Designing to Reveal The Nature of the Universe Nov 16, 2011
Designing to Reveal The Nature of the Universe is a one hour talk given at IndieCade 2011 by two independent game designers: Jonathan Blow, creator of time-art-puzzle game Braid and the upcoming The Witness (not to be confused with the IF game of the same name), and Marc ten Bosch, creator of the as-yet-unreleased four-spatial-dimensions puzzle-game Miegakure. I could listen to Blow talk all day. This talk reaches beyond game design, and I believe with a little imagination, its lens could be applied to many different fields. It's an ode to mathematics (and thus the universe), in the guise of play. But what is math, really, and what good is life without play? What follows is a distillation and reorganization of this excellent talk, with a slight spin of my own.
an Aesthetic for Game Design
Presented is one possible game design strategy, within the space of all possible games. No claim is made that this strategy is the best, from any perspective other than its own.
Begin with a concrete mechanic (the main character jumps very high, and kills enemies by landing on their heads) or a consequence of such a mechanic (levels are composed of a series of randomly generated floating platforms which the player must navigate somehow). Explore the space around your initial idea by adding, tweaking, and removing mechanics. (Perhaps the player builds power by bouncing from enemy to enemy without touching the ground. Then what does the power do? Perhaps enemies have a defensive tactic such as magic fireballs. How can the player defend against these?) After exploring the major possibilites, settle on the ones which produce the most interesting consequences (such as interactions with other mechanics). Continue to explore smaller modifications, slowly stabilizing the set of mechanics.
Be sure to completely explore all possible consequences and combinations which may arise according to your design. (Jonathan Blow says, "Aim for completeness even at the expense of fun." He cites the example of the "Fickle Companion" level in Braid, in which is explored a bizarre interplay between keys and a spatial time effect. It is alarming at first, but not unsolvable, and the game benefits from its inclusion.)
Shy away from mechanics which appear rarely (only in certain places in the game)---be generous with your mechanics.
Once you've explored the entire space you're investigating, draw a strong boundary around the richest aspects of this space. Trim away anything which is unfocused, contrived, incompatible with the rest of the space, or does not provide enough surprise (i.e., it is redundant). Leave a core set of mechanics which are elegant and do not repeat themselves. (If your character can wear armor but also block attacks with a weapon or shield, are both of these defensive mechanics really necessary? Take into account how they each interact with all of the offensive/damage mechanics in the game.)
This is the punchline. The designer's goal in this process is analogous to a mathematician's: to locate a rich space, explore it, locate nuggets of truth (theorems), and package them for the player as a game (write papers for other mathematicians). Thus occurs a "thoughtful exploration of the unknown".
postlude: Puzzle Design
Puzzles, a specific application of this aesthetic, are an opportunity for a designer to illustrate Truth. This is the only reason for their existence. To create a puzzle, a designer must 1) know and understand the truth, 2) illustrate the truth as a solvable puzzle, and 3) remove anything that isn't the truth. Be careful not to encourage brute force solutions; each failed attempt at solving a puzzle should reveal information about the world, about what caused the attempt to fail. In a sense, the space around the truth is more valuable than the truth itself. Let the universe you have discovered design the puzzles. The player then needn't discern the workings of your mind, as the designer, but they must instead probe the workings of the natural world you are showing them. Your game should be composed of a number of lenses on this small new universe.