A couple of days ago, we were talking about different ways of making computer games challenging, and the question came up:
How do you design a goal-less game?
One step along the way is to remove all of the explicit goals. You could make a sandbox game like Minecraft, and only allow ‘Creative Mode‘, but people will just use that ‘sandbox‘ to build things, or to define their own goals, which they can then achieve.
Here, we are attempting to design a completely goal-less game.
You could start the game by removing all the in-game knowledge of the player character, a la System Shock, or Planescape: Torment. However, this merely focuses the player on the goal of ‘figuring out what is going on’.
So, you want a game with no explicit goals, where the player is enjoined from forming goals of their own.
S and I talked about a few ways to do this:
You could try something like ‘Papers, Please‘, where the goal is survival, but very difficult to navigate. S suggested something along the lines of a ‘Kafkaesque‘ game that we had been discussing, with constantly moving goalposts, where the goal always seems possible, but probably isn’t. (Pac-Man level 256 might fall in this category.)
You could go one step further and combine this with a sandbox game, where the game somehow detects what goal(s) you are trying to reach, and subtly moves that goal just out of your reach.
But these are examples of games with goals, just seemingly reachable but actually not reachable ones.
You could also go a completely different direction and make something like ‘Desert Bus‘, which has a goal, but reaching that goal is so boring that very few people will ever achieve it.
This brings us to the concept of the ‘Grey Game’. Not a reference to ‘Grey Aliens‘, or to ‘Grey Goo‘, but a game which is similar in concept to an isolation tank:
The player is suspended in a featureless grey landscape. They can move in every direction, but nothing changes. Nothing ever changes. You might think that parts of the background are different from other parts, but unlike COBE, all you are seeing is pixelation, and the universe is grey and featureless. Forever.
As a thought exercise, it’s often useful to explore the limits of many or all of the assumptions you can perceive, to see what happens when you negate or change each of them (or multiple ones in tandem). We may discover a new goal-less game or goal-less genre of games, or we may discover this is actually impossible, and find some interesting ideas which are partway towards the negated or changed assumptions. I think I want to write about this some more. Watch this space!
Some might say that the very definition of ‘game’ assumes the existence of a ‘goal’. I say ‘to-mah-to‘.