Courtroom Intrigue

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.

Have some fun backstabbing your friends!

Subjectivity in Game Design

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.

What’s Fun

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.

Feature Prejudice

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.

Using Pillars

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.

Stating Facts

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.

Writing One-Pagers

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 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.

Investigate Your Own Murder

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.

Tigers, Horses, and Weird Danish Rock Songs

When you only have a week to write a whole scenario, you often have to stick with the first thing that comes to mind. After a couple of weekends of role-playing this way, there was also many of us. The pandemic made digital hobbies a good way to do social things from the quarantined safety of our homes.

Seven players wanted to play, and the idea was to put them into two distinct groups of characters. Other things that coincided to create the splatstick survival horror scenario The Mustang Sallys was a purchase of the old Swedish OOP Splatter role-playing game. But most of all, it was the random discovery of a weird Danish rock song.

The name and lyrics of the song are NSFW, but let’s just say that I laughed out loud when I heard some of it. Combining it with some of the colorful characters of The Tiger King on Netflix, the story of the scenario basically wrote itself.

You can die from acne, you can die from scabies
You can die tomorrow, you can die tonight
You can die of cholera and you can die of plague
But you can also die of Horse

Quote from the rock song, Google translated from Danish

Credit for the cover image goes to the fantastic Joakim Hellstedt.

Cyberpunk + Heist = Grand Slam

In 2020, with the COVID pandemic in full swing, our regular role-playing group took to Roll20. Before then we used to meet once every week to play around a physical table. Something that sounds strangely exotic when you say it out loud today.

Initially, no one knew how long the pandemic would last. There were of course suspicions (that turned out right), but the idea for these online sessions became to play single-evening sessions and have a bit of fun with whatever we could come up with. We’d then resume our previous campaign once the pandemic was over.

The first of these improvised sessions was based on a poll on the gaming group’s Facebook page.

What do you want to play?

Two things came out of that poll. Cyberpunk and Heist. These were the two things that scored highest out of whatever alternatives that were provided and they became the only real foundation for what would be written.

The following week, Grand Slam saw the light of day. Five prewritten characters and a story that hinges on a gold heist. Some custom rules for hacking were added, custom-made mostly to fit the Roll20 chat we used, and we set off.

It would be three game sessions before we had finished the scenario. It ended with a bang – total party wipe. But we still talk about it fondly, having had a ton of fun.

This scenario is now available at pay what you want pricing, from Itch.io, if you feel like stealing some gold from organized crime.

Hopefully, someone out there can have as much fun with this as we had!

Ways to Not Have Cooldowns

Cooldowns are not features. They were primarily invented to solve problems in the days of latency-riddled networking and limited bandwidth. By setting a server-side cooldown, the server can ignore specified input from a client and make sure that the clock behind the scenes isn’t choked.

Cooldowns have since stayed with games, probably because many of today’s game designers grew up on a diet of World of Warcraft, but also because they’re an effective and immediately recognizable tool for balancing complex features against each other.

But the thing is: all they really do is slap an arbitrary duration on your features. They make something that could be made intuitive and skill-based live entirely in the UI space.

Traditionally, action games never used them, at least not in the ubiquitous HUD progress bars we see today.

So just for the sake of argument, here are some ways you can not have cooldowns.

Buildup

To use the feature you need to hold the button for a duration, for visible buildup, or chain inputs together. The difference from a cooldown is that it’s visible and interactive. Even if it’s still arbitrary, it moves the interaction into the game’s world space and won’t have you looking at the UI all the time.

  • Charging. Hold the button for just the right amount of time, then release. The charged shot in the Metroid games.
  • Chaining. Multiple quick interactions building up to a more massive one. Yoshimitsu’s sword thrust in Tekken.

Tradeoff

Making the feature truly interactive, but with a crucial tradeoff, puts all the power in the player’s hands and once again removes it from the UI space. Rewarding the player for learning to use a repetitive mechanic at the right time will get them closer to the coveted Flow state.

  • Combined Timing. Pull it off for a boost, fail to get penalized. Consider the reloading mechanic in Gears of War.
  • Anticipation. Time it right to avoid a negative effect, time it wrongly to get punished. The self-healing in Stranger’s Wrath is a good example; use it in the midst of combat, and you get killed.

Economy

The most obvious way to limit an interaction is to tie it directly to a resource. This can be something you collect all the time as you play, like ammunition in a survival horror game, or it can be something that accumulates over time automatically.

  • Hard Restrictions. Spells per day in D&D. Number of ammo rounds available in almost every game with guns. If you have the resource, you can use the feature.
  • Durability features. Weapons in Diablo or Zelda: Breath of the Wild. A different theme on hard restrictions, but the same thing in effect.
  • Accumulation and cost. Accumulating a resource along the way, enabling use by removing the accumulated value. Consider the “supers” of many popular multiplayer games, like Destiny 2 or Overwatch; and the resource accumulation and building progress bars in a strategy game.
  • Self-Regenerating Resource. Use the resource while you have it; wait for it to recharge. Stamina in Dark Souls, force powers in Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight. But also of course health in the Call of Duty games.
  • Powerups. Temporary boosts that enhance specific features or make strong technical exceptions. When you find the Quad Damage in Quake, or the Active Camouflage in Halo, it’s the game’s invitation to make the best of it while you have it.

Context Sensitivity

Communicating a feature in a consistent way and letting the player adopt it systemically is my personal favorite when it comes to restrictions. You know intuitively that wherever there’s a dab of yellow or white paint in a modern adventure game, you can climb, for example.

  • Activation Requirements. Web jumping in Spider-Man; web slinging in Spider-Man. It requires certain prerequisites that become fairly obvious with experience. The aforementioned dabs of paint are also like this.
  • World Requirements. Rope arrows in Thief: The Dark Project only attach to wooden surfaces. Requires that you pay close attention to the world you’re in, and invites experimentation. But also puts more demand on the level design.

Duration

Rather than having the arbitrary cooldown timer to wait for, you can have duration as something that happens because of activation. The time will still be arbitrary, but again it’s something that happens in the game world and not in UI space.

  • Activation Duration. Sprinting in Call of Duty. Many hack effects in Cyberpunk 2077. Activate the thing, use it for the duration, then you can (usually) activate it again.
  • Player-Activated Duration. You know it’ll take a certain amount of time, but you can decide when to do it. Reloading works this way in most first-person shooters. Repairing in Hawken.

Diminishing Returns

Let the player use the feature however much they want, but make it a little less effective every time. Use it too much and it loses its effect entirely.

  • Boost. Morphine in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth automatically heals you to full health and sanity, but lasts a limited time. Each successive use makes it last shorter.

Endnotes

The pattern you should recognise is that there are many ways you can move the information you need into the game space, away from UI space, without taking away the arbitrary restriction that a cooldown really is.

You’ll still have that cooldown in practice, but it will be represented in a way that at best makes more intuitive sense, and at worst makes the player focus on the game world instead of the frontend. This is always a good thing.

By all means, use cooldowns. Just think of the alternatives before you do.

Player vs. Player in TTRPGs

In other kinds of games, PvP often means pure competition. Kill, invade, outbid, defeat. The opposition is defeated and you win, or you didn’t perform at your best today and you lose. It’s straightforward either way.

But in the land of pens, papers, dungeons, and dragons, it’s not straightforward at all. Competing player against player easily becomes personal, or invites unwelcome meta conflicts. Conflicts from the real world bleeding over into the game, or vice versa, disrupting or even ruining a game entirely.

Maybe this is why many roleplayers are adamant against intraparty conflict. It’s anathema to what roleplaying is considered to be. The elf and dwarf may bicker a bit, but at the end of the day they’re still friends. They can grow in their relationship and learn to trust each other to the point where the dwarf can be reluctantly tossed. Their differences can be safely ignored in the interest of player friendship and group dynamics.

Things like class protection, combat balancing, archetypes, and skill specialisation attempts to smooth over character differences by using the system as a context. It tells you to stay within your own personal boundaries. Many, if not most, roleplayers want it this way.

But there are ways to make intraparty conflict interesting and rewarding. Ways to make it enhance your experience.

To get to what this can look like, we’ll dive into a number of different kinds of intraparty conflict. After reading about them, maybe you’ll want to try some of them out, or you may know what warning signs to look for when it’s going sour.

Player or Character?

It’s important to note that it’s very rarely player versus player we’re actually talking about. It’s character versus character. It’s actually bad form to refer to characters as players, but it’s words that are often used interchangeably to mean the same things.

The player is the person around your table. The character is their alter ego in play, or whatever setup you may have. There are games where everyone shares a single character, games where each player plays multiple characters, and a long range of other variants that break from the one character per player norm.

But anyway, remember this difference. Your character is having a conflict with the other player’s character. You shouldn’t make things personal. It’s not actually player versus player.

Talk About It

For many players, roleplaying is a safe space, and it’s extremely important that real life conflicts don’t bleed over into the game or vice versa. Characters are heroes who delve into dungeons to fight monsters and collect treasure. They don’t glance behind their back to make sure the other heroes aren’t sneaking in to stab them when they’re not looking.

For this reason, the first step in any intraparty conflict is to explain that it exists, and that it’s fine. It’s also good to establish rules that the table can accept. General things like “avoid killing other characters,” or specific things like “Player X isn’t comfortable with raised voices.”

If you establish these things beforehand, everyone can expect the unexpected in a way that make players more comfortable.

Playing to Lose

If you play boardgames or long role-playing campaigns, playing to lose may not come naturally. You may always enter scenes intent on killing the enemy and taking the treasure, whatever the metaphorical context may be.

But if you want potentially more interesting stories, it’s a good idea to think more about what your character would do. Not just as an exercise in thinking as your character, but also as a kind of director’s or author’s perspective of what would be interesting for the character to pursue. If you play the father who is betrayed by his son, would you betray the son right back, or would you let yourself be betrayed so that your legacy lives on?

Failure and losing are natural parts of good stories, and allowing yourself to fail can often push things forward in ways you’d never think of if you always succeeded. So step down sometimes and don’t make everything about winning.

This is directly related to a human (predominantly male) instinct to say “no” to other people’s suggestions, without hesitation. Don’t say no. Say yes, but; or yes, and. Extrapolate on suggestions, don’t shoot them down. Let other players have fun without having to fight you tooth and nail. It will make the role-playing a lot more interesting.

If you can adopt a mindset of playing to lose, the rest of this gibberish will make a lot more sense.

Rivalry

This is probably the most common form of intraparty conflict and one that tends to exist in one form or another in every group, regardless of the group’s ideas on the matter.

It’s the kind of conflict that can spring up from wanting the same rewards, or planning different routes to the next stage in the adventure. No, we can’t go through the goblin caves. Yes, I deserve the shining jewel-encrusted sword.

You may not consider some of these things rivalry, in any real sense, but they are. Small inconsequential victories for the most part, but they’re also excellent opportunities for roleplaying. But they also have the same problems that you’ll see are quite consistent between different forms of intraparty conflict.

Bad Rivalry

Things will break down if the rivalry becomes petty. If you close the door in a character’s face, steal their coins, or sabotage minor actions constantly, the table will be annoyed and not entertained. Rivalry is not an excuse to behave badly or to bully one player.

Also avoid meta conflict. Someone’s rivalry against you may cause you to lose once—that doesn’t require that they lose in the future. Vendettas can escalate to absurd levels sometimes, and simply letting someone have their win causes less friction than forcing them to lose later.

Good Rivalry

Interesting rivalry should affect play when it fits and feels fair. If it goes too much against what everyone around the table believes it’ll risk becoming bad rivalry.

In a way, this goes hand in hand with the Hollywood concept of “foiling,” where you provide characters with contrasting traits to help carry each other narratively. If it fits and makes sense, everyone can enjoy it.

Mutiny

If a group has a natural leader, mutiny is the process of replacing that leader with yourself. This can be a sudden armed revolt or it can be a gradual remonstration of the leader’s actions culminating in a fair democratic dethroning. It doesn’t have to be violent, but since many role-playing games come packed with cool combat moves, it often is.

Bad Mutiny

A mutiny risks derailing a campaign, and for the wrong reasons. It easily becomes personal since it targets a specific individual. It’s not uncommon for the sum total result of a mutiny to be that one character dies, and that the player who lost that character returns with a new character purpose-built for vengeance. This is just dumb, and doesn’t make the game more fun for anyone.

Focusing on the disruptiveness and personal enmity of mutiny is almost always bad, and has ended many otherwise excellent campaigns prematurely.

Good Mutiny

Establishing the conflict in the common space, and giving it time to reach fruition, is the only practical way to do mutiny justice. Allow it to shrink and grow to the extent required, and let players veto its existence in-character if they find it necessary. Let it take time before it culminates.

A change of leadership may even happen amicably if it’s discussed by the table and not only by the parties involved. Also avoid violence to the extent possible. Violence escalates the conflict unnecessarily and tends to limit the potential outcomes to death or survival, making it suddenly more important to shoot first (like Han) than to actually roleplay a resolution. Use the threat of violence, but avoid resorting to actual violence.

Treason

A single player’s treason against the rest of the group can be a shocking reveal that takes a campaign in an entirely new direction, or it can be an eye-roll-inducing catastrophe. It can also be any of the things in-between.

In a way, it’s the thematic opposite of mutiny.

Bad Treason

If it’s too unexpected, treason is bad. If it’s too obvious, treason is bad. It has a poorly strung tightrope you must walk or it won’t work. Bad treason is also lethal or absolute in some other way. When the stranded team of adventurers realize that their plane has been sabotaged by another player, when it’s already obvious that the traitor has won, it merely becomes punctuation to a confused sentence. It doesn’t add anything. If the group got to play that event, they’d feel a lot more invested, and the sabotage can feel fair.

Good Treason

In the moment, the group needs you to push down on that red button. They also know that you have your own reasons not to. Can they trust you to do what you need to do for them, or will you side with the enemy?

These kinds of situations are hard to construct, but they’re incredibly rewarding. They shouldn’t be absolute (see Bad Treason), and they should always provide a window for the traitor’s redemption. Maybe not the fifth time it happens, but at least as a basic assumption. If you don’t press the button and a million innocents die that doesn’t leave much room, but if you don’t press the button, and someone breaks a leg, that can be redeemable.

It’s hard to balance on the edge of meaningful but redeemable, and simply criminal, and different groups will have different tolerances. But if this is hard to achieve, treason is probably not your cup of tea to begin with.

Conspiracy

Information asymmetry is one of those staples of storytelling that work for some roleplaying groups and completely ruins the experience for others. Once it’s established that things aren’t necessarily true, or that some players may be less or more than they seem, it can cause a snowballing effect of related paranoia.

Some groups thrive on this, while other groups find the integrity of the party to be a pillar that can’t be allowed to collapse.

Bad Conspiracy

When death becomes the only outcome to a conspiratorial misunderstanding, it ruins the suspense. It also escalates the meaning of information asymmetry from implicative narrative tool to death sentence.

Once more, it can become grounds for a meta vendetta that spreads across characters, time, and space, and ruins the experience for everyone around the table.

Good Conspiracy

Having to second-guess what other players say, dig deeper into unrelated statements, and attempt to connect dots where there may be no dots to connect—this makes for some great roleplaying opportunities.

You need to know more, but you also need to protect your own secrets. Paranoid inquiries, veiled interrogations, false flag actions against other characters, and all the fun staples of espionage thrillers are fantastic tools to use in intraparty conflicts and may alone warrant the whole idea of intraparty conflict in roleplaying games. Because if you pull these things off, they are some of the coolest things that can happen around a gaming table.

Revelation

In most written campaigns, big plot reveals and central developments are the GM’s to hand out. Players are the main cast, but they don’t drive the story. This is not always the case, however, and sometimes it can be great to parcel out information to the group without turning it into a conspiracy.

It can be as simple as a piece of knowledge that’s unique to a character’s background, or as complex as you want to make it. One player may be the only one who knows, same as their character, or the secret can be public knowledge among the players even before the characters are supposed to know.

Bad Revelation

“What?! Have you known this whole time, and said nothing? I’ll kill you…”

You don’t want that. You also don’t want a reveal to change known facts, at least not too much. If the archvillain of archvillainy turns out to be a nice chap who likes flowered tea, this is maybe something that should’ve been established earlier.

The timing is also important. Just as the group stands on the threshold of the new dungeon maybe isn’t the time to reveal that you’ve always known that this dungeon is home to a red dragon, when the rest of the group thinks it’s just a goblin cave. It could be an excellent opportunity for roleplaying however.

Good Revelation

Information that is allowed to be secret until it matters the most can make for powerful reveals. Of course, the danger here is that it becomes a deus ex machina; something a bit all too convenient.

A revelation can also be a good way for a player to get some more space. Especially for players who may have a hard time getting attention in a group full of very vocal players.

Survival

I need to eat and you need to eat, but there’s just the one Snickers bar. Do we share it, fight over it, or hand it to the person bleeding out in the corner?

Survival scenarios step way back down Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs into the personal demand for food and security. Lofty goals like saving the world seem less relevant when you’re freezing to death or being chased by the livid dead.

Bad Survival

Like few other things, survival can become truly tedious. If you need to bicker over every single thing you come across, or one character becomes too dominant or too dominated, the fun is quickly bled out of the experience.

Decisions should be important, but not all decisions can be life or death, or invite group argumentation. If you resolve one “who should get to eat today?” argument, then maybe avoid having them for a while. Let players reinforce the mood through conflicts, but don’t make it a chore. Especially not if you have the very same arguments over and over and over and over, and for several hours. Campaigns have ended under such circumstances.

Good Survival

Conflicts around survival are interesting if there are relevant choices to make. If you come across some batteries, plugging them into the flashlight or the radio provides very different options. One player is likely to represent each choice, and the conflict that grows out of it will feel natural and manageable.

Encourage players to come up with their own conflicts like this. What they need and why they need it more than someone else, then let them all take some space as it fits.

Competition

Roleplaying tends to be an activity where there is no winner. This is deeply ingrained in the whole hobby. It’s something we often write in forewords and how-to-plays. But even if the activity doesn’t generally have winners, the story may, and it can sometimes be quite interesting to explore outright competition.

We can’t all get the cool new title, or score the same in the archery competition, after all. Besides, there are games who are completely written with competition in mind. For example the excellent old Dallas role-playing game, and the ninja-powered Shinobigami.

Bad Competition

Gloating opportunities are bad. Unfair advantages are bad. All of the game design adages concerning victory apply the same to adventures or roleplaying games featuring victory.

It’s also bad if a victory is final and doesn’t leave any opportunities for continued competition. Maybe not under the very same circumstances, but in a roleplaying context it’s perfectly fine to hand out consolation prizes.

At the same time, it can be bad to devalue a prize too much. If it matters too little it can make the competition uninteresting.

Good Competition

Let everyone feel like they could’ve won, even when they didn’t. A sense of fairness goes a long way. You rarely want an outright winner-takes-all situation, but a few more layers of nuance that allows the roleplaying to take the front seat rather than the will to win. Give players some space to leave themselves out and keep the character in control.

In Dallas, the setup is strictly defined when a scenario starts. Each player wants to take control over a certain number of assets. Which assets a specific player needs to collect is only known to that player. What this setup means is that multiple players can win at the same time, and may even figure out ways to cooperate to win mutually. This makes for good roleplaying opportunities.

Endnotes

Intraparty conflict can be fun. Maybe not fun in the tickly giggly sense, but definitely fun in an entertainment sense. Some players will never like it and shouldn’t have to endure it. Other players can accept some forms, not others.

The last kind of player, where yours truly is coming from, enjoys it maybe more than any other conflicts around the table. By moving the central dilemmas of the group and their story to the players and their characters, and not to external threats presented by a GM, you open up for very different kinds of experiences.

No matter what kind of player or GM you are, there should be something for you to explore in the space of intraparty conflict.

Please, do so; and in doing so, explore more ways to have fun with roleplaying as a hobby.

Game Design Philosophy

My design philosophy comes from thinking that games are fantastic tools for creating experiences rather than telling stories. There are many design philosophies you can have that will let you make fantastic games, but this one is mine.

The Demonstrable Cool

It was industry veteran Ian Stephens who phrased this in his sadly defunct blog.

“[L]isten to your game, not your documentation. Listen to the playable element that’s in your hands – the demonstrable cool. Ignore the dogma of forward planning. You can’t plan fun. Fun happens to you.”

Ian Stephens

Fun happens to you if you listen to the game you play. This has been my philosophy ever since. Don’t talk or write about it – play it. At least some part of it.

Behavior Beats Content

Content is the levels and the characters you play, it’s the cutscenes you watch, and the voice-over dialogue recordings you listen to. But content is not king.

It doesn’t matter that you see the same enemy over and over, like white-armored Storm Troopers, as long as they behave in ways you didn’t predict or expect. A game can retain a sense of discovery by introducing more behavior rather than relying entirely on producing more content.

Behavior always beats content.

Play It, Show It, Say It

Game writers Flint Dille and John Zuur Platten wrote about the differences between storytelling in films and in games in their book, The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design. In movies, they say “show, don’t tell.”

In games, we should let the player play before we do anything else.

“[W]hen dealing with your narrative, create a priority for telling your story as follows: play it, display it, say it.”

Flint Dille & John Zuur Platten

In my opinion, games are simply not the medium for telling stories – they’re platforms for experiences. (Like I keep saying.)

Build to Find Out

Face one thing – you have no idea how fun your game will be. At the idea stage, it’s just an idea. The only thing that actually matters is execution.

Build boardgame or role-playing game prototypes to explore your idea. Use game engines to prototype certain mechanics or flows you’re interested in. Take one step at a time and then eventually reach a fully playable prototype that can answer your questions. Is the game fun? Is it worth finishing? Does mechanic A fit with mechanic B?

Don’t just have ideas. Make them.

Systems Everywhere

When you get shot in your game, do you simply decrease a value called Health by some number or do you have a whole system that handles the data (subtracting armor, adding elemental properties, etc) and returns new data?

In Michael Sellers’ words, the first is to make your number “spreadsheet specific,” and you will definitely do that at some point. But before you do, you should think about doing the latter – a health system. How the features you want for your game interconnect and how to turn them into systems that leverage that interaction.

Have all the features in your game hook into each other in natural ways and let players explore that interconnectedness on their own terms.

Challenge Your Tastes

You can find the coolest ideas in the strangest places. Try not to get too stuck in a favorite genre or specific type of game. Actively seek out games you think you wouldn’t like and try to play them with your designer goggles on.

Play boardgames. Role-playing games. Read books. Watch movies. Follow the news. Get as many impressions as you can and let them inform your game design.

You don’t have to love all of it but you can always find something to like and that something may very well inform a game design you’re working on five years from now.

Open your mind. Challenge your tastes. Actively seek inspiration. It will help you design better games.

Boom, Headshot!

It’s early 2005. My brother has just started working with an experienced mentor at the workplace he intends to make his career. They get along well, so they sometimes talk more casually.

At the time, my brother plays a lot of Halo 2. He’s pretty good at headshots with the BR. He goes on to explain, vividly, how he kills aliens and shoots people in his spare time. His mentor is quiet for a while. “I don’t like stuff like that. Guns and such,” he says after a while.

It’s several minutes before he explains himself:

As a teenager, he got an assault rifle in his hands and was asked to kill people who used to be his neighbours, even his friends. Years before he could legally buy a beer at the pub, he knew what a bullet does to a human body. What a bomb does. How artillery shells sound like. Not in Halo 2, but in the real world, on his own childhood street. Since then, guns and killing, fictional or otherwise, is connected to a strong sense of discomfort. He has a hard time finding entertainment violence in its most graphical incarnations amusing.

These are memories my brother can’t possibly share. Memories that make shooting and violence something much worse than aiming and pulling the right Xbox trigger.

“It’s not about the violence,” my brother says. “It’s more like the score in a soccer match. You get points, and you’re better than the other guy.”

###

This was paraphrased from an actual conversation. One that reminded me of what all the shooting and killing in the games that I love really represent. Shooting another person in the head – in a game – isn’t a big deal when you do it thousands of times per week. But maybe it should be?

For a majority of game titles, violence is key. To reach your goals, you have to shoot to kill, before they kill you, before someone you’re expected to care about is killed, or for no other reason than that you were put on opposing teams in matchmaking. Gun in hand, you must use it. It’s on the slip covers, it’s in the marketing, it’s everywhere. It goes so far that we attach positive value to words like kill, headshot and loot. Words whose meaning we’d never want to get acquainted with in real life under any circumstances.

However, let’s not rail against violence. That’s not what this is about. Violence can be thrilling, its narrative exciting, and the skills required to master the gameplay can be quite rewarding to attain. We’ve played first-person shooters for decades for reasons other than murder. We’ve played them to win prizes in eSports events, because we enjoyed the sense of mastery they gave us, or because we would kindly get engrossed in a compelling narrative. Same as in other entertainment, the violence is just part of a larger whole.

But we need to talk about violence. Why games wear the violence on their sleeve, and why that is actually a problem.

Game Violence and Other People

In games, you often get violence without context, or even violence with no other purpose than gameplay mechanics. But we still talk about realistic blood effects and weapon handling, even if we’re killing virtual aliens. We care about ballistic trajectories and how effective grenades are, because it’s part and parcel of the military romanticism we’re indulging in, and much of the language is borrowed straight off the pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine.

Maybe the most harmful effect in all this is when someone observes our games from outside the hobby and the aggressive behaviours we express. All they typically see is the violence. All they hear is our defensive desperation in protecting that violence. They don’t see the countless hours it takes to master a weapon in Counter-Strike – they see the headshots and blood spatter. It makes our hobby (or job) look shallow and sadistic.

They may see the often one-dimensional exposition that serves little purpose beyond putting a gun or sword in the player’s hands or putting the player in a position where the only route to solution is violent or criminal. They don’t see the long hours of practice or athletic levels of hand/eye coordination you need – they only see the maiming and the murder and the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

Simply put, they don’t see my brother being better than the other guy – they see a teenager with an assault rifle.

Narrative Conflict

“Other media is also violent.” This is our first line of defense. 

You remember the starting scene from Saving Private Ryan? Lots of people die and there’s blood and guts, and headshots too! Have you read or watched Game of Thrones yet? Lots of violence there! It’s just the nature of entertainment. Games are no different from films, TV or books.

Yes they are.

In fictional literature, which screenwriting and therefore films extrapolate, conflicts can be split into one of three to six very broad categories depending on how specific you want to be. The categories are extensions of the main components of storytelling (characters, setting, and theme), pitted one against another.

You see variations on these all over the place, in literature, but let’s look at them briefly for the sake of argument, and consider how games handle the same types of conflicts.

A conflict of person against person occurs when the interests of two parties collide. When individuals apply for a job or try to get the same prom date. When the knights fight the evil demon, or there’s a turf war between rival gangs. Most games fit here, from Super Mario Bros. to Counter-Strike. It can be as complex or as shallow as the writing allows, though games always tend towards the shallow. I kill Person X, therefore I win. One reason why myriad video games conclude with a bossfight and reserve any semblance of depth for cutscenes is maybe that it’s a very simple manifestation of conflict, and gives a very obvious finale to the hours invested.

Person against nature puts people against the weather, a white whale, or isolated on their own looking to simply survive a hostile environment. The current survival trend would fit here, from DayZ to Ark to Don’t Starve. Narrative can handle this as metaphorical conquests, where games once more tend towards the shallow. You search for food because it says “Hungry” somewhere, or because you don’t want to see the “You Died” screen and be forced to start over. Then you person against person over whatever scraps you can scavenge. Even nature itself is often represented by monsters or zombies, so that the practical survival is also represented as a conflict person against person. If there is subtlety, it’s typically in the ambience rather than the player’s experience.

In person against society, it’s an individual or a group against hate, oppression, or other injustice. Deus Ex and maybe Red Faction would fit here, to some extent, but it’s a category that is rarely represented in gameplay. You’re normally told what the badness is in a cutscene, and then you proceed to person against person against a very practical representation of the problem in the form of an evil corporation or government. There is no 1984 or Fight Club in video games, except by implication, or as interpretations of the most superficial aspects of such works. There is also rarely any ambiguity. There’s usually a bad guy, and you’re the good guy.

There is also person against self. Struggling against depression, making a really tough choice, trying to overcome personal obstacles, or simply beating that record run time on the morning jog. Games rarely venture into this territory in their narrative, but there are some exceptions among more story-oriented games, and every competitive game has a giant serving of this in the longer-term metagame. Arguably, Soma could fit here when it indulges its more philosophical themes, but then the narrative is still external to the player’s own motivation. The story in Soma mostly happens while the player flips switches and turns knobs. (More on Soma later, it’s still a great game.)

The person against technology category can be either a metaphorical depiction of person against society or self, or it can represent arguments for or against specific developments. Some argue that The Terminator is a conservative argument against advanced computing and artificial intelligence. Be that as it may, technology is typically an extension of its inventor and therefore often becomes a conflict person against person. But System Shock and Portal would still fit here, with the artificial intelligences of SHODAN and GLaDOS representing technology as characters with dialogue.

Finally, person against the supernatural generally pits people against gods or other broad concepts of a metaphysical nature. As with technology conflicts, the supernatural tends to represent something else, but strictly mythological stories exist, and the overall theme of Lovecraft’s undying horrors in the widely gamified Cthulhu Mythos can be categorised this way. Of course, games once more tend towards the shallow. They rarely imply mankind’s insignificance in the cosmos, but have you kill tentacled many-eyed fiends instead.

In all forms of western fiction since probably the first stories were told, this focus on conflict is prevalent. The whole point of most stories is for a protagonist to prevail or at least to deliver a fundamental moral lesson. Get the boy. Save the dragon. Kill the evil princess. You show the conflict, you flesh it out along with the characters embroiled in it, and you solve it after overcoming a central obstacle. Setup, confrontation, resolution. Roll credits.

Renown screenwriter Aaron Sorkin phrases it even more directly, calling the main vehicle for conflicts simply “intention and obstacle.” Characters have intentions, they must overcome obstacles to get to them – drama happens as a result. Two characters with the same intention will invariably become each other’s obstacles, and that’s pretty much all that matters.

Sometimes the opposition isn’t clearly defined – it’s just there to represent darkness against the heroes. In The Lord of the Rings, the opposition’s only motivation is that it’s oh-so-evil. In Mass Effect, it does this thing every 50,000 years because reasons. 

This means you can kill orcs or the agents of the Reavers because they’re bad, and that’s enough. Same goes for pretty much all epic fantasy games as well. Not to mention the space opera, super hero, or pulp adventure brands of oh-so-evil, where the opposition becomes a caricature in its unwillingness to see reason and its motivations are muddled in vague and often spiritual handwaving.

These are shallow conflicts that normally serve to bring out the characters rather than the story or plot. You care more for Spider-Man or Rey than however they solve their predicaments. Even if the villains can be quite iconic in their own right, they’re mostly foils for the heroes. Like every Yang needs a Yin.

But the problem is – games are often even shallower than this. In many games, conflict and theme are one and the same. Mankind’s war against the Covenant in Halo. Mankind’s war against the Locust in Gears of War. Nathan Drake’s war against the populations of Russia and Shangri-La in Uncharted 2. Mankind’s war against the Blight in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Mankind’s World War II. Mankind’s war for no other reason than you have a gun in your hands when the tutorial loads.

A myriad of wars and battles throughout fictional and real histories, where the conflict is always resolved using physical force and the player is chosen to be caught in the middle as the sole savior. It can often seem like a story about swords or rifles more than a story about characters. There is very rarely a resolution in sight, which renders most of the traditional forms of conflict useless. You can’t win. You can’t conclude anything. You can just kill everyone in the room and go to the next room, because it’s the only way to progress. Your intention is go on, and your obstacle is whoever stands in your way. Why? Because you’re a soldier/hero/criminal/police/terrorist, and you follow orders/convictions/GUI waypoints. Barring how that angle is problematic ever since World War II ended, it’s also lazy both as world building and as writing or direction.

Looking at the world wars, for example, with their world-changing political themes and endless lists of films both acclaimed and controversial, games rarely go beyond the soldier taking orders. An effective illustration of how games generally stay as shallow as they can and focus on the repetitive mechanics. If there is any heavy subject matter, it’s handled in cutscenes before and after Johnny gets his gun. Many games throw in a famous quote or two, as if to accentuate or moralise over the death and destruction, but all it does is remind us how disconnected we are from the violence.

Presentation of Death

In most games, enemies simply fall over as if an off-switch is flipped. Barring a yell of agony, characters don’t ever die, they just stop running their AI behaviours and turn to ragdolls. There might be blood, bone, or even lost limbs, but we don’t perceive this as part of anything but a posthumous spectacle. It’s often just the cue that tells us the enemy is actually dead, and won’t stand back up. A flashing cross in the middle of our screen or an exploding head doesn’t really matter – it’s interface.

In John Cleese’s most recent (and allegedly last) tour, one of his many brilliant anecdotes was about violence in comedy. What he’d found was that it was entirely about context. The black knight’s expression while shrugging off the loss of his arm as a “flesh wound” makes people laugh. If he’d started crying and praying, vomited, and reacted with any kind of realism, it had elicited an entirely different response. People would’ve become uncomfortable, and the reality of the character’s pains would’ve become obvious.

This same anecdote is something that illustrates how games normally handle death. It’s something you can shrug off, because the enemies don’t respond to the violence. They’re just gone, as if they were no more relevant than Pac-Man’s biscuits.

Non-Violence in Games

There are of course many games that aren’t violent at all. Puzzle games, simulators, racing games, and a mix of genres that don’t need conflicts of force to remain compelling. But there are also games that are true exceptions to the norm. Games that do something a little differently.

Let’s look at some of those games, and sample the difference it makes with a change of perspective.

Thief: The Dark Project

Though the visuals may not have aged too well, Thief still takes narrative and player motivation much more seriously than any other series to date (in my opinion). The strongest feature set of the game revolves around avoiding contact with enemies, remaining hidden in the shadows and moving quietly through the levels. You sneak on thick carpets and take out torches with water arrows. By turning the player’s objective from confrontation to avoidance, it challenges every assumption of players of first-person games.

Planescape: Torment

No discussion of alternatives to violence would be complete without the iconic Planescape: Torment. Though the game definitely requires combat in traditional CRPG ways for the most part, it often allows dialogue to take its place. You can talk your enemy into not attacking you, or you can convince the enemy to change the outcome of the scene. This holds true even at the very end of the game, where you can end without killing the boss. For its time, this was quite revolutionary, and it’s still a great example of taking genre tropes and turning them on their head. Not only in the context of violence.

Spec Ops: The Line

As in every other third-person shooter, Spec Ops has you running from cover and emptying clip after clip into enemy soldiers. Superficially, it’s no different from any other game of its genre. But it does deal with the consequences of your violent actions, forcing the player to consider what’s actually happening. This generally happens as a story moment right after a forced decision, decreasing the impact of the choice itself, but it’s nonetheless quite effective as a brief reminder of what the gameplay actually represents.

The Thing

With John Carpenter’s movie as its inspirational foundation, The Thing has many features that are based on psychological effects rather than violence. Many of these features are diminished by bugs or by events happening at predefined points in the story, but they are well worth mentioning. An example is from early in the game, where you meet an injured man who really doesn’t trust you. To earn his trust, you can give him a medpack, which he sorely needs, and you can even give him a gun. You can also point a gun in his face and tell him to get his shit together, but then you should be careful before you turn your back to him since it’s quite well established that he doesn’t trust you. These situations are incredible, and range from handling suicidal panic to forcing your team to cope with revulsion, and though the game doesn’t quite achieve what it sets out to do, the interactive nature of these scenes and the ideas behind them are worthy of an honorable mention.

The Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth

Technically, Dark Corners of the Earth is a first-person shooter. But for the first few hours, you don’t have access to a gun. You’re carefully examining a strange village that feels increasingly unsettling the more you explore it, until you’re finally chased through a rotting hotel with the whole village intent on your death. Once you do get access to a gun, you never feel powerful. There are no HUD elements for aiming or for telling you how much ammo you have, so you have to tread lightly every step of the way. The trappings are the same as in most FPS games, but the presentation is completely different. It’s not a power fantasy – it’s a horror game. In the same way Thief challenges FPS assumptions in its own way, the same is true of Dark Corners of the Earth.

I Am Alive

One of the more interesting mechanics in I Am Alive is the ability to coerce enemies by aiming at them. You can do this to save ammo, or to set up a scene in such a way that you can finish an enemy or two before they have time to react to your hostile intent. Unfortunately, most scenes must end in violence at one point or another. It’s hard to avoid combat entirely. Because of this, the coercion mechanic becomes little more than a tool to set things up in your favour. But it adds one more stage from the use of force continuum than most games have.

SOMA

Frictional Games has more copycats than maybe any other genre developer. But Soma is a game in its own class. The focus on atmosphere and story permeates the whole experience and makes it one of the most enthralling horror and science fiction games ever made. It uses menial busywork as filler during conversations between the game’s protagonists, much like a noir femme fatale would smoke a cigarette, and leaves your interaction with the game’s sparsely placed monsters as blood-pumping chases or slow-paced stealth. If anything, it could benefit from fewer monsters. It effectively sidesteps the need for combat and death by telling a compelling interactive story and inviting you to explore its atmosphere.

Undertale

Like few other games, Undertale asks you to pay attention. Read the description of your foes and see if force is really the best option, or if you can compliment them, threaten them, or simply walk away rather than use force at all. Though mostly about matching words and having fun with quirky conversations, Undertale manages to be very different from similar games by turning expectations on their head. In this way, it’s not all that dissimilar from Planescape Torment, but with fewer RPG tropes to muddy its presentation.

Summary

Nathan Drake killed 2,925 people in my playthrough of the first three Uncharted games recently. By way of reference, Indiana Jones killed 67 through four feature films. But there’s usually context that tells us why Dr. Jones kills someone, where Nathan Drake is mostly just following a breadcrumb trail of enemies that always feel more or less out of place and always keep coming, no matter how many that die or whether it’s in a secret London bunker or some lost city in a remote location.

I don’t mind that people die in entertainment. They’re the bad guys, usually. But I think we need more games that explore what violence really means, what consequences it has, and the fact that we end up representing death as loosely and easily as if heads were eggs in an omelet. The Finnish sniper dubbed the “White Death” by the Red Army had 505 confirmed kills in a major war: Nathan Drake trumps that several times over in just a few hours.

More games should experiment with how death is represented, how violence is used, and what meaning a weapon may have to a story. Maybe it’s as simple as asking why we kill who we kill rather than how, as we work on our new sales pitch or hobby prototype. Maybe it’s building ideas around implied violence rather than physical force. Maybe it’s about giving the player the choice to put the gun down or to just aim at the enemy without pulling the trigger.

How about a game where the last three enemies in a firefight put down their weapons and surrender, so you must handle prisoners of war? A game where you have to take therapy sessions after discharging your firearm, and if you fail, you don’t get your gun back? Games where the ammo you carry at the start is all the ammo you’ll ever have, so that you’ll have to think more carefully about how you use it? A whole story about finding and capturing a single dragon in a fantasy world, rather than running a fantasy pest control service?

For creative reasons, it would be incredibly interesting to see what happens when games no longer rely on repetitive uses of force, but delve into more serious subject matter, and proceed to take those subject matters seriously.

I think the problem is that we don’t see the violence for all the killing.

A Love Letter to Cyberpunk 2077

In July 2010, the Nolan film Inception premiered.

It has since been said that the film was “A multilayered, self-reflexive action film that fires on all cylinders, manipulating time through meticulous editing to deliver a hard-hitting cinematic experience.”(1)

Others felt, “[T]he real cause of wonder […] is why Nolan should have embraced technocratic complexity in the service of such a puny story.”(2), or simply that it “isn’t a dud but nor is it a masterpiece.”(3)

Opinions have since normalized to a positive note, but it’s safe to say that opinions were divided at the time. Naturally, the film’s biggest fans fell back on demonstrating their intellectual prowess against the simple-minded barbarians who didn’t like the film: “[A] lot of people are touting Inception as an extremely complicated film to understand. It’s not at all. A seventh-grade education should suffice.”(4)

That is to say, if you don’t understand it, you’re obviously wrong, and you may be stupid or uneducated. A natural gut reaction when you love something and talk to people who don’t. To the jubilant, the critics seem thick-headed or somehow less educated than seventh graders. Xbox versus PlayStation comes to mind.

This is how it’s been with Cyberpunk 2077 for me. I’m the jubilant, and what seems like the entire world is aligned in its near-universal dislike for the object of my celebration.

If you want to know the thousand ways people dislike the game, there’s an abundance of material for you all over the Internet. The game has seen a negative feedback loop since launch, as has the developer CD Projekt Red. Much of it is deserved. Especially criticism leveled against the company’s crunchy treatment of its developers.

But this article strives to do the opposite from that feedback loop. I want to praise the game for things it does so well that no other game even comes close.

Yes, really.

This is my love letter to Cyberpunk 2077.

Background

One of my earliest favorites was Ultima VII: The Black Gate way back in 1992. In that game, you become the Avatar in the fantastic but unimaginatively named fantasy world of Britannia, trying to solve a series of grisly murders.

Britannia felt endless to me. A weirdly glowing hoe turned out to be a devastating weapon. There were ships to sail. Magic carpets to fly. People to talk to. An interesting plot to explore. A backpack to organize. Spells to learn. An experience that made Britannia seem like a real place and laid the foundation for playing the two sequels—Pagan and Ascension—the moment they could be safely purchased.

Those games created a space where you could become someone else and see another world through the eyes of that person. Not quite a blank canvas the way a pen-and-paper role-playing game is, or a XP-chasing dungeon crawl like many games are expected to be today when they are stamped with the R, the P, and the G. It wasn’t even much of an open world sandbox, by today’s standards, since the world had few extraneous features.

Yet, the Ultima games were world simulations. Not because they simulated every detail of a virtual world, but because they made you feel like you were there. They provided backdrops framing your own experience and letting your own imagination fill in the rest. If you looked too closely, the illusion would break apart. But you didn’t, because you wanted to stay.

Experiential Storytelling

Role-playing games. Immersive sims. Metroidvania games. These are the types of games I enjoy the most. In recent years, games like Subnautica and Outer Wilds have scratched the same itch. But I’ve felt that RPGs have lost their way. My days searching for clues in Britannia are long-since gone. Often, RPGs seem to focus more on story spectacle and inventory grind. Open-world sandboxes focus more on long checklists of chores for me to complete.

A large part of this is also how storytelling is approached. Something I’ve written about before. The more a game relies on passive observation, the more I lose interest. The more I have to save the world, the more I lose interest. The world has been saved so many times that it can’t possibly need more saving. I’m also tired of games where the player is the world’s only driving force. Where, if the player does side missions for a while, the world stands completely still and waits for the player’s next move. All urgency gone, like tears in rain. Characters in the world become mission dispensers or tell you about their village.

Games are simply not the medium for telling stories, in my opinion. When I’m forced to be the passive observer, I can’t engage with the experience at the same level.

As Raph Koster puts it in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, “[t]he stories that wrap the systems are usually side dishes for the brain.”

When the side dish becomes the main course, it’s never as filling.

Hardwired Alter Ego

In Cyberpunk 2077, you play V. A character you customize visually and then play from a first-person perspective. V has a voice, but no defined character development. The acting responds to situations, however, so the voice isn’t completely neutral.

The main story is pretty much a heist gone wrong followed by its repercussions. But that’s not all that important for the experience, except to set the tone, and leave you scrambling for a way out.

V’s job isn’t to be a character. V is your role-playing interface. Your avatar. Someone built around the activities you’ll take part in, such as they are. A solo of fortune, gun-toting or code-toting as you please. There’s no character development, because that development plays out in your head. It’s your own development through the experience being offered. Your own shock and awe can never be expressed accurately by V, and the game respects this.

The opposite of passive observation is to invite the player’s own thoughts into the storytelling. Experiential storytelling. Cyberpunk 2077 respects this too, and lets you own the experience. What would have been cutscenes in most games is still a set of canned animations, but you remain an active participant at every step of the way. In part because of the consistent first-person perspective but also because of how the virtual world is presented.

Things like how your character aborts an ongoing phone call to wrap up a suddenly erupting firefight, and then picks it up again after the firefight is over. How characters can find you rude if you walk away from a conversation. Small and subtle details that make everything come alive.

You probably guessed it. It’s a world simulation.

Night City

Stepping into corporate white-collar V’s cynical shoes, I embraced the role. Picked the asshole dialogue options, tricked my friends so I could make money off their misery, and distanced myself from characters I felt didn’t handle me with the proper respect. And the world responded. Cyberpunk 2077 took me back to those days of playing the Avatar of Britannia. Not because it shares any real similarities, given it’s almost three decades between these two games, but because both games made me feel like I was there.

The little alternate solutions I came up with in side missions? They worked!

The tradeoff I chose hours ago? It came back and bit me!

The slower pace and the more deliberate tone made everything come alive for me. Sitting around a campfire to hear veterans tell war stories. Tagging along in a friend’s car, talking trash. Getting pulled into other people’s schemes when they have a use for you, only to be spat out after they’ve got what they wanted. Some of the stories, I never even got to know how they ended, simply because I was never the center of attention.

Where most games would force me to act out the story as the developers intended it, here I felt like I was there. Like Night City was a real place. A place that lived around me and would keep going no matter what I did. Sometimes I was useful, but most of the time I was a pawn in some much larger scheme that was always outside my grasp. At first, it wasn’t even obvious where the main story ended and the side content began.

This isn’t a story about V—this is a place where I could role-play. The same kind of smoke and mirrors in storytelling and choice-making that Deus Ex once did and that I remembered, whether real or not, from playing the last few Ultimas. Just done with more finesse and nuance. A modern take on some of the things that made me want to make games in the first place.

From the seamless dialogue, to the spontaneous phone calls, to the expertly crafted main story scenes, I lived in Night City. It came alive in its gratuitously exploitative splendor. A dystopian wasteland of lost dreams and futile hopes, but also a place where people eat, shit, and sleep. A hungry urban sprawl the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

But most of all, my experience was about real people in a fictional world. The large-scale questions of transhumanism and the ghost in the machine—done to death in the cyberpunk genre—now sidelined in favor of personal stories. Stories grounded in characters and factional agendas. Mutual self-interest that is allowed to develop into something more, or something less.

Those high level ideas of human/machine identity and transhumanism are still there, but relegated to the sidelines as thematic context for some of the story’s main plot beats. Or merely in the city’s passive world building. Its atmosphere. Exactly the way I like it.

Here is a game that pays tribute to its genre classics but is confident enough not to copy them. It has its own identity and delivers on it with such candor and momentum that I was completely blown away.

You meet characters whose stories are about acceptance, about getting old, about lost love, new love, personal fears, fear of rejection, and everything in-between. About trying and failing. Human stories, with crucial human features, that all serve to show you that this is a real place and that there’s nothing you can do about its cruelty. It’s you that has to change. Not the world.

Not to mention Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand, and how open he ends up being to your influences, if you decide to let him. Or how your disdain for his brash recklessness may end up reinforcing his own disdain for everything, turning him into a rockerboy caricature. It’s not the shallow mostly cosmetic difference between choosing the dark side and the light side—it’s a difference in how you handle people and how they respond. Neither is it the restrictive pacifist playthrough that robs you of half the game’s features.

Ultimately, Cyberpunk 2077’s biggest service to digital role-playing is that you’re not a chosen one. You’re nothing—unimportant. You’re just there, in Night City, and Night City doesn’t care. You’ll be scraped off its boot as the city stays its course.

I loved every second of it.

Subtlety

I sunk some 140 hours into this game, unlocking all the achievements, simply because I didn’t want to leave Night City.

What I found in this game was something I haven’t experienced in video games maybe ever before. Narrative subtlety. Under the neon surface hides the most immersive experience I’ve had in a video game in a very long time simply because it doesn’t get stuck on theme or try to tell an epic. After three decades as a gamer and half that as a game developer, I’m once again the Avatar, just not in Britannia.

It’s made me fall in love with this rough diamond of a game, and climb to the top of the battlements to yell “all you need is a seventh grade education!” Just like Inception fans did in 2010. Not to say I actually believe you’re stupid not to see the game’s brilliance, but because I want you to have the same experience I had. Being V. Getting lost in Night City.

The many obvious flaws and glitches never really bothered me. Maybe they should have. The narrative subtlety, the interactive conversations, the deeply crafted characters, and the many tiny decisions you can make that affect the outcome of things happening several hours later—this is stuff games never do, that Cyberpunk 2077 does incredibly well. It was all I really paid attention to.

Teleporting police, missing customization features, even most of the glitches, are parts of systems that felt like they’re of incidental value at most. Features that may matter superficially, but have little impact on an immersive experience—a world simulation. Maybe if you scrutinize the details too much, they scrutinize back.

All I know for sure is that I was completely engrossed by Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City. It has inspired me immensely both as a player and as a game developer.

It’s an experience that’ll never fade away.