Communicating Emotion

Recently I’ve identified a problem with my ability to successfully communicate emotion and it’s potentially causing some fairly significant problems, so I’d like to take the time to explore my mistakes and hopefully help you to avoid similar ones. It started while I was chatting with Morten about an apparent conflict in the fundamental nature of my latest game. On the one hand it’s themed for tension and difficulty, but on the other hand it presents as a party game and the audiences for these things are almost entirely mutually exclusive.


On the surface this is a non issue. Once people start playing the game the apparent mismatch between the theme and gameplay disappears entirely – to the point that our latest review has the reviewer literally breathless at the end of describing how much he liked how well the theme was represented in play. The mismatch doesn’t really exist, problem solved, job done.

Except that I’m trying to crowdfund the game, which makes it a huge issue that the disconnect appears to exist. It’s an indication that my page and video are doing a poor job of communicating what the game fundamentally is, which in turn generates two problems:
1) People who might love the game might miss out on backing it.
2) People who might hate the game may wind up backing it.
Those are both really bad things in different ways. I’m in the game design business because I want to make people happier and both of these are obstructions to that goal. It also creates another issue in that it could undermine the project itself which also harms that people who have backed it and would have a phenomenal time with it.

So what went wrong, what can I do about it now and how can we avoid similar issues in the future?

emotionfanFundamentally I did poorly in communicating the emotional journey of the game.

Ach, that sounded awful, like I’m about to sell you some healing crystals, let me be a little more specific:

I’ve run a lot of playtests and there’s a pattern to how people react to this game. The rules explanation is pretty quick, but builds anticipation. There are a few instances of “If you do this then you will make everyone lose” and a few of “That sounds easy, here’s the extra thing that makes it hard.” When the hands are dealt there’s usually a moment where most or all of the players ‘get it’ and can see what the shape of the game will be. Then someone starts the game with the phrase “It’s Coming, Run.” At that point people are pretty confident but start to act, as the game goes on the stakes are raised and the mood oscillates between focused concentration and frantic last minute saves. There is humour in the game but it acts more as a release of tension and this becomes very apparent when the game is paused (or over) as that’s when players tend to fall into laughing out loud and enjoying the dramatic, energetic, ridiculous things that have just happened to save the day (or ruin everything forever).

This contrasts starkly with a party game, the experience of which follows a very different pattern. Again the rules are quick, but anticipation is more “I can see Joe’s going to do something with that” than “This is going to be a serious challenge”. People laugh and joke during the game, which takes place at a relaxed pace and is often interrupted by other goings on. Focused action is rarely seen and never required and while enjoyable at the time the experiences tend to be very transitory in a way that doesn’t lend itself to a post game release or much talk about rounds gone by.

The two have points in common and it’s easy to see why they’d get confused, you could play Escape the Nightmare as a party game, with the right crowd – but only if people were very much up for a game and weren’t planning on talking about anything else during the 5mins or so that comprises a run at the game itself. It’s not hard to see how people could be disappointed by one of these experiences if they were expecting the other.

rocktypeSo why did I fail to communicate the difference?

Well the obvious thing is that I like long form prose (In case it wasn’t obvious by this point!) but that’s a horrible thing to do on Kickstarter. The standard advice there is that if you go to more than three lines of text at a time then you have too much text. The explanation given above would be deeply out of place.

Instead I’m trying to communicate it with short form prose, features lists, images and the video. The video does an alright job, the first twenty seconds is dedicated to an increasingly frantic display of people playing the game, making a big deal of the time pressure and the difficulties in play. However not everyone watches a video and it’s obviously something that’s been prepared “for display” so it may not do an excellent job of convincing people that the nature that it’s showing is in any way “real”.

That base level scepticism presents a problem throughout. How many games describe themselves as something akin to “challenging”? How many of those do you actually believe? If anything it’s an idea that’s more frequently bandied about by people who don’t know anything about games to describe relatively trivial games, because actually challenging games signal it differently. Think how fantastically out of place it would be forĀ  Twilight Struggle to display a phrase like “The challenging game of cold war fun” on the side of the box. It is all of those things: Challenging to play well, a game, about the cold war and fun – but it can’t just say that, it has to communicate it in other ways.

pictionaryThis sort of … I want to say ‘nonverbal’, but I think I mean something more like ‘implicit’ … communication is where I’ve let Nightmare down. It’s very quick and very easy to display necessary and fundamental parts of the game that immediately take a giant running leap in the direction of ‘standard party game’ and make it very hard to dislodge the viewers mind from that position. Take something like showing a card that obliges the person receiving it to sing.

‘This is an opportunity to see a friend do something a bit silly’ is immediately implied and it’s a simple, powerful message that’s familiar. It’s immediately there and tough to remove.

How singing actually relates to the game is far more involved. Solid communication under time pressure is vital so someone not being able to use their voice for that communication for a time represents the loss of a tactical asset. Furthermore one singing card will trigger a lost game if nobody else joins in where the other two do not, so adequately communicating which one is in play and responding appropriately offers a legitimate challenge. These are part of a larger web of interactions in which the specific subsets of cards included in a round create emergent problems, for instance correctly communicating the singing card in advance may be influenced by other effects that oblige a person only to tell lies or not to describe any card currently in their hand. The interactions between those things offer a level of re-playability with different mixes of cards as well as finding novel ways to create tricky situations. What’s more we’ve no interest in making a friend look silly if it’s not their thing, all of the singing cards are constrained to a single optional set that can (and should) be trivially removed if playing with anyone who’s self concious about the topic.

Phew! That second way of looking at things is long and complex and doesn’t fit easily into three lines of text or an image. It’s not even that convincing in long form, I’d guess that at least a few people reading this saw it and thought “Naw, if there’s singing it’s a party game, this is a stretch to try to justify it as something else.” Hold onto that thought, we’ll come back to it later.

dittoSo there are a few things I can do as someone trying to communicate the nature of the game and these are relevant to a lot of people trying to put games across – whether it’s something that you’ve created yourself or just because you’re trying to persuade a group that a game you’ve brought is great and that they should all try it.

Firstly, look for things which offer mixed messages and simply eliminate them. In my case that often wasn’t possible because I need a degree of transparency and showing some of the games mechanics were going to be at odds because they’re used here in a way that’s less common than their usage in other games. That being said I can at least move the most egregious examples from the front page. You may have better options, depending on who you’re showing the game to and the medium you’re using.

Secondly, if something might be misleading, warn people about that first. It is much easier to say “You’re about to see something, but it doesn’t mean what you’ll think it means” than it is to say “Oh god, here you are, this isn’t what it looks like”. This is the main point on which I became unstuck because I was so eager to put aspects of the game front and centre that I didn’t stop to consider whether the most easily displayed aspects would give a false impression.

Thirdly, if you have a stake in the situation – whether that’s getting a group to play a game that you like or persuading people to help to make it – get someone else to help you. I said that we’d come back to the issue of scepticism earlier, there’s an extent to which there’s nothing that I can say or do that’ll persuade people of some of my points because I’m obviously interested in funding and making the game. If someone looks at a series of disturbing horror images and sees “sing a song” then they’re going to think there’s a mismatch and you won’t talk them out of it.

nopeYou might get someone who’s committed to another game to talk about the merits of going with your choice. In my case I got a reviewer to take a look so that I could put their opinion on the mismatch forwards – I didn’t even ask them to weigh in on it, just waiting for a natural response that I could share to make the point for me:

“The theme! The theme comes across fantastically, you’re not scared, but it is tense, it is super tense. It’s like ‘I need, I need, I need this card. Is it in the nightmare pile? Can somebody not trade with me? Can somebody not talk to me? Does someone have to lie to me?’ And you’re like ‘Come on! You’re part of the team.’ You’re getting excited. You’re like frantic and I love that. I love that. I freaking love that.”

There is a lot more to this subject, a vast number of things to do with art styles and music and layout that affect moods and emotions and make it possible to display one thing over another. Some of these are also areas where I’ve made missteps, while others have gone very well – I may write a follow up article on that later, but this one is already running long so I think it’s best to end it here, talking about this one specific issue and how to engage it.

I hope that you found it interesting. Let me know, what’s the hardest time you’ve ever had trying to persuade someone about the truth of a game? Something heavy that looks light? Something with deeply meaningful decisions that new players experience as randomness? Something else entirely? Let me know!

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