Depth is a fairly simple concept that many have a hard time defining. Because "deep" is an adjective you've probably heard the term applied to many different subjects from deep stories, deep emotions, strategic depth, deep ideas, to deep gameplay. Depth is a general term in that it can be applied to a wide range of complex systems; perhaps this is why it is so hard to pin down. What makes a story deep is not exactly the same as what makes gameplay deep. And how different systems create depth is unique to each system. In this article series we'll examine depth, specifically the depth of gameplay. It's been a few years since I last wrote about depth. It's time I made one, hopefully final, clarification on this elusive term.
Depth from Complexity
To understand depth we start by understanding complexity. Complexity is simply the amount of "stuff" in a work. For stories this stuff is characters, settings, events, actions, objects, etc. For music it's melodies, keys, instruments, notes, rhythms, etc. For gameplay complexities are all the rules that govern gameplay and include mechanics, enemy elements, level elements, etc. We all understand that for better or for worse it's possible to add a lot of complexity to a work. So, it's important to remember that art isn't about complexity for the sake of complexity. Most complexity has a specific purpose: to create meaning.
Depth is the meaning of a work, and meaning is what we value in expression and communication. As I explained in part 6 of my series Design Space: Infinite Undiscovery to create meaninglessness and chaos is easy; to create and convey order and meaning is extremely difficult. This is why artists can spend a lifetime refining their craft. There's just so much to learn about communicating through a medium. Meaning is derived from the complexities of a work. This meaning comes in the form of concepts, experiences, and emotions. Like sophisticated arguments, depth/meaning is built up on smaller parts that support and resonate with each other. With art of all kinds, complex meaning requires complexities in the work itself. Put another way, a work can only convey meaning that's as complex as its complexities. You can't communicate an entire text book worth of information in a sentence. And with more "parts running in this machine" (complexities) there are more chances for things to break and more chances for the creators to make mistakes.
A work with depth is commonly thought of as something one can spend a considerable amount of time exploring, mulling over, testing, or otherwise engaging with to uncover more meaning. Put simply, the reason we associate depth with a sense of exploration and time consumption is because of the nature of emergence and complexity. Increasingly complex ideas take more complexities to convey. To experience and mentally grasp these ideas, we have to learn the complexities. As I often say, learning is a slow and somewhat mysterious process. Furthermore, because of emergence, every bit of complexity we add to a work increases the amount of connections it can have to the rest of the complexities. Looking for and making these connections is simply a part of the pattern seeking journey we take to find meaning. So in the same way that the emergent possibilities of systems grow at rapid rates as the complexities increase, so too does the task of exploring the depths of a work.
Taking the time to learn, explore, measure, and weigh possibilities is a lot of work. We often invest the time to do this work hoping that the payoff will be worth it. The payoff we look for is more nuance, a new angle on the ideas, a new way to think about the concepts, or what we uncoincidentally call a "deeper" level of understanding. I believe we value such deeper levels of understanding because meaning and resonance brings order to the chaos of complexity; in other words we enjoy entering a world where the vast collection of random, meaningless details come together in a very clear and stable way. We enjoy when details don't overwhelm us as we search for patterns; when the details create meaning our ability to think and understand is strengthened.
Depth works as an organizing structure that helps us put complexities and details into the contexts that convey the most meaning. The more complexities support and resonate with each other, the deeper the work becomes.
Almost two years ago I made a clarification on the term depth as it applies to gameplay. I defined depth as the amount of back and forth reactionary counters in a gameplay system or scenario. This basically means that deeper games have more push and pull of gameplay actions starting on the level of mechanics which then support the more emergent tactical and strategic levels. While I think this way of thinking about gameplay depth works, it doesn't frame the entire issue clearly enough.
Gameplay depth/meaning mainly revolves around interplay. Because games are interactive systems with goals or goal like objectives, every action and situation can be evaluated according to how well it achieves victory. In other words, the meaning of gameplay comes from goal seeking interactivity. So the question is, how do we get the most meaning out of our gameplay experiences? How do we give the player agency in a context that is meaningful? What is meaningful in gameplay? The simple answer is overcoming challenging in skill-based games. When it's easier to lose than win, players have to exert effort to win. To leverage one's effort, players focus and use their skills (DKART) to seek victory. I explain more on the beauty of gameplay here.
Consider two different types of games; puzzle games and competitive multiplayer games. The complexities (rules) of a puzzle games are designed to make winning strategies difficult to perceive. In other words, it's hard to find the optimal solutions until you learn the rules and test the system. Puzzle games are generally very linear or straightforward games that challenge players to find the few solutions out of the many possible non-solution outcomes. As you may remember, I commonly put puzzle games into two different categories; deep and complex. With complex puzzles players have few rules and dynamics to consider. Like solving a jigsaw puzzle, patience is tested more than DKART skills as time is needed to match up all of the pieces. But deep puzzles are deep because players can come to the solutions by thinking in terms of function and rules. By reading deep puzzles players embrace the dynamic, emergent systems. By understanding how the rules of deep puzzle games come together in a structured way, players learn the depths of the system and devise solutions more easily. Reading puzzles let's players shatter the chaos of blind trial-and-error. This is the payoff of deep puzzle gaming experiences.
We think of depth a bit differently for multiplayer games, which tend to be more open. When most say that a multiplayer game is deep they mean that the gameplay is of interesting choices. When players have different viable options to explore the gameplay is balanced in a way that allows for many different complexities, mechanics, and options to coexist in a very goal-oriented, gameplay focused environment. And as we learned from the conclusion of my article series on interesting choices, there are many parts that are necessary to achieve this balance, but none more important than interplay. This is why I was comfortable using the word depth to describe gameplay of back and forth counters.
When I considered that puzzle games don't have counters in the same ways that multiplayer games do and that both types of games can be deep, I realized that I had to tweak my definition of gameplay depth. I'd rather define gameplay depth in a way that aligns with how the term applies to other art works and various genre of video games. Instead of focusing on what kind of counters are present in the gameplay or how they go back and forth, I want to step back and define gameplay depth as a balance of complexity and interplay (with more weight on interplay). This balance is framed in the context of gameplay. This balance gives the complexities in a game meaning because they are part of the interplay design, which sits at the core of gameplay. This balance is most easily expressed as the balance of interesting choices, but other variations exist.
In part 2 we'll look at quotes from around the net in regards to depth and carefully consider how close each come to aligning with our new definition.