Game talkHow I analyze a game

 Posted by (Visited 6168 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , ,
Jan 062014
 

The first thing I do is set aside my experience. It is only mildly useful, a single data point, when everyone’s experience is subjective. Oh, I’d like to think it is in some ways more valuable than that of a typical player. After all, I have a very specific set of experiences to bring to bear. But in practice, it probably makes my subjective experience well-informed, but therefore less than helpful.

Looking at the experience is like seeing the top of a mountain without knowing about tectonic plates.

Looking at the experience is like seeing the top of a mountain without knowing about tectonic plates. I use that analogy because the typical analogy is that of seeing only the tip of an iceberg. But an iceberg is substantially similar above and below the ground. Sure, there is a lot hidden under the waterline, but it’s not different in nature. When we look around the world, Continental-continental_convergence_Fig21contcontwhat we see, what we experience, is powerfully shaped by things that we do not see. Without understanding fault lines, volcanic activity, and all the rest, we won’t come to understand why a chain of mountains is where it is, and why it takes one form versus another.

That’s why I start with the stuff “under” the experience. Mechanics, inputs and processes, rules and tokens and actions. I strip away the surface until Gone Home is a game about flipping over cards on a desk to see what is underneath them. Papers, Please is a Spot-The-Difference game. The Stanley Parable is a choose-your-own-adventure where some of the options are written in invisible ink.

In all of these cases, I set aside a whole bunch of stuff you do in the game, for a moment. Moving in The Stanley Parable isn’t even a means to an end 99% of the time. It is empty decision cycles going by mostly for the sake of experience.

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What are the systems?

Now I can examine that core mechanic. Odds are extremely high that I have seen it before. New mechanics are rare in game design. Press a button before a timer runs out. Move an asset from one pile to another pile. Make a choice to move in one direction in a simulated environment or another.

New mechanics are rare in game design. Press a button before a timer runs out. Move an asset from one pile to another pile. Make a choice to move in one direction in a simulated environment or another.

Sometimes you get pleasantly surprised; Papers, Please is the most robust version of Spot-The-Difference you’ve ever seen. It unfolds more ways of being different over time; it forces tension between mousing time for accuracy and speed for maximum efficiency; it forces games of memory on you, layering difficulty as you advance.

What am I looking to understand? I want to know what the possibility space is, extrapolating how the curves I see will develop. I don’t need to play all the way to the end of the game to see how every variation unfolds — I just need to see how broad the space for variations is. I want to know what choices I have to make, and how much consequence they will have in the system. Just the system, mind you, not the experience. I want to know if I can exploit the system I see. I want to know if my skill matters at all. I want to know if I am learning something as I go. I want to know how the systems build a mental model in the player, how they scaffold.

All of these things are elements on my tuning checklist for my own work. I look for them so I can look at the craft at this mechanical level. That’s because I analyze games in order to improve my own craft, above all. Sometimes I am doing it in order to help someone else improve their craft. There are many other reasons to analyze a game, but those are mine.

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What are the systems about?

Now that I can see the skeleton, the tectonic plates, I look at how systems interact. I ask myself, “what was the designer trying to accomplish here?” And I make a guess. It is no more than a guess, unless there’s some explicit signal telling me the answer. That said, the guesses aren’t that hard, because usually it is telegraphed in a dozen ways. The commonest things that the designer is trying to do are

  • get the player to keep playing
  • get the player to pay money
  • get the player to pay attention to the experience rather than the system
  • get the player to feel good, usually by making them feel powerful

I analyze games in order to improve my own craft, above all.

There are many exceptions, of course, but those four are the biggest ones. I get excited when I see a purpose at this systemic level that is more interesting. For example, when I see a systemic structure designed around

  • making the player want to help other players
  • making the player suspicious of the rules themselves
  • making the player understand a new “language” — a fresh way of thinking about problems
  • making the player feel good about things other than power: altruism, cooperation, creativity, their own intelligence, etc

Most systems are not like these. Most are the familiar first four. And not every game needs to do more than those first four, not if that was the intent. You can have an unambitious systemic design there, and execute it really well, and analyzing the game in this way will tell me that.

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How do I touch the system, and how does it touch me?

Once I understand this, I can then assess two distinct aspects of interacting with it: the inputs I can perform, and the feedback I get back. We tread dangerously close to “experience” here, but with care we can consider these things in terms of “game feel,” responsiveness, reward signals, learning scaffolding, and so on, without actually embracing the particular fiction the game might offer up. In other words, I can look at things like whether the controls feel good, given the system that the game wants me to engage with. I can draw the conclusion that the best way to mark my own progress in Gone Home is to trash the house, because the game provides fairly minimal affordances as to what is clickable, and zero indication of what has been previously examined.

I now have enough to make a judgement, which is really just for my own craft purposes. I have decided to view the work through the lens of an intent, or an artistic goal. And I have looked at how the game’s systems allow me to relate to it. So I can decide, for myself, whether the game is Good At, or Bad At, meeting its own apparent intent.

For example, I can look at the opening bank robbery scene in Grand Theft Auto V and note that it acts as a tutorial. I can see that it gates advancement by getting me to perform specific actions correctly. I can note the fact that it doesn’t tell me which button performs a given action, but simply assumes I have read the manual or played many other games before that happen to use the same mapping. I can see that it tells me to “take cover” in an area where there are many plausible “hiding spots,” but that the game expects me to be in a specific particular one that is only indicated on a minimap via a dot that has not been previously explained. I can observe that in some areas of this tutorial, not performing the right action has no negative effect, and in others it results in an instant mission failure and reset.

I am going to hold the story up to stories from other media.

All in all, this leads me to a judgement that there could have been more usability work done on this tutorial.

It is always possible that I have the intent wrong (though in general, assuming the opening to a game is meant to teach you basics is usually a safe bet, unless you’re playing 868-HACK or something). More on that in a moment, because now I can turn around, and look at the experience.

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What is the game experience?

mountainsThe experience is an altogether different kettle of fish. I now try very hard to suppress everything that I now think I know about how the game works underground. Now I want to look at the majesty of mountains, feel the fresh air, smell the rock and the snow. Oh, not for enjoyment! No, I want to smell the snow to figure out how pure the water that went into is. I want to know how these mountains were made.

I have multiple things to look at. I have visual storytelling. I have graphics rendering. I have music. I have writing. None of these are specific to games. The game-specific bits of the experience were pretty much all covered already under game feel and feedback. No, here I am deploying the craftsmanship analysis of other media. Whether a texture has good color balance, and whether the overall screen picture has so much saturation (like, say, in the opening island of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag) that telling what my next destination should be is hard. Does the level design provide “weenies?” How is the voice acting?

My standards here are not the standards of games. I am going to hold the story up to stories from other media. I am going to hold up the art direction to that of a film. I have many reference points here, and I am going to use them. This means, I will usually be disappointed. I mean, for all the really cool character design in Rayman Legends, the storytelling of the opening sequence is kind of abrupt.

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What is the experience about?

It is pretty rare to see deep symbolism going on in games. When we do see it, it is pretty rare to see it be accessible.

But again, I need to ascertain what the various disciplines were shooting for. And here, intent is generally far more telegraphed than it is in the systems. In fact, seeing what the intent is here usually corrects any misapprehensions about what the system’s intent was.

It is pretty rare to see deep symbolism going on in games. When we do see it, it is pretty rare to see it be accessible. As it happens, I personally value the on-ramping quite a lot. When a game’s experience is intentionally obscure or obfuscated to make a point, that means that the intent is to speak to only a relatively small audience, one which is already clued in on aspects of the “language” that the work is using. I think of that as a form of “preaching to the choir.” To me, empathy and understanding lie at the core of art, so a work that demands all the work on the side of the player, rather than the game experience having empathy for the unaware player, for me falls down to some degree. That may have been the intent of the creator, but it’s not an intent I agree with, so I note it and move on.

Most experiences in games are what I would term “impositional.” The goal the developers had in mind is for the player to have exactly the emotional experiences they intended. There is a set of craft techniques that you can use for these. When they are good, these experiences prompt thought or reflection, leave the player changed. At their best, they do not leave you with pat answers. That’s what I expect from great stories in books, so it is what I expect from great stories in games.

There are experiences designed to be “expressive” instead. These involve a different set of techniques, and therefore have to be looked at on the basis of the strengths and weaknesses of those techniques instead. Here, I am more likely to use the great toys of history as a benchmark.

Either way, if I can’t tell what the intent is, I consider it a failing.

So now I look for the synergy between these different media of experience. Music and art and story pulling together, towards the same goals? And how lofty are those goals? Something like Tomb Raider has to reinvent a very familiar main character for today’s world, show a character arc (vanishingly rare in game stories, alas!), live up to a sort of cinematic vibe, and be beautiful to look at. A good understanding of the limitations of the platform help here. I can’t possibly ask for the same sort of experience on a big screen TV versus a phone.

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Do these things all match up?

We’ll get a story that makes gestures towards great significance: big mountains! Sitting atop a generic power fantasy game. These are hollow mountains, built atop a foundation that cannot bear the weight.

And now comes the crux of it.

  • I know the intent of the systems.
  • I know what the systems actually teach.
  • I know the intent of the experience.
  • I know what the experience actually says.

Do these intents match? All too often the answer is no. We’ll get a story that makes gestures towards great significance: big mountains! Sitting atop a generic power fantasy game. These are hollow mountains, built atop a foundation that cannot bear the weight. We’ll see cases where the gameplay and the experience have literally opposite intents, or radical mismatches. These are a problem.

I try not to think about the ultimate “theme” or “moral” or “lessons” of a game until this moment, because it is so common for the answer to be muddled. But now is the time where questions arise about things like what the “politics” of the game are, what it implicit ethical opinions are, what it is saying about how the medium works, how it pushes at our understanding of form. It’s only here that I can form an overall opinion.

It’s not at all unusual for me to think very highly of a game that has put all its attention on experience, and very little on mechanics. The converse is also true; happens to me all the time. But I reserve my highest consideration for games that execute on every level. I am most interested in games that have ambition on both sides, where the intents on these very different levels of craftsmanship line up: in a word, like Papers, Please.

It is here where I say “oh, tedious mousing here is because it ties back to the narrative’s point. This system being out of balance is intentional. And the story doesn’t wrap up because the mechanics wrap it up for you.” That sort of thing.

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What about fun?

I am most interested in games that have ambition on both sides, where the intents on these very different levels of craftsmanship line up.

And, in the end, what does this have to do with whether I personally enjoyed the game? Pretty damn little. Like I said, my own enjoyment is deeply suspect. It’s not only subjective, but it’s driven in huge part by having walked through the above process. Once I have looked at all the above, it is hard to unsee it. I am more eager to finish playing Tomb Raider than Papers, Please. I think I have more raw fun in Rayman or Forza. Because once I am done, I want to have fun too. And everyone’s fun is different.

In general, this analysis will tell me how likely a game is to be fun for the people it’s meant for.

All of this is how I analyze games because it is how I wish my work was analyzed. I want to know how I did on each part, and I want to know whether it works together. Criticism or commentary that only touches on a part of the above is useful to me, but only to a limited degree, precisely because these elements are all interdependent.

Most game criticism only looks at a fraction of these things in one given article. There is almost never a technical critique. The typical reviewer most readily touches on the basic subjective experience of fun; the more thoughtful may consider the experience layer. Very few think about the artfulness of the system design. These individual lenses are all fine, of course. It does mean that a creator must gather together a lot of separate analyses in order to get a picture of the whole.

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A final thought

I recognize that this entire lens and process is deeply craft-centric. There are modes of criticism that are more about putting the work inside a cultural context, or focusing purely on the response a player has. I happen to think all of those are flawed for my purposes unless they engage deeply with the craft side; without an understanding of the creation process, the analysis is very likely to involve some big assumptions.

I also recognize that the language is largely missing for talking about all the systemic level stuff. It’s cast as reductionist formalism, or as less important than the player experience. Some of us are trying to change that. On the flip side, we have lots of language borrowed from other fields for talking about player experience. We typically give the experience a pass, though, by considering solely the parts that are obvious: the story, the graphics, the fun factor. We don’t look at the synergy enough.

One thing I will say is that this sort of analysis works equally well on an “art game” or a commercially-oriented blockbuster, because it is about assessing how the work is doing what the creator intended.

So, that’s how I analyze a game. I wish more people analyzed them that way, for purely selfish reasons. It would make my job as a designer much easier.

*Every game mentioned here is in my Top Ten Most Interesting for 2013 for one reason or another.

  32 Responses to “How I analyze a game”

  1. Interesting article! I’ll keep it around for reference when designing my own games

  2. […] How I analyze a game » Raph's Website […]

  3. I really enjoyed this article. Struggling/dabbling in hobby game design, it helps to read articles like this, and be reminded of the big picture perspective rather than the fiddly details of the code. “What am I trying to accomplish?” Your article helps keep that question in focus.

    Re: the end of year post. In general, love reading your articles & picked up theory of fun because of it. Read it through in an evening. Don’t stop :)

  4. First of all, it’s interesting to see how other people (professionals as it is) analyze games. But i think the major problem in doing like you said here is that you are thinking about this way more than i suppose the creator himself did. Thats why i don’t analyze in this great of detail because you can never be sure he REALLY meant it that way. Unless he said so and for that you have to ask him personally. Just like standing in front of a painting and taking a wild guess of what it could mean. I guess if you ask them the answer for the artstyle would be something like: Because we had limited resources, we wanted to create this and that atmosphere or something like that. Taking the example of GTA 5 why the tutorial is more cryptic than explaining is propably the same reason i try to leave out tutorials as a whole. It is just tiring to hear the same explanations over and over again when every game of that sort has the same type of controlls. Luckily it has become rare that the game stops entirely and shows a textbox with the buttons to push.
    Btw. it’s interesting that you didn’t mention Uncharted here, where you have the obvious problem that in the story Nathan lays his head in the lap of a woman (forgot the name) and is almost crying and in the next scene he is schooting countles people without even flinching. Here you have a total dispatch in the story and the mechanics the player is given to proceed through the levels. Same goes for Tomb Raider, where she is almost passing out when she first shot a guy and then proceeds to kill everyone with coldblooded precission.

  5. I didn’t mention Uncharted because it didn’t come out this year.

    As far as the amount of effort — most of the above happens unconsciously at this point. It is just part of how I see games. Talking with other designers, they also often just have the above analysis “happen” without needing to manually run a checklist or anything.

  6. I used to be way into the idea of holistic design (that is, a purpose infused at every level in every way) and to some extent I still am, but the more time I spend on creative work the more I come to question that. To me an artistic statement by definition is one that the artist does not fully understand and cannot fully explain (if she could she might as well just make a lecture about it); art is about ideas that lie just beyond the grasp of an artist’s understanding, and we make art in an effort to get to them. It is not possible to fully evaluate an art work based on its success at expressing its purpose because our only access to its purpose is through the art itself and unreliable. (Obviously I believe that videogames are examples of art work.)

    Lately I feel like a good videogame should have one or more ideas wriggling beneath its surface struggling to get out, and my goal when analysing a game is to investigate what those ideas might be. To this end I like to look for moments of intersection between all the various layers of a game that help to explicate the otherwise-incommunicable artistic ideas living in the work. Papers Please, for example, does this thing where:

    A) You are conditioned early on to develop your skills and reach ~12 processed applicants per day to break even or slightly better on your living expenses
    B) You inherit enough extra money from various shady goings-on that when it asks you to adopt your niece, you feel you have enough buffer to do it
    C) The game throws just enough wrenches into your productivity over the rest of the game (nicer apartments, terrorist attacks, etc…) that when it comes time to flee the country it is very likely you will need to leave 1 or more people behind

    A moment of intersection occurs when it dawns on you that you couldn’t really afford the niece, yet had no way of knowing it at the time, and now other people will suffer as a result. This moment is contextualized by the lingering drudgery of all the processing you did, all the nasty choices you had to make to gather the forged passports, all the danger you experienced (which is enhanced by all the Soviet imagery and “Glory to Arstotzka” propaganda), etc…. Then, afterwards, you take your fewer-than-six badly-forged passports (which you know with certainty, again from the drudgery, that you yourself would NEVER approve) to another border station and the guard there turns out to be so much less competent than you that many of the sacrifices you made may not even have mattered. (Indeed, nothing you did mattered very much.)

    It’s not necessarily a holistic experience (the game does not express its ideas in every single aspect at all times; it is not uniformly compelling and, in fact, has rather stilted dynamics; etc), but the uneven parts are all necessary to create that moment of expressiveness. I think that this is a really good way to create sophisticated game experiences, but since it requires the player to be extremely persistent and studious of the game’s properties it tends not to quality as an excellent example of craft.

  7. I strongly agree with the notion of the art laying in (more or less) ambiguity, incompleteness, etc. That is basically the same thing that I have said in things going clear back to Theory of Fun in its original form. I don’t see that as incompatible with intent; it just means that the intent may have been to state something complicated, difficult, incomplete.

    I also think we’re in agreement about moments of intersection between the layers… that is what I was getting at when I said I compared the various intents and levels.

    I think it is important to understand that this is how I analyze other people’s games not how I design games. And the reason why I analyze this way is so I can internalize methods and approaches and tools and tricks and effects and all the rest of it… so I can then steal them and use them myself.

    But I say “internalize” because I don’t sit around plugging together little bits I see elsewhere. That’s not how it works. The more I study other games, the more I get a picture in my head of how things in general fit together. Sort of how one learns to draw by looking at a lot of art and drawing a lot of varied things.

    The goal is internalized, “muscle memory” sorts of learning and skills.

  8. […] How I analyze a game. Raph Koster (2014). Raph Koster’s Website. […]

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