Games with a Message

Last week I was invited to talk at a conference where a few speakers had 30 minutes to present their work. I just played Storyteller the whole time, showing a few cool things that I hoped would communicate what the game is about.

But then I was surprised to see some of the other speakers concerned by Storyteller's inclusion of suicide, murder and infidelity. Someone stated that every videogame has a meta-message and suggested my inclusion of these concepts was thoughtless.

It is not surprising then when legislation to ban games happen, if even creators and academics themselves don't think deeply about how their games actually mean.

The format of the conference didn't allow me to reply on the spot, so I will do it here, especially because this superficial analysis of games is pervasive even in game developers. I am also going to ignore that the expression "meta-message" suggests there's a main message to being with and that's already problematic, but that is covered in Conflicts in Game Design.

The Meta-Message

I totally agree every game has a meta-message that is "read" by players: Games automatically communicate what the creator thinks of his players.

This message is conveyed through what the game asks players to do with their time. If a game maker assumes his players are incompetent, unable to draw conclusions or a cash cow, players will get this kind of messages:

  • Your time is worthless: Games that force you to perform repetitive mindless tasks for arbitrary reasons. ie: Most MMOs.
  • You can't stand challenge: Games that are too easy for fear of scaring impatient people. ie: Lots of Angry Birds wannabes on iTunes.
  • Pay Up or waste time: These games put a (low) price on your time, stealthily try to get you to commit and then ask for a ransom. Usually games with the "Free to Play" model.
  • Do as I say because because I know better: Edutainment that presents solutions instead of exploring the problems, like telling players to save water ,usually with text or videos, instead of letting them figure out why it matters. Educational games are often the worst culprits, as most adopted the dictatorial attitude of schools [1].

When games are designed like this, players will feel mistreated, even if they can't put their finger on where the mistreatment is coming from. Even if the game is fun. And there's no way to disguise, coat or counter it; the game will ooze its creator's opinion of his players anyway.

This invisible message will be part of how she believes the world sees her as a person. She might accept the mistreatment as natural; after all, school and most jobs frequently hammer these demeaning definitions of ourselves in our heads.

So what would be a game with a positive, reinforcing meta-message? Meaning and messages are a complicated thing, but I believe it's enough to stubbornly assume my future players are smart, can draw conclusions, choose if they are interested in playing or not and whose time and attention is valuable. Always. Regardless of what I know of who will end up playing the game.

My Policy for Storyteller

This is how I see my players: smiling as they try clever ways to outsmart the goal of each level, concocting twisted plots and sometimes surprised and delighted by the possibilities the game offers, and then be on their way with a trace of a new storytelling technique in their heads. Some people won't be into the game, and some will think about it for a long time. I wish to provide good value for the former until they decide to move on, and interesting concepts to think about to the latter.

Storyteller will only include levels that I am convinced are the best, no filler. I am willing to end up with a 2 hour game if need be [2].

I will also assume that whoever plays the game is able to form their own ideas on sordid concepts like suicide, murder and infidelity and how they fit in fiction, like they would if they read Romeo and Juliet or watched a teenage soap opera.

[1] besides, making a truly good educational game is harder than making just a good game, which is extremely hard on its own, thus my default skepticism.
[2] Last playtest took 5 hours from start to finish... so I don't think I will end up with a 2 hour game, even if I cut out a massive chunk of what is implemented now.


  1. Hi, I'm really looking forward to Storyteller, but I think this post misses the point of the concerns a bit?

    It sounds like the issue people raised is not about how the game treats the player, but the impact of the game mechanics on the story.

    For instance, murderers in the game could always get away guilt-free, they could always get caught, or they could have varied reactions depending on the situation. These are all different choices for game mechanics design, and those mechanics would speak a message.

    The just-released "Papers Please" is a wonderful example of a game that primarily speaks its message through its game mechanics.

    I'm not intrigued by Storyteller because it's just another puzzle game where I try to outsmart each level... I'm intrigued by Storyteller precisely because it is trying to reflect the patterns and moralities expressed by classic stories. The combination of game mechanics and, well, storytelling is the core of the game's appeal.

    And so I think it makes sense to be concerned about what the game's mechanics will say about those story elements.

    All that said, it seems like you're doing a great job so far, and I look forward to the game! :)

    1. "If the murderers get away guilt-free in the games my children play, then it'll teach them that murderers get away guilt-free! And who knows where THAT'LL lead!"

      yawn this generation's soccer moms

    2. Well, note that I was careful not to place a value-judgment on that message; I only said that it's a message. I'm certainly NOT in favor of something like the pre-ratings Hollywood Studio Code, where bad guys were never allowed to win, and some movies got around it by showing the bad guy winning, then having a final scene where characters talk in the foreground while an innocuous radio broadcast in the background mentions that the bad guy was caught after all. :P

    3. It's a message in that people can read it like a message. It's not a message in that the artist is *intending* to deliver a message. If I have a woman captured in my story, and in need of rescue, someone could say "your message is that women are weak and need men to help them." No, there's just a weak woman in the story. You read the message. And what you do with that afterwards is your responsibility.

    4. We'll just have to agree to disagree. Won't be arguing the point further. :)

    5. Haha, as if you argued the point at all.

  2. Also, I should add that I do really like what you're saying in this post, that you're designing the game to respect the players! :)

  3. I also agree with the bulk of this post. I have one concern though. It may be just a concern with the language you've used, but I want to get it out there.

    When some game devs "assume the player is smart", they sometimes end up assuming too much. An extreme example would be an adventure game developer having some puzzle that is completely intuitive to them. Indeed may be the kind of thing that is "kinda makes sense when you've done it", but most of the players that manage to figure it out will do so by brute forcing the inventory. Even if the puzzle was cool for some reason, there's nothing fun about brute forcing an inventory, so I'd say the dev in this case has let their players down.

    I completely agree with you that including lots of text popups that tell the player exactly what to do is nothing short of Orwellian. However, it is possible to give the player a ramp into things without going that far, as egoraptor ( ) tells us. Those ramps mean the experiments people perform with the game are more fruitful. They make the game more concise, so people can go out and do more with their lives. Being able to take my game in that direction was why I watched a lot of people playtest.

    1. > An extreme example would be an adventure game developer having some puzzle that is completely intuitive to them.

      Well, that's the designer assuming his players are smart in the same way *he* is smart. It's often an unfortunate side effect of adventure games, that need a lot of guessing the designer's mind.

      > most of the players that manage to figure it out will do so by brute forcing the inventory.

      This is how I see this:
      1) If players are not learning my game, either I have a problem in the process of teaching the mechanics, or an intrinsic problem with the mechanics themselves.
      2) Not every game is for every player. Some players will find certain challenges and ideas boring or obscure, no matter what the developer does to ease them into the game.

      When I see someone getting stuck in Storyteller, I assume by default it's 1), but as I move closer to shipping, I will have to accept that many people will just not be into the game.

  4. Suicide, murder and infidelity happen in life -- why should they not happen in games? While naturally I disagree with suicide, despise murder, and would never be unfaithful; the game is not about being or doing any of those things. It is about stories, in which some of the elements mentioned ocurr. But Storyteller gives us an opportunity other games or even mediums do not provide us: We can explore *why* those things happen. Why did Romeo commit suicide? Why did the Psycho kill this or that person? Why was Tim unfaithful to Maria? Storyteller is clear on what happens: No complicated charts, no boring-to-death grinding, no hidden event triggers to screw up your careful planning... It gives you complete control to make a story come true (or at the very least tell it... Okay bad pun is bad so I will not say it).

    Myself? I would like to inquire if a 'freeform mode' is available. You know... Once you have beaten the scenarios, what about letting the player create any desired situation? All the characters, all effects, all possibilities. Add a little creativity and you have instant fun.

    1. I am working so you can do this most of the time while playing!

    2. I meant a "sandbox mode" to be precise - but I do get what you are trying to say. The game seems extremely freeform already, with multiple solutions to a single problem and no limits beyond what the level offers you.

      All in all, cannot wait for the realease date to come around!

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  6. A question out of curiosity: Who exactly is the figure donning a black hat at the leftmost part of the Storyteller banner?

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  8. It sounds like the issue people raised is not about how the game treats the player, but the impact of the game mechanics on the story.
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