Sirlin on Subtractive DesignComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I've been reading a lot of game blogs lately. David Sirlin has a compelling post on Subtractive Design. The idea being to make a great game, cut out everything that isn't about the game dynamic. He praises some really simple games like PORTAL and BRAID, which are powerful even though they don't have huge GTA-style maps with lots of detail.

Live action movies are almost the opposite. They're in a real if fictional world, not in a game space. If you start removing things that don't have to do with the plot, the world stops being the real world and becomes some sort of theatrical space. It's fine to have two chairs and a table in the theater, but if it's in the movies you really need the carpet (white? stained? tapestry? IKEA?), the bookshelves, the posters, the shoes, the empty takeout cartons, etc. Everything that creates character. The more attention to things that aren't the plot, the more the movie feels real.

Indeed you always have to balance relevance and verisimilitude in a feature -- if every bit of dialog forwards the plot, the movie might seem plotty and thin. You might need to let the characters breathe a bit. They might derail the hero's interrogation to talk about the elephants in the circus. The way you square the circle is by having characters' personalities become obstacles for the hero. They're talking about what they want to talk about, not what the hero wants to talk about. They are resolutely in the middle of their stories; he has to get them back to his story ... which is the plot.

I'm not sure I agree 100% with Sirlin even on games. Doesn't the subtraction esthetic lead to game environments where everything you click on is useful, and you can only click on useful things? Do you really want to apply that to sandbox games? Oh, if only I could mouse over everything in my bedroom, and the cursor would change color when it was over my iPhone. There's a burlap sack. Is it useful? Well, is it live? If it's live -- you can pick it up -- it's useful, if it's not, it's set dressing. That spoils the immersive realism for me. I'd rather be allowed to put any kind of random junk in my knapsack; maybe you shouldn't know which until you run into the situation you need it for. (Maybe the game shouldn't helpfully tell you that you've picked up three out of five of the battery packs in the room.) There's an argument for having a certain amount of noise in a game, because life is like that.

UPDATE: A reader points out that the immersive quality of a sandbox game is a core mechanic that can't be subtractive. But that starts to seem tautological. I think Sirlin really does have an esthetic -- a sort of nouvelle cuisine, only three items on your plate but they're perfect. And I'm more of a big sauce kinda guy.



From Baby Bones

I watched a movie on TV the other day called Street Kings. About halfway through I realized that it had to have been written by James Elroy. It was playing so much like a present-day LA Confidential. I was happy when I was proved right but not so happy because the movie sucked. The fault was with the story, which had been adapted by Elroy from his own book. He obviously didn't like subtracting elements. The movie is supposed to be about a semi-corrupt cop discovering circles of corruption within corruption within corruption in the dept. Try jamming that with gang banger and copper language. That's too much happening. You’d think it’d be confusing, but since the action didn’t get beyond the first and most obvious level of corruption and relied on exposition for the rest, I knew who was to blame early on. No Rollo Tommasi moment.

By Blogger yyyyyyyyy, at 1:09 AM  

Sirlin has always been a less-is-more guy. In fact that's practically all the blog was really about when I found it in 2003, and back then all he wrote about was Street Fighter. But I don't think you're getting his point; he's not saying that games should be reduced to nothing more than their absolute core gameplay mechanics, he's saying that as a designer you need to figure out what those mechanics actually are, and beyond those, focus only on the things that compliment them without adding anything to distract you from them uneccessarily and/or manditorily and/or abruptly.

If you apply that mindset to live action cinema, the atmosphere would be considered a "core mechanic" (along with plot and characters), something that you can't get rid of or else you don't really have a movie. Sirlin isn't anti-worldbuilding. Going by Sirlin's reasoning, what you need to do is figure out explicitly what atmosphere you're going for and make sure ALL of that world-buildy stuff in the background WORKS for it. If something doesn't work then the illusion is gone and one of your three core mechanics is broken -- that's bad. Glaring plot-holes and "character development" sequences that bloat out into big fat red herrings are also bad. Movies with these things are broken movies. This is obvious, and its obvious because you HAVE to have those three core mechanics in EVERY MOVIE.

Games aren't like that at all. Challenge: name three core mechanics that are present in every videogame. How about just one? Plot, character and atmosphere sure don't qualify. Have you ever pondered the emotional state of a tetris block? Why would you personalize a tetris block? Better question: if you were a developer would YOU make the pieces into characters and then force the player to deal with a bunch of stupid character development shit when all he really wants is the classic puzzle game Tetris? No, of course not.

(wow this got long)

By Blogger Unknown, at 3:20 AM  

The problem is that for more complex games, nailing down the core mechanics that will form the foundation of a good game is really hard. If the reason people are supposed to eventually play your game isn't explicit during development then can you really expect anyone to play it? Can you expect it to end up being playable if everyone with a hand in the project is pulling it in a different direction? It's not a bad idea to remind people to get their shit together ahead of time and keep it that way.

Judging by your criticisms of his logic you seem to be most interested in immersive, sandbox-y games which don't place a lot of restrictions on your behavior as a player in the world. Ok, lets say you get plopped down in a world like that. Now what? One reason more games like that don't get made is because most people have no idea what to do with them, so they stop playing. The core mechanics don't stand up on their own: people need some motivation to move out into the world and explore. It doesn't need to be terribly explicit - in fact, get too explicit and you remove some of the thrill from the prospect of exploring this new environment - but if it's not there the game is broken. So you have to have it, or the game is broken, but too much and you take away from the core exploration mechanic. Even Pathologic (, the most complete immersive game world ever constructed, gives the player an end goal, but that goal itself can't be called a core mechanic.

As for the second thing about lasse-faire inventory management and trial-and-error gameplay, this article by Chet Faliszek, one of the writers for Portal, illustrates why that's an inherently broken mechanic better than I could: Crap like that is called artificial difficulty. It's stupid and the consequences for screwing up are so dire that playing those games comes off more like work. "Noise" in games is not a bad thing, especially if characters, setting and plot ARE core mechanics, but if you're going to put it in you have to make sure it jives with the core mechanics of the game you're trying to make. If you don't then all the work you've put in to drawing the players attention to the core mechanics -- the things that make the game a good game -- will be ruined.

By Blogger Unknown, at 3:20 AM  

@Timothy: good points, but artificial difficulty completely at odds with the sandbox esthetic. If you're in a realistic world, there ought to be three or four ways to solve a problem, not one ridiculously arcane one. And the artificial difficulty in the Old Man Murray article could only exist in a game where only certain objects are live and only at certain times.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 9:39 AM  

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By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:59 AM  

2) The depth of environmental interaction you call for is not an easy thing to implement from a technical standpoint. If the core gameplay is compelling enough, set-dressing shouldn't provide a distraction because you won't be paying attention to it (the parallel I draw is to your explanation of laugh tracks in sitcoms). Bad level design can highlight a lack of interaction: if all you have to fight a monster with is a wooden spoon, the unusable swords hanging on the wall stick out. This isn't solved by making the swords usable though, it's solved by removing the swords. Given the technical difficulty, unless total environment interaction is central to the gameplay, pursuing it further than necessary is expensive, steals focus from the core elements, and can become a nightmare to balance.

I realize that your perspective may be incompatible with the set of beliefs that game designers expect players to suspend. Many design trends are decades old and were shaped by much more severe tecnological limitations than currently exist. I see parallels with the enjoyment of sci-fi: adding the ability to move every knick-knack in a game wouldn't improve most games any more than taking out the sounds of explosions in space would improve the Death Star battle in Star Wars. If you can't put either out of your head then most games/sci-fi movies aren't going to draw you in.

By Blogger Unknown, at 1:24 PM  

You're right, that article didn't support my point at all. I don't know what I was thinking - I didn't even credit the right author (I blame fatigue). Let me take another (verbose) crack at it. The points you made that I disagree with are that 1) games in general would benefit from more open ended inventory management and 2) games in general would benefit from completely interactive environments.

1) Inventory management is an important facet of many games. However, an unrestricted inventory has to avoid some tricky design pitfalls. If everything around is useful then management provides no challenge (not inherently bad if the point of the game is the exploration of the solution space given a large toolset: see Scribblenauts). If there are some items whose usefulness vastly outweighs all the others' then those other items are rendered superfluous. A glut of useless items from which the useful must be sifted leads to frustrating trial-and-error gameplay and copious backtracking, which turn most people off (people who enjoy this sort of thing play Roguelikes, but it's a small niche). By and large it's easier to create compelling and balanced challenges, even those that can be tackled in multiple ways, if you have a solid handle on the tools the player with be attacking the challenges with - and that generally means putting some limits on inventory.

By Blogger Unknown, at 1:24 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger Unknown, at 3:19 PM  

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