Whilst an avid player of indie and online games (as well as the occasional maker of text-based games) before being made Headlong’s Digital Artist, I’m now being introduced to a lot of gaming dramaturgy for the first time. In a recent meeting, Tassos Stevens (my mentor on this project, as well as Headlong’s previous Digital Artist) took me through a variety of exercises to help develop my understanding of the world I was creating with my game, as well as the roles of the player and characters within it, their relationships and possible actions.
What often strikes me about being introduced to people’s creative processes (whether it’s how a designer initially approaches a playtext, how a writer develops a character or a game designer thinks through the players’ role) is the seeming simplicity of them. So often, it can feel like the creation of - for example - theatre or digital games occurs behind closed doors, with the end results so intriguing, layered and complex that the process of making them feels like it must be something mysterious and intensely complicated. Yet, for me the best processes I’ve come across are marked by their simplicity and clarity - pinpointing precisely what information you need to consider, what choices you need to make.
One of the exercises I went through, rapidly listing the objects in the world of the game (a list which could easily be doubled in length, but a time limited forced me to see what came to my mind first), produced a less literal, more poetic and abstract list than I would have initially expected, shifting some of my ideas about the game’s tone. Another listing exercise generated the various roles the player, narrator and other characters could have during gameplay; suddenly, to think that the ‘narrator’ could also be considered to be an ‘editor’ or ‘observer’ causes a huge shift in their relationship with the player and their agency in the game.
Of course, the thoughts and information generated by these exercises then have to be used or developed alongside the game’s themes and aims - the experience I want the player to have, the subjects I want the game to cover. There are a huge number of balancing acts becoming clear whenever I’m making decisions about the game - acknowledging the complexity of a subject like ‘war’ but accepting 15 minutes of gameplay can only cover so much; giving players all the information they need to understand their agency and options within the game but not dropping atmosphere or pacing whilst doing so; giving enough freedom for players to approach the game with different mindsets, yet having a strong enough structure and identity to the game itself.
As someone with a primarily theatrical background, it’s challenging but fascinating to be thinking through making a different form of entertainment with such rigour. I’ve no doubt that thinking in such detail about players will influence how I think about audiences in the future - but for now, I have to focus on writing up the final draft of the game before it can begin the next part of development and actually become digital.