Sid Meier, creator of the acclaimed Civilization series of history-spanning strategy games, once described a game as a “series of interesting decisions”. His vision of a game is an intellectual challenge, focused on the player’s strategy and its consequences.
While intellect and strategy are key aspects of games, the visual, aural, and textual trappings that communicate them to the player deserve attention in their own right. Memorable and entertaining moments in games appeal to both the intellect and the senses. I call methods that create these moments “visceral game elements”, and their aim is to impact the player and imprint the game into their memory.
Visuals in games are one of the easiest ways to affect players and create memorable moments. While modern video games are filled with flashy visuals, some of the strongest examples of this come from the least graphically sophisticated games. The following screenshots are from Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup, a recent member of the lineage of Rogue, a game designed at UC Santa Cruz in 1980 (Go Fighting Banana Slugs!).
Rogue and its descendants, called “roguelikes”, give the player control of an intrepid adventurer (represented by a heroic @) searching for a powerful artifact at the bottom of a dungeon full of monsters. The game is turn based and displayed entirely in the 128 letters, numbers, and typographic symbols of the ASCII character set. The right side of the screen is full of information about the player character, while the left displays the surroundings of your character.
Many readers will look at these screenshots and not understand the drama or impact of the change in the display. This demonstrates a principle of visceral design: only players who are are otherwise invested will be viscerally affected by game elements. Visuals can be universal to an extent, but ultimately players need to understand the meaning of the images. The more abstract an element or visual is, the less viscerally affecting it is.
Sound design is essential in giving players visceral feedback. A great example of this is the character Dr. Mundo from League of Legends. Dr. Mundo is a crazed, roid-raging madman who throws meat cleavers. These cleavers travel as unguided projectiles in a straight line for a fixed distance and damage the first thing they hit. The satisfying “THUNK” of your cleaver hitting an opponent is immensely satisfying, and makes the effort of aiming worthwhile and memorable as a testament to your skill.
On-hit reward sounds are a fairly common and effective practice. Team Fortress 2, a class-based first person shooter, has a great option where every time you deal damage to an enemy, a little bell rings. In a game that can often be hectic and visually confusing, the audio conveys little messages of success that convey positive reinforcement and make the player feel satisfied..
Text in games can sometimes look like this:
Player A slashes Goblin for 5 damage!
Goblin attacks player A and misses.
Player A slashes Goblin for 10 damage! Critical hit!
Player receives 5 gold and 5 exp.
It’s generic, boring, and we can do better. Anyone who’s read a novel knows that text can be a visceral experience. A game called Dwarf Fortress shows that visceral text isn’t unique to literature. Dwarf Fortress is technically a roguelike, but gives the player loose control over a band of dwarves who must strike the earth and build a home for themselves that is self-sufficient and able to withstand attacks by goblins, demons, and forgotten beasts. Combat between creatures isn’t shown in animations, but rather described in combat logs. Dwarf Fortress’s combat simulation is much more complex than most, including representations of fat, skin, bone, muscle, and brains, all of which can be torn, bruised, broken, or sometimes melted. Here’s a sample of a Dwarf Fortress combat log:
Callum hacks Urist in the upper body with his steel great axe, tearing apart the muscle and tearing apart the middle spine’s nervous tissue through the large cow leather armor! An artery has been opened by the attack! A tendon in the middle spine has been torn! The steel great axe has lodged firmly in the wound!
Urist loses hold of the steel spear. Urist falls over. Urist misses Callum!
Callum twists the embedded steel great axe around in Urist’s upper body! Callum hacks Urist in the right front leg with his steel great axe, tearing apart the muscle through the large bronze high boot! An artery has been opened by the attack and a motor nerve has been severed!
Callum hacks Urist in the upper body with his steel great axe, tearing apart the muscle, shattering the left false rib and tearing apart the liver through the large cow leather armor! An artery has been opened by the attack! A tendon in the left false rib has been torn! The steel great axe has lodged firmly in the wound!
Callum twists the embedded steel great axe around in Urist’s upper body!
Urist has bled to death.
(Combat log is from http://arenachallenge.com/dwarffort/index.php, names changed to protect the innocent)
There are no abstracted numeric measurements of “damage” in this log. It manages to be objectively gory and descriptive, communicating real game data while still being entertaining to read. This is truly a great accomplishment.
This is probably the most unusual category, but it definitely deserves mention. Games made of cardboard and plastic can’t rely on the same sorts of visual and audio designs of their digital brethren, nor do they have the textual generation capacity to create detailed and gory combat logs. However, they have a powerful tool that is uniquely their own: tactile manipulation.
Even old board games demonstrate an understanding of this tactic. The little plastic Risk dudes aren’t really necessary, and can be quite a headache to keep track of, but moving them en-masse feels powerful and dramatic. Even dice rolling, frustrating as it can be, has a powerful tactile component that makes it more exciting than, say, using a dice simulator on a website. While the excitement of hidden information can be easily translated into a digital form, the feeling of holding your fate in your hands cannot.
I notice this very strongly in Magic: The Gathering’s design as well. When Magic designers want a card to feel dramatic and powerful, they make it move around a bunch of other cards. A famous example of this is Wrath of God, a card which destroys all creatures. What this means is that every creature card that players have played so far (that hasn’t been otherwise destroyed) is scooped up and dumped into that player’s graveyard, which serves as a discard pile*. The drama of a newly clean play area, and of having to toss aside your erstwhile minions, gives Wrath of God and other effects like it an impact that many other spells, even arguably more powerful spells, cannot match.
Visceral elements are more than entertaining illusions. They have a realness to them that allows people to buy into them emotionally and get excited even by an activity as abstract and unreal as playing a game. When players feel they have a license to play pretend and get involved in their games, their accomplishments and failures in the games become more authentic, and their time investments in these pretend worlds pay off a little bit. The realness of game worlds is what allows them to compete with the real world for our time and attention and win.
*Magic breaks all of its own rules. There are lots of cards that interact with the graveyard. The REAL discard pile is a zone called Exile, although even there cards aren’t safe.