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.

6 Responses to “Degrees of Abstraction”

  1. Fred Hicks Says:

    Well, to comment on the earlier part of your post, I think you should embrace constraint a little more. Player empowerment is great and all, but it’s hardly the holy grail of play (and — sidebar comment — leaning on it heavily tends to lead to what I perceive as lazy design). Beyond that, constraints (to a point) produce greater creativity in my experience, not less, the way a creative writing class assignment can force some better writing out of the students in contrast to giving them a simple blank page and saying “you got freedom!” I’m not talking about 4e levels of constraint, here, so much as saying that maybe one level of constraint/complexity beyond your basic comfort level is where you should actually be heading.

    Another observation: I often find that when I stand at a crossroads with a design, where I feel pulled in two directions (e.g., 16-bit and mapped out vs. more abstract, modular, and adaptive), that it’s because I have goals which belong to two different, if related, games, not one. Recognizing when this is happening is key to making sure that a design does not amount to biting off more than I can chew.

    Finally, a bit from my personal toolkit. When I was running an early-Fate Buffy game a (great) number of years ago, I had a bit of your problem. I knew how I wanted any one given “episode” of the game to feel like, particularly in terms of emulating the way the TV show might have a particular theme going for that week’s episode, determined in advance. On the surface of it there was no way to really do that as a GM without it feeling contrived or forced — until I started creating explicit incentives for the players. Each session involved me putting together a small deck of cards. Each card had a play-goal on it that, when fulfilled, got the player some fate points. When I wanted a moment in the game that felt like one of those conversations-about-a-supernatural-thing-but-could-be-read-instead-as-a-conversation-about-a-social-issue (see Buffy’s chat with her Mom about why she couldn’t just Decide Not To Be A Slayer that read a lot like a mom having problems with her daughter’s sexuality), that went into the cards, with incentives for the players to have a conversation about one of the PC’s demon-powers without every referring to the demon-powers by name. What resulted was a really entertaining conversation that could just as easily have been about the PC in question having an STD. The players *could* have opted out of doing this — they didn’t exactly *need* the fate points, but the option to get a few more just in case provided the soft-touch incentive I needed in order to get a theme-upholding scene that came organically out of their play — timing, ultimately, was their choice. In other words, I provided a few extra constraints by way of incentives, and it spurred some pretty fantastic, creative, emotionally powerful play.

    Fear not thy constraints.

  2. John Kantor Says:

    Let go of your vision.

  3. Thanks, Fred. Your response helped me reflect a bit. I don’t think there’s any danger in me going too abstract. I think I just may need a map that’s like the overworld maps in Zelda and Final Fantasy, one that is inspiring but still leaves a fair bit of detail up to player imaginations, rather than sketching out dungeons room-by-room.

    John, I’m not sure what to make of your response. Sure, sometimes you have to let go of your preconceptions about what a project is supposed to be, but that’s not the problem I’m having right now. I’m trying to deliver a game experience to the players, not throw some sketchy notes at them and say, “Do whatever you want.”

    • Fred Hicks Says:

      Glad my early morning ramble helped. :)

      I think you’re right about focusing on the overworld. You want to give players a map, for sure, since a map and exploration of that map seems to be a big part of what you’re looking for.

      With that map would come the message, “Here be dragons — dragons that you put here.” That’s constraint + freedom within the constraint, which is where I think the juice really lives.

      Take a look at the Born to be Kings atlas some day:
      (BTBK was the Fudge game I ran long ago that birthed Fate.)

      Almost none of that content was mine, as a GM. I drew up a map of the lands of Amber, gave it a few names and some shapes to outline territories — and then told the players they got to define what was out there. The results were pretty astonishing. One player was especially prolific, generating reams of content about a particular part of the map. She also had an especially dark imagination — which motivated the other players to get in there and do some defining of their own just to head that darkness off at the pass! Probably the single best example of player-created content for a campaign I’ve ever experienced.

      • Totally, though I think I’m focusing more on having player freedom at a slightly more micro level. I was originally thinking that I’d map out each room and show various obstacles, but I think I want a brief description of the obstacle and have the players describe it in detail, because you can’t really deliver Shadow of the Colossus-style atmosphere in amatuerish 16-bit graphics. Maybe if I was a much better pixel pusher, but maybe not even then.

        Even if I predetermine some of the encounters, like — “On the bridge ahead there are 3 Winter Wolves” — that’ll still be more powerful if the players have to describe the bridge, the wolves, and the positioning instead of it being based on my simplistic illustrations, at least as long as there’s support for them making dramatic descriptions. Otherwise they might go, like, “I don’t know, I guess they’re white wolves.” And if there are ways for them to shuffle up or alter the encounters before playing them, that’s even more investment, yeah?

        So maybe not quite all the way to what you did with Born To Be Kings, but something more in that direction than what I originally intended. I’m super comfortably way out there in player-generated land, but I’m trying to scale this back and make it more structured than what my usual comfort zone is (like you said before), partially because the relative freeform nature of the mechanics means that the game needs something else to provide structure.

  4. John Kantor Says:

    My point is really to let go of your ego. No matter what you do or how carefully you design it, people will do with it what they want to.

    And I thought that was the primary goal of storytelling games anyway.

    All you can do is give them the tools and one suggested way of playing it.

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