Saturday, February 2, 2013

Discovery and Mastery

It's been more than a year since I posted here. Here are some of the reasons:
- I was busy
- I was lazy
- I was between projects
- I was playing a lot of Dota 2 in my spare time (see above)
- The more time went by the more I felt I needed to say something profound if I posted again

Two things have changed:
- I'm playing less Dota 2 as too many other games need playing
- My guilt at neglecting this space superseded the imperative to say something profound

So here we are.

Exposition is something I feel I've talked about a lot because, if you look past its colloquial definition as "the part of a story where plot details are explained", it's a lens through which you can look at the entire start-to-finish structure of a game.

Exposition is a tool used for reconciling the mechanical, systemic, and narrative components of a game, as it's the method through which these components may be sequenced in some interesting, appropriate fashion for the player.

When used properly, exposition creates motivation in the player. Interesting details expose themselves, raising questions about other interesting details, creating for the player an unspoken promise that the revelations will continue. One way of looking at the game designer's responsibility is, he or she must extend this expository sequence for as long as appropriate and no longer. The result is a game that is engaging from start to finish and leaves the player with a sense of satisfaction at the end.

All games are played to the point at which the player loses interest. An ending is just an invitation for the player to lose interest at what's likely an appropriate time.

Not all games need to be finite and it seems to me the vast majority are not. If a game is to be endless for some reason then I think it's important for the player's sense of mastery over the game to also feel unreachable. If it could be measured over time, mastery ought to look like the geometric concept of an asymptote – it should be possible to approach mastery, but never quite reach it. The reason I played Dota 2 all last year, the reason I played fighting games for years and years, is because they do this.

Mastery is not the goal of all games. Some games are experiential, contemplative. They don't offer challenge in a traditional sense. I admire games that do this well, such as the recently released Proteus or last year's Journey. These games tend to focus on creating a sense of discovery. In the absence of mechanical complexity or challenges, they need to compel the player through some other thing, through discovering the limits of the world or discovering interesting intersections between different game systems. Even The Walking Dead is a form of this – it's about the emotional experience of making difficult moral decisions and moving forward with the consequences of those decisions.

So then: either a game compels its player to fully master it, or fully discover it, or possibly both. My absolute favorite games, and the kinds of games I want to work on, do both.

From a certain point of view the terms are somewhat interchangeable. When I feel as though I've seen everything there is to see in Proteus, it could be said that I've "mastered" the game. When I feel I've reached the limits of my reflexes and mental capacity playing Dota 2, when I think I know all there is to know about it even though I may be wrong, I think I've "discovered" everything there is to discover about Dota 2.

That said, I think "mastery" tends to be applied to mechanical and goal-oriented aspects of play, to competitive games or games with goals and challenges, while "discovery" tends to be applied to experiential, narrative aspects. Going forward I will use these terms to denote these respective meanings.

I think it's fair to think that if a player fully masters a game before it's finished then the player is more likely to get bored and quit if that mastery occurs before the game has ended, if it has an ending.

A player may also quit early if the gap between overcoming the challenges at stake exceeds his or her curiosity at what lies beyond those challenges.

In such cases there is no real exposition left in the mechanics or systems. The player "gets it" and there's nothing left to learn. Maybe the game should have ended before the player reached this point, or more likely, the mechanics and systems themselves were underdeveloped in some way or the game wasn't tuned appropriately and the player was unable to find sufficient challenge there.

I think depth is secretly desired by everyone who plays games no matter their interest level, because depth and engagement are very closely linked.

Say a player has become bored of a game's mechanics and systems, having seen all there is to see, or at least believing this to be the case. One way the player may remain engaged in spite of this failure on the game's part is through the narrative. To me this is the main reason narrative belongs in games, as a sort of safety net for the gameplay, because it's very difficult for gameplay to be perfectly tuned and engaging for all players at all times. When the gameplay falters at its job, the narrative can be there to compel the player onward: "Well I just want to see what happens next."

The narrative of course also can fail, just as easily and just as hard as the gameplay.

This is why thinking of a game's structure as a single expository track I think is useful. Concepts of all kinds can be separated and ordered, ensuring that something interesting continually happens on some recurring yet slightly unpredictable interval. Applied properly, this method can be used to create a strong sense of discovery from start to finish and leave the player satisfied yet wanting more, because the experience was a good one. Dark Souls and its predecessor Demon's Souls are good examples of this. Those games are one big enigma, maddening intricate puzzles begging to be cracked.

Exposition is its own worst enemy. The stigma that comes with the term comes from how often exposition is abused. Exposition can be abused in mechanics, systems, and narrative. Often this abuse occurs as the consequence of didactic design or on-the-nose writing.

When a game explicitly tries to teach you everything about how to play it, through forced or heavy-handed tutorials and other interruptions, it is denying you the opportunity to discover what's interesting about the play experience on your own. Ever play a game and think "just let me play" when it's all cutscenes and pop-ups reiterating over and over? The game is being condescending to you and wasting your time. It's a disappointing feeling.

It would be nice if all games were fully discoverable. At least when it comes to today's console and PC games and their dozens of possible inputs, that simply isn't possible sometimes, and some amount of teaching is necessary. Following the rules of appropriate exposition, the best way to teach is to teach as quickly and concisely as possible, and teach only those things fundamental to the player's ability to make progress, at the time when those things must be understood. No sooner, no later. Getting this right is hard.

Knowing that teaching and discovery stand in direct opposition, and that discovery is a much more desirable sensation than "being taught something", can be useful as a means of forcing yourself to reduce teaching to an absolute minimum and leave as much as possible to the player.

The last point I want to make here is that when you think of exposition holistically, as the player's path through the entire experience, then you discover opportunities for using exposition in interesting, unconventional ways.

Maybe when there's a bit of necessary teaching to be done, you figure out a way to give it narrative context, as with World of Goo's excellent Sign Painter signs – tutorials written from the perspective of a mysterious character.

Maybe there's a really interesting but advanced play mechanic you're dying for the player to know about. Rather than just spell it out in a forced tutorial where the mechanic is plainly shown but can't really be appreciated, maybe you can provide more situations in which that mechanic stands a chance of being discovered naturally, thus providing the player the satisfaction of having figured it out.

We live in a time when achieving a sense of discovery or mastery seems virtually impossible. Our personal accomplishments are inconsequential in comparison to those of many other people who have worked much harder for much longer to achieve similar things a long time ago. Our discovery of things is often coupled with a sense of ignorance at having not discovered them sooner. The best some people can hope for in these regards is writing "first" on a comment thread on a news story on the Internet – that's the modern-day equivalent of a frontier. As such, I and many others look to games to provide us with some of these feelings. Games might as well do the job.


  1. I really loved Splice as an example of pure discovery from a standpoint of pure gameplay. Not only does it not teach you how to play the game, it doesn't even teach you how the 100%-completion system works, or even that it exists. It's just up to the player to figure that out. It tickled me in a way I hadn't felt before.

  2. awesome write up greg

  3. While I can't imagine a Metal Gear without long expositions and narrative building sequences, I think games that never take me out of the driver seat are by far the most memorable and impressive.

    I remember in Half Life: Episode 2, when Gordon and Alex are being hunted (and she gets taken away), the one part where the game took control away from me (Gordon), which made sense within the context and the lore... it blew my mind away. That's how I think games should teach and intervene, by making the player feel MORE involved and engaged, even if they have less control and a limited set of interactions. I don't mind when games direct my interactions, as long as they make sense within the context of what is happening to the character "I'm supposed to be".

    Oh yeah... we met at GDC in 09, I was a big fan from your days at Gamespot. Glad to see you living the dream and helping to further the discussion and understanding of game design.

  4. Greg, love your work.

    I've explored this split between discovery and mastery in some depth. There's something vital there, something fundamental. I've collected more thoughts you might be useful at, and I'd be interested in talking more.

  5. I totally agree! Great article!

    In this day and age it is so hard to find games that put that feeling of discovering as their top priority. But when you do find that game it creates that experience that will stick with you for years to come (I still get chills when I walk down the Great Hollow into Ash Lake).

    It’s great to see a developer talking about this key aspect of games from the standpoint of one who has achieved it many times.

    Thanks so much Greg! Keep up the good work!

  6. Absolutely poetic! I really miss your reviews and tastes in the gaming community when you still worked for Gamespot. But now you are on to bigger, better, and more exciting chapters of your life. Your blog is the only access I have anymore into tapping into your thought process. Please keep writing!