Projection (... or what do you do if you can't sleep 'cos all you dream of is Tetris)

How can you tell when you have an absolutely fantastic brand new game mechanic which is going to take the world by storm?

Surprisingly, it's really easy. If it's fundamentally that different, enjoyable, and - dare I say it? - addictive, you're going to dream about it.

(And yes, I know, addictive is a bit of a dirty word when it comes to games... it has bad connotations... but heck, if you're going to play a game a lot and keep coming back for more, it'd better damn well be at least somewhat addictive. If you don't prefer the entirely way too honest approach, please pretend that I said fun instead).

Seriously. I've known people who after playing Tetris nearly nonstop for a week started dreaming about it. All they saw in their minds eyes as they got the necessary RDA of beauty sleep was falling colored blocks. Most of them asked for their money back, claiming that they'd had better dreams after watching horror movies.

It's not limited to dreams though. In my own personal experience, I've played Crackdown and found myself staring off the deck at work thinking "Yeah, I could jump that!". Of course, a saner head prevailed, and also, of course, I wouldn't have been able to. I'd have been in traction, probably taking all my meals through a straw. But for some reason, the game had attached itself to my brain in such a fundamental way that I had entertained the notion for a tiny moment of time. Okay, for a week or two. Yes, I'll admit it, I was looking at most of the buildings around me as I walked into work figuring out how to scale them. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a powerful game mechanic.

Katamari Damacy? After I played that for the first time, I found myself wandering around idly wondering if I could roll things up. All kinds of things. Usually huge things like cars and buses.

Midnight Club II? Well, let's just say that if I was driving the car I am now back then, I'd probably have enough speeding tickets to roast a nice steak*.

Viva Piñata has never had quite this effect on me. Halo 3? Nope, sorry, it didn't do that. (Mind you, neither did the first two, and Half Life - as much as I love that game... as much as my old producer at Sierra told the AP who gave me a copy in my first month there "not to give the programmers crack when we're trying to ship a product" didn't cause as much as a peep).

Portal though... Portal is a different matter. Portal had that effect. I spent a good while dreaming about how I could create holes in things that led to other holes, allowing me to travel through those holes, in an altogether wholly weird dreaming experience.

So what does this have to do with projection?

OK, imagine that you're holding a screwdriver. Put the screwdriver into a screw head. Feel yourself turn the screw. The weird thing is, as you're slotting the screwdriver home, you can feel the tip of the screwdriver touching the screw as if you had little touch sensitive nerves right on the end of the screwdriver.

This is a wonderful human ability. It allows us to do all kinds of things from driving to using a mouse. (If you're wondering what I mean by that, slam your cursor to the top of the screen right now. Note the word slam; because when it stops there, it feels like it hit something. Of course it didn't - and your mouse kept on moving... but that's what it felt like). If you will, it allows us to push our senses outside of our body, and manipulate our environment with tools as if the tools themselves were part of us. And it's cool.

I've got a theory that new gameplay experiences actually trigger a whole new projection learning experience in the brain. It's like you've never experienced this way of interacting with something before, and you need to digest it. If it's compelling enough, and fun enough, you'll need to process it harder. And if it's something just a little out of the ordinary, you'll end up dreaming about it.

Maybe that's what great gameplay is all about... pushing the boundaries of our experience outside of these fragile little shells and into a whole new vista.

I just wish that it was easier to reverse engineer. The problem with this kind of massively compelling gameplay mechanic experience is that while it'd be awesome for every game to have the power to make you spend your nights dreaming about it, it's really hard to come up with those kinds of mechanics. It's easy to spot them - but hard to create them.

But heck, I really know them when I see them. And apparently, my dreams know them too.

* First take your steak, marinade it, add salt and pepper. Then take a charcoal grill. Use the speeding tickets to light the grill.

This post was originally written for the Surreal Software Game Design Blog.

About the author

Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.

The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).

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