A Comprehensive Game Design Methodology
From First Ideas to Spectacular Pitches and Proposals

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Level Three: Plurimediality

Process Phase Level Three

Beat 2. Space

Of POVs and Places

Any environment we bodily move through affects us both aesthetically and kinesthetically. Aesthetically through the sensory-emotional perception of the environment and kinesthetically through the sensory-emotional perception of our own movement through that environment, including zero movement.

In movie cinematography, composition and camera movement seem to reproduce these perceptions, respectively. But, according to extensive discussions in movie theory, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The understanding is that in the realm of cinematography, vision (as aesthetic experience) always manages to reassert itself against movement (as kinesthetic experience). This is supposed to hold true even with giant screens, preposterous resolutions, odd angles, and optical effects calibrated to manipulate the sense of balance, including 3D cinematography. The reasoning behind it is that the more elaborate the on-screen movements are and the more involving their choreography, the more forcefully will aesthetic experience reassert itself and push kinesthetic experience to the side. Sometimes, we might inadvertently react bodily to a movement on the screen, not unlike stomping on an imaginary brake pedal when riding shotgun. But again, it’s a fleeting and only temporary kinesthetic experience.

For video games, except those that include natural physical player movement like rhythm games or many VR/AR games, this might not be altogether different. But there’s an additional factor to consider: the player actually has to move by using their controls. Thus, players manipulate with their own bodily movement the movement on the screen. Then again, these movements are highly abstracted; the player doesn’t really perform a double-jump or dive under a table. So here, too, the aesthetic experience will always reassert itself and override the kinesthetic experience. Nevertheless, the potential of providing kinesthetic experiences at least temporarily is there, and this is true for many different game types—from first-person action where players bodily “dodge” projectiles or try to look “past the monitor” in heated shoot-outs to vehicle simulations to third-person platform sequences and so on.

What’s more, many third-person perspective games, from Tomb Raider to Uncharted to Zelda: Breath of the Wild, have a distinctive characteristic that make their cinematography different from movie cinematography. Games like these have not one but two player-controllable reference points that can provide kinesthetic experiences: camera movement and player avatar movement. (Technically, this also applies to first-person perspective games, where both reference points are merged into one.)

It should be added that neither of these reference points is indispensable. Many games have no persistent or individual player avatar, like Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (which Ernest Adams calls the multi- or omnipresent interaction model in Fundamentals of Game Design); many games have no camera movement, like Donkey Kong; and many games have neither a persistent/individual player avatar nor camera movement, like Tetris. But if your game should indeed have reference points for movement, be it a player avatar that moves or a moving camera or both, you should put some serious thought into the kind of movement and kinesthetic experience that will serve your game’s theme and its value characteristics best.

As a reminder, Plurimediality—the current territory—is about global design decisions. This means that you have to decide on principal camera placement and camera movement and principal avatar placement and avatar movement in terms of game-wide consistency and a holistic user experience, not in terms of individual gameplay moments (which are part of the Narrativity territory).

The list of criteria is almost infinite, so you have to ask the right questions and then apply the relevant criteria. Should the camera be fixed, tracking, or interactive? What are the benefits and drawbacks of third-person versus first-person cameras? Where should the player avatar be placed on the screen? How much zoomed in or zoomed out should the player avatar appear in most situations? And so on. Make yourself familiar with all the potential parameters that are a match for your game. Luckily, you will find information and advice for all this in almost every book on game design, and in numerous articles and presentations to boot. A good place to start, e.g., is Remi Lacoste’s GDC Europe 2013 presentation “Creating an Emotionally Engaging Camera for Tomb Raider.” Even if you’re working on a completely different game, it will grease your imagination. Then, make your decisions according to your game type, your value characteristics, and your theme.

Before we proceed to address the intricacies of avatar movement, one final caveat with regard to camera movement. Its cinematographic potential is seductive. In-game camera movement has become so sophisticated that you can use it to tell or augment your story in spectacular and thrilling ways, but that thrill has to be paid for with player agency as blood money. The more you deploy your camera to let events in the game world narrate a story that your player cannot be allowed to miss, the more you have to curtail the player’s freedom to control both their camera and their player avatar. Effectively, you should resist the urge to constantly adopt what can be called embedded micro-cutscenes: taking control away from the player time and again so they won’t miss the spectacular effect X or the heroic attempt Y. There are cases where you can put embedded micro-cutscenes to good use, and we will come back to that in Level Six: Integral Perspectives II. (All this is not a problem in fixed camera games, obviously. There, not freedom of movement but placement is crucial.)

Now, avatar movement. Avatar movement is an essential game characteristic. Locally, it can express and amplify states of mind and emotions in specific situations (more on that in Level Four: Narrativity). Globally, it defines a good part of the playing experience. Certainly, the latter is particularly true for games where avatar movement is based on elaborate movement patterns, from vehicle simulations to parkour-inspired shooters like Titanfall or Dying Light and platformers like Mirror’s Edge. But you can change the character of any game quite spectacularly by changing the way the player avatar moves.

Various types of movement, which is most often the case with first-person shooters, can also cause the player to experience dizziness, motion sickness, or headaches. But that doesn’t necessarily subtract from the quality of the game—both GoldenEye 007 and the original Unreal Tournament are great games that were both notorious for being able to induce terrible motion sickness or splitting headaches in a considerable number of players. (While VR games are also renowned for inducing nausea, the culprit is not avatar motion but a whole range of factors like latency, motion parallax, refresh rate, and so on.)

Avatar movement can also manifest itself in kinesthetic feedback. Usually, when we think of kinesthetic feedback, we think of controllers, joysticks, and other input devices with built-in haptic or vibrotactile feedback like vibrations or recoil. Or of even more sophisticated devices with feedback to and from players in games that crunch physical player movement and player position data, notably rhythm and party games. But kinesthetic feedback also works with less sophisticated control schemes, including the old-fashioned keyboard and mouse, by way of virtual forces that act against the player avatar’s movement and momentum. Like, for example, surface conditions, head winds, centrifugal forces, and all kinds of kinetic interference. The player avatar, for example, can react sluggishly under certain circumstances, or can’t easily be slowed down on an icy surface. Use your imagination! Kinesthetic feedback doesn’t have to be real in the sense of bodily sensations, and it is not the exclusively domain of crafty controller schemes. (Some applications are discussed in Level Four: Narrativity.)

Let’s turn our attention to the game space where all these movements take place. Game space can have two different meanings: one practical and one philosophical. The practical meaning applies to the space created by conceptual and technical level design, which is part of the development process and outside the scope of this treatise. The philosophical meaning applies to what is often called the “magic circle” after Johan Huizinga, who coined the term in his influential Homo Ludens.

Like Homo Ludens itself, Huizinga’s concept of the magic circle was and remains ludologically relevant, but it can’t easily inform design decisions. Yet, Huizinga’s magic circle demonstrates that there are boundaries between regular space and game space that one must cross in order to play, and it is this crossing into game space that we will focus on for the remainder of this beat.

Think of the entrance into your game as the entrance into a place where some of the rules of the real world prevail, some do not, and others are substituted or supplemented by completely foreign, even bizarre rules that the player cannot yet know. Plus, the player cannot even know if any such unknown rules exist! Therefore, you should create transitional elements that lead the player from the outside, the space they occupy outside your game, to the inside of your game space as a very special place that we might call “enchanted” as a hat tip to Huizinga’s magic circle. These transitional elements can and should be a matter of unique design decisions. Basically, you will be creating a passage. Myth in general and medieval literature in particular excel at creating such transitional passages. For a mythical hero’s journey, this passage is often located around the player character’s “Crossing of the First Threshold” (more on that in Level Five: Architectonics). For the player, it’s the entrance into the game world.

As an example, let’s have a look at Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed from the Mabinogion compilation of Welsh medieval tales, a tale highly valued among researchers from the field of medieval studies. Pwyll (roughly: pu-ich) decides to leave his palace and go hunting. Together with his hunting party, he travels to the edge of the kingdom and sets up camp for the night. At dawn, he proceeds to his intended hunting ground, where he and his hounds get separated from his companions. They come across a strange pack of hounds with shining white hair and glistening red ears. These hounds bring down a stag that they’ve hunted, but Pwyll shoos them away and sets his own hounds upon it. Whereof the other pack’s owner by the name of Arawn appears, who identifies himself as “a King of Annwvyn,” which is the Otherworld of Welsh mythology, and communicates his profound displeasure with Pwyll’s unsportsmanlike behavior. The latter wants to make up for it, and Arawn gives him a set of tasks with very precise rules on how to complete them, all of which require switching appearances first and ruling each other’s kingdoms for a year. Incidentally, this identifies Arawn as a Sìdh (yes, you read that right, though it’s pronounced with initial “sh” and Arawn’s basically the good guy here), Welsh mythology’s fairy folks who can change forms, among other things. And here, at this point, Pwyll’s heroic adventure proper begins.

This tale contains all the structural principles of passage design, to lead your player from their own world to, and into, the world of your game space. First, you lead the player to the edge where their space ends and your space begins. Second, you lead the player beyond that edge deeper into your game space. Third, you confront the player with the most important rules that apply to your game space, and in a dramatically complete game (discussed in Level One: Integral Perspectives I and Level Five: Architectonics), these will also comprise moral rules.

Don’t go about designing such passages, and this can’t be stressed enough, in terms of storytelling or abuse them as expository dumps for your convenience. The focus is neither on challenges (Interactivity), nor on memorable gameplay moments (Narrativity), nor on storytelling and exposition (Architectonics). Elements from all three territories should and will be involved, naturally. But the focus is on drawing your player into, and making them part of, your game space through spatial and audiovisual design.

For that, the principal elements you have at your disposal are the preference interface and the introductory level.

  • Preference interface. The preference interface is still part of the player’s world. It picks them up and leads them to where the space of their world ends and your game space begins. This can comprise anything from adjusting screen resolution to generating role-playing characters and beyond.
  • Introductory level. The introductory level confronts the player with the rules of your game space that the player needs to know to meet its challenges, and that includes the mood.

As Bob Bates observes in Game Design, the celebrated introduction sequence from Half-Life draws the player into its fictional world by placing them “authoritatively” into its “time and space.” Let’s have a look at how this is done. In Valve’s legendary execution of this passage, the player completes the preference interface, leaves their own world and their friends behind, and enters the game world. Here, the Black Mesa research facility takes the role of Annwvyn, and the Black Mesa Public Address System the role of Arawn. The tram ride makes the player familiar with the rules of this world, moral and otherwise. Then, it pushes the player deeper into the game space, the Black Mesa laboratory, where the adventure proper begins. (Of course, all these rules are not quite what they seem. Yet, as a passage always leads exactly where it’s supposed to be leading, in this case into the game world, it cannot possibly mislead—even if it isn’t truthful in every respect.)

There’s a third element we haven’t mentioned yet, and that is the initial loading screen.

  • Initial loading screen. The initial loading screen is the threshold that the player must cross to leave their own world and enter the game world. This crossing of the threshold happens every time the player starts playing.

Once the player has completed the passage and starts journeying through your game space, the loading screen will play an important role. Each time the player fires up the game to play another session, its function is to remind the player of that initial passage. To accomplish this, the loading screen has to reproduce that passage in a nutshell: through a picture, an animated effect, a musical theme, a set of distinct sound effects, or similar.

Pulling this off is hard. As an example from the related field of lock screens and home screens, Apple introduced a dynamic, true motion parallax wallpaper for iOS 7 in 2013 with pastel-colored backgrounds and floating bubbles that shift in and out of focus and follow device tilt. According to insiders, Apple’s design team in charge of this user experience element agonized for months about the just-right size and the just-right distribution of the bubbles, their just-right movement, and their just-right shift of focus. Like loading screens, lock screens and home screens are thresholds leading into different spaces—be that game worlds or app worlds.

How to begin? You can start by analyzing how the initial loading screens of great games draw players into their respective game spaces, and how they remind them of the mood and the rules of these “enchanted” spaces every time. But whatever you do, always remember that passage is structure, not story. Arawn doesn’t tell a story, and he doesn’t dispense exposition. Neither does the Black Mesa Public Address System. Passages are not about challenges or plot points, they’re about rules and mood.

To design great passages, you can give your imagination and creativity a boost if you refrain from thinking about the world of the player and the world of your game along the lines of “real world” versus “virtual world.” All experiences are constructs, without exception. They’re never “out there” somewhere, they’re always in our heads. Where we make these experiences doesn’t matter—in the “real world,” in the land of Annwvyn, or in Black Mesa. Instead, as discussed, you should juxtapose the world of the player and your game world along the lines of rules and mood. Think of 1939’s Wizard of Oz, for example. It pitches a sepia-toned rural Kansas against the Technicolor landscapes of Oz. The mood is different, the rules are different. But Kansas and Oz are both real in terms of experiences. (Plus, the land of Oz is indeed “real” in the novels—only the movie version makes Dorothy’s experiences safe and non-threatening by turning them into a dream, a regrettable practice Disney later picked up on with their heavily laundered adaption of J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy.)

The concept of heterotopias, a term coined by Michel Foucault in “Of Other Spaces,” can also inspire you to try out new techniques for passage design. The term heterotopia is a composite of “heterogeneous/non-uniform” and “topos/place.” Literally, it denotes a place that consists of different places. It’s a challenging concept in its original form, but as always, we will extract only those elements that can facilitate interesting design decisions. The following three aspects of the concept of heterotopia seem to be the most productive:

  • The mirror characteristic. Heterotopias are outside of all places, but they are both real and virtual. With respect to the places they reflect and speak about, they can expose them as even more illusionary than themselves, or as being messy but altogether human through ill-conceived perfectionism. Think of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, respectively. Or, if you’re into modern psychoanalysis, of Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage.
  • The stage characteristic. Heterotopias are capable of juxtaposing several unrelated spaces in a single place, like the rectangle of a theater stage, a movie theater’s silver screen, or the video monitor, each of which speak about a whole series of places that are foreign to one another.
  • The ship characteristic. Heterotopias are not public places. They are not freely accessible but always presuppose a system of opening and closing that isolates them and makes them penetrable. The inside, moreover, relates in peculiar ways not to one, but to many different places without being any of those places itself. Besides ships, think of airports, and also of rite-of-passage patterns.

That should suffice for inspiration. Let’s close this beat by returning to Huizinga’s “magic circle” for one final aspect of game space. Under certain circumstances, a game’s magic circle can become porous, and the game space can seep into the world of the player. While this is rare and always surprising, it’s not unique to video games, or new. “Breaking the fourth wall” is a very old technique from theater performances that was picked up by movies (e.g., Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker comedies) and television series (e.g., House of Cards, both the UK and US versions). Traditionally, two major techniques have been employed: directly addressing the audience, as in Annie Hall, Goodfellas, or Deadpool, or addressing the play’s or movie’s own fictionality, as in Moonlighting, the Austrian TV show Kottan ermittelt, or, again, Deadpool.

The first technique can rarely be found in games. Either the player avatar stands between this technique and the player as an obstacle, or the player is part of the fiction through an undetached player avatar and addressed all the time accordingly. The second technique is still rare but makes more sense for games. Examples can be found in the Metal Gear series or in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. (In the case of the latter, though, it’s somewhat obscured because the two soldiers in the “Lighting the Torch” level—who can be overheard reflecting on life and the possibility that they’re just disposable characters in a game—speak in German.)

But there’s a third option to break the fourth wall: referencing the hardware the medium is running on or the audience’s physical environment or both.

It’s a technique that’s much better suited for interactive media, mostly in the form of puzzles, and it’s very rare in non-interactive media. (But it exists—just watch the X-Files episode “War of the Coprophages” and wait for the bug that crawls across your own TV screen).

[Alert: spoilers in this paragraph for Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, P. T., and Alien: Isolation.]

Famous (or infamous) examples are the mind-reading antagonist in Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes (who literally reads the player’s memory card and controller commands); the sea chart in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (which must be “stamped” by closing and reopening the dual-screened handheld console); P. T., the playable teaser for Kojima Hideo & Guillermo del Toro’s aborted shot at the Silent Hill franchise (puzzle pieces the player has to collect from the menu after pausing the game); and Alien: Isolation (where you’d better stop munching and crunching your tortilla chips with your console’s mic on).

That’s just the tip of the iceberg—there is a wiki entry by Infneon at Giant Bomb about “Breaking the Fourth Wall” in video games, or a GameCrate article “Top 10 Games that Break the 4th Wall” by Angelo M. D’Argenio, where you will find a lot more examples.

Crossing over from one space into another is never completely free of risk, physically as well as psychologically. Breaking the fourth wall can have dangerous side effects—even more so as games use it less for comedic effect but to amplify the uncanny. In other words, it intrudes, often violently, into spaces the player regards as their own, and as safe. Thus, as a game designer, whenever you let your game break out of the magic circle to cross from the game world over into the world of the player, you should always be keenly aware of what you’re doing.