In Design is a new TLS column examining a particular aspect or topic of the games industry, development, or design, with a member of the development community.
First starting out as a depiction of tennis in which players controlled paddles amidst a black arena, video games have evolved over the years. Yet this evolution is one which has stagnated beyond the simple addition of new visual techniques and the push for social interaction. At the root, current game design ideology is one which is afraid to make the leap forward.
There’s a standard upheld by some game designers merely because it’s what the industry and audiences accept. So game design is one which is at a crossroads so to speak. In order to move on it may be best to reject the past and embrace the future and the many possibilities it offers.
For designer Pietro Righi Riva, he has a different stance on the matter of game design. Based in Italy, Pietro has produced an array of titles over the years at Santa Ragione, which he co-founded, and through other ventures. These projects include Street Song, MirrorMoon EP, CHRISTIAN, and most recently Wheels of Aurelia.
Creating games that exist outside the norm of the industry, Pietro’s views on game design are eye-opening as he detailed in his post titled rejecta. Detailing a new way to approach game design and development, rejecta presents a change of the game industries foundations. It’s the open thinking that Pietro has which could evolve the industry so it stays current rather than fade away into a shallow parody of what it once was.
But merely saying something isn’t an immediate way to change things. If things were simple as that, not only would the games industry be a better place, but society would be as well. Of the immediate industry hurdles, Pietro said, “I’d say that it is by far the ability to reach out to people that are not currently interested in games. This is not a new concept, for it was certainly tackled since people started developing for smartphones. The current struggle, though, is to reach out to non-gamers with complex content that is not just mindless entertainment. That is, to compete for their attention with more mature media and art forms.”
The ever constant debate of whether games are art is one which will continue for the foreseeable future. This not only is a debate between those in the mainstream but within the community of players as well. For some, games are merely an entertainment device. Others, however, truly consider the overall impact of games to be similar to the emotional responses a painting by Vincent van Gogh may illicit.
But Pietro’s point is a valid one. For games to evolve there needs to be a wide-spread movement for designers to raise their overall game. Again, this is easier said than done.
Speaking further, Pietro said, “It is definitely a question of design principles as well as content. We must adapt and invent new formats and interaction paradigms to accommodate new content and habits that are compatible with this potential new audience.”
RISK VS. REWARD
The current stagnation of game design variety stems from the very popularity of games. “I’d say that there is small to no interest in innovating in medium and big productions because it is obviously a very risky endeavor,” Pietro said. “It also does not fit in the current production pattern in games. We haven’t had the Minecraft of drama games and we might never get it. It would be really tough for a big company to justify investing in the direction of discovering what it takes to make a game like that.”
Games created by smaller studios have room to explore, yet they’re still restricted by what rules everything – money. Concepts stay only as that if there isn’t the time or resources to actually explore them. Thus the industry stays in an ouroboros cycle.
“Unfortunately it’s also really tough for small studios when you start adding experimentation to working actors and performance (which I deem fundamental to create this new genre) to keep productions costs and planning manageable,” said Pietro.
STRAIGHT TO THE POINT
One of the most interesting points Pietro made in rejecta pertained to game length. By most accounts, players expect a game bought at retail to last anywhere from six to twenty hours.
On the stance of game length, Pietro believes no game should last more than two hours. Pietro utilized this design approach directly in Wheels of Aurelia, his latest project with Santa Ragione.
With a beginning, middle, and end, players could experience Wheels of Aurelia in fifteen minutes. This essentially made the game reminiscent of a short film that provided as much depth as it’s fuller length counterparts. Despite such a short time, players could experience Wheels of Aurelia, and see one of the many endings that if offered. Or players could simply walk away having experienced a complete game.
“The kind of player that I have in mind and that I want to reach out to does not have more than a couple of hours to dedicate to one single “thought”, so to speak. It is a matter of attention span, availability of free time, and our target audience having a very small tolerance for flimsiness, repetition, and superficiality,” Pietro stated.
Rather than have players perform needless tasks, Wheels of Aurelia was straight to the point. Thus the eventual impact of the ending was more resounding. But Pietro’s thoughts on game length do go beyond trimming content.
“From a design perspective it is absolutely is about cutting off unneeded fat and keeping things precise and relevant. But it is also a matter of respect: both self-respect in terms of development and design effort to make the most elegant design choices. Keep the player’s attention without resorting to task-award loops and respect for the player’s intelligence and culture.”
THE CYCLES OF DEVELOPMENT
The amount of time a developer has to create a game is both a blessing and a curse. More time allows further care and effort to make a great game, but it always isn’t a positive. Rather than focus on the core details, prolonged development cycles occasionally result in creative second guessing or “perfecting” mechanics which never reach the desired goal.
As detailed in rejecta, Pietro also believes that for the betterment of the industry a change needs to occur in the length of development. “The kind of innovation we need is incompatible with current development cycles. We also need to prove that there is a new way to make games and a market for them. To do so, we have to experiment with as many approaches as possible, while also growing a portfolio of titles that keeps the public’s attention, instead of having the occasional Her Story making a big splash as an exception is a sea of traditional games.”
Pietro is aware of the overall approach one would have to take when making a project adhering to rejecta, and what it would have to accomplish. “As for the single title, it is also a matter of relevance, budget, and marketability. A game made in the spirit of rejecta needs to be innovative to be successful. By the time it comes out it can’t be obsolete by a smaller game less ambitious in term of scope and polish.”
THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF REALITY
The feelings and thoughts Pietro has on game design and development are those which may be shared by fellow creators. Though the chances of widespread reform actually occurring within the industry as sadly minimal.
Of whether the industry will ever change, Pietro said, “I don’t know that it will, but I definitely believe that it needs to. We are still celebrating creators (and their concepts) from twenty years ago that haven’t been able to innovate past their initial work, certainly not in the direction of games that extend beyond the taste of teenagers and kids.”
At times the games industry can be very insular in respect to what inspires them. Games from big publishers have creative committees which approve every aspect of their design. The industry seems to be lacking direct inspiration from things not within pop culture. Instead of simply copying popular trends whether it be wars of superheroes, Pietro believes designers need to look elsewhere.
“We certainly need to look elsewhere for inspiration. Even comics have proved to be able to successfully tackle genres and themes that are still completely unexplored in games. As game creators, we definitely need to stop writing our stories to wrap and sell variations of conflict-based gameplay. Instead, we should focus on finding the right literature to take inspiration from.”
Such an approach was something Pietro again followed within Wheels of Aurelia. Set in Italy during the 1970s, Wheels of Aurelia was a road trip game which had deeper messages. Featuring cultural elements of Italy, such as Juventus FC, Wheels also touched on topics such as abortion, and even a terrorist event. These references may go over the heads of players, but games should at least try to do something more resounding. After all, perhaps referencing an otherwise unknown event may, in turn, motivate a player to do some research, and broaden their horizons.
Pietro also used his design philosophy for MirrorMoon EP, a first-person sci-fi exploration game.
“MirrorMoon EP was about trying to design non-anthropocentric creations for players to explore try and find meaning in. It was an experiment in designing affordance for the inhuman, while also making a game that was playable. We used a grammar of visual cues to invite players in finding their own patterns of correlation between the elements, without having an objective “truth” to guide us in the design. I think this approach is what makes it stand out.”
Experimental at the very core, MirrorMoon EP is yet another game indicative of what change in design can be like. Rather than simply follow existing tropes, the game set out to do something in itself which proved to be successful.
While he has strong opinions about the industry and game design, Pietro has found inspiration in recent titles which sought to be different. “I really appreciated Mr. Robot for iPhone by Night School because of how convincingly its characters interface with you.”
Taking an existing property and expanding it in a brilliant way, Mr. Robot by Night School was the last thing fans of the show would’ve expected a game to be like. With Watch Dogs showing a version of hacking which often involves stealth or pure violence, Mr. Robot brought forth a sense of reality and an atmosphere that respected the world created by Sam Esmail.
“Another one would certainly be the (still in development) Elsinore by Golden Glitch. That blends the real-time scripted characters on a schedule (The Last Express), with a more simulative approach to information sharing and its consequences.”
These titles may not follow Pietro’s rejecta, they nonetheless provide experiences which are different rather than playing to the lowest denominator.
The games industry may never change its ways, but that isn’t stopping Pietro from continuing his design philosophy.
Of the future, Pietro said, “I’m directing pre-production on an unannounced traditional “genre game”. I’m also writing a short rejecta project I plan to complete in 2017. The common thread in everything I have a design voice in is always accessibility, avoiding explicit tutorialization and exposition. As far as the rejecta-based project goes, I’m going to apply the manifesto integrally to evaluate its efficacy and repeatability.”
Rejecta’s continuation will be fascinating, as well how those inspired by it will implement the philosophy in their projects.
Stay tuned for the next installment of In Design on game narrative with Resident Evil VII writer Richard Pearsey.