8 design insights from 8 games I played in 2019

Another year coming to an end, and my contribution to the universal pool of knowledge is just another list with games I played during the year, together with some comments where I explain what I found remarkable from a design point of view.

Although some of them just came fresh out of the oven in 2019, others were just serendipitous discoveries or recommendations of not so new titles.

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Sexy Brutale: a master class in narrative puzzle design

I was recently lucky enough to come across a hidden gem in narrative driven puzzle games called Sexy Brutale. Here’s a small teaser:

The game, developed by Cavalier Games in collaboration with Tequila Works, delights with its cheeky art style, polished UX, and a very peculiar atmosphere and sense of humor. However, it’s the narrative implementation that I found remarkable and I’d like to analyze in this article.  

OMG! CAREFUL! LOTS OF SPOILERS AHEAD!

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On Cuphead’s thematic consistency

Before I tried Cuphead I was always very curious about the criticism the game always got for being extremely difficult. I couldn’t believe that the developers, who seemed to have spent quite some time and effort in building such a big thing, would just mess up with a basic principle of game design such as balancing.

I had also heard about the hypothesis that by making the game purposely difficult, the developers would manage stretching out the limited content of the game so that it felt like more to the player. 

After playing Cuphead myself, though, and even considering that production limitations might have been part of it, I think that looking at the way difficulty is formulated as a design pillar, and how consistently that vision executed, Cuphead it a greatly designed game in its own terms.

For me Cuphead is, basically, a statement on difficulty.

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On how GRIS is a game of distance

Gris, by Nomada Studio, is a platform game with art of paralyzing beauty, and visual and design influences taken from games such as Monument Valley or Journey.

The narrative doesn’t carry the weight of a heavy plot, but it rather develops some themes through cinematics, and exposing certain motifs in its gameplay, by using resources like color, light, or physical distance.

In this analysis I’d like to focus in the latest. How can a game like Gris make, not only a skilful, but also a meaningful use of distance, which we usually take for granted as a property of space and a basic component of the game feel, but rarely as an entry point for thematic exploration?

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On choosing tone in Oxenfree

Types of branching narrative trees

Typical choice presented in Oxenfree.

I’m always surprised by how differently story-driven games with mechanics where content branches approach their narrative design. Each game seems to have its own understanding and implementation of what the player will feel is a satisfying experience.

There are only certain types of systems in video games where choices and branching have been implemented successfully, at least so far. Based on where the player agency is in a game, I think most of the times choices are:

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The unexpected depths of Undertale

Undertale is weird and disorienting.

However, it’s easy to be mislead by its aesthetics if one knows nothing about what this game really is about. On the surface, it looks like an old school RPG game with a traditional combat system. Since I hadn’t read a lot about it before playing, it took me some time to realize that the occasional deviations from the genre weren’t just out of a gratuitous weirdness, but that they were actually helping in making a point at a deep level.

Undertale is not just a game where you fight. It’s a game about fighting (and not fighting). Which I had never seen before.

In this article I would like to reflect on some of the quirks that surprised me the most, and on some of the components that help reinforcing the theme.

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Narrative design components in Detroit: Become Human

When thinking about themes for story-driven games with choice mechanics, I can hardly think about one that fits better than helping a civilization gain the right to choose their future.

Yep, Detroit is a game where theme and mechanics flow wonderfully together, exploring all the scenarios that are related to the nature of choice itself.

Throughout the different story lines and chapters, you’ll repeatedly take part in dynamics such as:

  • The freedom to choose not to choose, and stay loyal to the status quo (which gets reflected in the storyline of Connor)
  • An expansion of the significance of the choices your character is presented by choosing to choose (or reveal against the status quo), which is symbolically represented with a sequence where characters literally break a wall:

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