Metaphor is often cited as a way of expressing complex ideas elegantly. However from a designers perspective, it’s easy to be lead astray by the siren’s call of metaphor’s potential. While working on a transformational game which set out to use metaphor as it’s primary strategy I’ve found an abundance of avenues worthy of exploration; very much a kid in the candy store situation. And down the rabbit hole I dashed! Every piece of research or tertiary story became an abstracted experience to create and test. As an artist this phase was phenomenal, though when I looked back after a month of rampant ideation it was tough to find a coherent experience to pass to a player. Herein lies the danger.
Creativity thrives within constraints, and metaphors are no different. The toughest part is often creating those first few constraints that inspire something new and sticking to them. With games, those early decisions are often platform, art style, genre, target audience. If your game plans to feature metaphor, than you’ve got another set of constraints to lay down. These we can call a Metaphorical Language. This language is the alternate set of rules that act as the key or codex to the metaphors you are showing. It can be designed much in the same way that mechanics are often approached. Create something simple and compelling and add elements of complexity that ideally bring with them a great deal of depth to the experience. These rules will ideally interact with one another in ways that further your games metaphorical goals, they can be rooted in how something looks “all yellow things are happy” or with where they are located on the screen “everything near the top of the screen is heavenly” or with their function in the game “everything that happens in the menu screens is happening in the character’s mind” or just about anything else. Whatever they are, they should be taken just as seriously as your choice of platform, or your art style, or your genre.
I would like to make a distinction between metaphors that are meant to be understood when presented and metaphors that are intentionally obscured. The former allows players to play inside the metaphor, learning about it through the mechanics and moments of play. The latter provides an opportunity for surprise which is often accompanied by powerful emotions. Obscured metaphors also cultivate replay value, prompting players to review the game once realizing what it was all about. If they begin in a place of understanding the conversation with the material often ends along with the game.
The true challenge of using metaphors for transformation is not in thinking of a single beautiful metaphor, but in thinking of a system of metaphors that can speak beautifully on the subject.
Metaphors are so flexible that they will try to squirm out of whatever box you keep them in, so make sure that box is sturdy.
Making a game with metaphorical goals requires self-imposed constraints
Create the mechanics of your metaphors (your metaphorical language)
*If there’s something you’d like to see in this article, please let me know I’d like to develop it further*