(Very Rough Draft)
Once upon a time I tried to write a game review series called Game Feels. It was a mess. An absolute mess. I then wanted to write a follow up to it, bc I knew SO MANY PEOPLE were curious what happened in the aftermath of such a messy game review. And surely people were dying to know what I thought about ’emotions and video games’ with such a juicy series title as Game Feels.
I tried very hard to study game design principles from channels like Extra Credits, Game Maker’s Toolkit, and some smaller channels like Sunder, and Matthewmatosis. Over time I realized I wasn’t really synthesizing the information from these writers. Essentially they said a lot of similar things, skewing heavily toward the importance of narrative and aesthetics in video games, rather than systems and mechanics.
As it turns out, systems and mechanics-based writing is a bit harder to find online. The *design* decision-making process is kept very under-the-radar. The process of coming up with interplaying systems designed to challenge and engage players is a secret art, that as far as I can tell, barely gets discussed in game design schooling, let alone in popular game review channels.
I recently discovered an excellent writer by the name of Chris Hagar. He’s made it his mission to be a mechanics purist. He review games almost entirely on their level of depth and challenge on a mechanical level, prioritizing those *far* above aesthetics and narrative. Those last two things are what dominates the discussion of game reviews now, and only when you read material like Hagar’s will you see how drastically different, and in my opinion, more *interesting* it is to try to discuss actual design decisions in games.
He holds the view that emotions and game design are two very separate fields. That a designer’s goal should be to create a game with the most interesting set of rules, challenges, and outcomes. But any goals around what players will ‘feel’ from interacting with those designs will only distract from the design experience.
That thought fascinates me, and I’ve asked him about it, and I’ll include his response in a minute.
For many years now, with the rise of *Let’s Plays*, there’s been a gross leaning on the emotional highs and lows of gaming. The reactions that players have to their games, oftentimes reactions to great losses and victories in their play sessions.
Are these reactions invalid? I know these people are heightening their reactions for the sake of entertainment, but to what extent can designers account for frustration and catharsis when they are designing their game?
The more I think about it, I think designers can only account for the depth of challenge within their designs. But the amount of frustration or catharsis players feel when trying that game varies across quite a few dimensions.
Varying across dimensions like:
– What does this player value? Exploration? Winning? Collaboration? Mastery?
– Generally is the player’s level of patience above average, average, or below average?
– What is the player’s mindset like before the play session?
– Does the player feel rushed? Or do they have longer time to devote to this game?
– Does the player feel pressured in other ways? Is the game or other players punishing them while they learn?
– Are mistakes or losses guiding the player toward mastery? Or is the player failing in ways that they don’t understand?
Even applying a 0-10 value across these lines doesn’t make the problem any easier to solve. The fact is, there is a definitive point where designers can no longer account for how exactly their player will feel while interacting with their designs.
This brings me to discussing the game, *Monument Valley 2*.
Now, on an aesthetic and narrative level, Monument Valley 2 has a lot going for it. The use of contrasting colors across varied forced-perspective structures are lovely to look at and often move in novel, interesting ways. MV2 has a way of spreading out these novel strucutures that makes them the primary attraction to the game. The first playthrough feels to me like a journey of discovery, loss and reconnection, and general aesthetic *nice-ness*.
For a while, I thought I’d write a review of MV2 in the context of a mother-child relationship. I’d frame it in the context of how I think about my own mom, and what the game might be trying to convey with its two main characters starting together, separating, growing on their own, and eventually re-connecting… and how that little story, in combination with lovely music by Todd Baker, makes for a really emotional experience. The kind of experience that would be great for a show like Game Feels.
Then I found Chris Hagar’s work. I saw his comments about game mechanics, and depth, and how he defines fun. (By the way, he defines fun essentially as the process in which a player tries to make the outcomes of a game more predictable.) After reading that and thinking over my interactions with MV2, I realized I didn’t have a deep experience.
I simply had an aesthetic one, and projected my own feelings onto it according to how I interpreted its symbols. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Books, visual media, and music are all beautiful and often profound aesthetic experiences. But game experiences are something else entirely. As a game, MV2 does not have replay value, or any actual depth despite the intricacies of the geometric designs in the levels.
While I can absolutely believe the process of designing the MV2 levels would be difficult, I can also imagine coming up with a few rules of movement for the environment, then sitting down with some grid paper and sketching neat-looking impossible structures, then reverse-engineering puzzles out of them. Then design the puzzles so that there are usually only one or two choices a player can make at any given time to prevent them from getting stuck.
The difficulties in the game (I imagine) would come from getting the pathfinding to work across the forced-perspective elements. But even that is simplified by rotating and sliding platforms with handles that *deactivate* when you step onto them, further reducing the possible surfaces you can move to.
The player character is also very slow, so even if you have pin-point accurate taps and slides onscreen, there will be stretches of time where you can’t do anything but watch the character walk across the screen.
Someone might compare MV2 to an illusory Rubik’s Cube. Maybe at a surface level there are similarities. You slide and rotate elements on screen to try to get to the end goal. That said, Rubik’s Cubes have very fixed rules. Anyone can take a few hours and learn the steps to solving a cube, and get better at executing those steps. There is an actual skill curve that a person can track as they get better at interacting with the cube, and different patterns than just 6-sides of color that they can learn to execute onto the cube.
MV2 does not have nearly this level of depth or efficiency. So again, even though it has sharp, charming aesthetics, and a very very chill soundtrack, I just can’t see myself going back to the game and trying to get better at it or discovering anything new mechanically.
Even though the design process for these levels is interesting as all get out, that kind of depth does not translate to the play experience. The structures will be novel the first time… and that’s about it.
Author’s Note: This was posted to share with a person I was talking to on Hyun’s Dojo. It’s a rough draft and not to be taken super seriously. Thanks for taking a look!