Exploring Settings vs Exploring Concepts

Thomas Grip
Jun 28, 2015 · 7 min read

A few nights back I tweeted some quick gut reactions after going through a bunch of E3 trailers:

“Just went on an E3 trailer bringe and I feel there was a, story-wise, serious lack of interesting concepts (eg Inception & Matrix) presented”

“I am a big fan of unique, vibrant worlds to explore, but really wish there were more games that explored intriguing concepts as a focus.

“(NOTE: I meant concepts from a story perspective. Plenty of games explore intriguing gameplay concepts)”

For some reason I couldn't stop thinking about this and discussed back and forth with myself whether this was just some “grumpy old man” reaction or if there was some deeper reason for me feeling this way. And now after thinking about this for way more than what is probably healthy I feel the need to write it down, partly to clear my own thoughts and partly because I think this touches on some important stuff in game design.

First up, I need to explain what I mean with “story concepts”. Does not all stories have some sort of concept? For instance, the new Deus Ex game, they have the whole apartheid, augmentation, “what is human?”, etc things going. So what the hell am I complaining about?

The thing is that the game is not trying to sell us a concept. It is, like most other games, trying to sell us a world. In that world there exists all of these interesting themes, but all of that is backdrop. It is not what the game has its focus on. The game is about building up an interesting world and then dropping the player there and giving them a set of gameplay mechanics (that are to various degrees connected to the thematic backdrop) for them to play around with.

Now two quick notes before I continue:
1) This is not an inherently bad approach. You can make great experiences from this setup.
2) I have not played the upcoming Deus Ex, or any of the E3 games I discuss, I am merely basing on the PR material and what I know from playing previous installments. So there is a chance I am totally wrong about some game.

I know that the developers pour their heart and soul into this world, and that the themes are not just superfluous fluff. But still, what happens is that in the end all of this is just a background element used to frame the thing that really matters: the gameplay. The focus of a game like Deus Ex is not to be a deeper exploration on the thematics presented as part of the setting, but to be a stealth action games with tactical and strategic choices.

And that is the same sort of setup you see in just about all games presented at E3. You have a setting and then you let the player take part in some type of gameplay (shooting, sneaking, platforming, etc) in it. The main focus of the game is then to execute on this gameplay as good as possible. That does not mean the setting is unimportant though. For instance, in a Deus Ex game the setting is vital in order to get the right mood across and it can also be crucial for scenarios to work (eg “what faction to support?”, “should I kill this man?”, etc).

Deus Ex is really an outlier when it comes to actually addressing some of the stuff the setting give rise to though. It is way more common that games don’t. For instance, Horizon: Zero Dawn presents a world with some really intriguing concepts (animals evolved from machine parts = awesome!). But the taste of actual gameplay that we got was all about killing a giant monster, and I doubt the game will do much beyond that.

The same thing is seen (as in what I feel the trailers, etc presented) in a bunch of E3 games: Tomb Raider, Fallout 4, Dishonored 2, Recore, Ashen, Assassin’s Creed, Hitman, Unravel, No Man’s Sky, Cuphead, and many more. A really cool setting that player gets to do some specific, semi-related, gameplay in. And note these are not just AAA games, but this is how most indies are setup too.

And while a game like Deus Ex has a world filled with interesting ideas and themes, it is a SETTING that is getting explored, not a CONCEPT. The player traverses a world where certain concepts are encountered, but these concepts are by no means the focus and you can go through the game ignoring them and still have an engaging experience.

Tightly connected to this is the fact that the intriguing concepts are not really a narrative hook. In a game like Deus Ex, the big deal is being part of a specific world. A world with augmentations, fantastic city scapes, a certain gritty atmosphere and so forth. This is how the bulk story of the game presents itself. It is NOT: “Play Deus Ex and explore how many augmentations it takes before you stop being human”. The game can still contain this concept though, but it is far from the core part of the intended experience.

In order for a game to explore a concept, that concept needs to be front and center. The aim of the game is then not to traverse a setting, but to traverse that concept. So what does the exploration of a concept look like?

The film Memento is perfect example of this. The premise is that the protagonist suffer from a mental condition that makes him unable to form long term memories. And that is main focus of the entire movie. Every scene in this movie is there in order to explore and probe this concept further. This is the sort of thing that I am looking for.

See how this is different in both presentation and in the final product from something that explores a setting. Deus Ex can talk about its weapons, different locations, factions, and so forth, all of which are important to the story the game wants to sell. It can talk about the various concepts too, but it is OK to choose not to. For something like Memento, the core concept is what it is. It is part of the PR and part of the final product. It is not some sort of backdrop or optional content. In order to talk about Memento you MUST talk about the concept it deals with.

Concept exploration is the kind of fiction that I enjoy the most and, annoyingly, it is extremely rare in games. This is extra annoying as I think games are incredibly well suited to explore this sort of thing. So whenever I watch a game trailer I am eager to see hints of the game being about a concept rather than a setting. But when I watched the trailers at E3 almost all I saw was “do stuff in a cool setting” and very, very little of “explore an intriguing concept”. It is even more annoying because many of the settings presented do contain interesting concepts, the games just chose not to make these their focus.

One of the few exceptions was Last Guardian which was very focused on the “boy with monster as a pet/friend” concept. But even here I cannot feel satisfied as the gameplay that was shown seems very focused on gamey contraptions. This makes me wary that the boy-monster relationship will be more about creating gameplay situations than an actual concept to be explored. However, I cannot deny that Last Guardian does have a focus on a story element that ties directly to its gameplay - the basis for having proper concept exploration. And it comes from the same studio that made one of my all time favorite games, Shadow of the Colossus, so I feel I need to have some faith in it. But in any case, this game was really the only example of concept exploration I can recall seeing among the E3 trailers I watched.

So why are there so few games that explore concepts? I think the main reason is simply because it is very hard to design for.

When you design a game, you are not really sure what your mechanics will end up being like. Therefore it makes sense to:
- Construct the setting and concepts AFTER the basic gameplay is in.
- To keep the setting /concept— gameplay connection loose so that changes in one (that is a fact of life in game development) does not impact too much on the other.

A game that explores concepts has a really hard time to differentiate between setting and gameplay. The various elements that make up the game get interconnected in a manner which makes development extra hard. On top of that the goal is no longer to execute a certain type gameplay in the best manner, but to provide tools that explore certain concepts in the most efficient way. This is a very different way to approach game design.

There are games that do concept exploration. Spec Ops: The Line and Papers Please come to mind. But overall these are quite rare, and it feels like we have way too few of them in order to get proper foundation for how to best approach these sort of experiences.

Again, I need to note that I do not dislike games that explore a setting. I am looking forward to playing the new Deus Ex quite a bit. It is in fact one of my most anticipated upcoming games. I am a huge fan of how video games manage to put us inside fictional worlds and feel as if we are really there.

But this is not all video games can do, and I really hope we can see more games that explore concepts. Games that has some setup akin to Memento and then makes that what the whole experience is about. The more games like this that are made, the better we will become at making them. And when it comes to books and films, this sort of fiction are huge sellers. Just consider films like Inception, Matrix, Saw and so forth. It makes financial sense to make games like this.

And dammit, I want more of it!

    Thomas Grip

    Written by

    Creative Director at Frictional Games.