“A system is made of parts that interact to form a purposeful whole.” – Mike Sellers
A systemic game is made of parts that interact to form a purposeful whole.
Games are built in structures that are meant to alleviate production difficulties by breaking things down. A story is broken down to scenes, a pillar of gameplay down to objects, a person down to behaviors. Games with different scopes and different designers approach this differently – from grab-bags of ideas to planned iterations for “finding the fun.” But what’s the most common result? Blockbusters with enough features to detract from themselves more than they add. Games that are not quite the sum of their parts, but still pretty enjoyable. Sequels that add more and bog down the experience.
Games need to be cohesive to make an effective experience. Market forces are at play – demanding “more” for a game’s value, and thus minimalism is a rare sight. Scripted dialogue, bottled landscapes, and checklist secrets – every thing in virtuality is limited, either by the time to craft it or the memory to render it. Somehow, it all needs to come together artfully, and most of the time without compromising the perceived boundlessness of the experience or the immersive qualities of the world. Exercising a judicious balance between good enough and enough good is a challenge engaged by every game studio, and blending disparate elements from disparate disciplines can be as hard for larger teams as it is for individuals – especially in a world and a tech field so defined by reductionist thinking. How can a systemic structure help this? How can it make this all work?
A cohesive game requires a cohesive design.
Systemic thinking does see games by parts – as all games must do – but requires defining the relationships between parts early to discover essential elements. A designer may start with an interesting part, an abstract whole, or even a vague idea of interactions – but if these are designed foremost in relation to each other, their utility can be recognized before they are implemented. Following this, minimalism is natural. A part that does not serve the gampelay loop is non-essential. A gamepaly loop that does not support the whole – the theme – does not need to be made. Resources are saved, distractions can be shaved off – and if investors demand more, you know just where to put it.
And what is the result of tight-fitted components working in a cohesive structure? Cohesive loops. Elements interact sensibly in this carefully constructed possibility space, and what the player can do, if designed right, is intuitive. Parts multiply with one-another, create allowance for inquisitiveness and creativity, and work together in over the short and long term as a focused subject matter in service of designed, relevant values. Any gameplay or narrative that emerges grows under the guidance of considered elements.
The result of cohesive loops is a greater cohesive whole. When the parts and loops of a game are working together to make an experience and a narrative, the player can internalize it easier, become immersed in it, and make it part of them. Meaning can be gained from context and interaction. Distracting features and wasted resources can be minimized. Designing a game systemically can be minimalist, elegant – and convey rich themes through the medium without cut-scenes or guided sequences that remove player agency.
But what else are games missing besides tight cohesion?