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Symposium (2)


  • Four new play specs from four new participants
  • Discussion on the verbs that emerge from the core verbs - what Jose Zagal refers to as 'Tactical verbs'.

Today's Contributions

1) Chico from Nongames specifies River Raid in yesterday's comments:

River_raid_autobahn River Raid (Activision, 1982)
Specified by Chico


Steer (avatar)
Dodge (enemies, River borders)
Shoot (enemies, bridges, Fuel Tanks)


Plane (avatar)
Jet (enemy)
Ship (enemy)
Helicopter (enemy)
Bridge (checkpoint)
Natural limits (collision map)
Fuel Tank (health)
Squad (lives)
Fuel Meter (health meter)


Acceleration (avatar and enemies)
Speed (avatar and enemies)
Refueling (avatar)
Vertical Scroll (map)

Chris comments: I'd put the Fuel Meter as an adjective 'Fuel', but that may be a matter of personal taste. Also, I'd personally put 'Enemy' as a Noun, and group the different types of Enemy in brackets afterwards. Purely notational minutae, of course. :) Verb wise this is very similar to Nemesis/Gradius - not suprising, given they are both scrolling shooters. The key difference seems to be the presence of a Health mechanic instead of Lives with instant death.

2) zenBen of zenBenLand decides to take a strangely tangential route and specifies the bat and ball game Breakout here. I reproduce it here without the comments, and have adjusted the spec to match the original arcade cabinet which was the first of these games. (zenBen played an emulated version on PC):

Breaksupersnap Breakout! (Atari, 1976)
Specified by Ben


Move (Rotary Joystick)


Bat (avatar)
Ball (or sphere, polyhedron, polygon, cube, etc depending on your philosophical outlook. I'm a glass half full person (I prefer to ask the more pertinent question - who stole the top half?) so I say its a ball)
Extra Lives
Life Counter


Length (of Bat)
Speed (of Ball)
Consistency (of Blocks)
Effect on Verb (of Power-up)

Chris comments: As with Chico's, I'd put 'Lives' and 'Score' as adjectives - I choose to consider numerical values as properties of nouns and not nouns in their own right, but this is probably just a preference issue. Personally, I've never considered the bat and ball games to be similar to shooters, but I can see the (tenuous) connection... The big difference here, of course, is that the only form of shooting available is 'indirect fire'. I also note that the later game Arkanoid (Taito, 1986) includes power ups that allow for shooting, placing the bat and ball games into more directly related verb space.

3) Jose Zagal of GameLog supplies his specification of Robotron 2084  here. Again, I've reproduced it here without the comments, but you should click through and read the whole post.

Robotron Robotron 2084 (Vid Kidz/Williams, 1982)
Specified by Jose


Move (stick1 - 8 discrete directions)
Fire (stick2 - 8 discrete directions)
Save (collide with a human to score points)

"Tactical verbs":

Dodge (to move with the intention of avoiding a collision)
Circle-Strafe (to move in a circle or arc while firing towards the center)
Strafe (to move in a direction, whilst firing in another)
Lead (to move with the purpose of causing an enemy to move in a certain way)
Wait (to stop moving until a certain condition or state is reached)
Flee (to move in the opposite direction of an enemy)
Circle (to move along, or close to the walls)
Attack (to move towards the enemy while firing)


Spark from Enforcer
Shell from Tank
Missile from Brain
"Bullet" (fired by player)

Chris comments: I personally find the completely enumerated lists of nouns hard to work with, and prefer to group nouns in larger categories, but I stress again that this is a notational choice and not a criticism, per se. I do have to question the choice of 'save' as a verb - since it tends to have a rather different meaning in games. :) Wouldn't 'rescue' be clearer? Jose includes (later in his post) the tactical verbs I have decided to include here - showing vast attention to detail to the play of the game. I find this most intriguing - as our scrolling shooters do not have such subtelties to their play. In Nemesis/Gradius, for instance, the skill of the game is in dodging bullets - there is no capacity to 'lure' the enemy and so forth. I never mastered Robotron, so I find it hard to comment on whether the play of the game could be specified with fewer "tactical verbs". Will return to this issue in the discussion, below. 

4) Patrick of King Lud IC specifies the first FPS of the symposium, Halo here. There's no additional commentary, but don't let that stop you visiting Patrick's Blog and having a dig around.

Halo1 Halo: Combat Evolved (Bungee, 2001)
Specified by Patrick


{Look up/down
turn left/right
strafe left/right
run foward/backward}

Toggle Flashlight
Toggle Follow/Wait


Space and Obstructions (Move, Jump)
Lighting (Toggle Flashlight)
Alien (Shoot, Bash) {Grunt, Elite, Hunter, Priest(?), Floodie, Flood Elites and Flood Marines, Sentinal Probe}
Vehicle (Commandeer/Move) {Warthog, Scorpion, Banshee, Ghost ect.}
Soldier (Toggle Follow/Wait)
Switches (Use)
Power-ups (Pick-up) {Invisibility Tetrad, Overshield, Weapons, Ammo, Med Pack}


Ammo Supply
Grenade Supply
Vehicle Health
Invisibility Boolean

Chris comments: This is an interesting case; one of the oft overlooked aspects of Halo is that Aim is not really much of a verb in the game, because of the generous auto-aim. GoldenEye 007 had a similar advantage on its lower difficulty settings - I contend that this adds to the market appeal of these games by loweing the barrier to entry. I think one minor verb is missing - Change (weapon), otherwise this seems very thorough. I didn't know you could send orders to people in Halo, and I don't remember what the Use verb does in this game - what does it do? Patrick's spec considers the 'twin stick' controls of modern FPS games as embodying one verb, Move, but a more complicated verb than in other games we have looked at thus far - I'm interested in other people's view on this. I might be tempted to use just Move and Look and assign their separate sticks - but I am not much of an FPS player. I wonder how this spec seems to other FPS players, and hope we will get more specs in this area for comparison.

Many thanks for these initial contributions! We are now at 5 participants (including me) - almost half way through the symposium already, and it's only Wednesday.

Discussion: Tactical Verbs

Jose in his commentary provides some discussion on the application of verbs to his chosen game:

The above is what I'd call the "basic verbs". However, I would propose that maybe we should consider something like "tactical verbs". Tactical verbs are actions taken by the player which, in a certain context, can be interpreted as having a "higher" order of meaning. If you were to ask the player something like "what are you doing?", he would most likely answer in a tactical sense. (I am carrying out these basic verbs in order to meet this immediate goal or purpose)

Now I should begin by saying that I have a (strictly personal) issue with the word 'Tactical' in that I am going to be duty bound to make this correlate with the Tactical skillset from "DGD 1.5", otherwise I am overloading the term and confusing people more than perhaps is usual. (This is my problem, though; there's no reason at all for Jose not to define Tactical verbs as he has done so). To distinguish between the two contexts for the time being, I will use Tactical(JZ) and Tactical(TT) to distinguish between Jose's use of the term and the Temperament Theory meaning.

In the case of Robotron, it seems that all of these verbs do indeed reflect Tactical(TT) issues, although some may tip the boundry into Strategic thinking. Lure in particularly seems to be closer to Strategic thinking than Tactical.

However, in the case of a scrolling shooter like Nemesis/Gradius (and possibly River Raid as well) the Tactical(JZ) verbs are often more Logistical. For instance, where I specified Dodge for Nemesis, this can be performed Tactically(TT) but more commonly the player acquires the skills to Dodge Logistically, that is, they repeat the level so many times they generate a reliable solution which they then implement largely unchanged each time. Case in point, the volcano at the end of level 1; if one has sufficient firepower, one can park in exactly the right spot and destroy all the rocks, if not, one can 'hide' in the corner and avoid all the shots. In both cases, this is not Tactical(TT) play at all, but some kind of Logistical play. I suspect this is why I liked Nemesis so much - because my Tactical(TT) skills are not as good as my Strategic and Logistical skills, and the game affords an advantage to players working Logistically towards a solution.

Is there merit to applying Temperament Theory to the play specs, I wonder; in separating out the Tactical(TT), Logistical and Strategic verbs? (Putting aside Diplomatic skills for now). The disadvantage to this approach must be that most people do not know Temperament Theory well enough to apply it, making this a very narrow application, but this barrier could be overcome by clear definition of the Tactical(TT), Logistical and Strategic terms.

I agree with Jose that there is a role for verbs at a scale between immediate (microVerbs) and framing (macroVerbs). I also agree that they can meaningfully be referred to as Tactics in many cases; perhaps they could be called Methods in others (when they are Logistical). We are dealing with behaviours that emerge from the core verbs, so 'emergent verbs' is another possible designation. Or 'intermediate verbs'?

Can I suggest 'Maneuvres' as a possible alternative term? How do people feel about this? This could subdivide into Tactics, Methods and Strategems to denote Tactical(TT), Logistical and Strategic approaches.

Please share your viewpoint in the comments!

(And, if you haven't submitted a play spec yet, please have a go!)

Play Spec Symposium

Etbamphora Welcome to the Only a Game Play Specification Symposium!

Several thousand years ago, the Greeks held parties where people were invited to get drunk, listen to music and engage in intellectual discussion. They called them symposiums. The term has also come to mean a collection of writing on the same subject, and also a conference on a certain topic. I hope that this symposium will be closer to the friendly conviviality of the former than modern academic events bearing the name!


In order to participate, you must be familiar with the notion of a play specification, which you will find described here.

The Subject: Shooters

In order to keep this discussion focussed, I am proposing that we constrain our discussions to one particular region of the domain of games. Because of their antiquity and ubiquity, the area I am suggesting we focus upon are those games in which two of the key verbs are move and shoot (and possibly aim as well).

This should include any number of first person shooter games, run-and-gun third person shooters of all kinds, not to mention classic style shoot-em-ups going all the way back to Space Invaders (1978) and Nutting’s Computer Space (1971).

What to do

The purpose of this symposium is to explore play specifications. In particular, because this is a subjective notation, it may be interesting to see any differences in how people choose to notate certain games – but it might transpire that the common areas will be more interesting; we just don’t know yet.

To create a play specification, simply think about all the activities you pursue in any given game and then identify what you do (the verbs) and what you do it to or with (the nouns). Then, list them. Don’t worry about adjectives unless you want to; the nouns and verbs are the important component.

It shouldn't take more than 5-10 minutes to write out a play spec. If it takes longer, you are either overthinking or dealing with a particularly tricky game!

Who can take part?

Anyone! There are two ways to participate:

  • Via Blog: simply post your contribution to your own blog, then trackback and/or post a comment here to let us know.
  • Via Comments: or, if you don’t have a blog, you can just post a play specification in the comments here.

Either way, I’ll bounce them up to the top level here by some means.

When It Ends

To set a framework for this symposium, I will call it complete when we have a dozen participants, or when I give up hope that we will get the full twelve. I encourage each participant to submit as many or as few play specifications as they wish, and not worry about duplication of specific titles.

An Example

To get the ball rolling, here is my play specification for the classic arcade shooter Nemesis/Gradius:

Nemesis/Gradius (Konami, 1985)
Specified by Chris


Move (Stick)
Dodge (enemy shots)
Choose (i.e. select when to power up; Button 3)
Shoot (shots, two-way shots, laser; Button 1/missile; Button 2)


Warp Rattler/Vic Viper (avatar)
Foe (produces a Power Crystal if you destroy a complete set)
Boss (Nemesis, “Bio-nemesis”, Brain)
Power Crystal
Power Meter (the sequence of power ups)

Notes: I decided to put the controls into this play spec, but they should be considered an entirely optional component! I decided to include the verb 'dodge' in this spec, because I feel it's a central part of the play of this game. We could include 'dodge' in 'move', of course, but then something of the play might be lost.


I hope you'll be tempted to experiment with play specifications, and I look forward to reading how various games appear when seen through an assortment of different viewpoints. Thanks in advance for supporting this symposium!

Death to the Mother Brain

Mother_brain_nes_2 After months of hardship on the planet Zebes, we finally made our way into the Mother Brain's secret base - but time and again, we failed to complete our mission. On Friday, finally, the Mother Brain fell to Samus' missiles and we escaped to the surface thus completing the NES game Metroid (emulated on the GameCube). It's been a wild and strangely nostalgic experience, for although neither of us ever owned a NES, this game is clearly an artefact of the 8-bit era. I'd forgotten just how hard to complete games from this time could be!

Structural Specifications

Structure1_bg Game structure is perhaps the most overlooked element of game design, but within the structure of the game is contained the capacity to frustrate or reward, to satisfy with meaningful choices, or to end a player’s engagement with an impassable bottleneck. In order to examine the structure of games, we need a common language to do so. The issue is non-trivial, and requires a specialised terminology. For several weeks now, I’ve been experimenting with a structural specification language that might allow us to explore this issue. 


This post follows from the following previous posts: 

  • Play Specifications, which discusses the relevance of nouns and verbs to play. You should read this first if you are not familiar with the idea.
  • Roger Caillois’ Patterns of Play, which links together six separate articles on related topics. Familiarity with Caillois’ terminology is recommended, but not required.
  • Ratcheted Progress, which explains how the player’s achievements in a game are ‘banked’, either internally to the game, or via an external save file. Again, this is useful but not essential background information.

What would a structural specification need?

There are many elements of structure, so it is vital to consider which are the important aspects to pay attention to: 

  • Identifying structural components is critical. How do we choose to break up a game into smaller segments? It will always be somewhat subjective. However, we can pick out Tasks (i.e. Goals, Quests etc.) as a key element.
  • What about when the player is doing something without a specific goal? For instance, when they are just playing freely? Let us call these Activities.
  • Once we have our basic components, the pertinent issue is how these Tasks and Activities are sequenced. Finding a means to express sequence of Tasks will be at the heart of any structural specification.
  • How often do repeated segments of play recur? Some segments can be repeated any number of times, some repeat many times, some just a few, and others just once.
  • Additionally, an inescapable aspect of structure is how ratcheted progress is implemented. When is progress banked (that is, the player is protected from repeating an already completed segment of play)? When is progress saved (that is to say, when is banked progress output to a save file so the player can resume play next time without having to repeat an existing segment of play)?

Addressing these five elements in a single notation would give us a powerful starting point for specifying the structure of games. 


A task can be expressed in terms of a verb and a noun; these verbs are not quite like the verbs of a play specification. In a play specification, we are interested in what might be considered immediate verbs; i.e. verbs that refer to the player’s direct activities. In structural specification we are interested in verbs that relate to goals, what might be considered framing verbs. (Patrick Dugan considers these to be microVerbs and macroVerbs respectively, and I am grateful to him for buying me a ticket for this train of thought).

For example, consider these verbs and what they mean to a player: 

Collect                    collect noun, collect x nouns
Defeat                      defeat noun, defeat x nouns
Earn                         earn x currency
Survive                   survive x seconds
Find                         find noun
Cross                       cross noun (e.g. cross area)

These do not describe the players’ direct actions, but the goals being set. To really specify a Task, there must be both a noun and a verb – the verb specifies the type of Task being given, while the noun (and any number associated with it – also a noun).

Notice that each Task devolves to a basic sentence. This is the first time we have formed sentences in examining the specification of games. 

Notation: For the purposes of this structural specification we express Tasks as a simple sentence enclosed in square brackets e.g. [Collect 10 Keys]


There are also things the player can do which are not goal-oriented. I have suggested calling these Activities; they are like partial Tasks in that they have a framing verb, but no nouns to turn them into a sentence.

In broad strokes, I suspect that most activities fall into the following general areas: 

Play i.e. engage in paidia
Act i.e. engage in mimicry
Watch i.e. enjoy the view!

As a concrete example, consider the Birdman mode in Pilot Wings 64. This has no goals! You are just asked to fly around, and enjoy the view. This could be characterised by the verb ‘fly’, denoting an open ended activity with no goals. 

Also consider cut scenes – in which the only verb on offer is watch (and listen).

Notation: Activities will also be expressed in square brackets, but as sentence fragments e.g. [Play].  

Additionally, those Activities which are one-off events and do not recur are expressed without brackets e.g. Briefing. These unbracketed elements are linked to other elements by using the spacing character ‘-’ e.g. Briefing-[Task].

In some cases, these one-off activities will recur with the Task that they relate to – as happens when the player is forced to sit through the same briefing every time they repeat a Task. Here, we have the option to include the one-time Activity inside the square brackets e.g. [Briefing-Task].


Finding a sequence of Tasks and Activities is the core to understanding game structure. Do certain Activities precede certain Tasks? For example, in many games a Briefing comes before a mission (which can be understood as a Task).

Early videogames had very simple structures. For example, Nemesis/Gradius has the structure Level 1, then Level 2, then Level 3, then Level 4, then Level 5, then Level 6. Then, repeat on a harder difficulty. There is no variation in the sequence to which the Tasks occur. This could be expressed as:

[Cross Level1][Defeat Nemesis][Cross Level2][Defeat Nemesis][Cross Level3][Defeat Nemesis][Cross Level4][Defeat Nemesis][Cross Level5][Defeat Boss][Cross Level6][Survive Cage][Kill Brain]

This is a series structure – there are no parallel elements. (It is intended that this should be read as one long line with no carriage returns; sadly this sequence is too long for this to be clearly apparent!) 

However, modern games typically have Tasks and Activities available at the same time. For example, We ♥ Katamari offers ‘as big as possible’ and ‘as fast as possible’ Tasks in parallel. This could be expressed as:

Select Level-Briefing- [Earn Size]
                                             [Beat Time]

This is a simple parallel structure. The player must select a level, and sit through the incomprehensible briefing, then they have a choice of Tasks. (Of course, this is slightly simplified as the player must complete a mandatory Task before they get this choice, but structural specifications, like play specifications, are not intended to be perfect representations).

Because our focus in this endeavour is structure, we should in general resist the urge to decompose Tasks into their component activities, except when doing so is pertinent to structure.

For example, the Task ‘Defeat Colossus’ in Shadow of the Colossus can be broadly decomposed into sub-tasks: Solve Puzzle, Climb Colossus, Stab Colossus. But in structural terms, the composition of the global Task ‘Defeat Colossus’ is less important than how this relates to other global Tasks.

A key to how structure works is what alternatives are available to the player at any point.

Notation: series sequences are written on the same line, while parallel options are provided on separate lines, with the parallel options being formatted to line up with their alternatives.


Related to the sequence of Tasks and Activities is the issue of repetition. Certain segments of play will repeat a certain number of times, or indefinitely. A structural notation therefore needs to represent this element of structure. 

Notation: the following format is used to express enumerated repetition:

  (# | [Task] )

Where # represents the number of repetitions.

Consider, for instance, the previously given example of Nemesis/Gradius, which with this new notational element can be expressed:

(6 | [Cross Level][Defeat Boss])

Notice how certain details that were given in the fully detailed version previous have been lost in this simpler version. We could preserve them, but since the goal of a structural specification is to get to the root of the structure, we should permit a certain latitude in allowing the finer points to be glossed over in favour of accessing the pertinent structural details.

Sometimes, we will not know, or care, how many repetitions will be involved. In these instances, we can use abstracted terms.

Notation: we can use certain terms to connote more general structural repetitions:

  some to connote a small number of repetitions
  many to connote a large number of repetitions

These are intended to be subjective, and therefore do not need to be precisely defined. However, ‘some’ might be assumed to mean something akin to ‘less than a dozen’, and many might be assumed to mean ‘more than a dozen’.


The last key element we need for this structural specification is that of the mechanics of progress – specifically, when the progress is “banked”, which is to say, when and how ratcheted progress takes place. There are only two basic issues: when progress is banked in the internal game state (such that the player need not repeat previous activities), and when progress is banked in an external save file (or similar device) such that when they return to play at a future date, they do not have to repeat previous activities.

Notation: the following characters are used between Tasks and Activities to record when progress is banked: 

    .        progress can be saved at this point
    ,        progress is internally ratcheted at this point

Note that wherever ‘.’ is used to denote that progress can be saved, this can also be understood to mean that progress can be loaded from this point, i.e. play may continue from this point.

Imbedded Elements 

For ease of use, it is helpful to be able to imbed game structures inside a specific structural specification. For example, in the GTA games, there are many “mini-games” which can be found. The structure of each of these is scarcely worth considering as part of the overall structure of the game (although they could be described separately). In these instances, we can therefore note an imbedded element.

Notation: imbedded elements are placed inside curly brackets e.g. {game}

We are now ready to employ this structural specification in the analysis of game structures.



    noun or verb                  Unique, one-off Activity (e.g. a cut scene)
    [verb noun]                     Task
    [verb]                                 Activity
    (#| Task)                           Repeat Task # times; # may also be ‘some’ or ‘many’
    {game}                              Imbedded game (e.g. a mini-game)

    .                                            Save and/or load at this point
    ,                                            Progress is banked, but not saved
    -                                            Connector for unbracketed segments

Examples of Structural Specifications


Shadow of the Colossus:

    (16 | Briefing. [Navigate World][Cross Area][Defeat Colossus].)
                                [Find Tree][Collect Fruit]
                                [Find Temple
].[Hunt Lizard].

Play with Fire:

    (30 | Choose Quest, (6 | [Find Exit].))
                                                     [Cross Area].
                                                     [Solve Puzzle].


Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas:

    (many | [Navigate World][Briefing-Task])
                     [Find Game]{game}
                    (many | Find Token)
                    [Find Safehouse]-Buy Safehouse.



This is a provisional attempt at a notation for structural specification, but I believe it already shows great promise in the task of analysing how games are structured. In particular, its capacity to express apparently complicated structures (such as the playground world structure of GTA et al) in just a few short lines of tokens suggests that it may be possible to conduct useful structural comparisons using a system such as this.

This is still at an early stage of development, however, and it remains to be seen how viable it is for general use. The only way to find out will be to begin to use it and to explore relations between the many and varied structures of games. I look forwarding to seeing how this notation develops, and what we can discover though this particular lens.

The opening image is Structure; the artist is Tatiana (alas, I do not know her surname). I found it here. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied, and I will take the image down if asked.

Roger Caillois' Patterns of Play

In his 1958 book Les Jeux et Les Hommes (usually translated as Man, Play and Games), the noted sociologist and intellectual Roger Caillois introduced a terminology for considering patterns in games. He used the term 'game' in a very wide manner, applying it to all play activities. This is a partial consequence of his native language, French, where the term 'jeux' and 'jouer' express the concepts of both play and game in English.

Caillois' interest in games was sociological: the second half of Les Jeux et Les Hommes is a fascinating account of how societies relate to the patterns of play he identified, and is fascinating reading. However, the principle value of Caillois' work for modern game design is that his framework for considering games provides us a unique perspective for examining play.

The term 'patterns of play' was not used by Caillois, but I have coined it to provide a means to refer to the system. Caillois was keen to observe that it is not intended as a taxonomy.

The elements of the system are as follows. Firstly, there are four patterns of play:

Additionally, Caillois suggests that games can be considered to lie at various points on an axis between free creativity and rule-bound complexity:

Caillois' built upon prior work by Johan Huizinga, considered one of the founders of modern cultural history.

The Joy of Ilinx

Vertigo_1 Very little has been written about the ilinx (vertigo) of videogames, despite the fact it is an increasingly potent force in popular games. Ilinx is a pattern of play (identified by the noted sociologist Roger Caillois) associated with the momentary destruction of perception. It can be the vertigo of speed or of spinning, or it can be the intoxicating allure of petty destruction - of stomping on a sandcastle, for instance.  As the graphical realism of videogames has increased, the potential for supplying the play of ilinx has similarly expanded.

Caillois identified four cross-cultural patterns of play in his 1958 book Les Jeux et Les Hommes (Man, Play and Games). He described ilinx as follows:

Ilinx. The last kind of game includes those which are based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.

The disturbance that provokes vertigo is commonly sought for its own sake.

In early videogames, the graphical power was extremely limited, and it is arguably only recently that we have fully begun to explore the powerful effect of ilinx on players. It can be seen most clearly in any games with the illusion of speed, such as high speed racers like Need For Speed or Burnout, and also in snowboarding games such as 1080 and SSX. In these games, the sensation of high speed movement (which is often enhanced by special effects such as ‘speed haze’) serves to heighten the players enjoyment by artificially inducing a state of vertigo.

Of course, the vertigo we speak of here is not the nausea-inducing kind referred to in medical circles, but rather a vertiginous experience. A rollercoaster produces physical vertigo, but a video of a rollercoaster still produces a certain sensation akin to vertigo provided the viewer suspends their disbelief. Perhaps the clearest indication of this is the power of a car chase when seen on a cinema screen – we become swept away in the speed of the imagery. Physical vertigo is included in Caillois’ category of ilinx, but it can be extended to cover many peripheral situations, and it is these fringe cases that are perhaps most pertinent to videogames.

The videogames industry cannot deliver ilinx independently. Even a ride simulator which invokes vertigo is still drawing upon mimicry to achieve this affect. Ilinx, therefore, can best be understood in the context of videogames as an experience enhancer. Because mimicry is implicitly required for ilinx to function, it may be prudent to consider which of these two patterns of play is paramount for any given play: in a game such as Gran Turismo which identifies itself as ‘the real driving simulator’, authentic mimicry is given more weight than ilinx, whereas in a game such as Burnout, the ilinx of high speed movement is arguably more important than the simulation implied by mimicry. This can be considered a case of ilinx enhancing mimicry.

Ilinx can also be used to enhance agon (games of competition), although this is somewhat rarer as most games (Space Harrier not withstanding) can only achieve vertigo through mimicry; the game must simulate moving at high speed to induce vertigo states. Games which appear to use ilinx to enhance agon include the F-Zero games; the satisfaction (fiero) of winning a race in F-Zero is surely enhanced by the mad breakneck speed dash for the finish line - a few seconds of total consciousness destroying vertigo, followed by victory. It adds a degree of excitement to the experience, which heightens the eventual reward. Similarly, a game like 1080 Avalanche uses its ilinx to enhance the eventual payoff of victory: in the final avalanche levels, where the player is asked to escape from a rapidly looming wall of snow, the sense of vertigo achieved is almost palpable, and makes the eventual victory seem all the more sweet.

However, this is only part of the full scope of ilinx. Returning to Caillois' description of ilinx:

In parallel fashion, there is a vertigo of moral order, a transport that suddenly seizes the individual. This vertigo is readily linked to the desire for disorder and destruction, a drive which is normally repressed... In adults, nothing is more revealing of vertigo than the strange excitement that is felt in cutting down the tall prairie flowers with a switch, or in creating an avalanche of the snow on a rooftop, or, better, the intoxication that is experienced in military barracks - for example, in noisily banging garbage cans.

This aspect, which might be called destructive ilinx, correlates with the reckless abandon that is allowed by a game such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and its many relatives. I content that one of the reasons the recent Grand Theft Auto games are so successful at tapping into this side of ilinx is that they are not wholly realistic... The tone of the games is realistic in a certain sense, and certainly they are drawing upon mimicry, but there is an unreal quality. This is expressed in part by the shrewd choice of a non-photorealistic art style, and also by the presence of ‘game-like’ elements in the game world, such as “power up” tokens. This is real, but it is also a game. That empowers the player to, for instance, go on a murderous killing rampage, and laugh as they do it. I do not believe there is anything morally wrong with this, and the unreal quality of the game facilitates this freedom to misbehave.

For instance, there is something inherently pleasing about having C.J. (the protagonist in San Andreas) parachute out of an airliner, touch down in front of his family home, mow someone down with a chainsaw, and then opting to stand there and watch the neighbours pass by and make comments about what just happened as if it was the most natural event imaginable. This is not an appeal to realism (a mimicry experience), but as a destructive ilinx experience – as is smashing up every piece of architecture in Blast Corps, Mercenaries, Rygar: the Legendary Adventure or Otogi: Myth of Demons, and perhaps even going on a tree-chopping rampage in Animal Crossing.

Part of the success of the recent Grand Theft Auto games is that they cast their net wide (a product of their not inconsiderable budget, in part, but also the sign of a team who work well together). For instance, these games deliver agon, mimicry, ilinx and even alea (gambling, discovery et al). The contribution of the ilinx elements of these games should not be underestimated, however: when a game can make a person laugh dynamically (that is, without a narrative set piece) it is tapping into something deeply human. The “game realism” (versus absolute realism) constantly tells the player “this is only a game, follow your impulses”... it allows for a guilt free release of destructive ilinx. This can be understood in terms of Huizinga’s Magic Circle: whatever happens inside the game space is not a part of everyday life, and normal considerations are temporarily suspended. Those who attempt to replicate GTA in more realistic tones should think twice about their approach.

It should also be noted that you don't need to be violent to appeal to destructive ilinx. The Katamari Damacy games are built upon the ilinx of rolling things up – you are “destroying” the environment, but not in an overtly violent fashion. Some adults scream when you pick them up, but most children laugh – it's good natured chaos, not bloody carnage, and as the tiny narrative elements underline, no-one gets hurt. And again, it can make you laugh, especially when you pick up (say) your first cat, or you become big enough for people to run away from you.

The presumption that agon (competition) is the central element of value in videogames places limits on what should be a limitless endeavour: the creation of new play. There will always be a place for games that prioritise agonistic concerns, but it is important to understand that there are more ways to engage a player than by competitive urges alone, and one of those ways is to tap into the creative destruction of ilinx.

The joy of ilinx is reckless abandon... it can be the vertigo of speed, or of wanton destruction; it need not be violent, but it is always irrepressible - the temporary abolishment of conscious thought. And video games are a wonderful place to explore this category of play, since one can surrender to ilinx in a game, and nobody gets hurt. Well, at the very least, nobody real. I believe we will see more and more ilinx in videogames over the coming years as we continue to explore the limitless domain of play.

Revised 25/5/06 from an earlier post.

The opening image is Vertigo; a watercolour painting. I do not know the name of the artist, but I found it here. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied, and I will take it down if asked.



Have games become too dependent on health-based mechanics? Health is a common resource mechanic in videogames, and is easily understood by any player. Do certain types of games require health mechanics? Would you miss them if they were gone?


  • Health originally appeared in game designs as a more forgiving version of arcade-style 'lives', reflecting a change in the underlying interaction models from 'mistake = death' to 'mistake = loss of health'. Also, we are gradually moving from 'death = game over' to 'death = reposition' (e.g. move avatar to a hospital). Can we take this chain further?
  • In Shadow of the Colossus, certain actions by the player result in a timed penalty, at times when other games would inflict a health penalty. For instance, if one falls a great distance, it is a second or so before being allowed to move again. Similarly, a collision with a geyser leaves the avatar immobile on the ground for several seconds. Is this system an improvement? Or an annoyance?
  • Very few modern games posit an immortal avatar; death is pre-supposed in most games (Animal Crossing not withstanding). Imagine a GTA-type game in which the avatar cannot die. Vehicles can still be destroyed, and missions can still be failed. (Our pre-production game Bandits was based on this premise). How much would this hurt the play of this kind of game? Does avatar death provide a significant source of fiero by intensifying the risk of failure?


Busy working to finish up the PC version of Play With Fire... bear with me if blogging is fragmented for a while. Some things coming up:

  • I have enough of a basis for a structural specification that I might as well post my prototype  notation and get some comments.
  • I'm planning to hold a Play Specification Symposium, inviting all and sundry to submit play specs for games in largely identical genres - so we can compare the core play of related games. Hope there are enough people willing to give this a go that we might find something interesting!
  • Considering having some discussion on minimalist game design (e.g. Shadow of the Colossus) versus extensive game design (e.g. GTA). Also wondering if extensive game design could be considered 'baroque' in some sense.

And for those interested in what I'm playing:

  • Have had so many failed attempts on the Mother Brain. Have come close to defeating her, and know what to do - it's just a matter of making it happen now. Damn but this game is hard! They don't make 'em like they used to...
  • The last three colossi have been so dull... About the quality of a good boss from another game, i.e. old hat. I presume it's saving up for something good, though. Six to go...
  • I don't know how many hours my wife and I have racked up on Dynasty Warriors 3 now - a crude estimate suggests more than 200 hours. I still find new things to learn. Just beat the Combo challenge, so now (for the first time) I'm building Perfect combos. It's a whole new world for me, and I considered myself to be pretty well versed in the play of these games. When we finish our current pair of Musou modes (we play mostly in co-op), we will have only 5 characters left of the 40 on offer - and we still have one husband and wife team left! (There are five husband and wife teams in the game, but you must know the mythology to know who they are).

Have fun!

Introducing: Play With Fire

Fireball_bar2_1This is Play With Fire, AKA The Game Formerly Known as Fireball.

Sadly, an obscure company on the Isle of Man owns a word-only trademark for the name Fireball, and so we have to give it another name. Although it's not yet been confirmed with both of our publishing partners, the new working title is Play With Fire.

Speaking of our publishing partners, the PC release of the game is now less than two months away. Although no firm release date has been set, the latest playable builds are now substantially complete. There's some dotting of i's and crossing of t's to carry out, but I expect we will see the game available for download from Manifesto Games either when they launch or shortly thereafter.

We would like to hear from anyone in the gaming media who would be interested in previewing the game. There has been no coverage in any magazine or website thus far, so there is a world exclusive up for grabs. Anyone interested, please contact us .  Also, if any friends of the project would like to pull on their media links, it would be gratefully appreciated.

This has been a strange and wonderful project to work on; it's also the first game I have not only been lead designer, but director too. The existential vertigo is starting to get to me. I hope that this game's quirky identity and original gameplay will find an audience out there in the deep and echoing vastness of the internet. Please treat us kindly, as the Japanese say.

For more on the history of this  game, see the sidebar links.

Speculation on Neural Functions

Cosmicneural This is pure speculation.

Artificial neural networks were inspired by biological neural networks found in brains. Brain function, cognition and consciousness are all many orders of magnitude more complex than mere neural networks, so when I speak here of neural functions it must be understood that I am talking of a small subset of our hypothetical mental toolkit.

I am not an expert on biology, but I studied artificial neural networks in some depth as part of one of my degrees (albeit many years hence - I don't claim to be up to date on the field!) Here are some key properties:

  • A single neural network processes a complex signal to simple outcomes - perhaps an image to a true or false outcome; a collection of data to a category. Let us call this system a processor - it turns complex signal into more simple signals, and presumably in the biological analogue the simpler signals corrolate to actions.
  • Two neural networks connected to each other form an associative memory. In essence, one can teach such a system to remember signals - and once taught, even a fraction of the original signal is sufficient for the complete signal to be restored. I believe this is a principle component of human memory: interconnected neural networks functioning as a neural network. Let us call this system a memory.
  • The storage capacity of a neural network is proportional to the number of neurons. The human brain has 100 billion (US) or 1011 neurons. (Just for reference).
  • Neural networks have a particular capacity; when this capacity is exceeded, it is called saturation - signals within the network become confused and unpredictable. (I contend this is related to senility in biological organisms).
  • Neural networks consist not just of the neurons, but their connections. The more interconnections in a neural network, the more complex proceses can be rendered. (A memory system, incidentally, thrives on a simple connectivity scheme.)

I am identifying these two functions of neural networks - processor systems and memory systems to speculate a connection between two of the four temperaments in Temperament Theory, namely Artisan (Tactical skillset) and Guardian (Logistical skillset).

(Incidentally, I contend that one way to look at Temperament Theory is to consider not which of the four patterns is paramount for an individual, but to determine which Sensing pattern  - Artisan and Guardian - is paramount, and which Intuitive pattern is paramount - Rational and Idealist. This is just another model; pay it no especial heed. I mention it to explain that one can decompose Temperament Theory in certain ways).

I suggest:

The Tactical skills of the Artisan temperament may draw from the power of processor systems. People who strongly express Artisan have especial competence at, among other things, machine simulations - this might reflect the influence of processor systems in their neural architecture.

The Logistical skills of the Guardian temperament may draw from the power of memory systems. People who strongly express Guardian have especial competence at, among other things, remembering trivia (indeed, trivia games appear to be beloved by those who strongly express Guardian).

What of the remaining two Temperaments of this model? Both are dominated by the Intuitive function, whcih I believe might be related to the degree of interconnectivity in biological neural networks. Greater interconnectivity allows for signals to cross pollinate (I relate this to intuition) - but it also causes crosstalk which confuses one signal with another (I relate this to paranoia and schizophrenia).

Although I have no firm hypothesis for the value-oriented bias of the Idealist versus the logic-oriented bias of Rational, I believe both might be related to a higher degree of interconnectivity between neural networks - that is, whereas Artisan and Guardian represent the strengths of isolated neural structures, Rational and Idealist might represent interconnectivity of neural structures. Thus:

  • The Strategic skills of the Rational temperament may draw from the interconnectivity of processor systems with memory systems, perhaps with memory systems dominating. Logical patterns are drawn. The more the Rational temperament is expressed, the greater neural connectivity would thus be implied (and thus the greater risk of descent into paranoia or schizophrenia).
  • The Diplomatic (and Abstracting) skills of the Idealist temperament might also result from interconnectivity, but of a different kind - perhaps it results from interconnecting memory systems with processor systems, but with processor systems dominant. Since I am still studying this skillset, I am uncertain what to speculate here. But the more the Idealist temperament is expressed, the greater neural connectivity would thus be implied (but because of the importance of value systems, the risk might of descent into schizophrenia may be greater than the risk of  paranoia).

But this is pure speculation.

An Exercise for the Reader

  1. Think about the skills you have. How many of these skills seem to result from the capacity to read a situation and immediately deduce a course of action? This is where I place Tactical skills. Does it seem that proficiency in one Tactical skill applies in many different contexts, or just a few?
  2. Think about how you remember things. Consider not your memory as a whole, but how you remember certain categories of things. You remember, for instance, sporting trivia, or the plots of certain stories, or the names of plants or animals, or the components of recipies, or the lyrics of songs, or the faces of people you met... When you examine your capacity to remember, does it seem that it is all part of a single nebulous architecture, or can you detect divisions in how you remember these things? Are you, perhaps, better at remembering some kinds of data than others? How are your memories organised?
  3. When you inact a process - such as a recipe when you cook, or a craft process such as origami, or a mechanical process such as building a machine - are you aware of how you inact these processes? Can you bring forth an awareness of them? Do you find that a familiar process inacts itself, with no need to think consciously? This is where I place Logistical skills. Do these logistical processes seem related to memory, or to skills of the kind discussed previously?
  4. Do you think logically? Perhaps, by examining how certain situations unfold, and drawing a common pattern. Examine yourself while you think logically. What kind of process is going on from the perspective of your own consciousness? Do you find, following a chain of internal logic, that this process leads you to confident conclusions? To uncertainty?
  5. Do you think abstractly? Perhaps, you have certain strong feelings as to how things relate, but these relations cannot be expressed verbally (or at least, the internal process cannot be expressed verbally). Examine yourself while you think abstractly. What is it like? Can you express this experience?

Nothing contained in this post should be mistaken for truth or Truth. Thank you for respecting my right to speculate.

The opening image is Cosmic Neural Network, by Shoshanah Dubiner taken from Cybermuse. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.