The following are examples that highlight metaphors or other creative examples in game design along with key questions to consider.
The Marriage. This interactive work has a "message," which is what marriage is like. Purely through the interactive rules and a fairly abstract presentation, we draw a comparison between the subject (marriage) and the target (rules) to better describe and define the subject. When the blue square shrinks after touching the pink square we can interpret this interaction as the male making some kind of sacrifice for the female. Yet if this goes on too much, the male will shrink away into nothingness and thus "die" ending the marriage and the round. But if both squares come together every now and then after growing stronger apart from each other, they can both survive longer. The rules of the game have fairly clear interpretations despite being so abstract. If you accept this example as a metaphor in game design, then we can establish a strong base of understanding.
Here are a couple of interesting questions for you to consider. If The Marriage wasn't titled "The Marriage" would there be no metaphor? Or would the game rules still reflect some kind of marriage like relationship between people? Between two coupled entities? Is there a clearly presented metaphor or is does the comparison merely emerge from the juxtaposition of the title and interactive experience?
DigiDrive (DSi Ware). In this game, players direct cars through an intersection to try and control the flow of traffic. It's a game that is an abstraction of being a traffic director. The name of the gameplay elements and the title convey this idea. DigiDrive is also very abstract in that you're not really directing cars, but tiny colored shapes. To play well, you must utilize the combo system. In order to support the metaphor of a traffic director, we cannot take these video game rules and visuals literally. Instead, we find ways that the two ideas (director and gameplay rules) are similar. By playing the game and internalizing the rules we understand both what it's like being a traffic direct and the interpretation the designer took to abstract the concept.
Consider the following. Is there anything about the way The Marriage is designed and presented that makes it entirely different than DigiDrive in terms of the metaphors I suggested? Does a metaphor about marriage seem more legitimate and serious than a metaphor about being traffic director? If so, is this because marriage is a concept while traffic directing is an action? Do you have trouble accepting DigiDrive's metaphor because the subject of traffic directing is action that is more closely conveyed via gameplay actions (compared to the concept of marriage)?
BOXLIFE. If you're less confident about the metaphor in DigiDrive as you are with The Marriage, then perhaps understanding BOXLIFE will help. As the title suggests a core subject of this game is life, or more specifically the kind of life of a box factory worker. In this case, the main character's job is to fold boxes from endless sheets of paper. The actual gameplay involves folding 3D cubes out of 2D paper sheets. Do this well enough and you'll earn money to improve your life, as reflected in the title screen view of your home. The core theme is boxes. Your character, your home, and your work all feature a boxy look and other box-like features. Everything in this box life fits together perfectly into place like uniform, perfect cubes.
You may be thinking that BOXLIFE isn't a good example of a metaphor. You may argue that simply showing or telling a story or even a progression of events advanced by gameplay doesn't mean there's any clear metaphorical comparison to draw. You may argue that BOXLIFE doesn't have a "message" and that it doesn't say anything. But it does say something even if it's something very simple. Like I explained in my article series on story design, many people have a bias for complexity and against simplicity. To put it simply, a simple metaphor is still a metaphor. A metaphor that teaches you something you already know is still a metaphor. So is there a clear metaphor in BOXLIFE that compares the life of a factor worker with the gameplay rules and options? If you don't think this is a metaphor, then is BOXLIFE fundamentally different than The Marriage?
Passage (see video here). Metaphors don't have to involve abstract concepts. Simply understanding a direct comparison between two very different things involves a process of abstraction, because you know that some but not all the qualities of the target apply in a meaningful way to the subject. Passage is a game that presents very literal elements like BOXLIFE. The title refers to the passage of life. All of this is very simple and very obvious, and we can clearly understand how the gameplay interactions enhance this particular interpretation. That's the metaphor; the subject is is the passage of life and the target is the gameplay rules and the visual ideas. What it means to be blocked by obstacles, what it means to grab treasure chests, and the actual visual presentation of the game (the characters moving from the left side of the screen to the right, how the future is vague when young and the past is vague when old) are all details that strengthen the metaphor.
Now we have to consider if there's a big difference between the Passage example and the BOXLIFE example. Like I said above, metaphorical comparison seem to be an inherent part of presenting ideas with non-interactive, non-gameplay elements and then supporting these ideas with interactive systems and the abstractions that make these systems work. Does this sounds like an "anything can be a metaphor" argument to you? Do you have a problem with such an argument?
Journey. Journey is a game about a journey. You play a character who embarks across the game world toward a particular destination. Is the gameplay experience too close to the title concept to be a metaphor like examples listed above? If Journey was titled something like "Friendship" or "Marriage" would you consider the game to have a metaphor?
I wish I were the Moon (see video here). The gameplay in this game plays with visual metaphors in a 2D presentation. The goal of the game is to explore the possibilities using a very simple capture and release mechanic. Anything within your frame you can capture, move, and release in another part of the scene. By engaging with the poetic scene and the metaphor set by the title, players are guided toward the 7 possible endings. You have to think creativity and metaphorically while taking note of how the elements in the scene interact to find all the endings. You have to consider what the moon means metaphorically and try to interpret details about the metaphor to figure out what you should manipulate. I wish I were the Moon is an example of interactive metaphor that uses the text and the gameplay rules to , and the ending "I am your moon" says it all.
Today I Die. This uses language and the syntactical manipulation of words and underwater objects to create puzzles much like I wish I were the Moon. If it's not obvious, these two games were created by Daniel Benmergui. Today I Die is quite poetic as playing with word order is quite a literary action. The creative center of this game comes from how the words and the visuals enhance each other. Change the words and the game state changes. Change the game elements and words are created.
Do you take the interactive text as the literal subject and interpret the underwater scene as non-literal? Or, like with some poems, is the literal side ambiguous putting the focus in both possibilities? Both the words and the elements are interactive, yet do you consider them to be the same kind of mechanic or tool? Can we say that the metaphor compares the manipulation of words (subject) to a scene to explore? Does this game highlight the relationship between words, the symbols we use to convey ideas, and ideas; and how ideas can sometimes have interactions of their own that in turn shape words?
Braid. This puzzle game plays with rewinding time as a core mechanic. In between the excellent puzzle worlds are poems presented in large blocks of text. These poems depict the story of Tim and a love that he lost. In fact the braid that the game is titled after is a example of synecdoche, taking part of Tim's love (her hair) as a symbol that represents all of her. Though not a metaphor, this figure of speech reminds us to keep the love story in mind as we play through the game. The gameplay challenges and the way they play with time, while highlighting ideas like regret, loss, and other themes supports the story of Tim through thematic resonance. In many ways the gameplay is a metaphor for Tim's emotional state, Tim's thoughts, and Tim's contemplations.
Is Braid an example of metaphors in game design because it presents these thematic comparisons between the story and the gameplay? Would it be different if these parts were not presented in alternating fashion? If the strong thematic resonance wasn't there, if the metaphor wasn't particularly well formed, would you still consider Braid to have game design metaphors?
BioShock Hacking (see video). While immersed in the gameplay and fiction of BioShock there are times when you may choose to hack a mechanical device. When you do, you are given a short puzzle-action challenge that involves arranging pipe pieces to guide fluid to the goal. Because we don't think that within the fiction these mechanical devices are filled with short puzzles, we interpret hacking in BioShock as a metaphor that compares the action of hacking to the challenge of solving the puzzle.
If you don't think that this example is strong enough, why don't you consider abstract or non-literal video game systems for metaphorical connections? Perhaps you're not used to metaphors comparing actions to other actions.
Hadouken (Street Fighter). Take the subject as Ryu throwing a fire ball in a street fight. Take the target as the quarter-circle-forward motion and button inputs that are required. We don't literally think that inside Ryu is a gaming controller that he uses to to throw a fireball. We understand that the controller inputs are an non-literal experience that is paired with fictional actions. Understanding the limitations of the controller design helps us understand Ryu's limits in the game. Likewise, developing techniques to perfect our controller inputs gives us new understanding of the kinds of refinement that might occur in Ryu's life if he were real.
This example may seem too simple to be a metaphor, but why not? We have a subject, a comparison, and a target that is abstract or non-literal.
The purpose of this article was to challenge your thinking by presenting a range of examples to blur any hard line you might have drawn to define what is a game design metaphor and what is not. Like I said in the part 2 of this series, the half-real quality of games and how we are constantly comparing our real world experiences to the fictional game worlds makes the foundation of gameplay very metaphor-like. If you can see how Ryu's fireball or even Mario's JUMP is a metaphor, then you're thinking on a level that will allow you to find the ideas and connections that truly make games a rich artform.
There's a bit more I want to cover for this topic. Stay tuned for part 4.