There are a few ways we can go about improving our understanding of game design. We can read books, articles, watch talks… We can also analyze games! In this article, I want to explore with you an efficient analysis process, for learning purposes. It is about exploring games with a creator’s eye. For scholars or game analysts, a better source of information on game research would be the website Game Studies.
When I study a game or one of its components, my goal is to better understand how it works. I want to know how it was built and why it was made that way. In other word, I’m looking to get a sense of the intention of its authors. A secondary objective is to sharpen my observation skills, to practice critical thinking. The goal of an analysis is not to formulate an opinion about the game, but rather to outline its characteristics. If we were to just judge a game based on our sole experience, we would be reviewing it instead.
This process gives us an opportunity to reverse engineer some of a game’s components. It permits us to steal mechanics and solid design decisions like artists. Or better, to widen our understanding of the craft. Polished games are an application of the knowledge of whole teams of dedicated developers. They are made up of coherent networks of ideas you can bounce on to improve your own creations. They are deep sources of inspiration.
Which elements of a game am I looking to understand? What am I looking to learn exactly? It depends. There are many specific or general aspects we may want to figure out. Maybe you just want to see how the multiplayer portion of the game works. Maybe it is about the structure of its story. It could be about the richness of the game’s aesthetics. You may want to get the hang of a specific mechanic.
An analysis can be broad or focused. It can take a little or a lot of time. But in any case, it should answer your questions, your needs.
This is obvious, but in order to study a game, we should first play it. This doesn’t mean we must play the whole way through. With the workloads we face as creators, we can’t afford to spend days testing games in depth. I don’t want to use analysis as a pretext to beat the RPGs I’m dying to play!
If you want to learn the tricks of the trade, it’s more efficient to create games rather than to play them. That is why I don’t want to spend more than a couple of hours exploring a virtual world. Not just for the sake of surveying it. Let’s play videos and other material found online can fill the gaps between your test session and what the full title has to offer.
When we analyze a game, our goal is to lean a bit towards objectivity. Our perspective as a lone player is purely subjective. And it always will be. However, it is critical to leave our own shoes whenever we design games. The same is true when we want to understand how a game was made. Because after all, it was made for a wide variety of users. Not just for us!
Don’t get me wrong: our questions regarding a game often arise from the experience it provides us. I too want to look at a title below the surface because some of its mechanics feel great. But we must keep in mind that our experience is unique. We cannot know how much it relates with everyone else’s experience.
The Elemental Tetrad
Whether we want to dig a specific aspect of a game or the whole thing, we can explore what Jesse Schell calls the elements. Together, the elements of a game form its broad anatomy. According to Jesse Schell’s Art of Game Design, there are 4:
- The mechanics. Simply put, they are the rule-based systems that process the player’s input, and output feedback in response.
- The story.
- The aesthetics. Be it the visuals, the sound… or even the style of the text.
- And the technology. In the case of a video game, this corresponds to the input devices, target platform, your engine and all of the algorithms or low level systems at your disposal.
The 4, inter-connected elements of a game. Also called the elemental tetrad.
They can be studied either one by one or in combination in order to answer specific questions. I may be looking to understand how a fighting game’s character animation works: “how did the developers bring such a strong sense of impact to those fast hitting animations?” The answer lies in the aesthetics. I could look at the animations frame by frame. But character animation also relates to the technical side of a game. The developers have built an animation tree with transitions that affect the rendered material on screen. Spotting when the transitions happen can be key to reproducing the same feel.
For example, in Halo Reach, the animation team at Bungie inserted a jog cycle to improve the transition from the characters’ walk state to their running state. It makes a hell of a difference with simpler systems! And at a small cost. The company published a detailed rundown of their technical choices.
Animation is one of the rare cases where the technology can be partly grasped via observation. Often, the technical side of systems used in a game is barely visible in the final product. Technical choices may affect the feel of the final game, but they leave almost no trails for analysis. Anyway, as far as the technology is concerned, I tend to seek answers in GDC presentations, online papers, books…
There are 3 elements left that we can explore. Let us talk about the easiest to observe first.
In my opinion, the analysis of a game’s aesthetics is straightforward. After all, it is its most visible element. With a trained eye and ear, we can all take a careful look at the visuals, and take a moment to listen to the sounds. There is only one thing we have to keep in mind. The aesthetics should both derive from and serve the gameplay and the story. Each graphic or audio element tells us some information about the world we’re in, as well as our goals and possibilities as a player.
The aesthetics deliver wordless messages. The vibrant and lush environments in That Game Company’s Flower tell you that you can take your time and relax! The saws in Super Meat Boy remind you are evolving in a dangerous world. Those visuals tell the gameplay’s story! The universe of a game is often what pokes my curiosity as a designer. This is actually what happened the first time I played Skyrim.
After the intro sequence, I naturally followed the path to the first city. At first, I felt like I was exploring the land on my own, although I was but walking along the main road. I could have strayed away from it anytime. There were no strings attached to me. Yet, I stayed on the path the developers had prepared for me. Why? It all boiled down to its clever visual design.
Once I left the devastated city of Helgen, I ended up on a charming path leading to a river underneath. It was visible in the background. The springtime weather felt appeasing after a rough encounter with a Dragon. The river was sitting right in front of me. It was beautiful. And it flew right down to the city of Riverwood. The intrigue started to unfold there, as a character invited me to keep traveling towards a larger city nearby. The river lead me to a cascade overlooking a magnificent valley, dominated by the imposing fortress of Whiterun.
It is not only the main road and the compass that took me to the next major plot point. It also was the river. This experience led me to think a little bit more about that section of the game and how it invites you to explore its rich world.
Along the way, you can find 2 optional dungeons: a mine, and a castle located in a cold and snowy area. Both locations are situated along the road. The mine is place close enough so you can’t miss it, and far enough so it feels optional. The castle, which comes next, is part of the game’s first side-quest. It requires you to part ways with the main road for a moment, and gives you a first taste of Skyrim’s harsh weather. This first guided exploration pokes the player’s curiosity and marks the real beginning of his journey in this deep open world RPG.
The village of Riverwood, a peaceful hamlet sitting by the river.
The story element of a game has to be approached in a different way than a movie’s or a book’s plot. Although games scenarios draw from the language of cinema and literature, their stories can have very different forms and functions. They tend to support the action more so than hold up on their own. They provide the users with a set of goals and a coherent universe to evolve into. The most common example of a functional story is Super Mario. An Italian mustached plumber explores castles in search of the mushroom Kingdom’s Princess, who was abducted by a fat, spiky dinosaur turtle. How does that sound? Well, it wouldn’t work for a book. Yet, it’s a perfect fit for the game!
By the way, if you want to get better at writing linear stories, games are not the ideal media to study from. Even successful story driven titles like Telltale’s episodic adventures are inspired by the structure of TV series.
A game’s story goes beyond the main adventure and side quests. It encompasses 2 other essential components: the universe, and the characters. Although the central storyline may be of importance, it is often pushed to the background. And there is a somewhat good reason for that.
On average, 90% of players do not finish a given game. Even with immersive story driven titles, often more than half of the users stop before the end. I remember a note from a Bioware developer on the matter: the studio observed that after having seen their games’ ending, the players had built much stronger memories of the characters than of the main plot. They didn’t really recall any subtleties of the intrigue.
This seems about right to me. The somber Cloud from Final Fantasy VII, the charismatic Geralt of Rivia or the adventurous Lara Croft marked my mind more so than the plots they were part of.
Few games so far have started to explore and shape a language that would be unique to the medium. And those are, to me, the most interesting ones to analyze: they are the future of game storytelling, for they bring innovations to our industry. That Game Company is a solid example.
In some titles filled with branching dialogues, we can find a wealth of interesting design decisions regarding the players’ available choices. Bioware observed that as far as dialogues are concerned, the users fall into 3 broad categories. Some are empathetic and want to help others. Some seek their own interest first and would rather be blunt. A 3rd category of player just wants to mess with their interlocutor. These options cover a lot of ground and playstyles with a restricted dialogue wheel.
Bioware’s dialog options are meant to satisfy 3 categories of players: the empathetic, the brutal and the “goofy”.
When I look at the gameplay element, I split my observations into multiple subcategories:
- The controls and how the input is handled. Here, I focus on the overall feel of the game.
- The level design. Be it the environment structure and its ability to lead the player, or the challenges that arise along the way.
- Other mechanics. The category can contain notes about how the crafting system or the economy work for instance.
That may seem lean, but there is a reason for it. As I design small games, this approach fits my needs. The controls are the most important part of the games I work on. Thus, they are the most important part of my gameplay analyses. In other words, I class the systems I am going to survey from the ones that are the most relevant to my needs to the least useful ones.
Mia Consalvo and Nathan Dutton released an interesting study in 2006 regarding the formal analysis of games, mostly focused on its systems. It provides a general toolkit that is meant to serve as a base to analyze a wide range of games qualitatively. The researchers outline 4 components we can look at to better understand a game’s themes and design:
- The inventory. That is to say all of the collectible or available items in the game.
- The interface.
- The interaction map. This corresponds to all of the available interactions with other characters, including NPCs.
- And finally the gameplay log… which covers a lot of ground!
This toolkit is intended for scholars, so it is not efficient at all from a designer’s standpoint. Yet, it provides a unique and fresh set of lenses to better understand a game. There is one of its key components that I find most interesting: the game’s UI. What is so interesting about the interface is that it shows the “information and choices that are offered to the player, as well as the information and choices that are withheld.”
Critical information is thoughtfully either shared or hidden from the player through the use of an interface.
It gives us some cues regarding the variables that are essential or not from the author’s point of view. For example, story driven titles like Journey of Flower have no GUIs at all. Journey has but one diegetic UI element to offer: the length of the character’s scarf, which dictates his ability to fly. That’s it. Because of this choice, we know that the creators want the player to focus their minds on the world rather than to monitor their lifebar. We can guess that they are trying to maximize the player’s immersion and focus on the story.
No interface, no wall between the player and the world.
That one idea
All of the elements of a game theoretically revolve around and come together in the authors’ fundamental idea. All in all, that is what I am looking for when I study a game. Based on its content, is its fundamental idea intelligible? I want to see if the authors managed to offer an experience that matches their intention. A vibrant, mindfully exploited core idea resonates with the audience and often results in a successful creation. It is also supposed to structure the game. Thus it gives us a solid lens to better understand it.
Finding the fundamental idea is a game of guesses. At the end of the day, we cannot know what the exact goals of the developers were from our sole notes. But by crossing our observations with other people’s experiences, online reviews and interviews, we can get a close enough approximation. Some creators expose a wealth of information along with their initial intentions and talks or devlogs as well. So sometimes, the need to guess is solved altogether.
But what can the fundamental idea be? The short answer: all sorts of things.
All too often, the main idea of a game, which we can also call its core theme/structural concept, is perceived either as some kind of philosophical message or a general topic. Although it is one definition of the word theme, it doesn’t fit the concept as far as game design is concerned. The theme of a game is the dominant idea that unifies all design choices into a coherent whole. It could be a message, it could be a topic, but it could also be a large, yet specific design goal. It is a strong statement that defines what’s essential about your game. And it should ideally encompass both your story and your gameplay art the same time. In practice though, most games still have separate goals for the gameplay and the story.
The core idea is a bit like your house’s foundations: it is a base on which everything else will be built. If it is solid, your house will bear the weight of time. Otherwise, it is more likely to crack in places, or even crumble. It is the one tool which’s main purpose is to bring unity into your design. It can be something like: “The Floor Is Jelly”. This gives us a game like The Floor Is Jelly. The theme can be to make a deep, yet accessible car simulation. This would give us a game like Forza Motorsport. Note that I am only guessing what the intention of the creators was for those games. Chances are I’m far off from their true main theme.
Super Meat Boy is a good example of a game with a strong gameplay-centric core idea. Edmund McMillen’s goal was to create a hard-core game that never broke its flow or fun. In simpler terms, he was looking to create a game where you lose a lot, and that is not frustrating.
With that in mind, we can take an informed look at the game and the Team Meat’s design choices.
You are going to die a lot… But trust me, it is fun!
The main character, a little square of meat, is swift and agile. He leaves a persistent trail of blood along the floor and the walls as he steps on them. This gives the player a visual indication of how far he went during his last run. If you get to a point in the level where there is no blood, well, then this is the first time you’re getting there.
Each death is a bit spectacular and accompanied by a meat splash. Meat Boy respawns instantly afterwards. And once he clears a level, the player can watch a replay of all of his deaths at once. That way, the process of trying each level many times feels rewarding. It certainly can’t make the process of dying repeatedly fun for everyone. But despite being very hard, the game did not only please hard-core gamers; it reached a wide audience.
The fundamental idea, the theme, the designer’s goals or intentions… Call it whatever you want, although we can only take a guess, I think it offers us a powerful lens to study a game in its entirety.
A game analysis should be tailored to your needs. If you had to remember but one thing from this article, it would be that. For me, it mostly revolves around the 3 most visible elements of a game:
- The aesthetics
- The story
- And the gameplay
They collectively support a fundamental idea that crystallizes the authors’ intentions. Every design choice should be there for a reason, and that reason relates to that core idea. Once again: I think it is a powerful lens to analyze and understand a game as a whole.