Okay, linkbait title, I’m not going to tell anyone how to actually play games.
However, it is easy to take a lot of the game playing experience for granted. Writing this is pretty self indulgent and for my own benefit of organising my thoughts on the matter. I wanted to highlight a few things that I’ve learned to appreciate when playing video games. Having spent a lot of time speaking with people in various roles within the video game production process, the work they do and the level to which they do it can be mind blowing. With this insight, I find myself noticing and enjoying more of the overall experience, finding joy even in games I might previously not have appreciated as much. I’ve tried to lump these thoughts under some broad, ill-considered categories that are very much open to interpretation but helped me in collating my thoughts.
Game design is a vast skill set that encompasses much of what you actually _do_ in a game. As organised creatures we tend to lump titles together under their most significant characteristic. “First person shooter”, “Puzzle game”, “Side-scrolling platformer” etc but this does little to credit the thousands of little details that go into a game’s world and mechanics. Don’t draw opinion of a game by it’s genre, rather how it stands out or differs within that genre. Look for aspects you’ve never seen before or familiar mechanics used in new ways. Something I find myself doing that is useful for appreciating good game design is to ask myself “I wonder how they came up with that?”.
Level design is another subset of game design that is worth taking a step back from the in-the-moment experience to marvel at. Consider how the game has escorted you from A to B and what elements it has re-used over and over but in such a way that you’ve felt like you’re getting a constantly fresh experience. Notice how a level might be structured by zone or how pathways open up as you progress. How is it that you start to become familiar with some fictional location? Even in today’s vast open world experiences.
Another aspect of game design, is narrative design. This is particularly interesting topic because of the alternate approaches taken towards it. You can have a story driven game design or gameplay driven. Sometimes it can be easy to tell the approach and sometimes very difficult. I’d say this is also not a binary choice rather a continuum with the narrative forming either very early on or very late in the process. Either way it’s worth paying attention to the story (or lack thereof) throughout an experience and think about how well integrated it feels with the actions you take in the game.
The first term that I used for this huge category was “Art”, but that felt like a disservice to other roles all of which are equally artistic. The visual aesthetic of a game has a huge impact on the overall experience and feel. What I find particularly interesting about the visuals of a game is how broad the roles involved can be at different scales. AAA titles demonstrate the value of a team of dedicated artists (for characters, environments, props, vehicles and so on) across several production stages (from concept to modelling, texturing, rigging, animating etc) creating hyper realism or eye-popping fictional worlds. It’s well worth taking time to look at all of the pixels on screen to see how far the attention to detail goes. From blades of grass blowing in the wind to NPCs fighting in the background, how a running character transitions into a walk, turn or stop. Often the most impressive achievements are the ones you wouldn’t notice because they look so normal, life-like and fluid. Make a point of noticing every rock and clump of moss, someone was tasked with creating that so it’s nice to appreciate such fine details.
Equally impressive are the feats achieved by much smaller teams, even individual developers who not only have to produce all of their own art but do everything else in their game too. When the pursuit of ultra high fidelity might not be possible on the same scale, often the strategic choice to simplify aesthetic can become the defining feature. Be that by being monochromatic, 2D, utilising a basic animation style or some other intentional deviation from the quest of realism.
Another area of a game’s look that is often under appreciated is the non-game world visuals such as the UI, help system and menus. This is particularly interesting coming from the world of web/mobile development and especially in regards to UX. The challenge in games is finding the balance between creating an intuitive experience whilst not detracting from the core experience or breaking immersion. Too realistic could leave menus hard to distinguish and unusable but too much contrast and you’re reminding the player this is a game and jarring the experience. Of similar note is there is an increasing concern over accessibility in games which is great to see.
Audio is definitely an area I didn’t appreciate before I met some sound designers and score composers. Discovering the story behind some recognisable sound is a fascinating insight. Again, the fact you don’t notice your character’s footsteps as you traverse different surfaces is testament to the quality of the work done by an audio team. When you’re facing off against a creature from another world and it seems totally normal and expected that they might shriek in such away, think about what might this be that you’re hearing. Chances are they haven’t recorded a hell demon live in concert. Other times though, it might be actual real-world noises you’re hearing. For example in her Rocket Jump Events Guildford talk, Jessica Saunders shared stories of recording chimps at the zoo as part of her work at Rocksteady.
As well as the sound effects, the music of a game has a massive influence on the atmosphere and emotional impact. Whether that’s a carefully curated list of existing tracks, a specifically composed score of new music or even procedurally generated music that reacts to the input or context of the player. I’ve learned that a great video game soundtrack will also stand by itself and makes for great listening outside the context of game playing.
One of the magic tricks performed by video games, is convincing us the moving images on our screens can actually talk. Emotions can be portrayed from even the most un-lifelike of things thanks to the contributions of voice actors. Talking characters, avatars, animals, trees even doors are made believable by incredibly talented actors who bring them to life. An incredibly difficult role given the non-linear progression of a game, often depicting things that don’t yet exist.
Another all-encompassing category of unsung heroes are the programmers and technicians that achieve incomprehensible recreations of life and more. From physics engines to lighting systems, artificial intelligence and procedurally generated universes. More magic easily ignored as you blast through the next wave of monsters. Multiplayer games keep track of tens of players in a single game, managing thousands of games across the world, facilitating headshots and keeping players connected 24/7. It’s easy to become complacent and complain about the odd disconnection, moments of lag or glitch but this is just because we’ve become so accustomed to responsive, fast intelligent gameplay on a phenomenal scale.
There are undoubtedly countless more details I’ve overlooked in this brief homage to the enormous efforts that go into making games. So next time you fire up a game on your console, PC or mobile phone, allow yourself to look a little closer and take note of some extra details. Almost as if it’s an art form or something…
Spotted something I’ve overlooked? Let me know on Twitter.
#adventblogging post 11 of 24 see the rest.