This is part of an on-going companion series to the game curation effort Forest Ambassador run by merritt kopas. Please explore and support it if you can!
What can games teach about design? To anyone, not necessarily industry people. It’s important to discuss because there are a lot of people talking about games who might not fully have a grasp on design. There’s a lot of criticism about this, that players and critics focus on non-interactive elements when they talk about video games. We often see critics talk about how games fit into certain contexts of our lives, be it as a product or an autobiographical metaphor or an example of systemic oppression. Rarely do these analyses come from the directly design itself, rather by-products or echoes of the design. Which isn’t necessarily bad, that’s what design is supposed to do, make a person feel things.
I just finished reading through anna anthropy’s section of A Game Design Vocabulary, a book co-written with Naomi Clark, just in time to talk about her work on Triad (it only takes a little bit to play) with Leon Arnott and Liz Ryerson. What I like about anna’s writing and talks is how she aims not only for good games and good design, but for a lot of the excess to be cut and manageable for people who aren’t already in video games design to understand and do themselves. I’ve become a fan of saying the idea of minimalist games is misleading, and that most games are overwrought. I want to detail a little about anna’s proposed language around game design through Triad and how it teaches on its own.
anna uses syntax as a way to talk about design. Of most importance are verbs, which she defines as doing rules. In Triad, the player’s main verb is to move around the three members of a relationship into proper sleeping positions on a bed. anna is really good about boiling things down to essentials and makes everything else revolve around this verb. You only use your mouse for the entire game, and a click becomes a decision making action, punctuated by the lamp being the finish button. This seems trivial information at first, but for anna, giving the player the smallest amount of information and input needed to play is an important part of design, because it ties the player stronger to them. I could imagine, and have seen, different keyboard buttons for rotating the people, turning off the light, or advancing the dialogue. We can push this a little further and say that the verb is actually arranging rather than moving, or another word that carries a nuance that would be good for interpreting. I can see a possible avenue for criticism to take and interpret verbs this way, because it allows you to change the light design decisions are seen under. This arranging feeling echoes back out to the objects and context of the game.
I should take a moment aside to talk a little bit about rules. I myself do not really see games to be, essentially, rules or instructions one plays with, but we are in a paradigm that sees rules as the smallest building blocks of creating games. Rules as a concept are also stretched beyond the typical meaning of rules here. The broadest way I can put it is rules are things that are designed to happen. In Triad, this can be that the light can’t turn off until all body parts are on the bed or that to win is for everyone to not be bothered during the night, and down to clicking being what forwards the dialogue and the bed being pink. I see rules more to be a lens than things that really exist on their own, we read rules and systems into design to explain them. Rules as lens is another good place for a critic to start when talking about a piece, such as, how does the rule of the cat jumping on the bed relate to or affect player decisions and behavior?
She uses objects pretty much how you think one would in a sentence structure, the rules verbs act on. anna advises for having interesting objects that help advance verbs. In the game, the main objects are the people being arranged. All of them have different qualities that make them interact with each other in unique ways. One of the bedmates rolls around in their sleep, another flips on their side. These create relationships between the characters, particularly with the one that rolls; they somehow have to be contained in the bed without being kicked. Most interesting and resonant with me however is how these objects are coded to hit each other out of the way unless you are precise and methodical on how you place them. The rules of objects are almost like personality traits; you can read in a sort of frustration yet care in arranging these people on the bed. These objects are fussy to work with but there *is* a solution (well, sort of).
Context is the layer where critics and player tend to sit in the most. It’s important; without context, this would be a simple puzzle game not too unlike other things you’ve seen. This is probably another good practice in criticism, imagining a game stripped of its context compared to its actual one. Because this is depicting a triadic relationship, there’s more going on than pieces fitting together. It’s trying to have different needs met, and requiring a lot of trial and error. My favorite part of the game is actually the interludes between each night, because it mounts the pressure of getting it right the next time. I could only imagine that this triad was also having lots of other things in their relationship going on, and they had to end every night with one of them constantly rolling off the bed.
And, for me, that’s really where design-focused criticism stops. Not much interesting comes out of analyzing in a design-centric manner to connect the game to the outside world. These critiques are pretty much from a user experience standpoint; a lot of anna’s writing is about how to be clear to the player and how to have a less is more approach to design. It is meaningful that there is a game that depicts a triadic relationship, and I think that ends there. This doesn’t mean that this game nor others can’t be significant because of this, rather, I don’t think design analyses can hold up without cultural criticism. I can see a larger piece about themes of restriction in games with queer content and how that manifests, but design-by-design points typically boil down to ‘it’s fun’ or ‘it’s elegant.’ To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the games themselves are void of value, rather, I think design analyses are stuck on what’s good design and how to make a good game on a product level. There is more to be said about the game being about a triad than the puzzle itself; that’s not a critique, more like a sign we need another way to look at games, and why autobiographical connections to games are in vogue.
I find anna’s work both as a designer and theorist to be the terminus of contemporary design ideology, boiled down to its essentials and ready for more people to pick it up and use it. I find that this design paradigm is rather, well, videogamey, and is too down the entertainment rabbit hole to really be mined for something other than that. This isn’t downing her games, knowing her personally I am privy to her non-digital work and ideas that are interesting. Just that I don’t think we’re ever going to find much to talk about in this era of games with a rules-based design paradigm. I definitely suggest buying and reading her and Naomi’s book however, because it will make a lot of contemporary video games clearer, and allows you to understand design-speak better when you hear it. As for my criticisms or difference to this work, I hope to detail that sometime in the future. For now, consider that a game doesn’t need to say something profound through its rules to mean something to someone else, and that players don’t necessarily have to have a designer’s logic to be affected by design. Smaller games like this are like drops in an ocean that can make a wave. We don’t need one or a few games to be especially profound, rather, getting game making tools and methodology into more people’s grasps.
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