THEATER AND ILLUSION IN GAMES

The importance of theme and weaving illusions as a designer.

A recent conversation with someone who's put on countless theater productions got me thinking about the similarities between stage shows and game design. Yes, they are strikingly different mediums of entertainment and storytelling, but at the core of each can be found the same fundamental, over-arching rule:

"Don't break the illusion."


Theater is all about tricking an audience into believing something is happening in front of them when it's truly not. The actors, costumes, set design, scene progression... everything works towards that singular purpose of weaving an elaborate illusion. Some suspension of disbelief is expected from the theater-goers, as they have come to the show wanting to be immersed in the experience. However, if there is even a subtle perception that the tiniest element is out of place (ie. actors stumbling over their lines, poorly painted backdrops) the illusion is "broken" and the entire production suffers. The audience is no longer watching a dramatic exchange between forbidden lovers, but actors in silly costumes, moving around in choreographed patterns on a stage.



Game designers face a similar challenge, and videogame successes (and failures) of the past reinforce how important it is to maintain that illusion for the player. As games are expected to mirror reality more and more, unfortunate but accepted staples of the past such as clipping or invisible walls now very much break the illusion of the story or world. Every element of the game must be delicately crafted and shaped toward keeping players immersed, and that can be a daunting task for designers. Especially ones without big budgets and production teams.


Luckily, there are a number of tricks that we (specifically RM / independent / amateur developers) can utilize to great effect to accomplish this feat.

Most importantly, make sure every individual element of your game follows a theme. Having a consistent theme is a great way to keep players in the experience. If your story revolves around pirates, make sure that everything (everything!) works to strengthen the idea of "pirates" in your players' minds. Think about the following suggestions...

* Style all the menus and user interface after an old treasure map
* Use a cannonball firing off instead of the basic "confirm" sound effect
* Give all towns, ships, and characters traditional pirate names (even the minor ones!)
* Use colors associated with the theme for menus, fonts, even tints
* Research (!!!) to root pirate culture, dialect, etc. in history

These are very simple touches that would go a long way towards establishing a consistent theme and an immersive experience. Every designer should sit down and come up with a whole list of them to work into their project.


Compare some user interface from two of 2010's biggest titles: Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption.

. . .


Mass Effect features menus and loading screens that look just like the high-tech terminals they're meant to represent. The menu from Red Dead Redemption, on the other hand, contains old style fonts consistent with the western theme, and (as you might have noticed) a HEAVY focus on the color red right out of the game's title.

Now imagine if those games swapped menus. It would completely tear you out of the experience to the point of being a joke! Sure, this sounds like simple stuff, but so many amateur -- specifically RM -- games have just as stark, just as ridiculous a contrast between their suggested themes and the actual implementation of features. It's not a complex idea, but it does take some planning to make it work in practice. When throwing a script or feature into your game, don't think "Will this make my game better?" because that question is vague and often a matter of opinion. Instead, think "Will this strengthen my theme?"



Remember, even the slightest misstep could send your player right out of the experience! All your hard work on the strong elements of the game can be spoiled with one (seemingly harmless) thematic mistake. It's just like theater at that point -- players will cease to care about the dramatic story elements unfolding and instead get caught up on the ugly inner-workings of the game.

So take a little bit of time and give it some thought... Our medium can be a powerful one for entertainment and storytelling, but so many amateur games in particular go nowhere due to simple oddities that break the player's experience. Make sure every little thing you do as a designer is intended to strengthen the theme of the game, and like a skilled actor onstage, weave an elaborate, convincing illusion for your audience.


Until next time, good luck with your projects!

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I like this article.
Another similarity between theatre and games is also on the script-level. A theatre script usually doesn't have all the description of a novel instead the actors and director later work out how certain things are said.

It's similar in games without voice acting. You usually aren't entirely sure how lines are spoken and they are sort of open to interpretation from player to player. It's just something to remember when people don't like/understand your writing.
what about brechtian epic theatre though, where the entire point is to distance the audience from whats going on through exposure of artificial mechanisms so that they take a critical attitude to what's happening rather than just passively absorb experience like a sponge.....

Seriously, thinking about games in terms of overall coherency in theme/structure/aesthetics is probably important but I do wish that any kind of "breaking the spell" weren't automatically treated as a bad thing. One of the things I liked most about stuff like Earthbound and Mother 3 were the ways they were both very suspicious of the kind of "immersive" game design that can easily tip over into addiction and manipulation. In Earthbound your dad phoned you up if you played for long stretches continuously to tell you to spend a while away from the game. Mother 3 rendered generic RPG mechanics like save points and healing spots in ridiculous and arbitrary ways and also used things like sudden shifts between playable characters and points where you had to enter your reallife name: I'm fairly sure the point here was to make people aware that it was a game, that instead of being immersed into a particular role you stayed at a certain distance which allowed you to enjoy and appreciate what was happening in a broader context. I think it's particularly telling that the final battle of Earthbound can only be won by essentially opting out of the usual battle mechanics in favour of a blatantly artificial deus ex machina mechanic. It's also interesting how both games embraced stuff like DATA INPUT SYSTEMS and MENU SYSTEMS and all the other ways in which games have traditionally broken immersion in order to focus on the larger structural context.

One of the things I like most about games is this kind of playful abstraction, the way that you're encouraged not to experience them as an unbroken flow but to step outside this flow and think critically about whats happening: can I make this jump, do I have enough items for this boss, what's involved in this puzzle, is there another route through the dungeon, and also how all this information is represented and processed. The way that RPGs play around with strange formalist representations of experience where battles and such are determined by blatantly artificial statistics like STR and DEF, weird items and commands used for interacting with the world. I think this is where another analogue for the theatre could come in: the "suspension of disbelief" among the audience isn't something which has been grudgingly extorted from them, it's a gesture of good faith which says that the audience is prepared to meet you halfway and honestly listen to what you have to say. It's a willing collaboration between both parties. Treating the audience for anything you have to make - a game, a play, a book, a movie - as imbeciles who need to be tricked and prodded into enjoying your carefully planned experience is not only pretty arrogant but also a renunciation of the good faith and respect for the audience which is necessary for anything to be worthwhile art rather than carnival hucksterism. I don't think it's an accident that most of the AAA games and movies that seem to take this attitude tend to be completely devoid of any imagination and even fun, preferring to force the player/audience down predetermined corridors while painstakingly explaining the boring plot and why she should care than actually allowing them to explore the work and have an honest reaction to it. I've seen good plays that were performed by untrained community theatre amateurs against pasteboard backdrops and still managed to engage an audience who were willing to overlook the flaws to hear what those involved were trying to say. This strikes me as a much better model for making and playing games than an attitude of mutual contempt.
Well, when I read the article, I immediately thought "this is nice, but it doesn't mean all games must follow this formula". Immersion is not key to any game, and it's not to any play.
Actually what catmitts says makes a lot more sense in the comparing theater to games. The mere presence of a "menu" breaks immersion, but just like in theater there's an agreement between the viewer and the stage that certain things just can't be done. So in games there are menus, health points and the occasional save point and in theater there's scene transitions, clunky effects and the occasional mishap.

Compare to a movie where the presence of a mic boom or a crappy effect is fairly immediate in taking you out of it. Mostly because in movies there's usually not the same bond between audience and movie.

In fact you could even go so far as to say that just as games are interactive so is theater (just not really not to the same extent at all).
This is a good article, I also agree with what catmitts said for the most part.

I'd like to point out a great game (in my opinion) that does a very good job of not breaking the illusion: Shadow of the Colossus.
it has no menu to speak of, and a very minimal HUD. the entire time you play the game you are performing actions you would do if you were actually in the world, such as moving jumping stabbing or shooting arrows. The only way in which your character strengthens during the game is if you find a lizard with a glowing tail which can increase your stamina.
All these things (whether or not they make the game better or worse) make it a very immersive game. And, in my opinion, an awesome game

just my 2¢ :P
author=catmitts
Seriously, thinking about games in terms of overall coherency in theme/structure/aesthetics is probably important but I do wish that any kind of "breaking the spell" weren't automatically treated as a bad thing.


I entirely agree with pretty much everything you said. There's a whole host of memorable moments throughout gaming's brief history where the wall between player and game was blurred or broken to positive effect. However, there's a significant difference between breaking the illusion intentionally (which implies a certain amount of creativity and innovation, and like you said shouldn't always be viewed as a bad thing) and doing so unintentionally. The latter is what I was I was talking about in the article.

When you see features like those you discussed in Earthbound, or when Psycho Mantis reads your memory card, or evenwhen Sonic stamps his feet impatiently and looks to the camera... These "illusion breaks" were intended and delicately handled. But more prevalent in the indie community are things like continuity/timeline discrepancies, grammatical mistakes, nonsensical design, and poor user interface -- the dangerous kind of breaks.


author=catmitts
One of the things I like most about games is this kind of playful abstraction, the way that you're encouraged not to experience them as an unbroken flow but to step outside this flow and think critically about whats happening: can I make this jump, do I have enough items for this boss, what's involved in this puzzle, is there another route through the dungeon, and also how all this information is represented and processed.


I like this about games as well, but I would argue that players don't really step out of the experience to consider these things. Instead, they are understood to be part of the experience, which goes along with that "suspension of disbelief" the player is expected to lend. I once had an interesting conversation with an instructor (who worked as QA supervisor at Bioware for years) about spikes in a platformer. There's no logical reason for deadly spikes to be littered about any world, but when an experienced gamer encounters them, he or she will accept them as a logical obstacle regardless. It's sort of expected that because the player is giving the developer their time, the player is willing to (as you put it) meet the developer halfway in terms of logic. Just look at Mario... Nothing about that world makes sense! Yet it's the biggest franchise out there.

I've gotten off the point, but in short I agree with pretty much all of your points, and I definitely recognize the value in those low-budget plays that still manage to engage the audience. I think there, our responsibility as players is to be more willing to accept inevitable flaws in our games as long as it's balanced out by attention to detail in what is there, as well as an attempt by the developer/playwright to make the game/show consistent in terms of theme and vision.


author=Shinan
Compare to a movie where the presence of a mic boom or a crappy effect is fairly immediate in taking you out of it. Mostly because in movies there's usually not the same bond between audience and movie.

In fact you could even go so far as to say that just as games are interactive so is theater (just not really not to the same extent at all).


That's a good point, and I might actually agree that theater and games have more in common than either of them do with film. Both rely on direct interaction with the audience, rather than the more passive storytelling techniques found in film or novels.


I'm glad you guys are interested in the topic and agree about the similarities between the two mediums. Let's keep the discussion going!
O Fair Enuff

While we're on the subject of analogues between lowbudget plays and nilbudget games: I've been to a few plays that just used a small number of props, lighting, and dialogue cues to suggest actions and locations without bothering with things like scene backdrops or elaborate stage design. Sometimes it's awkward but it can work susprisingly well: a stepladder becomes an enormous mountain, a fake window hug on a backdrop becomes a house or a street at night, some sound effects and a chair become a car ride. There's an initial moment of adjustment when you're watching and then you take it in your stride. It's not so much that you're deliberately imagining these things to be something else as that you're recognising them as symbols for larger structural elements. I guess the immediate analogue here would be in stuff like early Commodore 64 games and so on, where a careful deployment of sprites against a featureless black background could suggest anything from a cabin or a church to a solar system or the bottom of the sea. Sometimes this felt jarring, especially since the sprites used could be weirdly ambiguous, but at best I think it could be more effective than some of the huge hi-res environments in something like recent Final Fantasy games just because since you had to decipher them for what they represented you automatically felt more connected to them than you would if you were just staring at a prerendered mountain. They became evocative through their abstract nature, while sometimes more detailed stuff leaves no room for the imagination.
Cactus's game "Life/Death/Island" plays around with this a lil bit and I thought it worked really well:




Basically I guess that nowadays even indie devs don't have to worry as much about brevity in graphics but it's always interesting to see people manage to suggest a lot with just a little, and how a few carefully chosen tiles can suggest an entire world with little effort while the sense of place generated by detailed ripped graphics etc can fall apart at the first misplaced tile.
Versalia
I was looking forward to some gam mak
1143
author=catmitts
Basically I guess that nowadays even indie devs don't have to worry as much about brevity in graphics but it's always interesting to see people manage to suggest a lot with just a little, and how a few carefully chosen tiles can suggest an entire world with little effort while the sense of place generated by detailed ripped graphics etc can fall apart at the first misplaced tile.


You should look at the node system Craze and Karsu are using in the V&V Remake.
Nice article here. XD

author=Sagitar
When you see features like those you discussed in Earthbound, or when Psycho Mantis reads your memory card, or evenwhen Sonic stamps his feet impatiently and looks to the camera... These "illusion breaks" were intended and delicately handled. But more prevalent in the indie community are things like continuity/timeline discrepancies, grammatical mistakes, nonsensical design, and poor user interface -- the dangerous kind of breaks.


THIS. I'm always on the lookout for these, especially when it comes to the story and characters. A good interface is all fine and dandy, and so is seamless programming, but when cliches come flying out of the woodwork and plot holes appear...yeah. D:

author=catmitts
While we're on the subject of analogues between lowbudget plays and nilbudget games: I've been to a few plays that just used a small number of props, lighting, and dialogue cues to suggest actions and locations without bothering with things like scene backdrops or elaborate stage design. Sometimes it's awkward but it can work susprisingly well: a stepladder becomes an enormous mountain, a fake window hug on a backdrop becomes a house or a street at night, some sound effects and a chair become a car ride. There's an initial moment of adjustment when you're watching and then you take it in your stride. It's not so much that you're deliberately imagining these things to be something else as that you're recognising them as symbols for larger structural elements. I guess the immediate analogue here would be in stuff like early Commodore 64 games and so on, where a careful deployment of sprites against a featureless black background could suggest anything from a cabin or a church to a solar system or the bottom of the sea. Sometimes this felt jarring, especially since the sprites used could be weirdly ambiguous, but at best I think it could be more effective than some of the huge hi-res environments in something like recent Final Fantasy games just because since you had to decipher them for what they represented you automatically felt more connected to them than you would if you were just staring at a prerendered mountain. They became evocative through their abstract nature, while sometimes more detailed stuff leaves no room for the imagination.


I suppose it depends on the nature or theme of the story. A game with the theme of psychological horror can work with silence, echoes and a 'vacant' level design to evoke 'nothing is scarier'. But if it's one of those gorefest games then I suppose it will be filled to the brim with rust, blood and deformed creatures at every turn, just to give the air of fighting for your life.

author=catmitts
Basically I guess that nowadays even indie devs don't have to worry as much about brevity in graphics but it's always interesting to see people manage to suggest a lot with just a little, and how a few carefully chosen tiles can suggest an entire world with little effort while the sense of place generated by detailed ripped graphics etc can fall apart at the first misplaced tile.


I think for such a 'minimalist' production to work, the very theme and acting talent must pull the audience in. I suppose that in this case, the 'props' can prove to be distractions to the real draw of the play (or game), which is the story. Then again, with today's generation of gamers, detailed worlds (generally, rich visuals) have become a selling point. I guess the prevalent belief is that a richly textured world equals to an immersive gaming experience. Of course, a pretty-looking game goes to waste without effective story-telling, but sometimes you're just holding the controller because the effects on your screen is so darn awesome-looking.
pyrodoom
I am Pyrdoom, Hedgehog of Fire and the Time Controller.
1256
I have always loved making and playing games, BUT THIS IS RIDICULOUS!
Sometimes a good theme isn't as good as a good storyline and gameplay, sure they match up with the theme, but here's where they differ, you see, people who make a storyline could say people from America are taking over Australia for all I care. Now, if someone is speaking to the Australian people with a different accent, that's o.k., but when the Australian is doing it, people make it seem like it's wrong, but it's not because people can go where they want, and sometimes people can't get good mapping so they have to reuse some they used for other places,oh I bet that's a crime please arrest me!
Anyways, there is also gameplay,if your character is on a ship, your gameplay could be, swim around or attack enemy ships. But to me as long as it's fun I don't care if they're attacking they're own ship! And sometimes matching your storyline and gameplay with your theme can be difficult. And mapping can be a big part of it. I'm making a game based on nowadays time and it looks like the 1600s! And the world map looks nothing like where I live! I matched it up to my gameplay and storyline, not my theme. But anywho, if you want to do this idea, it's o.k., tell me and I'll try it(not too many because I found out many of these games have viruses), but don't EXPECT me to like it much.
pyrodoom
I am Pyrdoom, Hedgehog of Fire and the Time Controller.
1256
author=pyrodoom
I have always loved making and playing games, BUT THIS IS RIDICULOUS!
Sometimes a good theme isn't as good as a good storyline and gameplay, sure they match up with the theme, but here's where they differ, you see, people who make a storyline could say people from America are taking over Australia for all I care. Now, if someone is speaking to the Australian people with a different accent, that's o.k., but when the Australian is doing it, people make it seem like it's wrong, but it's not because people can go where they want, and sometimes people can't get good mapping so they have to reuse some they used for other places,oh I bet that's a crime please arrest me!
Anyways, there is also gameplay,if your character is on a ship, your gameplay could be, swim around or attack enemy ships. But to me as long as it's fun I don't care if they're attacking they're own ship! And sometimes matching your storyline and gameplay with your theme can be difficult. And mapping can be a big part of it. I'm making a game based on nowadays time and it looks like the 1600s! And the world map looks nothing like where I live! I matched it up to my gameplay and storyline, not my theme. But anywho, if you want to do this idea, it's o.k., tell me and I'll try it(not too many because I found out many of these games have viruses), but don't EXPECT me to like it much.


Sorry for the huge rant, but it's just what I felt about the idea.
pyrodoom
I am Pyrdoom, Hedgehog of Fire and the Time Controller.
1256
author=ShadowX321
I don't get the beginning.


Um... If you're talking to me, the beggining of my post was an example telling you could go completely away from a storyline and I would BARELY care.
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