Monday, August 22, 2011

Unveiling the Possibility Space

Revealing the scope of a game should be, I think, a seductive act by the game for the player. Not that I know anything about seduction, but I think I've seen it done properly in movies at least, and read a thing or two about it. Seduction means leaving a lot to the imagination while drip-feeding reality in tantalizing doses. There is a sexuality there usually but it doesn't need to be there. A car can be seductive. So can a game. Even an E-rated game, get your mind out of the gutter.

The game I've been working on is now out there, most of the reviews are in, the first-week sales have happened, all that. I can talk about it freely, though if you haven't played it yet, please don't read on unless you're OK with having aspects of it spoiled. Thankfully the game got a generally good response from players, and I'd like to talk here about one of the major reasons why I think it worked for those people. Sure, we worked to craft the discrete elements of the game to a good level of quality, everything from the tuning of the game systems to the art and music and writing and so forth. But I think the essential structure of Bastion is very important to its potential to have an impact on the player.

We said during development that we wanted for the game to present to the player an ever-growing series of gameplay-expanding choices. Part of this involved keeping the player in the dark about the extents of the scope of those choices, culminating in a series of climactic narrative choices designed to feed back on the entirety of the player's experience up to that point. We had to not only continue introducing new elements of play from beginning to end, we also had to do it at slightly irregular intervals such that the structure itself resisted becoming predictable in a negative way. The desired effect is for the player to feel a sense of wonder and intrigue. When you fully understand something, you cannot wonder about it or feel intrigued by it any longer.

Concluding the game with a pair of purely expressive choices, whose gameplay impact was implicit but not overt, was to me the ultimate way of subverting – in a hopefully interesting way – all the gameplay choices that had come before. Up until that point, you'd been deciding what to build, which Spirits to drink, which weapons to use, which upgrades to buy, whether to invoke any of the Shrine idols, and so on. Hopefully, then, the last thing you'd come to expect at the end of the game – especially in a game that appeared to be driving toward one specific outcome – is to have to make an expressive choice about what to do with the world you've been playing in. It's a world you've either grown attached to or haven't grown attached to, and the choices at stake are meant to encompass that entire range of experience.

Bastion is built on this idea of the gameworld slowly unraveling. Every aspect of it. The world unravels almost literally. The story unravels. The game systems come online one by one. There's no telling how many game systems there are in total when you begin play, and in fact, we deliberately mislead you several times about the extent of the game's scope. We make you think you're almost done with the story after several hours, then we introduce another system around upgrading. And when you're almost done with that, we introduce the endgame act. Only when you're about to reach the endgame do we explicitly tell you that, yes, you're about to go into the final area. But even there, the final area is substantially larger than previous areas and has several new kinds of gameplay beats in store. To top it off, once you've finished the game, then we unlock a whole second play-through with more new content. We structured the game this way to keep the experience feeling fresh within the constraints of our scope.

While I think this type of slow-and-steady-burn worked for us, I'm not about to suggest it's beyond reproach. A game needs to prove to its player as quickly as possible why it's worth playing. One way to go about this is to reveal great depth straightaway, such as by rapidly exposing complex game systems. A classic example of this is the character creation screen in a role-playing game. In Icewind Dale, an excellent old computer RPG, I spent probably a good two hours just making my party of characters before ever beginning play. The character creation system was just so rich with possibility. These days I think it's more fashionable to keep stuff hidden and not scare away the player with too much information up front. That's fine, but finding the right pace at which to reveal new elements of play becomes all the more important in those cases. I'm not sure that proper pacing can be taught, because it's resistant by its own nature to being reduced to a formula.

So then, if you're a game, keeping some of your best ideas hidden away for your later stages is arguably a risky proposition. In fact, by doing so you are implicitly accepting that some probably rather large percentage of your players will never see that content. In Bastion's case, we invested heavily in the ending, by scheduling a bunch of time for a bunch of unscheduled stuff, because we wanted to do everything possible to make sure players who finished the game felt rewarded for their time and effort. From a clinical production perspective maybe this was a bad decision. One could argue that we should have disproportionately focused on only the early levels in this fashion, because more players would see them. The reason this mindset is wrong, to me, is because it ignores who the game's audience really is.

Say you're an author writing a novel. The idea that you'd short-change the ending because not many readers would get that far is deplorable. You need to have faith that your readers will get there, ought to be focused on providing every reason for them to get there. Then you save the best for last for these people, because you owe them. They're the ones you're writing for. As for the ones who don't make it, sure it's probably your fault they gave up, but you can't just go in assuming they won't stay interested because that would make you a hack.


  1. Great post, really interesting. While playing Bastion, I actually didn't think much about the systems rolling out slowly. I felt like, every time something new got added, I was in a place of having learned what was already introduced and was glad that there was something new being added for me to explore.

    For instance, you mention dumping hugely complex ideas on the player from the get-go. That is what kept me away from the Civilization games until Civ V came out a year ago. There was just too much information being presented, and the game didn't do a great job of telling me what any of it meant or why I needed to keep track of it.

    Even going through New Game Plus, Bastion felt really interesting, as I started thinking less about "Oh, where is this story going next" and started looking into the things the narrator was saying, probably a little too much. Trying to find hints and deeper meanings behind what he was saying, after already knowing where the story was headed, felt exciting. Trying to learn more about Caelondia from the scraps of information is what kept me running through the second playthrough; in a word, Bastion is seductive.

    You guys did a fantastic job, and this post was really interesting insight into what informed some of the decisions that were made in making the game.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. This pretty much describes exactly what I came to enjoy about the game so much towards the end. The constantly expanding scope made the world feel a lot larger and more organic than it was. For what was essentially a linear experience, the breadth of choice presented within worked to mask that in a very subtle way. And one that I didn't notice until I completed it.

    As for not showing your entire hand up front - I'd argue that the Power Shot and Counter mechanics, introduced at a very early stage, were more than enough to entice players with the promised complexity they so often crave but not in a way that overloaded them with information.

    I agree that too many games choose to start strong and neglect the ending and that is doing their audience a vast disservice. Frankly, if you're worried people won't make it to the end, then edit more content out. I'd rather play a well paced 8-10 hour experience(i.e. Uncharted 2) than a bloated 20 hour game (Alice: Madness Returns comes to mind as a recent example). Gamers still make the fallacy of equating value to time spent which, when applied to any other medium simply doesn't hold water. For instance, Transformers 3's 157 minute running time does not make it a vastly superior product to 2001: A Space Odyssey's 141. You can do more with less - the latter went from the dawn of mankind to the creation of an entirely new species within that time frame while the former merely moved from explosion to explosion.

    The fact that I found myself so deeply attached to even the ancillary characters despite a lack of any real interaction was what made me appreciate the emotional resonance the story built up to. *Spoiler* The loss of my squirt and pecker in the Bastion attack and it's effect on me came so out of left field as to catch me completely unawares. I rarely have that level of attachment to characters in games because they so often go out of their way to provide the players with what they want and not necessarily what the story requires.

    Loss and disappointment are so often seen as negatives within the industry and as something that would scare off players. But it's so often used to wonderful effect in movies and that level of emotional resonance is so seldom experienced in this medium. Players need to suffer and not have their way 100% of their time and they need to be OK with that. LA Noire did this badly by scoring each mission and, as such, rewarded cheating the system. Yet I kept playing Bastion despite the loss and never once thought to restart the game and try to circumvent the consequences.

    The choices at the end of Bastion carried real weight for me and I think that speaks volumes for the quality of the experience as a whole. The art, visuals and audio and the change in gameplay mechanics for the final act all conspired to create something that, despite being so abstract and so minimalist within it's approach in many ways, carried a lot more meaning than most games I've player this year.

  4. Bastion was one of the first games I've ever played where I felt the content was as tight, paced and well written as any other for of media out there at its best. If games want to stand up as a legitimate art form against film, etc, it needs to first prove that it can deliver just as engrossing an experience as any well written film or novel, and Bastion is a huge landmark in that direction. I'm constantly arguing with my dev team that its not enough for games to be good as games, they must be good as any media, and I'm glad to finally have some ammunition for that argument. Excellent job!

  5. I'm mostly a gamer outside of some hobbyist game designing, but I picked up Bastion a couple of weeks ago. I haven't played too far yet (Skyrim, Skyward Sword, plus a few others distracted me) so I skimmed your post here in the vaguest way I can without spoiling, but it looks promising.

    That it keeps opening up later slowly revealing more depth and features, knowing this in a vague way is actually good and encouraging for when I do play it, so I won't judge it too quickly.

    By the way, I was reading an Ultima related site, and they claim you are a fellow fan, eh?

    Anyway, from what I have played so far, your team seems very talented and perhaps just as importantly, very productive for it's size. Have you ever considered attempting a 2d Western RPG in the style of Ultima 7? It'd be a gamble, but your skills seem pretty suited towards that kind of thing.

    PS, it's strange for me, as I recall reading so many of your reviews, to see you transition into making games I'm buying and playing, it's interesting. Congratulations on this. As useful as your critical reviews were (you are probably the most sane reviewer I recall), being involved in game creation has got to feel pretty good. Ultimately creating something instead of criticizing something, in the grand scheme of things, there's kind of a duality there and I think we could all learn from this, how important it is to create. Especially looking around the internet in general, there's a hell of a lot of criticism, maybe a skewed ratio.

    When I play further into your game, perhaps I'll let you know how it goes. Thus far the art and controls are well done, but the meat of the game design is still further in.

    Take care, and good luck there, Greg, from a long time reader.