Someone Else’s Shoes: Personal Games vs. Game Design

Papo & Yo

Something that is quite unique to indie games, for the time being, is the introduction of a personal story. Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia is the most prominent example of this method of game design as it has been lauded due to probably being the most effective and impacting personal game. These types of games existed before Dys4ia was released, but since then, there seems to have been a bigger push for individuals to express their emotions, thoughts and feelings through the medium of computer games, especially if they can use mechanics to effectively portray an angst or pain they’ve experienced at some point in their life. I’m all for this as games have great potential for engaging a player and making them understand another person’s point of view. When I was young, my mother constantly said to me, “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” when trying to ensure I was aware of other’s people’s feelings and made actions to cater to them. With games we can actually do such a thing – put a player into a virtual representation of someone’s body or mind and have the world affect the player as it does the game’s creator in reality. Essentially, it’s type a simulation in many ways. Encouraging the fruition of these game experiences is something I have practised myself in the past, but I feel that how these personal experiences are realized needs to be addressed and analysed.

There’s a big problem with being critical about these personal games, though. There’s a sense that offering anything but praise towards a game that speaks so openly and is actually designed around expressing someone’s personal life is intended as a hostile attack upon them. As such, any negativity directed at these games can erupt in an effervescent defending backlash that’s inherently volatile in its manner. Needless to say, I am aware that this could happen and want to make clear that none of what I may write is intended as a personal attack. It is out of a passion for these games, that toy with our emotions and share with us stories we wouldn’t otherwise so capably understand, that I feel critiquing them is necessary in order to encourage more engaging and thoughtful ways of expressing these personal stories. In other words: I love you all, so please keep making these games and get better at doing so!

Nothing Personal

Dys4ia

So let’s just jump straight on in with the slight issue that I see emerging with personal games: some of them just aren’t that good. The problem is that most people are afraid to admit that after having played them. Saying such a thing to the developer or in a less direct way would come across as almost like bullying. There’s a whole load of other directions that expressing an opinion about these games or attempting to critique them can be taken as well. To an extent, and obviously this isn’t always the case, there’s an arising habit among developers to justify either lazy or unintentionally bad game design by laying their heart across it. You see this kind of discussion in academia a lot too – in which the source material will be forgiven or perceived as justified in doing something that would otherwise be considered bad practice.

With game design the player is much less likely to be forgiving when something sticks out as being a bad design choice. That is until the developer explains that the reason why that hiccup is actually there is to represent the public shaming they received in their youth, or whatever. Now the person critiquing the game comes across as being mean, as well as heartless, for not understanding why that decision was apparently made. In these situations, which I’ve seen happen a number of times, that person is then publicly hanged by Internet activists and the developer lauded as the righteous individual in this case. Sometimes that might be necessary and is completely justified, but my suspicion is that making a game personal is becoming an excuse, as well as acting as a shortcut for the developer to avoid criticism and become heralded as a decent game designer and/or as a public spokesperson for a particular subsection of society.

Now, of course, the fact that these voices are being heard and that people are having a crack at making games in the first place is nothing but a positive direction to be taking. But that doesn’t mean that we should feel obliged to congratulate the developer with the complete absence of reasoned critique. This rings especially true if the intention is to further improve the effectiveness of what the game is trying to portray. Now this may sound a little ridiculous, but when it comes to myself writing about a personal game, there’s this pressure I feel to ignore all of the flaws and display this game to people as a remarkable achievement because of the voice it contains. The thing is, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels this way about the matter. And if that is the case, then there is a problem here.

Firstly, it means that people whose job it is to critique a game are not doing so because they’re told that they don’t understand or choose to show any empathy towards the developer’s angst. Secondly, if that does happen, then they’re a lot less likely to discuss any personal games publicly in the future for fear of coming under the hammer of social justice once again. This is going to get us nowhere.

So here’s the biggest point I have to make with this article. If you take anything away from all of these thoughts, then let it be this:

If you’re having to explain why you’ve designed the game in a particular way to players outside of the game itself in order to justify it, then you have failed.

Basically, if someone plays a game and they find a flaw that’s either frustrating or comes across as just plain stupid – whatever it may be – and they then have to read up about it somewhere outside of the game to understand why the developer designed it this way, to find its purpose, that is bad game design. It’s as simple as that. When you play Dys4ia, you don’t question what it’s about or what it’s trying to convey because its portrayal of Anna’s turmoil through gameplay has been designed to ensure that its personal story is prominent. So when I see a developer justifying their game design choices with a personal story that doesn’t come across in the game, I’m reminded of the many efforts that publishers and sometimes developers go to in order to try and coax a game critic or reviewer into reconsidering their verdict. They’ll send over strategy guides and walkthroughs JUST for the critics so they get through the game or “understand” it better. In doing that, they’re readily admitting that the game has a flaw in its design because you will probably need outside help to get through it. And there’s no point in trying to back that up by saying games of yore needed to be played with manuals a lot of the time, or that nowadays browsing Internet forums has become part of the game playing experience. These are just more excuses that attempt to blanket the fact that the game is designed poorly.

Personal Meets The Public

Tourette's Quest

None of what is being said here has any worth without actually putting it into practice and looking more closely at a number of personal games. And upon doing so, it’s very likely that attempting to critique these games will find exceptions and anomalies, but an effort to improve the design efforts of a developer so they can affect the player through their games should be a positive, rather than a negative effort. That’s the other thing I hope you take away from this – critique usually comes from people who care and those who want to help. Note that there is a difference between reasoned critique and straight-up negativity.

So what brought this out of me right now was that I was looking around at a couple of new games and saw two in particular that were using personal experiences to appeal to players and gain their interest. As said, this is a very effective technique, and one that a lot of press will use because it makes a game stand out from the crowd. The games were SPACIOUS and Costa Rica Ne Se Deja. Both of these were queued up for me this morning to write about, but I felt a little uneasy in doing that because, well, in all honesty, the personal thing is the only aspect they have going for them. And when writing about a game, my intention is usually to share it with people so they can check it out themselves. It’s a personal advocation, and often my mantra when doing this is to write about the games that are not getting the attention they deserve. Of course, I would have been critiquing them and being fairly negative in doing so, but rather than doing that, I could spend my time finding a game that has better design and one that I’d want people to go and try out for themselves.
Costa Rica No se Deja
During this thought process came the realization that I didn’t want to play games just because they shared a personal story. The ones I’m interested in, and those I feel that others are too, are games that are well designed and achieve what they set out to do effectively. Of course, there’s an argument for telling stories in any capacity in games as with Mattie Brice’s Mainichi, which was created in order for a game to exist that represented a minority voice, which is a valid effort in itself. But if we’re going to continue making these kinds of games, then surely there should also be an effort to find ways to make these personal stories more affecting in their purpose. Conveying a personal story in a game can be a very effective and emotional experience for both the player and developer – so shouldn’t we want to further improve our methods in doing this through some critique and thoughtful, considered discussion?

This was what was going through my mind when playing Costa Rica Ne Se Deja, which is actually more of a politically-charged game than what we’d recognize as a personal one. It is apparently based on the Costa Rican National Reality – “demonstrations against the gag rule, political corruption, against Monsanto and sport hunting”, to be precise. Unfortunately, a lot of the game requires the player to understand Spanish, but you can get the gist from the in-game comic strip cutscenes anyway. The actual gameplay has the player hitting the arrow keys when a cascading icon hits its matching representation at the bottom of the screen. Basically, it’s every rhythm-based game you’ve ever played. Except there’s no music or rhythm, and it’s just generally very dull. Now this could be backed up by saying this effect was intentional in order to make some roundabout political point, but it isn’t. While playing it, I thought that maybe you were supposed to be banging the drum at the front of the protest and that you were supplying this scattered, non-existent beat. But then I discarded that and settled upon seeing the game as just plain boring – no amount of justification could save what is just bad game design that fails to draw the player into what the game set out to achieve. The message might come through, but that doesn’t mean it came through well or necessarily as impacting as was originally intended.

So then we have SPACIOUS, which I initially came across on Reddit, where the developer introduces it with the header: “My parents yelled at each other when I was a kid. I made a tough-as-nails platformer about it: SPACIOUS.” That right there is how this developer has made the game appealing to people while at the same time giving themselves a lifeline should any negative critique be levelled at it. That being the easy accusation of the person not understanding what it was like for them in the relevant situation, and perhaps accusing them of launching a personal attack on them, despite it being them who made the game a personal one in the first place. In their post, they also make it even harder to introduce any negative comments due to their being humorous in their write-up, which is appealing to people and makes them unequivocally likeable. I’m pretty sure this is just how the person is, and that they don’t have some sinister ulterior motive, but how they come across is important in dictating people’s reactions to the game. My problem is that the developer’s reasoning to how the game design pertains to their parents yelling at each other is just confusing and, ultimately, doesn’t come across effectively in the game itself. Even if SPACIOUS isn’t an attempt to convey a personal story as such, claiming that it’s based on one such as this seems like a very big stretch and makes me doubt all truth in it.

In all honesty, sharing these thoughts with you is a conscious effort to jump the gun because it seems that more and more games are in development, or in the process of being released, with a personal note attached to them. The truth is there are actually a number of well-designed personal games out there that should be lauded just because they manage to take a part of someone’s life and convey it in an interesting way for the player to realize through gameplay. Take Smudged Cat Games’ Growing Pains, for example. This is a game inspired by pregnancy in which the player grows inside the level and must attempt to get through it under the pressure of not being able to fit through it if they don’t move fast enough. As Keith Stuart found out, Dave Johnston designed the game after watching his wife growing in size as his son developed inside of her. This, to me, is a brilliant example of transferring a personal story into game mechanics and is an example of how the process may be handled.

Other examples of this type most certainly include Tourette’s Quest, which allows players to feel the burden of having Tourette’s Syndrome in social situations, just as its developer does in real life. Schizo Balls, a less known one that I discovered when talking to the developer, was a way for them to deal with their schizophrenia. The gameplay involves sorting out a number of balls into divided quadrants of the screen, but you have a limited gap with which to do that, and managing the two or more sides (which I take as representing the human brain) becomes a very tricky thing to do, as coping with a schizoid-affected brain would be.

More recent examples of personal games that manage to achieve what they set out to do very effectively are I Get This Call Every Day and Papo & Yo. Now, you could say that David’s justification of his admittedly terrible artwork in I Get This Call Every Day as a way of portraying the ugliness of the work environment he has to stare at is a lazy justification. It’s more of a case of it being coincidental, but I also find that it does fit in with the stylings of the game as it is intended to showcase how drab his life has become when working in this job role. Then we have Papo & Yo, which represents Vander Caballero’s abusive childhood with his alcoholic father through an in-game pairing between a young boy and a monster that can turn from gentle giant to raging demon – from friend to foe – in a matter of seconds. It’s a story that seems to have resonated on a personal level for many people, and as such, it’s been touted as a heartbreaking one for its gamified and metaphorical portrayal of a non-fictional story.

Personal stories can be very engrossing and emotionally impacting when designed effectively, but the worry is that some people are jumping on the bandwagon and using a ‘personal issue’ as a means to both promote their game and to avert all criticism of it. These notes and thoughts act as an invitation to be a little more critical when playing these games. It’s also a message to prospective developers in hopes that they will consider more thoroughly how they’re going to get their personal story across inside the game itself. Hopefully we can do this without upsetting anyone or having people wrongfully accused of bullying, but I’m very doubtful.

  • http://switchbreak.net Switchbreak

    I think you could really easily flip this around and talk about how bad games that are traditionally “well designed” are at relating to human experience.

    I think what we’re seeing is a widening of games along all axes, in audience and scope and purpose. Some of the reasons that people make games now do thwart traditional criticism, because that is a criticism that was built around a narrower set of motivations.

    This doesn’t mean there is no good or bad anymore (though judgment of what is good and bad is sometimes the most boring of all possible discussions to have about a game, but that’s a different argument to get into) – if someone sets out to make a twine game that primarily tells a story through words, they have to be good at using words to tell a story.

    Personally I don’t think I’ve ever seen widespread outrage over “bullying” when someone just doesn’t get what a game with a personal message is trying to say. I *have* seen it when someone decides to take the game as an expression of narcissism or pretension on the part of the creator, or in some other way assumes bad faith – and honestly I think those criticisms deserve to be attacked.