The Soul of a Game

June 19th, 2015


In reading game reviews and listening to players talk about their favorite (and least favorite) games, you often hear a particular word bandied about. It’s not something you would normally attribute to an inanimate object, much less a game, but it’s always there in the undercurrent of conversation. That word is “soul”.

“This game is soulless.” Or, “This game has soul.”

As a game developer, one of the worst things you can hear from a player is that they feel your game has no soul. But what does that mean? Is there a clear way to replicate the feeling of a “soul” in your game? LET’S FIND OUT!

What is a soul?
First, let’s take a step back and think about what exactly a soul is, when used in its most common form. In general, a soul is a religious or spiritual idea. It’s the essence of what makes a person a person. Having a soul is what separates us from rocks. When you look into someone’s eyes and you sense the spark of life in them, what you are witnessing is that person’s soul. It’s even said that the eyes are the “window to the soul.”

But what does all that mean? At its core, it’s a feeling we have. We feel that there must be something more to ourselves than just a physical body, a bag of chemicals. There’s consciousness, and history, and emotions all bundled up in each and every person. When we look into a person’s eyes, we get a sense of all of those things at once.

Side note: Whether you believe in the spiritual concept of a soul IS IRRELEVANT TO THIS DISCUSSION! So keep a lid on it, Steve.

The Uncanny Valley
On the flip side, we can tell when something has no soul. When it comes to humanoids, we refer to this feeling as the “uncanny valley.” It’s when we see something that looks very close to human, but something feels wrong about it. And the closer it gets to human-looking, the more prominently the unusual features stand out. The movie Beowulf is a great example of this. All of the CGI characters are clearly human, and at first glance, they’re so photorealistic you might even mistake them for human actors. But if you look for more than a split second, you feel that there’s something missing.

DON’T LOOK INTO ITS COLD, DEAD EYES. IT FEELS NOTHING! (Screencap from the movie Beowulf)

Games, too, can fall into the uncanny valley. This is when you hear comments about a game having no soul. People are playing it, and they might even be enjoying it for the most part. It’ll have all the mechanics in place, things will be balanced well, it’ll have a solid economy, and it has tons of loops and player progression. In other words, there’s no denying that it’s a game. All the pieces are there.

But still, something about the game feels… wrong. It feels empty. Something is missing. Even though it has “all the right junk in all the right places,” players quickly lose interest in the game. WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE?

The Two Requirements
All right, now this is where things are going to get a bit dicey. We’re talking about souls here, which by definition means everyone is going to have their own opinions. But I’d like to propose my own idea of what it means for a game to have a soul. If you disagree with these, go write your own damn blog post!

For a game to have a soul, it needs to do TWO THINGS:

  1. Give players a sense of adventure.
  2. Maintain immersion.

LET’S DIG IN.

1. Adventure
The first rule of infusing a soul into a game, is that the game must provide a sense of adventure.

First off, you might be thinking, “HOLD UP THERE, SETH. Not every game is an ADVENTURE GAME.” To that I say, SHUT UP. Yes it is. Look it up! The first definition of adventure is, “an exciting or very unusual experience.” An exciting experience is easy. But an unusual experience — that’s where the meat is.

What kinds of unusual experiences could you have in a game? It could be going up against a boss you didn’t think you could beat, but doing it anyway. It could mean scaling a mountain to find a treasure at the top. Or even scaling a mountain to be disappointed in finding nothing at all. Or it could mean telling Clementine, with your last dying breath, to be sure to keep her hair short (damn you Walking Dead).

When you have an adventure, you feel something. You feel something because it’s out of the ordinary. Bundled into those unusual experiences are strife, pain, victory, joy, sadness, anger, and everything else you can imagine. And when you feel those things, that’s when you’re looking into the window of the game’s soul.

These glimpses into the game’s soul generate memories and stories. They become experiences embedded into your own personal history. In fact, you could argue that when you play a game that has a soul, that game becomes a part of your own soul. It’s an amazing experience that you’re going to carry with you for the rest of your life. When you’ve played a game that has soul, and you meet someone else who has played the same game, you have stories to share with each other. You can connect deeply with that person over that shared experience, even if you have literally nothing else in common. And all that, even though it happened in a video game — a world that doesn’t even exist.

Soul-Crushing Convenience
Of the many types of features developers can implement into their games, one category is relevant to the issue of adventure: convenience features.

I’ll define a convenience feature as a feature that removes a journey, in whole or in part.

Let’s say you have a game that has a big, open world, and the player is required to travel over a long distance to get to the Marshmallow Palace. If the player has to travel on foot, or horseback, or by hoverboard, what might happen on the way? Perhaps the player would encounter some gumdrop bandits, or a chocolate town being besieged by licorice dragons, or a giant swirling vortex pit of death filled with rabies spiders… also made of candy. And by the time the player sees the Marshmallow Palace on the horizon, HOLY CRAP. It’s like a squishy beacon of hope in the distance. The player has been through so much just to get there, that just the act of walking through the gates at the Marshmallow Palace fills the player with a sense of joy and wonder.

But then again, it sure is a pain to have to walk from place to place. You know what’s more convenient than walking? TELEPORTING. Let’s do that instead! BOOM! Your player can now instantly travel to any town she wants, Marshmallow Palace included.

You know what your player is going to feel when she arrives at the Marshmallow palace this time? Nothing at all. What kinds of stories will she have to tell? NONE. What memories will she have about that time she went to the Marshmallow Palace? NONE. She feels nothing. She remembers nothing. She has no stories.

If you haven’t caught on to what I’m about to say, I’ll say it here in bold. Convenience features degrade the soul of a game because they remove possible adventures.

And even beyond games, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a perfect example of this. In the Two Towers, it is revealed that Gandalf is apparently friends with a large number of frickin’ huge eagles that can easily carry a full-grown man. So people often ask, “Why didn’t Gandalf just have the eagles pick Frodo up at the Shire, fly him over Mount Doom that afternoon, and have him drop the ring into the lava from 2,000 feet up?” That would definitely be convenient, and there is no good reason why this didn’t happen. Oh wait, yes there is… because that would be the shittiest story ever.

Quick side note: Convenience features are not to be confused with quality of life features, although the line can be blurry between then two sometimes. A “quality of life” feature is one that takes a mundane task which offers no opportunity for adventure (like manually sorting your inventory) and streamlines that task (like installing an auto-sort button). For example, in Fallout 3, you must travel to a location on foot before you can “fast travel” there again (insta-teleport). This would probably be considered a quality-of-life feature, because you still had to make the journey once, although it is in a gray area.

2. Maintain Immersion
All right, so you’ve got a lot of potential adventures and interesting surprises in a game. But still, something feels off. WHAT’S WRONG? Chances are… the game isn’t immersive.

BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? When people play an immersive game, they don’t feel like they’re playing a game. Instead, they feel like they’re exploring, or building something, or surviving, or fighting, or trying to reach the top of a mountain. If you’ve ever sat down to play a game and ended up playing for hours and hours upon end, and wondering, “WHERE DID THE TIME GO?” You’ve been immersed.

When immersion breaks, it means the player has been reminded that they’re not really exploring, they’re not doing a quest, they’re not trying to defeat a boss. They’re just playing a game. The more they are reminded that “this is just a game”, the more they can’t shake the feeling that “none of this is real,” and it gets harder and harder for them to care about something that doesn’t technically exist.

Immersion is the foundation of a game’s soul. Without immersion, any emotional impact your game might have made is muted. Your players can’t bring themselves to care about the characters, or the story, or the world you’ve created, if they feel that none of it is real.

In our podcast (episode #6), we talked about how the puzzle game You Must Build a Boat is more immersive than Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm. How can this be? You Must Build a Boat is “just” a matchy puzzle game, while Heroes of the Storm pulls on some of Blizzard’s most powerful characters across all of their franchises.

All throughout You Must Build a Boat, it feels like you’re really adventuring, and you’re actually hammering your weapons to upgrade them, and you’re really building a boat. Everything you do reminds you that you’re on an adventure, and that all of this stuff really matters. So even though the gameplay mostly just involves sliding tiles around a puzzle grid, it still weirdly feels like you’re not playing a puzzle game.

On the other hand, Heroes of the Storm undercuts immersion right at the outset. During the game’s tutorial, Uther the Lightbringer tells Jim Raynor how to defeat the enemy team. Jim Raynor asks, “Why are we doing this again?” And Uther simply says, “It’s best not to think about such things.” The game hasn’t given you a reason to care about anything, nothing matters, and you are constantly reminded that “this is just a game.”

Immersion in Quadropus Rampage
In Quadropus Rampage, you collect “orbs” from defeating enemies. When we first created the orbs, they were a placeholder until we figured out what they were really supposed to represent. All we knew was that they were used to upgrade your character, as a sort of currency.

As we continued development, we created the upgrades screen where you could spend the orbs. It was originally conceived as a bunch of progress bars, floating above a sandy ocean floor. You’d go to that screen, spend your orbs, and BOOM! Back in action!

But something felt really “off” about this. It was hard to get excited about upgrading your character for some reason. Not knowing why, we tried a bunch of different iterations on the upgrades screen, and we eventually settled on an image of Tack (the main character) meditating, with his various traits floating around him, waiting to be upgraded.

Suddenly, the orbs made sense. HOLY CRAP. After seeing Tack meditating, we realized that those aren’t “orbs”; they are an abstraction of Tack’s ability to reflect on his experiences to become stronger. Defeating enemies gave you orbs, which allowed you to meditate on your fights so you can do better the next time.

So rather than having to come up with an elaborate explanation of what the orbs were, we just left them as vague glowy objects, and we let the upgrads screen do all the explaining. And now the game is internally consistent, and immersion is maintained. HOORAY!

Final Thoughts on Soul
In games, soul is tangible. It’s not some elusive concept that we can’t explain or grasp. It’s very real, it can be created or destroyed, and it can make or break a game. Don’t underestimate it. As a developer, you can stay on the right track by always looking at your games with a critical eye, and keeping the two big questions in mind.

Are my players having adventures?
Am I maintaining immersion?

I hope this was helpful! And, as always, feel free to discuss this post on our forums.

Seth

Posted by Seth Coster

Seth is one of the co-founders of Butterscotch Shenanigans, and is the programmer for all of our games or whatever. Follow him on Twitter at @SethCoster