Designing Player Intent through “Playful” Interaction

A Case Study of Techniques in Transistor and Journey



How to Cite

Blakey, H. (2021). Designing Player Intent through “Playful” Interaction: A Case Study of Techniques in <em>Transistor</em> and <em>Journey</em>. M/C Journal, 24(4).
Vol. 24 No. 4 (2021): design
Published 2021-08-12

The contemporary video game market is as recognisable for its brands as it is for the characters that populate their game worlds, from franchise-leading characters like Garrus Vakarian (Mass Effect original trilogy), Princess Zelda (The Legend of Zelda franchise) and Cortana (HALO franchise) to more recent game icons like Miles Morales (Marvel's Spiderman game franchise) and Judy Alvarez  (Cyberpunk 2077). Interactions with these casts of characters enhance the richness of games and their playable worlds, giving a sense of weight and meaning to player actions, emphasising thematic interests, and in some cases acting as buffers to (or indeed hindering) different aspects of gameplay itself. As Jordan Erica Webber writes in her essay The Road to Journey, “videogames are often examined through the lens of what you do and what you feel” (14). For many games, the design of interactions between the player and other beings in the world—whether they be intrinsic to the world (non-playable characters or NPCs) or other live players—is a bridging aspect between what you do and how you feel and is thus central to the communication of more cohesive and focussed work.

This essay will discuss two examples of game design techniques present in Transistor by Supergiant Games and Journey by thatgamecompany. It will consider how the design of “playful” interactions between the player and other characters in the game world (both non-player characters and other player characters) can be used as a tool to align a player’s experience of “intent” with the thematic objectives of the designer. These games have been selected as both utilise design techniques that allow for this “playful” interaction (observed in this essay as interactions that do not contribute to “progression” in the traditional sense). By looking closely at specific aspects of game design, it aims to develop an accessible examination by “focusing on the dimensions of involvement the specific game or genre of games affords” (Calleja, 222).

The discussion defines “intent”, in the context of game design, through a synthesis of definitions from two works by game designers. The first being Greg Costikyan’s definition of game structure from his 2002 presentation I Have No Words and I Must Design, a paper subsequently referenced by numerous prominent game scholars including Ian Bogost and Jesper Juul. The second is Steven Swink’s definition of intent in relation to video games, from his 2009 book Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation—an extensive reference text of game design concepts, with a particular focus on the concept of “game feel” (the meta-sensation of involvement with a game).

This exploratory essay suggests that examining these small but impactful design techniques, through the lens of their contribution to overall intent, is a useful tool for undertaking more holistic studies of how games are affective. I align with the argument that understanding “playfulness” in game design is useful in understanding user engagement with other digital communication platforms. In particular, platforms where the presentation of user identity is relational or performative to others—a case explored in Playful Identities: The Ludification of Digital Media Cultures (Frissen et al.).

Intent in Game Design

Intent, in game design, is generated by a complex, interacting economy, ecosystem, or “game structure” (Costikyan 21) of thematic ideas and gameplay functions that do not dictate outcomes, but rather guide behaviour and progression forward through the need to achieve a goal (Costikyan 21). Intent brings player goals in line with the intrinsic goals of the player character, and the thematic or experiential goals the game designer wants to convey through the act of play. Intent makes it easier to invest in the game’s narrative and spatial context—its role is to “motivate action in game worlds” (Swink 67). Steven Swink writes that it is the role of game design to create compelling intent from “a seemingly arbitrary collection of abstracted variables” (Swink 67). He continues that whether it is good or bad is a broader question, but that “most games do have in-born intentionality, and it is the game designer who creates it” (67). This echoes Costikyan’s point: game designers “must consciously set out to decide what kind of experiences [they] want to impart to players and create systems that enable those experiences” (20). Swink uses Mario 64 as one simple example of intent creation through design—if collecting 100 coins did not restore Mario’s health, players would simply not collect them. Not having health restricts the ability for players to fulfil the overarching intent of progression by defeating the game’s main villain (what he calls the “explicit” intent), and collecting coins also provides a degree of interactivity that makes the exploration itself feel more fulfilling (the “implicit” intent). This motivation for action may be functional, or it may be more experiential—how a designer shapes variables into particular forms to encourage the particular kinds of experience that they want a player to have during the act of play (such as in Journey, explored in the latter part of this essay). This essay is interested in the design of this compelling thematic intent—and the role “playful” interactions have as a variable that contributes to aligning player behaviours and experience to the thematic or experiential goals of game design.

“Playful” Communication and Storytelling in Transistor

Transistor is the second release from independent studio Supergiant Games and has received over 100 industry accolades (Kasavin) since its publication in 2014. Transistor incorporates the suspense of turn-based gameplay into an action role-playing game—neatly mirroring a style of gameplay to the suspense of its cyber noir narrative. The game is also distinctly “artful”. The city of Cloudbank, where the game takes place, is a cyberpunk landscape richly inspired by art nouveau and art deco style. There is some indication that Cloudbank may not be a real city at all—but rather a virtual city, with an abundance of computer-related motifs and player combat abilities named as if they were programming functions. At release, Transistor was broadly recognised in the industry press for its strength in “combining its visuals and music to powerfully convey narrative information and tone” (Petit).

If intent in games in part stems from a unification of goals between the player and design, the interactivity between player input and the actions of the player character furthers this sense of “togetherness”. This articulation and unity of hand movement and visual response in games are what Kirkpatrick identified in his 2011 work Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game as the point in which videogames “broke from the visual entertainment culture of the last two centuries” (Kirkpatrick 88). The player character mediates access to the space by which all other game information is given context and allows the player a degree of self-expression that is unique to games. Swink describes it as an amplified impression of virtual proprioception, that is “an impression of space created by illusory means but is experienced as real by the senses … the effects of motion, sound, visuals, and responsive effects combine” (Swink 28). If we extend Swink’s point about creating an “impression of space” to also include an “impression of purpose”, we can utilise this observation to further understand how the design of the playful interactions in Transistor work to develop and align the player’s experience of intent with the overarching narrative goal (or, “explicit” intent) of the game—to tell a compelling “science-fiction love story in a cyberpunk setting, without the gritty backdrop” (Wallace) through the medium of gameplay. At the centre of any “love story” is the dynamic of a relationship, and in Transistor playful interaction is a means for conveying the significance and complexity of those dynamics in relation to the central characters.

Transistor’s exposition asks players to figure out what happened to Red and her partner, The Boxer (a name he is identified by in the game files), while progressing through various battles with an entity called The Process to uncover more information. Transistor commences with player-character, Red, standing next to the body of The Boxer, whose consciousness and voice have been uploaded into the same device that impaled him: the story’s eponymous Transistor. The event that resulted in this strange circumstance has also caused Red to lose her ability to speak, though she is still able to hum. The first action that the player must complete to progress the game is to pull the Transistor from The Boxer’s body. From this point The Boxer, speaking through the Transistor, becomes the sole narrator of the game. The Boxer’s first lines of dialogue are responsive to player action, and position Red’s character in the world:

‘Together again. Heh, sort of …’

[Upon walking towards an exit a unit of The Process will appear] ‘Yikes … found us already. They want you back I bet. Well so do I.’

[Upon defeating The Process] ‘Unmarked alley, east of the bay. I think I know where we are.’ (Supergiant Games)

This brief exchange and feedback to player movement, in medias res, limits the player’s possible points of attention and establishes The Boxer’s voice and “character” as the reference point for interacting with the game world. Actions, the surrounding world, and gameplay objectives are given meaning and context by being part of a system of intent derived from the significance of his character to the player character (Red) as both a companion and information-giver. The player may not necessarily feel what an individual in Red’s position would feel, but their expository position is aligned with Red’s narrative, and their scope of interaction with the world is intrinsically tied to the “explicit” intent of finding out what happened to The Boxer.

Transistor continues to establish a loop between Red’s exploration of the world and the dialogue and narration of The Boxer. In the context of gameplay, player movement functions as the other half of a conversation and brings the player’s control of Red closer to how Red herself (who cannot communicate vocally) might converse with The Boxer gesturally. The Boxer’s conversational narration is scripted to occur as Red moves through specific parts of the world and achieves certain objectives. Significantly, The Boxer will also speak to Red in response to specific behaviours that only occur should the player choose to do them and that don’t necessarily contribute to “progressing” the game in the mechanical sense. There are multiple points where this is possible, but I will draw on two examples to demonstrate. Firstly, The Boxer will have specific reactions to a player who stands idle for too long, or who performs a repetitive action. Jumping repeatedly from platform to platform will trigger several variations of playful and exasperated dialogue from The Boxer (who has, at this point, no choice but to be carried around by Red):

[Upon repeatedly jumping between the same platform]

‘Round and round.’

‘Okay that’s enough.’

‘I hate you.’ (Supergiant Games)

The second is when Red “hums” (an activity initiated by the player by holding down R1 on a PlayStation console). At certain points of play, when making Red hum, The Boxer will chime in and sing the lyrics to the song she is humming. This musical harmonisation helps to articulate a particular kind of intimacy and flow between Red and The Boxer —accentuated by Red’s animation when humming: she is bathed in golden light and holds the Transistor close, swaying side to side, as if embracing or dancing with a lover. This is a playful, exploratory interaction. It technically doesn’t serve any “purpose” in terms of finishing the game—but is an action a player might perform while exploring controls and possibilities of interactivity, in turn exploring what it is to “be” Red in relation to the game world, the story being conveyed, and The Boxer. It delivers a more emotional and affective thematic idea about a relationship that nonetheless relies just as much on mechanical input and output as engaging in movement, exploration, and combat in the game world. It’s a mechanic that provides texture to the experience of inhabiting Red’s identity during play, showcasing a more individual complexity to her story, driven by interactivity. In techniques like this, Transistor directly unifies its method for information-giving, interactivity, progression, and theme into a single design language. To once again nod to Swink and Costikyan, it is a complex, interacting economy or ecosystem of thematic ideas and gameplay structures that guide behaviour and progression forward through the need to achieve a single goal (Costikyan 21), guiding the player towards the game’s “explicit” intent of investment in its “science fiction love story”.

Companionship and Collaboration in Journey

Journey is regularly praised in many circles of game review and discussion for its powerful, pared-back story conveyed through its exceptional game design. It has won a wide array of awards, including multiple British Academy Games Awards and Game Developer’s Choice Awards, and has been featured in highly regarded international galleries such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Its director, Jenova Chen, articulated that the goal of the game (and thus, in the context of this essay, the intent) was “to create a game where people who interact with each other in an online community can connect at an emotional level, regardless of their gender, age, ethnicity, and social status” (Webber 14).

In Journey, the player controls a small robed figure moving through a vast desert—the only choices for movement are to slide gracefully through the sand or to jump into the air by pressing the X button (on a PlayStation console), and gracefully float down to the ground. You cannot attack anything or defend yourself from the elements or hostile beings. Each player will “periodically find another individual in the landscape” (Isbister 121) of similar design to the player and can only communicate with them by experimenting with simple movements, and via short chirping noises. As the landscape itself is vast and unknown, it is what one player referred to as a sense of “reliance on one another” that makes the game so captivating (Isbister 12). Much like The Boxer in Transistor, the other figure in Journey stands out as a reference point and imbues a sense of collaboration and connection that makes the goal to reach the pinprick of light in the distance more meaningful. It is only after the player has finished the game that the screen reveals the other individual is a real person, another player, by displaying their gamer tag. One player, playing the game in 2017 (several years after its original release in 2012), wrote:

I went through most of the game by myself, and when I first met my companion, it was right as I walked into the gate transitioning to the snow area. And I was SO happy that there was someone else in this desolate place. I felt like it added so much warmth to the game, so much added value. The companion and I stuck together 100% of the way. When one of us would fall the slightest bit behind, the other would wait for them. I remember saying out loud how I thought that my companion was the best programmed AI that I had ever seen. In the way that he waited for me to catch up, it almost seemed like he thanked me for waiting for him … We were always side-by-side which I was doing to the "AI" for "cinematic-effect". From when I first met him up to the very very end, we were side-by-side. (Peace_maybenot)

Other players indicate a similar bond even when their companion is perhaps less competent:

I thought my traveller was a crap AI. He kept getting launched by the flying things and was crap at staying behind cover … But I stuck with him because I was like, this is my buddy in the game. Same thing, we were communicating the whole time and I stuck with him. I finish and I see a gamer tag and my mind was blown. That was awesome. (kerode4791)

Although there is a definite object of difference in that Transistor is narrated and single-player while Journey is not, there are some defined correlations between the way Supergiant Games and thatgamecompany encourage players to feel a sense of investment and intent aligned with another individual within the game to further thematic intent. Interactive mechanics are designed to allow players a means of playful and gestural communication as an extension of their kinetic interaction with the game; travellers in Journey can chirp and call out to other players—not always for an intrinsic goal but often to express joy, or just to experience and sense of connectivity or emotional warmth. In Transistor, the ability to hum and hear The Boxer’s harmony, and the animation of Red holding the Transistor close as she does so, implying a sense of protectiveness and affection, says more in the context of “play” than a literal declaration of love between the two characters. Graeme Kirkpatrick uses dance as a suitable metaphor for this kind of experience in games, in that both are characterised by a certainty that communication has occurred despite the “eschewal of overt linguistic elements and discursive meanings” (120).

There is also a sense of finite temporality in these moments. Unlike scripted actions, or words on a page, they occur within a moment of being that largely belongs to the player and their actions alone. Kirkpatrick describes it as “an inherent ephemerality about this vanishing and that this very transience is somehow essential” (120). This imbuing of a sense of time is important because it implies that even if one were to play the game again, repeating the interaction is impossible. The communication of narrative within these games is not a static form, but an experience that hangs unique at that moment and space of play.

Thatgamecompany discussed in their 2017 interviews with Webber, published as part of her essay for the Victoria & Albert’s Video Games: Design/Play/Disrupt exhibition, how by creating and restricting the kind of playful interaction available to players within the world, they could encourage the kind of emotional, collaborative, and thoughtful intent they desired to portray (Webber 14). They articulate how in the development process they prioritised giving the player a variety of responses for even the smallest of actions and how that positive feedback, in turn, encourages play and prevented players from being “bored” (Webber 22). Meanwhile, the team reduced responsiveness for interactions they didn’t want to encourage. Chen describes the approach as “maximising feedback for things you want and minimising it for things you don’t want” (Webber 27).

In her essay, Webber writes that Chen describes “a person who enters a virtual world, leaving behind the value system they’ve learned from real life, as like a baby banging their spoon to get attention” (27):

initially players could push each other, and when one baby [player] pushed the other baby [player] off the cliff that person died. So, when we tested the gameplay, even our own developers preferred killing each other because of the amount of feedback they would get, whether it’s visual feedback, audio feedback, or social feedback from the players in the room. For quite a while I was disappointed at our own developers’ ethics, but I was able to talk to a child psychologist and she was able to clarify why these people are doing what they are doing. She said, ‘If you want to train a baby not to knock the spoon, you should minimise the feedback. Either just leave them alone, and after a while they’re bored and stop knocking, or give them a spoon that does not make a sound. (27)

The developers then made it impossible for players to kill, steal resources from, or even speak to each other. Players were encouraged to stay close to each other using high-feedback action and responsiveness for doing so (Webber 27).

By using feedback design techniques to encourage players to behave a certain way to other beings in the world—both by providing and restricting playful interactivity—thatgamecompany encourage a resonance between players and the overarching design intent of the project. Chen’s observations about the behaviour of his team while playing different iterations of the game also support the argument (acknowledged in different perspectives by various scholarship, including Costikyan and Bogost) that in the act of gameplay, real-life personal ethics are to a degree re-prioritised by the interactivity and context of that interactivity in the game world.

Intent and the “Actualities of (Game) Existence”

Continuing and evolving explorations of “intent” (and other parallel terms) in games through interaction design is of interest for scholars of game studies; it also is an important endeavour when considering influential relationships between games and other digital mediums where user identity is performative or relational to others. This influence was examined from several perspectives in the aforementioned collection Playful Identities: The Ludification of Digital Media Cultures, which also examined “the process of ludification that seems to penetrate every cultural domain” of modern life, including leisure time, work, education, politics, and even warfare (Frissen et al. 9). Such studies affirm the “complex relationship between play, media, and identity in contemporary culture” and are motivated “not only by the dominant role that digital media plays in our present culture but also by the intuition that ‘“play is central … to media experience” (Frissen et al. 10).

Undertaking close examinations of specific “playful” design techniques in video games, and how they may factor into the development of intent, can help to develop nuanced lines of questioning about how we engage with “playfulness” in other digital communication platforms in an accessible, comparative way. We continue to exist in a world where “ludification is penetrating the cultural domain”. In the first few months of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons. With an almost global population in lockdown, Animal Crossing became host to professional meetings (Espiritu), weddings (Garst), and significantly, a media channel for brands to promote content and products (Deighton). TikTok, panoramically, is a platform where “playful” user trends— dances, responding to videos, the “Tell Me … Without Telling Me” challenge—occur in the context of an extremely complex algorithm, that while automated, is created by people—and is thus unavoidably embedded with bias (Dias et al.; Noble). This is not to say that game design techniques and broader “playful” design techniques in other digital communication platforms are interchangeable by any measure, or that intent in a game design sense and intent or bias in a commercial sense should be examined through the same lens. Rather that there is a useful, interdisciplinary resource of knowledge that can further illuminate questions we might ask about this state of “ludification” in both the academic and public spheres. We might ask, for example, what would the implications be of introducing an intent design methodology similar to Journey, but using it for commercial gain? Or social activism? Has it already happened?

There is a quotation from Nathan Jurgensen’s 2016 essay Fear of Screens (published in The New Inquiry) that often comes to my mind when thinking about interaction design in video games in this way. In his response to Sherry Turkle’s book, Reclaiming Conversation, Jurgensen writes:

each time we say “IRL,” “face-to-face,” or “in person” to mean connection without screens, we frame what is “real” or who is a person in terms of their geographic proximity rather than other aspects of closeness — variables like attention, empathy, affect, erotics, all of which can be experienced at a distance. We should not conceptually preclude or discount all the ways intimacy, passion, love, joy, pleasure, closeness, pain, suffering, evil and all the visceral actualities of existence pass through the screen. “Face to face” should mean more than breathing the same air. (Jurgensen)

While Jurgensen is not talking about communication in games specifically, there are comparisons to be drawn between his “variables” and “visceral actualities of existence” as the drivers of social meaning-making, and the methodology of games communicating intent and purpose through Swink’s “seemingly arbitrary collection of abstracted variables” (67). When players interact with other characters in a game world (whether they be NPCs or other players), they are inhabiting a shared virtual space, and how designers articulate and present the variables of “closeness”, as Jurgensen defines it, can shape player alignment with the overarching design intent. These design techniques take the place of Jurgensen’s “visceral actualities of existence”. While they may not intrinsically share an overarching purpose, their experiential qualities have the ability to align ethics, priorities, and values between individuals. Interactivity means game design has the potential to facilitate a particular kind of engagement for the player (as demonstrated in Journey) or give opportunities for players to explore a sense of what an emotion might feel like by aligning it with progression or playful activity (as discussed in relation to Transistor). Players may not “feel” exactly what their player-characters do, or care for other characters in the world in the same way a game might encourage them to, but through thoughtful intent design, something of recognition or unity of belief might pass through the screen.


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