Making Deep Game - A Book Review

Created on: 24 Apr 23 23:50 +0700 by Son Nguyen Hoang in English

A book on game design


What can constitute a “deep game”? Could a game reproduce or invoke experiences or feelings that are so unique, so compromising, and thoughtful that changes the player’s perspective on life? Doris C. Rusch, a Sweden professor on game design believes video games can be much more than simple entertainment. In 2017, she wrote “Making Deep Games”, a manual book for designers to craft meaningful games. Below is a short review and analysis of the book.

To begin with, it’s great to know that there are a lot of people who treat video games as a serious art form. Therefore, many artists with little or no formal background in game programming start making “experimental games” to explore or invoke ideas. “Making Deep Game” gives examples of such “experimental games” and provides a short analysis of each. Notable examples are “The Marriage” – a game with a super simple interface to illustrate the complexity of modern marriage; “12/9” – a game inspired by the war on terrorism of the US army; “; “Passage” – a game about life & relationship. What specializes in this game is that the underlying theme is very subtle and elegantly put together with many metaphors in both UI and Gameplay design. “Making Deep Game” is the first book I read that introduces me to such “experimental video games”, it took me by surprise to know such abstract, weird, and hidden games exist!

Aside from those niche games, the author heavily recommends Julia Cameron’s method to boost artistic creativity for individuals, which are referred to as “morning pages” and “artistic date”. What are they? Basically, “Morning Pages” refers to the process of writing anything in your mind to paper right after waking up every morning. These are effective to organize and keep your mind well put with ideas and abstract feelings. It doesn’t matter if the writing appeared to be messy, disorganized, or meaningless. On the other hand, “artistic date” refers to the practice of solitude, which is very similar to meditation in my opinion, that requires the artist to spend time with him/herself. These two practices help us to understand ourselves and identify our true desire and how/why to achieve this. In summary, the advice is simply to do journals and meditation (spend time with yourself) every day in isolation (no smartphone, internet, basically monk mode).

Delving more into the game design technique, the author recommended designers look to games as simulations that convey a message or a meaning. These meanings come from actual life experiences, learning from you or others. To convey these ideas, it is important to model such experiences into a smaller gestalt. What is gestalt? They are ways to look at experiences from a “vertical perspective”. Below are all gestalts mentioned in the books:

  • Participants: This dimension arises out of the concept of the self as an actor distinguishable from the actions he or she performs. We also distinguish the kinds of participants (e.g., people, animals, objects).
  • Parts: We experience ourselves as having parts (arms, legs, etc.) that we can control independently. Likewise, we experience physical objects, either in terms of the parts that they naturally have or the parts that we impose upon them, by virtue of our perceptions, our interactions with them, or our uses for them. Similarly, we impose apart–whole structure on events and activities. and, as in the case of participants, we distinguish the kinds of parts (e.g., the kinds of objects, and the kinds of activities).
  • Stages: Our simplest motor functions involve knowing where we are and what position we are in (initial conditions), starting to move (beginning), carrying out the motor function (middle), and stopping (end), which leaves us in a final state.
  • Linear sequence: again, the control of our simplest motor functions requires us to put them in the right linear sequence.
  • Purpose: From birth (and even before), we have needs and desires, and we realize very early that we can perform certain actions (crying, moving, manipulating objects) to satisfy them (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, p

One example to understand this practice is to take a look at “Akarsia”, a game designed by the author to illustrate the ideas of drug addiction. Below are models of gestalt first designed by the book author and her team: Addiction Gestalt, Take 1:

  • Participant(s): addict.
  • Parts: Drugs, their effect, drug effect wearing off, health, being trapped/ stuck (= the addiction itself), overdosing, an exit from the trap (= kicking the habit). Stages: take drugs, get speed boost (drug effect as defined by us), become trapped, take too many drugs, and overdose (= lose state); or stop taking drugs, their effects wear off (= speed is reduced), become able to escape trap (= win state).
  • Linear sequence: Implied in the above, but, if we think of the addiction gestalt as a systemically structured whole, it is not a straight line from taking the first drug to overdosing, but rather a dynamic interplay of its parts that allows for different outcomes, from kicking the habit quickly to going back and forth between taking drugs, recovery, health regeneration, relapse, etc.
  • Purpose: kicking the habit.

It was the first take of the game model, and this model gets updated interactively until the design is completed. From a deep understanding of experience gestalt, comes the ideas to make these models into a metaphor for the ideas. Relationships and marriage could be one example. The author brings “The Marriage” as an example of a metaphor in the game. The gestalt of marriage includes balancing each need and satisfaction. Marriage requires both the caring of both parties and also the respect for individual freedom, these two forces must always be in check. This gestalt was brought into the game and became a unique gameplay that requires you to keep everything in balance. The link to the game is attached at the end of this article.

From game metaphor, we saw an improvement from a list of metaphors to a deeper level of the game: the game as allegorical. For example, Silent Hill 2 is a game about a husband accepting his sin, Sprit of Spring is about friendship and school bullies, Papa & Yo is about having a parent as an alcoholic. Why game should be metaphoric? Four answers were suggested:

  • Metaphors provide tools/environments to communicate inner ideas better than non-metaphors.
  • Metaphors allow deeper but unsettling or disturbing ideas to be communicated.
  • Metaphors make a better scenario to convey and illustrate the “theme” of the game.
  • Metaphors force players to think.

To design an allegorical game, the author suggests the Hero’s Journey, a classic motif of a heroic journey that had existed in many mythical stories and fairy tales.

Finally, the most interesting idea of the book is how game design can be good for mental health. In the final chapter, Rusch suggests the possibility of using game design to heal trauma & mental illness. In one example, the participant was a lady who was afraid of talking at parties. So, the participants and one more game designer (professionals) were tasked with making a game rule from paper & pen on the topic of social skills. The results were very positive. My takeaway is that when designing a game, everything becomes abstract numbers and statistics, and the participants can look at their problems from a larger perspective, thus improving their social skills.

That’s the end of the book review. I recommend you play some games suggested by the author, for example, “The Marriage”. Here is the link for “The Marriage.”

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