If business software is non-fiction, then games are fiction. Creative writing, while rooted in grammar, syntax and other rules, can still express robust, human ideas. Similarly, every video game is a system with rules that build up to human notions like success or failure.
A cohesive story has a coherent internal logic. Similarly, good games exhibit clarity and consistency. For example, even characters in the most far-fetched science fiction story need clear motivations. Without them, the illusion is lost and suspension of disbelief is broken. Compare that to the physics system in a platformer. A ‘cheap’ or buggy collision system at best frustrates and at worst makes one put down the controller and walk away. Since both media require immersion, both need a consistent internal logic.
Level design has an interesting place in this notion. By level design, I mean the assembly of challenges or environments for the player to interact with throughout the course of game play. This practice is simply the composition of gameplay mechanics developed at another time or by another person. A good level design introduces gameplay elements in a sequence that smoothly lead the player to learn about the game system without ham-fisted tutorials or unreasonable jumps in difficulty. Compare this to good story exposition, which introduces characters and motivations required for the story to unfold, but without drawing undue attention to itself.
The separation of mechanics and execution inherent in level design has an analogue in creative writing: episodic script writing. Looking at it this way, game mechanics are like characters designed by a creator, whereas level design is like the assembly of those characters into episodes. An episodic scriptwriter’s task is to weave a story with existing threads. A good episode is one that highlights unique traits of the characters and progresses the reader’s knowledge of those characters. Conversely, without a well crafted sequence of events, an enthralling character is nothing more than a boring cog. Level design shares all of these traits, advancing a player’s understanding of gameplay mechanics similar to a reader’s understanding of characters. Without good level design, the best gameplay mechanic is just a gimmick!
So what good is all of this? I’d like to think that this line of thinking might lead to interesting approaches game development pedagogy. Are there small writing exercises like character sketches or workshopping that might translate well to game development? Do any rules of thumb on plot construction translate well to level design? Does a good character have anything in common with interesting gameplay mechanics?