Modelling in Game Design

No, not 3D modelling, and no not catwalk modelling either. But rather the way in which we represent intellectual property, narrative themes, and real world roles in games. Modelling therefore, in the context of game design from here-on refers to how a game implements the themes and actions of the original narrative or real world activity that it is based on. I’ve recently been drawn into thinking about these concepts since playing a particular board game that models its source material quite superbly, one that is based on The Lord of the Rings.

War of the Ring

War of the Ring is a popular grand strategy board game based on the Lord of the Rings books by J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s a competitive two-player game where one side plays as the dark lord Sauron with his evil forces of Mordor, and the other as the Free Peoples of Middle Earth with their fellowship heroes. It is certainly grand, and games can be very long, akin to the likes of Star Wars Rebellion and the Game of Thrones board games.

What War of the Ring manages astonishingly well, is to make you feel like you’re reliving the story of The Lord of the Rings, despite the fact that each game feels likes its own separate story and the player’s own separate spin on the original tale. You have plenty of agency and free will to make your own decisions on how to move your characters and armies, yet each game feels connected to the plot and themes of the books.

These themes and plot points of The Lord of the Rings are expressed in the game through mechanics that span from simple, to deep implementations. For example, at a basic level, one of the rules for the character of Saruman is that he can never leave his region of Isengard on the map. This models the events of the story (in the films) that Saruman indeed never leaves that region. But this is a very basic rule that brute forces that particular aspect of the story onto the player. What makes the game more interesting are the deeper methods of making the player feel like they’re recreating the story of The Lord of the Rings.

For example, as the Mordor player, you must constantly search for the ring. You do this by assigning the limited dice you have available at each turn to be used for this purpose. Thus, the Mordor player must make a decision each turn: spend more time focussing on the hunt for the ring, or instead use more dice to move armies and conduct battles. This models nicely into the idea that Sauron’s gaze can be distracted by his lust for the ring. In fact this idea is used as a strategy at the end of the book where the Free Peoples lead an assault against Mordor in order to distract Sauron from focussing his gaze on Frodo, who is very close to destroying the ring.

Hope, Immortality, and The Machine of War

The Free Peoples’ hope for victory hangs by a thread, the elves are leaving the lands, and what good is left in the world must hold out against a tremendous force. The huge growing armies of Mordor are formed in an almost industrialised method. Hope relies on Frodo destroying the ring in Mount Doom as the Free Peoples cannot hope to achieve victory through force of arms alone, unless they band together.. yet some are more reluctant to go to war than others…

All of these ideas are expressed through some nifty mechanics in War of the Ring. The Free Peoples are fragile, and when one of their units is killed, they are permanently removed from the game. When a Mordor player’s unit is killed however, it is put back into the supply pile, ready to be mustered on to the battlefield once more. The Free Peoples player therefore sees his units as more fragile, their life more precious. The Mordor player sees their units as indispensable pawns. Given this scarcity of manpower, the Free Peoples’ player must also convince more races to join in war against Sauron if they are to have any hope of defending themselves.

War of the Ring’s political track requires that each race first be ‘At War’ before they can muster armies or move them into enemy territory. This staged process can be advanced through use of a certain dice roll, invasion of their territory by the enemy, or – for the Free Peoples’ player – visiting a race’s settlement with their heroes. It’s a system that neatly ties into the book’s narrative about races who, for various reasons, are unwillingly to go to war, or even help one another, and must be persuaded to, lest they find themselves succumbing to Mordor.

The political track for each race is advanced through invasion of their territory, a dice roll, or persuasion

Each game of War of the Ring still manages to feel different, each game still creates a new narrative, one that is personal to both players. Yet each game also still captures the essence of The Lord of the Rings’ story. And this is really the key, it is the essence of the story, the themes that are important, not the events of the story itself that make the player feel they are a part of Middle Earth at this point in its history.

The name’s Bond, I murder everyone

Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64 is a fantastic game. In 1997 it was the first commercially successful first person shooter on a console that convinced me that consoles could do first person shooters well (and this is coming from an almost exclusive PC player).

But while Goldeneye was amazing, I feel that its modelling of Bond and the narrative themes and tropes that come with that saga were lacklustre. Bond is much more than just shooting and gadgets. He’s skilled in the art of deception, interrogation, he’s a driver, a pilot, a smooth talker, a gambler, and of course, a womaniser (though that last point is maybe not the most tasteful thing to model in a game..). That last point, and his orphaned past, even provides a potential hook into mechanics that explore his flaws.

It’s important to point out though, that not modelling Goldeneye accurately to those themes of a Bond movie (or book) doesn’t make it a bad game. It didn’t really matter, the game still held up to the cold light of mass criticism; it’s still a good game. Conversely, it’s also just as important to point out that none of this is suggesting that effective modelling in games creates a great game either.

But it’s interesting to wonder what Goldeneye would look like if it was modelled more faithfully to the tropes of its source material. IO Interactive – they of Hitman fame – are currently working on a 007 game, and to be honest, I feel like the recent Hitman trilogy from 2016 onwards actually embodies the themes of Bond more than Goldeneye did, which could make for a new Bond game by them really quite interesting.

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels

Narcos, the XCom-like game based on the TV series about drug lords, wasn’t received particularly well, commercially and critically. But what stood out most to me was how the gameplay bore little resemblance to the actual plot points of the TV show.

Like Goldeneye, the Narcos game focussed on one singular element of its source narrative, shooting the bad guys. Progression in the game is also confined to a series of linear missions, with some additional side missions thrown in for flavour. But there’s so much more to Narcos than that, and the series has so much more potential for interesting gameplay. Gathering evidence, exposing corruption, persuading politicians, using informants, all of these activities act as setups for combat but are just as relevant to the source material.

Alien: Isolation

But are there any examples of good video games that also model their source material well? I think Alien: Isolation is a good candidate. It explores and expresses such themes and tropes as: survival of the fittest, loneliness (isolation, literally), heritage, motherhood, and primal fear.

The second Alien film (Aliens) utilises strong themes of survival and motherhood in the relationships between not only the principal character Ripley and the sole child survivor Newt, but also a further entangled relationship with the Alien Queen and her eggs. Even the Facehuggers themselves feel like a warped, distorted, and terrifying allusion to the trauma of giving birth.

Alien: Isolation’s principal character is Ripley’s daughter, setting out to find her mother, during which she encounters abject terror in the form of the Alien, and corporate corruption in the form of Weyland Yutani. Additionally the mechanics of Alien: Isolation feel like a childlike game of hide and seek, except the hunter is the Alien, an apex predator and the only known species to effectively threaten human survival. Through some of its mechanics then, Alien: Isolation has managed to really capture the spirit of the franchise, while also being a great game.

But how do we model a game effectively to its source material?

Like a lot of things in design, or art in general, I don’t think there’s an easy answer or rule. After all, no game design survives beyond first contact with its players, and I certainly would never profess to have all the answers. But maybe there are a few things that we can do to help capture the spirit of the source material, such as:

Identify the deeper themes and tropes.

Understand that effective modelling may not just be about replicating narrative, but more about making a player feel the same way they do when consuming the source material.

Identify the problems that characters face in the source material and how they overcome them. How would this be represented as a game mechanic?

Why a character does something, may be much more important than what they do.

And of course, playtest. Playtest, playtest, playtest.

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