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bittersweet – Thais Weiller

Bittersweet Game Design – The How

When fun isn’t enough

This article is based on a talk I presented on the Tehran Game Convention. Slides are available hereTherefore, loss management instead of reward distribution becomes the main attribution of a game designer doing a bittersweet game. It’s a hard job, but a challenging and rewarding one, just like the desired player’s experience. If the game designer’s quest is successful, the resulting game shall be wrapped around contrasting feelings of joy, confusion, apprehension and much more, and therefore a much more faithful representation of real-life occurrences.

On my previous text, we discussed games in which the mechanics themselves are not focused only on positive reinforcement. Since this is not one beaten path in game design, there are not many examples to study or follow, which makes bittersweet game design particularly challenging. Now, we are going to explore how to achieve this, according to my own method. This is not the recipe for bittersweet game design but rather a recipe, the one I discovered doing Rainy Day. If you have your own, please share!

Form

If we go back to the generic core loop we can see it does not explain a bittersweet design. The basic core loop uses rewards to endow the player for behavior they are supposed to repeat and uses punishment to squash what they are not supposed to be doing. In bittersweet games, however, positive reinforcement is used together with negative context or consequences in various levels of frequency in order to achieve a wider range of feelings while still keeping the player engaged.

So desirable behaviour or actions are not as crystal clear, by design.

Let’s remember Papers, Please. At the beginning of the game, you learn about the bureaucratic processes you need to be performing as the protagonist. The critical judgment of the papers you receive, trying to find if they are in order and not falsified, and the correct movement and usage of stamps are the gameplay. The complexity of both processes keeps increasing as you progress as rules change and more steps are added. That’s it, that’s all of it.

And yet, the core gameplay does not even start to describe your experience in Papers, Please because sorting, judging and stamping papers are only the ground level mechanics in which the bigger gameplay emerges. Every person whose papers you act on has a story. A story they tell you while you “do your job” of performing the gameplay. You can ignore the stories, at least in the beginning, but the consequences of this start to show up in the bigger picture of events, on how your country goes or even your existence as the protagonist. So, doing exactly what the core mechanics ask does not reward you and even punishes you.

You can try to go the opposite way, fuck mechanics, let’s go context. Let’s hear all stories and act as your moral compass would ask you to. However, this is not your way to succeed either, as this results on you and your family starving or worst.

The only way forward is something in between, so you cannot only be another clog in the system following the gameplay (and not being rewarded for it) neither can you take the high-horse moral path (and being punished by it). The only path is compromising, save some, lose some, and keep surviving. Just like, you know what, real life.

In theory, all games are made up of choices, even if unconscious, but what differs bittersweet games is that player’s choices will not always lead to positive reinforcement and even when they do there are losses. Loss management and adjustment, instead of reward hoarding is the name of the game for the player and no choice is ultimately better than the other. Players are actually eliminating worst outcomes. Not all good job gets rewarded, some good deeds get punishments. You have to feel your way along and live with the consequences.

The way Papers, Please weights down the reward in the core loop is by adding moral context to it, making the player feel dirty for doing what they were taught to by the game. The player cannot ignore the moral context of all their actions because this will end their run as well. However, Papers, Please also does not reward the player by doing what is morally right and, in fact, often punishes them by deductions to their payments on in more severe ways.

In other words, yes, it is very possible to convey complex feelings using the gameplay and its contexts, making every iteration of the game loop being a complex choice in itself. Though it is impossible to completely run away from positive reinforcement, it is possible to use it alongside some sort of punishment. For instance, a mechanic reward can be punished morally and the other way around. Conditioning, flawed rewards, and random outcomes also can be used in a way that influences the player to expect certain results, just to crush this expectation afterward.

Themes

The subjects of bittersweet games are not at all different from any other games: war, human relationships, survival, death, etc. What does differ is how these subjects are approached.

All games are simplifications or abstractions of things, so it isn’t surprising that complex themes such as armored conflicts are depicted in a rather unidimensional way. Generally, it is as simple as the bad guys vs the good guys. Many games nowadays do indulge for some shades of grey in the middle, however, it is still very clear who the hero, despite their faults, and the villain, despite their qualities, are.

Bittersweet games, as simplified they may be, don’t compromise as easily in moral values such as good or bad. Nothing in life is as simple as right or wrong, our decisions don’t exist in a moral vacuum in which our intent is the only possible outcome. Papers, Please illustrates this beautifully because all good deeds you make can become deductions to your paycheck which can lead to the death of your family, who is completely innocent of your actions. On the other hand, being a cog in the system and following all the rules may guarantee your family safety, but not of your countryfolk or even your own.

It is no surprise then that more often than not bittersweet games thrive especially in themes we as a society still have issues navigating morally. Border patrol, refugee crises, body autonomy, abusive relationships, mental illness, the list is endless.

Finally, a good bittersweet game is not only the story of only one individual because no one knows or have been through all the possible situations the theme of the game entails. To fully represent the intricacy of the theme, the game designer – even being themselves a survivor of the situation the game is about – should not count only on their personal experiences alone. Games are interactive and even though they lived through it and want to tell their perspective, they lived through one run of it. Their choices are theirs alone and could only be picked once. In order to create a fully fleshed experience in which the player can choose different paths that result in different outcomes, it is essential to talk with different people about their own experiences in this situation.

This is particularly true and unsurprisingly hard to remember when the game is a solo-dev work. I, for instance, got so caught up in developing Rainy Day sometimes that I added some choices to the player just to realize I, myself, never really took them in my life, not even once. Talking to other people with different levels of anxiety and depression gave me a very different perspective of how these illnesses can impact one’s life and it helped me to create a much richer experience in the game. Rainy Day loosely represents how I felt like; however, not every single option or action are things I did or would do myself. They are things people in that mind space could do, things I did or other people did and were weaved together in one single experience for the player to explore.

Process

So, how to create game mechanics that are challenging and engaging while not being too messy or dull? How to approach themes that are taboo or difficult to grasp in a respectful way?

There are no rules here, this is all uncharted territory. I have, however, adventured myself in them while working on Rainy Day, and so, developed my own process. I’m not claiming that this is the only or the best way to do it, it merely is my way of doing it.

And, most importantly, repeat!

Finally

As game designers aiming to add emotional complexity to our mechanics, maybe the best approach is to aim for a bittersweet design: difficult context intercalated with positive hooks. I strongly believe that interweaving negative emotions in the core loop itself in a way that is reasonably balanced is the biggest challenge a game designer can have. Not only it is hard to measure the sweet and bitter doses in a way that it feels hard but fair, but also this sort of loop has not yet been explored enough so we can know its limitations. Fun-driven loops are everywhere, we have references. Bittersweet ones, not that much.

However, the balance between reward and punishment is a constant in game design so how is this different from game design 101? Well, in most games loss and punishment is something to be avoided and contexted as an unwilling result. In games that willfully aim to evoke negative feelings, the loss is not a setback in the journey; it is an irrevocable part of it. The loss becomes a guest and functioning part of the design and game objectives. It must be absolutely impossible to play without losing something and, consequently, being invited to feel something.

Therefore, loss management instead of reward distribution becomes the main attribution of a game designer doing a bittersweet game. It’s a hard job, but a challenging and rewarding one, just like the desired player’s experience. If the game designer’s quest is successful, the resulting game shall be wrapped around contrasting feelings of joy, confusion, apprehension and much more, and therefore a much more faithful representation of real-life occurrences.

Compressed version of the Bittersweet Process so you can keep it in your wallet.

Bittersweet Game Design – The What

When fun isn’t enough

This article is based on a talk I presented on the Tehran Game Convention. Slides are available here. This post was also featured at Gamasutra.

Videogames are supposed to be fun”

We pat ourselves in the back in understanding. Finally, some good old sense was spurred in this mad conversation. Tic tac toe comes to mind, duck duck goose, remembrances of the simpler times when we discovered ourselves playing. What a joyous distraction these days were.

As we grew older, the games we played changed in character and risk, but one thing keeps us going, something amusing and gleeful. Something we learned to identify as fun. And, for those of us devoted enough to this entity of fun, it became our trade of choice.

We enter this activity with many doubts, bewildered by the tech, by our peers or even by our own creations. The doubts fade when we immerse ourselves in this playful bliss, drip by drip. We never question why we engage it in the first place, do we? That’s all too clear, questioning that would be equal to query the truthiness of our holy scriptures.

Fun.

That’s why we create games, right? To create that lovely, lovely endorphin rush. 

In all seriousness, are they?

If you take into consideration most of what is considered as academic research on games and videogames, definitely. All theories researching the players’ engagement focus on fun or other positive emotions, which motivate the player to go on. Theory of fun, from Koster, or even Nick Yee’s Motivation of Play, are all based on the positive feedback players encounter in games.

All these researches can be summarized in behavioral psychology’ positive reinforcement. If the subject receives a positive stimulus while doing the action, both things become intertwined to a point when the action itself becomes the reward, even without the stimulus.

If, when you move your avatar to collide to with a yellow spherical object, we give you imaginary points and play a pleasant sounding effect, sooner or later the sound itself becomes positive. In the same way, if a not so pleasant sound plays every time something not so good happens, the sound itself becomes entangled with bad feelings.

Reinforcement is the basis of the core loop concept that we use on an everyday basis to talk about game design. The core loop is the single, most used sequence of actions done in a game. This is the essence of a game core loop:

Depending on the game, the actions change. For instance, in a match-three game, the action would be moving the pieces, the result would be forming a block or not, the reward depends on the game but generally involves the blog of similar pieces being destroyed. Most of these games don’t have harsh punishments for error, but they might have an indirect punishment such as having an action limit or a timer, thus a wrong move makes the player lose an action or time. 

Behaviour science is very advanced in the of the use and results of reward-based reinforcement.

But science is not an impartial bystander of human knowledge. Science is question-driven and we tend the ask the questions on subjects we are more aware of. It is not by chance Huizinga study appeared in the 1930’s, when the Olympics was becoming a cultural (and political) phenomenon, making games and sports status on society skyrocket. It is also not by chance that we study more frequently pleasant and profitable (as in: addiction caused by positive reinforcement) areas.

Since the commercial establishment of videogames as entertainment, in the late 1970s, games are associated with fun and enjoyment. That’s a reminiscence of their origins, being first targeted at children as home consoles or as a bar pastime as penny-operated machines later called arcades.

Finding the feels (all of them)

But we are way past these days of introduction. Videogames are a thriving industry, on the reach of every human on this planet that has any access to the internet.

As a whole new medium, games can and should provoke all rage of human emotions and reactions and question the boundaries of its language in every opportunity. And yet, videogames started as fun experiences and it is hard to break through this stigma.

But human psyche is much more than a bunch and happy experiences, how about sadness, guilt, apathy, grief, sorrow, regret or angst? Do they have a place in videogames?

Some games have already portrayed negative feelings in compelling ways, ways which I propose a new categorization.

Bitter Ending

That’s when a game presents negative feelings towards the end while relying on established positive reinforcing game mechanics. Generally, these negative feelings are a plot-twist, which means they are much more content related than gameplay related. Braid is an example of this structure, the player is lead to believe they are progressing toward saving the princess, realizing only in the end that the princess does not want to be saved (at least, not by the protagonist). You are the creep she wants to get away from, boo hoo.

There are many many other games that do that, but I don’t want to give you spoilers if you haven’t played them. If you don’t mind, here is a handy list of some of them.

Surprise Bitterness

That’s when designers want to highlight the tense or dangerous content of a particular moment in a game. The main mechanics and gameplay are crafted as pleasant and engaging as intended throughout the game. However, in a particular moment or space in the game, mechanics are subverted to force the player to feel the protagonist’s distress or the thickening of the plot.

For instance, on the torture scene in Metal Gear Solid when the player’s movements are restricted, conveying Snake’s precarious situation. This restriction is an opposition to the whole gameplay, before and after, and exists solely to convey Snake’s distress to the player. The player is no longer a bystander, they are part and victim of this break on the Geneva convention.

Surprise ou dramatic bitterness is a very effective way to draw player’s attention to this particular moment in the game while not being too risky since the main is intact through the game.

BitterSweet

Bittersweet is when the game can make the player feel negative feelings while they are engaged in the game itself. This is not an easy balancing to do, especially since we have so little studies around it and only a few games to use as examples.

Some games, however, do this seamlessly. 

    • Papers, Please – The player has to decide the fate of many applicants in every game-day. This involves mixed feelings because while the mechanic is compelling and interesting, the context of each applicant’s narrative and hopes weights in the player decision. Also, at the end of every game-day, the player is faced with the impact of their choices both in his family (“score” screen) and country (newspaper and warnings from their bosses) contexts. Complex gameplay emerges from a simple mechanic interweaved with very negative context and difficult moral choices.
    • This War of Mine – The loss aversion mechanic in This War of Mine that constantly reminds the player of the scarcity and seriousness of the characters’ situation. 
    • Bury me, my love – Though it uses a very simple mechanic of emulating a chat between two people, the themes and the script take the player to the next step of caring. You and your partner live in Syria (yes, civil war Syria) and you two together have been saving money to get away from the conflict. Since you what you put together is not that much and in economies razed by war things tend to cost more than they should, you two decide it is better to Nour, your partner, to go alone. Nour is making her journey, but she trusts your judgment and will always ask your opinion when she comes upon a crossroad. She will not always follow your judgment but she always check-in to know what you have been up to. The result is both gut-wrenching and heartwarming.
    • Dys4ia – Anna Anthropy took her everyday frustrations and the feeling of being an outsider and displayed in a series of discomforting and yet interesting mechanics. Though this game will not give the player the full experience of what it means to be a transgender woman in our society, it is a fair introduction.
    • Rainy Day – I don’t feel like talking about this game again, please refer to this text.

Both design and content are used in these games to achieve the bittersweet result, however, the core loop is the basis of everything.

Approaching dubious and compounded themes (such as moral dilemmas or social situations) in a multifaceted way adds to the complexity of the loop, but without the bittersweet loop, you cannot achieve the ambiguity that is the heart and essence of a bittersweet game design. 

Let’s talk about each these areas separately, in a future text.