Metaphor in VideoGames - Some Do's and Don'ts

For our project this semester, we're exploring metaphor as a communicative device in games. This has required the development of certain strategies for navigating this space. In this blog post, I'll give a high level overview of a few do's and don'ts for incorporating metaphor into games.

1. Don't be too on-the-nose: Going into our project, one of our biggest concerns was ensuring we do not telegraph the meaning of our metaphors to our audience--whether through obviousness or explicit explanation. There were to main motivations behind this concern: First, obvious metaphor leads to artistic failure. Good art can contain both obviousness and metaphor, but it rarely contains obvious metaphor (think bad poetry). We don't want our game to be cringe worthy. Second, obvious metaphor is less communicative than metaphor that requires audience engagement. While this might seem counterintuitive at first (Isn't an obvious metaphor the most communicative?), the truth of this claim lies in the game's longterm impact. And obvious or overtly explained metaphor will go in one ear and out the other, while a metaphor with which the audience must grapple and engage until they reach a "eureka" moment will stick with them longer due to the sense of ownership and discovery involved.

2. Do provide some reference point: While we don't want our metaphors to be obvious, we also don't want them to be obscure to the point of total unintelligibility. Thus, there should be some familiar element in the game around which players can orient themselves and through which you can "prime" them before their encounter with your metaphor. In our game, media player-like controls serve as this reference point. While they don't behave like those of a typical media player (after all, it's a game), they would not appear to behave totally randomly to someone well-versed with such controls. For instance, in one scene, pause causes a city to lose its power and all cars to disappear off the street. This functionality should make sense on some level to anyone familiar with the normal function of a pause button. Another technique we use to provide a reference point is intercutting short montage segments between our gameplay segments. These serve to "prime" the player, essentially controlling their head space indirectly.

3. Don't allow the mechanics to overshadow the metaphor: A major risk when attempting to use metaphor to communicate within a game is that the addictive nature of the game mechanics could prevent the metaphor from getting through to the player. Much like repeating a word can reduce it to a meaningless sound, the metaphorical meaning of your game falls away as the player falls deep into the comforting arms of addiction--focusing purely on the game mechanics. In our game, we avoided this pitfall by focusing on montage and juxtaposition of interactive "clips"--with some thematically consistent "packaging" (the media player buttons) around the variously designed mechanics contained within each clip. We do not have a single core mechanics that develops along a refined difficulty curve, as we feel that such a design could undermine the communicative power of our game.

4. Do make the player care: While avoiding addicting mechanics is important, equally important is ensuring that the game will hook the player emotionally. Imagine someone plays your game and says "I can see there's a lot of meaning here, but I don't care enough about it to investigate any further." This is a scenario we wish to avoid. In our case, we're doing so by selecting striking imagery for our game. If the player thinks anything could happen next, then we have their attention. Even if at first they're only sticking around because the game is "so weird," they're still ultimately tuned in and listening as the game's meaning develops. And hopefully, their view will become more nuanced as the game unfold.

I observe that (1) and (2) are extremes on a spectrum ranging from obviousness to total obscurity. And (3) and (4) are extremes on a different spectrum ranging from addictive entertainment to non-entertainment. Navigating these axes has constituted much of the design focus of our project. And keeping these considerations in mind will become ever more important as the semester reaches its end and we continue to tweak, refine, and polish our metaphors.