“let the player fill in the gaps” considered harmful
or: fostering player-generated narratives with creative constraints
in this video, I briefly mention the idea of the “player-designer”: that a symbiotic relationship exists between the game player and the game designer where both have creative agency over the resultant work. this relationship is one of the reasons why the catchphrase “let the player fill in the gaps” can be useful, but also why it can be dangerous.
I typically visualize all this over a spectrum. on one end, the designer has complete control, e.g. with on-rails content. while desirable for various reasons, the potential for emergence and meaningful interaction here is weak. on the other end, you have complete player control. the problem with near-total player control is that–while it sounds nice in marketing material (“completely unlimited by the system” / “do anything you can dream of” / “fantasize with zero constraints”)–the actual result looks suspiciously like… nothing.
people, perhaps counterintuitively, are not very good at being creative in zero-constraint environments. this is more or less a principle of effective design. it can be done, and there are tricks, but it’s not a straightforward process. focusing too much on debating this point ignores the vast but often subtle ocean of “normative creativity”: creativity we perform naturally and often.
for example, in literature: setting and characters are often evoked, not exhaustively specified. even when they are, the onus is ultimately on the reader to fashion their own mental model (and associated visual). this works because the process is highly constrained: you know there’s a woman named Jessica, and you know she’s sprinting over some sand in the middle of a desert; you don’t know what the worm looks like exactly but your brain has conjured up a suitable image. sometimes we even replay dramatic or comedic scenes from books in our heads while reading them, in order to get the full cinematic effect of the scene.
Keith Johnstone maintains that everyone is creative, but most have been conditioned against it by way of enculturation, in particular within the education system. we are taught to deny our ideas as they are effortlessly generated in the brain; we are taught to filter and select rather than allow and enable–a process which ultimately generates nothing, or nothing in time. furthermore, the modern notion that our ideas are tightly bound to our identity contributes to our fear of judgement: because everything we say and do is ours, everything we make is capable of being judged as ours, and it might be better to avoid doing anything at all. simple exercises and constraint “hacks” show, however, that mildly self-aware creatives (or people tricked into believing that they are not the one performing the creative act) are able to readily summon content from the subconscious.
and here we go: one way of tricking people into believing they are not creating is by giving them a work of art ostensibly “designed” by someone else. the consumer is no longer responsible for what happens; anything bad (or good) is entirely attributed to the designer. thus game designers can enable players in this way quite effectively (and save themselves some trouble).
unfortunately, some game designers are all too aware of this process, and use it to exploit rather than nurture. this is a subtle thing–very much of game design is still informal, and the relationship between “good and bad” and “what works and what doesn’t work” is unclear. the mantra of “let the player fill in the gaps” can excuse just about anything. eventually you end up with some of the longest cons in contemporary creative sim / sandbox games. there is some beloved–if niche–stuff out there that not only contains practically nothing of systemic import, but successfully convinces its playerbase that this nothing is a feature. reviews and guides describe a grassroots set of techniques to avoid boredom (!) and play these games “correctly”. these techniques, when investigated under the lens of normative creativity, are clearly tricks and hacks to inspire creativity, in particular techniques to invent constraints out of thin air (because the game doesn’t supply them).
players thus effectively fashion a metagame, which is a requirement in order to play the actual game. players that are not aware of how to achieve this “enlightenment” suffer from “I just don’t get it” syndrome and find themselves unable to connect with the experience or its playerbase. I cannot emphasize enough that these players are not abnormal or uncreative! furthermore, they are probably not even “outside the demographic”. what we are observing here is heavy bias over the player-designer spectrum. the player, in becoming the metagame player, is forced to assume responsibilities typically associated with the designer. when this is combined with misleading, inauthentic representation, the player must fulfill these extra responsibilities in spite of and against the game’s presentation. bad games reinforce bad enculturation. instead of amplifying our creativity, they confuse it.
now, I should point out that–when done intentionally and explicitly–this is not necessarily “evil”, right. if players are up for it, why not? furthermore, this can create a fertile space for second-order creatives, e.g. streamers and tubers, who already build metagames anyway: for them (and their viewers) it’s an opportunity. my question isn’t “why not?”, it’s “why?”. we all know what great sandbox games feel like: stories don’t require effort to excavate–they emerge organically. if it’s a blank page you’re looking for, you might be better off without the computer.
the objective of the game designer is to construct an unobtrusive system of constraints such that player narratives effortlessly and normatively fall out of play, the same way game designers themselves design good games under good constraints, the same way good metagame players play bad games.