CAP 203 - Computer Animation III

Chapters 4 and 5 - The Game Consists of Elements; The Elements Support a Theme


This lesson discusses material from chapters 4 and 5 of The Art of Game Design. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. Four basic elements
  2. Unifying themes
  3. Resonance

Chapter 4 formally introduces the four elements of a game that were hinted at in the last chapter:

  • mechanics - The rules of a game, the actions a player takes, and the statement of the goal(s) of the game.
  • story - The plot, the narrative, or just the initial tale told to the player before the game starts, as the game is played, or after the game is over. (It can be combination of all three.) Many video games have a story that is told in cut sequences, short films shown at key moments in the game.
  • aesthetics - How the game is perceived by a player's senses. Art, music, sound effects, look and feel of the pieces or equipment or screens, are all part of the player's experience of the game.
  • technology - The physical elements of the game for board and card games; the system requirements for a computer or console game; the required materials that you must have to play the game.

This leads to the discussion of the Lens of the Elemental Tetrad, our seventh lens. Any game can be analyzed in terms this set of four elements (a tetrad):

  • Does the game use all four elements?
  • Can the game be improved by changing one or more elements?
  • Do the four elements of this game work together in harmony? Do they support a common theme?

Examine your game from the perspective of this lens. Remember, as the text states, that these elements are equally important, that a mistake in any one of them can ruin the game. The text illustrates the four elements by using them to discuss the classic video game, Space Invaders. Follow the link in the last sentence to see a gamer's strategy analysis of the Atari 2600 version of the game.

The chapter ends with a proposal that you can experience a game while being aware of the four elements, and noticing which elements are adding to the experience at any moment. Looking at the experience of the game while you evaluate it in terms of the four elements is the eighth lens, the Lens of Holographic Design:

  • Which elements add to the experience?
  • Which elements take away from the experience?
  • What must be changed to improve the experience?

An example may help. The last time I was in Disneyworld, I experienced the Mission Space ride. As I went through the line to the ride, I enjoyed the technology (sound system, video screens) used to make the wait more pleasant to the prospective rider. The aesthetics (music, colors, clean environment) interested me, and the wait was not boring. The story I was told about what the ride would be added to my anticipation of it. As I boarded the ride, I was ready for it to impress me. Unfortunately, that's where the experience stalled. There was a problem. The ride had to be serviced by a mechanic, giving me a distraction from the intended experience. After a short wait in the ride pod itself, the ride began. From there it was as described in the linked material from Disney.


  1. Read the anecdote above.
  2. Think of a the four elements of this "game".
  3. Use the Lens of Holographic Design on this experience. Ask me questions if you need to, but make a suggestion or two about what Disney should have done when analyzing this moment of the experience. Propose what could be done to one or more elements to make the experience better. (Three ideas occur to me as I write this.)

In chapter 5, the author turns to another aspect of a game, the theme that its experience supports. What is a theme? It can be the experience that you are trying to give the players. It can be a single idea that you want to build to in the game, although there had better be more to the game than just the one idea/climax.

Mr. Schell tells us to find the theme for our game, and to make sure that all the elements of the game support it. This can be difficult if you have not established a theme before beginning the project, or if you are working on team that has split up the work without establishing a theme to support. The text tells us about Mr. Schell's experience making an attraction for a Disney park that did not have a theme at the beginning. It was up to the project team to find a theme and then make all the elements of the attraction work toward that theme.

Another way of identifying your theme is to ask yourself what idea or experience the elements of your game are for. This takes us to the ninth lens, the Lens of Unification:

  • What is the theme that unifies your game?
  • Are you reinforcing the theme every way you can?

The text tells us to use this lens with the Lens of the Elemental Tetrad, making sure we are using each of the four elements to best effect.

Having sold you on having a theme for the game, Mr. Schell turns to a larger concept: resonance. A theme that is resonant with a player touches on something personal to the player. This kind of theme makes a connection to some belief or emotion that lies deep within the player. It gives the experience depth and truth in a way that a lesser theme cannot.

I am trying to find a way to explain this to you. If you have not had such an experience, it is unlikely that I can tell you about it until you have. Mr. Schell writes about the movie Titanic as having such a theme, one that touches the hearts of many viewers. This did not work for me, since I am one of the few viewers who did not fall in love with that film. (Why did they keep going back into the ship each time they had already escaped it?)

I will offer a different thought. A favorite TV series of mine was/is Star Trek: The Next Generation. The episode I will draw your attention to is called The Inner Light. Spoilers follow this sentence.

Captain Picard encounters a probe that gives him an experience. It forces him to mentally live a lifetime in the last years that life existed on the planet that launched the probe. He experiences life there for over 30 years, subjectively, including having a family, leaning to care about them and their world... and leaning to play a flute. He receives the experiences stored in the probe, and he is released from its grasp, having spent only a few minutes of real time being controlled by it. At the end of the episode, the probe is inert. Picard is the only one who will ever experience its game. Stored inside a compartment of the probe was a flute, identical to the one Picard learned to play in the probe experience. Picard takes the flute, and hugs it to himself tenderly. He lifts it to his lips and begins to play as the episode ends. It is a beautiful moment that defines the word resonance.

I wondered for a long time about the significance of that scene. I think that it displays the gray area where a simulation stops being just a simulation, and becomes a real experience. It is not just that Picard learned to play the flute that makes the experience stand out. It is that the experience touched him, that it made him care about it. The probe's "game" used technology, aesthetics, mechanics (it made him play), and story most of all. The flute remains as a symbol of everything he loved and lost in that game. A game is more than a game when you care enough about the experience that it changes you. It resonates with whatever is inside you that recognizes its message.

I recently attended a traveling exhibition of props from various Star Trek series. One exhibit was a recreation of Picard's quarters on the Enterprise. As I looked over the familiar scene, I stopped at Picard's desk. On it was the flute. My wife does not understand why it took me so long to walk away from that spot. Part of me is still there. The montage behind this link shows a selection of scenes from the episode, and plays an orchestral arrangement of the song Picard learns to play in the simulation.

Mr. Schell tells us on page 55 that "Resonant themes elevate your work form craft to art." This takes us to the tenth lens, the Lens of Resonance:

  • What part of the game feels powerful and special to the player?
  • What ideas from the game excite people?
  • If I could do anything in the game, what would it be like?
  • What is driving my vision/instinct for what should be in the game?

Use this lens to identify the resonant theme, that either is or could be in your game. It is an opportunity not to be missed.