This little essay offers something to think about as you go about building your prototypes. If you like, it is something you can address in one of your forthcoming process book posts. While I’d appreciate it if you took the time to read it, you are not obliged to complete the challenge at the bottom.

I had a professor who argued that “every work of art contains within it the means of its own genesis.” Think about the novels most of us have read by now — how many of them contain little commentaries on what novels should do, or the role they should have in the world? (Think, e.g., of Quixote, or Bovary, or even Moby Dick).

Take the move Brazil (1986). Director Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece of postmodern science fiction has a lot to say about what we expect from our cinema. There’s an exciting chase scene where the protagonist manages not only elude the riot-gear clad cops, for example, but to cause one of their cars to burst into flames in a collision. Like a hundred protagonists in a hundred other eighties car chase scenes, the protagonist is overjoyed! We are overjoyed!

But Gilliam isn’t overjoyed.

As the protagonist races away from danger, cheering, he happens to look into his rear view mirror: He sees bulky trooper, once terrifying, now helpless and fire, spinning in circles, unable to extinguish the flames. The cop collapses to the ground, and a terrible realization crosses the protagonist’s face. The filmmaker is clearly frustrated by the way blockbuster-style movies propel their stories forward by cheapening the value of human life.

There are other, even more direct ways artists and designers work these ideas into their creations, of course. How many novels have novelists as protagonists? Movies about film actors or directors or filmmaking in general? How many paintings include painters inside the frame, for example, or include little commentaries on paintings that influenced the painter?

In the same way that painters and novelists care about their media, people who design games are people who care deeply about their medium. They are people who think about games, and who play games as often as they can. Unsurprisingly, they typically have some important insight into the way games work, the way they are played, and the way they are sold.

It makes sense, then, to believe that game designers — like Gilliam, or Cervantes, or Don Delilo — would make use of their medium to argue for or against certain ideas about game design: What can games do? What should games do? What games have performed that task admirably?

Think of games you know where the designer is self-consciously commenting on games that have come before — good or bad. Some of them are fairly conceptual, and surprisingly critical of the state-of-the-medium: Portal’s memorable “The cake is a lie” trope refers to the empty promises that games seem to feel compelled to make. The story told by Braid is clearly critical of games’ long-standing disinterest in nuanced story-telling. “The princess is in another castle” takes on a totally different, more melancholy meaning in Braid.

sprite sheet image
The protagonist from Braid.

Some games are fairly cynical in their criticism: The Simpson’s Tapped Out game (an aging, but still astonishingly popular mobile game) has the gall to make fun of people who play soulless mobile games… even though the game itself has never been anything other than a soulless cash-grab.

So here’s a challenge to consider: Neither part is easy, but focus on the first part, especially. The second half of the challenge may be something to save for a prototype you build this summer, or next year.

NB: If you haven’t had a chance to play many games in your life, then feel free to skip this challenge. Remember that these challenges are just meant to encourage everyone to think differently about the experiences they are designing: You can always ignore them altogether in weekly posts. My desire is simply to give you things to think about as you carry on your design.


Part One

What is your game’s lineage — its heritage, its DNA? You probably have some opinions about games and gameplay by now. What mechanics, themes, ideas, tropes have you tried (self-consciously) to work into your game? Are those inclusions nostalgic? Critical? Reverential? Ambiguous? Are there ideas in your particular genre that you’ve tried to avoid, for example, but cannot? (For example: How could anyone create a deck-building game that pretends that Magic the Gathering never existed?)

Part Two

Once you’ve identified your game’s ancestors, ask yourself: Will players understand this relationship? What will they think I am saying about the games that came before this one? Will they believe that I am disrespecting it? Or that I have essentially modernized it? Revealed that it was an empty fad? Acknowledged its sizable influence?

Ask yourself this: Are there moments when I have turned my game’s mechanics into rhetorical elements? That is, does my game make arguments about games, gamers, play, the game industry, etc.?

As I say, don’t get too hung up on this second part. But for what it is worth: It seems inevitable that the rhetoric of algorithms, computational procedures, digital models, simulations and game mechanics are going to be every bit as important to our future as the rhetoric of public speeches, propaganda films, and campaign ads ever were. We’ve only just begun to think about how to teach game design — or even how to talk about game design. But we’re eventually going to give a lot of thought to the nuances of this discipline.

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