Gravity Puzzle-Solving!

In mid-2011, David Hart approached me with a prototype he had been working on in his spare time. It was fairly simple: you had a Spongebob-like square character in a simple brick maze you could rotate with your finger. Upon each rotation, the character fell to the new “down” direction until it reached the exit.

The prototype had a level editor looked something like this:


One of my first tasks was to design new mechanics to expand upon David’s original idea, sort them by feasability and test them once a rough version of it was implemented. As usual, the amount of stuff that didn’t make it in the game far exceeds the amount of stuff that did, but luckily we managed to iterate quickly and reach a stable number of different mechanics in under a month.

At that point, I got serious on the level design. Our goal was to do a first release of the game containing a hundred levels, which we decided to split into five packs. These packs later became temples once we settled on the theme.

By now the game looked even uglier than when we started, so we decided it was time to get serious about visuals. After some searching, David hired Andreas Inghe, who is awesome. Expanding upon the idea of long forgotten temples, he started doing the assets for the different elements and backgrounds, bringing a new dimension to the gameplay.

By now, it had started looking like this:

If you have played the game, you’ll recognize some elements that later became World 2 a.k.a. The Earth Temple, and some early versions of Gravi (the player’s cube) and the exit portal.

When we started thinking about what the game would sound like, Andreas showed us some ideas he had been working on and we were quite frankly blown away! Here are some samples of the game’s music:

With new assets being added almost daily, it became clear that David’s initial choice of tech was becoming too constraining. Previously based on UIKit, David ported the game to cocos2D which gave us a lot more of elbow room to expand and polish the game to what it looks now.

Alabaster TempleEarth TempleTurquoise Temple


To say that I’m proud of how it turned out would be an understatement.

Please visit the game’s official site for more information:, or get the game by clicking on the button below.

Critical reception

I’m pleased to report that the game was pretty warmly received by most (if not all) those who reviewed it.

The game currently holds a solid 4.5 star rating on the app store with around 100 reviews. It was also picked up by some specialized sites, garnering generally favorable reviews:

App Store Arcade – “As puzzle games go, GraviMaze achieves almost puzzle perfection as well as being one of the best puzzle experiences that we’ve seen yet from the Apple AppStore.”

iFanzine – “Like any logic puzzler worth its weight in megabytes, GraviMaze stirs in plenty of nuance as the player dives further in.”

Mac Trast – “GraviMaze does a fine job of being simple, yet at the same time, produces a lot of brain challenging levels.”

Motion Game Design: Player limits and systemic constraints

The following is a refactored translation of the talk I gave at the EVA10 Expo in Buenos Aires, on 11/12/10. It does not mirror exactly what I said during the talk, but it should give you a general idea. I’ve divided it into three parts: Player limits and systemic constraints (this post), Cheap tricks and easy ways out and Best practices.

The designer tasked with creating a game experience using some flavor of motion control is always fighting a pitched battle against two cunning and deceitful enemies: the tech he’s using, and the player he’s designing for. Both will lay traps for him that might prove dangerous if he designs naively.

Having had some catastrophic encounters with those foes myself, I now attempt to pass on the knowledge I’ve taken from those experiences, hoping you will be able to avoid easy mistakes when designing for motion capture systems. Continue reading

Ruby Tuesday

Hello, and welcome to the first day of GDC feedback extravaganza!

The morning was kicked off very indie-ly as I attended the opening of the IGS where Ron Carmel explained a little further what the Indie Fund was about and how it came to be. The talk in itself was interesting, although it remains to see if the experiment in funding works out (it would be awesome that it did, so fingers crossed). What was nice is that the presentation was illustrated by Braid’s artist, so as nice to hear as it was to watch.

The follow-up was a rather quirky presentation by Cactus, regarding the techniques by which one could punish and disorient the player. Actually I think he got short on time because the talk never really seemed to take off: we were treated to a list of his favorite David Lynch movies, some fellow game-tortionists’s work and ended with a short list of techniques he used. You’ll have to come back later for actual content, if you’re lucky. Was this actually a very clever exercise in disorienting and punishing the conference attendees disguised as a talk about punishing players instead? We’ll probably never know.

I then managed to catch Soren Johnson’s very inspiring keynote at the Serious Games Summit, about the relationships between themes and mechanics. For me, the keynote nailed one of the biggest problems facing the serious games movement/market actually, which is over-reliance on theme to carry a message. Of course, the mechanics are the message, not the theme. You can read more about it here.


I kicked off post-lunch with a quiet talk at the IGDA education summit. The title was “Happy together” and the talk delved into ways educators and people in the industry could better collaborate to bnenefit both. Amongst the speakers was Prof. Stephane Natkin, director of ENJMIN, who revealed to us his plan to take over the world. Also, a sort of brainstorm session was organised and teams were tasked in finding new ways in which they could collaborate together in order to boost the student’s education.

Then followed by a short reminder (I refuse to call it a lesson) of good marketing tactics for indie studios on behalf of Wolfire Studios, makers of Overgrowth.

After that, I walked in into what was probably the weirdest talk at GDC ever, at the Serious Game Summit. Basically it was some guy talking about this idea to teach kids not to go along with sexual predators. The WTF moment was wen you followed the dates he gave us, you realised the game had spend 20+ years in development, even more than DNF. The kicker? It’s a FLASH game. FLASH. Also, the guy got totally paranoid in the 90’s that someone would “steal his idea”, so he got a lawyer he ended up marrying in the 00’s. Bonus stage: all of the voices in the game were provided by said guy and said lawyer wife. This presentation was probably indiest than any other IGS feature, COMBINED. The guy was so indie that before working on his game, he was a friggin sailor. Yes, the kind that goes on boats. Again, Indieness. But seriously WTF.

The conference day closed with a rather interesting IGS keynote about Immediacy and Depth. The talk was actually more interesting by what it told about the Indie movement than for it’s actual content. Basically this came through as “hey, mainstream does this pretty well, so we should steal their methods”. The key here is that this shows that now, there are more people who have always been indie than people who were working for The Man and quit (this was the norm some years ago). Visibly lots of students are attracted to indie games nowadays, which is wowsome. Global domination is just at the turn of the road. (In itself the talk was pretty basic stuff, so I won’t go into it).

And that’s it! More tomorrow if the beers allow it.

“Borrowing” vocabulary: Diegesis

While working on games, I’ve come to notice how often the games industry borrows vocabulary to other media; mainly from movies and literature due to their shared strong narrative component.

I was thinking about game interfaces and HUDs and I remembered a word I had heard associated to film music. The example was a scene from Casablanca (1942) where Sam is asked to play “As time goes by”:


What you need to look out for are the two pieces of music in this scene: “As time goes by” heard when Sam plays the piano, and the ambient strings heard when Mr. Bogart appears and everyone starts chatting.

The difference between these two pieces of music is that, for “As time goes by” we can see Sam performing the tune, whereas the other piece of music comes from an invisible, intangible orchestra the characters can’t hear. Film people say Sam’s tune is diegetic, while the nondescript orchestral piece is non-diegetic (or extradiegetic).

The Wikipedia page for “diegesis” sheds more light on the matter:

Diegesis may concern elements, such as characters, events and things within the main or primary narrative. However, the author may include elements which are not intended for the primary narrative, such as stories within stories; characters and events that may be referred to elsewhere or in historical contexts and that are therefore outside the main story and are thus presented in an extradiegetic situation.

The concept of diegesis is embedded in Narration, as it was defined by Greek philosophers in opposition with mimesis, and permeates most narrative art forms. Moreover, since the Narratology vs. Ludology debate cooled down a few years ago, it has become widely accepted that narration (in its broadest sense) is present in most games, which leads to acknowledging the validity of the existence of diegesis/mimesis in a game.

But how does all of this translates to real-world game development and design? A simpler, more utilitarian definition given by Étienne Souriau (and mangled by me) goes like this:

Diegesis: all that is supposed to occur, according to the fiction which the [narration] presents; all that this fiction would imply if it were supposed true.

What this simpler, easier to handle definition allows us to do is to give some examples of diegetic and extradiegetic elements in existing games, which might give you (the reader) a better way to express what you mean when designing, criticising or just playing games. That’s the beauty of accurate vocabulary!

Game interfaces are the element that would most benefit from a better understanding of diegesis. Since they are used to convey most information related to the game state, they are instrumental in how the player relates to the fiction evoked by the game. Non-digital games tend to have interfaces (boards, cards or figurines) that symbolize game elements without being integrated in its fiction. Card  and dice games often have evocative names, but they are mostly abstract activities with little to none fictional elements, which might explain why their interface (cards) has derivated towards the purely mathematical. Their function can be thought of as mimetic, i.e. as a direct expression of the game system with no fictional component. Board games, however, have stronger fictional components and many try to let players develop a narrative. This led to their interfaces becoming highly specialised objects displaying different levels of diegesis. For example, let’s compare these two boards:

Diplomacy board

Diplomacy board

Chess board

Chess board

Both games are fairly cerebral, turn based strategy games built upon the same theme (war), and yet their boards show large differences, both in appearance and their diegetic levels. Chess is an old, old game and probably lost much of its narrative elements throughout his history. Its current form is fairly abstract and doesn’t reinforce the original theme, which remains only in the standardised shape of the pieces. Diplomacy‘s board, on the other hand, goes well with the fiction its designer intended for the players to play in. By mimicking the look of a WWI political map, the players are encouraged in buying into the game’s fictional world in which they are world power leaders plotting with or against each other. This leads us to say that Diplomacy‘s interface is diegetic, while Chess ‘s is almost entirely non-diegetic (or almost mimetic, if you want to see it that way).

As games become larger and more complex, their interface starts integrating objects of different diegetic levels. This might be because complex systems are easier to be understood via narrative (sequential) methods rather than by symbolic (simultaneous) ones. Modern non-digital games often feature cards, figurines, boards, books or any other material, some being used to reinforce the narrative while others are there just to help the player keep track of the game state. For example, in pen-and-paper roleplaying games, the rulebooks, character sheets and the dice are extradiegetic interfaces just because medieval -or space- heroes dont walk around with sheets of paper describing what they can or can’t do. But when the GM takes the role of a shopkeeper or hands them a map the players have been given, he or the map become diegetic interfaces to the game being played.

Video game interfaces are very interesting case studies. They can be roughly approximated as a combination of two elements: a display and an input method. The displays shows the state of some game objects (or all of them in simpler games) using a given perspective the player is able to modify (or not) by using the input method. This input method is also used to modify the state of game objects using predefined rules, which are very often opaque to the player (in opposition to non digital games). Both the display and the input method can have different diegetic levels. A good example for a diegetic input method is using a joystick as an input method for controlling a flight simulator. The associated display can also be diegetic if it simulates being in a plane cockpit, but not if it allows the player to see his plane from afar. First-person cameras are often diegetic while third-person cameras are often extradiegetic, with one notable exception:

Lakitu, from Super Mario 64

Lakitu, from Super Mario 64 (1996)

The reason why I’m okay with calling a tortoise-that-floats-on-a-cloud-holding-a-camera-on-a-perch a diegetic third-person display is because he is embedded in the fictional Mario world through a variety of cheap tricks (refer to the game’s introduction, or the mirror room). Strange at it would seem, thanks to these pirouettes the player just accepts the presence of a floating camera as something coherent with the game world he moves in.

Although interfaces are the most easily observable objects, it is important to point out that diegesis can also apply for game mechanics, if you think of them as narrative ressources. To remain with my previous example, the fact that Mario has an arbitrary amount of lives is extra-diegetic: we were never told why Mario was able to come back from the dead a limited number of times, nor why did he gain one extra life when he collected a certain amount of coins. Mind you, I’m not judging the quality of “n lives” as a game mechanic, I’m just saying that the designers of the game didn’t think necessary for that particular mechanic to be diegetic.

A recent counter-example to this is the new Prince of Persia (2008). Some have argued that this game heralded the “death of death” in videogames, but I believe that isn’t very accurate. You “die” a lot in that game, and you still get that old tinge of failure when you miss that platform and plummet into the void. The only difference is that your death is presented in a diegetic manner: When you fall, Elika’s superpowers (which have been properly introduced earlier as of divine and benevolent source) kick in and she rescues you at the last moment. The mechanic’s almost the same, it’s only it’s diegetic levels that vary.

Again, I could give many of different examples, but that would only lenghten this (already quite tedious) post.

If you had to take something away from this article (it’s okay if you skipped the above), let it be this:

Diegesis is applicable to all kinds of games, but there’s a simple tradeoff: an object with a high level of diegesis has more sense (narratively) and works towards the overall coherence of your game world. However, diegetic elements are harder to “read” and do not convey information in a clear and concise way.

Having precise and inambiguous names for our tools is half of the battle won. A designer aware of this property will be able to fine-tune the levels of diegesis of his game elements to strike a perfect balance between immersion and accessibility.

Hope it helped.

Gamel categories

Author’s note: I’m attempting to develop a method for game analysis around irreducible game elements (gamels). This and all the other articles are a sort of log of my thought process, and are not definitive truths. Please feel free to react or comment in any way.

I had previously stated that a game element could be classified according to two criteria: whether it is abstract or concrete, and whether it is implicit or explicit. I’ve been giving this idea a little more thought now that everything is quieter on the job front, and would like to expand on it.

First off, I think it is necessary to clarify the labels applied to the criteria.

Concrete: Anything that can be seen, heard, touched, or felt in any other way. An object which has a physical manifestation.

Abstract: All that is not covered by “Concrete”. Abstract objects exist only in someone’s mind.

Explicit: Elements that have a direct, measurable or objective effect on other elements. Causality, correlation and deductive relationships.

Implicit: Elements that have an indirect, non-measurable or subjective effect on the player. Belief, emotional and intuitive relationships.

What emerges from these definitions is that the Concrete/Abstract axis is really about the passive nature of a gamel while the Explicit/Implicit axis is about its active nature. These divisions should be general enough to be all-inclusive and non-ambiguous; a gamel necessarily falls into either category and can’t be both at the same time. If an object appears to have characteristics in two opposed categories, this means it is in fact composed of two different gamels.

I doubt these “containing objects” need any description other than “contain gamels”, their in-game function being determined by their contents. Think of them as your computer’s directories.

The next logical stop from here would be looking into how gamels interact with each other…

Abstract gamels, AKA “rules”

Author’s note: I’m attempting to develop a method for game analysis around irreducible game elements (gamels). This and all the other articles are a sort of log of my thought process, and are not definitive truths. Please feel free to react or comment in any way.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of game rules recently, partly due to Johan Huizinga’s influence and partly due to a “very small” project I’ve been investing my free time in recently.

Rules are what I manipulate when designing. Whether I’m tuning controls, scoring systems, writing a story or just thinking about a new super-cool gameplay, every design decision I make explicitly or implicitly affects one of the many rules that compose a video game. Continue reading

Potential Games

What is a game? What is a game made of?

Is it built from the bottom-up? Top-down? Can it be without characters, levels, points? Does it need a story? Can it be boring, or make us cry? Does it need to have X or W, Y or Z?

There have been many different approaches to answering this question. Academics, professionals, journalists, and others have their own approach, mostly based upon previous work on media theory or using their field of expertise as a measuring stick.
Continue reading

Insult Swordfighting: Books that should be made into games

Insult Swordfighting: Books that should be made into games

I stumbled upon this through Kotaku‘s Maggie Greene. The author, Mitch Krpata kicks things off:

So many games are based on movies and TV shows. Why not games based on books? There are centuries of fantastic literature to draw from, and in most cases the source material is in the public domain — no need for onerous licensing fees.


Continue reading

Episodic games vs episodic gameplay?

I was at the movies the other day (Charlie Wilson’s war – excellent film!) with my fellow “game design student” friends, and we were so enthralled by the movie’s quality that we started thinking about ways to translate that kind of experience to games.

We talked about a self contained narrative and systemic “unit”, lasting no more than two hours (and costing no more than a movie ticket?).

Continue reading

Production Hell, Prototyping Heaven?

Inexperienced people, absent hierarchy, doubtful team constitution, loose working hours, crummy machines, “almost-original” software running here and there, and of course, nobody gets paid… Many would say this is a recipe for disaster if you plan to make a game, or anything else for that matter.

And yet I think you could not craft a better environment to the creation of an innovative game prototype. No, really!

Continue reading