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Digital Truth: Emergent Origins pt.3

In part 2 I explained how systems designed on top of core gameplay interactions run the risk of muddying any digital truth in the overall system. After all, if digital truth is universal and often profoundly simple then abstractions, arbitrations, and designer creations are the opposite. Knowing this helps us make more informed decisions as game designers, but it doesn't help us identify what the truths are in the first place. The difficult part of describing these truths is they can be so simple and profound that they almost seem like nothing special. 

When looking for examples of digitize-able truths, here's a good method. Take an equation that accurately describes some phenomenon about our real world. It's important to be able to describe or quantify the phenomena into digits because we're ultimately trying to insert it into a computer system. Take the equation and make sure that the input is some value from the gamestate/player and the output is some kind of feedback element that the player can appreciate. After all, it doesn't do us any good to have a system output lines of Matrix code; we're not like Cipher. The more universal and simple the phenomenon, the more easily it can be converted into digital truth and the more easily it can be outputted as something we can observe and wrap our minds around.  


Digital truth is more than a theory explaining why the core gameplay dynamics of 2D/3D space hold so much emergent and engagement potential. Digital truths are also evident in non-spatial, non-temporal relationships. The following examples should highlight this fact. 


  • gravity (constant acceleration): What goes up comes back down. An object slows until reaching the apex where its vertical motion zeros out. The up and down halves of an object traveling against gravity are symmetrical with equivalent timing and force. Acceleration is a pretty complex concept that we grasp using these observable properties. These are some of the properties that make Mario's JUMP so engaging.

  • symmetry: The symmetry of cycles, periods, rhythms, and revolutions creates regularity and allows us to make predictions. Cycles are a familiar part of everyday life. Symmetry creates a kind of simple identity relationship that never fails to ressonate with itself. What's hot is hot. I never fail when I never fail. A win is a win is a win. Music rhythm games like Rhythm Heaven are completely built around this digial truth. I talk about rhythms and game design more here.

  • odds versus evens: There's a fundamental relationship between odds and even numbers in terms of how they line up with each other. Add or multiply even numbers and you'll always get even results. But odd numbers are unique in that they bounce back and forth between odd and even results. It's this lopsided relationship between manipulating odd and even figures that a larger cycle is created. Musicians are trained to play 3 beats inside the same space of 4 beats and all kinds of odd-even combinations. The puzzle game Impasse uses this fundamental relationship to define some interactions and obscure solutions behind overlapping cycles. 

  • pi and circles: Many know pi to be the relationship between the diameter and circumference of a circle. Many also know that the decimal places of Pi extend forever. This relationship is why it takes much more work to navigate around obstacles than to go through them. It's why it's difficult to run past defenders in football. It's part of why we swing objects to hit harder and why we drift around corners in races. Pi and circles can naturally emerge from games featuring 2D/3D space. Neo*RPG's  gameplay exhibits this relationship clearly with its basic enemy/player movement. 

  • space and time: Speed is defined by space and time. Because these two dynamics are linked, we can interpret the timing of objects based on their distances and visa versa. Again, this is a natural kind of relationship that emerges from objects moving through space. DigiDrive is an excellent example of a gameplay system designed entirely around directing colored "car" like elements as they move through an intersection. The simple motion creates organic timers. 

  • spatial definition: An object's position in 2D space is defined by 2 axes. An object in 3D space is defined by 3 axes. The distance between any two objects is multifaceted based on the number of axes. Picross 2D and 3D take this simple property of spatial definition and uses it to create a puzzle coding system.


When you embrace such truths and incorporate them into your core mechanics, you build a game on a very strong foundation in terms of potential engaging and varied emergent gameplay. While I don't know baseball's actual historical origins, it's illustrative for our purposes to think the game was developed in the following way. What if the creators of baseball consciously designed the game around the foundation of playing catch? The game of "catch" is very simple. You throw the ball back and forth between 2 or more people trying not to drop the ball. Catch is nice, but it's not very challenging. And trying to make it competitive doesn't work out well either. So, I imagine that rules would be added to catch to make it more interesting. By adding more people to the game the players can cover more ground and catch balls thrown very hard. But this modified version of catch still lacks a few wrinkles. It lacks those element that makes the game a sport. What if this is when the idea of a batter and a pitcher was embraced? The batter makes catching the ball difficult and more unpredictable. The pitcher attempts to play the ultimate game of catch with the catcher. The rest of the rules of baseball are designed to give these core actions game more varied scenarios and strategies. If you think about the game of baseball this way, you can see how starting with a strong foundation helps shape the rest of the rules. With real baseball, each play and almost every action in the game revolves around throwing and catching the baseball. So, the gameplay never moves too far away from the core game of catch. And the rest is history.    

I've found that games have a lot harder time facilitating certain kinds of emergent gameplay when their core gameplay actions are not designed around the rich potential of digital truths. Recall Fictive RPG, an example I created to model a RPG combat system step by step as it developed from a static linear system into one of interesting choices. Because the core mechanics of the RPG combat do not use any of the digital truths expressed above, it took quite a number of additional complexities to create interesting choices. This is probably why Drill Dozer's core gameplay fell a bit flat for me.


In the future, keep your ambition under control, keep your head down, and really focus on listening to your game in its beginning stages. Ask yourself what's the simplest most interesting action or interaction in the game. Once you identify it, design everything else to support it and you can create games like Jonathan Blow. Or Miyamoto. Or like yourself producing the games you've always wanted to play that reflect what you like most about life in the truest way possible. 

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Reader Comments (2)

The examples help, and I found it useful to read through your discussion of Fictive RPG. I can see why physics-based and music-based game ideas appeal to me so much, though this has only partly to do with "digital truth" and emergence and such.

If you could make up an example, like you did with Fictive RPG, and step through the process of refining the design to bring out its emergent properties and inherent truth, that would be awesome, though I know it's not easy!

October 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteraxcho

@ axcho

Hmmm. I gave this a lot of thought.

The way I see it, for games made Nintendo/Miyamoto style, the big picture or high concept is always vague. They spend years working out the core engine, mechanics, and other core technical issues (like camera) before anything else. Once it's "fun" just to move or do the basic actions, the rest of the game is molded around. The whole idea of form fits function and function creates fiction describe this design process. When you design like this, sometimes the story will change just because the gameplay changes. From my understanding this is how the entire character Midna was created. Still, even with this method the core truths can be overshadowed by any other element if the designers are not careful.

So there really isn't a step by step way to illustrate how a game can be balanced or unbalanced throughout its development process. As far as talking about the process of making games, it's all pretty speculative and variable. I can explain which design elements clutter the pure interactive truths like when I described Advance Wars Dual Strike. But like with my baseball example, I can only guess that the game was created around of the core action of playign catch.

There are so many ways to refine design, as you requested. We could look at mechanics design, variation & balance, difficulty design, and clean game design. I think the hardest part for designers is loosening up the grip we have on the grand, ambitious vision. The game should tell you how much content too add, how big the scope should be, and what's interesting about the gameplay. I don't think I can model this. It would basically be a post mortem on a game and some comments.

October 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

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