Design Reboot by Jonathan Blow

A presentation on how lots of current game design is actively encouraging unhealthy behaviors in gamers and not teaching any useful lessons, building on Koster/etc.'s stuff about gaming as learning. I’d summarize it as “now that games are getting as big as movies, games are starting to pander to people’s crassest desires in the same way to make a buck.” Not in the visual content stuff everyone’s discussed to death - violence, pornography, etc. - in the gameplay mechanics itself.

I think this is the Jonathan Blow from here with 1500 posts. He quotes mkozlows from here on Bioshock and Portal, at least.

Presentation link.

I gave a lecture on November 27th at the Montreal International Games Summit; this lecture was highly critical of current game design practice. It’s about what I think is wrong with the intentions designers have when they set out to create a game, and points out that, as games are played by more people, this will become increasingly societally damaging. It also holds some suggestions about how to create games that are deeper and more meaningful, rather than being throw-away entertainment.

The graph of how much it matters to rescue or harvest the little sisters in Bioshock on page 34 is fun.

By way of Rock Paper Shotgun.

Bioshock claims to be about altruism and humanity, but here is what it really teaches:

Shoot everyone you see without warning, from as far away as possible.
Only care for women and pre-teen girls.
It’s a very weird game that we couldn’t proffer as an example to normal humans.

I’ll probably check it out when the video version is released. Downloading the regular audio/slide version right now.

It is the same person that posts here under that name. He’s made similar arguments before here, especially regarding rewarding players for non-accomplishments. The problem comes in that games are primarily entertainment, they aren’t meant to be behavior training programs for the good of society.

Even narrative films that take a nuanced approach (not going for the buck first) will model antisocial behaviors in the process and require that the audience already have an understanding to get that from the film.

Similarly games that try to offer the same kind of nuanced exploration through their narrative and/or gameplay will require that the person playing already have a firm grasp of society’s behavioral expectations to understand the arguments it’s trying to make. In this way, it doesn’t matter that Bioshock’s gameplay seems to model anti-social or bizarre behavior because it expects us to be able to parse the medium.

Edit: In a way, he’s questioning the ability of the videogame audience to rationally understand what they are playing. That’s almost insulting. Hehe.

The second problem with this is that correct modeling is either a complicated problem, time intensive, or both. There are simpler modeling systems that can be used to get ideas across but it’s tough trying to make those seem fun and be in context while avoiding “arty” connotations.

For example, right now I’m mulling over (and should get to writing my design doc) a game about surviving the arguments of parents from a child’s perspective. Each level puts you in the role of a child in a family with the parents arguing. The goal is to “survive” by avoiding the noise of the fight and hiding. The parent’s volume and anger level is represented by a flashing circle around the parent. It grows as the volume increases and becomes more red as their anger increases. If the child (you) comes in contact with the circles, you shrink in size. If you come in contact enough with the circle eventually you disappear and lose.

That’s the basic feedback loop. I have some variations, modeling in a very simple and abstract way, including siblings, direct conflict with parents, etc. Still, it may convey an idea, but that idea requires an understanding of the parent/child relationship going in. Plus, would anyone even pay for such a thing or call it fun?

No one, in the same way people don’t like boring documentaries about why people commit crimes. It’s not too hard to come up with a variant that’d sell, though - how about the child’s point of view, with the same mechanic, but in a GTA-style world of competing factions at school, home, bullies, gangs, etc.?

Yes, actually, I would.

Please build it if you can afford to. Make art, dont make the obvious. Maybe it wouldnt sell more than one copy (me) but who cares? Money is no measure of artistic merit and you would have the far longer lived pleasure of having built something you believed in and was unique.

I understand your point. However, what you risk there (at least in my example) by expanding scope is turning it into a game where mechanics can trump the point. Plus, again at least in this case, by each level being a different home I can model various scenarios and explore the theme rather than dilute it.

It’s a balancing act. You don’t want to turn it into just pixels moving on the screen where players goal becomes only to “win,” but you don’t want to lose them with unnecessary distractions. Even serious cinema has its unrealistic tropes/techniques to hook the viewer.

You should read Ebert’s review of Bubble where he talks about our expectations of film and stylized acting. I’m not sure when gaming will fully develop its own stylized expression. But I think it’s ok to have one. Anyway, I’m listening to the presentation now. It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately as well so it should be fun. :)

Woo!! Hehe. The pay for it was rhetorical. If I get around to it’ll only be 5-10 levels and be free to whoever is interested. Unfortunately, a slacker I am. It’s on my lengthy list of incomplete projects. : /

One man’s art is the next’s heavy-handed proseltyzing.

I’m not sure games are to the point where they represent a broad-enough spectrum of life to start pulling out all the punitive object lessons. I get that you have to do something if you want them to become a medium that’s more than just pulp, but I’m not at all convinced that the mechanism to get there is to pull out the brickbat of social responsibility and start whacking people around with it. Seems like subversion of the current juvenile nature of the medium should come first to ease the audience into things. Isn’t that usually the standard progression from most mediums to transition from cute gimmick to actual social mirror?

There’s a kernel of insight in there – the bit about architected vs. exploratory game design. But instead of developing that further, he chose to front-load it with a bunch of arrogant, irresponsible crap.

I wouldn’t normally be so harsh, but the tone of that presentation was so needlessly self-important and inflammatory that it invalidated any merit it might’ve had. It’s bad enough to take the most simplistic analysis of two popular games and coming to the conclusion that “BioShock sucks!” and that Blizzard/Vivendi are killing the children! Then putting up pictures of fat kids, and equating massively multiplayer games with McDonalds marketing practices and the depletion of natural resources and the hole in the ozone layer, just comes across as shrill Berkeley-townie-esque raging against the machine.

Especially since the presentation is ostensibly about game design and not marketing, but even the most cursory analysis of his complaints he made about BioShock and WoW are complaints against how they were marketed, not about the core game design.

The layers of meaning in BioShock have been analyzed all over the internet, with multiple explanations given over and over again in various threads on this very message board. But instead of saying, “oh, I didn’t have that interpretation of the game,” we hear that there’s no merit to the game, that the shallow version presented in the pre-release marketing and described on the back of the box is the only “meaning” to be found, and that the game is evil and sending a hateful message to players.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t missing the entire point of BioShock and completely failing to grasp why it’s so significant. The value of BioShock is that it’s built on the idea of an unreliable narrator, and you’re expected to look past the obvious interpretation and figure out what the game is really about. It’s not even that difficult – the last half of the game, as uneven as it is, makes it explicit. To miss that is unfortunate; to say that it doesn’t exist and the game sucks because it doesn’t exist, is just plain arrogant.

And as for WoW: apparently massively multiplayer games have a level grind. Well, no shit. I got tired of the game long ago, but I’m not so arrogant to assume that my problems with the game (I don’t like grouping with strangers, and my friends never played the game that regularly) are inherent to the game so that there’s nothing of merit to it. And I sure as hell wouldn’t wrap my dissatisfaction with the game with shots from “Super Size Me” and pointing out how Blizzard and Vivendi are killing people in China and Korea!

Even I can tell that there’s a game there, for those who want to play it. There’s tactical combat in dungeons and raids, and team management, and players figuring out strategies of how to use different character classes in combination to maximize damage. I think it’s a tedious game, personally, but it’s every bit as valid as any other class-based multiplayer game, and it exists separate from the grinding treadmill. Do Blizzard and Vivendi profit from the grinding treadmill? Hell yes. Are they as irresponsible as McDonalds or tobacco companies for ensuring class balance to keep players from feeling frustrated, while including content updates and changes based on player feedback? Hell no, and the implication is fucking ridiculous.

It’s just a damn shame, because there are plenty of completely morally irresponsible companies making a huge profit off of that irresponsibility. And games are at a turning point, where we can stop mimicking other media and start looking for better ways to convey meaning and tell stories through the gameplay itself. That’s the greatest potential for games in the next few years, and we’re just now seeing developers able to make progress in that area.

Pointing fingers at two popular games based solely on an overly simplistic analysis is not the way to make progress.

I just listened to the talk, which was very interesting. He says something like “the rules of a game are the meaning of life for that game” and that it is good for a game to tell you something interesting directly through the gameplay. I have a couple of thoughts about this.

The first is that the whole genre of simulation games, which he doesn’t mention, exists to teach you about part of the world through the game rules. I have learnt about physics through playing flight sims, about the driving forces in medieval history from Crusader Kings, and about how battles work from Highway to the Reich. I agree that there should be more games like these and the talk makes me understand a bit better why I like the ones I do.

The second is that there is more to a game than the game rules. I liked his criticism of Bioshock for having gameplay that contradicts the message it wants to send, but, as long as the gameplay doesn’t actively get in the way, there are other ways in which games can get a message across. I think that the thing that games are really good at, better even than books or movies, is building a world that has a certain feeling, and putting the player in it. The interaction and gameplay make the world feel real and help shape your experience, but they don’t have to be the most important things.

Here are some examples of games which I think successfully explored worthwhile themes, through the world they build: Shadow of the Colossus is, for me, about loneliness and grief. You are wondering alone in a huge, uncaring world; you are grappling metaphorically with big emotions; and you no longer care about your safety or the consequences of your actions. STALKER is about the poisoned Eastern European landscape, and how the little man survives the weirdness created by powerful forces way above his head. We Love Katamari is about the delightful variety of stuff that there is in the world at all scales.

Silent Hunter III works in both ways. The gameplay helped me understand the Battle of the Atlantic, but I thought that the game was also about the World War II feeling of men stuck together in a dangerous situation, trying to interface with semi-primitive machinery.

Ultima IV?

Is he entirely off the mark, though?

I’m going to agree with Chuck, but I wouldn’t put it quite so bluntly. I think everyone should download this talk and listen to it because I think Jonathan is talking about an important issue. But like Chuck, I agree that pretty much the first half of the presentation - the first 29 slides at least - should probably be thrown away.

In my days of teaching philosophy I always made sure my students did not being their essays with the tired device of going to Webster’s dictionary and looking up the word “virtue,” “justice,” or whatever and starting their paper with that. It’s a sophomoric prop that often misses the whole point of defining things. Likewise, I always blanch a little when I see someone try to make this big essentialist claims about anything. In this case, Jonathan’s attempts to define the nature of videogames is just distracting and unnecessary.

As far as I can tell, Jonathan wants to make the interesting claim that videogames are essentially mathematically constructed feedback systems, and that there are “good” or “healthy” feedback systems and “bad” or “unhealthy” feedback systems. This is all very interesting, and I’d like to hear more about that. Sadly, Jonathan tries to motivate us to care about the discussion in a rather silly way: we need to get videogames right because (cue Strauss’ Also Sprach Tharastustra and a monolith slowly rising in the background for added emphasis) VIDEOGAMES WILL BE HUGE AND WE WILL BE SHAPING HUMANITY.

Hmmm, I doubt it. The only reason you need to care about Jonathan’s talk is because you love videogames, he loves videogames, and we want to make videogames better. That’s enough motivation. The first 40 minutes of the talk are full of these sorts of eye-rolling pronouncements:

  • The sadness produced by music is different than the sadness produced by a poem (Really? How do you even verify this claim?)
  • Videogames are art, and, oh, Everyday Shooter is an example of videogame art (I dunno, I’ve played it and I’m skeptical)
  • Books have changed fundamentally what it means to be human (I tend to doubt it, and regard the creation of tools like books as an effect rather than furthering cause)
  • Movies have, in a subtle way, changed the essence of humanity (How?)
  • The CEO of McDonald’s should be ashamed (Why? Will Wright makes addictive products too, should Will be ashamed?)
  • Videogames “have the power to effect humanity” (No they don’t)
  • “The people in this room have a lot of power.” (No we don’t)
  • Good videogame design is a public mental health issue (Umm…)

But if you cut away all of these wildly bold claims that aren’t really needed, the essence of his talk is interesting. Are there such a thing as healthy/good feedback loops and unhealthy/bad feedback loops? That’s a very interesting discussion to me, and I think Jonathan deserves credit for bringing it up, unless this has been a hot button issue in the design scene I’m unaware of.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Jonathan does a very good job of providing an answer. First, he doesn’t define very well what makes good or bad feedback. He claims that level grinding in WoW is bad, but doesn’t really explain why (are the 9 million people who play WoW not really enjoying themselves? It’s tough to say they aren’t). And he doesn’t even come close to explaining what a good feedback loop is.

Instead he tries to make a distinction between architected gameplay and exploratory gameplay, and unfortunately he botches it quite badly as he confusingly switches between architected gameplay and exploratory development. He implores designers to not architect things from the top-down and instead “explore” their designs. Ok, I’m sure everyone would be on board with that if time and resources permitted, but the examples he uses are just painfully wrong.

He draws a distinction between the moral decisions you have a make in BioShock and the non-decision you have to make with the companion cube in Portal. Regarding BioShock, he felt that the decision did not effect gameplay enough, as the amount of resources you received based on whether or not you harvested the little sisters wasn’t enough to motivate the decision. However…

This is exactly right. Jonathan solely interprets ths decision from a resource management perspective, but some people didn’t want to harvest the girls entirely for the negative emotional feedback of the animation. Not everyone rationalized the decision and graphed it, and not everyone is like the forum posters on Qt3 who largely play games with a sense of instrumental rationality. He calls Bioshock embarrassingly bad and claims that anyone steeped in philosophy would laugh at it. Well, I have a Ph.D. in ethics, and I’m not laughing at it. What I am laughing at is the idea that the non-decision in Portal to euthanize your weighted companion cube is somehow more impactful than harvesting the little sisters in BioShock.

But this is really the crux of Jonathan’s problem. He praises the development of the weighted companion cube, pointing out that the team went through several iterations before they came up with the concept. Yet the exact same thing happened in BioShock. Anyone who has watched the making-of videos in the limited edition will know that the little sisters started out as a kind of sea slug before evolving into something more human. But really, this point is irrelevant as Jonathan badly confuses architected vs emerging gameplay with architected vs. exploratory design.

I won’t touch on some of the other problems in the talk (why is the example of the unviewable door in Smash TV as sign of rich, exploratory gameplay, where as the same mechanic in Total Carnage is a sadistic, architected design choice? How does Jonathan not know that the unviewable door in Smash TV was also an architected design choice?). But I would really, really like to talk more about this notion of good versus bad feedback loops, and for that concept alone I think people should listen to his presentation.

resolves to download and play Marriage sometime

I’d be very interested in giving it a try. tbh, a game like that sounds way more appealing to me than another opportunity to take part in World War 2, or to shoot non descript aliens for no adequately explored reason, or to drive a fast car or slay orcs.
Video games have been around a while now, I’ve done all those things many many times, and I’m interested in doing other stuff in a virtual world. Give me a game where I’m a cat or an eagle, or a game where I’m delivering food parcels to people in a crisis zone, or a game where I clean the flipping streets. Anything that doesn’t involve orcs or aliens.

Theres a whole bunch of gamers like me in their thirties that are interested in new takes on the idea of a video game, and have the disposable cash to buy them. We are also old enough to remember early games and probably are not as much graphics whores as the new generation.

Chuck and Jim are both pretty harsh about this talk and I’m not here to get into an argument about that, but I do feel that you guys are interpreting some of my points in straw-man ways, and also saying that I missed things that in fact I did touch on in the talk (albeit briefly; I only had an hour).

To get to a more concrete point, though:

Anyone who has watched the making-of videos in the limited edition will know that the little sisters started out as a kind of sea slug before evolving into something more human.

Yes, I saw that stuff too. It was also in developer interviews on the web.

I probably need to figure out how to explain this better in the future, but Architecture vs Exploration isn’t exactly about Premeditated vs Adaptive. That is the way they tend to be in their stereotypical states, but the realities of game design often mess with that – it’s not like interesting games these days get made from a static design doc. Changes are always made during development.

But the core of Architecture vs Exploration is about how those changes are motivated, where they come from. Exploration is when the current game design itself tells you which ways you can proceed next, by giving you a variety of options, and you as an author pick one of those and go in that direction to see how it is. Architecture is when the changes are imposed from outside the game based on some idea. So, changing the Little Sisters from slugs into girls is Architecture, even though it happened after the original conception of the game.

If you start thinking about smaller and smaller changes, I think Architecture probably converges into Exploration, in the limit as the change size approaches 0.

About Bioshock…

I think that saying Bioshock has an unreliable narrator is a bit of a stretch, and I’d ask you to elaborate on what you mean by that. Since there is no narration in the game, you seem to mean that some of the events that the player plays did not actually happen. That seems weird and hard to substantiate, unless you mean that the entire game is meant to be interpreted metaphorically instead of literally. Which is a position one could certainly take, but I don’t think I would label that as unreliable narration (certainly we wouldn’t do that with a novel or film).

[Edit: If you just mean the fact that the player doesn’t realize he’s hypnotized, I guess you could sort of call that unreliable narration, except then I don’t understand how you could be saying it’s missable by the player: the game just tells you that during a long non-interactive sequence. But furthermore, the game also botches this in the second part by making it functionally the same as the first part; many people have criticized the game for this so I won’t do it here].

Also, it’s very annoying to me the way I said the word “sucks” once, as part of a joke introducing the Bioshock segment, and everybody just keys on that as my supposed description of Bioshock. I don’t think that Bioshock is a good game, but it also does have some merit. I agree that “Bioshock sucks” is not a good or useful description of the game, and in fact that’s not really what I was saying in my lecture at all.

The lecture was about gameplay mechanics, not plot, setting, or metaphor. I was criticizing the gameplay mechanics of Bioshock and saying they were bad. I was not criticizing the art direction, sound design, or plot (though the latter I do think is pretty bad, too; the only reason we don’t notice is because it’s doled out in such small pieces).

Oh, one more thing…

Definitely this is true and I even touched on this in the talk (my quote of mkozlows’ post is exactly this: he explicitly says that he had an emotional feedback from the animation/etc when harvesting the Little Sisters).

But again, I was focusing on gameplay and not visual aesthetics. I could have talked about all aspects of games, but then it would have been a 10-hour lecture.

Sure, some players were affected by the Little Sister audiovisual presentation. That doesn’t change the fact that the audiovisuals, and what the game tells you verbally, conflict with the gameplay and the end-result is a weirdly mixed message. Players don’t have to graph anything to feel this, they just need to try saving some Sisters and notice that, hey, they still have plenty of ADAM.

I can see the argument that Bioshock has an unreliable narrator. It’s a slightly different usage than the usual definition of that concept. Essentially, I think that the scene in Ryan’s office serves the purpose (on one level, and not necessarily for everybody) of making the player reconsider and perhaps repudiate their previous actions. Reconsidering the context of everything that has come before is a key element of the unreliable narrator.

Speaking of Katamari and random literary theory, I briefly toyed with the idea that Katamari could be considered a critique of consumerism. You’re rolling around, desperately grabbing at every item in your “price range,” and the eventual consequence of your greed is consuming the entire earth. It’s an amusing interpretation, but I have serious doubts that it’s authorial intent.

Do the people who think video game designers have no power, video games have no effect on people, etc., limit it to just video games, or think it’s true of media in general? 1980s vigilante movies and WWII propaganda movies had some noticeable effects on the public, I’d say.

every image you are exposed to affects you. if it didn’t, advertising wouldn’t work (and it DOES work). Interaction affects you even more. Thats why advertisers love ads that can be interacted with.
Game designers do have some power to affect their audience, and I wish they used it more responsibly. Its not power in the way that a president has power, but it’s still noticeable.

I listened to the talk and went through the slides - now I’m not a designer or any sort of game professional, but I found it very interesting.

The idea that games shape the mental environment of their participants seems entirely reasonable to me. This was likely trivial in the Space Invaders/Pac Man era, but now that 7 million people play WOW, some of whom play enough to make catass a recognizable word (verb/noun/adjective?) I think it is worth paying attention to. Jonathan Blow’s point that these games could be like smoking or fast food is interesting. He’s not making the argument that they are, but that they could be, and I don’t think that’s ridiculous at all.

Not a perfect talk, I guess, but academic talks rarely are, and most of them are nowhere near this interesting.

This even happens in media we’d think are non-interactive. For example, at some point Hollywood adopted as standard practice the kind of movie poster where you have the film’s main stars pictured, with their names printed above them… but the names are not listed in the same order as the guys in the picture. The primary reason for this is so that you interact more with the ad, mentally matching up the names of the stars with their pictures. Through this process the ad makes more of an impression on the viewer.

Jonathan, you are probably right that Chuck and I were too harsh in our posts, but I do honestly want others to listen to your talk because I think, as Chuck does, that you have the seed of an insight, but you just need to focus on it more. When I went to write my dissertation, I started with a 20-page prospectus and a single page summary of the prospectus. My director quietly listened to me read the one page paper, nodded his head when I was done and said: “that’s a great idea for your life’s work. I only need you to write a disseration.” He then told me to write my disseration about a single sentence from my one page summary, expanding it into a 200 page book. That would be my suggestion to you. Get rid of the 90% of this talk which is distracting philosophizing and focus like a laser on your central insight. My suggestions would be:

  • Motivate interest in your talk for the simple reason that you want to make better videogames. That’s reason enough. You have two competing motivations, one by the some guy in the New York Times who wants videogames to become “transformational” (whatever that means) and then all this nonsense about videogames changing humanity and our need be better designers because of this huge impact games are going to have. Just cut all that.

  • Get rid of all the stuff about the nature of videogames. It’s not that you don’t have something interesting to say here, but this is your life’s work, not the function of this presentation. It’s just distracting to have all this pontification about the essence of game stuff. You don’t want to win the Raph Koster award for amateur philosophizing, so I’d cut slides 5 - 17.

  • “Designers lack discernment” is where things get interesting. I take you as saying something like “not all play is equal.” Some play is “good” for you and some is “bad” for you. You don’t say precisely how it is good or bad, but you hint that it is unhealthy, like cigarettes or fast food. This will be a tough argument to make. “Poorly designed games are a mental health hazard” seems like a stretch. What I’m guessing is - and I don’t want to put words in your mouth - that you want to say that some forms of play are cheap, routine, or dehumanizing, while others are engaging, interesting, or liberating. This is interesting because this is an ethical argument for good game design, and this is indeed a very bold and interesting claim. This should be your focus, everything else should be cut or radically minimized.

  • Things go off the rails again with slides in the late 20s where you try to make an almost scientific claim, viz. with the analogy that bad videogames are like bad food. I really don’t see this claim getting too far off the ground, so I would suggest you drop these slides as well.

  • “Architecture vs. Exploring” is where things get interesting again, but I am still confused about exactly what you mean. You seem to suggest that they are two different modes of development, where architecting is a bad, rigid system of the designing imposing his/her will from the top down, as opposed to exploring, which is more adaptive and organic system. But then you say this:

  • Now that I read this, it really seems like you are talking about gameplay, not development. I think you should stick to gameplay because you get on really shakey ground when try to retrodict how games were made to support your conclusion. You really don’t know how the decision was made to make the south door unviewable in Smash TV. You simply assume it was a happy accident that somehow leads to “ripples in gameplay.” First, I think you’re too fast with that assumption, and second, I’m not sure why it improved Smash TV and instead didn’t just make it cramped and limiting due to its poor design. And third, and perhaps more importantly, you seem to have made the leap that “architectural development” will lead to “architected games” whereas “exploratory development” will lead to “exploratory games.” I just don’t see how you support that assumption. SimCity, after all, was the architected product of a single mind and the result was a classic of emergent gameplay.

  • My hunch is that we’re right back to the old prescriptive versus emergent gameplay debates. You seem to prefer emergent gameplay because it allows for “exploration” where the player as author can pick how to play, whereas the “architected” gameplay in BioShock bothers you. Maybe those terms will work better for you as what you are really talking about is a scale of freedom for the player. “Architecture” and “exploration” are perhaps too vague and don’t seem to improve on the terms we already have.

  • As you mentioned in your post, you’ve only got an hour to talk, so I would simply throw out all this other stuff you don’t need or can’t really support. Instead I would focus that hour on slides 18 - 25 and see if you can make and argument that there are good feedback loops and bad feedback loops. That is a talk of yours I would love to hear.