The Craft of Game Design Serves One

Discussing the "rules of the craft" in games and other media; how "best practices" in game design is seasoning to taste rather than objective technical excellence or mastery of a medium; and why creators belonging to marginalised groups disrupt this "normative taste".

The Rules of the Craft

Writing on the “rules of the craft” is common to every medium. Fiction writing, for example, has long been beholden to writers-writing-books-on-writing-for-writers outlining their take on ideas we refer to as merely guidelines but treat as golden rules. Some of the most recognisable are the ideas that “every scene should advance the plot in some way”, “a line of dialogue should reveal something about the person saying it”, “characters should be relatable,” and especially “show, don’t tell.”

And that’s not to mention the numerous strictures about how we structure our writing. Take a new line for dialogue, capitalise the first letter of every sentence, and make sure you have an opinion in the roaring boring war over the Oxford comma. Style is seen as a matter of taste, but composition and orthography are technical: place a comma somewhere interesting, and you won’t just be unpolished, unprofessional or naïve – you’ll also apparently be objectively incorrect.

Break the rules of novel-writing too many times by using only rhyming couplets, and a new norm, a new schema, will be created – “poetry”, to keep offenders separate from “prose” (and vice versa). Even within a given medium, exceptions exist in such wildly different ways – including Finnegans Wake, House of Leaves, Lanark and If on a winter's night a traveler — that they demonstrate there is no objective truth to these rules or guidelines at all.

That’s not to say that these rules-in-all-but-name are useless – it’s just that they’re not rules. They’re guidelines, sure, but not for quality, significance, adherence to a medium, or even masterful use of the medium - I think they’re snippets of easily-transmitted conventional wisdom which outline a particular kind of taste, a very specific style, which is often the norm from which all deviations are compared and judged. This norm ostensibly makes it easier for us to communicate complex ideas without having to constantly explain what we’re saying and justify why our explanation is significant – but it also limits which ideas we get to communicate, and who gets to communicate them.

The Craft of Games

Games are no exception. “Avoid ludonarrative dissonance”, “make the player feel important” and “take time to polish your game” are all ideas that ostensibly describe a seemingly-objective “best practice” of game design, but which actually just make a game more appealing to a very specific kind of taste - a taste which has become the norm, propped up by ideas like designing and reviewing games as though they were merely products, objects with objective technical specifications like time taken to play, number of levels, whether or not the game has a system to represent the player holding a firearm - that can only be measured rationally, never analysed emotionally, leading to fervent consumerism such as Gamergate.

One of the motivating factors behind Gamergate was a demand for objectivity in games; that games be judged not on the subjective tastes of reviewers – or worse, those of people who were perceived to hate games – but on their own objective, inherent merits. But the qualities we use to ‘review’ games are never necessarily objective, inherent, or meritorious.

Similarly, proponents of “games formalism” explore games through the lens of their “game-ness”, their function as a rules-based system of mechanics and mechanisms, perceived as separate from and unbeholden to their aesthetic, narrative or thematic content. “Formalists” are often contrasted with “zinesters” that are vaguely defined as those whose values do not prioritise the game as a system, resulting in a dichotomy that not only misses the point but isn’t even useful to how we describe the conversations that are going on regarding games-as-systems in the first place.

I think writer’s guidelines – and rules of the craft for other artistic media – only disguise the fact that our appraisal and definitions of a given text, game or other work of art, ultimately comes down to how well it conforms to a specific kind of taste. Conventional wisdom helps us recognise and categorise works that fall into a particular category of taste – often one that’s easily marketable and profitable, and can even have the window-dressing changed just enough to make it appear fresh and new, and sometimes even seemingly-radical. It creates a common norm – a “good taste” – that we can refer to without having to continually assert that our art is valid, meaningful and skilfully created, but which constricts which ideas are the ones that afforded the most time, attention, significance, and money – often those ideas which are not easily marketable nor profitable, such as ‘why does the medium of videogames represent blackness so poorly, and how can it be challenged?’, or ‘what does it mean that our approach to establishing empathy through options in videogames doesn’t account for the fact that the suffering of marginalised people is not an optional or deferrable experience?

Disrupting the Craft

This is one of the reasons why the games that criticise or reject this “normative taste” tend to be members of marginalised and stigmatised groups, such as LGBTQ people, people of colour, disabled people; marginalised creators are already aware by dint of their existence that many of the things they like are described as anything from “alternative” to “outsider art”, from “poor taste” to “inappropriate”. As a queer games creator, I’ve found there are often uncomfortable parallels between the “normative taste” that informs many AAA games especially, and ideas which uphold or contribute to compulsory heterosexuality and heteronormativity (the idea that heterosexuality is the norm from which all other sexuality abnormally deviates, instead of one of many expressions of sexuality and one which has become expected, normalised and promoted by almost every aspect of society). I see “normative taste” of both kinds in the fact that representing elements of LGBTQIA life is seen as anything from irrelevant to insignificant.

So-called ‘alternative games’ or ‘punk games’ – sometimes discussed under the moniker #altgames, but often by, for and about people and events so diverse as to defy a single label - disrupt normative game taste by demonstrating that games can be used for a vast array of different experiences, many of which the conventional wisdom of normative taste would prevent us from reaching. What happens when we include game verbs like ‘nurturing’, ‘caring’ and ‘resting’ over ‘collecting’, ‘killing’ and ‘running’? What does it mean when the rules that govern someone’s life are translated into a game system that is almost impossible to play?

Games like thecatamitesSpace Funeral and Access Games’ Deadly Premonition fulfil a similar role in games as did Finnegans Wake did for prose. Space Funeral uses blocky sprites completely unlike the refined, pixel-perfect sprites often celebrated and ‘elevated’ to art by RPG fans and creators, as well as a hodge-podge system of unbalanced player stats that transform battle from a mechanical play of numbers and probabilities to an aesthetic comedy of over-exaggerated morbid whimsy. Deadly Premonition has become a cult success despite – likely even because of – its clunky ugliness that disregards many of the principles of UX heuristics, player-centric design and game polish that are advocated by game designers. The user interface is haphazard, characters telegraph their motivations and speak with odd idiosyncrasies that are not in the least bit believable, and missions often include bizarre, off-key solutions.

Even games which are deliberately or accidentally hostile to the player, or which fly in the face of conventional ideas of best-practice game design can provide significant, meaningful experiences. When it comes to non-normative games, not only can you break the rules, but I don't think you even necessarily need to know the rules before you break them – even this is part of the conventional wisdom used to uphold the “normative taste” as something that must be learned first before a creator may deviate from it.

I think the “craft” of game design is a only a serving suggestion for bringing games closer to a very specific and often more marketable and profitable acquired taste, which is held up by those with power in the industry as a standard to judge all other tastes against – often to the detriment of any who may find that taste bitter or unpalatable, who are already exploring new tastes and flavours outside of the stringent astringent dishes on offer from normative games.

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