How to Suspend Disbelief, or, Easy to Learn, Hard to Master, in 5 MinutesComplications Ensue
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Sunday, December 09, 2018

The irrepressible Richard Rouse III invited me to be part of his annual MIGS "Brain Dump" panel. I thought I'd post my thoughts from that here. The overall topic was "Easy to Learn, Hard to Master." I decided to talk about--

How to Suspend Disbelief.

As you probably know if you're reading this blog, in August, we shipped a game called We Happy Few. It’s set in a Britain where everyone is taking a drug called Joy to forget the terrible things they did in the War. Also the terrible things they’re going to do to you.

My job as Narrative Director is to get people emotionally engaged. Which means immersing people in a convincing world.

This turns out to be quite hard to master. It’s given me grey hair.

Making a convincing world is not easy, because the real world has bazillions of elements, while your fellow devs have to painstakingly create every single object, every gesture, every behavior in the world. And obviously, they need to keep things as simple as possible.

Thing is, when players meet a world that is too neat, too simple, too symmetrical, they call shenanigans.

Reality has a shape, and its shape is ... queer. Asymmetrical.



The Earth is not really the center of the Solar System.


Reality is made of temporary solutions that got potchkeyed on top of other temporary solutions, and now everything’s all stuck together, and nothing can be fixed. Reality is not the game you designed, it’s the game you shipped.

So if you want to create a reality, don't design a fish. A fish makes too much sense. Someone could have intentionally designed a fish. Instead, design a platypus.




When I was at Yale, I took a course on the Afro-Atlantic tradition. Of all the courses I ever took on screenwriting, this one, which had nothing to do with screenwriting, taught me the most about screenwriting.

In West African drumming, I learned, you don’t play the beat. You play around the beat. In West African textiles, you don’t make a perfectly symmetrical quilt. At least one of the squares is off center. Or different.


Our game worlds tend to go in the opposite direction. Everything is a little too symmetrical. Too relevant to the main character. Monsters hang around for you to kill them. Quest givers wait around to give you a quest.



The player is the center of the Solar System.



To create a convincing world, you need to create a layer of asymmetry. Of kruft. Rumple the bed so it looks slept in.

Give your non-player characters stories that the player will never know the beginning or end of. Yes, as far as game design is concerned, they’re there to give the player a quest. But they think they’re trying to settle a score, or get laid, or renovate their kitchen. The player is just an accident that got in their way.


Give your characters secrets. Hint at these secrets in their dialog, in the way they dress, in their animations, in what they clearly mean, but can’t bring themselves to say.

Let the player unravel the secrets if you have time and resources, but secrets are good even if you never reveal them. They shape the world, like whatever it is that makes that bump under the rug.


Let your world have absences: things that are so obviously missing you can’t help notice they’re not there. The adults in Wellington Wells jump in puddles and play in playgrounds. Uh, that reminds me, shouldn’t there be kids?


Let your world have mysteries. The backstory in Horizon Zero Dawn is a mystery which gives a structure to the world.

You don’t even have to resolve all the mysteries. People want to know what happened to the kids in We Happy Few. I know, but I’m not gonna tell you.


Sometimes the opposite happens. Your fellow devs will also want to add things that have nothing to do with the player, the story, or the world, because they are cool or funny".

Oh, God. “Cool” and “funny” are the death of a thousand cuts of immersion. Reality has an asymmetric shape, but it does have a shape. Players can tell the difference between things that happen for a hidden reason, and things that happen for no reason. One “cool” won’t kill immersion. But the world loses a bit of blood, and the players start to care a bit less, and more than anybody realizes. They will call shenanigans. In other words,

the players don't know. 

But they know.

To create a convincing world, you’ll have to kick up a fuss from time to time.

When I worked in TV and film, I used to wonder why directors were such jerks. Then I directed a bunch of short films, and there were things I knew were wrong during the shoots, and I didn’t kick up a fuss to get them fixed, because I didn’t want to be a jerk. And the films weren’t as good as I’d hoped.

You will have to piss people off from time to time.

That doesn’t mean be a jerk. You have to be passionate and convincing, but not be a jerk about it. If you do it right, people will love you even when you do piss them off.

I’ve been passionate and convincing, and I’ve been a jerk.

It helps if you don’t fight for “your” ideas. If you fight for what the game needs.

And that’s how I really got the grey hair.












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