A brief note on the formalism discussion

After having read ‘Parley’ by Frank Lantz, I wanted to write down a couple of thoughts about the discussion on formalism that has been going on recently, even though I haven’t followed every part of it, and can barely spell ‘Deleuzian’.

First of all, Parley is great on several levels. It is well written, well argued, and a nice summary of the debate so far.

Second, I am very glad that Frank explains why he felt that:

folks who are aren’t as interested in theme and narrative see an emphasis on theme and narrative everywhere, so they are baffled by the claim that attention to theme and narrative is being crowded out or dominated by attention to rules and structure.

Because I sure don’t feel that way, which is why I must admit that despite my great respect for Frank I felt a hint of annoyance when I read his “we see pretend worlds and childish make-believe” line. (A line which for most people failed to make the point he wanted to make, as he explains in Parley.)

I now completely understand why he feels that way, and that has been enlightening.

But here is what it looks like from where I am sitting, looking more at the design side than the criticism side:

I’ve led a workshop on narrative design last year, and am about to do another one in two weeks. And to prepare for that, I have reviewed my book shelves to look at what other people have been doing.

My books on writing: check. Some good stuff there, and I kinda know how to adapt and integrate that. (You can find some of those books here.)

My books on storytelling in games: sure. Lee Sheldon’s Character Development And Storytelling For Games. Katherine Isbister’s Better Game Characters by Design. I know there’s a couple more, but I’m not really doing a workshop on writing, I’m doing one on narrative design.

So what about my two shelves with books on game design? Meager. Very meager. Here is what I find when I take some books off the shelf and riffle through the table of contents and the index:

  • Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play: 10 pages out of 638.
  • Schell’s Art of Game Design: 4 chapters out of 33. Better than most.
  • Bates’ Game Design: 1 chapter out of 14. And Bob is a writer and adventure game designer.
  • Fullerton, Swain & Hoffman’s Game Design Workshop: 1 chapter out of 16.
  • Brathwaite & Schreiber’s Challenges for Game Designers: 1 chapter out of 21.
  • Fields & Cotton’s Social Game Design: nothing.
  • Trefry’s Casual Game Design: 6 lines.

Chris Crawford’s later books are the only ones dedicated to what one could call narrative design. Maybe The Game Narrative Toolbox will be good – I won’t know until June.

 

Here’s another fun example. Please allow me to unfairly pick on Stone Librande, someone whose talks I’ve enjoyed and who I’m sure is a perfectly nice gentleman. Here is the syllabus for the Game Design Fundamentals course he teaches at CMU. And here is part 12, out of 15:

Atmosphere

While a game can be abstract, adding a theme can help draw players into your game world. This week’s lecture will examine how the “flavor” of a game can enhance the game player’s experience.

Workshop: Thematic Decisions

Design a character that could appear in a low-budget zombie movie. Create a set of options that describe how that character would move and attack if trapped in a room filled with zombies. Make sure that all the options are thematically appropriate. For instance, a Sheriff would be expected to carry a gun, but a Priest would not.

Homework

Work on your final project. Focus on elements that will add atmosphere to your game such as colors, fonts, characters and story. 

 

Flavor. Theme. Atmosphere. Elements such as colors, fonts, characters and story.

 

That’s what things look like from where I’m sitting. The people teaching, writing, and speaking about designing games, the ones who shape the debate, are primarily focused on the mechanical side of game design, and not on the fictional side or the integration of those two. (I am primarily looking at designers, not critics, although of course there is some overlap.)

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at the mechanical side – we should, and I find that aspect fascinating, and important. And different people like different things about games, and have different approaches to games. That’s all fine.

It also doesn’t mean every game needs a “story”. But most games have a fictional side, a world in which they take place. For me, the mechanical and the fictional are two aspects of the same thing, and I find the best way to approach designing them is in an integrated manner, and this goes for most games, all the way down to ostensibly abstract games like Tetris (see here).

And that is exactly what I will be talking about during my talk at the GDC narrative summit this year, so this formalism kerfuffle better have died down or I can see I will have to add some slides to my talk.

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