Truth In Game Design Applied:
Designing Hero Generations
Scott Brodie - Designer @ Heart Shaped Games
• What is Truth?
• Truth in Games
• Concrete Design Process
• How I applied this to Hero Generations
• Detours: truth in a commercial setting
“It’s funny because it’s true”
“The truth is funny. Honest
discovery, observation, and
reaction is better than contrived
invention.” –Del Close, Comedian
Truth in the Arts
Pervasive outside of Games
“Tell the truth, then go from
there.” –Stephen King, Author
Truth in Games?
The models you build in games
stay with you…
The models you build in games
stay with you…
…if they’re meaningful and memorable
Fun still matters
Fun because it’s true
Is There a Repeatable
Personal Goal: make
meaningful games while also
being commercially viable
In 2014, we now have many
Enter Hero Generations
#1: Draw from Personal
My Perspective in 2009-2010
•Transitioning from a young man to an adult.
•Balancing career, family, just married.
•Sorting through having kids, going indie.
•Clock was ticking on career goals.
•Trepidation about setting down roots.
Honestly represent your
Design became intuitive
#2: Abstract it and build a
At its most basic, the game is
about charting a path…
…balancing competing goals…
…and then seeing how those
choices impact your offspring.
The trap of building “life”
#3: clarify communication and
build an aesthetic players can use
to discern your truth
Model becomes metaphor
#4: Fully explore the model
[Family Photo Redacted for
The art is in crafting the rules.
Your POV is in the rules you
choose and don’t choose to
The Hero Generations
#5: Interaction with
Come play Hero Generations
-Explaining truth (to the player and as a game business owner; how it works in other mediums as well)
-How truth is different in games vs other media, and how we do truth in games
-How I applied this to Hero Generations (start to finish), and how it leads to meaningful play
-Concrete design process and tools and summarized approach I’ve developed for repeating that (perspective, point of view)
-Some detours about doing this in a commercial setting (kickstarter; want to make games but also make enough to keep doing what I’m doing)
Anecdote about cliché “its funny because it’s true”.
There is a book called truth in comedy, and its core insight is that the best jokes come from pointing out something true.
Vs cheap jokes or absurdity that don’t stick.
-And there are countless other examples: song writing, acting, theatre, fine art,
Truth is pervasive in other media. Film, Acting, Song Writing, Fine Art, Comedy, Writing, etc.
There are far fewer games made with this approach.
A number of games attempt to inject truth by injecting other mediums wholesale. Lots of cutscenes, heart-tugging music, VO, etc. But I think there is a way to do this that is more native to the medium of games. So where does truth fit into game design?
I first started to explore how truth fit into game design by mapping out the full loop of interaction between the player and a game. Let’s step through that together really quickly.
A game session starts with some initial communication about the state of the game. The game communicates with the player in a number of ways. Visually, through audio, through force feedback, text, etc.
The purpose of this communication is to present a question of sorts for the player. A problem to solve, a challenge to overcome.
Model Building: The player then contemplates that question. They use what they know about the game to form a model of how the game rules and world work.
Evaluation: From that mental model, they evaluate how to answer the question, or overcome the challenge. They hypothesize how to act to get closer to the answer.
They then translate that into response to the game in an attempt to answer that question…
…using the communication channels provided for them. For video games, in most cases that obviously takes the form of a controller.
Our programs take that input, and evaluate it against the rules and systems we setup to determine success.
Until the player succeeds, the player continues through this loop, using the additional feedback from the game to update their mental model.
Over time that player builds an increasingly more complex and accurate model of the rules of the game.
But the insight for me came when I thought about “what happens when the game ends, and the player stops playing?”
What happens when the cords are cut, and we’re just at work, sleeping, or living out our regular lives? Part of that game loop goes away, but part of it stays with
us…our brain and body, and along with it, that model of how the game works.
That is, they will stay with us IF those models make sense and are relevant, coherent, meaningful, and memorable. The models become a part of our knowledge base.
these little models of how games work become a part of the web work of our brain. The ones that stick with us, I believe, do so because they come with a connection to a universal truth about how the world around us works. They have a connection to our experiences as a human.
Every game builds a model like this, but not all of them make sense, beyond the scope of playing the game itself.
The reason many still look down as commercial games as time wasters, is because they generally don’t leave a useful model for us that we can then apply to our life elsewhere. They are hyper specific to the game.
Or, if a game does leave us with a somewhat coherent model, it describes such a basic or over-explored concept.For example: a child may have a meaningful experience with playing bejeweled, because it expands their understanding of patterns, color, and shape. But for most adults, bejeweled is a mindless activity that is fun, but that is no longer novel or interesting.
So for me, the value of building a game around a universal truth or set of truths is how that game can build a model for the player that has Utility. That model can become a metaphor of sorts that they can use to more clearly understand how the world around them works.
That said, I do want to be clear – the traditional goal of making a fun game still matters.
I see truth as an additive design component. It is a technique for adding depth and meaning alongside the baseline expectation of being entertaining.
A game should be fun on the surface. By that I mean interesting, exciting, comfortable to get into, you know, everything you expect. But when your player walks away from the game, consider striving for this. Just like the comedy cliché, the game shouldn’t be just fun, but it should be fun because it’s true.
If the game isn’t also fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Affect change 1 person at a time.
…so for the rest of the talk, I’m going to pull out just a few key beats of the overall development, and use hero generations to build a concrete, repeatable process for designing games that can we all can use to build more useful, meaningful models for your players. I think there is a repeatable design process we can use to make meaningful and memorable games.
The design process bring us back to thinking about the player’s interaction with a game, and what happens when they leave the game.
The key to all of this, perhaps surprisingly, is to draw from personal life experience. If you want to find something useful and non-obvious to let your players experience, it makes sense to look at your own unique experiences.
As a second step, try to think about how you can abstract the events and actions you took so that a model of it can be built for people to play.
Abstract the experience so that your personal experience can be understood universally.
Then take that system, and offer clues through a matching aesthetic so that players have a basis for making sense of the truths hidden within your game.
Now, This is the path you as the designer will take, though in practice you tend to bounce around and slowly craft the experience from all 3 axis.
But the player experiences your game in reverse. the player instead starts by evaluating the surface you present, slowly discerning that simplified, abstract model. But then a really interesting thing happens. If the experience rings true, the player can relate your model with an experience they have already had. By being relatable, the model from the game becomes useful, because it adds to a player’s knowledge of a real world situation.
What the player relates to is different for everyone, but if the experience really is a truth, it should connect for a lot of people.
(This example is based upon a story I’ve read about the genesis of the legend of zelda. Shigeru Miyamoto talks about how the inspiration came from his experience as a child exploring caves in his hometown in Japan.)
So I did this exploration, and came to this conclusion that games could have this impact, in theory.
At the same time, I wanted to be and now am a professional independent game developer, and have the goal of commercializing the games I make so that I can at least support my family and continue making games I care about. I needed to find a way to both create the game with the care and love I wanted, while finding a way for these somewhat experimental ideas to support me.
In 2010, there were a few early examples and experiments to point to. The Marriage, Jason Rohrer’s games, and a number of the first wave of new indies were creating successful experiments in this area, but few were commercially successful beyond the game development community.
Jonathan Blow’s Braid, along with his ground breaking talks on this topic, was on of the first games that really managed to demonstrate how a game could build around truth while also finding commercial success. But overall there was not a lot of work being done outside of the experimental community.
In 2009-2010, when I first began exploring approaches for doing this, there were few examples we could point to that proved the result I wanted could be achieved. But it’s now 2014 (I think anyway!), and I’m delighted by just how many examples we have of games that are doing this.
(NOTE: game is Papers, Please by Lucas Pope)
Nuance / need to play games to fully understand. Understanding in games usually comes in the form of a feeling or muscle memory. You know it, but it doesn’t come in the form of a quote or sound bite.
But within that early landscape of experimentation is when I began working on Hero Generations.
Hero Generations development has spanned from 2010 until now, and the game has seen a huge transformation from design sketch to polished product (which is now available for pre-order on hero generations.com ). The design of the game, as well as me personally, have changed considerably over time. It would be impossible to cover the full development in the time I have left…
Struggling with many big life changes.
Transitioning from a young man to an adult.Balancing many goals, family, and sorting through potential futures (settling down to have kids, deciding whether or not to leave cozy MS for indie life). Balancing how I want to live my life, and it felt like the clock was ticking. Lots of people younger than me were already achieving big success (Jenova Chen, Kim Swift)
So I found myself explaining the wrestling I was doing personally with my friend and design mentor Daniel Cook. I explained that I had a basic idea about a game about that experience, of watching a character grow over time, make choices, settle down, and have kids.
I had originally thought of the game as a sort of side-scrolling game like Braid, but Daniel rightfully pointed out that my experience was more about the wrestling with hard choices, and it was about the tension between all of these different possible paths. So a top down, turn based approach might fit better.
So the lesson was really that the perspective and personal experience became a source for directing the design of the game. Without looking at the perspective, I probably would have made a game about something else, and I wouldn’t have created as coherent of a model.
What surprised me most about this is, despite how much I had been intellectualizing my process, the reality was that having that personal experience as anchor made the rest of the game design process more intuitive. I could rely on my intuition, because I had a model already created in my brain that was a point of reference.
So the model I started with was a simple top down view.
Years would count down each move.
I put a variety of competing goals on the board.
And gave some initial ways to permanently change the board that lasted across generations. (came a little later after first storing this stuff in the towns)
And then added enough uncertainty about what was right, via hidden information and a changing landscape.
These basic elements are what seemed to create a space the player could explore.
What can happen in this process, especially as a programmer, is that a truthful model can be expanded to anything that is a part of life. You can start over modeling, an obscuring the truth you were trying to convey succinctly.
So you start to feel like “well, how much do I model?” you can start modeling too much stuff that isn’t related to your own core experience. And the more you add, the less in focus your original truth is, and the less clear the perspective/model is to discern for the player.
As I started to evolve the game, I started to layer in more complexity (or contrivance as Jonathan Blow calls it). You now earned wisdom points, and spent them researching technologies. There were social features. Cities had a sort of management bar. There was paid card flips, it was on Facebook for awhile early on.
The UI was starting to get cluttered. All of this was me pulling from other games, and starting to stray away from the original core intent of the game, which was to explore this balancing act, and see the consequences of those choices over time.
One thing I had to learn to be comfortable with is being honest about my feelings. It’s sometimes taboo to admit your true feelings and perspective.These are all things I felt, and once I acknowledged those things were a part of the experience, the game became more truthful, and less contrived. And ironically when I did that people starting having bigger reactions to the game, because it was SURPRISING to see that level of honesty in a game.
Clarify feedback, cause and effect of actions.
Honestly, still working on this part as we integrate a new visual style.
Good example: instead of showing small upgrades every turn, we put a focus on character growth in milestone events. The rest of the game board is hidden, and the player is focused on just the growth.
Just an excuse to show off some sweet artwork!!
The goal is to create a sort of metaphor the player can conjure when similar experiences arise, and the presentation is how the player will codify the experiences in their brain. It will be a visual and muscle memory.
The last big part of the process I want to talk about is fully exploring the model at hand.
The goal is to build a complete model. We slowly expose more of the model as the player gains more mastery. Imagine a sort of fog of war that gets revealed. The player reveals a more complete picture of the model of the game, but is also exposed to more new unknowns that they need to continue exploring to completely master it.
In hero generations, this manifests itself over time.We go from balancing a single relationship in a single life, to managing the expectations of our parents as well as our own, and then the expectations of the other families and society around us, and managing multiple relationships and multiple quests, and then other worlds, and finally, we have to think about balancing our goals against the fate of the world (global warming, poverty, political issues, etc).
In 2011 I had a fundamental change in perspective myself. I found out I was going to have a son.
Shifted my point of view, an grew my own mental model. So the game now tries to amplify the pride you feel in raising your next generation hero, and how your previous heroes decisions gave way to those great things your hero is doing now (or the opposite, explore all directions in the model, its not linear)
And as it relates to hero generations, I had to re-evaluate the perspective I was coding into the rules. The design prior to my son was based around this fear that having a family and settling down would close a lot of doors in terms of my pursuit of being a professional game designer. And in many ways that was true. if nothing else, that personal experience was real, and my fears were real.
But it also brought me tremendous joy, and shifted my point of view to be less selfish. I was excited to help someone else find success. I wanted to do things that made his life better. And that aspect of the lifecycle of the game was absent.
So sometimes I guess the lesson is you need to continue to explore your blind spots, and open yourself up to the possibility that you personally do not have a complete picture.
At the same time though, those biases – what you leave out of the code, and what you make rules for – ARE exactly the art of game design. The designer’s perspective is expressed through the rules she chooses to add to the system.
I also applied this to the extended game. There is an overworld now, and each world in the game has it’s own purpose. Each world represents a major path that most people take. Selfishness, greed, suburban life, etc. Level design is meant to help to slowly roll out a more complete model.
Like a fog of war….
Desert World Example
As you might be noticing, I see the Designer’s decisions on what to model as being the art of game design.
So after all of that, I think the takeaways the game gives is something like:understanding of the consequences of the path you chart for yourself in life. Children, career, family, the world in general. Depending on the paths you explore, you can develop a sense of which paths you agree with, and which you want to avoid.
Honing the truth lead to greater connection with audience. Personal experience when properly crafted is the gateway, ironically, to broader appeal.
@brodiegames on twitter