Two weeks ago I noticed that not many people utilize game design as a means of self-expression. And that makes sense, as there’s tons of factors that get in the way of game design as an accessible creative medium. But that systemic stuff will come a bit further down the line. Today, we’ll learn how you can actually use game design for expression in the first place.
Let’s get the first question out of the way: “Isn’t expressive design obvious? Aren’t half the indie games on Steam basically game design as expression?”
The answer isn’t “no,” but rather, it’s “not necessarily”. A number of games definitely feel like creative expressions, but a whole bunch are more about being fun than being a means of conveying feeling(s). (IMO that’s because a fun game will simply make more money than a game that helps you deal with your personal issues. And dominant ideology in the game industry is to make sales, so...)
In other words: Just like how forensic sketches are designed to be useful, most games are designed to be fun. But fun is not the same as expressive. And while they’re not mutually exclusive, they’re also not guaranteed to come hand in hand.
There’s plenty of literature on fun games, so let’s get to expression in games and how to do it!
It’s kind of hard to just outright teach you how to be a maestro, just like how it’s hard to teach one to write music or poems. But here’s a start, which I’ve translated from university creative writing courses and workshops…
Understand the mechanics and tools (variables) at your disposal.
Make a system that aligns with how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking, even if you can’t put it into words - especially if you can’t put it into words!
Example 1): if you feel like you’re never reaching your goal, you could “metaphorize” it into a really slow movement system, or a goal that’s impossibly far, or maybe it’s at the top of a staircase that never ends.
Example 2): if you feel like nothing you do matters, perhaps solving a puzzle will yield very little reward or change to the environment.
Example 3): if you feel like the only thing worthwhile is speaking with a particular person, you can change the reward system or even the structure of pathways to match up with that thought.
Example 4): if you feel like everyone else can do something and you can’t, you could have other character models that look like you easily doing something - except due to the UI or the mechanics. your character is simply unable to achieve the same thing no matter what.
Now here’s some real life games that do cool expressive things.
In Hyper Light drifter, one of the few times the player loses control of their character is when they start to cough up blood (from their sickness) - the character starts to move on their own, and player input doesn’t really do much to help. This kind of gives me a feeling of powerlessness against the sickness. It’s an interesting contrast to enemies, in which with enough skill you can always outmaneuver and destroy them… the fact that you barely lose step against giant frogs or powerful swordfighters but can barely walk when your disease starts flaring up? That must be one bad sickness.
In Pathologic, your character sometimes needs to walk into infected territories in order to get things done - but getting sick is an awful ordeal that can ruin the rest of your gameplay and permanently affect your playthrough. As a player you naturally end up trying to avoid these areas and even become fearful of these infected districts. Due to the mechanical impact of getting sick, as well as having the agency to make decisions around whether or not you want to increase your risk of infection, players can easily develop emotional reactions to infected areas.
In other words, it’s about using game mechanics to convey things that words can’t. Placing a character in a cage will make the viewer go “oh, they’re in a cage”. But placing a player’s avatar in cage will make them go “oh, i’m trapped”. I think all good creative art is about using things like colour, composition, rhythm, lyric, metaphor, enjambment, etc in order to have the audience not just see a feeling, but go through it themselves. So a game seems great for that!
Reminder that instances of expression are often not necessarily fun on their own. Expressing a mood through your mechanics does not guarantee making something fun to play. This is why, if your focus really is just on expression, game design for expression can be really helpful (for your own emotional state) but not necessarily a top hit on steam. But then again, plenty of games designed for fun don’t make it far either, so do what you want.
Let’s summarize, recap and clarify a bit:
Game design as expression is turning your feelings, thoughts or ideas into certain mechanical choices throughout a game.
Notably, you don’t need to make a full game. A small closed system can be plenty enough to express something - for example, a combat scene or even an inventory system. But you definitely don’t need a plot or a beginning/middle/end.
An easy way to express yourself through mechanics is to design a system in such a way that the player must make the same types of decisions as you are, face against the same (metaphorized) trials as you are, receive the same reward/punishment as you want to express, etc. Not all at once necessarily - I’m just listing examples.
Designing an expressive system is not necessarily the same as designing a fun system. This is why not all games are expressive - many designers just want to make something cool. Additionally, even story-heavy games sometimes have plots divorced from their gameplay, in which you’re telling a story but you’re not expressing yourself directly through mechanics.
This was a beefy read but I hope it was tender. In the next section we’ll look at the next question: if people can design games for expression, if it’s so great, why don’t people do it more often?
See you in two weeks where we’ll find out!