Games Making Sense

How games work (an occasional series)

I’ll continue to post these as often as I’m able until the end of the semester. Some may be meaningful to you and your work; others less so.

Our games ought (literally) to “make sense.”

Games constitute tiny, nearly-perfect worlds where we get to design and implement our own arbitrary boundaries and barriers.

In this world, we spend our lives striving after meaning, trying desperately to make sense of things that seem — to our limited understanding — incomprehensible. Why did he break up with me? Why did they not like our gift? Why can’t I just finish writing this paper? We look everywhere for causality, and content ourselves — as best we can — with the least-worst rationale we can find. Sometimes those rationales are sad and self-defeating (“He broke up with me because I am not smart enough”); sometimes they may lead us in new directions (“I cannot finish this paper because I am disappointed by my thesis.”)

The characters in most of the stories we tell are really just avatars of ourselves, all of them hungry to make sense of the senseless. The Princess Bride memorably features Mandy Patinkin as the Spaniard whose father is unjustly slain by a heartless Count. The boy devotes his life to avenging his father’s death, repeating his mantra to everyone he meets: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Revenge helps Montoya find meaning in a cruel universe; seeing the arc to its completion helps the movie’s audience find meaning in the story itself.

The detective story was all the rage at the start of the 20th Century in the West, in part because we were all convinced that logic and reason were truly going to fix the world: Detectives were heroes because they proved, time and again, that the world could be seen to make sense. Detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot masterfully dissected criminal mysteries to reveal hidden causalities, making the Truth known to all. 1

The police procedural — by now a staple of American television for decades — is not all that different: 40 minutes of increasingly confusing and apparently broken causal relationships, followed by 3.5 minutes of a clear, authoritative summary of what really happened.

Even the end of every Scooby Doo Mystery was typically the unmasking of the criminal, and the revelation of causation: “Its the groundskeeper Mr. Curtis!”, or “It was Old Man Stillwell the whole time!” and then Fred or Thelma proceeds to explain everything to everyone’s satisfaction.

Still from Scooby Doo cartoon, ca. 1970's.
Fred, in the orange ascot, unmasks another criminal, while Daphne, green scarf, explains away another haunted house with careful logical inference.

Our games can do the same thing. They can be little sense-making machines.

Games — whatever else they do — can offer your players little moments of reprieve. By ensuring that gameplay is “transparent” — that is, by ensuring that every event in-game is part of a traceable chain of events — you offer your player an important consolation: Win or lose, at least she gets to understand why everything happened to her as it did.

A player should be able to trace her loss back to a single crucial mistake she made during the endgame; or she should be able to see that — owing to her opponent’s foolish opening gambit — her win was practically inevitable from the start.

Even if a victory or a loss arises from a roll of the dice or a lucky hunch, it is important that the player be able to see that.

Ask yourself: Can my players retrace their steps to almost any point within the game?

If your game is a “sense-making machine,” the answer should probably be yes: They may need an occasional reminder, but players should be able to start at the end and work backward through the game. As long as gameplay is chiefly about creating and discovering causal relationships in-game, then an attempt to rewind game play should make at least as much sense as it did going forward. Maybe even more.

If your game relies chiefly on rolls of the dice, random card draws, or fickle choices by disinterested players, then there is almost no chance of being able to trace gameplay backwards: When randomness and unpredictability rule — as it seems to in our own dangerous little world — there is no chance of making sense, going forwards or backwards. It is “stochastic” — the noisy non-pattern of truly random outcomes. Children’s games like Chutes and Ladders and Candyland; Tic-Tac-Toe; Roulette; even popular perennials like Monopoly, Clue, and Battleship are almost impossible to read backwards, starting from the very end of a play-through. They do little to help us create meaning.

Here’s (perhaps) a more immediate way of testing out this premise:

Start playing through your prototype, keeping careful track of each choice that a player makes. After five or six turns, stop the game. If player B was the last one to play, you should be able to ask her:

“Why did you make this play?”

If you’re on the right track, she will likely have one of three responses:

  1. I did so because it was the best possible response to my opponent’s previous play;
  2. I did so in anticipation of a move I expect my opponent is about to make; or
  3. I did so because I want to see what kind of response my choice will provoke.

Do you see that in each of these cases, the player has made sense of the universe built by your game: She sees causal links from the past to the present, and from the present to the future.

This quality is not the guarantor of a successful design, of course, but it makes it more likely that your player-base will find something meaningful to take from game-play.

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  1. Of course, by the 1960’s, we’d lost faith in that dream. Consider Roman Polanski’s marvelous re-consideration of the detective genre: Chinatown. By the end of the story, the detective (Jack Nicholson) solves the crime only to realize that he’d been terribly, awfully wrong about everything from the start. We could create an exhaustive list of similar stories here, but let us agree that Blade Runner is the ne plus ultra of the genre: Deckard not only fails to solve the crime, but discovers at the very end of the movie that — like the replicant Rachael — he is likely not who he thought he was.[]

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