Click "Sleep" for a dark background.
Click "sleep" again if text isn't dark.



Design Space: Infinite Undiscovery pt.6

At the end of part 5 I stated that identifying the meaning of an artwork isn't arbitrary. While interpretations of art can be extremely varied and unpredictable, the meaning of an art work is something that is tied to and derived from its complexities, which is the most concrete and therefore objective part of art. The following expands on this idea before covering more examples of waste in video games. 


Complexity. Chaos. Order. 

Coherent complexity is hard to overlook. This is generally because order is so much more distinct than chaos due to its resonant and explanatory power. Order (or what we can think of as consistency/coherency) is the foundation upon which patterns are recognized and logic is formed. Being able to recognize patterns and similarities among different subjects creates our sense of familiarity. And we use what we're familiar with to explain and predict events in our perceivable worlds. Our ability to recognize and create patterns is so strong that when exposed to a pattern amid random stimuli, it's nearly impossible for us to "unsee" the coherent, consistent, ordered pattern. In other words, we strongly look for the types of connections that make the most sense as these connections stick with us better and help us to continue searching for more connections. 


"So we are forced, by the hierarchical nature of our perceptive processes, to see either a crazy world or just a bunch of pointless lines. A similar analysis could be made of dozens of Escher pictures.... by the time the observer sees the paradox on a high level, it is too late - he can't go back and change his mind about how to interpret the lower-level objects." Godel, Escher, Bach p.98 


"What's the most resilient parasite? An idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules. Which is why I have to steal it." Cobb- from Inception.


The stickiness of order and patterns is why we all have an intuitive understanding for what designers intend with their work. Because we know that chaotic complexity has little meaning to both the artist and the audience in that it can't reflect any higher level ideas or sensibilities of the real world (aesthetic principles) we know that most artists will avoid working on and presenting shear random complexities with their art. Even more abstract mediums like music and the visual arts have rules and forms to create a sense of order and resonance. If randomness is not worth it, then the only other option is to make art that is coherent and ordered. Since these goals are much harder to craft than meaningless chaos, we assume that most artists will spend much time and energy on their artwork. And we intuitively reason that if it's hard for us to unsee order, patterns, and other meaningful connections, it should also be hard for the designer to not see the same connections. And because art is inherently about conveying or communicating ideas, we reason that the artist and audience communicate by seeing the same coherent connections, at least for the most obvious ones. 

Left: Puzzle from Professor Layton. Right: Picture from 999.

Just try to unsee the subjects of these images once you've seen them.

The above logic may be rooted in an underlying assumption, but the theory works for the vast majority of cases. You can't make Tetris in all of its puzzle gameplay perfection by accident. Such a focused and polished final product is virtually impossible to create via the random typing of code on a keyboard. Because chaos or the fact that meaningful coherency in a work is harder to develop and maintain the more complex it becomes is always a possible result looming in the background, creating Tetris can only be the result of a designer who is aware of the same coherent gameplay that we experience. It's not arbitrary to recognize this. It's obvious. 


Aesthetic Principles of Game Design

Now we have to consider what are the aesthetic principles for video games. What makes gameplay "beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance?" Fortunately, I've already answered these questions in great detail my article series A Defense of Gameplay. For a quick summary, gameplay is half-real. The real skills players develop are just as real as with any other activity in life. And as we use these real skills to interact with the virtual challenges a unique stage is set for creating experiences that reflect, capture, and model real ideas in ways that are simply not possible in other artistic mediums.

For any gameplay experience, you not only have all the fictional ideas of your actions and how they affect the virtual game world, but you can also look into yourself to draw great insight into the ideas conveyed by the fiction. This is something unique about video games compared to more passive art mediums. With the kinds of stories presented in books and movies, we look to our own real experiences to relate to the characters and actions in the story. But with video games, we look to ourself to gain the context of half of the gameplay experience. It's more direct and personal than relating. It's reflective. In this way gameplay can be beautiful in the same ways that learning to dance, sing, fight, or do anything is. Video game experiences are made all the more powerful and thematically resonant when the player's real learning experience is isomorphic to or resonant with the virtual elements (which includes story). This is a core aesthetic principle for the art of gameplay. And this statement explains why any significant unfruitful learning a player does for a game will almost always be a waste in terms of its design and the conveyance of the art. 


Teaching is the (red) Key 

If game design is great when it teaches players well and they use this real experience to understand the meaning of a game on a deeper level, then we can carefully look at the limitations of learning as a criteria for analyzing more complex video game examples for design waste. Remember, we'll look for (1) what the gameplay ideas are starting with the most obvious concepts. (2) The complexity of this idea. (3) Then we'll look at how the idea is presented or taught, which includes considering mandatory and optional challenges and emergent possibilities.

Continuity. When I played through this indie puzzle game years ago I thought that the game went on for too long. And in my article and the feedback I gave to its creator, I mention that the game could have been a better experience if there were 20-25 levels instead of the 32. But now after watching a playthrough of the entire game (part 1. part 2.), I have reservations about my claim. Perhaps looking at an elegant/speed run of any game will change the way one perceives its level design. Or perhaps it reveals a level of play that's not accessible to a first time player. Perhaps I beat the game in too few sittings, forcing myself to progress when I should have taken a break. Who knows. The point of this article is to investigate if my claim has any analytical merit using our new understanding of the art of game design. 

My original view was that though Continuity features several conceptually deep puzzles designed around neat ideas like warping vertically across multiple cells, it also features many complex puzzles that are generally best solved after methodically analyzing the cells for potential matches. As far as stressing reading (analyze.knowledge) skills, deep puzzles do this well and complex puzzles not so much. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the challenge of complex puzzles deals with sorting through all the pieces that must be considered individually. While it's easy to make a complex puzzle more complex (just add more pieces), this usually only increases the challenge without increasing the meaning (ie. reading deep puzzles for elegant solutions and devising efficient solution methods).

I argued that rearranging the cells in Continuity made the game more complex because doing so was functionally equivalent to scrambling the pieces around as you're trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle. Put another way, instead of having a nice, methodical, organized system of checking for matches, every few seconds your system is undone. While this is still a part of Continuity's core gameplay, I now see that the game has a smoother, more varied, and efficient progression of gameplay ideas than I thought. 

It's helpful to think of each level as either teaching an idea or testing some combination of ideas. Teaching levels are usually very simple (few cells) and feature only the new idea so players are very likely to pick up on the lesson. After the first 10 levels or so that gradually walk the player through the basic gameplay, I started noting the progression of gameplay ideas. Level 11 teaches players that not all the cells will be needed to solve a level. 13 trains players to use strong visual cues or visual continuity to help them find matches. 13 teaches mid-air warping. 17 teaches how multiple keys work. 19 shows how all the sides of cells can be used to make a challenge puzzle. 21 features a clever mixup in a very elegant puzzle. 22 features many unnecessary cells (8 total). 23 platforming challenge using the looped nature to increase length. 25 is serious mid-air warping. 26 features an elegant solution using mid-air warping. 28 is a difficult level with multiple paths. 29 maximum warping. 30 features an elegant solution that rewards players for leveraging the lessons previously learned. And the final stages are the hardest.

See what I mean about Continuity being varied and efficient? Again, do we notice such a design because we've watched what is essentially a speed run of elegant solutions? Are these solutions practically impossible for a first time player to achieve considering players will probably keep scrambling their own perception of the level each time they slide a cell? Does the core unique feature of Continuity introduce some waste into the design because it tends to disorient players preventing them from engaging with the depth of the puzzles (e.g. elegant solutions)? How do we reconcile the experience of the brute force, self-scrambling player that sweeps the skill floor versus the efficient and elegant player in the videos? We acknowledge both. Because we can choose to brute force our through Continuity and because the game locks players into a linear progression of levels, we have to acknowledge the potential of a more wasteful gameplay experience. (For more design insight, read an interview with the creator here)


In part 7, more examples.

« Design Space: Infinite Undiscovery pt.7 | Main | Design Space: Infinite Undiscovery pt.5 »

Reader Comments (2)

The discussion of the continuity use case reads as such to me: by providing a "repetitive, but straightforward" path to the final puzzles, the author has ensure that the player can progress. By enabling more elegant solutions, the author rewards the player that try to understand the subtleties ( ... you've got a better term for that, i'll need to dig it back) of the gameplay.

I think there's a level of NSMB where you need to butt-stomp some sewer gates to go through. They hint us that it can be used so by making that level start with Mario falling in butt-stomp more, iirc, which is a nice way to "teach" without getting boring.

April 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPypeBros

@ PypeBros

Ah. I think it's also important to note that the skill floor option for the playing the game works against the approaching the higher levels. So while it's possible to enjoy the game on a deeper level, since this is optional, and the lower level works against this pursuit, the game conveys mixed meaning.

It's more about the balance between the types of experiences the player can have on the low, medium, and high level.

I remember that level in NSMB. Good point. Though I'll talk about tutorials and teaching more directly in an upcoming article series, this series is less about that and more about identifying design meaning and waste.

Good comment.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>