I used to think that I would simply avoid mentioning GNS theory on this blog. The reason being that I have some strong feelings on the matter, which in turn would lead to my thoughts on the topic manifesting as the sort of opinionated flamebait rant that I feel one should avoid on principle. Especially since that's not the point of this blog.
But since it turns out people are actually interested in my thoughts on game design theory, and I do hope to start a discussion on this topic, it's gonna be healthy to get this out of the way now. GNS theory is one of the premiere works of "roleplaying game theory", and the terminology it popularized still sees common use today because it fills an essential niche: It identifies several ways a game can be fun. But that's about the limits of its practicality.
And when the author goes on to argue that "building the system specifically to accord with one of these outlooks is the first priority of RPG design", that's when I start gnawing on the linoleum.
Maybe an analogy will help. What if I told you that all video games were created in accordance with one of three agendas?
-Presentationist games, which focused on providing the player with high-quality graphics and sound.
-Gameplayist games, which focused on providing a player with challenging play experience.
-Storyist games, which focused on providing a compelling narrative.
"I guess that kind of works," you say. "But don't 99% of video games include all 3 of those things?"
Why, yes, Timmy! Nevertheless, these are three separate outlooks, and people who make video games operate based off only these three agendas at a time.
"My name's Justin."
Or at least, that's what they should do. Unfortunately, many designers fail to recognize the inherently separate nature of these approaches, and attempt to cater to two or even all three of them simultaneously!
". . .That's a bad thing?"
Oh, yes. I'm afraid that the potential for crossover between these outlooks is ultimately too small to be justified by the complications that arise from trying to pursue multiple separate agendas at the same time.
"So if I designed an enemy that was highly lethal, both in order to reinforce the fear the player is supposed to feel as a part of the horror story and to provide an interesting "miniboss" opponent to spice up the challenge the game provides. . ."
". . .or designed the graphics of a game to be both visually pleasing and provide a way for players to easily identify necessary information regarding one another at a distance. . ."
". . .or used graphical staging and gameplay elements to reinforce a key plot point in a story. . ."
". . .I'd be shooting myself in the foot?"
Ultimately, yes- the complications introduced by trying to serve separate agendas simultaneously would lead to you creating a weaker game than you could have.
Does it make a little more sense now why I consider this aspect of GNS theory to be wrong regarding what should be a matter of common sense? Enjoyable gameplay, a believable setting, the tools to tell a compelling story. . .these are all concerns an rpg designer must take into account. It can be difficult to overcome complications that arise when you try to have your cake and eat it too; but it's not impossible, and these different elements have just as mouch potential to support one another as they do to stand in each other's way.
I'll use GNS terminology if it proves a practical way to describe a particular motive behind a particular decision. But so help me, if you try and label anything I do as "belonging" to one of those "categories", I will hunt you down.
Friday, June 20, 2008
Labels: Game Design Philosophy