Archive for October 4th, 2009

Degrees of Abstraction

2009 Oct 4

I’m at a frustrating crossroads with the Snow Queen game where I have to figure out which of my various conflicting intentions to follow and which need to be left behind by the side of the road.

The main issue I’m wrestling with is the degree of abstraction vs. representation in the graphics / mapping of the game. There’s this thing in roleplaying games where the less physical representation you have, the more the players’ imaginations are free to take flight with the narrative contents. Imagine a continuum of representation that starts with the 4E battlemap, is abstracted into the Agon strip, is abstracted further to Danger Patrol’s arbitrarily moved slips of paper, then is further abstracted into scripted moves like Mouse Guard, and is finally totally abstracted into freeform description.

As you move towards increased abstraction in physical or mechanical structures, more of the burden of creating appropriate and powerful content and structures — including, that hallowed technique, “reincorporation” — falls on the players rather than the game designer or scenario designer. When there are few physical representations of the fiction, including details and numbers jotted down on a sheet, the play experience leans totally on the imagined content because there are no other records or indicators.

So, as a game designer, when there’s physical component or narrative structure that’s going to be difficult or nigh-impossible for me to create physically or mechanically, my instinct is to create a very abstract representation — allowing the players to flesh out and fill in the blanks as needed — or have it exist purely in the players imaginations. But this creates a problem when I feel like I have a relatively clear vision of what play is supposed to feel like. It’s difficult to both leave things up to the players and also create methods by which the things that the players come up with match my overall design vision.

And that’s where I think I’m at with the Snow Queen. The whole purpose of the game is for the players to imagine wandering through an immense ice palace, a beautiful and harrowing combination of Zelda and Ico, full of puzzles and monsters and characters to meet and missions to accomplish and interactive scenery. But it’s difficult to create really complex puzzles or dungeon layouts without mapping out every corner of the ice palace and that’s way too difficult and time consuming, I think. So I need to find a level of abstraction that allows me to frame various sections of the castle while still leaving room for the players to describe and flesh out the castle, both so 1) the play experience will be personal and emotionally powerful for the players, and 2) so I don’t have to spend the next year pushing pixels to create a giant map of the entire palace.

The other problem I’m having is tone. The 16-bit graphics I’ve been working with are really fun, but I’m worried they’re going to trap players’ minds in certain ways, worrying about how certain things would be depicted in a 16-bit video game rather than following the fiction and imagining whatever they want. In the same way that Shadow of the Colossus followed the classic Zelda narrative pattern but subverted it, I want the Snow Queen game to draw on the narrative structures of classic video games but not be trapped by them, and I’m not quite sure yet how to present the game in a way that will make that happen. I don’t want to have to commission a bunch of expensive art, but I’m not sure I have the capacity to illustrate it myself if I don’t use a 16-bit style. But I’m not sure people will have the capacity to look at Mega Man art and imagine Pluto, to draw a parallel to a different genre.

Anyway, those are the issues I’m currently wrestling with. Once I have those figured out, designing the game should be easy. But, in my mind, the physical components and presentation are key to making the game work, so I have to start there.