Video Game Analysis: Use Your Words To Show Me

Editor’s note: The following blog was written by a Opinion-blogger. The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of NordicGameBits or the other writers and authors of the community. 

I’m back!

Sorry for missing last week!

Anyway, today we’re going to talk a bit about level design and how our model can help us think about that sort of thing. As always, I’m sufficiently bookish to believe that doing an analysis of an existing game is a good way to demonstrate this, but sufficiently practical to insist that the point of doing such an analysis is exactly to understand practically made design decisions.

I hope it is clear to everyone, by the way, that while I certainly advocate analyzing as many of your decisions as possible, it is neither practical nor particularly desirable to analyse every decision you make in a creative process before you make it. As in all other processes, sometimes you need to maintain momentum, which prohibits looking before you leap. On your way down, though, a good and careful look at your trajectory can be a way to bring sub-conscious instinct to the surface, so you can create leap-worthy situations in the future. Alright, maybe the metaphor was stretched too far there.

The point is that analysing decisions you have made or work that reflects decisions you or other people have made, whether those decisions were conscious or not, can help you learn to make better decisions in the future.

Anyway, let’s try and apply the model in som good old fashioned video game analysis.

(You remember the model, right? It’s drawn kind of like this:




and formulated for our game-analytical purposes like this: A message is conceived by a developer, who attempts to express this by placing formal elements into a game. This game is then filtered through a discourse and an interpretative act and becomes a perceived message in the mind of the player.)

The model can be deployed to structure analysis of quite complicated level design – we’ll try to look at a situation like that sometime – but to illustrate the kind of questions we can examine through it, I want to look at a fairly contained level. The classic genre of Point-And-Click Adventures is a good place to find such levels, especially at the beginning of them. For convenience let’s look at one that is readily available, namely the first episode of the game Hector: Badge of Carnage by Dean Burke and Kevin Beimers, working at Straandlooper (iOS, Windows, OS X). I’ll abbreviate the first episode of the game as HE1 below.

So this is the first level of HE1:


What do you do? Well, the game uses distinctive formal elements – the interface located at the bottom of the screen, the slots for items, the movie-like black borders – to indicate that it participates in a specific discourse: the point and click adventure game genre. Alternatively, the game may be played on a device with a touch screen, utilising that basic interface technology as discourse that indicates poking at the screen as a way to interact. Either of these explanations mean that presumably the player will point and click, which wakes up Hector, introducing another formal element:





Ah, the witty repartee of an adventure game! Dialogue is often the principal formal element in the adventure genre, indicating the link back to the genre’s roots in text-based adventure games. You can’t hear it in the screenshot above, but Hector speaks like all the other characters – all voiced by Richard Morss – with a distinctive comic brit accent. This underlines what the formal element of the construction of the line of dialogue is trying to say: we’re in a world of verbally dynamic, lewd humor. This is backed up by the formal elements in the graphics of the scene. You’re playing a cop who wakes up trouser-less in a drunk tank after a binge drinking. And yet, the intro cinematic – which I won’t look at in detail – clearly states that Hector is the most intelligent member of the police force.

All these elements tell us one thing: we are in a satire.

But we’re also in a game, and here are – with reference to the last post I did – the two parts of the tutorial in HE1:



The first picture builds on the satire-like tone of the game itself. The actual tutorial picture, though is straight and to the point. This indicates clearly that HE1 is a conten-based satire, not a gameplay-based satire. That is to say, the game rules and control schemes will follow the standard discourse for the genre, and the inventiveness and humour will be the surprising, witty and satirical content, that is – basically – like a moving audio-enhanced graphic novel.

So the level design question in HE1 is the same as in most point and click adventures: how do we indicate what the player can interact with, without making it too obvious, what she or he has to interact with?

The environment and the interactable objects blend together seamlessly in the design of HE1. There is no clear use of colours, lighting or placement that denotes what can and cannot be clicked. However, it is clear that the door out of a cell represents a good option for a click, so let’s click it and see:


Alright, let’s double click on it to use it and open it:


Rats! We’ll have to explore a bit to find a way to unlock the door, then.

But how do we know where to look? Well, there’s a key place that needs to be clicked in this level and there are distinct formal elements being deployed to subtly indicate it should be clicked.

I’m referring to the toilet.

The player will soon pick up on the lewdness of the game, when she or he clicks around. As a rather innocent example, here’s the comment Hector makes when you click on the nude poster on the wall:


This – as well as the art design of the drunk tank you begin in (actually just the fact that you begin the game in a drunk tank could do the trick) – makes the possibility that the toilet unlike in many other games might be an interactable object in HE1. If you look at the toilet, you get the following comment from Hector:


Note that the line includes the word use, which is a subtle hint that you should try using this object. If you do that, then you get this reaction:


Really, what did you expect?

But you also get this comment:



This shows two things:

1) That guys’ll wait until after they’ve started urinating to really look at what they’re aiming at.

2) That we need to examine that toilet closer.

Trying to use the toilet again gives us this line:


Notice how Hector explicitly says that he’s not sticking any part of his body down there, leading you to think about what sort of object you might find that you could put down there. Oh, and he also says explicitly that we should look for something to scoop out the paperclip. I really don’t think it’s necessary to spell it out that much, but both sentences point us forward in the level again – now we have a new objective: find something to fish for paperclips in a clogged toilet.

Video games are glamorous, escapist things!

Next week – I hope 😉 – we’ll gander at a few more subtly indicated ways through the first level searching for a good thing to put in a toilet, as well as one or two other level design choices that are more about underlining the discourse established.

See you then!

Mikkel Lodahl

I’m an associate professor at the Dania Academy of Higher Education in Grenaa, Denmark. We offer two AP level educations focused on game development, one for programmers and one for designers. I teach a flurry of different analytical disciplines, and I will be blogging about various forms of analysis from gameplay and narrative analysis of games to marketing analysis and even occasionally object oriented analysis in relation to game development. My focus is on making analysis a practical skill. I hope to produce insights and lessons for use in further design, rather than analysing for pure fun and knowledge – though that certainly also has its place. Oh, and a warning: I have a weird background for games – philosophy and the study of religion – which may bleed through from time to time. I will try to blog at least once a week – always on Thursdays, occasionally also on Mondays.

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