When you make a game, you are making a living landscape; a body. Sometimes its body is static and crystalline, frozen into beautiful forms. Sometimes its body is made of hot mercury which bleeds along the temperature gradients. Sometimes only part of the body is there, and one has to imagine the rest of it. There are many types of games, and they vary so much in form that it’s hard to even say what a game is or assign them a single category. But no matter what kind of body your game has, among the various intended limbs, you will often find that a strange appendage has grown. One of its limbs is a giant flashing neon arrow.
The neon arrow sits there on the screen, demanding attention. It tells players where to go, what to do and what to feel. It is the quest log, the waypoint, the linear environment which pretends to be open, the blue fairy who gives us instructions. The neon arrow is reduction of self-direction in service of the carefully sculpted linear experience. The neon arrow is not an inherently flawed concept. It is a tool and it serves a specific purpose. But instead of being a specialized option which we use where appropriate, it has become the defining feature of the landscape.
This is in stark contrast to many of the most meaningful activities in our daily lives, activities such as being with friends, eating food we love, spending time in nature, having sex, learning, and making art. All of these experiences are self-directed and intrinsically motivated. There is a poor fit here between the medium as it is commonly used and the many things we want to express. In this article I delve into why the neon arrow is so overutilized, and examine the strengths and weaknesses of this tool. My hope is that I can contribute to people approaching neon arrows in a more sensitive way, utilizing them when they are effective and discarding them when they are not.
In Strangethink‘s sculptural wildernesses, the only goals are intrinsic ones. 2014
Edit: when I initially posted this, the project depicted above was unreleased. However, it is now available here: Abstract Ritual
Many creators are afraid of players becoming confused, lost or frustrated. This comes from a sincere desire to give people a valuable experience. A guiding hand is often provided in the form of clear top down instruction and a strictly bounded game world. But this is a dangerous absolutist course, and one built on many false assumptions. First, this assumes that confusion and frustration aren’t valid emotions- that they are somehow inherently undesirable. Second, this is an impossible problem to solve. One can’t include enough safeguards to protect against every possible situation which can lead to these emotions. If one is to guarantee that every player takes the optimal path through the game, the only way to do it is to completely remove all significant forms of self-direction. That’s quite a decision to make in a medium which is defined by its interactivity. And the truth of the matter is that the more safeguards we put in place, the more we erode the landscape we were trying to protect in the first place. Players have only so much bandwidth. If the giant neon arrow looms too large over the landscape, it dwarfs the landscape itself.
I want to stress that this is not an immoral thing to do. No single game creator owes it to the world to abandon the neon arrow, just as no painter owes it to the world to abandon realism. This is a tool which has its purpose. But because of the cultural prevalence of the neon arrow, it’s often seen as the only option.
In Proteus, players are given free license to explore an unpredictable wilderness. Ed Key and David Kanaga, 2013
Another reason for this overemphasis on controlling players is that we borrow heavily from other media. I cannot count the number of times I have heard game creators talk about the books or movies that influence them as if this somehow legitimizes their work. You don’t need to borrow legitimacy- you are a human being making art. But many of us have had experiences where books or movies connect with us in a deep way, and it’s tempting to try to emulate that success by copying techniques. When we adopt techniques from other media, however, we also adopt artificial limitations. These are linear techniques for linear media. The linearity of these borrowed techniques exacerbates the tendency we already have to overutilize the neon arrow.
My proposed solution for borrowing material is this: borrow from your favorite art all you want. Whatever you reference or curate or regurgitate becomes a true expression of who you are. But be aware of the eerie things which happen when you translate to your medium. If you borrow form, you create linearity. If you borrow substance, you create interactivity.
Organ Solo. Andi McClure and Loren Schmidt, 2014
For context, and for empathy with the people who make these decisions, let us imagine ourselves in this situation. Imagine we write a movie-like scene which we’re excited about: Bob and Fred finally confess their love for each other. This forces us into an uncomfortable position. How will we connect the unpredictable game we are making to this wonderful linear scene we made? How will we make sure this linear implant happens at a meaningful point in the body of the game? The dirty fix is to liberally apply linearity to the rest of the game. If we control the player and force them to do things in a specific order, all of a sudden we have directorial, filmlike control over timing and context. This works, and as a result it happens everywhere; this has become the default. A naturally interactive medium is being systematically remolded in the form of a linear one.
This comes at a tremendous cost. The interactive medium is sitting out there, waiting to be explored, while most of us are busy trying to make it into movies.
in Noctis, players goallessly explore a universe of generated star systems. Together they assemble a galactic encyclopedia. Alessandro Ghignola, 2000
In closing I’d like to say this: please continue to appreciate whatever games you appreciate, whether they are full of neon arrows or not. But think about how often you’ve been annoyed when games tell you what to do, about how many times you’ve wanted to explore and run into an invisible wall, about all the times a game has told you what to feel when you didn’t feel that way at all. Remember that these are not times you ran into a limitation of the medium; these are times you collided with someone’s design choice. The neon arrow is voluntary. When people approach this technique with an open mind, we have many more tools at our disposal. I can’t wait to see what happens when we widely recognize not only the merits of external control, but the freedom of players to guide their own experiences.
Untitled. Strangethink, 2014