Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Emotional game design

It might seem weird for a self-diagnosed autistic game dev to talk about emotions in game design, but that would be incorrect. Its not like I don’t have emotions, in fact I have way too many of them, way too unpredictably! Like Vulcans. Anyway, this is a topic that I think doesn’t get enough attention when discussing game design, so I thought I would have a go at it.


Not quite the classic ‘always emotion is the future’ yoda catchphrase, but close enough. For a very long time I have been aware that all entertainment is about emotion. It seems to be what we need as humans. We want to trigger positive emotions, and have controlled release of safe amounts of negative ones. We eat cakes to get the happy feels, we go on rollercoasters to get a safe dose of fear. True of all music, all books, all movies. Some make you cry, some laugh, some scream with fear. Time spend trying to be entertained that is not accompanied with an emotional release likely means the creator of that piece of entertainment has failed.

When you get quite into learning how to create entertainment in a field, you can very rapidly descend into very technical analysis and very clinical and seemingly unemotional advice regarding how best to do that thing. Novelists read about foreshadowing and ‘show don’t tell’, filmmakers learn about color-grading and dolly-zooms, and game designers learn about ‘player verbs’ and ‘design pillars’. To some extent, its all necessary, as you do need to know the basic building blocks of how most pieces of entertainment are made, but I do fear that people get so stuck into the weeds of the technical aspects of game design that they forget the core aim.

Normally at this point in an article like this, the writer would go for the classic phrase, perhaps in large bold type;


But Actually I think that is bollocks.

The problem with ‘find the fun’, is that it assumes that the game’s purpose can be summed up as ‘fun’. Games are apparently ‘fun’ and ‘fun’ is the most important thing. When assessing a game, people often ask their friends ‘is my game fun?’ because its assumed that this is the purpose. Maybe not. Is chess ‘fun’? its arguably a game that teaches you how to wage war. Is watching Schindler’s list fun? I definitely hope not. Is ‘The Shawshank Redemption‘ fun? Is reading Anna Karenina fun? Is listening to ‘Raining Blood’ by Slayer fun?

Games are no better or worse or more worthy or less worthy than any other form of entertainment. Its fine to make playing a game stressful, or harrowing, or to make a game that makes someone cry, or furious. If you make a game about the holocaust, it SHOULD make the player furious. Making a game that gives people nightmares is a perfectly reasonable decision. We don’t criticize other media for a lack of ‘fun’ by default, and we should treat games no differently.


A game will fail if it does not generate an emotion. That emotion can include a sense of ‘flow’ which is basically the emotional state that combines relaxation with satisfaction. I am currently playing ‘Regency Solitaire 2’ by Grey Alien Games. It makes me feel relaxed, and also gives me slight happiness or sadness boosts depending how the cards fall. The game is crafted, from its art to its sound effects to its music to convey a non-threatening, relaxing and familiar mood, and it does it well. No surprise that the game’s creator, Jake Birkett is a very calm almost zen-like guy.

Far too many words are written in academic circles about game design, which focus on the mechanics. People say things like ‘Primary Ludic Structure’ and are not laughed out of the room. There are lots of diagrams, and lots of spreadsheets, and numbers, and lots of advice on how to BOOST PLAYER ENGAGEMENT and how to design TIGHT GAMEPLAY LOOPS. I feel a lot of this stuff is misplaced.

If you have the time, seek out the introduction to ‘the trilogy suite‘ by Yngwie Malmsteen, and also the first guitar notes in ‘shine on you crazy diamond‘ by Pink Floyd. I’m a guitar player, so these are natural choices for me to make a point. Yngwie packs about a thousand times (at least) as many notes into a minute of music as Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour. Both of the approaches ‘work’ and have become classics, not because of what notes they pick, or what the time signature is, or what chords they are played over. They both work because holy-fucking shit they are emotional-as-fuck, but in wildly different ways,

Yngwie’s guitar is super-fast, super-accomplished, and incredibly showy. Its a testosterone-fueled display of ability, the equivalent of standing naked on a pedestal and yelling proudly I AM DEFINITELY FUCKING HERE. By contrast, David Gilmour uses a tiny handful of notes. Subtle bends, very clear tone. Its both powerful and sad. It sounds like someone expressing grief, or huge emotional conflict, but unable to express themselves openly. Its the guitar version of sobbing in anguish.

Now you can just google for the notes of both those pieces of music, and given 20,000 hours practice, you can probably play them. Youtube is littered with people, often about fifteen years old, annoyingly, who can do just that. Here is one:

But the point is that ITS NOT ABOUT TECHNIQUE. The aim is of course to be something fresh and new, and special in the way that the original composers of those pieces of music are. How do they do that? How can you create something like that? Will cliff get back to discussing games soon? The thing is, both pieces of music are definitely hugely emotional, and personal and they come from the very sincere, very confident, very intimate desire for their creators to broadcast their emotional energy at the world. If you watch an interview with those two guitarists, you will immediately know who wrote each piece. Trilogy suite is not ‘written by’ Malmsteen, it IS Malmsteen. Shine on you crazy diamond IS Dave Gilmour. They didn’t try to put together popular pop songs by studying what was popular, or catchy. They just transferred their emotions from their heart to the world directly and unashamedly through their music. These musicians did not ‘pick hot genres’. Yngwie couldn’t play country and western if you put a gun to his head. Dave Gilmour couldn’t write a kpop song for a billion dollars.

…Yeah but games?

This is why I think we have a lot of soulless, uninspiring, even bad big AAA games now. When a game costs $400 million to make, then there is ZERO chance you let a single individual call ALL the shots. Everyone has to weigh in. The next big mega-franchise is not the distilled emotion of anybody. Its just a focus-group-designed and committee-approved venn diagram of core market segments. It lacks soul. If you are trying to make a decent piece of entertainment, you need to avoid becoming this!

I’m not a good game designer by traditional measures. I suck at balance, I suck at introducing mechanics to the player in a nice way. I have very little sense of what fits together in terms of clashing art styles. I have not played a whole bunch of classic games that are often referenced in game design circles. I do somehow manage to keep making games that sell lots and lots of copies though, and I think its because my games, even though they seem like they are not, are extremely emotional and passionate.

Democracy is far too complex a game. It does not slowly introduce concepts to the player. It is unforgiving. It has death-spirals and virtuous circles. Some levels are too hard, some are too easy. At first glance, its an impenetrable nightmare of overwhelming complexity. THATS THE POINT. The game is designed to mimic, as closely as practical, how it would feel if you actually did become president. Thats a job that *is* overwhelming. Often unfair, sometimes impossible to win. Some countries must seem like they are on stupid difficulty settings. The thing is, it encapsulates how I feel about politics and economics, and how complexity is fundamental to the experience. As a designer, I LOVE the complexity. The player often feels like everything is insanely interconnected, and that they are barely managing to put out fires and hope for the best, with all their hopes and dreams dashed to ashes the day after an election victory. That feeling of it all being a bit of a nightmare, is not a game design flaw. Its the point.

Gratuitous Space Battles is also too complex. And too big. There are too many ships, and ship modules, and its all too complicated due to the staggering amount of combinations. Its ludicrous. It is, at its heart, totally and utterly gratuitous. It is not a serious game, its one that should awaken the 13 year old boy who has seen star-wars a hundred times in grown adults. The point of the game is not to carefully strategize your way to victory. The point is to amass a ton of ships with different color lasers, watch them explode and then shout FUCK YES at the monitor as an adolescent expression of energy. Its puberty with lasers.

Maybe you like one of those games, maybe not, but when they ‘work’ they work really well because they are PURE. They are what one person (me!) wants the game to feel like. Not ‘play’ like, but FEEL. There is no POINT to games but to make you feel, or help you feel. Thats what entertainment is for. I’d rather my game’s angered people than just left them emotionless and untouched.

The most successful game I published by another designer was Big Pharma. The designer was young, chirpy, happy, upbeat and optimistic. His personality was not mine. He liked games by nintendo. I had only ever played one (a star wars one on gamecube). I thought the art style for the game was too simple, too flat, too symbolic. I thought the simple way in which the gameplay elements clicked into neat place was unrealistic, felt too easy, felt too ‘resolved’. The player could feel happy, and content and satisfied. This was not me. But I let Tim make the game he wanted to make. Its a Tim Wicksteed game. You can tell. Playing that game does not feel like a game I made. It’s also a very popular game, and did very well. I could have waded in there with my strong opinions and insisted on a less cute look, a more industrial feel, and changed the mechanics, but I deliberately let Tim make the game a Tim game.

…of course I then got all of my ARGH about how I would have made it out of my system by doing my take on the factory-sim idea, which is called Production Line :D.

Anyway. This is my way of trying to convey that you can NEVER put too much of YOUR emotion into your game, and you should NEVER let other people try to mitigate, or dilute the emotional content of it. If people say ‘this part of the game is too depressing’ or ‘its a bit fatalistic’ or ‘I hated seeing this character die’, then you should think VERY carefully whether or not to listen. Also, right from the very start, you should know what emotion your game primarily conveys. It doesn’t have to be a positive emotion, its fine to make a sad game, a stressful or harrowing game, or even a game that makes you angry about injustice.

Just be very careful of the game-design equivalent of having produced Schindler’s list, and then someone pipes up and says ‘couldn’t it be a bit more upbeat’? All entertainment should be driven by the emotional force of a single creator. Anything else risks becoming mediocre.