13 January, 2018

Meta - Game - Design

There's an adage in writing that you should write what you know. Some take this literally, saying that no--one should be writing fantasy, because no-one lives fantasy...but that's a bit silly. If you read a lot of fantasy, and know the tropes, how they work, know how to modify or subvert them for your own work, then you know your stuff.

If you know art theory, then you could easily add elements of this into your work, alluding to colour, shape, and tne psychological way these impact on characters or readers. If you don't know these things, tnen trying to add them in will ring false. I guess it's a bit like that old "cultural appropriation" bugbear, if you add stuff in from  another culture just because "it's cool" then it won't seem authentic... if you add stuff in and really connect it to the other things you've got going on then it will add depth to the final product.

That brings me to some discussions I've been having with other designers recently. I've been at this for a while, whether I'm any good at it is a matter of debate, but people read my blog and buy my stuff, so I can't be too bad. I bring decades of art practice to my work, along with studies in sociology and teaching methodology/pedagogy. I don't have to turn every game into a sociological study, or a carefully tailored learning experience, but the tools to attempt this are in my repertoire. It's what I know, and I'd like to think my studies in linguistics help me adequately describe these elements when I do decide to incorporate them.

But what does a designer do, when the knowledge they bring to the table seems not to mesh with the process of game development?

That's what I've been thinking about lately. Especially in the Game Design Masterclass, and at today's Unpub playtesting session. In both cases I talked extensively to designers with backgrounds in music, both wondering how that musical instinct could be applied to the process.

Personally, I think anything can inform the design process. It's just a case of taking a step back and looking at the similarities between the activities at a meta level... perhaps using each as a metaphor for one another, or comparing both to a third activity.

Music often has a beat, a rhythm, a tempo, maybe a melody, vocals, key changes, motifs... all of those could have analogues in game design. There are probably other elements where comparisons could be drawn, but I don't claim to have expert knowledge in music, so I'll just focus on those...

Beat - What is the turn sequence that provides the foundation for the play experience? Does this change over the course of play? If so, why? Is it a syncopated rhythm that feels a bit off kilter to give an edge to the experience? Is it a common plain rhythm that lays solid groundwork for other game elements to add their flavours?

Tempo - Does it change during the game? Does tension build? Does tension ease off at any point? How should this make players feel?

Melody - Is there something on the surface to draw participants into the experience? How does this interact with the deeper levels of the play mechanisms? Does an understanding of those deeper levels change the way the surface melody/mechanisms are percieved?

Vocals - What is the obvious message in the game? Is it spoken? Screamed? Are there harmonics when two people are singing, or conveying their experience within the game?

Key Changes - In music these can set dramatic changes in mood, but what could be done in a game to get this effect? Adding new rules, pulling rules out when threshold events occur, completely shifting the dynamic in some way?

Motifs - what elements can be added into a game as regular signifiers of future events, character archetypes, or tropes?

How are these concepts used in interesting ways in music? How can those ideas find analogues in game design?

I could probably do something similar using analogues to baking a cake, but I haven't been talking to any pastry chefs who dabble in game design lately.
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