Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Planning - The Core Reason Why Gameplay Feels Good

In this post I dig into planning, and how it is a fundamental part of what makes a game engaging. Planning affects many aspects of what is so special about games and why we enjoy playing them. This post will go over the reasons behind this, and explains why planning is so important for narrative games.

I think we can all agree that there is a difference in how certain games feel to play. There are just certain games that feel "gamier" than others. Just compare playing Super Mario to something like Dear Esther, and I think it's clear that the former feels like it has more gameplay than the latter. What is it that causes this? My hypothesis: the ability to plan.

The more a player can plan ahead in a game, the more engaging that game will feel to play.

Before I cover some evidence of why this is most likely true, I will need to get into some background information. In order to understand why planning has such a prominent role in games, we need to look into the evolution of our species and answer this question: why are fish so stupid?


This is how the world looks to the average fish:

They can really only see 1-2 meters in front of them and often it's even worse than that. This means that a fish can't do much planning. It just reacts to whatever pops up in front of its face; that's really what their lives are all about. If a fish's life was a game, it would be a limited version of Guitar Hero played to random noise. This is why fishing works. Fish don't think like us, they're mainly just driven by hardwired responses.

For a large part of earth's history this was what life was like for organisms. But then 400 million or so years ago something happened. Fish started to move on to land. Suddenly, the view looked more like this:

This changed their world. Suddenly it was possible to plan ahead and to properly think about your environment. Previously, smart brains had been a waste of energy, but now it was a great asset. In fact, so important was this shift that it is probably a big factor in how consciousness evolved.  Malcolm MacIver, who as far as I can tell originated this theory, writes about it like this:
"But then, about 350 million years ago in the Devonian Period, animals like Tiktaalik started making their first tentative forays onto land. From a perceptual point of view, it was a whole new world. You can see things, roughly speaking, 10,000 times better. So, just by the simple act of poking their eyes out of the water, our ancestors went from the mala vista of a fog to a buena vista of a clear day, where they could survey things out for quite a considerable distance. 
This puts the first such members of the “buena vista sensing club” into a very interesting position, from an evolutionary perspective. Think of the first animal that gains whatever mutation it might take to disconnect sensory input from motor output (before this point, their rapid linkage was necessary because of the need for reactivity to avoid becoming lunch). At this point, they can potentially survey multiple possible futures and pick the one most likely to lead to success. For example, rather than go straight for the gazelle and risk disclosing your position too soon, you may choose to stalk slowly along a line of bushes (wary that your future dinner is also seeing 10,000 times better than its watery ancestors) until you are much closer."
 To showcase the above, he has the following image:

This images nicely shows the conceptual difference in the processes involved. In one you basically just use a linear process and "react as you go". In the other one you scout the terrain ahead, consider various approaches and then pick one that seems, given the available data, to be the best one. 

It is not exactly the same, but there is a striking likeness to the following image comparing old school and more modern FPS design:

I know that this is not a completely fair comparison, but the important point here is that when we look at these two images, it feels pretty clear which of these two designs ought to have the best gameplay. The image on the left represents a more complex and interesting landscape, while the one on the right represent a linear sequence of events. And just like the worlds of a fish compared to that of the world of land animals, this means a huge difference in our ability to plan.

There are other interesting connections with the ability to see far and to plan. Malcolm MacIver replies to a question regarding the intelligence of octopi:
"It’s incredible what being an unprotected blob of delicious protein will get you after eons of severe predation stress. They, by the way, have the largest eyes known (basketball size in the biggest deep sea species). Apparently, they use these to detect the very distant silhouettes of whales, their biggest threats, against the light of the surface. 
The theory is committed to the idea that the advantage of planning will be proportional to the margin of where you sense relative to where you move in your reaction time. It then identifies one period in our evolutionary past when there was a massive change in this relationship, and suggests this might have been key to the development of this capacity. It’s interesting that octopuses and archerfish tend to be still before executing their actions. This maximally leverages their relatively small sensoria. There may be other ways, in other words, for animals trapped in the fog of water to get a big enough sensorium relative to where they are moving to help with planning."
Sight is of course not the only reason for us humans to have evolved our current level of intelligence and consciousness. Other important factors are our upright pose and our versatile hands. Standing up meant that we could see further and allowed us to use our hands more easily. Our hands are the main means with which we shape the world around us. They allowed us to craft tools, and in various ways to change parts of the environment to optimize our survival. All of these things are deeply connected to the ability to plan. Once we learned how to reshape the world around us, our options opened up and the complexity of our plans increased immensely. 

It doesn't stop there. Planning is also a crucial part of our social life. Theory of mind, our ability to simulate other people, is both a reason for and a product of our planning abilities. Navigating our social groups has always been a careful activity of thinking about various paths of action and their consequences. 

Planning also underlies two other phenomena that have been discussed recently on this blog: Mental Models and Presence. The reason why we have mental models is so that we can evaluate actions before we make them, which obviously is crucial to planning. Presence is a phenomenon that comes from us incorporating ourselves into our plans. We don't just want to model what happens to the world, but also to ourselves.

So, to sum things up: there are lots of evolutionary reasons why planning would be a fundamental part of what makes us human. It's a big part of who we are, and when we are able to make use of these abilities we are bound to find that engaging. 


So this background is all very well, but is there really any good evidence that this is actually a thing in games? Yes - in fact, quite a bit of it! Let's review the ones that I find the most important.

There is a model of player engagement called PENS (Player Experience of Need Satisfaction) which is quite rigorously researched. It uses the following criteria to evaluate what a player thinks about a game.
  • Competence. This is how well a game satisfies our need to feel competent - the sense of having mastered the game. 
  • Autonomy. How much freedom does the player have and what options do they have to express it?
  • Relatedness. How well is the player's desire to connect with other people satisfied?
Measuring how well a game performs on the above metrics has been shown to be a much better indicator of various types of success (sales, how likely people are to recommend the game, and so forth) than simply asking if the game is "fun". 

And, more importantly, two of the above factors are directly related to planning. Both Competence and Autonomy heavily rely on the player's ability to plan. Let's go over why this is so.

In order for a player to feel competent at a game they need to have a deep understanding of how the game works. Sure, there are games where mere reflexes are enough, but these are always very simplistic. Even in most rhythm games there are certain rules that the player needs to learn and understand in order to play well. A big part is also learning the melodies that make up each level. Why? In order to optimally place your inputs (be that fingers or feet) to hit as many beats as possible. All of these aspects boil down to one thing: being able to predict the future.

You see the same thing in most games. You get better at Darks Souls when you understand how monsters attack, how levels are laid out and how your own attacks work. Learning how a world operates and gaining the ability to predict is a cornerstone of competence. Sure, you also need to develop the motor skills to carry out the required actions, but this is almost always less important than understanding the whys and whens of the actions. Simply being able to predict is not enough, you also need to have a sense of what goal you are trying to achieve and then, using your predictive abilities, to carry out the steps required to reach it. Or in other words: you need to be able to plan.

Autonomy is also highly dependent on the ability to plan. Imagine a game where you have plenty of freedom, but have no idea how the game works. Everybody who has booted up a complex strategy game without understanding the basics knows that this is not very engaging. In order for the freedom to mean something, you need to have an idea what to do with it. You need to understand how the game's mechanics behave, what tools are at your disposal, and what goals you want to achieve. Without this, freedom is confusing and pointless.

So in order to provide a sense of autonomy a game needs to not only provide a large possibility space, but also teach the player how the world works and what the player's role in it is. The player needs to be able to mentally simulate various actions that can take place, and then come up with sequences that can be used to attain a specific goal. When you have this, you have freedom that is worth having. It should be pretty obvious that I am again describing the ability to plan. A world in which the player is not able to plan is also one with little autonomy.

Similarly, if the game only features a linear sequence of events, there's not much planning to be done. In order for the player to be able to craft plans there need to be options. This is not the case if only a certain chain of actions is possible. This scenario is a typical example of having no freedom, and unsatisfactory in terms of autonomy.  Again, planning and autonomy are intricately linked.

One could make the case that Relatedness also has a connection with planning. As explained earlier, any social interactions heavily rely on our ability to plan. However, I don't think this is strong enough and the other two aspects are more than enough. Instead let's look at evidence from a different angle.

One trend that has been going on for a long time in games is the addition of extra "meta" features. A very common one right now is crafting, and almost all big games have it in some way or another. It's also common to have RPG-like levelling elements, not just for characters, but for assets and guns as well. Collecting a currency that can then be used to buy a variety of items also turns up a lot. Take a look at just about any recent release and you are bound to find at least one of these.

So why do games have them? The answer to that is quite easy: it makes the game more engaging. The harder question is why that should be the case. It can't solely be because it gives the player more to do. If that was the case you would see games adding a random variety of mini games to spice things up. But instead we are seeing certain very specific types of features being used over and over again.

My theory for this is that it's all to do with planning. The main reason that these features are there is because it gives the player a larger possibility space of plans, and more tools to incorporate into their planning. For instance, the act of collecting currency combined with a shop means that the player will have the goal of buying a particular item. Collecting a certain amount of currency with a view to exchange it for goods is a plan. If the desired item and the method in which the coins are collected are both connected to the core gameplay loop, then this meta feature will make the core loop feel like it has more planning that it actually has. 

These extra features can also spice up the normal gameplay. Just consider how you need to think about what weapons to use in combat during The Last of Us. You have some scrap you can craft items from, and all of those items will allow you to use different tactics during combat. And because you cannot make all of them, you have to make a choice. Making this choice is making a plan, and the game's sense of engagement is increased. 

Whatever your views on this sort of meta-feature are, one thing is certain: they work. Because if they weren't we wouldn't be seeing this rise in them persist over such a long time. Sure, it's possible to make a game with a ton of planning without any of these features. But that's the hard way. Having these features is a well-tested way to increasing engagement, and thus something that is very tempting to add, especially when you lose a competitive advantage by not doing so.

Finally, I need to discuss what brought me into thinking about planning at all. It was when I started to compare SOMA to Amnesia: The Dark Descent. When designing SOMA it was really important for us to have as many interesting features as possible, and we wanted the player to have a lot of different things to do. I think it is safe to say that SOMA has a wider range of interactions and more variety than what Amnesia: The Dark Descent had. But despite this, a lot of people complained that SOMA was too much of a walking simulator. I can't recall a single similar comment about Amnesia. Why was this so?

At first I couldn't really understand it, but then I started to outline the major differences between the games:
  • Amnesia's sanity system
  • The light/health resource management.
  • Puzzles spread across hubs.
All of these things are directly connected with the player's ability to plan. The sanity system means the player needs to think about what paths they take, whether they should look at monsters, and so forth. These are things the player needs to account for when they move through a level, and provide a constant need to plan ahead.

The resource management system works in a similar fashion, as players need to think about when and how they use the resources they have available. It also adds another layer as it makes it more clear to the player what sort of items they will find around a map. When the player walks into a room and pulls out drawers this is not just an idle activity. The player knows that some of these drawers will contain useful items and looting a room becomes part of a larger plan. 

In Amnesia a lot of the level design worked by having a large puzzle (e.g. starting an elevator) that was solved by completing a set of spread out and often interconnected puzzles. By spreading the puzzles across the rooms, the player needs to always consider where to go next. It's not possible to just go with a simple "make sure I visit all locations" algorithm to progress through the game. Instead you need to think about what parts of the hub-structure you need to go back to, and what puzzles there are left to solve. This wasn't very complicated, but it was enough to provide a sense of planning.

SOMA has none of these features, and none of its additional features make up for the loss of planning. This meant that the game overall has this sense of having less gameplay, and for some players this meant the game slipped into walking simulator territory. Had we known about the importance of the ability to plan, we could have done something to fix this. 


A "normal" game that relies on a standard core gameplay loop doesn't have this sort of problem. The ability to plan is built into the way that classical gameplay works. Sure, this knowledge can be used to make such games better, but it's by no means imperative. I think this is a reason why planning as a foundational aspects of games is so undervalued. The only concrete example that I have found[1] is this article by Doug Church where he explains it like this:
"These simple, consistent controls, coupled with the very predictable physics (accurate for a Mario world), allow players to make good guesses about what will happen should they try something. Monsters and environments increase in complexity, but new and special elements are introduced slowly and usually build on an existing interaction principle. This makes game situations very discernable — it's easy for the players to plan for action. If players see a high ledge, a monster across the way, or a chest under water, they can start thinking about how they want to approach it. 
This allows players to engage in a pretty sophisticated planning process. They have been presented (usually implicitly) with knowledge of how the world works, how they can move and interact with it, and what obstacle they must overcome. Then, often subconsciously, they evolve a plan for getting to where they want to go. While playing, players make thousands of these little plans, some of which work and some of which don't. The key is that when the plan doesn't succeed, players understand why. The world is so consistent that it's immediately obvious why a plan didn't work. "
This is really spot on, an excellent description of what I am talking about. This is an article from 1999 and have had trouble finding any other source that discuss it, let alone expands upon the concept since then. Sure, you could say that planning is summed up in Sid Meier's "A series of interesting choices", but that seems to me too fuzzy to me. It is not really about the aspect of predicting how a world operates and then making plans based on that.

The only time when it does sort of come up is when discussing the Immersive Sim genre. This is perhaps not a big surprise given that Doug Church had a huge part in establishing the genre. For instance, emergent gameplay, which immersive sims are especially famous for, relies heavily on being able to understand the world and then making plans based on that. This sort of design ethos can be clearly seen in recent games such as Dishonored 2, for instance [2].  So it's pretty clear that game designers think in these terms. But it's a lot less clear to me that it is viewed as a fundamental part of what makes games engaging and it feels like it is more treated like a subset of design.

As I mentioned above this is probably because when you take part in "normal" gameplay, a lot of planning comes automatically. However, this isn't the case with narrative games. In fact, narrative games are often considered "lesser games" in the regard that they don't feature as much normal gameplay as something like Super Mario. Because of this, it's very common to discuss games in terms of whether you like them to be story-heavy or gameplay-heavy, as if either has to necessarily exclude the other. However, I think a reason there is still such a big discrepancy is because we haven't properly figured out how gameplay in narrative games work. As I talked about in an earlier blog post, design-wise, we are stuck at a local maxima.

The idea that planning is fundamental to games presents a solution to this problem. Instead of saying "narrative games need better gameplay", we can say that "narrative games need more planning".


In order to properly understand what we need to do with planning, we need to have some sort of supportive theory to makes sense of it all. The SSM Framework that I presented last week fits nicely into that role.

It is really best to read up on last week's blog post to get the full details, but for the sake of completeness I shall summarise the framework here.

We can divide a game into three different spaces. First of all we have System space. This where all the code is and where all the simulations happen. The System space deals with everything as abstract symbols and algorithms. Secondly we have the Story space which provides context for the the things that happen in the System space. In System space Mario is just a set of collision boundaries, but then when that abstract information is run through the Story space that turns into an Italian plumber. Lastly, we have the Mental Model space. This is how the player thinks about the game and is a sort of mental replica of all that exists in the game world. However, since the player mostly never understands exactly what goes on System space (nor how to properly interpret the story context), this is just an educated guess. In the end though, the Mental Model is what the player uses in order to play the game and what they base their decisions on.

Given this we can now start to define what gameplay is. First of all we need to talk about the concept of an action. An action is basically whatever the player performs when they are playing the game and it has the following steps:
  1. Evaluate the information received from the System and Story space.
  2. Form a Mental Model based on the information at hand.
  3. Simulate the consequences of performing a particular action.
  4. If the consequences seem okay, send the appropriate input (e.g. pushing a button) to the game.
A lot of this happens unconsciously. From the player's point of view they will mostly view this sequence as "doing something" and are unaware of the actual thought process that takes place. But really, this always happens when the player does something in a game, be that jumping over a chasm in Super Mario or placing a house in Sim City.

Now that we understand what an action is, we can move on to gameplay. This is all about stringing several actions together, but with one caveat: you don't actually send the input to the game, you just imagine doing so. So this string of actions are built together in mental model space, evaluating them and then if the results feel satisfactory, only then do we start to send the required input.

Put in other words: gameplay is all about planning and then executing that plan. And based upon all of the evidence that I showed above, my hypothesis is: the more actions you can string together, the better the gameplay feels.

It isn't enough to simply string together any actions and call that a plan. First of all, the player needs to have an idea of some sort of goal they are trying to achieve. The actions also need be non-trivial. Simply having a bunch of walking actions strung together will not be very engaging to the player. It's also worth pointing out that planning is by no means the only thing that makes a game engaging. All other design thinking doesn't suddenly go out the window just because you focus on planning. 

However, there are a bunch of design principles that go hand in hand with planning. For instance, to have a consistent world is crucial, because otherwise it isn't possible for the player to form a plan. This is why invisible walls are so annoying; they seriously impede our ability to create and execute plans. It also explains why it's so annoying when failure seems random. For gameplay to feel good, we need to be able to mentally simulate exactly what went wrong. Like Doug Church expressed in a quote above: when a player fails they always need to know why.

Another example is the adventure game advice that you should always have several puzzles going at once. In planning terms this is because we always want to make sure the player has ample room to plan, "I will first solve this and then that". There are lots of other similar principles that have to do with planning. So while planning is not the only thing that makes a game engaging, a great number of things that do can be derived from it.

Let's quickly look at some examples from actual games.

Say that the player wants to assassinate the guy in red in this situation. What the player does not do is simply jump down and hope for the best. They need to have some sort of plan before going on. They might first wait for the guard to leave, teleport behind the victim, and then sneak up and stab them. When that's done they leave the same way they came. This is something the player works out in their head before doing anything. It isn't until they have some sort of plan that they start acting.

This plan might not work, the player might fail to sneak up on the guy and then he sound an alarm. In this case the plan breaks, however that doesn't mean that the player's plan was totally untrue. It just meant they didn't manage to pull off one of the actions of. If presented properly, players are okay with this. In the same way, the player might have misinterpreted their mental model or missed something. This is also okay as long as the player can update their mental model in a coherent fashion. And next time the player tries to execute a similar plan they will get better at it.

Often this ability to carry out your plans is what makes the game the most engaging. Usually a game starts out a bit dull, as your mental models are a bit broken and the ability to plan not very good. But then, as you play, this gets better and you start stringing together longer sets of actions and therefore having more fun. This is why tutorials can be so important. They are a great place to get away from that initial dullness by making the experience a bit simpler and guiding the player to think in the correct manner about how the game works.

It's also worth noting that plans should never be too simple to carry out. Then the actions become trivial. There needs to be a certain degree of non-triviality for engagement to remain.

Planning doesn't always need to happen in the long term, it can also be very short term. Take this scene from Super Mario, for instance:

Here the player needs to make a plan in a split second. The important thing to notice here is that the player doesn't simply react blindly. Even in a stressful situation, if the game works as it should, the player quickly formulates a plan and then tries to carry out that plan.

Now compare these two examples to a game like Dear Esther:

There are a lot of things one can like about this game, but I think everybody agrees that the gameplay is lacking. What's harder to agree on, though, is what's missing. I've heard a lot about the lack of fail states and competitive mechanics, but I don't find these convincing. As you might guess, I think the missing ingredient is planning.

The main reason that people find Dear Esther unengaging is not because they cannot fail, or because there is nothing to compete against. It's because the game doesn't allow them to form and execute plans. We need to figure out ways of fixing this.

By thinking about the planning in terms of the SSM-framework we get a hint at what sort of gameplay that can constitute "narrative play": When you form a plan in Mental Model space it is important that the actions are mostly grounded in the data received from Story space. Compare the the following two plans:

1) "First I pick up 10 items to increase the character X's trust meter, this will allow me to reach the 'friendship'-threshold and X will now be part of my crew. This awards me 10 points in range combat bonus."

2) "If I help out X with cleaning her room, I might be able to be friends with her. This would be great as I could then ask her to join us on our journey. She seems like a great sharpshooter and I would feel much safer with her onboard."

This is a fairly simplistic example, but I hope I get the point across. Both of these describe the same plan, but they have vastly different in how the data is interpreted. Number 1 is just all abstract system-space, and the number 2 has a more narrative feel, and is grounded in the story space. When the gameplay is about making plans like the second example, that is when we start to get something that feels like proper narrative play. This is a crucial step in evolving the art of interactive storytelling.


I believe thinking about planning is a crucial step in order to get better narrative games. For too long, game design has relied on the planning component arising naturally out of 'standard' gameplay, but when we no longer have that we need to take extra care. It's imperative to understand that it drives gameplay, and therefore that we need to make sure our narrative experiences include this. Planning is by no means a silver bullet, but it's a really important ingredient. It's certainly something that we're putting a lot of thought into when making our future titles here at Frictional Games.


1) If anyone has other concrete resources describing planning as a fundamental part of games I'd love to hear about them. Please post about them in the comments if you know any.

2) Steve Lee had an excellent lecture called "An Approach to Holistic Level Design" at this year's GDC where he talked a lot about player intentionality. This is another concept closely related to planning.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The SSM Framework of Game Design

This article goes over a framework for understanding how videogames work. It divides games into systems, story, and a mental model, and then shows how these interact. Using this system makes it easier to make design decisions and enables one to have insights into the workings of a game.

I've previously talked about story and mental models, and now it's time to wrap it all up into one neat framework. By looking at how these aspects influence one another it's much easier to talk about a game, and it also allows us to draw some fresh conclusions. In this post I'll go over the basic framework and then discuss how it can be applied to gameplay.

It's worth noting that this is by no means the only way of looking at games, nor does it take into account every single aspect of what games are. I think it's broad enough and covers enough ground to be really useful, though. In fact, it'll be used as a foundation for many of my upcoming articles on design. With that said, let's start.

The first thing you need to realize is that all games work in three different spaces: System, Story and Mental Model. These are the building blocks of the entire framework and I'll henceforth refer to this as the SSM-framework. This theory derives a few of its basics from the MDA framework, so it feels right to briefly go over that. In the MDA framework, games are divided into Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics. The mechanics are the basic building blocks of a game, the dynamics are how they work together, and the aesthetics describe the user experience[1]. All of these different components are layered and dependent, so mechanics give rise to dynamics and dynamics give rise to aesthetics.

While I think the MDA approach to looking at games can be really helpful, it doesn't properly separate the player's understanding of the game from the actual behaviour of the game. That's the main thing that the SSM Framework tries to fix. The way it does this is by viewing a game as something that takes place in the three spaces I mentioned earlier: Story, System and Mental Model. Now let's go through each of these.


The System space is where all of the code exists and where all of the game simulations happen. It's here that things get done. We can divide this space into two layers: Mechanics and Dynamics. This is incredibly close to the MDA framework, with the exception of the Aesthetics layer. It's also important that the mechanics and dynamics here are abstract; we don't take any account of how they are presented to and understood by the player. System space only concerns itself with functionality.

Story, as explained in this previous post, is what gives context to the things that happen in System space. In Super Mario's system space, a fireball is just an abstract object with bounds that trigger a particular event on collision. It's in Story space that it looks like a fireball, which helps the player intuitively understand what sort of threat they are dealing with. Sometimes the Story space is very thin. For instance, in Tetris the visuals are basically just a direct visualization of the system space. In other cases, the Story space can be very thick. A good example of that is The Walking Dead where the systems are supported by hours of non-interactable Story-space cutscenes.

Just like the System space can be divided into two layers, so can Story space. At the bottom layer we find the Mis-en-scéne, which is basically everything that the player can see, hear, and in other ways reach their sensory organs. This is a term borrowed from film and I think it best encapsulates this component of the story layer. In the layer above that we find Drama. Just like the Dynamics of System space, this is something that is generated by the layer below, in this case the Mis-en-scéne. Here's a quick example of this: In Super Mario, the character of Bowser is part of the Mis-en-scéne and the fact that he does not like Mario is Drama. Just like with Mechanics and Dynamics, there is some overlap between the two, but they are still separated enough for it to be a useful distinction.

Mental Model
Finally we arrive at the Mental Model space. It's hard to quickly summarize exactly what a Mental Model is, and the best thing really is to read the previous blog that discusses the subject. In very simplistic terms the Mental Model is the player's personal experience of the game, making it similar to the Aesthetics of the MDA framework. The big difference is that while it does derive from what happens in a game's Mechanics and Dynamics, it is thought of as its own separate space. When you join together the three different spaces, it looks like this:

It is when the Story and System space are experienced together that a Mental model is formed. I think it's incredibly important to think of this as a separate space, because just like System and Story have their components, so does the Mental Model. At the basic level you find Affordances. This is basically the functionality that the player attributes to a perceived object, e.g. that a door is something that can be opened. Then at a layer above that you find Schemas, which is how the player thinks they should behave in various situations and how these situations ought to play out.

This is a quite rough division of layers and as before there is overlap. There are also further details to take into account, such as the player's emotional responses and so on. Normally, you wouldn't think of these as part of, say, Affordances, and if you wanted to you could make the components of the Mental Model space quite complex. I feel that for a framework to be useful it needs to simplify things and as a start Affordances and Schemas work quite nicely. It's not at all that different from Mechanics and Dynamics; these are widely used concepts in game design despite not being exact expressions.

A final important note about the Mental Model space is that it doesn't necessarily need to contain things from either System or Story space, it can be things that the player makes up from their own imagination. For instance, certain items might disappear when they are out of view for a long time. The player might form the Mental Model that that this is due to some gnomes, despite neither System nor Story space contains any such information. This is very common, and a large part of the Mental Model space is usually taken up by these kind of imaginary entities, actions, etc. Sometimes a game is designed for this, other times it is purely accidental.


With the basics laid down let us discuss how the SSM Framework describes a game loop. Here is a an overview for how it all works:

Click to enlarge.

The steps are as follows:
  1. The users triggers an input on the controller and this data is sent to System space.
    Example: The fire button is pushed.
  2. System space handles the data, does all the required simulations and then generates a bunch of abstract data.
    Example: The trajectory of the bullet is calculated, a collision is found, the hit points are lowered for the object and this causes the object to transition into the "exploded" state.
  3. This abstract data is sent to the Story space, where it is given context.
    Example: The game changes various numbers which are used by various graphics components to produce output. The "exploded" event triggers a particular sound file to be played.
  4. A collection of sounds, animations, graphics and so forth is produced.
    Example: The bullet is animated as a flying projectile. It is seen hitting a barrel which then explodes to the sound of a loud "Boom!".
  5. This Story generated content gets sent to the various sensory organs of the player. The most common are the eyes and ears.
    Example: The player hears and sees the explosion.
  6. The player's sensory organs sends the data to the brain where it is processed in various ways. We are now entering the Mental Model space of the game loop.
    Example: The player recognizes the bullet and barrels as those objects. It's also clear that the bullet hitting the barrel caused an explosion event. This, together with the boom sound, gives the player a feeling of satisfaction.
  7. The player's impressions are fed into the current mental model.
    Example: This is the first time the player witnesses a bullet making a barrel explode.
  8. Using the new data, the mental model is updated.
    Example: The player is now aware that shooting barrels will make them explode and cause satisfying effects.
  9. The player uses the most recent model to figure out what to do next and simulates what effects various scenarios would have.
    Example: The player is surrounded by barrels and knows that their goal is to destroy as many objects as possible. They consider what would happen if they were to shoot at more barrels. A mental simulation is made where the result of shooting the other barrels would make them explode as well, causing a lot of carnage, which brings the player closer to their goal. This feels like a good plan.
  10. With a plan for what to do next, commands are sent for the player to trigger the game's input device.
    Example: The player's brain sends signals telling their hands to move the stick and hit the fire-button in such a way that it should hit the nearby barrels.
And then then it all loops back to step 1 again and begins all over. Hopefully this gives an idea of how useful the SSM Framework is in describing the game loop. Once you have this sense of how data is formed and transported around as a game is played, it's much simpler to see where something goes wrong. 


Now for a simple example of how this framework can be helpful when analyzing input. Hopefully this will also show how SSM can help us discuss certain game design problems in a much simpler way. 

Let's start by imagining a System space that has the following: 

  • A character where the bounds are defined as an abstract cylinder.
  • An abstract device that will play sound files when certain events are triggered.
  • A couple of rules that will make the cylinder character stay at a certain distance from the player.
Now say that the Story space looks like this:

  • The cylinder takes the form of a cute rabbit.
  • The sound files played are cute quips that the player is meant to find endearing.
The designer's goal is that the rabbit should be something that the player cares about. If the Mental Model gets constructed properly the player will think of the rabbit as a living creature and base their imagination mainly on the story aspects of the character. This makes the player protect the rabbit and makes sure that it never falls too far behind. This is a case of the Mental Model working as desired.

However, it might be that the player realizes that the rabbit is a great shield against incoming enemy attacks. The game becomes much easier to play if the player manages to position the rabbit in between them and any hostiles when it's time to loot treasure chests. 

This radically changes the player's mental model. Instead of being a living creature, a fantasy mostly derived from Story space, the player now sees the character mostly as an element of System space. The rabbit is now simply a handy game object that has various tactical benefits.

This sort of thing is quite common in games. Entities usually start out in story space and then as you play the game and discover how they actually work, your mental model becomes more influenced by System space. And since the story content can usually deliver a lot more emotional depth, the experience comes off as very "gamey". In some cases this can be perfectly fine, but when you want to deliver a narrative experience it can be devastating. In this case it's really important to keep our Mental model close to what we had in Story space.


These sort of story vs gameplay issues are really easy to discuss in the SSM Framework, and it also provides us with several avenues of attack for how to solve them. You need to make sure that System space doesn't generate Mentally Modeled behaviors that directly contradict what is in Story space. By thinking about the flow of data in the game loop you can pinpoint where it all went wrong and then change things accordingly. While this doesn't spell out every single step needed to fix the problem, it gives us a way to formulate it and a foundation on which we can lay a more detailed plan.

Next week I will go over how the gameplay is defined in the SSM Framework and how it shows us a way to give narrative games a great sense of play.

[1] The MDA framework also brings up various ways in which games engage players, but that I felt no need to go over that in this article. Do note that there is more to the framework than simply 3 layers of components.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Thoughts on Five Nights at Freddy's

I have seen many people saying Five Nights at Freddy's is simply a jump-scare fest. While the game does rely a lot on jump scares, I think it's wrong to dismiss it just because of that. There are a number of aspects of Five Nights at Freddy's that I find really interesting and I think it's worth exploring them.

Here are my top take-aways from the game:


No traversal

Just about all horror game games revolve around the protagonist moving around. It's a core part of the game. Not so in Five Nights at Freddy's. Here the player is unable to move around at all. Instead, the game is all about observation and seeing how other creatures move about.

As I've said in a previous article, traversal can be problematic. So it's very interesting to have a game that solves those issues simply by ditching the entire concept. The lack of traversal also helps the game to have a more nightmarish feel and further simplifies the gameplay (more on that later).

Great use of sensory deprivation

In my previous post I talked about how it's really helpful to put the player in the right mood by not overwhelming their focus. Five Night at Freddy's is excellent at this. The game is so simple and there really isn't much for the player to do apart from observing. This means that you have plenty of mental capacity left over, and all of that is put into simply being worried. This fuels all sorts of paranoia.

Tight connection between story and mechanics

While the setup is quite silly, one has to applaud just how connected the systems and narrative are. As the background story of the game is told you also learn how to play the game. They are really one and the same. There are very few narrative games where this is true and it means your mental model of the game is almost entirely built in narrative terms.

Obscure mechanics done right

At first it's almost impossible to figure out how the animatronics behave and you simply have to rely on intuition. The thing is that your intuition is pretty good at letting you survive, but not so good that you start understanding any underlying systems. When you hear particular sounds, you'll want to close the door or turn on a light, and in many cases you are doing just the right thing. But as these intuitions are not based on simplistic systems, you are driven to mentally model the various creatures as living things. Just like the previous point, this makes your mental model much more story-like.

Death and jump-scares combined

In Five Nights at Freddy's there is always a jump-scare right before the game ends. This weaves a very tight connection between "failure" and "being spooked" allowing these things to reinforce one another. This really helps to increase the tension as it provides feedback both in terms of mechanics and by giving you a painful experience. This makes you not want to fail at the game, which ramps up paranoia and other things described earlier.

Focus on anticipation

Five Nights at Freddy's is also unique in that it puts all of its focus on the things that happen before an encounter. This is quite rare in videogames where much of the gameplay happens once a monster starts coming after you. But in most horror movies and books, much of the narrative revolves around what happens beforehand. This makes sense, as a lot of fear comes from anticipation. Just take a look at movies like Ringu, where the entire story is build-up for a proper encounter in the end.

This game works pretty much like that. When the game goes your way, you never encounter the monsters. In fact, the moment there is a monster encounter the game is over. I don't think any other game has done a better job at emulating this way of building up a horror story.

Dynamic horror situations

Finally, the game is also great at causing moments of horror to emerge from its systems. Five Night At Freddy's doesn't script specific situations, but it sets up systems which will allow them to occur naturally. To me this is one of the foundational aspects of really good interactive storytelling. My own favorite moment:

It was just a few hours before the night was about to end, and I was getting really anxious. I heard a footsteps but couldn't really figure out where they were coming from. I scanned the camera feeds and couldn't see anything. The sounds died out and an eerie silence replaced it. The night was almost over and I saw that my power was nearly exhausted. I decided to a small amount of it just to make sure that nothing was outside the window. The moment I turned on the light I saw this rat creature, just staring at me. My entire body froze.

In that moment it really felt like I was taking part in a horror movie. I built up most of the tension myself and then it was a dynamic system that made the crescendo happen. It felt amazing.


Five Nights at Freddy's is far from a perfect game, of course. My biggest problem is that it gets boring fairly fast. The scares stop being scary after a while, and once you understand how the systems work your mental models becomes a lot less interesting. For me it took a less than an hour before I felt I'd had enough of the game. Much of that hour was really, really good though.

It's also worth noting that I've written this about the first game. I've played two of the sequels, but didn't think they were as good as the first.

In any case, if you haven't played the game yet, I highly recommend doing so. It's great while it lasts and there's a lot of great to design to inspire you.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

6 Reasons For Having a Defenseless Protagonist

Not having any combat can be really helpful to horror games and crucial in delivering the desired experience. This article presents the top 6 reasons for this and also explains how it ties into narrative games in general.

Outlast 2 has recently been released and has spurred a lot of discussions around not giving the protagonist any means to fight back. I haven't played enough of the game to be able to give an overall impression of it (I'm just 30 minutes or so in), but I think I've seen enough to weigh in on the discussion. We at Frictional have been knee deep in this problem since 2006, and I've been up against the problem myself ever since I made my first hobby horror game in early 2000. This is something I've been thinking about for almost 20 years, and hence something I have a strong opinion about.

The discussions around weaponless protagonists is often focused on horror games. It's really a question that concerns narrative games in general, though, and isn't just about what sort of horror you want. It's really about what sort of approach you want to take to storytelling. It also has a lot to do with my recent post on mental models, which makes this a good time to go into it.


Let's start with the main reasons why you would want a game with a defenseless protagonist. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it brings up the most important reasons.

1. It makes the player assume the appropriate story role
To someone with only a hammer, every problem will look like a nail. The same is true for the tools that we give to a player. The actions that we let the player use informs them about the role they are supposed to play within the game. It's really hard to make the player feel like a detective if they never get to do any actual detecting.

Why is this the case? Because the way we interact with the world around us is via a mental model. This mental model is built from a network of connected attributes, all having do with the various aspects of our world. When taken together this gives us a sense of how the world behaves and what we are dealing with. So when we see a character looking for clues in a crime scene, interviewing witnesses and trying to piece together evidence, it'll point towards the idea that this person is trying to solve a crime. This creates a strong belief that the character is indeed a detective. If we are simply told a character is a detective but only see him chopping wood it is really hard to take the first statement seriously. You will never model this character as a detective. No matter how many times you tell me that a pile of sharp glass is a chair, I will not perceive it as one. It simply lacks any of the attributes that I associate with things that are chairs.

In the same way, in order for the player to feel like they are inside a horror story they need to have access to the actions of the protagonist of a horror story. In horror the protagonist is supposed to be vulnerable, uncertain, and out of their depth, and to get this across to the player you need to restrict their available actions to support this. A really simple way to do this is to simply skip any means of fighting back. Sure, you can always make weapons less effective in the game, but the moment you give them any sort of weapon it's likely to awaken deeply rooted mental models in the player. We humans are really good at generalizing and unconsciously judge many situations on the first pieces of evidence we can get our hands on. So when you introduce a weapon in a horror game, the player will view the game as one where the primary action is combat and then by assumption add a variety of other attributes to the experience. This is something we experienced firsthand when making Penumbra: Overture where player would even treat an old broom as a potential weapon.

2. It make monsters feel like threats

Just as the actions at your disposal informs your role, so do your interactions inform what sort of world you are in. If the player's main action is to shoot down monsters, the monsters become target practice. Again this is mental modeling. Just like we determine something to be a chair by determining its shape, how well it can be used for sitting, and so forth, we also evaluate any dangers by what attributes we can assign to them. When "thing that I shoot to generate fun gameplay" becomes a strong attribute for a monster, a lot of the horror is lost.

If, instead, monsters are things that the player interacts with only by running away and hiding from them, the mental model becomes quite different. You start to draw connections to other things that you would run away from, and this jacks much better into your primal fear response. The monster is no longer a game object connected to a core combat loop. Instead it becomes an unknown entity that you have no means to fight. This makes a huge difference to how the player perceives the threat.

3. It leaves more to the imagination
Another problem with being able to fight any creature is that this requires many close up encounters. You need to aim at the creatures, see feedback of them being hit and so forth. Most importantly, in order for this gameplay to work you need to have lots of actual confrontations. This goes against one of the most important rules in horror: leave the monsters as vague as possible.

When your gameplay doesn't rely on combat, it's much easier to keep the monster out of sight. When you are running and hiding, the monster doesn't really need to be visible at all. You can just rely on the player seeing quick glimpses, hearing sounds, watching a motion tracker and so on in order to sustain the gameplay. This gives a lot more room for the player's imagination, and allows them to conjure up far scarier monsters than what could be rendered using polygons.

4. It makes the player paranoid
Checking how much ammo you have left, thinking about what gun to have available, planning for ammo usage, looking for items and so on - all of these are activities that the player constantly has on their mind when playing a shooter. And all of these take up mental resources that could have been used for other things instead. It's very important to know that the player has a limited amount of focus and whenever you tell the player to give something their attention, something else will have less attention. Remember this as a designer: whenever you say yes to something, you say no to something else.

What this means is that when you remove any form of combat, the player has a lot of mental focus to spare. In fact, many players will have too much. This almost leaves the player is a state of sensory deprivation. The outcome of that is that they start to pay a lot of attention to small details. It makes players more paranoid, more prone to invent reasons for small sounds and so on. This is an extremely good state in which to play horror. It's also something you lose if you give the player too much else to think about. We noticed this ourselves in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, where many levels where made better by giving the player less to do. This encouraged them to fantasize more and gave the unintuitive result of increasing their engagement,

5. It makes it harder to optimize away emotions
A combat system is something that the player often has played hundreds of hours of before. Sometimes much, much more. There are lots of well-known tactics for dealing with encounters, and players often come with a huge instinctual toolset on how to bypass various dangers. What this means is that there is ample opportunity for the player to figure out ways to beat the monsters. In turn, this means that the monsters lose their core attribute, to be horrible threats, and instead just become standard gameplay objects.

It's much harder to do this in a game without combat. When you don't have a set loop that the player uses to interact with the game's world, it becomes much harder to figure out underlying systems and to optimize. This means that the player has to rely more on their imagination to make a mental model of the world and its inhabitants. If the systems that drive the monsters are obscure, you have to think of them as living, breathing creatures and this greatly heightens any emotions that you associate with them.

Of course, if you use non-combat oriented gameplay in the wrong way, you will fall into the same trap. This is something I'll go over in a bit.

6. It is a great design constraint
As I noted before, games are often too much fun for their own good. This is most certainly true for combat. In fact, combat is probably the most common core mechanic in games. It's really easy to come up with engaging ways for you to do it. So the moment that you decide that you will have combat, it makes it so much simpler to come up with engaging scenarios for a game. This means that you are very likely to overuse combat and to drop focus on the narrative you are trying to convey.

When plot dictates that the player has to go through a sewer, how should we make this section engaging? With combat this answer is easy: just add some monsters and have the player fight them. Problem solved! You see this over and over in games that use combat, especially horror games. Even though it is clear that the focus ought to be on delivering a certain end experience, there are tons of areas that, by being satisfied with just having simple combat, counteract this goal.

If you don't have combat, you don't have this option. If your basic gameplay is just running and hiding, it's actually quite the opposite: your core mechanics are not much fun. This means that you need to think of ways to vary them, you need to be careful when to use them and there need to be other activities involved. This forces you to avoid any easy solutions. Simply relying on "add some monsters for the player to encounter" will not work in the long run. It will soon become very tiresome to play the game, because you are relying gameplay that is, at its core, not engaging enough to be the driving force of the experience.


That concludes the list of the most important reasons why a defenseless protagonist is really good to have in a horror game. Now I will go over a few common counter-arguments, and respond to them.

Claim 1: "Without combat, the game becomes boring"
I think this is both true and untrue. 

It's true in the sense that in order to get the player to experience certain things, such as the paranoia that comes with sensory deprivation, your game simply cannot be too much fun. This is how narrative works in other media as well. Certain experiences cannot simply be made into a super-engaging package. There needs to be a certain level of "boredom" for it all to work. The experience as a whole must of course be engaging, but not every game can have the moment-to-moment excitement like something like Doom. 

It is untrue in the sense that we haven't yet seen what can be done without having combat. Many people simply compare the current state of games with defenseless protagonists to the current state of games with combat, and then take this as how it will always be. I think there's a lot that can be done in order to make interesting defenseless horror, or other narrative experiences for that matter, and still have a level of "gaminess" on par with that of a shooter. The problem is that combat gameplay comes naturally and has had 40 years to evolve; gameplay without combat is much harder and has had much less time to evolve.

I have to admit that I am growing quite bored with the standard "run and hide"-gameplay. I think it can work when used in short bursts, but it's far from an ideal solution. We need to think harder and dig deeper in order to improve gameplay for horror and other narrative games. That is basically what this whole blog is about and something Frictional Games is investing heavily in. This is uncharted territory and there is huge room for improvement.

Claim 2: "No combat leads to lots of trial and error"
If you look like a game like Outlast 2, this is certainly true. There are a bunch of sections where you have to replay over and over in order to continue. This all boils down to Outlast 2 using the "run and hide"-gameplay as a foundational element of the game, and it's interesting to discuss why this must give rise to so much trial and error.

The first reason is that it is very hard to have a good analog feedback system. In a game with combat it's much easier to have stats for things like health and ammo which you can vary during an encounter and use as feedback. But in a game where you are trying to not get caught, the situation is much more binary. You either get caught or you don't. So the moment you need to give the player the feedback that they are "not playing correctly" that usually means killing them off, and forcing them to start over again.

The second reason is the fact that player failure means death and restart. This doesn't have to be the case. Few things break our immersion as much as having to replay the same section over and over. In fact, in order keep a level of presence you are almost obliged to make sure this never happens. Every time you pull the player out of the experience, you break the illusion and force them to build up the fantasy from (almost) scratch again. Player death is a huge problem in narrative games, and despite this, very few games try to deal with it.

Again this is something I think that has lots of room for improvement. It is also something that we at Frictional Games are trying to solve in both of our upcoming games. The goal is to have an experience where you never see a "Game Over" scene, yet feel a strong sense of being able to fail and is very anxious about not letting that occur. This is not an easy challenge, but it is also one with huge potential. Staying immersed and feeling your actions have consequences are big reasons why interactive storytelling is so interesting, and even small improvements can come have great impact.

Claim 3: "Not having combat is unrealistic"
This claim is highly dependant on what sort of experience you are trying to create. Sure, if you are doing a videogame version of Aliens or Deep Rising, it's a great fit. But as I have outlined in this ancient blog post, there are many different ways in which combat is featured in horror movies. If you want to do a videogame version of The Exorcist then combat will play a much smaller role - probably none. Most of the time, weapons are there as a last line of defense for the protagonist(s). From that angle it makes sense that you should have at least have some form of defense. But you also have to consider all of the negative aspects, many of which I listed earlier, that come along with having combat. If a horror story should "realistically" let the protagonist use a weapons in two or three places, then it might make more sense to try and make these places go away somehow.

Another way to approach this is to have combat in ways that doesn't imply your standard combat mechanics. Weapons could be puzzle items that the player have to be careful about when they use them. It's also possible to use the environment as a means of defense. The point I'm trying to make here is that it's possible to retain a sense of realism without reverting to full-blown combat mechanics.

Either way, I think the most important question to ask is: "What is the best way to achieve the intended experience?". If combat is the best way, even if you take all of the downsides into account, then by all means go in guns blazing!


Most of these discussions have centered around horror games, but really most of these things apply to any narrative game. It's not just horror games that strive to keep the player's imagination going or want to avoid players that optimize away emotions. These are foundational issues for any game that wants to try and tell a story. The problem of not being able to rely on an engaging set of core mechanics is also something that goes beyond horror games.

Thinking about why we want a defenseless protagonist in the first place and then figuring out means to make it better feels like a really important question to me. It connects to many of the core issues that face a game that wants to focus on narrative, and any improvements are bound to be helpful to interactive storytelling in general.

Next week I will present a system that will allow us to more easily think about these issues, and will hopefully also make it easier to find solutions.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Story - What is it good for?

Do videogames really have to try to tell stories? Are they not just better off focusing on interactive systems and gameplay? In this post I argue that stories are fundamental to the play experience by supplying context. This story context is crucial in order for videogames to engage and make the gameplay easy to grasp.

For ages there's been an argument going on about what part stories should play in videogames. Over time stories in games have gained more acceptance, but the discussion still continues. For instance, Ian Bogost recently wrote this article where he asked why you should make a game out of a story when you might as well make a movie or write a book.

This "go write a book instead" attitude isn't new. One of my favorite articles on the subject is Jesper Juul's "Games Telling Stories?". Interestingly, I pretty much agree with all of the points that Juul raises, but reject most of his conclusions. I think that video games are very well suited for telling stories and that there is no inherent conflict. Where I fully agree with Juul is on the argument that if you just take stories as we normally see them on film or in books and apply them to games, there will be a lot of friction. In order to make stories work in games you need to consider them in a different way.

The "go write a book instead" response is usually provoked by the fact that a game's attempt at storytelling disrupts the flow of the game. The most common example of this is when you need to watch some lengthy cutscene before you can continue playing. Problems also arise when juxtaposing gameplay and story gives rise to ridiculous inconsistencies, such as characters that can take hundreds of hits in-game being easily hurt in a cutscene. But this isn't evidence of stories being inherently unsuitable for games, these are just examples of sloppy implementation.

Stories are, in fact, crucial for videogames, and this has been the case almost since the earliest days of gaming history. They provide something vital to the experience: context. You can clearly see this in cabinets of early arcade machines, for instance this one for Asteroids:

The images are there to tell the player: "Those badly drawn circles coming at you are asteroids! Deal with them or perish!" This may be a really simplistic story, but it certainly is one. It gives the player a mental model of what is taking place on the screen, which allows them to intuit the workings of the world and to build a personal narrative. "I barely escaped getting crushed by an incoming asteroid!" is a much more interesting fantasy than simply thinking about the game in abstract. "I made the arrow-shape move out of the way for the incoming polygon thereby avoiding the game's fail state" doesn't come as naturally to us. In fact, it's quite hard to think of events in that manner. Take a look at this video:

You instantly think of the shapes as having intentions and personalities. Our brains are wired to do so, and the cabinet art of Asteroids taps into that. It also raises an interesting question: if humans are so prone to see stories in abstract shapes, do we really need any actual story content at all? This might seem a tempting conclusion, but there are a number of reasons it's misguided. For example:
  • It provides the player with an idea of what the game is about before they even start playing. Explaining Asteroids using abstract systems is non-trivial. Saying "you control a spaceship that has to avoid or blow up incoming asteroids" makes immediate sense.
  • It puts the player in the proper mindset from the get-go. This way we don't have to wait for a bunch of gameplay to unfold in order for the player to shape a suitable fantasy for it.
  • The fantasy is more likely to be coherent with the actual gameplay. If you just leave everything to the player's imagination, there may be later aspects of the game that contradict this, causing big problems as the player's mental model would contradict the concrete implementation of the game's systems.
  • While people are good at constructing fantasies it doesn't mean they don't need any help. Story-based context acts as a very potent catalyst for the player's inherent capabilities. If delivered properly, the result is a much deeper fantasy than the player could have made up on their own.
However this doesn't mean that you need to fill in all the blanks with story context. In fact, by leaving certain bits to the player's imagination the result can be even better. The trick is to know which parts to leave blank and which ones to fill in.[1]

It isn't just shooters with basic polygonal graphics that benefit from story context. Even adventure games, known for their strong story focus from the get-go, have similar roots to that of Asteroids. The first adventure game, Colossal Cave Adventure, started out as a simulation of a cave. In order to make the experience more interesting, Dungeons-and-Dragons-inspired events and puzzles were added to the mix. Again, the story was there to provide context to the basic experience - in this case exploring a cave system. Instead of just randomly wandering through a cave the player was now on a mission to search for a treasure and to avoid dangers that lurked in the darkness. This not only makes the experience more engaging, it also makes it easier to understand.

The case I want to make is that stories are incredibly potent for setting up play. Story is not just optional window dressing. By telling the player a story it makes it much easier for the player to engage. We as humans also grasp problems a lot more easily when they are presented as a narrative [2]. It enables us to use various built-in mental faculties to approach the problems and to figure out solutions. Understanding the dynamics of two factions that are at war comes naturally to us. When you pose the same problem in the form of mathematical equations it might require years of study to grasp the basic concepts involved. Human relationships come naturally, maths doesn't. This makes story context an indispensable part of game design.

Asteroids can get away with a really simple story because it is such a simple game. But games haven't stayed that simple, and as they grew more complicated, the story context needed to become more complicated as well. If you want the player to play as a spy infiltrating an evil organisation, simple polygons and cabinet art will not be enough. You need to add more details to your story context in order for the game's actions to make sense, be engaging, and easy to grasp.

Story isn't just something that has been slapped onto games because videogame designers have hidden desires to be film directors or novel authors instead. They are there there because they are crucial to the end experience. Sure, there are games that have pretty much zero story content - Tetris is a prime example. But these games are also very straightforward and possible to grasp based on very little play time.  The moment you want anything more complicated, story context comes naturally and becomes an ubiquitous part of conveying the game's intentions and forming a coherent experience.

It's similar to how kids play. Give them some sticks and stones and they will instantly use them in some sort of story context. Sure, they could just build stone and stick structures for the inherent enjoyment of it, but it's much more fun to think of them as castles, soldiers and a grand battle taking place. This is inherently human and permeates many more areas than just videogames and child's play. For instance, it's common to show backstories of the athletes before a sporting event in order to make the actual competition more exciting. News reporting also follow a similar pattern. Whatever the area is, the reason for having stories is the same: it provides context that makes the actual activity or content more exciting and relatable.

The idea of stories as context for play is even true for a game like The Walking Dead. In this game the player has little actual gameplay, and most of the time you just sit and watch. However, the hours of cutscenes are really just there to give context to the choices that the player eventually has to make. This might sound a bit weird, but if you think about it from a gameplay perspective it makes a lot of sense. The abstract systems that power the dialog selection wouldn't have much meaning if it weren't for the cutscenes preceding them.

You can even say that The Walking Dead requires the cutscenes for its gameplay to work. The gameplay in this case is simply making selections from a set of options that pop up on the screen. It's quite clear that abstract shapes and some cabinet art will not do the trick here. Your story context must be quite elaborate for the player to intuitively grasp and feel engaged by a simple "select the right option" process.

The same thing is true for games like the recently released What Remains of Edith Finch (which Bogost bases much of his argument around in his article). Much of the content in this game can be seen as the context for the character vignettes that you play from time to time. Without all of the intricate setup that the game has, these playable sections would have been a lot less engaging and harder to understand. In fact, it's actually quite likely that making these vignettes of gameplay was one of the major cornerstones in the game's development process. A similar process was at least true for SOMA. We started the development of it with the intention of making a few distinct scenarios playable. Much of the game was then built around that goal.

So when I say that the cutscenes in The Walking Dead are just context for the choice scenes, I am not just making a silly argument. In many cases, this is really how it works. Obviously, development is by no means this rigid, nor do I think many developers think consciously about it. Reality is always way more messy than theory. But that doesn't mean that this division is untrue. I think it's a really valuable way of looking at gameplay versus story.

It's also really important to note that this doesn't mean that context is just a superfluous aspect of the game experience. The story context can be engaging in its own right, and it is almost always beneficial if it is. But that doesn't take away the fact that the story content is there to provide context for the play. In fact I think it is crucial that we realize this as it clears up a lot of confusion around video game storytelling.
  • Story is not just plot, a sequence of events; it is whatever story content that provide context to the play experience. The setting, characters, themes and so forth all have part in this. In order to create a proper context there may be a need to tell a certain sequence of events, but it is by no means a requirement. This is where storytelling in video games and film/novels/etc. diverge and it is crucial to keep this in mind.
  • When it feels like a game has poor storytelling, it's not the same as it being unnecessary. The question to ask is: "Could there have been a better way to provide story context?". The problem is not that the game tries to focus on its characters, the problem is that the game is bad at providing the necessary context in an efficient and engaging manner.
  • Games are not trying to "tell deeper stories" compared to film or novels. They are trying to provide deeper thematic play. A core part in achieving this is by putting more focus on the story context. This is a very different goal from that of other media and to say "you might as well write a book" is to gravely misunderstand the challenge at hand.
Obviously context and play aren't simply two separate things. Context very often has a big part in influencing what sort of gameplay is best suited to it, and there may even be gameplay created with the sole purpose of influencing a certain bit of context. 

For me the most interesting question at this moment is: when it comes to evolving storytelling in videogames, what is the relationship between context and play? How can we set up context in such a way that it's the play that does the bulk of the actual storytelling?

I think this is a problem in many story-heavy games. There may be a lot of well-told story in them, but it's delivered in the form of cut-scenes, dialog, written notes, and so forth. I don't get to actually play it. This is also where I think seeing story as context comes as handy. It makes it evident that "classical story" in games is not an end goal in itself, but a framework, there in order to enhance the experience of play. To be better at understanding how this works and how to build experiences around it is where I see the future of interactive storytelling.

[1] I will go deeper into this in a future blog post.
[2] Here is a really good example of this.