Curled, red hair covers pale, freckled skin under soft, brown blouse and ripped, blue jeans.
Tears run slow streams as She runs from the store.
Car door rips open, slams shut, waves Spectator’s hair nearby.
She screams, Spectator looks, She wails, Spectator looks away.
She bludgeons the dash with vicious swipes.
Her knuckles crack, the dash cracks, Her face cracks and floods.
Spectator watches—a helpless stranger watching helpless strange.
She clutches her phone, Her lifeline and torment, Her fingers flash over numbered keys.
The car and She sputter to life, screaming as they careen away.
Curled, red hair covers pale, freckled skin under soft, brown blouse and ripped, blue jeans.
Eyes dry, cheeks puffed, She speaks to the man behind the counter.
Her voice shakes, her timbre shivers, and her words pierce Spectator’s ear.
She speaks, Spectator listens, She walks, Spectator walks behind.
Black Hair Lollipop and Long Hair Trucker Cap stand by.
Lollipop sucks, Trucker Cap speaks, She waits.
Spectator watches—a harmless watcher watching.
She clutches her television, Her gift and joy, Her smile splits shuddering sighs.
Her crew and She chatter and laugh as Spectator drifts away.
Curled, red hair covers pale, freckled skin under soft, brown blouse and ripped, blue jeans.
Her presence lingers where She does not.
Trucker Cap and Wife Beater dodge Spectator in the aisle.
Wife Beater points, She receives, He rages, She recoils.
He bludgeons the air with vicious swipes.
His knuckles crack, Spectator turns, Trucker Cap tries to still the waters.
Spectator watches—a puzzled stranger watching puzzle pieces fall.
Security trots past, toward Her screech and His voice, their eyes peeled wide.
Spectator disappears down the aisle, He and Them and They and She mixing in his mind.
I understand your confusion. As Spectator, it was no less odd.
Originally written for Savannah College of Art and Design on November 13th, 2013.
When discussing rising stars in the video game industry or the women who have attained game development hall of fame status, it is impossible to overlook Kim Swift. Born in 1983 and a game designer since 2005, Kim’s game designs have made considerable impacts in the industry. During her attendance at DigiPen Institute of Technology, she and her peers designed and created a game called Narbacular Drop, which was promptly discovered by Gabe Newell — the co-founder and managing director of Valve. Newell was so impressed with the game concept that he hired Kim and her entire team to re-create Narbacular Drop using Valve’s Source engine. As employees of Valve, Kim and her team designed the critically acclaimed Portal.
“[Portal] primarily comprises a series of puzzles that must be solved by teleporting the player’s character and simple objects using ‘the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device’, a device that can create inter-spatial portals between two flat planes.” These portals can be navigated as if they were connected doorways. Entering through one, the player emerges from the other. Portal’s originality of concept and design was universally praised. It has received multiple game of the year awards, several awards for innovation and originality, and in 2012, Time Magazine named it as one of the 100 greatest video games of all time. So what is it about the game that makes it so great?
What makes Kim Swift’s design some of the best in video game history?
“The basic formulas of level design go… When you start out, you want to teach the player how to play. You need to make sure they understand every mechanic of the game. Every level… needs to have some example forcing the player to do something — in order to beat the level — that they will need further in the game. Just in case somebody didn’t play that level, a couple levels later… reiterate. [Teach] the player that ‘You can do this.’ Everybody in the world will see a problem and want to solve it. Once you try it yourself, you’ve taught yourself, and not only do you feel smart — like you’ve figured out something yourself — You also now, for sure, know how to do that from then on in the game.”
This process — as illustrated by game designer Edmund McMillan — is an accurate description of Kim Swift’s level design in Portal. One of the best examples from the game is the “fling” mechanic. In Portal, the portals preserve the player’s momentum as the player passes through them, which — for a fast moving player — causes them to be “flung” out of the exiting portal. The level in which this concept is introduced — Chamber 10 — is almost insulting simple. As Rock, Paper, Shotgun describes it, “It’s an antepiece, a brief task that exists not to provide challenge in itself but to introduce an idea that will help the player deal with a setpiece that will come soon after it.” In Chamber 12, the player is given control of both the entrance and exit Portal (compared to Chamber 10, when the player only controlled the entrance.) “Chamber 12, then, exists mostly to make you handle both ends of a fling.” Beginning with Chamber 15, the player is introduced to a slightly modified version of the fling. The process is based upon the same idea, but takes it a step further, showing the player, once again, “You can do this.” “Here, if you plop out of the portal on the thrusted panel with zero momentum, you’ll just fall onto the black unportalable floor. That’s why you use the petite fall in the room on the right to get a minor fling – not enough for you to clear the glass barrier, but enough to get you to the white, portalable floor. It is when you’re falling towards that surface that you slap down a portal in front of you, allowing you to chain directly into a second, more powerful forward fling that completes the puzzle.” Throughout the game, mechanics such as the “fling” are introduced through simple puzzles, and then modified further and further into larger and more expansive mechanics, with multiple applications based on the situation. In this way, players are not bombarded with all of the possibilities from the beginning, but learn them along the way as they develop as a player. “Portal forced me to use its own mechanics to see myself and learn who I was playing.”
On top of the sequencing and education of game mechanics, designers must also be wary of the components that make up the mechanic. Too few elements can leave the puzzle wanting, making it easily solvable by the players. Too many elements can confuse the players beyond solvability. It is a delicate balance between what the player has to interact with, and how much activity takes place in their mind. Portal rides this line well, having only a few select environmental objects — moveable cubes, lasers, enemy robots, etc. — but varies both their combination and situational layouts to make each interaction with them both familiar and unique.
Another crucial element in the construction of a puzzle game is the dexterity required by the player. Typically, puzzle games require little physical dexterity, as the game is based around mental obstacles rather than physical ones. Portal is non-traditional in that it requires both. Again, this is a question of balance, but one of potential player-base: too little dexterity limits the game to traditional puzzle-gamers and too much dexterity ostracizes them. Kim Swift specifically addressed this in Portal. “Ideally, you want a player to come into a room, take a look, and within 30 seconds to a minute, know what they have to do, and then it’s a matter of executing on it.”
Kim Swift not only creates and evolves these elegant mechanics, but uses them to manipulate the players throughout the game. She says, “Level design is a meta-game for us as designers, to take a look at a space, and we as a designer have a particular mentality of how it’s supposed to be solved, what we want the players to look at, what do we want, where do we want them to go. It is a game for us to see if we have manipulated you the way we wanted to.”
While being manipulated by the designer may sound negative, it is this manipulation that leads to excellent gameplay. “It’s leading the player without making them feel like they’re led, because you don’t want to just hit them over the head with the solution – because that’s just like talking down to somebody… But at the same time, you want to be able to steer them in the correct path, so that way, they’re not just sitting there thrashing, trying to figure out where to go or what to do. And so it’s a balance, for sure. You want to add as many environment hints as possible while at the same time not making it stupidly obvious.” These environmental hints were so cleverly designed in Portal that many users weren’t aware they were being led until their second or third playthroughs.
However, designing an excellent game isn’t all about mechanics and leading people through them. You must respect the player and realize that they are people — in search of an adventure or story or engaging experience. The designer can do their best to craft an excellent game, but in the end, the player is the key to an excellent experience. “You can create the sandbox, and put tools inside of it, but you can’t control how the children play.” “I think it’s about, yeah, you’re playing into the world the designer made for you, but at the same time you’re also creating your own story within this world, as well, just by your actions. I think players should impress themselves onto the game world, and I think it makes it more immersive, and makes it more fun, and I know I do that. At the end of the day, I want to make products that people have a good time with.”
It’s easy to list the qualities of excellent game design. On paper, they seem like variables to be accounted for, a list of steps to be taken whilst creating a game. But those that are not designers often fail to recognize the difficulty of these achievements: the years of study, practice, and execution required to produce a game of excellent quality. Jacque Schrag of Root Beer Float Studio says, “This is something I said at the very beginning of our first sprint – ‘Game Design is Hard’… I’m realizing just how far off the mark I was initially with my assessment of game design… I had never sat down and thought about the basic mechanics of a game… These were elements of a game that a designer actually had to think about, even though, to the player, they might seem completely trivial… I have quickly realized that it does not matter what your theme is or how developed it is, it will not make a successful game if it does not have a corresponding set of successful mechanics behind it.” Many developers, especially at Kim’s age, have had no commercially successful projects at all.
For Kim Swift, the culmination of her years at DigiPen, her original idea with Narbacular Drop, and her brilliance in terms of gameplay mechanics, level design, and player psychology was Portal — undeniably and near-universally agreed upon as one of the best designed games in video game history.
Current generation video games boast some of the most impressive graphical achievements in history. Games like Crysis 3, Witcher 2, or Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim have pushed the visual aspects of video games so far that they are sometimes indistinguishable from real life. It should be obvious then, that these games have no difficulty in creating recognizable graphics. A gun in Crysis 3 is clearly a gun. Characters in the Witcher 2 are easily distinguishable from one another on facial features alone. Skyrim displays multiple types of recognizable plant life. With these collections of graphical wonders, it is jarring to view games from the dawn of the video game era – when the technology was significantly less impressive.
The first video game console to become a pop phenomenon was the Atari Video Computer System. This was not the only home console on the market at the time, but what competition it had was little threat. It’s massive popularity is strange in a way, as its graphical capabilities were severely limited and somewhat unusual: especially when compared to current generation consoles.
The most common resolution used for the Atari VCS was 160 pixels by 192 pixels. The VCS could only utilize those pixels in groups of four, meaning the developers had access to 40 x 48 “dots” – as the 4 pixel groupings were referred to – or 1920 dots total. The most common resolution used for the Playstation 3 is 1920 pixels by 1080 pixels. The PS3 can utilize all of those pixels, meaning today’s developers have access to 2,073,600 dots. The Atari VCS had a maximum color palette of 128 colors and could display 4 of them at a time (one color per object). It could also only display two 8-bit sprites – 8 dots by 8 dots – and three 1 dot sprites. Current generation consoles have none of these limitations, and are measured by terms and speeds that weren’t conceived of when the Atari VCS was released.
So, in the face of these extreme limitations, how did the early video game developers create games whose stories, environments, and images continue to impact the world today?
To begin, we should start with the first game to be released on the Atari VCS. According to its manual, Combat was comprised of 27 games – variants of tank, tank-pong, invisible tank, invisible tank-pong, bi-plane and jet. That is not far from the kind of description found on modern franchises like Battlefield. However, you will find that the graphical prowess of Combat does not quite match up with its elaborate description.
Because the graphics were significantly lacking, developers utilized methods of outside context to strengthen the visual information provided by the blocky, near-illegible images.
The most immediate channel of outside context is the packaging of the game. The packaging contains three crucial sources of context: the title, the manual, and the box art.
Titles have always been important for any kind of media. The title is the first contact the player has with the game, and it directs the player’s mind toward the correct path of inference. While the title “Combat” could summon any number of scenarios for the modern gamer, the Atari generation would most likely have associated it with contemporary war. However, it was also important for the title to not be too specific. For example, had the game been titled Tanks, players might have associated the images on screen with different models of tank, rather than imagining the full vehicular arsenal promised.
The game’s manual could be as descriptive as the developers wanted. Even though its main purpose was to instruct the player, it could suggest useful context through keywords – in this case: tank, plane, and jet. However, the manual had two major flaws in terms of context delivery. Many players never had it and some who did never read it. This is why it is the lesser of the three initial sources.
If a gamer actually owned the box the game came in, it was one of the best tools a developer could use to influence them. Looking at the box art for Combat, you’ll notice that the art depicted is incredibly more detailed than what is seen in-game.
Box art was one of the few mediums where the only developer limit was the box’s size, and because of this, they typically tried to fit as much detail as they could in the small space.
Unfortunately, while Combat did an excellent job of explaining the player controlled images, it did not explain its environment. One of the criticisms of Combat at the time was that the arbitrarily created environments lacked any kind of background or story. Nick Montfort from Game Studies says:
“Combat might somehow be tortured into confessing a story, but what it mainly does is facilitate a particular type of competition, providing an apparatus and context for play, a computer-mediated way of interacting with another player rather than a digital vehicle for an expressive message. It is difficult to see the game program as related to a war movie.”
It might seem impossible to create stories and environments with such a small graphical window, but there was at least one Atari VCS game that did.
When Pitfall! was released in 1982, its box art showed a far smaller improvement over its actual graphics.
Based on the trends of the time, this was a useful resource that David Crane – the creator of Pitfall! – had not taken full advantage of. However, he made use of a different channel that the creators of Combat would have done well to consider.
Crane did not design Pitfall! in a traditional sense. His original goal was to create an animated human character – an unaccomplished feat as of then. After creating his human character, he realized that he did not have a setting for the character to exist in. Instead of creating an entirely new setting, he borrowed from the common themes of the time.
It’s no surprise that the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was released in 1981, influenced the design of Pitfall!, and there was another apparent nod to Tarzan with the presence of the swinging vines. But not so obvious were the introductions of the alligators. “I remembered from deep in my childhood a pair of cartoon characters (Magpies) called Heckle and Jekyll. They had a sequence during which they would run across the heads of alligators, barely escaping the jaws. I thought that would make for an interesting sequence in the game.”
The jungle exploits of famous adventurers were pop culture staples at the time, meaning that if the player was in anyway familiar with those popular environments, almost every image in Pitfall! became immediately recognizable – including the most iconic enemy of Pitfall!: the Alligators. By using a pop culture theme, his images could build on pre-existing expectations of the players to deliver a fully realized environment.
While titles, manuals, box art, and pop culture were available to any Atari developer, there were some channels that required a more devoted following. One game in particular used its advantages to their fullest extent, furthering its popularity and bringing far more context to the game than would have been possible otherwise.
In 1978, Taito released an arcade game titled Space Invaders. The premise of the game was to defend Earth from alien invaders by shooting them down as they marched toward you. You could hide behind walls, but their bullets would slowly chip away at the walls until there was nothing left to hide behind.
In a market where the vast majority of games were pong clones in one way or another, this top-down shooter revolutionized and rejuvenated the video game world. The cabinet made its way to the United States in 1979, and by 1980, it had found its way to the Atari VCS.
“The 1980 Atari 2600 release quadrupled the sales of the system, and the game, not content with being the first home console game to sell one million copies, would go on to sell over two million.”
“In fact, Space Invaders was so popular in Japan that it caused a shortage of the 100-Yen coin, the coin needed to play the game. This shortage affected several other aspects of Japanese life including the heavy disruption of the primary form of transportation, the Subway. Space Invaders had brought Japan to its knees and the government was literally forced to quadruple the production of the Yen coin to meet the new demand.”
Because of its monumental success, Space Invaders could take advantage of a rare source of outside context: a full gaming culture. Not the gaming culture – the overall community of gamers – but its very own, tailor made to the Space Invaders universe.
“Due to its intensifying popularity, entire arcades were opened in Japan specifically for Space Invaders, many of which held dozens of Space Invader coin-ops and no others! As hysteria concerning the game mounted, shop owners of all trades abandoned their goods and converted their stores to video arcades, some complete with booming audio systems broadcasting the “thumping march” of the invaders into the streets. With the ever-growing demand, other venues starting hosting coin-operated machines, and Space Invaders had found a habitat everywhere from pizza parlors, restaurants, and bars, to drug stores, laundry mats, roller rinks, grocery stores and even such unlikely locales as funeral homes.”
By literally having its own environment, the context of Space Invaders could be passed on through any number of channels: word of mouth, music, posters, etc. Creating a real world environment is not something every game could manage, but in this case, it turned a simple game into a world wide phenomenon.
Outside context was a necessity for the dawn of gaming. It harnessed the creativity and imagination of its players to strengthen the graphics of its games. Many of today’s developers rely solely on their graphical strength to carry the message through to the players. They do not have to contend with the “hardware wall” as the early developers did. However, the developers who actively use outside context have been, are, and always will be the more effective.
Originally written on March 31st, 2012 for Savannah College of Art and Design.
Present in all forms of media, the word design is attached to a broad spectrum of categories. While areas like graphic design, automotive design, or fashion design are clearly labeled, the word design is a complex idea to define.
Design Basics by David A. Lauer and Stephen Pentak states that design “means to plan, to organize.” (Design Basics, pg. 4) The dictionary states that design is “to form or conceive in the mind; contrive; plan.” While strict definitions such as these offer a simplistic, graspable interpretation, they hardly do the term justice. Design is better defined as a process, as a series of plans and organizations that evolve and adapt along with the subject matter. However, as with most creative processes, it is incredibly difficult to narrow the definition or outline the process, since it varies between individuals and projects. Design Basics agrees with this theory, saying “Guidelines exist that usually will assist in the creation of successful designs. These guidelines certainly do not mean the artist is limited to any specific solution.” (Design Basics, pg. 5)
Over the past four years, I have been heavily involved in website design, graphic design, musical composition, and more. However, the majority of my time has been invested in game design through all mediums (card games, board games, video games, etc.) I have previously tried to outline my game design process in an effort to improve my development time and project quality. Though these attempts were ultimately unsuccessful, they have shown me that my processes differ wildly — even within the sub categories — and that I will never truly assemble a definitive outline. However, there are a few similarities between experiences.
When designing a game, I always begin with the core idea. This idea can be a particular effect I want from my players, a specific game mechanic, or something as simple as an interesting feature. A solid core idea provides a much needed foundation for the rest of the process, and when constantly referenced, eliminates extraneous factors that would ultimately lessen the game. Once the core idea is established, I begin to develop the game mechanics that will realize and/or compliment that idea. If the core idea was a game mechanic, I thoroughly test that mechanic to ensure that it works flawlessly. Then, I begin adding additional content, constantly testing its compatibility with the core mechanic. If the core idea was an effect or feature, I develop one or more game mechanics that will combine to achieve the idea. Only once my core idea is in place, do I incorporate other embellishments.
Decidedly vague, my definition of design reflects the theory that design is an uncertain process, not a precise verb. While others may strive toward a perfect blueprint, I remain convinced that a definition is neither possible, nor needed.
This post was posted elsewhere on November 29th, 2012.
Ah, I seem to be in some sort of building. What’s that? Yes, the Nexus. Seems appropriate. There’s quite a few people here. I have absolutely NO idea what they’re babbling about, but I’m sure it’s for higher level players. Let me see what is over here. There appear to be small little cave things. Let’s try one out.
I appear to be on a beach. I see my peers scampering about, waving their magic wands, brandishing their swords. I don’t see the point. I don’t even s-
AUGHAUGHAUGJUHUGHUHUAH RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!! <FIREBALL FIREBALL FIREBALL FIREBALL DODGE FIREBALL> THEY’RE GOING TO KILL MEEEEE!!!!! I’M TOO YOUNG TO DIIIIIIIIIIIII-
Ah they’re all dead. Fantastic, let’s see what they’ve left. Health potions…. those are good. They might be of use. There’s a staff that I can’t use for some reason. Must be heavy or something. Ooooh, theres some robes. Let me just strip these off an-
RUUUUUUUUUUUUNNNNNN!!!!! THERES MILLIONS OF THEM!!!! UNDEAD HOBBITS ARE GOING TO KILL ME!!!!!! <FIREBALL FIREBALL FIREBALL FIREBALL FIREBALL RUUUUUUUUUUUUUUN FIREBALL DODGE DODGE DODGE DODGEUNSUCCESSFULLY DODGE FIRBALL> BUAAAAAAAAAAA-
Thank goodness that’s over with. Oh, look a ring.
<Time passes in a whirl of strange pauses and excitement, through which flows a constant strain…>
Level 12!!! I feel so accomplished. Although, I have noticed that many of my peers are low leveled. I wonder why. It’s not terribly hard to make it here. I’ve only been playing for a few hours. Maybe I’m just really good? If so, it’s about time I found a game I’m inherently good at. Let’s go try another one of those Tree things. The last one was enjoyable. Deep breath…… and…..
BLARGHAAAAAAAAUGHUAGUHAUGJLHJLKSJADLASNCASLDHASJDKA:SDJLKASD DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE <FIREBALLS APLENTY> NO NO NO NO NO YOU CAN’T HAVE FRIENDS!!!! NO DWAARF KING I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR YOU RIGHT NOW, WAIT YOUR TURN!!!!! NOOOOOOOO CATS!!!! EVERYONE GO AWAY!!!!! BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-
Well the trees dead. That’s good.
Okay, thank goodness that’s taken care of.
What? I’m dead? What killed me? I thought I had taken care of everything. All well. Where’s the respawn button? For that matter, where’s my character? <checks the internets>
<face palm, desk, wall, lamp, dresser, etc.>
- You can ONLY use nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. (No articles, conjunctions, or prepositions)
- Your “sentences” can only be between 1 and 3 words long. (Really they’re simple word combinations. Think of this as a narrative poem.)
- The story should be 100-200 words.
- Note: Choose your words carefully. Use specific nouns, action verbs and very descriptive adjectives and adverbs to help paint the picture in words. Consider words that have subtlety or dense, multilevel meanings.
Pillows beckon softly. Body collapses rigid.
Labored breathing quickens. Time slows.
Vision with blur. Sound with static.
Heat without sweat. Touch without memory.
Shaven head, buried. Quivering arms, wrapped.
Pacing legs, twisted. Calloused feet, twitching.
Fetal rocks. Winterless shivers pause. Fetal rocks again.
Countless careers provide. Few careers enlighten.
Seeming mutual exclusivity. Indecision reigns.
Money whispers. Money screams. Money antagonizes fulfillment.
Grasping for impossibilities. Hypothetic iteration reigns.
Are dreams realized? Are nightmares considered?
Doubt mutilates hope. Depression reigns.
Cracked portholes creak. Murky depths rise.
Decided questions resurface. Blackened skies rain.
Decisions claim immediacy. Worthless souls procrastinate.
Control flees. Mind follows. Incoherence prevents discussion.
Reason refutes ambition. Reason denies experience. Reason becomes tyranny.
Body rocks. Eyes roll. Devastation begs relief.
Indecision breeds uselessness. Time remains precious.
Depression equivocates weakness. Happiness demands faith.
Enraptured community suggests. Ageless tradition demands.
Search holy scripture. Words reveal truth. I Am is.
Books remain paper. God remains silent. All remains lost.
Spouse demands action. Need dictates participation.
Location determines destination. Sleep provides clarity.
Pleasant greetings exchanged. Tragic stories told.
Regulatory medicine prescribed.
Pressure. Doubt. Panic. Clout. Reason. Define Ultimatum.
Try. Fail. Lose faith. Seek help. Depression ad infinitum.
Recall a “take-away” from this past year’s college experience.
At New York University, writing was practiced, but integrated with other medias. At Savannah College of Art and Design, writing was useful, but not necessary. This year, at Full Sail University, writing was treated as a craft.
Every word is specifically chosen.
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.” — Mark Twain
Every sentence can be small…
“Eschew the monumental. Shun the epic. All the guys who can paint great big pictures can paint great small ones.” — Ernest Hemingway
because often the right words aren’t big.
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” — Jack Kerouac
Words create spaces, topple empires, and change worlds. No well-written book, lyric, or script needs pictures, music, or visuals. A good writer can single-handedly provide everything the imagination needs.
Such versatility and power is daunting, but the true take-away from this year’s experience is from where such craftsmanship comes. Every great story began as a blank page. Every great writer began as an incoherent child. Even I—an avid apprentice of an age-old art—can spawn a universe from nothing but words.