Designing games for self-expression is useful! But it’s not very accessible right now.
TL;DR for this post: Here’s some pointers to help you get into it anyway.
We have finally made it to the last piece of this big puzzle that is ‘expressive game design’. (I’m gonna shorten it to EGD from now on, btw). Let’s start with a recap of everything we have learned so far:
You can express yourself by designing games.
Some people don’t have an outlet for properly exploring their self-identity, expressing their feelings, or otherwise producing art. Making games might be the right outlet for those people.
You can express yourself by conceptualizing your problems into the metaphorical field of a procedural framework. In other words, you can make the character in a game experience the same things that you are in terms of 'game mechanic’ - what is hard to do in this game? what is easy? what is the solution? what is the problem?
Game design as expression isn’t currently much of a thing because there’s pretty much no information on how to make expressive games, all the systems for game design require a lot of practice and buy-in to get going, and it’s very hard to actually share what you’ve made without being dramatic with third-party sites, big downloads, etc.
And now, it’s time to apply everything we’re explored to guide our search for solutions to making EGD more useful and easy to actually do.
I don’t intend to solve everything with blog posts alone by the way. Instead, today I’ll set out quest markers to guide us from here on out. Even if you don’t immediately jump to your feet to design a game for yourself/others after this, I hope you can glide away with the capacity to at least consider some new possibilities for expression and creation.
Here are some ways to make games right now
The first successful platform for EGD to come to mind for me is Twine. It’s a program that lets you craft (mostly) text-based stories, and lets you employ simple code for hyperlink magic.
Check out Porpentine, for example, right here. (content warning.) Her heavy and powerful games are primarily made through Twine, and these games clearly use game design mechanics to qualify and emphasize expression.
Twine does, admittedly, occupy a strange spot between ‘literature’ and ‘game’. You’ll find with these next few examples that occupying a strange spot is somewhat of a recurring factor.
Custom Server Stuff (Garry’s Mod, Minecraft, Roblox, TF2, Second Life, etc)
These games let people build and host servers in which they set the parameters for their own domains. You’re making something that is interactable (eg you make rules to navigate through and respect). In the case of many mods and servers, you’re making your own systems that let users/players get a procedural experience. This is expressive game design!
Note 1: building a safe bunker or your deceased grandfather’s neighbourhood in minecraft isn’t quite EGD, as much as it is digital sculpture. While that’s totally valid, it’s not quite the same as EGD.)
Note 2: this is a reminder that ‘serious’ moods like anxiety, depression, anger etc are not the only limits for what EGD can do. Making a utopian server where you fly around and have infinite corn dogs to throw at people is a kind of silliness that is expressive of your yearning for frivolousness, for example. A parody hogwarts RP server is still doing something.
The Classic Game Design Tools
Pen, paper, dice, tokens, flash cards. The ancient tools of the old masters. I always recommend prototyping games with these simple things regardless of why you’re making a game. You may find yourself satisfied with conveying thoughts/feelings/yearnings through paper and ink before you need to spend a few hours debugging what should have been a simple boss fight prototype or whatever.
The problem with these tools is that they look janky, and while infinitely flexible, they’re rather limited in power. You can write out any number of procedures on paper… but we do use computer calculation for a reason. There are, however, also plenty of times where you won’t need to actually do anything that strictly requires computational power.
I recognize that using analogue tools for EGD may sound a little… silly? Can you really capture something like a feeling of lack, an anxiety about decision paralysis, a funny obsession with pepsi ginger, or a sense of triumph over your exams with something like an iridescent d20, a sharpie and a pad of paper?
Well, my counterpoint is this - you’ll get closer to capturing the above feelings by doing literally any amount of EGD than if you do nothing. And, at any rate, you don’t have the pressure of necessarily making something marketable, shareable or even playable when you’re doing EGD. Make it to whatever degree you can make it. When doing something for yourself, a project is only finished at the moment you decide you are done, and only you decide when that is.
RPGMaker, Unity and other open-source game dev software
Hey, didn’t we just talk about it being awkward for the average person to yield software like Unity just a few weeks ago? (yes, we did). I’m still adding them to this list because despite their flaws, if you know anything about code, then it’s not too big a deal to actually use these platforms.
It’s more backend work, sure, but if you do get comfortable with these platforms you are indeed in a good spot and can start implementing more powerful procedures than you could with the analogue stuff. It just takes time, and the onboarding process is just bit worse than it could be.
Mods and knockoffs of existing games
Mods, or drafts of alternate rules, are a great way to get something tangible if you’re the type who really needs to see your art ‘in action’. Because you have the starting point of something that already exists, in exchange for the flexibility of working from ground zero you get to enjoy the starting momentum of an existing framework to mess with. And at any rate, maybe it’s easier for you to conceptualize things as a modification of a game you’re familiar with.
Making a knockoff is also known as plagiarism when money and reputation are on the line. But if/when you’re doing this just for yourself or a few close friends, feel free to mix and match and pay homage to and take from whatever you want. Like I said above with mods, sometimes playing a particular game is already cathartic for you, so you only need a few adjustments to get something cathartic, joyful, distressing, hilarious etc off your chest.
Here are some suggestions and prompts to help you
Don’t be afraid of partial games
You don’t need to actually make a complete game from start to finish, and you don’t need all the assets. This is especially true if you are just practicing or exploring a particular specific idea. Think of it like the way poets write random lines, writers make characters or snapshots, artists do hand studies, musicians have jam sessions…
The act of game design, the verb, is technically what we seek rather than the noun of a finished game. As such, any time you’re engaged with the process you’re basically doing it right already. Of course, sometimes you’ll only feel right when you’ve made something complete, but don’t feel obligated to go all-out if you are just craving a final boss fight or inventory system or something.
(Note: there is obviously value in practicing the boring stuff, including making a cohesive whole, if you want to get better at game design of any kind. But you don’t have to build an entire house every time.)
Let yourself go abstract
While it’s fine if you want to take your thoughts/feelings and directly translate them into the same art assets / representations in a game, it may be difficult and/or awkward to directly turn something into a game form. Instead, focus on the underlying process or system. For example, think about how fantasy books often explore very human themes through the lens of nonhuman characters, or how instrumental music can carry a mood without needing to outright say anything specific.
Design at whatever level you are comfortable with
There’s different levels of design: you could work on just a concept or rulebook, you could make a simple prototype of one salient system, you could make a prototype of a game in its near-entirety, skip to the halfway point of the plot (if there is one), make an entirely polished game…
...your focus can be on making something to share with others, in which you’d be focusing on the process of playing the thing, or your focus can be on the design process, in which the act of crafting can perhaps help you navigate the design challenges and affordances of your life. There’s options here.
You don’t have to make it balanced, fun, or even winnable
It may sound like I’m playing Calvinball with the definition of a game, but my argument is that a lot of the most common associations with what makes a game come from its narrow current incarnations as purchasable products that you expect to make you feel good. There’s plenty of games that subvert those expectations nowadays (mostly in the form of ‘walking simulator’ type games), but there’s no reason you shouldn’t follow suit.
Here’s some smaller tips at actually implementing mechanics now
Unless subverted, health indicators on enemies imply they are defeatable. Are yours?
The difficulty of the game simultaneously demonstrates the power/ability of the player and the power/ability of whatever obstacles are in the way of the goal. How easy is it to succeed at what you want to do? Is it even winnable?
How do the obstacles get in the way of the player specifically? Are there even any ‘obstacles’ directly against the player, or is it just a matter of making the most out of limited resources/time/money?
What stuff can you interact with? What stuff can you not interact with? What does it mean if you can interact/be interacted with some things, but not others? (imagine if a player can interact with the environment but never with NPCs.)
What stats are relevant to you? What stuff is easy to manage, and what is difficult?
After completing a difficult task, whatever the player receives is typically considered to be a reward and thus viewed in a positive light. What does the protagonist obtain as a reward for a difficult task?
What type of skill is required to succeed? Quick thinking, resource management, empathy, endurance, the ability to disregard (in-game representations of) moral behaviour? The ability to break the rules of the game itself?
An entrepreneur could change the landscape of expressive game design, theoretically, if they could ever craft a way to extremely-easily create and share digital interactive systems. If one could easily share self-made digital games without sending zip files, dropbox links, or any other external hosting service… digital designers would have the chance to actually share their stuff organically without all of the hoops (and the subsequent necessity of making something polished).
I am actually fairly optimistic about the future for expressive game design. There’s three main things that I think should be changed, but I think they’re all somewhat reasonable to happen within a few years:
1) Better tutorials or more accessible information on how specific mechanics can influence expression in a game
2) Better tools for easily putting things together and sharing them
3) More people out there doing it to inspire more people to also do it, etc.
And honestly? All three of these things are already happening. If you live above the soil you’ll know that games are being viewed increasingly more as a form of art. There’s neighborhoods around the internet where you can find expressive game designers, people who do this stuff as a means of catharsis and emotional/spiritual exploration all the time. With more inertia in this perspective, I look forward to seeing expressive game design happening with more support, more frequently, and in more places. I look forward to seeing you there.