I give occasional talks to the Game Design/Creative Writing dept at Brunel Uni. One of the students last year mailed me to ask a followup question. Here’s the reply I sent.
“I’m especially interested in the notion of Poetic Design, and I was wondering if you have a specific method of capturing the essence of things that you find emotionally moving through gameplay? I suppose I’m thinking of it more literally but, for me, the best way to capture moments of emotion is through writing poetry – being able to manipulate the classical rules of language allows the portrayal of more specific feelings and moments, and I guess what I’m asking is: how do you do this in games? When you see something that overwhelms you with emotion, when you hear something that moves you – how do you capture that?”
The first thing I’d say is this: be very sceptical of trying to recreate something that overwhelms you. The experience of being inside an emotion is not the experience of recreating an emotion. Sometimes the one can even hinder the other: Greene notoriously said that a writer must have a splinter of ice in their heart. Of course trying to create an emotional effect without having experienced it is even harder! But, in a medium like writing or gamedev – music or painting might be different; I don’t know, I can’t do either – in a medium like writing or gamedev, you need to step back and think about how the effect worked on you.
Yes that can be pretty vivisective, but if there’s another way to make it work, I don’t know it. I don’t mean that you should never experience any trace of the emotion you’re going for – of course you should. But you have to be conscious of it. I’ve seen the alternative. In writing, it’s the recreation of cliche, or at best a third-hand pastiche of an inspiring source, like someone’s vomited their brain out through their hands on to the page. In game design, it’s cutscenes and text crawls and exposition: FEEL THIS WAY NOW.
“…being able to manipulate the classical rules of language allows the portrayal of more specific feelings and moments…”
so I’ve just given you a bunch of how nots, and you sound like you already have some of the how, so I’m probably teaching you to suck eggs. Here are some of the techniques I use.
Make everything point towards the theme. I’m sure I said this in the Brunel talk. Not all designers do this, so I wouldn’t try to tell you it’s the only way, but it’s at the heart of my own process. It’s almost a cheap trick. You can’t know how your player will react, so at every turn, you’re giving them an opportunity to react in the way you want – greasing the slope in that direction, as it were.
But point towards something inside the theme, as well as the theme itself. Sunless Sea was about exploration/loneliness/survival, but underneath all that, it was about home, which is a concept all those things triangulate. Cultist Simulator is apocalypse and yearning, but the triangulated concept there is the feeling of uncovering things even when it’s painful or dangerous. I want to make sure that all the stories point towards the hidden concept as well as the surface one, and then the player can feel like they’re finding something consistent on their own, even if they’re not consciously aware of it, rather than just feeling the themes aren’t being repeated to them. Orson Scott Card’s creative writing tutor – I may have said this in the talk – advised him never to put the theme of a story in the title of that story. I think he was on to something.
Don’t try to render themes down to one word. It can be a sentence or a phrase or an image. For a pitch, you do want something short and snappy, but getting there may well be part of exploring the theme. Use raw and clumsy terms early on if you have to.
You need to know what you’re selling, but you don’t need to nail it down. If you’re bluffing or being pretentious, players may sense it, but if you could articulate everything you wanted to say in a poem, why are you making a game? okay, so you can pay rent, but that’s a whole different discussion. Things are different when they’re expressed in different ways. The medium is the message: concepts are not items placed in language-as-a-box (cf the conduit metaphor, cf Wilson and Sperber on relevance theory).
speaking of this: Are you sure this thing belongs in a game? Some things just don’t.
speaking of this: Use every means at your disposal. I make text-heavy games, but it took me far too long to realise that it’s crazy not to use every possible element. Point them all towards the theme. They may already teach you this at Brunel – they probably do – but don’t just focus on the discipline you’re best at. Be able to discuss the effect of music and give useful feedback to artists. Point everything in the same direction. Be prepared to iterate on this – your first ideas of how to use art or music to support your theme will probably be wrong.
Don’t take the player all the way. Never take them all the way. If you’ve followed my work, you’ve read or heard me talking about fires in the desert (Google it if not). Always leave space for the player to bring their own response.
Never forget the curse of knowledge. You cannot experience your game in the way that a first-time player will. Even playtesters are spoilt after the first few times. You must keep testing it and getting feedback from people who haven’t seen it. When you can’t do that, and no-one can do that all the time, keep on trying to respond to it with a fresh eye. Take a break and go back to an early bit you thought you were bored of. It will help, a little, and it’s vital.
I hope that helps!