One of my definitive highlights from this year’s AdventureX was the talk by Alexis Kennedy, former boss of Failbetter Games (Fallen London, Sunless Sea). He has recently left the company he founded to fly solo again and, in his own words, try more experimental developments.
His was an engrossing, slightly rambling half-hour talk on Poetic Design: Mechanics as Allegory. Leaving definitions aside, it is a hugely recommendable discussion of his views on the metaphorical aspects of game design, and so densely packed with provocative ideas that the title alone merits a paragraph of its own.
In my mind, the “poetic design” behind Fallen London brings a (perhaps fittingly steampunk-ish) echo of Ada Lovelace’s “poetical science”.
I must admit I first heard the expression at Emily Short’s workshop at the Science Museum in London last year, commemorating what would have been lady Lovelace’s 200th birthday. In a letter to her mother, lady Lovelace tried to claim “poetical science” for herself, since she wasn’t allowed poetry proper (the mother’s desperate attempt to steer young Ada away from the noxious influence of her father’s “poetic” influence). Lady Ada’s “poetical science”, an amalgamation of mathematics and imagination, would yield the first notion of a programming language – which, as we know, is an interesting hybrid of semantics and math, an intersection of the technical and the creative.
Back to the present, Alexis Kennedy’s overlap of poetry and game design strikes a similar cord. The juxtaposition of gossamer-winged poetry and the down-to-earth worries of game mechanics has a similar undertone of meeting of (apparent) opposites.
Kennedy introduces poetic design as a subset of narrative design (which is yet without a completely accepted definition). In a narrower sense, another implicit definition of poetic design is as a design device that multiplies the effect of prose without the need of writing ever-expanding amounts of content. How can we combine game mechanics and narrative in a way that enhances player experience and which doesn’t necessitate an insanely high word count?
Just as poetry relies on pace, rhythm and a certain economy of words, Fallen London spaces player action by the simple device of a countdown clock, while Sunless Sea requires the player to sail from island to island, in deliberately slow-paced voyages. In Kennedy’s framework, the black pauses of empty sea that brackets and separates bouts of player interaction between ports play a role metaphorically similar to the white empty spaces between verses on a poem, or the negative space on a comicbook panel. A mechanical metaphor which admittedly ran into playability problems when trying to fit into the paradigms of an RPG.
In hearing Kennedy talk about our use of metaphorical frameworks when understanding reality, I was reminded of a line by Ken Macleod: “All is analogy, interface; the self itself has windows, the sounds and pictures in our heads, the icons on a screen over a machine, the mind.” Everything is symbolic, and within a game, the meaning of a symbol (say, that little heart in your HUD) is a symbol for something else (health as a scarce resource).
We are nowadays perhaps more aware than ever that our perception of reality is a construct, simultaneously highly social and utterly personal. We have plenty reminders of that, from the plays of Calderón de la Barca to Matrix to the results of the last elections. But perhaps this is never as evident as when we play a videogame, where in-game reality is very obviously a construct and our interaction is heavily mediated by gameplay. Terror in Sunless Sea ticks up just as ominously as Sanity drops by the 1d10 in the classic Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG – both present the mind as an asset, a resource that the player uses up and eventually runs out of.
Kennedy makes a point of making us look more consciously into the matter of what metaphors we choose when telling a story through game design. His poetic design approach, starting with metaphor and moving on to design, will probably not appeal to everybody, but is easily one of the most thought-provoking ideas I have heard this year.
– Victor Ojuel