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Only a Game

My name is Chris Bateman, and I am a professional game designer and an amateur philosopher, with particular interests in philosophy of language, mind, science and religion. I am quite taken aback to realise that in just two weeks time I will have been writing this blog for an entire year. A short while back, Chico of Nongames (currently engaged in comparing EA Sports predictions versus World Cup results) asked why I, who clearly feels passionate about videogames, would choose to call my blog ‘Only a Game’, a phrase he suggests is “often used to attribute a lack of relevance and significance to the medium.” For Chico, and the other friends who have welcomed me over the last year, here is the story behind the name.


Its_only_a_game_1 Only a Game

It may come as a surprise, given the sheer volume of posts here about videogames, game design, game research and the games industry in general, to discover this isn’t a blog about videogames. No, even accounting for my occasional forays into boardgame design isn’t going to cover the matter.

As a child, I was bullied by atheists who picked on my because at the time I was a Christian. This, unsurprisingly, reinforced my faith, although in later years, after the death of my mother, I found myself in a strange netherworld of ambiguous beliefs for some time. I explored all options, theistic, atheistic and agnostic. One of the more influential faiths I came across was that of Discordianism, an agnostic religion which a close friend of mine has shrewdly described as “Zen Buddhism reinterpreted for the West”.

In a section near the end of The Principia Discordia, the Discordian “Holy Book” (often correctly misidentified as a joke), is the following “Golden Secret”:

The human race will begin solving it's problems on the day that it ceases taking itself so seriously. To that end, [we propose] the countergame of NONSENSE AS SALVATION. Salvation from an ugly and barbarous existence that is the result of taking order so seriously and so seriously fearing contrary orders and disorder, that GAMES are taken as more important than LIFE; rather than taking LIFE AS THE ART OF PLAYING GAMES.

Nowadays, my faith has come full circle. My belief system has become expansive, and I can to a certain degree describe myself as a (free range) Christian, a (Sufi) Muslim, a (Zen) Buddhist, a (semblant) Hindu, a (pluralist) Scientist, a (fundamentalist) agnostic and probably a few more labels besides. I’m not sure taking any of those labels in the singular says anything meaningful about my beliefs as a whole.

But looking at just my religious and scientific beliefs doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about my belief system. To really get to the heart of what I believe, you have to dig into my philosophical beliefs.

The philosopher Wittgenstein, who has indirectly exerted a considerable influence upon my life, observed that language is best understood as a kind of game, a language game. When one comes to understand what was meant by this, one gets to appreciate that anything which is encoded in language – and by this, I mean to say, the whole of human thought – is also a game of some kind. Science and religion are games, of a sort, seen through this lens.

Even the process by which this conclusion is reached is a game, because ultimately the reality we experience is shaped and formed by the models we use to view the world – by our words, and hence, by our beliefs. (One could equally take a different path and conclude that everything is a story, but such is another tale).

The miraculously inventive Dutch artist M.C. Escher said: “My work is a game. A very serious game.” I feel similarly about my own work, except I’m not certain how serious it is. Rather I feel that reality is only a game, and that we are free to choose what kind of game we wish to play. Personally, I have chosen to live a game which is fun to play, built on love, and which values the enjoyment of nonsense (and squirrels!) over the “discovery of truth”. There are infinite alternative games you are free to choose.

This is not a blog about videogames, I just write about games often because it is easier than writing about philosophy. This is not even a blog about philosophy, although I would be happy for it to be so. This is a blog about me. That’s why it’s my blog. And like everything else in my life, it’s only a game.

The opening image is It's Only a Game by Christopher Mercier (oil, latex and enamel on wood), which I found here at Fluxco. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.

Death To All Fanatics!

ShoutThe world is a fascinating place, full of wonders and diversity. I never cease to find ways to enjoy my time here, and the fact that one day I will be dead and at peaceful rest only serves to enhance my love of the  time I've been given to explore this strange and marvellous planet.

Although I try to make my peace with everything as best I can, it's difficult to do so with  fantatics, those so deeply ensconced in their own belief systems (whether scientific, religious or otherwise) that they suffer cognitive  dissonance almost constantly, and must engage in curiously aggressive and hostile behaviours  to alleviate this internal pressure.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the murky depth of the gaming internet, where there are a seemingly endless supply of people who are so utterly convinced that their nervous  system is better tuned to the universe than anyone else's that anyone who expresses a contrary viewpoint must be wrong.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps the violent exchanges of flame wars in forums and the like are really harmless agonistic sparring between people who enjoy argument fervantly, and  enjoy the chance to test their verbal mettle against others. I'm certainly not against  people having the freedom to do what they choose; I have no issue with consensual activities  of any kinds, from prostitution, recreational chemicals to politics - do what thou wilt,  just remember that you must also take responsibility for whatever it is you choose to do. If  these arguments really are consensual, then they have my blessing - although leave me out of  it, please.

What frustrates me, however, is the nagging sense that there is some underlying intelligence  behind all this bellicose posturing. And it makes me wonder just how much distributed mental  bandwidth is being sqaundered on petty bickering that could be being put to work helping us  make better games.

As a professional game designer, I simply can't get enough information about what people enjoy about games, what annoys them, and especially how they go about playing the  games they choose to play. This stuff is gold dust, and I'm eternally grateful for blogs like Tea Leaves and their ilk that do a great job of expressing opinions about the play of  various different games. That the opinions are sometimes ascerbically worded is neither here  nor there - we all have to blow of steam from time to time - the point is, they are  coherently expressed opinions by players about the games they have played.

But unfortunately, most discussion about games on the internet is not of such a high standard. In fact, the vast majority of it seems to fit the following script:

[Game name] is the worst [game genre] ever! It doesn't even [do something that  another game I enjoyed did]. No-one should play [game name] and anyone who likes [game name] is an idiot. I can't believe there are so many idiots who like [game name!]


That's total [expletive]! How could you make such a stupid mistake  as [liking/not liking] [game name]! You're an idiot! I can't believe how stupid you are!

So predictable are these formats that all communications of this kind are effectively free from information. Apart from allowing for an eruption of emotion from the person responsible for  writing it, they seem completely without value.

Perhaps I am optimistic, to dream of a gaming community that uses their manifold talents and  skills to share information and viewpoints; to discuss the finer points of games and game design; to debate with each other about different possible approaches and their merits and costs; to talk about what they'd like to see, or like to see more of; in essence, to support  game development with their talents and insights instead of fighting valueless verbal wars,  full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

We will all die one day. Our time is short, and we should enjoy every minute of life that is  given to us - a gift from the great unknown. We are especially blessed, those of us that live in countries where the denizens have adequate shelter, plenty of food and a decent life expectancy - where we  are so surrounded by manifest blessings that we not only have many entertaining games to  play, but the time to enjoy them, and to enjoy talking about them.

Let no-one sqaunder so precious a gift.

Shadow of the Colossus

Shadowofthecolossus_ps2_1 Shadow of the Colossus is another attempt by Sony to produce a game with a unique artistic vision. It does not appear to have been motivated by a desire for sales – this could never be a mass market game – but rather as a gift to the Hardcore gamer, to generate goodwill towards Sony. In this regard, the game succeeds admirably, delivering an established play pattern (bosses) in an extremely polished package. Fumito Ueda and his team are to be commended for their work on this game, but this is not to say that there is not also room for criticism. 


The game is emotionally narrow, delivering chiefly awe (wonder and fear) and fiero (triumph over adversity), with the usual suspects of excitement and relief coming along for the ride. Indeed, delivery of fiero is the only reason to bother with a boss battle, which is a tired mechanic only surviving on the back of game-literate players having a great desire for fiero; witness Clive Thompson’s sermon extolling the virtue of the fiero of bosses (although he does not use the word himself).

This narrowness actually serves to heighten the experience of the game in many respects, and should not necessarily be interpreted negatively, but it comes at the cost of the player gradually becoming inured to the emotions being focussed upon.

The awe of the game is at its strongest when one faces the first colossus, specifically when one uses the L1 button to frame the camera such that the avatar’s and colossus’ heads are both in shot. The impact of this moment is tangible. However, as one makes one’s way through the sixteen colossi, the impact diminishes. Although there are several truly exceptional beasts the player is forced to slay, there are also many which feel about the same quality as the best bosses found in other games. Perhaps some players were able to sustain the feeling of awe longer than others; I would be interested to hear different viewpoints. 

The diminishment of the awe of the game is all the greater because the player’s experiences in the world of the game are emotionally flat. Boredom, and occasionally frustration, are the key feelings many players will get riding around the somewhat repetitive landscape. The luckiest players are those who can find some beauty in the desolation of the surroundings or who, like me, are so in love with animals that simply riding a beautiful horse is in itself a satisfying experience. Nonetheless, even satisfaction and fleeting moments of beauty are not enough to break up the pacing of the game which is essentially back-to-back bosses.

These bosses are remarkable and, unlike other games, each uses the same basic subsystems such that the player rapidly improves in their capacity to tackle these foes. There is much fiero to be gained in defeating them, heightened by a beautiful if slightly repetitive orchestral score, and some players will also experience a certain sadness and regret in killing such beautiful beasts. However, fiero is rarely delivered in large doses without the player having to struggle through a considerable volume of frustrations, and this game is no exception. I personally found this rapidly killed any sympathy I might have for the colossi – I became resigned to killing them, because it was the only choice afforded me and anyway, they annoyed me. 

The game does afford more protection against frustration than most; the avatar is significantly more indestructible than any other I have been given to take into battle against arbitrary bosses. Indeed, one rapidly learns that this is a “rough and tumble” game – even more so than the recent GTA games. One can fall huge distances, survive being punched in the face by a hundred ton giant and always has the option to hide away and heal up to full health. This was perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the game for me, as I relaxed into letting myself be thrown around like a rag-doll. It made me wish (as I often do) that more games afforded great latitude to the player in terms of their survival. It is sad and incongruous that the game still uses killzones to bound some of the play areas, especially as it is not always possible to understand why one great fall takes but a fraction of the player’s health while another is (defined as) fatal.


Soc3 The main task of the game is to solve the puzzle represented by each colossi, then climb and slay them. It becomes second nature after a while. Placing puzzles directly on the spine of the game like this narrows the appeal of the game, but given the game’s intended audience this isn’t a problem. It’s a nice touch that a sequence of hints is provided to bail the player out if they get stuck, although usually these verbal hints merely tell players what they have already worked out. Still, even this is helpful, as it reassures the player that they are on the right track. Anything to alleviate the frustration of play should be seen as an asset. 

Associated with this is locating the colossi, which is carried out via a somewhat clunky compass system, in which the player must hold their sword up to the light and move around until the beams focus on a particular point. This adds challenge where none is strictly necessary; if the game was interested in a wider audience, it would have made more sense to simply have the light from the sword point to the path forward when it is held up in this way. Since it is not, it is less of an issue, but it is quite telling to watch players in a shop try and work out what is going on when they activate the sword compass. Unmitigated confusion is the most common response. One can argue that since the audience for this game is going to be enjoying challenge, adding more challenge is an asset. To this I must ask: did anyone find the compass operation rewarding? I am open to the idea that they might.

Speaking for myself, I preferred to use the sword compass as an orienteering guide. I would take two readings in separate locations by conferring with the map, and use this to point out the location of the next colossus (a skill I learned from CB radio “foxhunting” games in my youth). I found this much easier than co-operating with the sword compass, but it did mean I had to use the game map which is perhaps the worst game map I’ve seen in recent years. The map is sufficiently unclear to begin with, without the strange clouds which clear away only temporarily when the player explores. 

I find it incomprehensible that the other half of the gameplay is “secret”. Indeed, I am grateful to Jack for telling me about the fruit and lizard tails (which serve as power ups, thus making the game easier) as I have no way of knowing if I would have discovered this feature otherwise! I consider it to be very bad form to hide (i.e. never tell the player, even in the manual) the mechanism by which the game can be made easier. All games are improved by granting the player the capacity to adjust the game difficulty to wherever they are most comfortable – whether at higher or lower difficulty. I can see no justification, beyond mean spirited denial, or an attempt to provide a small additional fiero payoff for players who “discover” this feature, for not stating this game element somewhere, at least in the manual.

Given how large and dull the game landscape is (although I personally entertained myself for many hours just riding around and mentally cataloguing the flora and fauna of this curiously spotty biome), why hide from the player the only two activities that can be performed? Shooting and collecting fruit, and hunting white-tailed lizards. (Not counting grabbing hold of birds and fish for a free ride). My enjoyment of the game reached a comfortable space only after being pointed towards these “hidden” tasks, providing a logistical backbone to the play, and also allowing me to control the game difficulty a little better. 

Horse The horse, Agro, while undoubtedly one of the better horses in games thus far, is a curate’s egg. On the one hand, it is beautiful to look at, the controller’s rumble feature is used to great effect, and the capacity to negotiate narrow trails by simply holding the X button and letting Agro guide himself through is enormously satisfying – one of the few places in the game design that the player has been afforded a certain luxury. On the other hand, insufficient motion capture animations were taken for mounting the horse, making this procedure rather annoying in its exactitude. I also was disappointed that while there are animations for hanging from the horse, one cannot grab hold of Agro as he runs past and then pull up into the saddle (or indeed mount neatly from a jump). These disappointments are minor, but they hurt what otherwise is one of the stronger features of the game.

Ultimately, Shadow of the Colossus attempts to deliver its artistic vision on a backbone of gameplay which is old and familiar. No matter how impressive the colossi may be, we are in little doubt that what we are experiencing is a supremely polished rendition of old familiar play, rather than anything new. Since what makes the game worthwhile is the unique experience of play, which is wonderfully realised, this need not be problematic. Still, the result is a game whose artistic vision can only be received by players who are already game-literate; already experienced gamers. I long for a game whose artistry is open to all comers; a game which can truly bury the ludicrous notion that games cannot be considered art once and for all. This is not that game.

Play Specification

The following is my play specification for the game; apart from various complaints that I will discuss at length below, this is a neat piece of game design: the gripping mechanics work superbly well and mark out the climbing elements of the gameplay as exceptional, and for the most part the toolkit the player is afforded feels surprisingly well rounded despite remaining completely static throughout the game. 

Shadow of the Colossus (Sony, 2005)
Specified by Chris

Move (walk, run, roll, swim - stick; swim underwater – R1)
Climb (climb up, climb across, hang on for dear life - R1 plus
              stick for movement)
Jump (horizontal, vertical, hanging, directed - Triangle)

Ride (walk, trot, canter, gallop - X;
           horse-jump – context sensitive;
           stand on horse,  hang from horse, jump from horse,
           full stop, quick start – special)
Call (shout, whistle – X; used to call horse, or to lure colossus)

Attack (swing sword, stab sword when hanging - Square in
                Sword context)
Aim and Shoot (Square in Bow context)

Look (at colossus ‘twin head view’ - L1; at horse – hold X;
             look from side to side ‘vista view’ - L1 with no colossus;
            zoom – L2)

Navigate (map reading - Start;
                     sword compass – Circle in Sword context)

Crouch (and restore health faster - R1)
Pick up (fruit or lizard tail – R1)
Forward roll (required just twice in the game – R1 + Triangle)
Comfort (Circle must be in Hand context and standing
                   in correct position, annoyingly)
Switch Context (D-pad although also context sensitive) 

The following is my structural specification for the game:

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

Control Criticisms

Before I go any further, I want to discuss what I feel is unnecessary complexity in the control scheme. Putting aside the issue that Ueda-san obviously wanted to make this game in a certain way, I nonetheless want to attempt to ‘fix’ what I see as a careless error in the interface design.

There is no value in there being three selectable contexts – Sword, Bow and Hand. The game would be improved by ditching the Hand context entirely. If this was done, the D-pad would simply toggle between Sword and Bow, with the advantage that any player would know what hitting the D-pad will do. (Although I’m sure some players quickly get to grips with the three states, this certainly has not happened with any of the players I have watched play the game, or with myself, even after some twenty hours of play). 

Why do we not need the Hand context? It does two things that I can ascertain. It allows one to comfort Agro using Circle (a hidden feature), and it is automatically selected when one picks up a fruit or lizard tail. Now since picking up items is context sensitive there is no reason for the Hand context to exist for this functionality. (In fact, I question the need for the pick up to be manually triggered at all – why not pick up fruit and lizard tails when you are in the correct position?)

As for comforting Agro, there is no reason for the player to hit Agro with their sword, and indeed doing so has no effect except to produce an incongruous tinny noise. Once again, there is no need for a Hand context at all: the Square button could comfort Agro as a context sensitive action whenever the player is standing nearby. 

I therefore conclude that the Hand context is entirely unnecessary and could be removed from the interface design completely, improving the game a tiny amount at practically no development expense.

While we’re picking at the loose threads of the interface design, I want to suggest that the Forward Roll verb is superfluous, and actually faintly annoying. It is used twice in the game – once in the tutorial segment, once in the final Colossus. However, I have frequently seen players trigger the Forward Roll by mistake (and done so myself) because Jump and Climb are used constantly throughout the game, and hence it is easy to trigger the Forward Roll accidentally while trying to climb. 

I strongly advocate avoiding overloading controls (multiple functions on a single control) except when context sensitive (and uniquely demarked) or as part of a game such as a fighting game in which arcane control systems are part of the challenge of play.

Lastly, I want to note that the swinging of the sword (Square in Sword context) actually does nothing much at all in the game (except being one way of killing lizards). You don’t use it to fight colossi (you stab them). This actually means that it would be possible (but not necessarily desirable) to do away with the contexts entirely. Square could be sword, activating the sword compass if not hanging on, or stabbing otherwise; Circle could be bow. I mention this as another example of how this interface could be simplified; it is debatable whether this particular change would be an improvement. Doubtless different players would have very different opinions, according to how patient they were with the context system. I believe if there were only two contexts, such that pressing the D-pad would have unambiguous effect, this would actually be sufficient. 


Soc2 Shadow of the Colossus is a triumph of minimalist game design, stripping away much of the conceits of a typical platform-action game and focussing on a handful of core strengths. The game asks the player to walk a particular line; those that manage to do so without experiencing excessive frustration are treated to a unique and marvellous experience. Others are left feeling they would rather watch the game than play it. 

This is a master class in videogame bosses; I would love to believe that there would be no need to make any more bosses in the wake of this game, but of course, they are the well-charted fiero mines of the Hardcore gaming community, and will be with us for some time to come. At the very least, I hope that other game designers will note how focussing on just a few key subsystems and working upon those produces a more satisfying game (and a more satisfying boss fight) than throwing in every idea one can think of with no regard for how they will fit together.

Like any masterpiece, Shadow of the Colossus has flaws. But many of these flaws are chiefly problems endemic to the games industry as a whole, such as an obsession with both killing and fiero. Indeed, this is a game which could be seen as the pinnacle of pre-existing game conventions; a highly refined product which fails to deliver any significantly new play, but instead offers a polished gem of a more familiar kind. But as with any jewel, be careful not to cut yourself on the sharp edges.

Symposium (end)


  • Discussion on boundaries of various kinds
  • Brief discussion of ontologies
  • An exploration of rhythm-action games in the context of exploring whether one must enjoy the basic verbs to enjoy a game.
  • Further discussion on the middle ground
  • Link to a catalogue of play specifications from this symposium
  • Concluding remarks

Discussion (1): Boundaries

Jack is exploring the issue of crediting to a game or game designer versus the contribution of the audience:

It seems wrong to credit the game or game designer with something they didn't come up with. Yes, it's surely a positive that the game can be played in a wildly different style than originally conceived, but is that a proper credit to the design itself?

I can see where you're coming from on this; I confess I hadn't thought of the play specification as affording credit to anyone or anything, per se (although I can see how this might happen). I tend to think of games existing in the head of the player - c.f. paidia games, which are invented by the player.

Take, for instance, the mildly popular sport of Warthog launching in Halo. I don't know much about this 'game', but it seems to consist of contriving explosions to fire the vehicle up into the air as high as possible. This to me is a game - and could be specced. But of course, this is in no way the play spec for Halo: Combat Evolved. Rather, it is the play spec for "Warthog launching".

What this comes down to, perhaps, is how one chooses to read a play specification. I read the play specification as a transcript of a player's experience of play. It's connection to the maker of the game is tangential in this role. But of course, the play spec can also be seen (and produced) as a transcript of the game design - in which case the implications are different.

Corvus comments:

Perhaps, if the tendency is for people to push past the core verbs designed by a game's creator, a different label for the project might resolve the issue? 'Play Specification' seemingly puts the emphasis on the play, not on the design. That would tend to put people in the "when I play this game I..." seat, which results in the inclusion of tactical verbs.

For me, I want the emphasis on the play and not the design, hence I am happy with play specification as a term, and how the system is working out. I have no problem with people adding additional verbs if that describes how they play and think about that play, if you see what I mean.

But an ambiguity is introduced by the possibility of creating a play spec as part of the design process, of course - as this is in no way a transcript of play. In this case, perhaps what we are producing is an intended play specification.

I find describing a play specification as a 'transcript of play' resolves these problems in my own head; no idea if this effect will work for other people, of course!

One of my guiding design principles is to try and create solid verbs without dictating HOW (or in what situations) the player will have to use them. It's difficult at times to strip that expectation out of the design and I found working on the Thief spec really helped me find some clearer paths through the process. You know, it also just helped me figure out why I don't care for the Hitman games. They designed this great core set of verbs and then structured the game so that you're forced to use them the way THEY intended. Slippery bastards.

Indeed, isn't this one of the more disappointing experiences: when a game has a great set of verbs at its disposal, but affords no capacity for the player to decide how to employ them? I'm sure certain players are happy with play of this kind: working out what the game design team expected you to do; other players will be frustrated by this.

It shows what happens when the intended play specification enforces itself too tightly, which is almost the opposite side of the coin that Jack was polishing.

And lastly on the topic of boundaries, Matt raises the following point: of your commenters raised the point about games that have built in the idea of, for example, the player being able to create ambushes and games which are just open enough that players can create this kind of tactic for themselves.

I wondered whether this could be subcategorized into games which were deliberately open ended (and hence made it easier for players to invent new tactics and modes of play) and game where this happens accidentally and whether there is any useful difference between them (or even examples).

I'm just theorizing because I have little practical experience to offer but I did wonder about the real boundaries that must (since every game I have come across is finite) exist around that openness, where those boundaries get drawn, and the impact this has.

Open and closed are terms that crop up often in the context of games, and game narratives, and as such are probably badly overloaded (i.e. a different term might be a better choice). Putting aside the terminological issue, though, I do think there is a marked difference between a game with an open play spec - which is inviting the player to experiment with the application of its verbs - and one with a closed play spec - one which is requiring the player to behave in a particular way.

The trouble is, it's going to be very hard to pry these two states apart in anything other than a subjective manner. Take the game Corvus mentioned above, Hitman. I share Corvus' frustration with this game, but I am prepared to believe there are players out there who thrive on having a more solid framework to work through; players who would consider the Hitman game as being really rather open in its play.

There's also no doubt in my mind that it's harder to develop an open game than a closed game, because one must focus on creating subsystems with the capacity to interrelate in unexpected ways. That doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing, of course!

Discussion (2): Ontologies

On the ongoing discussion of relating ontologies to play specifications, zenBen has this to add:

I originally conceived of using ontologies to define game structure because ontologies can be parsed and automated by pre-existing plugin software. Didn't actually do it yet, and I'm undecided as to whether ontologies are the right tool. But I do think that starting with a solid game spec would be wiser than implementing player-centred techniques with an ad-hoc idea of what is happening in terms of play mechanics. This, I confess, is my major interest in play specs.

I have to agree that in terms of game development, starting with a solid intended play specification is a good way to start. It provides focus. But I don't think we need any formal mechanisms for transitioning from a play spec to a working game. In fact, I doubt that such methods exist - although I would be delighted to be proved wrong!

Each of the basic verbs in a play spec represents a subsystem of varying complexity, and there is probably no way to work from the verbs to subsystems... The only exception to this I can think of would be if someone built a 'gameplay framework' (i.e. a game engine) which allowed the player to rapidly prototype by pulling together a collection of verbs and attaching them to the interface. The trouble with these kinds of idealised systems is usually that they take so long to make that by the time one has completed such a system, the technology is usually out of date! :)

Discussion (3): Dancing

Earlier, I said:

I contend: if you enjoy the basic verbs of an FPS, then the complexities in the middle ground become your entertainment and hence become relevant.

To which Jose replies:

I think this varies from person to person, as well as from game to game. I don't think you have to necessarily enjoy the "basic verbs" in order to have fun. I wouldn't say that the basic button-pushing of games like Dance Dance Revolution and Parappa are instrisically entertaining... (ok, here's a side note, what would a play spec for these games look like? Would they be remarkably similar?)

What an interesting challenge! Not only do you throw subjectivity back to me, but you give an interesting test case to explore it with.

So what would the play specification of a rhythm-action game look like? Well, I would like to suggest that these games are akin to playing a musical instrument. A notation is displayed on screen (in an animated form, but chiefly only to have a basis for timing response), and a set of responses are expected from the player. In a musical instrument, and in a rhythm-action game related to an instrument (Guitar Hero, Frequency) the different responses produce sounds, but in a dancing game, they produce nothing. (Rather, avoidance of the failure states - i.e. remaining 'in the zone' is the goal).

This is a case in which the individual buttons do not map onto verbs. But that doesn't stop us from having a play spec. Here's one suggestion, based on observation of my wife (who loves these games):

Arbitrary Dancing Game Specification
Specified by Chris

Hit-Beat (face buttons)

Compare this play specification for a wind instrument:

Arbitrary Wind Instrument Specification
Specified by Chris

Play-note (keys)  

It's the same, more or less. The enjoyment comes from getting into the zone (entering a flow state) - if one can do this with these games, one can enjoy these games. If not, one can never enjoy these games.

But is this the same as saying that one must enjoy the basic verb of a dancing game to enjoy a dancing game? I'm not convinced by my own argument here. Playing a note on a flute is not by itself fun (well, perhaps the first time - it's hard to get a note out of a flute!) it is being able to play a whole tune that is fun. This is a mid-level experience to my mind.

Similarly, although it is possible to enjoy the basic verbs of a strategy game, most strategy game players are perhaps neutral to the basic verbs but enjoy the play in the middle ground.

Let me therefore revise my earlier statement: the player must either inherently enjoy or at least be neutral to the basic verbs to enjoy the mid-level play. If they find the the basic verbs unpleasant, they cannot enjoy the game.

It's only a slight change from what I said before, but it's significant.

Discussion (4): The Middle Ground Revisisted

For his next trick, Jose goes onto explore the middle ground again:

I'd like to revisit the mid-level verbs we've been discussing and propose another possible term: subjective verbs. I think that we've pretty much agreed that basic verbs arise from the allowances of the interface (coupled with their interpretation by the game code). However, mid-level verbs are subjective in that they depend on human interpretation (plus context) in order to be understood. They aren't really designed per se.

I think that the subjective verbs are what REALLY provide the richness and depth to a gameplaying experience. Most FPS games are identical at the basic verb level, and differ only in the affordances provided by the gameworld in tandem with the basic verbs.

Let me start by saying that I can't bring myself to refer to these verbs as subjective as it then implies that the specification of the basic verbs is objective in some sense. I don't believe they are; there are many different play specs for any given game, for instance. Choosing different verbs will produce different tones to the play spec. (What fun we've had for the terminology in this middle ground - it seems that I can't persuade you with my suggestions, and you can't persuade me with your suggestions!)

Okay, terminology aside... I'm going to run with personal verbs as my phrase de jour. This should be taken as meaning exactly the same as the tactical verbs, maneuvres, techniques, compound verbs, synthetic verbs, emergent  verbs and subjective verbs previously mentioned. :)

We agree that these personal verbs aren't part of the design per se (although the design does facilitate them). You contend that they provide the richness and depth of the gameplaying experience.

I have to pause and think at this point.

On the one hand, the answer is that this is not guaranteed to be the case. In the example of the rhythm-action game we discussed earlier, there is no personal expression, no personal verbs at all; the enjoyment of play comes from the flow state which emerges from the basic process. Many games are like this, but it is not often as clear as it is for these.

On the other hand, it is undoubtedly the case that in both games of mimicry and games of agon there is a satisfaction to be gained from creating new behaviours and activities within the framework provided. 

Let me look further afield...

Thinking about Shadow of the Colossus, I find nothing in my play of this game that I need assign a personal verb for. The play of the game is nearly encapsulated in the basic verbs, and the structural specification. It's a very experiential game. Of course, you can counter that I did indeed use personal verbs - I dodged the fist of a colossus, perhaps, or I derived a path to climb. But I didn't get any enjoyment from these things. My personal enjoyment of the game emerged directly from the basic verbs. Another player may well have had a different experience.

Can I find an example of a game that I have enjoyed through the personal verbs of play? Yes. You note that Pac-man has as its basic verb Move (although I would be inclined to identify Move and Eat as two verbs in this game, with Eat being context-sensitive), but I still enjoy this game. I enjoy the "mind games" of trying to outwit the ghosts, although in point of fact there are dominant strategies which avoid this play. (Seems pointless to play without the mind games, though). This is one of the few games which I do have this experience with, although Joust is another, and no doubt there are more I'm overlooking.

I'd be tempted to say that this applies only to games of agon, but I'm certain that if one is attempting to play act in a game that the personal verbs will be at issue, and that would be a mimicry experience. Indeed, the use of an emote command in a MUD is exactly this. And it's certainly the case in tabletop RPGs that the personal verbs are the most valuable part of the play.

Perhaps it is rather the case that in games of intense interpersonal agon, like FPS games and perhaps chess, the personal verbs become more important because everyone shares the basic verbs as a toolkit and it is what the players do with them that becomes important.

As far as I can see, this varies from game to game, and quite possibly from player to player as well (as you said previously). My conclusion, therefore, would be a considerably weaker case than the one you propose - namely that one cannot assume from a simple set of basic verbs that the game is a simple game, as one must also take into account any additional play that occurs in personal verbs. But, conversely, it is perfectly possible for a game to be enjoyable within its basic verbs, or for the enjoyment to occur as a flow state entirely independent of the verbs!

It seems that both of our attempts to express enjoyment of play in terms of a simple statement have failed; all hail the endless variety of play! :)

Play Specification Catalogue

And as a fitting close to this symposium, Jose has generously decided to catalogue the play specifications collected thus far in a corner of the Game Ontology website. You can see the result here.

Concluding Remarks

I want to thank everyone for participating in this symposium. This has been an excellent chance to air out the idea of a play specification in a larger context, and to explore the consequences therein. I have personally found it extremely interesting and engaging, especially since different people have been pulled in different directions as a result of the same content.

I'm taking away a lot of things to watch for in the future, including the distinction between the personal verbs players create for themselves versus the basic verbs provided by the game, possible extensions for play specifications such as 'Enemy specs', and issues relating to how nouns are grouped and what this means to the player.

Best wishes to you all, and of course, feel free to continue the discussions in the comments.

Symposium (5)


  • One more play spec
  • Assorted discussions about matters arising
  • Tomorrow will be the last day of the symposium

Today's Contribution

Corvus of Man Bytes Blog has contributed this detailed play spec for Thief: The Dark Project, which you can see here with its original comments.


  • Move
    • look: up | down
    • turn: left | right
    • walk: forward | back | left | right
      • sneak*
      • dash*
    • Swim: up | down
    • lean: left | right
    • shift perspective: crouch | stand
    • jump
    • mantle | climb
  • Hide
    • hide self
    • hide body
  • Choose Objectives/Difficulty**
  • Purchase
  • Pickup | Drop
  • Equip | Unequip
  • Restore Health
    • Eat
    • Drink (potion)
  • Open | close (door)
  • Open | close (chest)
  • View Map
  • Attack (use equipped object with NPC)
    • strike: chop | slash | thrust (blackjack, sword)
    • aim (bow)
      • zoom
    • shoot (bow)
      • burn (fire arrow)
      • suffocate (moss arrow)
      • knock out (gas arrows)
      • sanctify (holy water arrow)
    • throw
      • burn (mines)
      • blind (flash bomb)
      • burn undead (flash bomb)                    
      • knock out (gas bomb)
  • Interact (use equipped object with environment)
    • Pick lock
    • Shoot (bow)
      • distract (noise arrow)
      • clean blood (water arrow)
      • douse torch/fire (water arrow)
      • light torch (fire arrow)
      • muffle (moss arrow)
      • create path (rope arrow)
    • Throw
      • create noise (object)


  • Garrett
  • Bystanders
  • Enemies
    • Town Guards
    • Hammer Guards
    • Undead
      • Zombies
      • Restless Dead
      • Hammer Spirits
    • Creatures
      • Burricks
      • Spiders
    • Craymen
  • Surfaces
    • Wood
    • Stone
    • Tile
    • Carpet
    • Grass
  • Weapons
    • BlackJack
    • Sword
    • Bow
  • Arrows
    • Broadhead
    • Water
    • Fire
    • Rope
    • Moss
    • Gas
    • Noisemaker
  • Tools
    • Lockpicks
      • Square
      • Triangle
    • Explosive Mines
    • Flash Bombs
    • Gas Mines
  • Torches
  • Holy Water fonts
  • Loot
  • Potables
    • Food
      • Bread
      • Cheese
      • Meat
      • Vegetables
    • Health Potions
  • Incidental (cannot be equipped)
  • Notes


  • Health
  • Visibility
  • Noise level

* Modifies walk. I considering making velocity an adjective, but opted for this notation instead.
** Since you can do this for every mission at the load out screen, I feel it’s appropriate to include it as a gameplay verb.

Chris comments: I'm going to suggest that 'Hide' doesn't quite work here as a category, as 'Hide Self' and 'Hide Body' describe two utterly unconnected activities in the game with nothing in common. Perhaps this should be two seperate verbs: Hide and Conceal? That aside, let me just say: what a convoluted specification! The cause: convoluted game design! :) I don't want to criticise Thief, but it's small wonder the game didn't do that well in the open market, and it's equally unsurprising that it has garnered a loyal fanbase in the dark recesses of game fandom (where complexity is an asset and not a liability). I only played the demo of this game, but that was sufficient for me personally. I imagine that Deus Ex, which I also only played the demo of, has a play spec of similar complexity since it shows the exact same disparity between appeal on the open market coupled with praise from fandom resulting from excessively complex game design. Both these games are trying to be closer to a narrowly channeled RPG experience than a flat FPS experience. For certain players, the games succeeded admirably.

Thanks for taking the time to do this one, Corvus! It's a great counterpoint to the simpler games we've already looked at.


A. Matt asks if I plan to maintain an online database of play specifications... To this I reply: I'm not yet ready to become a librarian. :)

B. Peter asks if I have considered how play specs might map onto regular expression languages or EBNF... An icy shudder echoes down my spine at the mere mention of Extended Backus-Naur form. I sincerely hope that FreeSpeak was my last brush with EBNF!

C. Peter also echoes an earlier suggestion (by zenBen) that this could be adapted to an ontology. Yes, it could, but I have no interest in doing this at this time. I completely agree that this could be done, and also agree that it could be useful, it just isn't necessary for what I want to use play specs for at this time.  I am interested in people's ideas for how this might proceed, however. For the time being, it is the subjective nature of the play specification process as currently defined which interests me, as it brings the barrier for use down to a comfortable minimum.

D. Donald raises this concern:

"I have a concern regarding these different "levels" of verbs: With the middle ground verbs (those determined by the player, such as 'prepare ambush'), some games plan for and facilitate these, while others just allow them incidentally. This seems like a pretty important distinction to me, and to group all of these together into one 'middle ground' category doesn't work... If a game designs to facilitate tactics, then they are an important part of the design, if it doesn't, then the tactics aren't game design, but player reactions."

It seems to me that, like Jose, you are letting your attention be drawn to the tactical and strategic choices the player might make in order to 'win' at the game. But play specifications aren't expressly about this. In fact, it is the least interesting aspect of the process for me. Reading Jose's description of the tactics he employs in Robotron was a facinating glimpse into how he plays this game, but it didn't in any way change for me my conception of the underlying play of Robotron, which his basic specification caught completely.

The argument above rests on the assumption that whether something has been designed intentionally or emerges organically out of the game components is a cogent distinction, which obviously from some perspectives it is. But from the point of view of play specification what is of interest are the activities the player can undertake - the play of the game - whether these elements arrive from accident or design is tangential.

He adds:

Strategy games are designed knowing that "flanking" and "ambushing' will occur.

If we were doing play specs for strategy games we'd see a very different pattern from shooters - because strategy games thrive on complexity. More and more of the play content of a strategy game will rest in the middle ground, and it will not necessarily be clear what elements of the middle ground of a strategy game will have arisen from the original intent versus emerging during development. From our perspective, as a player, it doesn't matter what was intended, does it? Play specification (in regard of an existing game) is not an attempt to read the minds of game designers, but to record the play of the game from the perspective of the player.

This topic continues...

E. Jack backs up Donald:

I think that's a great point, Donald. There are games out there, particularly some of the older games, that have become highly associated with certain tactics or playstyles that are at best perhaps "suggested" by the game, but not really actively fostered or inculcated in the player. In these cases it doesn't seem appropriate to attribute the relevant verbs to something that wasn't designed in--even if many players play it that way because they are experienced or they know better, I think the case that should be assumed is the player plays the game as given.

To this my question must be: why does it seem appropriate to attribute the relevant verbs to something that wasn't designed in? If it's how players play, it's part of the play of the game. Game design creates systems - when I design games, I actively hope that I am creating something that will be more than the sum of its parts. I certainly hope to avoid 'loopholes' in the game design that cause emergent dominant strategies (which reduce the variety of play by becoming necessities), but I actively want the game to lend itself to the creation of new play inside the core components. The design of Ghost Master is built around this very assumption! That is why the game comprises of so many elements for the player to experiment with and combine creatively.

F. And Kim is in the same mental space (leaving me feeling rather isolated!):

Take the FPS example of jump. Am I jumping over a pit of spikes (precision, direction important, may take my time) or randomly jumping during a firefight to make myself a harder target (precision, direction less important; orientation important, perhaps timing important).

Here I would contend that the purpose of a base-level Jump verb is environmental negotiation, therefore the verb Jump (an immediate verb emerging from the interface) is sufficient to describe the first case - jumping over a pit of spikes. The second case, jumping to avoid being hit could (and perhaps should) be specified as a  different verb, one in the middle ground in which the purpose of the activity is to make oneself harder to hit, perhaps described as Dodging (for the sake of argument); presumably weaving from side to side is part of this same middle ground verb, showing how verbs in the middle ground emerge from those at the base level.

As an aside, the fact that FPS games often include such inane behaviours as characters hopping wildly around to avoid being hit is one of the reasons I find them hard to take seriously! :) The discrepency between the play of a game which invites this and circle straffing as part of its central play, versus (say) paintball (in the real world) is striking. Very few games offer play which relates to real world gunplay at a visceral and personal level (although those that seperate movement and shooting like RE4 are arguably somewhat closer!) I'd like to suggest this is one of the reasons why watching people compete in our current FPS games is not much of a spectator sport - unless you play these games and can interpret the deranged motions in context, it looks quite ridiculous indeed! :)


Let me take a moment to reiterate my intentions for a play specification system:

  1. Critical analysis of play; in this role, distinctions between what is and isn't intended by the game design might be more pertinent, but I still maintain that part of the goal of game design should be to create more play than the base subsystems of the game suggest. This is open to debate, but I'd be surprised to hear a professional game designer suggest that they weren't happy when players create new play inside their game systems (except when the players stumble upon a 'dominant strategy' which reduces, rather than expands, the effective play of the game).
  2. Focusing the game design process; in this role, the most important advantages I see are better interface design (by seeing the relationship between controls and verbs) and a clearer understanding of the intended play of the game i.e. an appreciation of what the player will be doing. In this regard, the middle ground is considerably less relevant except in games whose play clusters in the middle ground (e.g. strategy games).
  3. Teaching game design; this is really an extension of (2).

Now for my purposes, the base level verbs and nouns are much more useful than the middle ground, which becomes interesting only when the middle ground defines verbs which embody entirely new elements of play - as with the verb Navigate in many games - the actual tactics and strategems players employ are of less interest to me. But this, of course, reflect my interest in play specifications and is not the only approach by any stretch of the imagination.

I would suggest, however, that if one's interest is in the tactics and strategems players deploy that play specifications may not be the best tool for the job.

Jose raised this issue to begin with because (allegedly) Chris Crawford has used the simple base level verb constituents of a shooting game to criticise the play of these games. Jose's defence is to focus on the middle ground and show the complexities that result from these base level verbs. I contend: if you enjoy the basic verbs of an FPS, then the complexities in the middle ground become your entertainment and hence become relevant. But if you do not enjoy the play implied by the verbs of the FPS, then the middle ground is irrelevant and never comes into play. Either way, the stepping point is the basic verbs.

From my perspective, where my interest is chiefly in how and why people play and enjoy different games, I feel strongly that the basic verbs are the most relevant component from an overall perspective. But I also freely acknowledge that in more complex games such as strategy games, the focus of play moves away from the basic verbs and into the middle ground, and also that players who enjoy certain games will increasingly find their enjoyment rooted in the middle ground, even though the play itself is formulated at a lower level.

Well, I now turn the floor back over to everyone else. What do you think? Am I being too narrow in my perspective by minimising the importance of this particular issue, an issue which at least four contributors to the symposium all believe might be crucial? How much do you think this whole issue hinges on whether one chooses to pay attention to the agon (competition) of the game rather than the mimicry (simulation)? Do you, like Jose, find the middle ground more interesting than the base level of the play specification? And if so, why? Do you think this reflects how you personally play, or something more fundamental? And do you think the intent of the game designer(s) is pertinent to the play that results, or simply the starting point from which the eventual play emerges?

I look forward to hearing your views.


I'll tie up the symposium tomorrow to make room for the Round Table. Thanks to everyone who has contributed so far; it has been fascinating to explore these issues in an open forum like this, and I am finding the areas of agreement and disagreement to be equally intriguing.

Best wishes!

Symposium (4)


  • Two new play specs
  • Further discussion of the various scales at which we can position verbs
  • Discussion of possible extensions to the play spec

Note: my publisher told me yesterday that I have just two days to review the page proofs for Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, so I'm in a flat tailspin right now. I might not have time to complete this post, and I'll certainly have to postpone Shadow the Colossus to next week. Thanks for your patience.

Today's Contributions

Jack from Gausswerks contributes two specs, one for Doom and one for Killer 7 here, along with comments on his specs which are worth checking. Much appreciated, Jack!

Doom (id Software, 1993)
Specified by Jack


Move (walk, run, turn, strafe, run over items)
Open/Search (operates doors and switches, also probes for secret doors)
Shoot (punch, chainsaw, fire guns)

Toggle Map


Doom Marine (avatar)
Weapons(Fists, Chainsaw, Pistol, Shotgun, Chaingun, Rocket Launcher, Plasma Gun, BFG)
Items (Health, Armor, Ammo, Powerups, Keycards)
Enemies (Former Humans, various Demons)
Boss Monsters (Cyberdemon, Spider Mastermind)

Chris comments: what a neat spec! Looking at this makes me understand why this game had such success: it's so easy to play. As Jack comments on his blog, there is no Aim as a significant verb, because the 2D controls mean that it is irrelevant. Jack's decision to include melee attacks into shoot is unorthodox, but logical, and further highlights the simplicity of this game.  This spec makes it look as if all future FPS games simply convoluted Doom's simple premise with additional controls.

Killer 7 (Capcom, 2005)
Specified by Jack


Move (run forward, 180 turn, navigate)
Aim and Shoot (primary attack, special attack)
Use Special Ability(Character-specific ability)
Access Map
Interact (Iwazaru, Travis, other)

[Menu Verbs]
Switch Killer (change into one of 7 killers)
Use Item
Replenish health

Upgrade abilities (at save points)


The Smiths (Dan, Kaede, Kevin, Con, Coyote, Garcian, and Mask de Smith - avatar)
Blood (collected from enemies, bonus for headshots)
Informants/NPCs (Iwazaru, Travis, Samantha, Harmon)
Heaven Smile (various enemies, bosses)

Chris comments: embarrasingly, I've still not seen this game running. Jack's comments note how, like RE4, this game seperates the Move and Aim/Shoot functions into discrete phases. Looking at the spec, it does seem like a very common set of verbs and nouns - the interesting elements seem to be the multiple avatars and some sort of progression mechanic (is it another case of cRPG style progression mechanics added to a basic shooter verb set?). It does seem at the level of the play spec, the First and Third Person Shooters are all very similar to each other.

Discussion (1): The Middle Ground

This follows on from discussion in day 2.

Jose and I are engaged in debate over verbs that emerge at the level of player choice, what was referred to as 'Tactical Verbs' in the first parst of this discussion. In the comments, Jose continues the discussion:

Regarding 'Tactical Verbs':...they still refer very much to "little picture" verbs. By this I mean that if you were to consider, say, a short time-slice of play (30 seconds), these verbs would easily have been carried out by the player many times!(How many times do you dodge in 30 seconds of Space Invaders?)

This is in contrast to "very high" verbs that might apply to a much longer segment of gameplay. For example, we could argue that Donkey Kong has only 1 high level verb: rescue (the damsel in distress). (a separate, yet related, discussion would be how the higher-level the verb, the more similar it becomes to a goal)

The work I've been doing on structural specification covers these "very high" verbs, I contend. The verbs of a structural specification correlate with the goals (and sub-goals) that the player undertakes - such as 'Rescue' in the case of Donkey Kong. These are also the macroVerbs in Patrick's terminology.

Anyways, I think that for now we should pick a term to refer to the level directly above the micro-micro verbs and that having multiple categorizations is perhaps too soon. As we start to come up with more and more verbs we can organically see what new categories we might need to refer to them.

This is a sensible approach; I agree that it's premature to group them, but from my perspective I can already see how they relate to the DGD "1.5" model, and therefore the temptation to organise them in this way is palpable.

(Jose; when you say that you're not all that familiar with Temperament Theory, it makes me wonder if I just haven't written enough about it. I thought I'd bored people into the ground with that side of my research efforts... The distinction between Logistical and Tactical play alone is becoming more apparent as I continue informally accumulating case studies. Something to return to after the symposium, perhaps.)

Jose dismissed my suggested term 'maneuvres' as implying movement. I concur.

So, how about considering different verbs from the perspective of WHO assigns their meaning. We can consider as microverbs those verbs that are interpreted by the computer. Based on the input received from the player, the computer/progam decides what verb is carried out in the game.

Macroverbs, on the other hand, are interpreted by humans. (ooh! you're dodging! fleeing! preparing an ambush!). The computer doesn't really have any semantinc understanding of what is going on. So, perhaps we could use "semantic verbs" to refer to macroverbs.

From my perspective, I have always viewed the play spec as being rooted in the interface. This is why when I write play specs I now include the controls. Indeed, from a game design documentation perspective, one of the advantages of the play spec is to clarify the interface for the game. However, the play specs have always also included verbs that emerge at a higher level of abstraction (but below the structural/macroVerb level).

However, I've always let the play specs branch out to include verbs that are non-atomic. The most common verb of this kind in my play specs is Navigate. There is not and perhaps cannot be a navigate button in a game, but navigation is nonetheless a vital component of play in many games. Consider what the Navigate verb implies (in terms of play) in GTA (with its detailed map and clear markers) versus Shadow of the Colossus (where a terrible map is compensated for by giving  the player a manual compass).

I feel we're getting closer to a reasonable term, but I can't back 'semantic' because why should these middle ground verbs be more associated with meaning than the high level or low level verbs?

In terms of Patrick's microVerbs and macroVerbs, I think the correct phrase would be mezzoVerbs.

However, in terms of general language use, I feel we need terms which are immediately understandable. We have three degrees of abstraction we're considering:

  1. The immediate verbs (or atomic verbs) which are the basic actions of the game, that correlate broadly with the actual interface
  2. The middle ground verbs which reflect the choices the players make.
  3. The framing verbs which apply at the structural level, and therefore should be considered as part of structural specification and not play specification.

Since play specs are subjective, everything in (1) and (2) can be legitimately be referred to as just 'verbs' in the general case. This being so, we could actually sidestep the need to label (2) at all, and simple label (1) more precisely. Nonetheless, I don't think we're ready to let go of labelling (2) just yet.

Let me suggest for the next leg of this discussion:

  1. Verbs refer to those verbs resulting from direct actions within the interface.
  2. Techniques refer to those verbs that emerge from the play of the game. These include verbs like Navigate, which are procedures emerging from components of the game (such as maps, markers and compasses) and also directed activities like Lead, Dodge and Flee from the "tactical" arena.

An advantage of this system is that those who want to seperate out 'Techniques' can do so, but anyone who doesn't is free to include the Techniques in the Verbs category, preserving the subjectivity of the notation.

(Terms I threw away while formulating this:

  • Simple and Compound verbs
  • Atomic and Synthetic verbs
  • Direct and Emergent verbs

Thought I might as well share these).

Or, as an alternative:

  1. Direct or Atomic or Interface Verbs
  2. Technique Verbs

I urge further discussion on this point, and input from anyone participating in this symposium is warmly welcomed! I know it's only terminology, but as I've said before, a good terminology aids in both understanding and remembering a system of thought, and as such is worth striving towards.

Discussion (2): Extending Play Specs

Various issues have arisen regarding extension or codification of the play specification.

A. Donald addresses the issue of enumeration of nouns in the comments to Symposium (3):

I noticed how under NOUNS some people listed off every type of enemy in the game, and then some (like me) just say 'enemies'. Of course either way works, but I think if you say 'enemies {n varieties}' or something like that, then you don't have a cumbersome list, but you are able to tell if the game has a few or a lot of different enemies, which to me is pretty important since gameplay often revolves around how you deal with different enemies.

I agree that it is highly desirable for a play spec to work towards abstracting nouns into related categories - but I believe (and I think you do to) that it must remain a subjective decision as to whether one choose to group in the largest possible category e.g. Enemies, or whether one chooses to group at a different scale. For instance, in my Nemesis/Gradius spec I collect into three bins: Foe, Turret and Boss. There are many different foes, many different turrets and a few different Bosses. I could have grouped these all together as 'Enemies' but in terms of how the game plays the distinction between the moving Foes and the stationary Turrets feels pertinent.

Perhaps it would be prudent to recommend in the context of play specs:

"It can be helpful to try and group the nouns together into related categories. You can use as many or as few of these categories as you feel is appropriate."

B. Jose suggests speccing out the verbs for the Enemies. This has always been implied in the play specification process, the fact that people don't feel the need to do this suggests that any such "Enemy specification" should be a separate but related extention to play specifications, rather than part of the play specification itself. The play of the game only takes place in the player, after all! (Although animists may believe differently).

That's all I have time for today, I'm afraid! Seven participants so far. The Round Table kicks off on Monday, but I'm away until Tuesday... I had planned to get the symposium launched the week before the Carnival, and hence two weeks before the Round Table - but I got my dates wrong! I don't want to get in the way of the Round Table, but I don't want to curtail the symposium unduly. I guess we'll see how things look on Tuesday.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Symposium (3)


  • One new play spec today, and no additional discussion.

Today's Contribution

Donald Gay contributes this spec via the comments (thanks Don!):

Re4_3 Resident Evil 4 (Capcom, 2005)
Specified by Donald


Move {walk, run, strafe, step backwards, 180 turn)

Context Sensitive Actions {climb, dodge, swim, jump, roll, open, close, push, pull, hide Ashley, and various other specific tasks which all involve pushing one button or a combination of buttons when the game tells you to. This includes the interactive cutscenes}

Aim and Shoot
snipe (a variation of aim and shoot)
grenade (a variation of aim and shoot)
knife (a variation of aim and shoot)


Stay/Follow (commands for Ashley)

Kick (even though it is context sensitive, kinda, it is a part of combat and not only used in special circumstances)

Pick up (Item)
use (item) {heal, special items, read notes}
combine/mix (items)
arrange (items)

Look around
Look at map

Shop {buy item, buy weapon, upgrade weapon, buy special item}


Leon (avatar)
Animals (you can interact with them, but most don't do that much. A few animals when interacted with provide items, like fish and chickens)
Environmental "obstacles" {fences, windows, doors, ladders, etc. Most environmental obstacles are interacted with using the context sensitive verbs}
Items {health, ammo, special items, notes}


health {Leon's and Ashley's}

Chris comments: I'm so glad you decided to do this one, Don, because it's a fascinating case. Firstly, some minor comments on your notation choices. Grouping the context-sensitive actions together was a great move, although I'd personally seperate out the "QTEs" from the actions. I'd call the context sensitive actions just "Action" - it's a nice robust term. :) I'm not sure what verb describes the QTE's, since 'annoying' isn't a verb. :) Perhaps 'React'? As ever, I say these things not as criticism but to explore differences between how I would do it, and how you have chosen to do it. I find these distinctions consistently intriguing! I really like the way Don has grouped subsidiary verbs into headings - this is really nice touch, and adds to the expression.

"Aim and Shoot" - a play spec can't really bring out the most unusual aspect of the game which is that you can't Aim and Shoot together. Other shooters can - but on consoles, only by resorting to twin sticks (two dimensions of control for each action). RE4 makes you pick: either Move or Aim. This allows it to have single stick control, making it easier for a wider audience to play. I consider this part of the game design to be borderline genius. I suppose we could introduce a symbol to reflect this sort of state: perhaps 'Move | Aim', for instance. Worth considering.

Now a few things which make this game interesting that Don's spec really brings out. Firstly, this is clearly very much in the vein of the modern run and gun shooter, having Move, Aim and Shoot at the core of its play. Earlier
Resident Evil games placed much more of a premium on dodging opposition; in RE4 its gunplay all the way. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, are the presence of 'arrange items' and Shop (with its subsidiary verbs) - because these are verbs we would normally associate with a cRPG. And this really is what sets RE4 apart, in my opinion - it takes the tone of survival-horror, couples it with the basic verbs from a run and gun shooter and tops it off with RPG-type elements. It's a fairly unique fusion, and it works extremely well.

Don's participant number six, placing us halfway through - thanks for taking part! I'm inclined to leave the symposium open over the weekend and see what we get, but I'll aim to tie it up before the next Round Table kicks off.

PS: finished Shadow of the Colossus last night - I'm going to spec this tomorrow and include it as an aside in the symposium because, strange but true, it has Move, Aim and Shoot as part of its verbs. :) Of course, it's no shooter - but its the verbs we're tracking, not the genre terms.