Most of my metaphors about game design mention trees. I didn’t think much of it at first – after all, why would my choice of words matter that much – but then again, I gave a talk on the importance of language at GDC just the other day.
Whenever I teach a guest college to game students, I do an exercise inspired by Interaction Designer Norbert van Geijn. He used to teach class at my university before I started Vlambeer with Jan Willem Nijman, and one day he did an exercise about the fallibility of words. He asked each student to write down whatever word came to mind when he said the word ‘sun’. After a few seconds, he asked a person in the class to read out what they wrote down. Someone wrote down ‘light’, and someone else wrote down ‘yellow’. ‘Holiday’, ‘Warmth’, ‘Summer’ – I had picked ‘Egypt’. In a class of sixty, the frequency at which two or more people picked the same associative word was less than ten percent.
What he was getting at was that words exist in the context of our own knowledge only, and that our choice of words is never coincidental. That class, many years ago, was what made me realize that my metaphors aren’t about how games relate to trees, but how the process of making games relates to trees.
Games are not just mere calculation. Sure, a lot of games are the product of calculated design, writing code, adding assets and wrapping things up. The games that are really impactful tend to be a result of growth, of something almost organic. They start as mere seeds – a singular point of inspiration. Then, the seeds grow into saplings with a direction – a three-dimensional vector, something one can pursue. Eventually, these vectors grow into a tree, growing into a shape rather than an abstract arrow.
We can plant a tree, we can nourish it, but ultimately we have to accept that the tree is its own living thing.
Very often, when we have game ideas, they are oddly defined. There are arbitrary specifics, like a boss fight at the end of the third chapter, that float in the periphery of our mind. They’re nonsensical, and frequently they end up being scrapped halfway through the project anyway. But they’re seeds.
We find a spot where we want our tree to grow, a spot right beneath where we intend the tree to grow. The seed, our inspiration, grows into thin saplings. We work on our game with blind enthusiasm, those first wonderful weeks of developing something with potential.
And then suddenly we’re off track. The sapling doesn’t grow straight up. It bends one way or another.
Over the years, I’ve seen the reflex many designers have when that happens. I’ve seen it in myself, I’ve seen it in students and in experienced designers alike. It’s the urge to get back on track. The need to straighten the vector back to what it was supposed to be. Straight up, a beautifully straight tree from the seed of inspiration to that boss fight at the end of chapter three.
As soon as you start traveling down the path of the vector from the seed, from the origin, the only points that really count are the points where you’ve been. Every decisions, big or small, is informed by and will inform every future decision. Like a sapling growing slightly in an odd direction, it doesn’t really matter where you intended it to go. You can’t just bend it back onto the original path at the top, you’ll have to bend it from the ground up. If you don’t, you get something that wants to be a straight line, but really is a line that has the strangest odd bend in it halfway to the the top.
You can’t bend a sapling that has grown sideways back onto its original course. If you want to do that, you have to remove everything down to the point where it first started bending.
At the bottom, a small amount of bending takes a lot of effort, and has relatively large repercussions for the rest of the sapling above that point. If you damage it there, the tree might just die as a whole. At the thinner parts, higher up, a sapling will only take that much bending before it snaps off completely.
It takes confidence to just let it grow. An obsession with making a tree that grows straight up to where we expected it to go creates a really boring cultivated forest.
Creativity isn’t going from point A to point B. It’s departing from a known point to an unknown. It’s having confidence that, whether the trip leads to something beautiful or not, at least we chose a path and followed it. If we knew where the journey would take us, it wouldn’t be an exploration – it’d be a commute.
We know where we plant the tree, and what type of tree we want it to be, and the general direction it’ll grow – but anything beyond that is something we can’t fully control. Or maybe, it’s something that we can control, but shouldn’t.
Games live while we make them. We just plant them, care for them, and eventually – with hard work, loving care, talking to it and tremendous patience – we can nourish a game into a beautiful tree.