Shovel Knight

Nostalgia & Heritage

As part of my ongoing musings on subject of nostalgia in game design – hell, I’ve probably written enough of these that I can get away with calling it a ‘series’ by now – I’ve been thinking a lot about the benefits and the disadvantages of designing a game around a feeling of nostalgia.

It’s been pointed out, rightly, by many that nostalgia can work as a crutch for designers – by adhering to a template set out by games of the past they can sidestep a lot of the responsibility to come up with engaging game mechanics and systems. They can tap into a pre-existing audience more concerned with re-living the aesthetic of their youth than seeking new gaming experiences.

These are valid criticism of nostalgia as a design practice, and there are many examples of cynical nostalgic design out there. However, today I want to talk about what I consider an important benefit of nostalgia in gaming culture; that nostalgic design helps preserve the heritage of the games industry that might otherwise be lost to new generations of gamers. Continue reading

zelda wii U

The Value of Nostalgia in Design

nostalgia: noun, a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.

I’ve written about nostalgia in games a few times before; once when considering how picking up a new take on a beloved genre can feel a bit like coming home, and again – a little more forcefully – when the validity of obvious nostalgia projects on Kickstarter was brought into question.

But at risk of writing pretty much the same thing over and over again – perhaps I’m getting nostalgic for my own articles now – I’ve been thinking more about nostalgia in games recently. Perhaps it’s because I’m at a time in life when the lure of older, simpler times is particularly strong, or perhaps it’s just because I’ve been playing the HD remake of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, a game that can instantly transport me back to being a carefree thirteen-year-old.

There’s something special about diving back into a game you know and love well. It’s not unlike re-reading a beloved book or returning to a favourite childhood film. It’s a feeling of comfort, a bit like belonging. Continue reading


Adventures in Unity #1

I recently attended an excellent panel on game narrative by BAFTA’s games arm, featuring such games writing luminaries as Georg Backer, William Pugh, Jennifer Schneidereit and Rhianna Pratchett. It was all-round an extremely worthwhile discussion, and I recommend anyone who’s interested in the subject of writing for games to check it out on YouTube here.

The main thing that I personally took away from the session was that if you want to write for games, then you need to be able to understand how games work, and be able to bring something to the table other than your writing skills.

Now I like to think I know how games work, which is why I write about them so damn much. Years of playing, designing and theorising about games has given me what I hope is a reasonable understanding of what makes a good game different from a bad one. But I don’t know how they actually work on a mechanical level – I can talk a good game, you might say, but I certainly can’t build one from scratch.

Now there are a ton of tools out there that enable people inexperienced with coding to design and build games – but I’ve decided, with my latest novel finally released (oh hey, look, you can buy it here) and more time of my hands to focus on game-related stuff, that I’m going to teach myself to use Unity. Continue reading

Dark Souls 2

Ambiguity in Narrative Design

Following on from my initial attempt to dissect the narrative design in From Software’s Souls series, I wanted to take a longer look at one of the key aspects of storytelling in a Souls title; specifically the ambiguity of story delivery.

Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls are games that require the player to do quite a bit of legwork to piece together their stories; rather than offering a straightforward narrative with obvious plot and backstory components, they ask the player to assemble the story from myriad often cryptic clues hidden around the game world.

But even the most diligent player won’t be able to piece together the story in its entirety, because the complete story doesn’t actually exist, at least not outside the heads of the studio’s writers and designers. Players are presented with enough information to make an educated guess about the complete plot, but never enough to truly prove or disprove one another’s theories.

It’s possible that From Software actually have the complete version of the plot for their games written down somewhere, and have chosen which parts to withhold from players in order to enhance story delivery and the series’ trademark sense of mystery. It’s also entirely possible that no one really knows what’s going on and the designers are just chucking this stuff in the game to be deliberately obtuse. Continue reading

Dark Souls Pygmy

Narrative Design in Dark Souls

This post doesn’t contain any spoilers for any of the Souls games, so rest easy, fellow undead.

I’ve been meaning to write about the Souls series’ unique approach to narrative design for a while, but, well, I’ve been playing too much Dark Souls II. But as I’m bearing down on what must be the end of a 70-ish-hour playthrough I figure now is as good a time as any to discuss the way these games tell their stories.

I remember first playing through Demon’s Souls back in 2009 and thinking to myself ‘this game is awesome, but would be way more awesome with a proper story.’ It seemed at the time to be a game heavy with atmosphere, but light on storytelling.

By ‘proper story’ I meant the way most roleplaying games deliver their narrative; via dialogue, cutscenes and text dumps. Wouldn’t it be better, stupid, unperceptive 2009 me thought, if Demon’s Souls featured lengthy dialogues with its characters, cutscenes depicting their exploits, and Elder Scrolls style text books to expound its lore?

No, 2009 me. It wouldn’t be better. It took me a few playthroughs of Dark Souls before I really understood how elegant the story design is in these games, and how much more interesting this approach is than that employed by most other games in the genre. Continue reading