Scott McCloud describes “six steps of art”, normally traversed backwards, in Understanding Comics:
The initial progression from surface to craft and structure is a natural one. Newcomers to art focus on the surface aesthetics: They might think that Blade Runner looked cool, so they’ll make a cyberpunk future that borrows its ideas. But to do this well, they have to start learning the techniques used to make it(craft), and then how to add structure to the work.
Although McCloud organizes the six steps linearly, I see the three closer to the core(and thus, later in the typical progression) as being on a somewhat different track: You can finish work professionally using only conventional structures and techniques. These deeper “roots of creativity”, on the other hand, pose a broader, less obvious challenge. Exploring idioms means challenging conventions, and likewise touching on the boundaries of the form and relationships to the core ideas being communicated means that every project could be “starting over” with a completely new technique and structure.
Work on these latter levels is often hard to judge, because it means risking doing something other people can’t parse, and them saying, “well, that’s weird and I don’t get it”, or a rejection in terms of labels and categories, where it is not a “real” or “true” example of the medium. Performance feedback has to come from a deeper place when working at the core layers.
What does that look like in game design terms?
Someone who is looking at the surface of game design tends to find a Blade Runner to hang their perspective off of: Maybe they think that Super Mario Bros. had the “best jumping mechanics”, and so will duplicate them pixel-for-pixel, but then be at a loss for what to do next. Copying at the surface creates an issue with completion: not only are you just barely able to cobble together the techniques you need, but you also don’t know how to relate things to any structure but the one you’ve copied.
And so we have many, many games that are “design by remix”, in which they copy-paste some conventional ideas and ask, “well, what if we mashed them together?” Because in absence of any notion of what the structure is, you can still just start changing things and see what happens, and sometimes get something out of that.
This is the path that involves using one’s own taste to do design work. Taste has a lot to do with your personality, comfort zones, and immediate reactions. When you aren’t required to finish a work or even determine what it’s communicating, you can fixate on a few elements you’ve noticed and assign them singular ratings: This feature is good, that feature is bad. Sum up all the features and that’s how good the game is.
But when applied to the creation of a design, taste will cause an indulgence: since there’s no structural premise to say that your feature will or won’t work, and there’s never enough useful feedback about deep issues with a work, you just put it in and ship it, and then the audience meets you with silence or suggestions to use more conventional elements, because it didn’t work, but they can’t tell you why, so they will point to their own fixations as a reference.
But what’s an example of someone who successfully avoided these problems? I would point to Jordan Mechner, who stumbled into a very successful strategy(and documented it in his diaries!) in creating both Karateka and Prince of Persia. What he did was copy the surface elements of old adventure films about mythical characters in foreign lands, but adapt them to game form. This adaptation forced him, while still in his teens and with just a little bit of game making experience - enough to have a handle on the technical possibilities - well out of the conventions of 80’s gaming to pursue a “cinematic” style of game, where immediacy of control and typical ideas like “lives” and “score” were thrown away in exchange for quality and believability of animation and cutscenes seamlessly integrated with gameplay.
And so which of these “six steps” or “six layers” did Mr. Mechner have to work within? All of them, to some degree. Pursuing this adaptation gave him an idea - not a feature idea that assumes context(which is how a lot of game ideas are formulated), but an idea of what is being communicated, which forced him to progress from that idea outwards to the surface: the camera perspective, the way in which the player interacts, the kinds of characters and obstacles. But simultaneously, because he also started at the surface of “getting the look”, he also had to work his way inwards towards the structure after figuring out a workflow for making the visuals polished. So both games ultimately met in the middle, with their most original elements coming from original idioms and structure, after iterating up and down the layers several times. Along the way, Mechner describes facing numerous challenges, doubts, and personal crises, but his interest in cinema, while often leading him away from games, also gave him a target for game making, a way to know if he was achieving his design.
While there are many identifiable gaming conventions still present in Karateka and Prince of Persia, like hit points and time limits, and there are identifiable cinema conventions in terms of visual style, staging, and storytelling, it’s shaped and directed to mesh both sets of conventions together. Although many games have been inspired by these two, they remain nearly as unique and playable today as they were at release, and even stand apart from their sequels and remakes.
When I discuss coherency it’s in the context of pursuing an idea-based work - maximizing the likelihood that you have a set of ideas that you can adapt to a game. Idea-based works often fall towards two extremes: Games that are stories, and games that are settings. Extremes aren’t bad things: they’re just extreme, so they amplify the flaws.
The trope of “where is gaming’s Citizen Kane?” is both an expression of, and a reaction to, story games as an aspirational goal. The concept here is generally along the lines of an elaborate Choose-Your-Own-Adventure: there’s a cutscene, or dialogue, and then a key decision that makes the story branch. To make these stories more “game-like”, puzzles and combat are often layered on, resulting in the classic “grand adventure” in which the player characters are Chosen Ones who lie, steal and murder. What’s important to notice about stories in games is that stories with no “player choices” - i.e. traditional stories - still have puzzle-like qualities: there’s an element of anticipation and chaos in viewing the action and predicting what will happen next, how the characters will react to each other, understanding the reasons for their actions and identifying themes and subtext. And so interactivity can often be in a superfluous role in a dense, intricate story: letting the player do anything and arbitrarily change the story will make the work communicate nothing, so a light touch that involves relatively few choices and obfuscated or miraculous consequences, like what is frequently seen in visual novels, is often the best fit.
Deep lore and world-building is the focus of many a gigantic game design document which blathers on and on about fantastical creatures with apostrophes in their names, personality defects, political intrigues, and romances. Focus on setting suffers from some problems opposite to stories, in that there is often no driving action to them. The player is merely presented with a world to be in and implicitly told, “you can figure out the rest,” as if they were an improv actor. But an undirected player is often taken out of their comfort zone in a rather frustrating way. The game has many things to do, but they’re smeared across the landscape and are hard to discover, leading to a disjoint narrative with awful pacing and a middle section of “I tried to do this, but the game didn’t let me and I spent the next hour feeling lost”. And the more that the player is given explicit direction and awareness of things they could be doing, the more pressure they feel to stop role-playing and instead be an achiever and engage in each task to get it checked off the list.
The compromise between setting and story that games tend to arrive at to convey an idea is scenario. If the story question is “who will live or die?”, the scenario adaptation is “choose who lives or dies”. Scenario means that you have just enough exposition to know what’s in play, and you have some kind of goal or problem that needs resolution to complete the scenario, but the game is assisting you in telling the remainder of the story like in good improv: rather than saying “no, can’t do that”, it’s saying “yes, and” to anything you do, and simply omitting any possibility for player agency that would cause a “no”. Good scenario development applies chaos to maintain uncertainty about outcomes, heightening engagement.
McCloud notes that it’s also possible to pursue a form-based work. Form also involves communication of ideas, but the thing being communicated is about the medium and its boundaries - it’s a statement of “and so, this is possible, too”. Video game designers that get in a twist over “mechanics” tend to aspire to form, but like with idea-based designs, most of these design thoughts come from two extremes of adaptation:
Board game and card game designers adapting their ideas to video games. This group emphasizes paper prototypes and will agree with statements like:
- “Games are about competitions”
- “The theme is just cosmetic”
- “Game balance is the most important thing”
And then, simulationists that adapt their simulation into a playable game. This group tends to agree with statements like:
- “A deeper simulation creates a richer quality of experience”
- “Games aspire to be virtual reality”
- “The future of gaming depends on better AI”
As with focusing on story or setting, these are extreme positions. A pursuit of video game form can avoid ponderous competitive rulesets and realistic simulations of the Byzantine Empire, and instead go in the direction of a small, humorous work that leverages the “design by remix” strategy to fully explore a “what if”, like QWOP, (what if running in a game were very realistic and difficult?) Futilitris, (what if you played Tetris but the playfield keeps getting bigger?), or FJORDS (what if software glitches were part of the game?) These games still have a core idea, but the idea is an exploration of something about games themselves, something that will make people say “I didn’t think a game could do that.” They make use of software, interactivity, and sensory experience in some kind of balance that couldn’t be achieved without computing power behind it.
The “six steps” structure is powerfully adaptable from one medium to another: if you are already skilled at music, you can adapt musical ideas to games. If you are skilled at architecture, you can adapt architecture to music. And so on. It’s just a matter of getting a handle on the techniques unique to each medium. Established artists who shift mediums often start producing interesting work very quickly, because they can leverage their old ideas, and like Mechner, focus on adaptation, fluidly travelling up and down the different layers to develop the work.
A last note is that there’s a distinction between succeeding at conveying the game idea, and turning that into a saleable product, and this distinction creates a further set of extremes. Most people encounter video games in the form of products: they have features that are squarely in the realm of software features, like “can configure controls” or “online multiplayer with automatic matchmaking”, and they are bulked up with assets and features that communicate the core ideas in more elaborate ways, like having a voice acted in-game cutscene instead of a text message. As software, a game can aim to be software first - a program with gameplay, versus a game with programming. Product features create marketability: they might make a consumer say, “ah, control configuration will help make it easier to play,” or, “I’ll connect better with voice acted characters!” A product that is both commercial and artistic is implicitly working to communicate both, and ideally they aren’t in conflict: rather, they can elevate each other by making an interesting idea more accessible and available to a broader audience. But conflict often does take place, and it often results in ugly compromises or non-solutions.