Nanook’s Tale and the Iterative Design Process

(This is an essay I wrote for Writing 334 – Video Game Culture at Oakland University. The essay is on effective game design principles and the design process of a five-level video game I created, which can be played here – You will need a GameStar Mechanic account in order to play.)

The website GameStarMechanic allows registered users the option to create simple platform or top-down games after they have completed the site’s main quest. While the site is geared toward a younger audience, the lessons on game design taught through GameStarare foundational for any novice designer. After spending several weeks on GameStar, and reading Jesse Schell’s conceptual handbook The Art of Game Design, I have come to understand that successful and effective video games are all made from the same stuff. And it is true. Video games are a composite of four basic elements: mechanics, story, aesthetics and technology. With modern video games, these elements are often complex and highly programmed; relying on teams of hundreds of individuals. But Schell maintains that a successful and elegant game can be designed by using a bare bones approach. Of course, having good ideas will ultimately determine a game’s – and therefore – designer’s success. The game I created on GameStar, however, was a study in design principles as outlined by Schell.

What began as my “gift game” – which users create during their apprentice training on GameStar Mechanic – ended up being a five-level iteration based on some of Schell’s principles (or as many as I could apply working with GameStar’s limited parameters). Nanook’s Taleis an iteration on Nanook’s Den; a one-level game I created which featured a Siberian husky reclaiming the keys to his den from thieving canidae. It was a simple concept: a dog must learn the keys to survival after humankind’s untimely disappearance. In this sense, my game was a nod to Tokyo Jungle; a PlayStation 3 game with a similar theme on apocalyptic animal survival. But while reading the early pages of Schell, I decided to change my theme to accord with Schell’s ideas on unification. Schell says that the goal of a successful game is to create a powerful experience that will resonate with the player. Therefore, the designer must understand what experiences are universal, and then capture the essence of those experiences. Often this means digging into “the mysteries of the human mind and the secrets of the human heart.” Indeed, the goal of the designer is to cause the player to have a deep, emotional experience with the game and its theme.
Schell and others (like video game designer Ian Bogost) are quick to point out that video games borrow heavily from other disciplines. This is part of what makes them so successful. Designers already know to some extent what triggers emotional responses because of their familiarity with other expressive mediums. For instance, in Indie Game: The Movie, designer Phil Fish says “[Video games are] the sum total of every expressive medium of all times, made interactive.” Therefore, to achieve a unified theme to my game, I decided to pull influences from another expressive medium: Literature.
GameStar Mechanic’stext message blocks – which the player/designer can place in the game space and fill in with text – are the only way to tell a story within the game. My game – Nanook’s Tale – revolves around a novel written by Richard Adams called The Plague Dogs. That tale involved two dogs escaping from an animal testing facility, surviving on the fells and downs of England, and searching for deliverance from the evil that men do for the purported advancement of knowledge. This is my overarching theme for Nanook’s Tale, and it was chosen for a very simple reason. That is, the only avatar I found remotely believable in GameStar Mechanic’sWorkshop was the husky avatar. But to achieve Schell’s unification theory, I sought to pick out a truth-based theme; one in which the elements of story and aesthetics could come together in a homogeneous blend. Moreover, I attempted to satisfy Schell’s curiosity lens, in which the designer is encouraged to put questions into the players mind: “What is survival expectation conditioning?”, “Why have we experimented on animals in the past?”, “Do we continue to experiment on animals?” These are questions I hope surface in the minds of those who play my game.
On Gamestar Mechanic, technology is already built into the site’s support structure. So the designer only has to consider three basic elements; mechanics, story, and aesthetics. I primarily focused on aesthetics while designing Nanook’s Tale, because aesthetics are the most visible element in any game. In other words, they are what the player usually experiences first. However, Schell says that all the elements have to be in harmony to achieve good game-balance. This means that many things need to be given equal weight when designing a game. Story, rules, look and feel, timing, pacing, risk taking, decision making, rewards, punishments, etc; all of these need to be considered and utilized. One way to achieve game-balance is to create levels of increasing complexity. But I worked backwards in designing Nanook’s Tale. My gift game – Nanook’s Den – became the last level in my game. I then jumped back to level one, hoping to tie the loose ends together.

Level one is called ‘Escape.’ It is a basic maze level with an unbounded space. The player must wrap their way around the maze, collecting points as they go. The points serve no purpose in terms of story arc, but they add an extra challenge for the player. For instance, all the points must be collected to open the goal block, and the player must figure out how to reach all the points within a minute. Therefore, my game opens up with a mental activity. The player cannot finish in time without using the wraparound feature built into this level. This forces the player to think ahead, exercising spatial recognition. Of course, this is the animal testing facility, so the game space was meant to be cramped. I toyed around with the idea of placing other animals (ie, wolves and foxes) in concrete pens. But then I realized that the emotional impact would be greater if the player found the husky avatar to be utterly alone. Furthermore, this level was intended to be impersonal. There were no backgrounds on Gamestar that would suggest a laboratory setting, so I left the background black. There is also no music for this reason, either. I wanted the player to feel like they were locked away in a silent, foreboding prison for animals.

Once the player escapes and makes it to level two’s ‘Encounter,’ they are immediately faced with a message block. The message block tells the player that the way ahead is dangerous, which can clearly be seen by the number of enemies pacing around a surfeit of damage blocks. In The Art of Game Design, Schell mentions Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ when talking about the staying power of multiplayer games over single player gameplay. I used the Hierarchy of Needs so the player could consider Nanook’s plight. For instance, the minute Nanook leaves the testing facility, he forfeits his right to a meal every day. The message block in my game considers that the need for food is greater than the need for safety. There is also an allusion to death, which is just as prevalent in the outside world as it was in the testing lab. Finally, in a line taken directly from The Plague Dogs, Nanook realizes that there is no going back; he has decided to escape and his reason for doing so is clear.

Level two also gives the player their first look at the outside game world. The components here are the same throughout the game. There is a snowy, cobblestone background which is stretched across the screen. The parallax is set to zero, so the avatar can move across the screen without any extra movement, and the music is set to ‘Naviron Safari;’ an airy little tune which is both ominous and redemptive at the same time. As far as blocks are concerned, everything was chosen to accommodate a winter scene. There are glass blocks (which incidentally look like ice), cloud blocks (which incidentally look like snow drifts), dirt blocks, wood blocks, ice damage blocks, snow blocks, soil blocks, and blocks called north flowers, which look kind of like daisy’s. In choosing the aesthetics, I took a minimalist approach. I kept in mind that many successful art-gamesto borrow Jason Rohrer’s term – are by their very nature, minimal. Jonathan Blow’s Braidhas only three enemies and a protagonist that can only run and jump. Limbois similar, but even more exiguous. For instance, there is no music in Limbo and the protagonist inhabits a black-and-white world. I kept this in mind while working with GameStar’s simple interface.
Analyzing levels two and three together, there is a sharp contrast in gameplay. The enemies in level two move faster than Nanook, and they are set to patrol around ice damage blocks. At each turn, the player must master the physical task of dextrously maneuvering around damage blocks, quickly enough to avoid enemies. There are points in “safe spots,” which reward the player for surviving on the run. Also, for the first time, the player is made aware that their energy is limited. Keeping up your energy is a crucial part of survival, and this is made clear in level three’s ‘Survival’ after Nanook meets Tod Geemstaar. I put Tod in the game for added dialogue, and he is a reference to the fox that helps the dogs survive in The Plague Dogs. Tod speaks in a Geordie dialect, which is spoken in the larger Tyneside region of North East England. This may get frustrating for younger players, but it adds a linguistic challenge that encourages the player to be attentive and deconstruct the story.
In level three, there is a fundamental choice system. The player must choose one of two paths. If they choose the wrong one, their energy will run out and they will die. But there are a number of principles from Schell in this level. Namely, there is the principle and element of chance. The goal at this point becomes nebulous and uncertain, and according to Schell, uncertainty in a game means that there is a surprise which could be good or bad. This simple element in the game includes a number of Marc LeBlancs “game pleasures” as well. There is narrative centering around the choice, but there is also discovery, anticipation, possibility, surprise, thrill, wonder, and eventually, pride in accomplishment. All these things follow from a simple confluence in my game.

Levels four and five back off from the story a bit, and begin to focus again on timing and pacing. There are ten points to collect in level four, and as in level two, the player must accomplish a physical task to retrieve them. Enemies are either on patrol or pace about in a straight line, and the player must avoid them but move quickly enough to replenish energy. Here too, there are turns in which the player must deftly avoid ice damage blocks, which add to the physical challenge. Level four’s ‘Livelihood’ is the largest level in the game, but it is the simplest. At the top of the level, Nanook discovers the den that Tod has scouted out for him. This is the den that gave life to the entire game. Upon reaching the den, there is descriptive language in the narrative which alludes to a hidden message from Tod: “Tod. . . utters some words that are indistinguishable, but their cadence dance on Nanook’s tired mind like a poetic song.” This quote opens up the way for symbolism that deals with Nanook’s namesake, but the player must finish the game to discover its meaning.

Level five’s ‘Home,’ – which was originally Nanook’s Den – rounds out the game and focuses on continued survival after the journey with Tod. There are keys in this level which must be reclaimed for Nanook to survive. Little was changed in this level during its iteration, other than a few words to connect level five’s story with the rest of the game. One message block tells the story of the famed serum run to Nome, which is a historical event that further illustrates the heroism of the Siberian husky. But when the keys are reclaimed and the player wins the game, the climax (as climactic as GameStar can get, anyways) occurs when Nanook recalls what Tod had said to him. There is praise – another principle of Schell’s – conferred upon Nanook and the player, as Tod declares their status as a living legend.
In designing Nanook’s Tale, I tried to embody the idea of proceduralist rhetoric. This is Ian Bogost’s definition of games where emotional and artistic “expression [arise] through the player’s interaction with the game’s mechanics and dynamics.” I may have created a game dependent on Richard Adams, and some players may consider this reliance on pastiche a cop-out. True, they may argue against my ability to create an original story. But I think my game is reasonably effective in eliciting a number of emotions and providing an experience that is resonant. This was the goal for this project, as guided by Schell. What I learned from this design process was that effective design is an iterative process. This lesson carries over to just about any area in life. Indeed, in order to become proficient at something, anything, you must do things over and over again. I have also learned from reading Schell that the value of aesthetics and good storytelling can offer a truly transcendent experience. GameStar’sinterface is hardly transcendent, but it does serve as a microcosm for showing what video game stories and aesthetics are capable of.

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