Thoughts on Game Design: Labyrinths, Exploration, and Play

Full disclosure: I’m not a professional game developer. There are better people than me, more qualified people, talking about the same topics. So, as a result, I’m not going to write this as an expert, but instead as a series of thoughts by someone who is currently solo developing a game.

I’ve developed games before. Some were tabletop games (one of which I am still running semi-open betas for), some were card games (a realm I find fascinating but remarkably if subtly difficult), some were PC games of various types. I’ve only finished a small handful, and most of them were not terribly great. I’ve had most success in the tabletop realm, as that’s something I’ve done on and off for coming in on 20 years now, and is a realm that ties much more obviously to my other more experienced spaces of writing and puzzle-making.

Not only have I developed games before, but I’ve made puzzles, riddles, mazes, etc. As you could probably tell by my essay series here called Labyrinths, as well as my love of Borges, fixation on Daedalus, and general recurrence of the theme that I’m a pretty big fan of that world. I do puzzles for fun, particular math or logic puzzles.

The reason I like puzzles and riddles and labyrinths ties to something I’ve always loved in games, be they video games or tabletop games or board games, and that’s the element of exploration. The limit of a text, be it prose or poetry, is that there is often little in the way of exploration. That’s because to explore requires interactivity of some sort, which most texts pride themselves on not possessing; in fact, we gauge often most artfulness of literature by how well the artist controls and limits the tendency for the reader to be distracted or lead away from the text. This reveals a severe limit to traditional literature, as I see it, and is part of why I honestly don’t see most film as being “above” literature in this sense. Literature at least has a sense of tempo variability being placed in the hands of the reader even if the sequencing is linear; films have a fixed tempo and fixed linear sequence, which offers very little in the sense of play and exploration by the viewer.

The purpose of exploration in specific ties to the general idea of play and the more specific idea of mystery, acting as an interlocutor between the two. The translational space of exploration precedes from the general ground of play, where the artist/creator cedes total control of the experience to the will and temperament of the player (the player plays, see?). Exploration generates mystery, where lack of total control of the experience by either the artist/creator or the player generates an obfuscation of information or understanding which the player-explorer sets to right through the act of play-exploration. Likewise, the revelation of a mystery, and the skillful revelation of its component answers as rewards for successful and thoughtful and clever play-exploration, generates in the player-explorer the desire to explore more, to play more.

In this way, all texts (which True Artist types tend to prefer to be Apollonian; which is to say fixed in tempo and sequence and frame so that the player becomes merely a viewer) can be transformed into something organic, free, orgiastic, works that shatter and confront and undermine their own barriers.

This is not to say there are no pieces of literature or film that do not engage with their readers or viewers in this way. This is a known limitation of those more traditional forms of media, and one which has been grappled with for quite some time. Choose-your-own-adventure stories, post-modern footnote-heavy disgressive stories, alternate reality games, collections of loosely interconnected short films and spiritual/thematic/symbolic series all challenge traditional notions of tempo and sequence in a way that places the keys of understanding in the hands of the player, who now is no longer merely a reader or viewer.

The limit to this approach is that all works eventually become rote puzzles, where there is a right or wrong answer, with wrongness punished or at least simply not rewarded while rightness is given a reward. This renders play into a simpler kind of puzzle, and one that effectively punishes play and thus the orgiastic, border-destroying nature of exploration. (Because, by definition, exploration is about hopping fences and perambulating fields and forests and streams instead.) Better films and pieces of literature provide themselves not as an experience as much as they are a ground upon which are fixed a series of related symbols, puzzles, objects, which resonate and knot together and form meta-puzzles and meta-meta-puzzles, winding labyrinths of shifting walls and doorways and portals, such that the revelation is one created not by the artist-creator but by the hands of the player-explorer who, by exploration and play, solves puzzles and labyrinths the artist-creator may not even have knowingly woven into their work.

Which leads to the question of unlockables and gates.

If we imagine art as labyrinths, then the work of the artist is transformed from creating an objectively appreciable object, which is an impossible task, to a pleasurable, enriching and/or fulfilling labyrinth to traverse. Because, again, the key is not to solve the labyrinth but to explore the labyrinth, and in doing so redirect ourselves more to play, which by nature rewards through experience instead of only rewarding on successful completion. A good labyrinth-maker still may, as they desire, put walls in their labyrinth, shifting or not, and roughly guide the experience or offer rules, physical or metaphysical, for the alteration of the board, text, theme, symbol, experience, etc. By using these methods, the good labyrinth maker can direct the energies of the labyrinth explorer so as to motivate and encourage them.

The metaphor symbol here is gates, but the more tangible referent would be achievements in games and volumes in literature or films. Achievements in games act as a way to direct the energies of a player toward deliberately developed areas of the game that might otherwise go unrecognized or unexperienced, be they hidden easter eggs or side paths or blunt encouragement to march all the way through the designated plot. Likewise, the splitting of works into chapters or discrete volumes offers a moment of reflection and a sense of satisfaction and completion on the part of the reader and viewer and tacitly acts to encourage them to take on the next volume of a set.

Unlockables become something a little bit different. They emerged primarily through games, but far before video games. We can view cryptography and mysticism/occultism as the first sense of unlocking, and in code-seeking especially of holy or political texts as another evolution of it. The desire to unlock gates, even where gates may not be found, is easy to understand; we look out across what is and desire there to be more, for it to be deeper and wider and greater. It is where we looked out upon the spirit-barren world and created gods and afterlives and heavens and hells and angels and demons, and where we looked at ordinary experience and created art and fantasy and desire, and where eventually we looked at literature and created interconnected webs.

It is not that these interconnections and depths are illusions. This is the first fault of the skeptic who admonishes the devout, or of the political who admonishes the conspiracy theorist. This is the mystery of play and exploration; their acts generate the spaces which are explored. Who cares, in a way, whether The Birds was intended to be a parable for the Red Scare or not, when in the wake of this theory the seeds and images are rich through it and generate that palpable and plausible secondary text within it. In art spaces, we are allowed to indulge in fantasy and illusion as though they are real, because this is what ultimately marks and differenciates art from the real.

In this spirit, the notion of unlocking a work, of discovering within it greater depths, that our play develops into explorations and these explorations solves micro-mysteries which give us pieces which we assemble into keys to unlock gates to reveal even greater depths of the labyrinth, is almost necessary to play. This is a major component that drives video games and is deeply tied to their mass adoption.

It’s something I’m working on in the game I’m developing. I want there to be an obvious labyrinth, one that I encourage you to repeat again and again to peak around as many different corners as you can, to explore and play with it as much as you can. But I also have been adding components so it keeps track of certain things, certain paths you take, and permanently locks certain paths on replays while simultaneously opening up new paths or entire new courses of narrative that didn’t exist in previous plays of the game. All of which is tracked invisibly, so that the accruing of these unlocked and locked portions of the labyrinth are rendered invisible due to the relative size of the game and the amount of times and methods of play required to unlock them.

The idea being that, after you unlock an experience a certain set of paths and complete them successfully, the game bursts open into something totally different, transforming from a repeating text-based narrative game into something that acknowledges this cycling and instead becomes an open exploration game. Basically an application of the Castlevania: Symphony of the Night design concept of a full second castle totalling a potential 200.6% completion percentage, hidden by the fact that the player assumes that the game will naturally max out at 100% completion and that doing so offers no reward other than its own satisfaction. Another design point is Frog Fractions, which is utterly fucking brilliant, and absolutely nails the idea of a game that has totally hidden puzzles in it that reward you not by unlocking new content but by radically redefining and completely changing the genre of the game, the way the game is played, the direction of the narrative, etc.

We’re seeing the growing success of multi-genre and genre-mashup games, especially games with hidden micro-games inside them with their own unlockables and rewards. I think this is an excellent and brilliant development of the concept of play and one that rewards players who are more engaged with their actions and objects of affection. It’s less about encouraging slavish devotion to achieving 100% and more about actively rewarding it by offering revelatory or significant changes to the game, things that either offer a total paradigm shift of gameplay or, in the case of unlocking entirely new abilities or tools, especially if their presence is obscured totally from the player prior to receiving them, things that reveal entirely new ways to play and engage with what has already been experienced.

In this way I lean against the usage of tells and obvious design markings to note things you can interact with but not just yet. I think this works well for a certain kind of game, certainly, and for a certain kind of player, but isn’t the kind of design concept I’m interested in. I like more the inscrutable object that only blossoms and then eventually orgiastically explodes based on clever engagement, or the narrative object that fundamentally shifts and metamorphoses itself into a significantly different object. RPGs used to do this better than other genres, but with the rise of multi-genre games, it’s becoming more commonplace to have these seismic shifts in gameplay and orientation within the game world.

I’m hoping I’m able to finish this game I’m making, and that it’s generally well-received. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve done something like this, and I’m nervous as hell, but it’s exciting.