Monday, July 6, 2020
Sunday, June 28, 2020
When designing TTDDs, thematic emotional content is prioritized. The emotions of thematic transportation games are more complex and subtle than emotion-driven games. There are three elements of TTDDs: thematic actions, scripted narrative, and evocative theming. These can be deployed singularly or in combination to achieve a TTDD.
Often these designs seek to simulate an experience, to make the game task feel real and important to players. Simulative actions closely tie theme (and its emotional content) with mechanism (and its emotional content.) The actions of the game need to trigger an emotional response that helps build the ‘simulation’ of the world. As much as possible, sensory and mental input should be used to reinforce the veracity of the thematic world. Simulative actions are tied to suspension of disbelief and sensory feedback, real or sympathetic. A game about bomb diffusal, such as Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, is thematically transportive without requiring the trappings of a narrative framework. By having emotionally-charged simulative actions, players feel as if they are actually accomplishing the tasks in the game. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is a video game/party game hybrid, however we can easily see the application to board games. It is a great example of simulative action in isolation from other TTDD elements: it has no scripted narrative and players play as themselves becoming the characters in the emergent story.
Some designs use scripted narrative to emotionally connect and ‘transport’ the players to the game world. Scripted narratives leverage the elements of narrative transportation, providing world details that encourage players to ‘enter’ the world of the game. Scripted narrative may appear as gameplay introduction lore, chapter breaks (similar to cut scenes in video games), or flavor text sprinkled throughout the game. The art and graphics of a game supply a supporting visual narrative that can add depth of detail without adding unnecessary pages to the ‘script.’ Campaign and legacy style games make frequent use of scripted narrative.
Evocative theming is the element a designer can add to an emotion-driven design to get a TTDD. As discussed in the last post, in many EDDs, whether or not players engage deeply with the theme is largely dependent on a group’s proclivity. Evocative theming encourages engagement by providing relatable or exciting themes that stimulate the imagination. Anachrony takes loan mechanics from other euros and uses evocative theming to create a game with "time travel." Evocative theming focuses on how ideas resonate with players.
Intellectual themes, such as detective games where the primary focus of gameplay is logic, require extra world building and narrative building to be truly transportive. Certain mechanisms, such as logic puzzles, can easily push aside imagination in players’ brains. Likewise, the more math-based a mechanism is, the more emotional content the game requires to reach thematic transportation. Take for example, the Exit games and compare the experience to Time Stories: Asylum. Thematic puzzles alone can make a game exciting and absorbing, but are not transportive in the same way a well-crafted narrative is.
In conclusion, thematic transportation-driven designs differ from emotion-driven designs through the specificity and depth of experience they seek to create. A design goal for an EDD might be to make players feel tense; whereas a design goal for a TTDD could be to make players experience the specific tension of diffusing a bomb. Whether a game is an EDD or a TTDD is largely due to how it is executed and what elements it includes to allow for transportation.
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Emotion-driven design (EDD) is focused on making "what players feel while playing” the most important part of the design. Other emotion-based designs are rooted in emotion, but emotion-driven design is about creating feelings for their own sake. EDDs are not always strongly connected to theme. Designs that focus on a singular desired emotion, I label as ‘simple-emotion’ driven designs (SEDDs). Designs that focus on two or more desired emotions are ‘complex-emotion’ driven designs (CEDDs). A hallmark of emotion-driven games is that the players feel the emotion as themselves and not as ‘bleed’ from their avatars. (More on that later.) These emotions largely arise from the mechanics and style of gameplay: real time games feel frenetic; push your luck games feel tense; etc.
Simple emotion-driven games tend to pull a limited emotional spectrum from the mechanics (and dynamics) of the gameplay itself, as opposed to a narrative. Sometimes, individual emotions are focused on, such as the tense thrill of a good push-your-luck game. Quacks of Quedlinburg is an excellent example of a game driven by a singular emotional experience. Some critics argue that Quacks lacks a certain amount of strategy and tactics to be a good game, but I would argue that making Quacks a thinker game would destroy what makes it good: the emotional experience. And since Quacks is not Wolfgang Warsch's only foray into experience-based design (famously, The Mind), I think it is safe to say that the experience of playing Quacks is an intentional design choice. Racing games, gambling games, and some auction games all have similar emotional experiences. What makes those games fall clearly into the SEDD category is if the emotional experience appears to be the goal of the design. So, some auction games may capture the feeling of bidding at a live auction, whereas others emphasize the intellectual experience of calculating risk and reward.
Other examples of simple emotion-driven designs can include “cozy” games, dexterity games, mass market “take that” games, and social deduction games. There may still be an emotional arc to a SEDD, but the goal of the design is to produce a very specific emotional experience. Any emotion-based design has to go beyond the excitement of starting to play, the thrill of an early lead, the agony of defeat, etc. All games have an emotional experience of that sort. SEDDs drill down to consistently pull a particular strong emotion from players. The very singular nature of the focus forces the theme to the periphery the same way an abstract game with a pasted-on theme does. Distillation, even of emotions, will always abstract a theme.
Complex emotion-driven designs seek to pull more than one specific emotion from players. An easy way to accomplish this is to have players swap roles at various points in the game, thus changing goals, such as in Sheriff of Nottingham. Players experience two very different emotions playing as the sheriff trying to catch smugglers and merchants attempting to bluff their way to market. However, simply switching roles does not make a game a CEDD. Citadels has a fairly uniform emotional journey regardless of which roles you chose throughout the game. Other examples of CEDDs include party games with judging mechanics, games with 2 distinct phases of gameplay, or scenario-based games. Conversely, one vs. all games typically have two very different emotional experiences for the players, but roles are not changed during a single game, so each player has a singular emotional experience. Because these asymmetric designs still require more emotional crafting by the designer than SEDDs, they fall under the label of complex emotion-driven designs. CEDDs have a more varied emotional experience, but still primarily access emotions through mechanics, although we do start to see immersive elements come through, as many CEDDs are more thematic, due to the fact that the experiences are more complex and thus easier to connect to theme. As a reminder, players generally do not identify with their role significantly in EDDs; they play as themselves taking game actions, not as characters taking story actions. Sometimes, whether a game is played as an CEDD or as a more narratively driven experience depends on the group of players. Games of this nature are usually touted as having “opportunity for role-play or story-telling,” but those elements are not required by the game. Thus many social deduction games, like Werewolf, can fall into either this category or the next one, thematic transportation-driven design.
In conclusion, emotion-driven designs accomplish their goal primarily through mechanisms. Mechanisms have an inherent emotional content apart from theme. Push Your Luck games feel very different from auction games. Theme in EDDs is mostly used as atmosphere that ideally reinforces the tone of the mechanisms. Games can explore one emotional experience or more than one, but to be an EDD a game must feel as if the main purpose of the game is to feel a certain way while playing it.
The next post will cover thematic transportation-driven design, otherwise known as immersive games.
Monday, June 22, 2020
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Sunday, May 10, 2020
Sunday, May 3, 2020
I have a hard time with this debate due to my theatre background. For me, this is like asking: whose job is to tell the story of the play- the playwright, the director, or the actors? This question is not a useful one for anyone working in theatre. Each has their own role in how the story gets told and retold over subsequent performances.
Part of the problem may be that some designers attempt to tell a story the way a book would. This is not advisable (or really possible) because a game is not a novel. Another issue is that designers may not trust their stories in the hands of anonymous players. Let me just say, if you cannot trust your game in the hands of players, game design may not be for you.
But let's return to playwrights. What is it playwrights do? If you have ever read a play, it may surprise you to learn that often the stage directions found in published plays are not written by the playwright, but rather by a stage manager during an early staging of the work. Playwrights write dialogue. Actors and directors take that script and make all the decisions of where to stand and what emotions and actions to use in order to turn the script into a play. You do not have a play without all three roles.
Sometimes, a board game designer fills the role of a playwright. Sometimes, she fills the role of both playwright and director- guiding more clearly where and how players are to move and think about their characters. Players are actors: they have the freedom to choose the actions and emotions that feel the most right in a given moment. The story will look similar from performance to performance, but will not be the same.
Of course, game players usually have a greater freedom of choice and story direction than actors do. The game script is often an outline of choices for how to shape a story- much like an improv scene. Who tells the stories on SNL? The writers or the performers? That may depend on if you are asking a writer or an actor. (I can't find where I read it, but playwright Tom Stoppard once stated that the only thing he desired from actors was "good diction.")
The problem, as I see it, is one of collaboration. In TTRPGs, writers are writing stories that are only completed or fleshed out when the module is played. That is the essence of TTRPGs, so the collaboration between author and player is expected. Perhaps there is less angst around TTRPGs because of the high level of improv or the expectation to deviate from the script.
Let's return to the original question: who tells the story? I posit that the story is built as a collaboration between the designer and the players. Board game designers collaborate with artists and publishers, but also players, by anticipating how a design can be shaped into not only a product but an experience. A publisher has to agree on the premise of a "design as product" before they will publish a game. Similarly, a player must "buy in" to an experience in order to become a collaborator in the telling of the story of the game.
Importantly, just because there is a secondary storyteller does not mean that a game designer is not still a storyteller or that she has no control over the flow of the story. Designers should not abdicate responsibility of storytelling. They have months and years to perfect their parts of the story; the players have an hour or two. The challenge a designer faces is to be willing to craft an experience to a certain point then relinquish control and let the ultimate outcome rest in the hands of the players.