Playing the Principles Part 1: Examples of Strong Gaming Design Principles

New art forms usually experience a degree of dismissal in their early days. The example that comes quickest to mind is the television, which some still argue does not constitute an artistic medium. Critics writing during television’s early days called it a fad or trend. They predicted its cultural significance would quickly fade (if it even had any in the first place).

Being wrong about the success of television seems laughable now, but knee-jerk reactions to new media continue. Since the 1980s, video games have been decried as having no socially redemptive value. They have been seen as childish entertainment at best, and a dangerous influence at worst.

Yet the creation of video games mirrors the creation of visual stories in film and television, in numerous ways. Among these are the focused use of design principles to increase engagement and raise rates of retention.  Let’s take a look at some truly outstanding games of the last twenty-plus years through the lens of TruScribe’s scientifically-proven design principles of Scribology.

Story – Gone Home

A small, independent game, Gone Home incited spirited discussions among players and critics upon its release. The reason for this was the way that one played the game—or rather, didn’t, as some critics bluntly alleged.  Instead of fighting, puzzle-solving, racing, or any other style of gameplay, Gone Home simply lets you walk around an empty house to learn about the family that owns it.  There’s pathos, intrigue, even humor, but significantly, there are no other characters.  On top of that, your interaction with the game is limited to walking and picking up objects to inspect. 

It’s a total dedication to one of the signature gaming design principles – visual storytelling. It eschews action entirely in favor of a quiet, measured articulation of the Greenbriar family’s narrative. Story is our human coding language. And Gone Home proves that it’s a language we understand even without the trappings of explosions and danger.

Message BioShock

The BioShock franchise is intimately linked to socio-political messaging, as even a cursory discussion of the first game’s plot will reveal. Set in a utopia-turned-dystopia at the bottom of the sea (a city called Rapture), BioShock brings your character into the waterlogged, cracked and rotted wreckage of a society ravaged by unfettered greed. Founded on hyper-capitalistic principles and genetic modification, Rapture is a crumbling, leaking ghost town, populated now only by violent looters.

Everything in a TruScribe video is designed to serve your message. The same prominence is given to BioShock’s message.  Every broken window, every looted store, every bullet hole drives home the same point: this was never a way people were meant to live.  Rules matter.  Compassion matters.  Greed is not a virtue, but an addiction that turns good people into selfish, hedonistic villains.

Surprise – Alien: Isolation

Ever want to play through one of your favorite movies? Well, you might want to think twice about that. As cool as Sigourney Weaver looks facing down the titular Alien in the celebrated franchise, it’s hard to feel cool when you’ve squeezed yourself into a storage locker and are praying the beast doesn’t hear you breathe. And you’ll be hiding a lot, and not just because you have almost no way to defend yourself.  One of the strongest gaming design principles at play in Alien: Isolation is surprise.

Surprise creates dopamine, making us become and remain curious. Playing Isolation will have you permanently and desperately curious as to where the Alien will show up next. Whether it comes from the vents, the ceiling, through a door, or standing right behind you as you enter a room, Alien: Isolation’s monster operates on the principle of surprise with terrifying success.

Motion – Observation

Movement is a constant in games—isn’t it?  Well, usually, and for good reason; motion turns the eye, and even the head, to follow it.  So what happens when you, the player, control something that never moves?  That’s the question Observation answers by telling the story of a lost space station with only one occupant, and then putting the player in the role of the actual station.  You are the AI in charge of helping the survivor as she tries to understand what happened to the station. And you almost never move.  Yet, you have the ability to view any camera in the station, and even occasionally pilot mobile cameras.  It’s motion without motion, allowing the player to explore without unraveling the game’s central conceit of player-as-object. 

Some of the most powerful examples of the engaging power of motion come from art that reimagines movement. Observation is a masterclass in this break-the-rules-to-prove-them approach.

Sync – Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

In another instance of altering the rules to show their importance, the principle of synchronization is turned on its head for better messaging in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.  Traditionally, good synchronization of audio and visual elements is requisite for good content and is one of the more obvious of the gaming design principles. And bad synchronization can hinder engagement and problematize retention.  Senua, though, is different. A Pict warrior on a quest to save her lover’s soul from Helheim, Senua is psychotic. Her illness takes the form of auditory hallucinations, which the game’s designers studied for hours with neuroscientists, mental health professionals, and sufferers of the condition.  As a result, as the player controls Senua, they are bombarded by voices—some encouraging, some terrifying, some confusing. 

As mentioned above, all elements (including sync) should support your content’s message. Hellblade’s message is that mental illness is a heavy burden to bear, and one that we should better understand. 

By desynchronizing the audio from the visual elements of the game, the designers put us directly in Senua’s mind. We feel the disturbing disconnect caused by this de-synchronization, just as she does.

Voice – Brütal Legend

The principle of voice is all about using the right voice to articulate your message, and that’s just what DoubleFine Studios got with the impressive voice casting of their heavy metal love letter Brütal Legend.  The story is about a modern-day roadie transported to a magical land where heavy metal isn’t just a genre—it’s everything.  This preoccupation very much extends to the voice talent, lending their voices to warriors, kings, and even gods of metal.  That talent includes legendary performers like Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, the Runaways’ Lita Ford, comic Brian Posehn, and more.  Leading the pack is Jack Black as Eddie the roadie.  How do you create a convincing world where musicians are gods?  Hire real metal gods to voice your script.

These are just a few examples of strong gaming design principles that we also find in our whiteboard videos. Check out part 2 for even more examples.