The Designer is Dead: Five Reasons to Go Beyond Intended Experiences

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Authorial intent has been a bugbear of mine for a while. I’ve touched on it before, but never put forward a complete position. Hopefully, this will serve.

I recently watched a video called “The Dark Heart of Katamari Damacy”, which discussed the game’s popular conception as happy fun and the more dark and cynical intent of its creator. The video framed the game’s surprising depths as revealing artistic genius, but it seemed to me that an artistic message that is completely missed by most of the audience is probably not a sign of genius? I don’t really know what Takahashi hoped to accomplish or to what extent Namco interfered, but I think there’s a compelling argument to be made that Katamari Damacy is actually a failure from an artistic standpoint - but obviously it’s a significant success as a game.

I thought that was an interesting dynamic and probably worth writing about. Something reminded me of the discussion of whether Dark Souls should have an easy mode, where opposed folks often fall back on the intended experience as a defense, and from there it was pretty easy to find my thesis. But I tried to give it a broader appeal than just being another response to the Dark Souls question in particular.

While the five reasons came together quickly, there was still some iteration involved and some discarded examples along the way. As a result, there’s a lot of cut material for this article, so let’s get into it!

For the first reason, “The intent is sometimes evil,” I wanted to mention Alphabear, a free-to-play spelling game on mobile platforms. In a postmortem about the game, Spry Fox CEO and cofounder David Edery goes into a lot of detail about its design process. When I watched this video, I had already abandoned the game due to frustration with its freemium shenanigans (the biggest offender being that there’s an IAP that looks like it buys you out of the game’s energy system, but actually only buys you out of one of two energy systems, leaving the other to encourage more microtransactions, and this wasn’t clear to me until I bought it). I was working on an article I never finished (working title: “Why Alphabear Makes Me Beary, Beary Sad”) and took notes from the video, getting angrier and angrier as Edery talked only about maximizing engagement and profits with barely a word about improving the player experience. And then suddenly at the end, in response to a question about why Spry Fox makes free-to-play games, he said this:

“[If] you live in this country and you don’t have money or you live in a…third-world country where very few people have money…you can still enjoy the game. I like the fact that I am making something that is bringing joy to millions and millions of people whether they can afford it or not."
—David Edery, Alphabear Postmortem (at thirty minutes)

And, like, maybe you’d disagree, but he sounded totally sincere to me. It was surreal. Suddenly I wasn’t angry anymore - I was confused. I don’t know whether to classify Spry Fox as evil in their intent. But I do know I didn’t care for the execution, and I haven’t looked at any of their post-Alphabear games at all. So I was going to use this as an example of how it can be difficult to judge whether a designer’s intentions are evil and how that ultimately doesn’t matter - but decided it required too much setup for how much it added and cut it out (leaving just a link to the relevant video portion).

For the second reason, “It’s bad accessibility,” Spyro actually got subtitles while I was working on the article, which was great timing since I could put that in the text before publication and the article wouldn’t immediately become outdated. Plus, the fact that the subtitles did eventually get added strengthens my point.

I also thought about discussing the frustrating cases where a game includes an easy mode, but only reluctantly. While I was working on the article, a significant patch dropped for WarGroove which adds (among other things) several new easier difficulty levels, but penalizes you for using them. The original difficulty is now labeled “Hard” - drop down to Medium and you can no longer obtain S-ranks. Dropping to Easy means you can now only obtain two stars per mission instead of three, and the lowest difficulty level, “Story”, only allows one star.

To me, this demonstrates a lack of understanding of who easy modes are for - and it’s not the first game I’ve seen do this kind of thing. I was tempted to complain about it, but honestly I already have and it was non-central to my current point. So I left it out.

For the third reason, “The designer doesn’t know you,” it took me a weirdly long time to find the SOMA example - embarrassing, since it’s in the Game Maker’s Toolkit video I quote at the beginning, though to be fair Mark Brown and I framed it differently and focused on different aspects. The first example I considered was the somewhat-infamous monkey wrench puzzle from Monkey Island 2. This is a comedic point-and-click adventure game, and in one puzzle the player must turn a valve by using a monkey on it - it’s a pun on the term “monkey wrench.” However, this term is really only used in the US, most puzzles in the game are not pun-based, and the game doesn’t otherwise hint at or signpost the solution. As a result, the puzzle is rather wildly unfair and much harder than intended.

I found an oral history of Day of the Tentacle, another LucasArts adventure game, that made reference to this puzzle. Speaking of a Day of the Tentacle puzzle, Tim Schafer says, “It’s not as bad as the monkey wrench puzzle in Monkey Island 2. I don’t know how we expected anyone to get the monkey wrench one.” Dave Grossman adds, “In Monkey 2, [the puzzle I feel the worst about is] the one with the monkey wrench, and the lesson there was, in large part, don’t ever base a puzzle on a pun, because it won’t work when you translate it to other languages. And not even that, it doesn’t even work cross-culturally, because if you go to England, they don’t call it a monkey wrench at all. It’s a very American thing.”

But localization issues (even same-language ones) just seemed like a weak expression of what I was going for. SOMA creating different emotional reactions with the same stimuli was far stronger, so as soon as I recognized that as something I could use instead, I immediately abandoned the monkey wrench.

For the fourth reason, “You don’t know the designer,” I knew from the beginning that I had to use Katamari Damacy, since that was the example that inspired the article. I was almost disappointed that I only needed one example, because there are some other good ones. As discussed in my video/essay about it, Frail Shells is an interesting case where the game reads to many people as a dark and serious PTSD metaphor, but was actually intended as a joke about shooting mechanics showing up in other games - in some ways an inverse of the Katamari situation.

I also considered mentioning wavedashing in Super Smash Bros. Melee. As I’ve previously discussed, wavedashing is a technique that exploits an edge case in the game’s physics. There was debate over whether wavedashing was intended to be a valid tactic - and it became clear that it was not intended when it was removed from the next Smash game.

For the fifth reason, “It’s needlessly limiting,” the first game I thought of was Monopoly. Famously, Monopoly started out as a somewhat different game called The Landlord’s Game, which was intended to show how certain economic policies increase wealth disparities. The game has evolved over the years to be more enjoyable to play and even today there are many popular house rule variants (see this Basic Instructions strip and annotation for some discussion thereof). The result is one of the most famous and successful board games ever made. But, many people argue that the game is still not fun, and it’s primarily a board game rather than a video game, so League of Legends was clearly a better example.

I also considered mentioning that player modifications to a game are sometimes about making the game harder rather than easier - a self-imposed challenge is a player-driven change to the intended experience of a game just as much as a hacked-in easy mode would be. And both allow players to get more out of a game. But keeping the discussion about making a game different rather than harder or easier seemed like it would be less distracting and would flow better into the article’s conclusion, so I left this point out.

It also occurred to me to ask where watching Let’s Plays and gaming streams fits in to this, since in a sense you’re experiencing the game in a way very different from the intended play experience. But what you’re actually experiencing is a video experience authored by the streamer, with different intent - and then there are the games that are made primarily to be streamed in the first place. This gets complicated and pretty far afield from my point, so although it’s interesting I chose not to get into it here.

The fifth reason transitions into what I think of as the conclusion - talking about the value that designer intent does have as a beacon supporting further exploration. For this, my original plan was to lean on Save the Date - here’s what I had written up for that:

If creation is collaborative, then what is the role of the creator? Especially in a medium like video games, where player choice and actions directly contribute to the unfolding experience?

Save the Date is a short visual novel by Chris Cornell that I’m about to partially spoil, though not in a way I expect to ruin the game for anyone. Go play it first if you want; It’s free. Or just skip the next two paragraphs and go right to the quote.

While presenting itself first as a simple dating sim, Save the Date is ultimately about the collaborative nature of storytelling. In order to get a good ending, you must reject the bad endings the game keeps trying to force on you, but that’s not enough - you also have to break the fourth wall and take more direct control over the story. (Though of course, that’s still all part of the plan).

When discussing why he created a game like this, Cornell explained that he wanted to highlight and explore the fact that it’s actually normal for game players to mess with game stories - invoking the example of retrying after failure.

“I’ll be playing ninja gaiden, for example, and the game tells me the story of ‘the ninja on a mission of justice, who totally hit a bird while jumping, and fell in a pit and died, the end.’

And I’ll be like ‘no, this story is balls, I want to hear about the one where the ninja totally kicks everyone’s ass, including that bird who is a total dick’ and so I hit continue. I’m actively rejecting the story the game told, and trying to get it to tell me another. Any time you reload from a save game after dying, you’re doing that."
Forum post by Chris Cornell

But there’s a reason Cornell hits continue instead of turning off his console and just imagining the ninja being a badass. In a sense, the story where the ninja falls in the pit and dies, the story where the ninja prevails against his enemies, and whatever version of the badass ninja story Cornell would come up with in his own head are all equally valid. But that doesn’t mean they’re equally valuable.

I had trouble taking this thread where I wanted it to go and I realized that it was kind of a tangent - Cornell was specifically talking about stories and that’s not quite the same thing I was discussing. I either had to go a lot deeper into it to show the connections or just cut it out. This article is mostly about mechanical/systemic changes rather than story changes, so it didn’t feel correct to spend a bunch of time on the nature of storytelling. So I cut it out. It’s still possible fodder for a future post that deals with that topic more centrally; in the meantime I do like Emily Short’s take on it. (Also see Ian Danskin’s video The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide for more discussion on the collaborative nature of storytelling and communication in general, centered around (you guessed it) The Beginner’s Guide.)

In addition to the board-game-with-and-without-rules example, I originally mentioned tabletop role-playing games:

Similarly, many rulebooks for tabletop role-playing games make reference to a “rule zero” or “golden rule” explicitly stating that the rulebook is not the final authority of the game, because the purpose of the game is to enjoy it, not to follow rules. According to 1d4chan, the Paranoia: Troubleshooters rulebook puts it this way:

“We give you these rules as guidance. Use them when you do not know what you’d like to have happen in the game. When you do know, ignore them. We have tried to make the rules as helpful and powerful as we can, but if you don’t like a rule, the rule is wrong. Good rules help a lot but bad rules were made to be broken, tortured, lobotomised and summarily executed.”

While I like this philosophy, I couldn’t find a better quote source and ultimately this felt superfluous over what I already had (especially since it’s not about video games) so I cut it.

Relatedly, I considered including a quote from Tom Francis on why he chose to frame a particular option in his game Heat Signature as a cheat:

“I don’t want…players to feel like they’re being asked to design how the game should work."
—Tom Francis, Heat Signature’s Fair Points Update: Reacting To Good Reviews

This is a good line and a pithy way to sum up the value of the designer’s intent being clearly communicated (and it’s also used in the Game Maker’s Toolkit video I quote at the beginning of the essay). But I found other ways to express this and didn’t feel like this quote would have added enough to them to be worth the distraction.

And that’s about it for this article. Hope you enjoyed!