Hidden Messages: Subversive Game Design

So, I’ve had a long-held beef with “serious games” and “art games” and their relationship to games as a whole. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking (“oh great, he’s going to get on about art games! let me out!”), and I’m not about to say there’s no place for either sort of game. Rather, what I’m going to say is this:

It is okay if you want to make an art game or a serious game. But please don’t do so at the expense of the game.

For a long time, I’ve felt that the art of game design is in the game itself—that Doom or Super Mario Bros. are every bit as much works of art as The Path or Mass Effect (to pull equally from “art game” and “I can understand that being art”). That, in essence, it’s the mechanics that are really the art of game design. But that is a digression. I’ll talk more about it later and bore you all with art history in the process.

Today is more about making games, making games have meaning and message and art and whatnot like that. Mostly, I’m going to talk about games with a message, today.

And what I’m going to say about it, in brief, is to be subversive about it. Don’t make your game all about the message—at least, not where it’s obvious.

This comes up while I work on scenario designs for Waystation, a game design I’m working on for my Game Design Documents class this quarter. In writing the dialog trees for one of the scenarios, I’ve hit upon an interesting idea: I’m going to incorporate lessons I’ve learned from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People into the game, and seek to deliver the message it teaches, though not terribly overtly. Through mechanics. Specifically, through the mechanics built around dialog trees, and in a fashion not particularly blatant to the player. With any luck, they won’t even notice it’s there.

Waystation is, in essence, a city-building game, most closely resembling Tropico 3. It has, in addition to the main mechanic of building, a sort of loose narrative structure built around the ideas of scenarios, with little story events that pop up and let the player interact with some narrative that has some effects on the game itself. Pretty simple, all told—a nicely commercial game concept all around, sounds like fun for any number of people, really.

The idea is to have that game—a game that is definitely a game, makes no particular push to be more than entertainment—and embed more serious themes into it. In this case, the player will find that there are choices to make, much along the lines of what one encounters in Bioware’s games, particularly Mass Effect. And it may be as simple as that for some players—be a paragon, be a renegade, whatever. However, there’s more in there, that I hope the game will encourage people to discover. In particular, the player is left to discover that other options exist when one goes through the dialogue trees more thoroughly. Ultimately these lead to an optimal gameplay path through the story choices that are based on the principles in the aforementioned book.

The idea here, of course, is to deliver a message, and to do it without lecturing and allow the player to discover said message for themselves and apply it to their game. Naturally the ultimate goal is to teach them the message that is buried in the game without losing their receptivity.

The key to this whole thing is that Waystation has to be a game first and a message second. The dialog gameplay is really a relatively small portion of the game. The nature of a medium is that one must really couch one’s goals in the language of the medium. You don’t write a write a novel about social injustice, print it on a canvas and call it a painting and then expect people to be receptive to it as a great painting full of deep meaning, after all (yes, there are problems with this analogy, but I’d argue that in most of those cases the commentary is more about the medium than the content which is not the same thing). Ultimately, if you want to convey meaning, you need a receptive audience. To have a receptive audience, you have to play by some of the basic rules. If you want to make a deeply meaningful game, you do still have to make a game.

So start there, make a GREAT game, and sneak your big social commentary in the back door while they’re distracted.

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