Designing for Grace

[Note: while everything I wrote about grace is still exactly what I believe, I was completely wrong to attack Koster in this way, and have written about that in The Bogeymen of the Indie Scene.]

One of the things that has always frustrated me about game design is that in almost every single discussion about it, the language and mindset used are those of engineering. Is it balanced? How optimized is the GUI? How can the gameplay be streamlined? It is entirely characteristic for modern games that they have to be described in terms of features – like a product, not like a work.

We say games are art, but do we mean it? We certainly don’t behave like it. A comparison with other art forms immediately highlights the difference. No-one sells a book with a feature list. Not even blockbuster movies, the most commercial of all film types, are sold as if they were haircare products or power tools. Only games are.

I’m sure it’s all got something to do with how games developed as a medium – pretty much corporate from the get-go, made only for profit, and in the late stages of capitalism to boot. The artistic spirit that somehow became part of the film world (despite everyone’s best efforts) was long dead and buried by the time computer games came around. But that’s another story. Wherever we came from, this is where we are, and this is what we’ve got to deal with.

What strikes me about articles like Raph Koster’s “Narrative is not a game mechanic” is that for all intents and purposes, they might as well come from a parallel universe. People try to respond to them, but it’s impossible. To say that story is a form of feedback rather than a game mechanic is not so much to make an incorrect statement (well, it is, but let’s not go there now) as to make a statement about a different matter in a different language on a different planet in a different universe. It’s a statement entirely alien to the essence of what story actually is. It’s like describing people in terms of their chemical reactions. Not strictly false, and sometimes quite relevant, but missing the point by a margin of infinity.

I’ll tell you what I’m trying to achieve when I make a game. This is an entirely personal thing, not something I’m trying to impose on everyone else. But it’s the principle that guides me, in game design as well as in other art forms.

I’m trying to achieve a little bit of grace.

Not simply in the sense of gracefulness or elegance, though these are things I appreciate in a game. No, grace in the sense of transcendence, in the sense of something being more than the sum of its parts, in the sense of a salvation or elevation that comes into being even though all our flaws mean it shouldn’t. You can say it’s a theological concept, though I’m not religious.

(The common roots of art and religion are not a new idea, of course. You’ll find the same feeling in film, painting, sculpture, literature and poetry. It’s not even that rare, though it’s probably not as fashionable anymore.)

What the purely engineering-minded have trouble understanding, I think, is that this isn’t some abstract philosophical mumbo-jumbo. It’s as real as love, though equally hard to grasp. But it’s not an engineering term. Grace cannot be expressed in a formula or an equation. That, in fact, is its point. Grace is when the two sides of the equation don’t match but the thing works anyway. Grace is the absurd yet wonderful fact that sometimes you get out more than you put in.

Grace is a paradox. That’s why game designers should read more Chesterton.

If there is a reason that people find my games to be memorable, it is that they have grace. Just a little bit. It’s why people are moved by The Fabulous Screech or inspired by The Infinite Ocean. Alphaland is all about a moment of grace, and it is the central theme of Arcadia, too. And if there is a way out of the Museum of Broken Memories, it is through grace.

Even Traitor, my most mechanics-heavy game, works primarily because it remembers that revolutions, as ugly and inelegant as they are, are deeply related to grace, because grace is itself a revolution against the meaninglessness of the world.

This isn’t how we’re supposed to talk about game design, and I’m sure someone is going to come along in a moment to tell me I’m pompous and pretentious. Seriousness is frightening, after all, when it’s not used to confirm the simplistic cynicism that fuels the adolescent egos that make up so much of the internet.

I’m sure someone else is also going to want to point out that games still have to be designed (as I said in my response to Over Games), which is missing the point. Unlike the silly people at Tale of Tales, I have no problem with game rules, no postmodernist point to make about the evils of the humanist machine and rational thought. Of course making a game is a technical process. Did you think writing a novel wasn’t? Or making a movie? But authors don’t spend all day talking about verbs and adjectives, and though some filmmakers may be fond of talking about lenses and shot lengths, that’s hardly all they talk about. Every form of art is technical, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is something wrong, however, with not allowing it to be more than that.

Finally, grace doesn’t sell. Especially not in computer games, but also not in other media. Grace isn’t in, grace doesn’t make people comfortable. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s not something you can rely on. Modern Warfare tends to outsell Cart Life. Harry Potter reminds us that there’s more to the world than Twilight, but who reads Patricia McKillip? Peter S. Beagle won’t outsell George R. R. Martin anytime soon.

So what the hell is this failed game designer telling you? Certainly not how to make a living. Certainly not how to reach mass audiences. Most certainly not how to make your own games. Where you find your little bit of grace is entirely up to you – as is whether you want to pursue it at all.

I’d just like you to consider the not-so-radical idea that just as there are a million approaches to every other form of art, approaches that have yielded breathtaking results over the centuries, there may be more than one way of approaching games; and that perhaps it is necessary to develop a richer and more varied understanding of what a game can be. “Games are art” is a statement with consequences.


  1. I actually quite agree with you about elitism and the assumption that popularity equals bad. It’s a silly position.

    I also agree. You should see some of the debates I’ve had with people over Harold Bloom on this site! Popularity equals neither bad nor good – just popular.

    My favourite quote on that subject is by Adrian Mitchell: “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.”

  2. Lith

    You’re exploding the medium and determining that parts of it are art and other parts are not. Musicians, painters, and filmmakers know that their instruments, canvases, and cameras are integral parts of their final products that they had better understand and exploit if they want to have full control over their work. The medium is the message – and like it or not, video games run on computers.”

    That’s a very nerdy stance…

    Photography forums are full of nerds with ten thousand dollars worth of high-end gear and no photos to speak of because they’re too busy testing it (or working overtime to pay it all off). All the gear and no idea, as they say.

    Or, in joke format:

    An engineer is at the opening of a gallery he built, admiring some photos, when a man walks up to him and says “Ah, do you like that photo? I’m the photographer.”

    “Wow,” says the engineer, “These are a very good. You must have a very good camera!”

    “Really,” says the photographer, “What do you do?”

    “Oh, I’m a structural engineered. I helped design and build this place.”

    “Wow,” says the photographer, “You must have a very good pencil.”

    “You and the current game industry (in your view, anyway) are taking an extreme and missing the point. How can you take advantage of interactive technology to produce art when you refuse to dirty your hands with the technology itself?”

    If you wanted to paint watercolours, would you first take a job grinding pigments at Winsor & Newton?

    Why aren’t all musicians forced to learn Pro Tools before picking up a guitar? Why don’t writers code their own word processors, or make their own paper? Why don’t actors build their own stages?

    Lack of knowledge in the technicalities behind one’s chosen artistic field does not preclude artistic excellence in that field. There should be people to handle that: coders to code, engineers to engineer, pigment grinders to grind pigments.

    If you start insisting musicians be audio engineers first, and artists second…you get jazz fusion.

    And nobody want’s that :).

  3. Lith, I think your examples are very illustrative.

    If you take away the camera, can we agree that the photographer could not have gotten any of his photos done?

    At the very least, there’s a minimal level of technical competency required. You cite guitarists. No, they are not obliged to learn pro tools before picking up a guitar. But they sure as heck are obliged to learn some guitar in the process. (I saw that as someone who plays myself). And the more guitar they know, the better able they are to express their ideas.

    If you want to paint watercolors, you do not start grinding pigments, no. But MANY famous painters do in fact end up grinding their own pigments and mixing their own colors.

    You don’t have to, no. And I agree there are plenty of folks who know every technicality and still suck.

    But I do think there is a pretty strong correlation, historically, between craft knowledge and artistic merit. We don’t have a strong tradition, in human culture, of the naif artist accomplishing enduring work.

    Now, if they are doing it all just for the joy of expression, great. I know plenty of folks who bang away on a guitar and don’t care to or need to get better. They derive their value in the activity from other things — a hobby, the communal aspect, etc. But that’s not (to my mind) the same as doing it for art.

    Now, then you go further and start mixing together things like actors and stages, or writers and papermaking. Those are false equivalencies to what we are talking about. We have been discussing actors and how much they should study acting methods & theories, writers and how much they should study literature, prosody, and grammar. In this case, we’re talking about the degree to which game designers should examine how games work and what they are made of and how they mean and all that jazz fusion. 😉

  4. James Patton

    Lith: a painter who doesn’t understand how pigment works, or a writer who doesn’t understand grammar and prosody, or a musician who doesn’t understand key signatures, might have all the enthusiasm and brilliance in the world, but they’ll be a pretty bad painter/writer/musician.

    I think part of the problem is that, for videogames, the TECHNICAL aspects are (almost) at one with the MATERIAL aspects. (I think those terms explain it best.)

    Take novels, for example. Novels are made up of words, and must be arranged according to certain technical considerations, ie. grammar and style. If the writer were writing poetry instead, the technical considerations would also include prosody. Now, if the writer doesn’t know about these technical things, then his writing is going to be pretty dire. But the writer has no need to know about how the book will actually be printed: that is a material consideration, and really has much less to do with the art itself. Similarly, a playwright should know about dialogue, about how people speak, about the way words and spectacle fit together, perhaps even about acoustics, but they don’t need to build the stage because any old flat bit of space will do.

    Painting is a special case because the material IS the art, hence mixing pigments.

    In videogame design, though, it seems like the technical elements and the material elements are just summarised as “coding”. And while it seems to me that a game designer should have an understanding of how coding works – otherwise they won’t be able to make anything – once third-party platforms and engines become available to them (like AGS or something) the need to really understand what goes on in the computer at a deep level goes away. If that’s taken care of by your engine, you don’t need to worry about it; it’s this that allows people to code in high-level languages.

    But some technical expertise is still needed. To understand how to use AGS you still need to know about variables, because that’s how a computer works. And if you understand procedural generation then you might be able to use the computer’s power to your advantage, and create a game that would have been impossible otherwise. Eventually you might become frustrated with the current engine and decide to build your own, to your own specifications: the game design equivalent of grinding your own pigments.

    I don’t think that deep coding knowledge is *necessary* to create what I would consider a deep, meaningful, emotionally engaging videogame. (I’m aware that “videogame” in this sense doesn’t match up with Raph’s definition, but I’m not sure what I’d call it, so I’m sticking with that for now.) But, the more technical expertise you have, the easier it is to create these things, and the more options you have while creating. If a painter only knew about one kind of brush, he wouldn’t be much of a painter.

  5. James Patton

    “Completely original thinking and design is great. But it by no means bad that most games reuse, reiterate, and steal. What makes these games falter, in my mind, is the lack of original intent and energy behind the re-purposed content. The difference, I suppose, between building off an idea and building to an idea.”

    I agree. But I’d argue that while reusing and mashing up old games is an interesting and thought-provoking thing to do, we should be reusing and mashing up *everything*. Why are there no games about the French Revolution, prehistoric tribes or medieval religion? THESE THINGS ARE COOL AND INTERESTING! I don’t see why they’ve been untouched by games; they’ve been touched by pretty much every other art form (I think).

    Also, this is kind of tangential but you mention the fact the coding reuses and reiterates, and that there’s some crossover there. Well, rituals and ceremonies also reuse and reiteration a basic model. A ritual is a repetition or reiteration of a past event, often done originally by a god or ancestor, but done now by their worshippers or descendents. I have a hunch that ritual and art have something to do with each other. We’re fairly sure that Greek Tragedy evolved from ritual sacrifice, but it’s more than just that: many plays, novels and pieces of music have a shape, have certain elements that recur, certain elements that have an all-powerful meaning, focus on archetypal figures or feelings (“Melancholy”, “The Stranger”, “The Wounded King”, “Excitement”), and do something to the audience which alters their state of mind so that they’re different at the end to when they started (they undergo some kind of mental process). This all sounds very much like a ritual.

    My point is: well, if a ritual is a repetition of past events according to a certain set of rules, then what better medium for that could there be than a videogame? Think of RPG combat. You do pretty much the same things over and over again, for the same results. You are, effectively, fighting the same battle over and over. If every repetition in an RPG were treated as a ritual, though, the game would take on a whole different aspect. If combat were formalised so that each repetition were spiritually significant to your character – well, I’m not really sure what would happen. It would still have to be made non-boring, because bad combat is still bad combat. But it would be an interesting path to take, and we’re already there – we just don’t realise it.

  6. Interesting. I hadn’t thought about it like that, but I like it. Anyone reading this know of a project along those lines? I can’t think of a game I’ve played that does it clearly and explicitly, but someone could very well have explicitly explored gaming as ritual in a relatively well known project I’m not familiar with (or any project however known, if you know of one you’d recommend checking out).

    About this bit though:

    “Why are there no games about the French Revolution, prehistoric tribes or medieval religion”

    There are! Prehistoric tribes certainly. The AAA title Dust comes immediately to mind. Civilization and it’s ilk vamp on all of these themes and try to talk about civilizations over time. I can’t think of any video games about the French Revolution, but I can think of at least one silly card game called Guillotine (that plays rather well for something so odd … I sort of consider it a unusually good gag-gift).

    There is a rather fantastic board game about the French and Indian War (North American part of the Seven Years War) called A Few Acres of Snow.

    There are also games like Europa Universalis III (EU3) and the fresh-off-the-press Crusader Kings II that capture the insanity and complexity of politics, religion, marriage, economics, and dynastic control from the middle ages on up to the age of Nation in the case of EU3.

    There aren’t any movies or books based on the Abhorsen trilogy or Shade’s Children, but that’s not symptomatic of anything in particular. It is, however, a damn shame. 😉

  7. James Patton

    Ah! Yes, of course! How could I forget Civ and From Dust? I’ll look into those other recommendations too.

    Actually, now that I think about it, Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery is a fairly ritualistic game. The boss battle at the end of the second act is actually more ritual than puzzle or combat. Which is why I adore that game.

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  9. The FRP Conspirator

    I don’t really care what people call things, so I don’t really care if narrative is a mechanic, if games are Art, if art should be Art or just art, if you call something game or not-game. I just don’t see it as something that important. What’s so important of something being called a game, or notgame?

    I do like your aproach of games, although I don’t expect everyone to aproach stuff that way. And I was reading some crap in Roger Ebert’s blog, and I found this:

    Ebert was talking about movies that arouse certain feelings on him, and he quotes Jonathan Haidt, who defined ” “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

    If that’s what you’re aim at with your games (or notgames), you definitely achieved it.

  10. Miroslav

    You didn’t really explain what you mean by ‘grace’. Instead, you made a silly defense — since we can’t explain love even though love exists, if we can’t explain grace that doesn’t mean grace does not exist!

    The point you miss is that we can all relate to what one means when one talks about love, even if love itself is hard to grasp, but not everyone can relate to what you mean by ‘grace’, because, let’s face it — you made that term up.

    Luckily, you say it’s something that other artforms, such as films, have, so perhaps, after all, I know what you mean by grace.

    Perhaps what you mean is this — films (the good ones at least) make us think about life, about human condition, about things that matter to us, about ourselves, our past, our future, our relationships, problems, values, whatnot, and in doing so make us go through all sorts of emotions. In short, you’re saying that films point back to reality.

    Is that what you mean by grace?

    If so, then there’s a very good reason why games lack grace, and it has absolutely nothing to do with “left-brained people” dominating the market/the audience nonsense.

    Before one can understand this, one has to understand that the essence of games is “mastering tough challenges”, and so, if games are to have grace, “mastering tough challenges” must have grace too. But how can mastering a challenge make you think about anything but how to master that challenge? There’s absolutely no way! Or is there? Perhaps if challenges are so easy that you end up thinking about real life shit in order to fill the intellectual void? Or maybe if there are rare moments when decision-making ends up reminding you of real life? But is that desirable? Is it desirable to be distracted from thinking about how to master challenges?

    And this is a good question to ask ourselves.
    Films point back to reality. Can games do the same?
    As it stands, games do not point back to reality. They literally look at it and say one big “FUCK YOU!”. They replace it with an alternative reality in which all desirable thoughts are related to THAT reality and any thought related to any other reality becomes distraction.

    Games may simulate reality and they may do it very convincingly but it will still be a different reality.

    There are ways to shoehorn grace in video games though.

    Since video games are multimedia, the simplest way to do it is to simply put a film inside a video game and there you go — a video game with a grace.

    Another way to do it is to remove all the challenge so that any possible thinking is that about real life!

  11. You didn’t really explain what you mean by ‘grace’.

    I did, actually. I wrote quite a bit about it. I just didn’t use the kind of terminology you are used to from discussions about gaming, which is pretty much my point. (Note that Raph, whom I criticised, immediately knew what I was talking about, and seeks the same in his work – just using a different approach.)

    let’s face it — you made that term up.

    Err, no, not really. In fact it’s a common philosophical and religious concept that goes back at least two thousand years. As I also pointed out, it’s an often-cited concept in every single other art form.

    Before one can understand this, one has to understand that the essence of games is “mastering tough challenges”

    I disagree with that entirely arbitrary definition even more than I do with Raph’s definition of what a game is.

  12. Miroslav

    Nah, I’m not expecting you to talk using specific language. I just think your article is pure fluff.

    As for the essence of games — you do agree that each artform has something essential to it, right? If so, what do you think is the essence of games?

  13. Miroslav

    Also, and I have to laugh at this, but it’s very silly to think that I’m really only used to gamer terminology! That’s like astrologers accusing proper scientists of not being familiar with their terminology, when in fact, their terminology is pure fluff and that’s the whole point.

  14. I just think your article is pure fluff.

    Alright, but please also dismiss all the hundreds or thousands of writers, poets, painters, philosophers, sculptors and filmmakers who have thought in the same terms and continue to do so. And all the people (including Raph Koster, ironically enough) who instantly understood the term because it was obvious to them.

    As for the essence of games — you do agree that each artform has something essential to it, right? If so, what do you think is the essence of games?

    Actually, since games (like films) are a compound artform, I think this kind of essentialism is completely ludicrous. But if I had to pick one “essence” I would say it is interactivity.

    Also, and I have to laugh at this, but it’s very silly to think that I’m really only used to gamer terminology! That’s like astrologers accusing proper scientists of not being familiar with their terminology, when in fact, their terminology is pure fluff and that’s the whole point.

    And yet you evidently are, because apart from being offensive, you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. You even claimed I invented the notion of grace, which is entirely absurd.

  15. Miroslav

    I initially wrote a lengthy response but decided not to publish it. Instead, I wrote two lame comments. Sorry about that.

    Alright, but please also dismiss all the hundreds or thousands of writers, poets, painters, philosophers, sculptors and filmmakers who have thought in the same terms and continue to do so. And all the people (including Raph Koster, ironically enough) who instantly understood the term because it was obvious to them.

    To prove your point (or get closer to proving your point, or simply move the discussion forward) all you have to do is write about your experience with ‘grace’ and answer such important questions as “How does ‘grace’ feel?”, “What makes it happen?” and “Can you give us some examples from games?”. Instead, you choose to rely on a poorly defined concept from religion and defend it by accusing those who don’t understand it as being uneducated, and by appealing to people who seem to relate to what you’re talking about.

    In case I’m uneducated, you should provide a thorough explanation of how ‘grace’ applies to video games. As I mentioned earlier, you should write about your experience, give some examples, explain how you think it works etc. In fact, you were able to anticipate my response, so you should have done this already. But, even though you say you did, you haven’t. In fact, it seems like you realized you can’t explain it, so you tried to justify this lack of explanation by resorting to “the love argument”. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    As for appealing to people, that’s fallacious. No amount of people who agree with you will ever prove that the concept you’re using is meaningful. Consider that many theorists, designers and players think that the concept of “emergence” is real within the context of video games. In reality, they are all being confused; it’s pure obscurantism. What these people mean when they say “emergent” is a lot simpler — they mean “unexpected”. And since “high emergence” means “high unexpectedness” and since that means a lot of “unexpected” situations, they, in essence, mean complexity.

    All that said, I suspect that you’re hiding behind all the fluff. I think it’s fair to question whether the phenomenon you’re talking about is actually a fairly simple one, one that is so simple there exists a simple word to describe it.

    I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

    (also, I disagree with Raph on many points and he’s prone to obscurantisms too)

    By the way, I’m gonna give myself some time before responding to your comment on essentialism.

  16. But, even though you say you did, you haven’t.

    I cannot respond to this. You insist I have not explained it. I have. You insist the word is something unfamiliar. It is not. The kind of reductive definition you want is impossible by the very nature of the concept.

    All that said, I suspect that you’re hiding behind all the fluff.

    I find that extremely offensive.

    I think it’s fair to question whether the phenomenon you’re talking about is actually a fairly simple one, one that is so simple there exists a simple word to describe it.

    Yes, a word does exist. The word is grace. That’s why I’m using that word.

  17. Miroslav

    A word does exist. The question is whether it’s a fluff or not. I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced ‘grace’ myself. My argument is that the word ‘grace’ is pompous, pretentious, fluffy and meaningless; my point is that there is likely a much simpler way to describe the phenomenon.

    You give no example of how I can possibly reproduce ‘grace’ myself and you seem to argue that people who cannot reproduce ‘grace’ simply have no power to do so (or are stupid, uneducated “right-brained” morons with not appreciation for art and philosophy LOL). Which is an easy way out. You can say that for anything! It’s resistant to criticism.

    There are indeed things that are hard to grasp, but none of these things cannot be explained (through anecdotes, analogies, comparisons with other related concepts, subsets, supersets, what have you). Grace is more like some sort of supernatural power only possessed by those who are special.

    As I’ve already asked — if I’m truly a moron, how can I learn about grace? What should I do? What should I read? What should I play/watch/listen?

    This is an open invitation to call me a moron. Come on, do it!

  18. you seem to argue that people who cannot reproduce ‘grace’ simply have no power to do so (or are stupid, uneducated “right-brained” morons with not appreciation for art and philosophy LOL).

    No, I do not. At all. There is no statement on my part to that effect, neither here nor in the comments on Raph’s blog (where the discussion continued).

    Grace is more like some sort of supernatural power only possessed by those who are special.

    …and I said this where? If anything, grace is a concept that is by its very nature universal.

    This is an open invitation to call me a moron. Come on, do it!

    I have no intention of calling you anything other than unnecessarily aggressive and somewhat dogmatic. I also have no intention of continuing this discussion with you. I had no problem arguing at length with others who disagreed but were friendly and open to intellectual debate; you are neither, and a waste of time I could use making games. Please don’t post here anymore. I will delete future posts by you.

  19. I can deal with arguments. I have no desire to deal with aggressive, impolite and/or condescending comments. End of discussion.

    (Yes, I deleted your post. Which part of “I will delete future posts by you” do you not understand? Learn to be polite if you want to engage with people.)

  20. Nahil

    Jonas, I think the real problem here is that almost anything interactive can be called a game. Obviously something like chess doesn’t try or need to reflect real life or have grace. In interactive media, there are many different things we could make. I think the best answer is to separate them into different categories so that people can make games as beautiful as yours without interfering with games that exist for the purpose of just exploring mechanics. There is no “right” way to approach interactive media, just different ways. I personally love both emotional, expressive games and purely mechanical ones. There is a time and place for both, I think.

  21. Oh, I agree that there are different approaches. But I don’t think separating them too strongly is a good idea, because few games really fall fully into category or another. Some of the greatest games are both emotional and mechanical; I don’t feel comfortable saying that these are half-games.

  22. Nahil

    I sort of agree with what you’re saying, but I think that separating things has value. We need to be able to understand differences between things so that we can then choose what elements to mix. I don’t think those games are half games at all, I just think that we need to understand what elements the overall artwork is made of. All art can be separated into thematic and mechanic elements, but the reason for this distinction is so that we can understand what we’re working with when making art. I agree that some people feel like they need to stick to a certain genre or whatever, though, and that’s just not a good thing.

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