needed, but figuring out what to do when a button combination doesn’t work or focus testers can’t figure out where to go next is needed. Solving real problems demonstrated by the playable game.
As a game designer, you play your game every day at this point. Focus on finding problems with the design – don’t report bugs and glitches. You can do that too, but it’s a bit too easy to put your tester goggles on and lose the holistic perspective. Instead, make up personas and play like they would. Do dumb things and see what happens. Make checklists of which steps you have to go through to make standard tasks like changing the resolution or looking up which button to press – then try to remove as many steps as possible and filter the game’s information in an understandable way.
After solving problems for a while you’ll know all the sliders and variables and spreadsheet details you have to work with. This is a more fine-grained process than problem solving and assumes that you’ve mostly moved on from that stage.
You’re still playing and watching others play but you do so to observe the results of your balancing. Look at this as a polishing phase. By this point the game fundamentally works but it’s not quite ready for mass market. But it’s ready for your fans, if you have them. This is where you can do an open beta or something like it. Discuss the project openly in forums, if you have the luxury of an existing community.
The state of the game outside of the designer’s responsibilities may still be lacking content or features, but you’ll have to be able to look past the most glaring faults and focus on the balancing. It’s getting there, but it’s still mostly for the “true” fans.
There comes a point where you need to commit to your project and start going from balancing to tuning. You can no longer listen to fans of your work, but must now start making the game for the market.
Once a game gets out in the wild, you’ll realise how wrong your balancing assumptions were, and the more of that you can do before launch the better.
Consider the 10,000 hours from a different perspective. Your game will be subjected to people’s first hour 10,000 times or more. There’s just no conceivable way that you can predict how thousands of people will try and succeed in breaking your game. Some don’t like the genre, the gameplay, the graphics, or they think it’s a different game than it is because it behaves similarly enough. You must figure as many of these cases out as you humanly can.
Most test players will probably do just as you thought they would, or correspond to one of the personas you devised during problem solving, but some will get stuck, misunderstand something, or just plain dislike everything you’ve tried to do and think you’re a moron. Sometimes loudly.
You may be forced to go back to problem solving at this stage, but it should only be in extreme cases and isolated problems. For the most part, designing at this stage is an effort to rebalance things so they fit with practical mainstream reality. Tuning them just so. The biggest problem in this whole stage is that you may end up having to alienate some of your “true” fans who helped you balance the game. But shifting from balancing with fans to tuning for the market is absolutely essential for your project.
It’s relevant to note a few things:
Not all game designers are as comfortable at each stage, or even as good at the work at each stage. Some are fantastic at having or communicating ideas, while others may be better at problem solving.
Not all design disciplines have equal need for all of the stages. If you’re a systems designer you probably need less pure ideation than a narrative designer but you need a lot more balancing.
How much time you focus at each stage will depend on preferences, budgeting, staff availability, and many more things.
The only takeaway you need to have from this is that you should know where your design currently is and what that means for the work you need to put in as a game designer.
During ideation, you don’t need to balance anything. During problem solving, you shouldn’t explore new crazy mechanics. If you respect that line you chose to cross before, your game design work will become a lot more predictable and you won’t encounter as much eye-rolling from your colleagues.
One of the best games ever designed, in my opinion, is Diplomacy. It originally saw the light of day in 1959, making it much older than myself. It’s also a game I rarely get to play because of its idiosyncracies – it takes a long time to play, it requires seven players, and it has player elimination. There’s a good reason it’s sometimes half-jokingly referred to as “the game that breaks friendships.”
With this background, and what’s been previously written about player v player conflicts in TTRPGs, let’s just say that I really enjoy roleplaying where the characters are at each others’ throats.
Enter Carrion for the Carrion Crows – a mini-campaign (3-4 sessions) built around an imminent war and the nobles who were left behind to govern in their betters’ stead while they were off winning another war.
Is Candy Crush good? Is Dark Souls hard? Is ARMA 3 complicated? Is Battlefield V fast-paced? Is Hearts of Iron IV accessible?
Unlike the academic theories of gravity or evolution, game design is entertainment. This means there’s no such thing as an objective truth. For every player who thinks Dark Souls is hard or Hearts of Iron IV inaccessible, there’s at least one player who disagrees. Loudly.
Metacritic grades and sales figures can tell you something about what reviewers think or how the market is voting with its wallets, but when it comes to a game design’s inherent qualities nothing can ever be objective. We sometimes forget that a game’s financial merits doesn’t necessarily mirror its creative ones.
This often makes the conversation on game design problematic, since two creatives may have widely different opinions on what the right way forward should be, and there’s no unbiased way to make a decision.
Worst case, the decision is made from executive fiat – the boss decides – but what tends to happen is that we start discussing from the only common ground we do have: the design of other games.
Yes, our game should have a Stamina meter, because this works well in Dark Souls.
No, we shouldn’t have a power that lets you fly, because Call of Duty doesn’t have one.
Our game must have a quick-melee button, because Overwatch has one and it’s a lot of fun in Overwatch.
You’d think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. All three are examples from design processes I’ve been involved in.
The Problems of Subjectivity
At a high level, subjectivity makes it impossible to make simple theoretical decisions. Especially when you combine it with the nature of game design as something everyone on a team can have opinions about. If the CEO played a cool game last night, or saw a cool trailer, chances are they’ll swing by someone’s desk the next day and talk about how our game should do the same thing.
Casual banter and brainstorming can become the same conversation as the one about practical implementation and personal tastes will often coexist with other kinds of arguments in a way that makes it hard to consider which is which.
The first issue is when we talk about what we think is fun. Partly because fun isn’t always a goal and partly because fun is completely subjective. Many players enjoy competition, for example, and play hours upon hours of player versus player games. Personally, I don’t enjoy this, even if I do try many digital PvP games because I like to stay current with what’s released and what’s trending. In my tiny subjective world of single-player games, PvP isn’t “fun.”
But more importantly, pursuing fun can sometimes be detrimental to what you are making. Games like the inimitable QWOP deliberately makes the control scheme frustrating to create a very different kind of fun from almost every other game where running is a feature. And of course, the Resident Evil series thrived for years on having you decide between shooting or moving, building a more intense zombie survival horror experience by doing so.
Basically, arguing on the basis of what’s “fun” is a completely useless argument. Not because someone is wrong, necessarily, but because everyone will be right.
Good and Bad
The mainstream knowledgebase on what’s commonly seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can often be discerned from the more vocal voices in YouTube comment sections or trends in user scores on various platforms. At least that’s how it feels when you observe it.
But picking features or ideas from a good game doesn’t mean your game will gain the same benefits, nor does picking ideas from a bad game mean your game will be bad either. Pretty much every game will have merits of some kind. Technical, aesthetic, mechanical. Dismissing or approving of games based on the common notion of their merits will make you miss interesting and clever ideas.
Just as with fun, using a game’s perceived goodness or badness as an argument makes for a useless argument. Especially if you are using it to evaluate a tiny part of the game.
You’re talking about the player needing a solution to a problem, and you’re looking at games who have solutions to said problem. In most conversations, you’re more likely to use examples from games you think are fun or good, and you will then pick mechanics from those games to solve your problem – even if the problem is completely unrelated.
I was working on a first-person shooter once, where the player moved very fast. It felt nice and supernatural, and we had a lot of fun with it in development. At some point, a long empty segment of hallway was added to the test level. The immediate response was, “let’s add a sprint feature!”
My argument against this had always been that you moved at sprint speed all the time, more or less, and that sprinting would be a very artificial feature. In Call of Duty, as a good example of a sprinting mechanic, the sprinting serves a much more important purpose than giving you a slight boost in speed in empty hallways. You move slower in Call of Duty, partly because sideways movement tracking on a controller is trickier and a slower pace therefore fits the PvP matches, and partly because it’s supposed to emulate more regular soldiers and not superhumans. The sprinting then allows you to cover distances, for example to reach cover, faster, but also robs you of your ability to shoot without first stopping. This exposes you to danger if you didn’t already reach your cover.
Sprinting, in Call of Duty, isn’t just a convenient mechanic – it serves a wider dynamic.
In our case, the sprinting feature was added anyway, “because it’s expected from a first-person shooter.”
This is feature prejudice, where you make the mistake of equating a dynamic with one of its mechanics, and as we’ll get into soon, it’s a direct consequence of our lack of respect for subjectivity.
As with fun, good, and bad, you shouldn’t wantonly borrow mechanics like this.
Game Design Language
We say what’s fun, we say what’s good or bad, and we mistake mechanics for their dynamics. Subjective reality is already wreaking havoc with game design. But there’s another thing that makes it an even bigger issue: there’s no established way to talk about game design objectively.
Most game design books (that I’ve read) go through game design, not in practical terms, but in abstracts. In high level terms. You will learn how to pitch, how to write documents, and possibly read a few paragraphs about what a game is or isn’t. None of it helps you all that much in your day to day work as a designer.
Moreover, few professional game designers have actually read any of these books. Instead, you will often find yourself working in different ways as a designer depending on which company you work at, what kind of games you make, and how senior your position is. You may use a certain technique to solve a problem, and your company will have a name for that technique that you won’t find anywhere else.
One place calls the trail of enemies that leads you to the next door in the linear story “breadcrumbing,” while another calls it “leading,” or “leashing.” You’ll quickly learn the new terms at a new place, of course, but this lack of a proper lingua franca for game design pushes much of the conversation back towards using other games as reference points… and then you’re back at square one – in subjectivity land!
Handling the Subjectivity
Subjectivity is bad, then? No! We just have to remember that it exists and work around it. Understand that our own ideas are not worth more than anyone else’s and define our game on its own terms so that we don’t get bogged down in preference discussions or stuck in designing by reference.
The best part of subjectivity is that we can take ideas that may seem completely disparate, combine them, and our game will be much better for it. But only if we can do it in an informed way.
If anything, we should embrace subjectivity. Take as many perspectives as we possibly can and run them through the gauntlet of discussion and prototyping.
But we must first set the terms for our project, or our design discussions will soon boil down into matches of reference tennis.
Respecting Design as a Craft
One very important step is to give game designers the power to actually control the game design. Just like concept artists, game designers are often the subjects of uninvited scrutiny. Game design, like art, is something everyone can have opinions about. But the fact that people can have opinions doesn’t validate those opinions. A concept artist or game designer is no less of an expert than a rendering programmer or technical artist. The only difference is that the crafts of the former are not as esoteric as those of the latter.
Understand that your opinions are just that – opinions. Also, whatever you do, don’t push things through using clout derived from title or seniority. Even if you’re the CEO, you hired that game designer to be the game designer.
The point being made is: let game designers be the ones to design your game. Let them have the say in the matter and make sure that everyone respects it.
Postpone Your Piggybacking
“Piggybacking” is what you engage in when you borrow wholesale from other games. When you grab that sprint mechanic from Call of Duty, you’re piggybacking on Call of Duty.
But with all these issues of subjectivity now fresh in memory, you can see how piggybacking can actually be a bad thing. If one superfan of Soulsborne games suggests a difficulty level for your game project based on the most recent From Software title, difficulty will be very different from when the Nintendo fan dips into their experiences to do the same.
Because of this, piggyback as little as possible early in a game’s life cycle. Learn to talk about your game using the game’s own terms. Establish pillars and facts and use them as memes in your design conversations. Only engage in piggybacking when you feel that you have a clear identity for your game project.
The trickiest part of game development is to solidify what your particular game is about. This can be self-explanatory for someone who is simply plugging away at the task on their screen. They just need to finish this task and move on to the next one. But that’s the work, it’s not the product.
Using design pillars is one way to communicate what your game is about. Broad but relevant pillars that can be used as practical expressions in conversations, becoming natural staples in how you define your game. The trick is to communicate what each pillar means, and to communicate it clearly and succintly enough that everyone on the team can make good use of it. It’s something close to what genres are used for among music lovers.
The only danger here is to make pillars that are so generic that they say nothing at all, or so specific that they require too much explaining.
“Fun Gameplay” is a terrible pillar, for example. But “Quirky and Fun” could be a good one, given the right context. It’s fine if a game’s pillars change a few times through the course of a game’s development, but the more solid they are, the better they do their job: to get you away from the subjective conversation and squarely into the objective reality of your particular game.
From your pillars, you can derive facts. A fact is something you can state as true and can be related to narrative, to gameplay, to the art direction, or pretty much anything else. The trick with facts is to make them extremely specific. Facts should each verify a thing that is true about your game.
Do not use facts based on falsification. I.e., things that are explicitly not true. It can sometimes be necessary, if you have tropes to rule out for example, but shouldn’t be made the norm. Mostly to keep the tone positive. This may sound weird, but believe me – it does have value.
Some sample facts could be:
The game has three resources: Blood, Sweat, and Tears.
Our main character’s name is G.
The main character carries a gun.
Guns are rare.
The more succinct and specific each fact can be made, the easier they are to remember and communicate. Filling a wiki or similar with long lists of facts will often end up having the opposite effect, however, which leads us to the next thing.
The way one-pagers can be used is to put pillars and facts, as they relate to a specific subject, into one single document. Say, the Gunplay One-Pager, or the Grunt Attack One-pager. This can then serve as the basis for any conversation on this topic or related topics.
This works especially well if you organise your teams in a cross-disciplinary way, since it eschews any need for discipline-specific information and gives each discipline ownership of its own respective crafts. The one-pager’s job isn’t to tell everyone what to do – it’s to lay the groundwork of what the goal is for this part of the game.
The traditional Game Design Document, often expected to provide information and detail on everything, will often waste most people’s time because the details in there are simply not relevant to them. A one-pager can keep things succinct and allow people to apply their own specific knowledge to the subject through their own planning rather than as the uninformed details of a game designer on a writing spree.
What’s important with one-pagers is to keep them short, keep them up do date, and to name everyone who is responsible for implementation so that communication can be facilitated.
Demonstrating the Game Iteratively
Facts and pillars summed up in one-pagers for cross-disciplinary teams. There’s your game design. Now go build your game.
One strength of working from a high level where everyone can ultimately understand what the game is about before they set to making it is that everyone can be part of the whole. In a very large project, this may only include the leads and directors, but the best possible situation is where this information is project-wide.
Of course, someone whose specialisation is making shruberry or shoe laces may not even want to know what the game is about, but they may still have cool ideas that can feed back into the larger conversation.
What’s most important of all once you start building things, however, is that a one-pager can be wrong. Once that feature is implemented, reevaluate it. Does it actually fit with the pillars? Should one of these facts be removed, or tweaked?
The more you do this work, the more informed your iteration, and the better your game.
Experimentation in tabletop roleplaying is a ton of fun, and sometimes an idea comes up that’s nothing more than a “what if?”
In the case of Death and Police Tape, which you can download on itch.io, the whole idea was to make a gritty (and gory) freeform horror scenario where you first died a gruesome death and then investigated that same death, having to explain it in a press release. With a new set of characters.
It turns the common GM/player dynamic somewhat on its head and lets the players drive the interesting decisions to be made.
We had a ton of fun with it, and it can be safely played in a single evening. Perfect for Halloween.