A Game Design Vocabulary

Exploring the Foundational Principles Behind Good Game Design

Review - A Game Design Vocabulary

Sebastian Atay is just happy to be here. He likes games, ephemera, overthinking things, and trying not to be a terrible human being.

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“This is a book about game design – videogame design, specifically. In 2014. Why? We’ve been making digital games for more than 50 years, if you take Tennis For Two (1958) as an arbitrary starting point. You’d think 50 years would give game creators a solid foundation to draw from. You’d think in 50 years there’d be a significant body of writing on not just games, but the craft of design. You’d think so, but you’d be disappointed. Every day, playing contemporary videogames or reading about them, I see evidence that what both creators and critics desperately need is a basic vocabulary of game design”(A Game Design Vocabulary 3).

Anna Anthropy’s 2012 Rise of the Videogame Zinesters made a compelling argument that games shouldn’t be the preserve of a select few: as a mass medium anybody should be able to create a game – and games would be better for it. Her focus was broad – attesting to the variety of games that could be made – and her material tailored to those left cold by academic discourse.  Her newer work, A Game Design Vocabulary, written in collaboration with Naomi Clark, retains Anthropy’s proclivity for drawing on a diversity of games as examples, and this time around, Anthropy deploys these case studies to help us comprehend the crunchy problems of game design. Here, Anthropy and Clark address players, students, professionals and academics, seeking to start a conversation about the terminology we use in our criticism; they even propose their own analytical framework to get the ball rolling.

Chapter-by-Chapter

The book is divided into two sections. Anthropy takes the first half, Elements of Vocabulary, to set out a schema for analysing core elements of game structure and design. Chapter 1, Language, makes the case for why a “game design vocabulary” is in fact necessary. She begins by pointing out a bizarre decision Nintendo made when they reworked the opening screen of the classic Super Mario Bros. when making New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The designers kept it exactly the same, with one exception: they added a prominent arrow pointing to the right to indicate to the player what direction Mario should be going in. This tutorial element is as unnecessary because the level design itself – Mario’s position on the screen, facing right; the floating, shiny enticement of the “?” block; the enemy walking left – all these signs already tell the player everything they need to know about what to do next.

Anthropy is frustrated at the development of design as a discipline: “Why are game creators unable to understand and learn from their own history? Why are they blundering over problems that were solved almost 30 years ago?”(5). Designers do not understand how game elements convey information to the player, and the trend towards tutorials is symptomatic of a lack of confidence in their “ability to teach the player the rules of her game without explicitly stating them upfront” (6).  Anthropy thinks that what is needed is a vocabulary, to empower us to analyse our work critically and to de-mystify the game creation process .

Chapter 2, Verbs and Objects, explores the design of player mechanics. If a game is an experience created by rules, verbs are the most important of all, as they are the rules that give the player the freedom to change the game state. The design of verbs affects both how a game feels and what it means. Good design is where verbs create interesting choices, and interact meaningfully with other verbs, like the interplay between moving and shooting. Good design takes into account the nature of the player’s controls and how these inscribe their verbs with certain meanings. Not all of a game’s objects are Objects; Objects are exclusively those elements that are acted upon by a player’s verbs, serving to complete the sentences the verb starts. Samus shoots a door, and it opens. Mario jumps on a goomba, and it dies. Designers, she warns, should be wary of introducing too many objects or verbs. They should instead work on developing existing verbs and objects fully.

Chapter 3, Scenes, is largely concerned with level design. A scene is given as the most basic unit of pacing, and so it might vary significantly from game to game. For example, a game like the classic Pong has only one scene, while Super Mario Bros. is more complicated. Though it’s separated into worlds and levels, within each level we can identify separate units like “the part where Mario climbs the stairs and jumps over the pit,” which then constitutes a scene. Scenes should be used to develop rules, and, most importantly, to introduce them. One design technique when making a series of scenes is to first create safe areas where the player is able to test out the limitations of her verbs, or able to observe the behaviour of certain objects (like enemies) without being placed in immediate danger. In this way, we develop the player’s knowledge so that when meeting these same objects in a later scene, she is able to comprehend the implications of the game state and act on that knowledge accordingly.

Finally, in Chapter 4, Context, Anthropy discusses the ways that visual and audio design can be used to convey information to the player and shape her performance during scenes.  Anthropy draws a distinction between visual design used to immediately clue the player into some property of an object (say, flames used to suggest a pit is deadly in Super Crate Box), and recurring visual motifs which are developed over the course of the game (like what it means for an object to be made of metal in Spyro the Dragon). She argues that good design is using audio and visual elements to help the player understand how a game works without the need for tutorials.

Naomi Clark tackles the second half of the book, Conversations, which deals more explicitly with designers understanding and planning for the experience of the player. Chapter 5, Creating Dialogue, is a short introduction which explores why we might frame the conversation between a designer and a player in one way over another: “Why might you want to pace the development of a particular verb[…] What might you try to say with all that vocabulary?” There are no definitive answers, but the possibility space is vast: “Conversations can be polite and formal or raucous and free-wheeling; the same is true of games” (115).

In Chapter 6, Resistance, Clark offers various lenses for looking at how difficulty works within this conceptual framework of game-as-conversation. “Resistance” is the way a game pushes back on the player as they attempt to exert control over the game state using verbs. “Flow” is a state the player experiences analogous to “being in the zone”, but is also the shape a game’s difficulty curve assumes, tending either towards boredom (where player mastery exceeds challenge) or frustration (where challenge exceeds player mastery). Clark unpacks difficulty systems alongside punishments and rewards as ways of modifying the player’s behaviour and experience. Clark also complicates Anthropy’s definition of verbs from Chapter 2, introducing resources as rewards that enable player verbs, such as ammunition which switch on the player’s ability to “shoot”.

The final chapter, Storytelling, looks at the way that games tell stories. Storytelling is divided into two modes: “Authored story,” which is the deliberate use of game elements by a designer to convey a particular meaning, and “emergent story,” which is the experience of the player as they come to understand how the rules of the game work, and her experience of interacting with the game through verbs. The rest of the chapter offers different methods for approaching storytelling within this framework, as well as advising on the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches. Even cutscenes have their place: “[cutscenes] can show what kind of imagined world a game exists in and help make sense of what’s happening – or even help create a feeling of nonsense or humour” (161).

Conclusions

I bought A Game Design Vocabulary largely because I had read the Level Design Lesson series on Anthropy’s blog, and was really impressed with her analysis. Like Elise Vist, I had read Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and wished (perhaps uncharitably) there had been more in the way of close readings. Here was a book that promised all that and more – the framework for me to start writing my own close readings, too. With those as my expectations, I came away unsatisfied, but ultimately enlightened.

In Elements of Vocabulary, I felt as though Anthropy could have spent more time fleshing out the meaning of verbs and objects by way of example, as I found myself asking questions that the book didn’t even begin to answer. Is “saving” a verb? Presumably not often, as it doesn’t typically change the game state, but merely records it so that the player can start again from a more convenient location.But then, what do we call actions that the player performs – pausing, saving, loading, looking at an inventory window or map – that operate in this way? As I’ve argued before, in Metroid Prime the time that the player spends looking at the map deciding where to go is very important to the experience of that game, and we’ll lose sight of moments like that if we don’t have a way to classify them. In Slouching Towards Bedlam, the player’s ability to save is worked into the fiction of the game itself, and so the act of saving becomes meaningful even if it isn’t actually a verb.

The idea of a main/primary verb is something that both authors make use of, but fail to elaborate on. Clark tells us that in Shadow of the Colossus “The player’s primary verbs involve ‘climbing”’and ‘jumping’, ‘hanging’ onto the giant’s enormous body, and ‘stabbing’ it” (113). Yet, is “primary verb” a useful distinction to make if the player can have so many primary verbs? Is frequency a good indicator of what a primary verb should be? It seems weird that we should say “walking” is the primary verb in Mario, when the verb that seems to most obviously characterize that character is, in fact, “jump”.

Sometimes, there are small factual inaccuracies that harm the authority of this book. For example, it’s stated that NetHack has 100 levels (128), but in reality, the number of levels in NetHack is variable. Similarly,  Clark says that in Shadow of The Colossus the player uses an amulet to summon a beam of light to see where the next Colossus is (134). The player uses her sword to channel the light, and it’s meaningful here that it should be the sword; the player is being led by the promise of violence.

My biggest gripe with this book is that there is no referencing and no bibliography. A Game Design Vocabulary opens with the complaint that we have failed to learn from the past, but compromises that message by failing to cite authors who have already written in this field. At times, it seems obvious that a paragraph has its pedigree in Juul or Murray or Bogost or Sicart and so on,  and it seems strange not to mention their work. What’s worse is that, supposing this was my first book about game design, there is no second step. Admittedly, there are discussion questions, which are a good start, but, say I’m interested in theories of flow, or environmental storytelling. Where can I go next? Which articles? Which writers? Which books? The authors want to start a conversation, but without any connection to the works that have informed it, or links to other discussions of game design vocabulary, AGDV undermines its purpose.

And that’s a shame, because it’s otherwise well written, accessible, and unquestionably of use to the would-be student of game design.

The groundwork that Anthropy lays in the first half of the book, Elements of Vocabulary, is rock solid. Her focus in each chapter is tight, her explanations are clear and stripped of jargon, and her conversational writing style (and sense of humour) make even abstract concepts easy to digest. She has that rare talent: the ability to explain a topic simply and effectively without being patronizing.

The figures in the book are used to great effect, and really help illustrate both authors’ points. The structure of the book is well conceived; each chapter builds successfully upon the last, so when it came to chapter 3 I felt like my grasp of Objects and Verbs helped me to understand Anthropy’s argument in a way I couldn’t have if I’d skipped the first forty pages of the book.

Clark’s writing is strong, and more academic in tone. Like her co-author, she makes excellent use of examples to illustrate her points, drawing from a broad range of games rather than just the AAA.  Taken as a whole, Conversations is harder to digest because the scope of material being covered is so diverse. Yet,  since the information is broken down into discrete sections, I can imagine this being most useful to a student who wants to dip their toes into a topic, like Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (126-8).

The biggest strength of A Game Design Vocabulary is its unfailing commitment to being practical. I can imagine how, in the hands of two other authors, this book could have mutated into a dense diatribe describing the primacy of Objects and Verbs vs. all other tools of analysis. Instead, from the get-go, terminology is only ever a means to an end. X term is useful because it allows us to see Y, which can be used to do Z in your game. Here is perhaps the most definitive collection of game design wisdom yet, and it is marshalled into the service of making better games.

Fans of Zinesters may be curious as to whether AGDV retains Anthropy’s focus on the power of games for social change. It does, after a fashion, but the focus is firmly on the “power of games”, leaving the “for social change” part to be implied. As such, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters makes an interesting companion to fans of A Game Design Vocabulary: the former encourages us to make games about anything, and the latter urges us to make them well.

I don’t think there’s a better way of ending this review than with the words of the authors themselves.

“This book is intended above all to start a discussion, to be a starting place for a necessary talk about design that hopefully will continue long after. Once you break a silence, it’s impossible to get folks to shut up. Criticise this book and tear it apart – as long as we keep talking about what design is.

Here is a book on digital game design. May many more follow” (12).

*Note: some minor alterations were made to the original post in the interest of clarity*