Engagement: Worldcraft, Player Conditioning & Emotive Game Design

H. Bomberguy is a youtuber with a fair following (118k subscribers as of writing) and several vlogs dedicated to game design and concept analysis. I discovered his work through the tantalizingly titled YouTube video Fallout 3 is Garbage, and Here’s Why. I watched the polemic entranced. One of his complaints echoed a common topic in gaming and in so doing demonstrated how difficult it was stating the problem accurately. It got me thinking.

I don’t watch op-ed vlogs much, but I played FO3 and didn’t enjoy (unlike many self-styled reviewers at the time), I was curious if we agreed. His splendid rant hit most aspect of FO3 I found irksome. My intro to Fallout was New Vegas. Loved it. Were FO3 my intro, I’d think the series was First-Person Shooters with tedious dialog and bizarre ‘karma’ based on (I guess) moon phases. It found it boring. Within his screed he made a passing point about games habituating play-style. Not just Y=fire & B=jump, but routine in-game challenges create standard player solutions.

It was a clever insight, and similar to an issue I’d noticed. Watching a few vloggers complaining about Anita Sarkeesian I said her critics weren’t addressing her arguments, but her perceived identity. They were annoyed hearing something they like criticized and replied with aggression. I noted they often saw the same flaws she did, they just considered them irrelevant. What she thought worth consideration they said proved she didn’t ‘get’ it.

Hilariously, when I wrote the article in 2014, transferred to blog in 2015, my intro said readers probably weren’t familiar with Sarkeesian. Oh times change… Still, within the article I acknowledged her problem was the way games ‘train’ players to expect saving a princess, then ‘train’ them to not care, it’s valid for a woman finding it troubling. In fact, the original Earthworm Jim proved the pattern by twisting it. Normally the princess is an afterthought, in EWJ she’s killed at the last minute. Sarkeesian’s right, a girlfriend crushed to death as a ‘joke’ is misogynist. However, her detractors were also right, it was a ‘joke’ because most times the girlfriend is a foregone conclusion or even non-factor. They were talking past each other.

Her general arguments about ‘engagement’ resonated with me because I am a minority gamer. It changes the experience. FarCry 3 was fun, mostly, and Michael Mando as Vaas the PsychoKiller was amazing. Still, it’s a rich white boy hitting a tropical island to get high and maybe laid by a ‘native girl’. A genuine frat boy who somehow beats every better-armed local and an international drug kingpin. He gets an ‘authentic’ magic tribal tat for crap sake. Even if every side-quest was perfect, the White Savior lead never progresses past feelings of trustafarian wish fulfillment, coincidentally “Jason” even looks a little like head game writer Jeffrey, who felt it was totes profound not racist. Likewise I finished Duke Nukem Forever by sheer determination not enjoyment. Great graphics or adept mechanics don’t change forced-choices and a casually racist dudebro or moronic goon. Both times I hoped the villain won.

That said, I clocked over 1200 hours on Elder Scrolls: Skyrim the first time, once playing for 50 hours straight. Not because it’s the best game ever, but the sandbox with radiant AI, and unmarked locations encouraging off-path exploring meant I was invested, I could personalize. It viscerally engaged me. Before Skyrim I was ‘old-school’, I retired my controller when the PS2 was still a gleam in Sony’s eye. After a 12 year pause, Skyrim broke my brain.

Thing is, tech changes but many designers are my age. We played the same games and became similarly habituated. For example, I never liked the original Mario Bros., but I loved Mario 2 and Sonic the Hedgehog. Why…? No princess to save and more control. Bowser takes Peach for no reason and I rescue her by being sidescroll frog-marched for 5 hours. Whoopie. Mario 2 was nutball: scroll left, scroll right, even up and down. Ride a flying egg a few times and walk into a bird’s mouth to finish!

I had friends who loathed M2 for what I loved: the insanity. Similarly, Sonic is rescuing friends from an egg-based scientist who wants test subjects for a monster factory. I’ll take two. Sarkeesian was talking ‘engagement’ and avoiding ‘standard’ storytelling devices. Her detractors mostly said she should learn to ignore things. I mused demanding quality is a better option. After all, does the world truly need endless FPSs? Some are almost Duckhunt retreads. Look what Portal did and say ‘it can’t be better’. I don’t need depth, I want it.

Still, the bulk of my article was about MRAs, not story-boarding. I barely mention design ‘training’ players to standard behaviors. Plus, I wasn’t breaking ground either. MovieBob made a similar point in relation to Sarkeesian’s assertions on lazy writing, and his video came out before my blog. I know because I quoted. His contention was the muscle goon character is overdone (looking your way Nukem), making most fighter games just Double Dragon v85. If the story depends on reducing all men to mindless Vendetta Machines or Jealousy Jocks it’s a bad game. Again, this wasn’t his key point either. Bomberguy’s much later revisit of the concept was just as minor to his overall hate of FO3. He was focused on crap characters and plot, a nonsense ending, and style over substance. We were all talking about the same thing, but with no vocab to discuss it properly.

Still, this idea has capital in gaming circles. Flash forward a few years and the 345k subscriber strong YouTube team AlltimeGaming produced the 2017 vid 6 Franchises We’re GLAD Died, mostly citing weak stories and cookie-cutter formats. The Alone in the Dark 2008 reboot was an “incomprehensible plot… and dull game-play”. The 2010 Call of Duty had a “dumb AI”. Kane & Lynch had “…meandering levels”. The theme’s obvious: we hated these for bad engagement and boredom.

They praised the “fantastically paced horror game” Dead Space and not its follow-up Tau Volantis, a “mindless action-shooter… with pointless micro-transactions”. These are a review team who complimented Kane & Lynch 2 for a scene of the main character covered with knife-slices, nude, fighting his way through the streets bleeding and shooting stuff. They enjoy a side of ultra violence, and yet they are pissed Dead Space was “ruined” by becoming a Quake clone. When Anthropologist Clifford Geertz argued for “culture as text” [Hoffman 2009] this is part of what he meant, ‘reading’ a culture by noting how the culture sorts ideas. DS had specific elements of a style, so players felt ‘let down’ by later wrong-style versions. Only they couldn’t really say why beyond “dumb” and “boring” several times.

Speaking of Kane & Lynch. Jeff Gerstmann founded GiantBomb after being fired by GameSpot for giving it a negative review. The marketers wanted him out. It was a PR problem for GameSpot, but provides an insight into why ‘engagement’ doesn’t come up much. Part of Gerstmann’s Nov 2007 criticism was K&L’s “ugly” characters. He defined it as, “unlikable, not even in a cool anti-hero sort of way”. But terms for the writing of games and not the visuals is so poor he kept saying “ugly”. Reviewing K&L 2 in Aug 2010 he said “ugly” again. He meant ‘repellent’. Getting fired for calling a game ‘alienating’ suggests industry insiders themselves are limiting the vocab to limit criticism options. There’s other evidence supporting this idea.

Without delving too deeply in the tentacle-mouthed abyss of the “#GamerGate” debacle (or Milo and the “Alt-Right”), buried under heaps of hashtag trolling and 4chan memes was claims they wanted “objectivity” in reviews. They faulted anyone mentioning ‘feelings’ because they said allure isn’t a metric. Sure, ‘lag’ is easier to quantify than a character’s likability, but ‘lag’ is also easier to patch. Criticizing engagement means companies must work harder. Plus, the favoring of large commercial vehicles over indie developers in the bowels of many Reddit threads was hard to miss. GG’s ‘concerns’ quickly became more dogpile than discussion, and no one has a bigger bandwagon than multi-national tech corporations.

Maybe GamerGaters actually did value objectivity, but so what? They also highly favored large corporate vehicles over the indie market, and they were only ever a small sub-set of gamers as a group. Their ‘objective’ metrics aren’t very objective anyway. This isn’t a post-modern “there are no facts” assertion. It’s acknowledging the only real measure is enjoyment. For instance, any engineer can attest games always lag. Power fluctuations, signal drops, coding, most don’t notice. “Lag” is annoying if it interrupts. “Lag” really means annoying lag. If others agree it’s excessive, a ‘metric’ is born. Except, “annoying” is a feeling.

In contrast, indie reviewers often don’t care about standard metrics, but since the common review terms are limited, many ‘reviewers’ are reduced to guys screaming “Why???” repeatedly. They go with their gut but there isn’t a vocab for gut reactions. AlltimeGaming praised the early Prince of Persia series as pretty and fun play, with no learning curve. Pretty isn’t a ‘metric’. Equally, their complaint was the series later became a processor taxing pixel fuck (real term) only to deliver “convoluted” stories. “Convoluted”…?

A ponderous and convoluted story isn’t “bad” if feelings are irrelevant. Besides, convoluted how? AlltimeGaming weren’t just being fussy, they addressed an Action/Adventure failing as an A/A. They addressed Fantasy Horror devolving into “mindless” shooters. The problem was they had words for category, but not an incoherent narrative arc. They were seeing the same problem with design: They don’t enjoy play automatically, but through engagement. The guys at AlltimeGaming like an FPS as an FPS, not an FPS pretending it’s an RPG.

First, I want to be clear I am not a computer programmer or engineer. I’m interested in gaming as a cultural artifact, as a product of society and something interpreted by its members. It is as validly art as films or books or pottery. In exploring game reviews, I found it striking well-known elements of style analysis (aesthetics, execution, exegesis) were usually superficial or absent. Even unrestrained 3am YouTube reviewers, full of caffeine and opinions, have trouble discussing emotional appeal because of seemingly self-imposed terminology restrictions. I don’t expect every player to have a detailed literary analysis of Overwatch or anything, but there’s gotta be better options than even good reviewers saying “ugly” several times.

The desire’s clearly there. Erik M. Gregory, PhD discussed “engagement” in the article Understanding Video Gaming’s Engagement all the way back in 2008. José P. Zagal and friends published Towards an Ontological Language for Game Analysis further back in 2005 (remember the date), using even older texts as back-up. Zagal and his co-authors happened to be at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Computer Science Dept and they noted even then design needed a vocabulary to describe the self-contained worldscape a character inhabits. They noted in particular the way an overall story is broken into manageable sub-stories, how it is fitted to the worldscape, and everything is combined into a full experience, doesn’t actually have a word in design. It’s been over a decade.

Zagal has created a challenge the gaming community is fully prepared to handle. Simply break down the various complaints and experiences of gamers, compare the commonalities, and name them. Bomberguy called his main issue “Player Conditioning”. It’s as good a term as any. His example was an early task in FO3 as the first-level character hits a required lock. One can attempt the pick, or just find the key hidden nearby. In other words, there’s a built-in cheat. As he says it, “The game itself teaches you should avoid doing [difficult tasks] if you can”.

He expanded on this in another video, Bloodborne Is Genius, And Here’s Why. He notes he enjoyed the Dark Souls series more than most of his friends, and poking around he found many were annoyed by single-option battles early in play. It taught some players new tactics, but conservative players just died a lot because they avoid single-option fights. They never got the chance to learn. When they complained, “get gud” was the normal reply and they gave up.

However, many friends who hated Souls overall somehow enjoyed Bloodborne, despite the similarities. He realized it was the progression of the narrative arc drawing them in. He tied his realization to his previous criticism of FO3 having a high-cost task, with a cheat waiting around the corner. Conservative gamers rely on finding those cheats. It conditions the player if high-cost tasks are presented there will be a simple trick to avoiding them, making every high-cost task a fake-out. BB introduces an early high-cost task but it does so with a high-reward payoff and no chance to skip the fight. Bang, the game shows conservative players how to play correctly.

Bomberguy discovered once they were taught, the lesson stuck and people who previously hated the other Dark Souls series rediscovered them. Meaning the previous games were flawed and didn’t engage, and BB resolved the disconnect. More important, it taught through gameplay not endless tutorial because gamers already know most tutorials are misleading if they bother using them at all. Gamers love all sorts of games, but no one complained Angry Birds was hard to play.

“Player Conditioning” is part of what I’ll call ‘Arcing’, or how the character’s story unfolds under the control of the player within the game. Zagal’s ‘how this all fits together’ I’ll call ‘Worldcrafting’ (honestly, I just modified the term ‘worldview’ from anthropology because it’s what I know, and worldview in anthro means ‘a person or group’s sense of place within their immediate surroundings and the rest of the world’). Maybe someone else was knocking around a more evocative term, great! The more the merrier, but we’ve gotta start somewhere and near as I could find nobody’s addressing Zagal and his fellow students so far.

By the way, this isn’t ‘world-building’, which is more concerned with crafting a location who’s details make real-world sense (like YouTuber MrBtongue’s big question about FO3: “What Do They Eat??”). Suspension of disbelief is a factor in worldcraft in a way it can’t be in world-building for reasons I’ll explain. Worldcraft is the crafting of the reality the character inhabits, what corner of a world does the character do their work in, how does the wider world effect them if there is one? Incidentally, maybe someone else can think up, or already was knocking around, more evocative terms. Great! The more the merrier, but I gotta start somewhere.

These elements make up the fake world a character inhabits and how the player and the character react to it and in it. A social science analysis of the player/character divide would mean determining the relationship between the two. The player is an outsider, they don’t live in the character’s world and aren’t governed by its rules. The character has to teach the player and their relationship is the result. The potential of the relationship is how invested the player must become in the character to advance. For example, in Angry Birds there’s no investment. All the creatures are disposable and take no skill to begin manipulating.

The player sacrifices nothing, raw points becomes their own reward and nobody cares about the birds or the pigs or what they eat. Final Fantasy, a more demanding game with narrative and structure and characters (even if the situations are laughable) has high potential. The player becomes invested. Even a hollow story makes variation possible and the player’s experience personalized. Everyone has the same experience of coin flip, each player gets a different experience of Tetris. “Player conditioning” appears. Approaches and styles make the game longer or shorter, harder or easier.

Any game can be measured against any other this way. Checkers has more potential than tic-tac-toe. Chess has more than Checkers. In a good, or at least honest game, player conditioning should roughly match potential. Tic-tac-toe requires little conditioning, and therefore has hardly any potential. Chess takes years to master. Each win or loss is much more important. The mental investment is heightened but it ‘feels’ appropriate to the ‘significance’ of the skill set required.

Adding rewards to potential introduces Game Theory. Decisions become illogical and hard to express because they ‘felt’ correct or incorrect. Put a dollar on the line and a coin flip gets important in a hurry. Suddenly phrases like “I beat them” arrive because there was a benefit to success. The actual Las Vegas and a history of mob bosses and murder is proof how low-potential and low-conditioning (slot machines, black jack) spiral out of control when a high-condition, high-potential element like money gets in the mix. It’s key to what many reviewers and players are all hinting but can’t quite express. Additional player conditioning and potential should always increase together. It feels wrong if they don’t.

This is worldcraft. High potential, like FO3 and 45mins of intro before the first quest, forces conditioning. The sense of raw wasted time when the tedious back-story turns out to be mostly meaningless is alienating because the risk/reward system, potential vs pay-off, is a lie. Moreover the arcing is lopsided, tremendous plot build can’t lead to a mostly typical shooter with an abrupt ending. Which was precisely what Bomberguy hated about it.

Most complaints AlltimeGaming have in their ‘Die Already!’ list is disconnect between worldcraft, conditioning, and potential. “Tedious levels” isn’t a complaint for puzzles, no one is confused when the courts all look the same in 2015 NBA All-Stars. Repetitive levels are, however, a valid complaint against Earthworm Jim 3D. The arcing of the character, must be what the average player thinks makes sense. Bomberguy doesn’t mention it (or didn’t realize), but he complains about arcing relative to player conditioning and potential several times in his FO3 analysis, not just the one he notes in his BB video. For example, he calls attention to ‘map markers’ changing the player experience. He notes it removes players from their surroundings. Locations aren’t found, they’re checked-off. What should be RPG becomes FPS.

As he says “You play games in the manner dictated by the game itself, and sometimes that manner isn’t great.” Examining why so many fail on these terms he references Steve Swink’s primary design text, Game Feel. Swink touches on Psychology of Gaming but only through uncanny valley issues and the “immersive” experience. Swink details ‘conveyance’, how a game teaches base interaction mechanics, but not how those mechanics help make story, odd since “feel” is in the title. It may not matter much in a basic shooter, but an RPG…? It suggests designers don’t care if they’re ‘immersing’ me in a fiction I’d want to visit. Swink’s work was published in 2008, three years after the Zagal essay and the same year as Dr Gregory’s work, proving such design concerns were already being openly discussed (I said the date was important). It’s clear worldcraft and engagement were already available concepts, Swink just didn’t apply them much if at all.

AlltimeGaming wants entire franchises killed because their AI is moronic or nonsensical, making suspension of disbelief impossible. Sarkeesian is all but begging for just leaving out a woman as the prize because she doesn’t want one and most players don’t care anyway. MovieBob would love a male protagonist who isn’t a mindless thug. Bomberguy would like a game that doesn’t actively discourage becoming a better player. Many games became popular just by meeting those minimal standards.

These concerns aren’t limited to professional critics or social and computer science majors. 5.5M subscriber Philip DeFranco is mainly a news blogger who happens to also be a gamer and talks about it occasional. In his 2014 vlog #GAMERGATE vs #STOPGAMERGATE he said, “…Personally [Sarkeesian’s work] was kind of interesting ‘food for thought’. To see that in some video games, although some of the references were reaching, in many cases women really were brutally maimed or slaughtered just to propel the story for a male protagonist.” He’s never contradicted his take on her analysis of pointless game stereotypes, even when disagreeing with most of the rest of her work. In his March 2017 vid Why I Didn’t Talk About The Lawsuit And More…, he says directly “I don’t want to hitch my wagon to [Sarkeesian’s feminism]”. In the June 2017 vid We Need To Talk About This Because It’s Getting Ridiculous, Dangerous, and Scary DeFranco criticized Sarkeesian at length for her behavior at the trade convention VidCon.

They are clearly not allies. He gains nothing by agreeing with her on this single issue. If these two agree about lazy writing being a problem in games, it’s a thing. Calling some of her references “reaching” means most weren’t. He’s experienced exactly the weak arcing and deceptive conditioning she described. Even publications not gamer-specific are on it. Cracked did an article about not alienating players using tropes, The Guardian did a listicle of tropes serving no purpose but somehow remaining mainstays of the industry…

It’s impossible so many are talking in so many different places, for these issues to be minor for discussions of review and design. Personally, one reason I spent so long on Skyrim was reading the in-game books. Those books were incredible, some were witty, some thoughtful, some stupid, but they were chock full of engagement. My go-to example of added meaning and depth enhancing the insider potential are the books Amongst the Draugr by Bernadette Bantien and The Death of A Wanderer by Anonymous. Separately they’re cute, together they explained one of the most annoying and simplistic MacGuffins.

‘Dragon-claw doors’ have a two-step combination+key lock so simple the combination is on the key. They’re stupid and tedious but they spawn quests and restrict premature progress so they’re everywhere. Which is why the books are important. One is by a woman who wants to study the undead residents of the tombs, the “draugr”. The other is a thief who looted a tomb full of draugr in his youth. The woman notices draugr protect and serve undead bodies of powerful evil wizards, keeping themselves and their ‘lords’ ready for battle. While looting, the thief realizes draugr are also dumb. They’re mindless mobile wizard-chargers and sword swingers.

Meaning the now combined explanation for these idiot-doors is the tomb holds zombies and zombies are idiots. The keys don’t keep out grave robbers, they keep in the dark wizards and their undead army. It turns the ‘hero’ narrative inside-out. All the mindless dungeon crawls, opening all those doors to advance the main story, turn out to be the player potentially leaving the countryside open to a later zombie apocalypse. Players have to read both books to find out, and they still might not realize.

Knowing Bethesda they won’t do anything about it, if they even know. But just the possibility they could was worth the investment, it gave me extremely high insider potential because now I know something even the designers might not. Plus, I became conditioned to read because they turned out to be written, not blank or fake-text discardables in a succession of skill boosts. In fact, one of the few glaring misfires of Fallout:New Vegas was their own books/magazines are mostly unreadable. I know because Skyrim was the first post-2000 I played after waving goodbye to Jet Force Gemini for the last time and selling my Genesis and N64. I’m now primed to check every book I find.

Given how good FO:NV was, it’s an odd oversight for the clearly talented developers at Obsidian, if anything it demonstrated how such worldcrafting stands out. Fallout 4, during a critical section of the main story, requires computer terminals to get a ‘beryllium agitator’. Sprinkled through the terminals is an ongoing Dungeons and Dragons-style campaign two engineers were playing in inter-office email when the bombs dropped. It’s engaging.

Actually, hanging on FO4 a sec. I’m a Fallout series fan, both classics and reboots. I can admit this, FO4‘s plot is moronic. Compare the obvious thought put into where and how the teddybears are positioned throughout. Someone on Bethesda’s design team is witty. Why isn’t the Teddybear Supervisor writing the dialog options? Why wasn’t whoever designed the unmarked Parking Garage Maze or the ‘Last Voyage of the USS Constitution’ put in charge of the ‘Road to Freedom’? The terminal email proves they’ve got talented writers hiding in cubicles somewhere.

It humanized employees of this facility more than any extended dialog tree with ‘Father’ or endless radiant quest. Whoever wrote Codsworth’s asides on the state of the floors in a post-bomb wasteland, as he travels the with the main character, deserves a promotion. They understood insider potential. I’m not alone noticing the glaring disconnect between player and plot.

164k subscriber YouTuber Joseph Anderson’s Fallout 4 — One Year Later was two hours on the subject. I’m not just sifting for malcontents, Emil Pagliarulo (FO4′s Lead Designer & Writer) sees the problem too and discussed it openly in a 2016 presentation. He admitted the reason many designers don’t fret the detail stuff is some gamers don’t care. No kidding, maybe because they’ve learned through conditioning “RPG” just means “Shooter with dialog”.

It isn’t the gamer’s fault designers are choosing to water-down their stuff, when I want Borderlands I don’t grab No Man’s Sky. Imagine a company acting like they care about making money and market diversity by appealing to a variety of players with targeted worldcrafting. Yanno, genre… Crazy! Pagliarulo is all but admitting they intend to lie to their customers by tacking “RPG” onto everything short of Doom. Preventing such a strategy requires having a vocabulary describing the problem.

Anderson’s The Witness – A Great Game You Shouldn’t Play, is a good example. He begins by dividing narrative into four types: simple to complex story, simple to complex presentation. Anderson is frustrated as it’s overtly a puzzle game, but the complexity keeps changing, and the presentation. If complex plot is arcing,and complex presentation is potential, his frustration is easy to understand: Deceptively low potential combined with blurry arcing leaves potential unknowable. Since potential decides level of engagement, the player feels they’re forever ‘missing something’. Imagine Candy Crush Saga was the hallucinations of a drug addict the whole time. The resulting sense of deception leaves him suspicious of the designer (see: Duke Nukem below). He states, “Complexity needs to be worth it,” misleading plot-holes aren’t depth. His frustration is the discontinuity between arc and potential, but he finds it difficult enough to say it takes him over five minutes to clarify.

I don’t care about some random elf mage, it’s two guys bored at work. I’m engaged. Done right it conditions for an RPG. But it can’t exist in a vacuum. FO4’s scenery is breathtaking, clearly they read Game Feel from cover to cover. Entire quests are actively irritating, they did not read Dr. Gregory’s essay. And I like FO4, imagine what the haters say. Nuance without insider potential only serves to highlight glaring flaws in the arcing. It’s candy-icing on a hockey puck. In extreme cases it makes games worse. Near the beginning of Duke Nukem Forever, for no reason, for no points, related to nothing, the conveyance section requires you grab poop in a toilet. It’s a fake attempt at a joke, and I can prove it’s fake with the metrics now at my disposal:

  1. Bad arcing, it’s outside anything the character does any other time.
  2. Bad conditioning, no other toilet in the entire game works the same way.
  3. Bad potential, the programmer’s disdain for the player is overt.

It isn’t a crafted world, it’s DNF’s designers telegraphing ‘we hate you’. The engagement is zero, I can measure it. Players agreed and its ranking currently sits at a 3/10 on GameSpot, with no DN primaries produced in 7 years. The designer took almost a decade finishing a junk product, losing so much money the license was bought by another company with seeming no interest reviving it. There’s a direct monetary consequence, worldcraft is a thing.

In stark contrast, the dialog walk-through of the original Portal has one designer noting a flaw becoming something amazing. An early stage required a companion cube (irrelevant crate) for clearing a jump. Beta-testers kept the cube. Players were crippling themselves for no reason.

Conditioning from other games taught them they might need it because it might be a handy cheat to a later level. So they ruined their own reviews by demanding why they were given a useless box. Avoiding some cheap pop-up saying “Put the box down now”, the designers upped the insider potential of the level by requiring the cube be incinerated. They added a single piece of narrative taking their engagement to the next level: “Don’t Worry, Your Companion Cube Does Not Feel Pain”.

Without even playing it’s a suspicious statement. After playing it’s down right sinister. Nearly every reassurance is a lie. So much so “The cake is a lie” still has meaning and cultural currency in many circles (even with people who never played). It added depth because it was appropriate to the worldcraft, conditioning, and potential. It eliminated players carrying the cube around sure, but also stuck out in players minds to such a degree it became an ongoing and debated conspiracy theory. Some say the companion cubes were supposed to help the main character and the evil control-computer GLaDOS prevents it. Some say the boxes are former test subjects and GLaDOS forces the player to kill them so GLaDOS’s can grief the main character later. Still others say…

It’s a throw-away joke the designers put in to side-step cautious beta testers habituated by other games to expect gaining a semi-cheat benefit by not leaving the box behind. Players were habituated to a key in the drawer not upping their lock-pick skill. Valve reconditioned them the right way.

Quoting Bomberguy on his BB analysis, and a similar situation designer Hidetaka Miyazaki addressed in a similar fashion, “You’ve been forced to get good… The designers didn’t blame players for playing badly, they blamed the game, and they fixed it…” The Portal designers conditioned according to potential already present, furthering worldcraft not contradicting it. Now GLaDOS is #4 on IGN’s Top 100 Villains of All Time and Business Insider’s 15 Most Evil Villains in Video Game History. It’s not because of an incinerator, but the incinerator helped.

In some cases options can be left as optional. FO4 on ‘survival’ setting requires regular sleep, healing is time-delayed, and all items count against carry-weight. It also opens more possibilities at chemistry stations and the leveling mechanic changes. This is a difficulty setting above ‘hard’ so the player can choose it or not, further personalizing the experience and adding engagement. It changes the arcing as time and equipment management becomes a part of play where a simple hit-point recalculation wouldn’t.

Imagine AlltimeGaming describing flaws without endless repetition of the vague descriptors “ugly”, “pointless”, or “dull”. Replace such imprecise terms with, “pointless conditioning” or “dull worldcraft”. Gamers are given a sense of why the reviewer wasn’t engaged. If I say “the lag is maddness” a reader knows exactly what I hated. “Ponderous” could mean anything from slow dialog to slow load-screens. Try, “such ponderous arcing it made an Action/Adventure that kills joy”. I can think of at least three games matching the description off the top of my head and none of them was lacking in visuals or world-build.

Design and review benefits from the metrics and concepts of player conditioning, insider potential, arcing, worldcraft, and engagement. They are intrinsic to good writing. Critics, journalists, and players have been discussing them for years without an appropriate vocabulary for why specific aspects feel a certain way. It may not serve everyone but it’s a start, and this vocabulary has as much merit and utility as palettes and tracking. As a result designers, players, and reviewers with a wider lexicon have access to previously vague but extremely important aspect of quality production.

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The Piebald One

The Dark Fool dances like a harlequin, like a rabbit in a field when no one is watching. His diamonds are so deep they’re embedded in his very skin. He spirals and hops and he makes jokes that hide and reveal more and less than he knows. Here he records some of what plays in his mind, his own little mark upon the stones, like those who came before and have left us with as many questions as answers. Oh, and there’s gonna be a lot of sarcasm, some irony, and way more than enough absurdity to go around.

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