The Melodist»Blog

Designing Forward (1/21/2018)

Hey, everyone. This is almost a bit of a rant post; I have a few thoughts I'd like to share regarding the game.

I'll be honest; I've been getting fairly discouraged recently.

I've done an absurd amount of work on the game (and related projects, like its devlog series) over the past year. The player can move around, experience cut-scenes, find new areas, and it's all pretty polished and clean. What the game consists of so far feels great. The game, though, is missing... something. That something is, of course, the heart of the game: the mechanics that the puzzles are to be built off of.

The game's mechanics are what have been occupying my thoughts for what seems like ages. I've never wanted to design a game heavy-handed, where I force all of my ideas onto the game's world and hack it together; that, in my opinion, never produces an interesting game. I want to design a system, and then explore that system; this is a style of design spoken about frequently by the likes of Jonathan Blow. This style of design is sometimes called "Designing Forward"; it is the idea that the designer challenges them self by setting up a system, then setting up challenges within that system, and then attempting to solve them given the rules of the system. This theoretically leads to the designer discovering interesting and unintended consequences of the system that can then be demonstrated to the players of the game.

Designing forward, in my opinion, is beautiful; it produces the most interesting, truthful, and non-arbitrary results in a game. Unfortunately, for me (as well as others to be sure), it also is extremely difficult. It's odd, because I feel that I've developed an intimate familiarity with the idea of creating a system, but actually creating a system is a different challenge entirely. It feels as if I'm understating the problem when I say that I simply can't come up with anything that seems great.

It sounds absurd to claim that music has begun to feel one-dimensional at times. Given a note, one is only able to move in two directions: higher in frequency or lower in frequency. To tie something to frequency alone is to make it one-dimensional and uninteresting (or at least that is what I've experienced; maybe that's incorrect as well). A paragon of this idea is the game's root platforms (which were my first attempt in making a part of the world that reacts to notes). They were incredibly uninteresting aside from being interactive physics objects. The player has four notes available to play; the platform moves up or down depending on the pitch of notes present in the area. The issue is that middle notes are effectively useless (save a few very repetitive physical scenarios), as they move the platform far less than the high/low ones.

This seems fallacious, though; music simply isn't one-dimensional though. It never has been. It expands in multiple dimensions that I can't seem to grasp in the way of game design.

This is undoubtedly why the game still feels as if it's without substance to me, and I'm sure to others as well. Work on the game will continue, of course, but it feels as if the actual game mechanics (go figure...) are the last hurdle I have to surpass before actually developing the game (making the world, building puzzles, story-developing, requesting further art to be done, etc.).

My realization of the lack of substance has effectively led me to questioning almost everything about the game (and maybe this is for the best). Should the player even play notes? How should notes affect the world? How will the player interact with notes/music? All of these questions are ones I thought I had previously answered.

All this being said, though, I won't stop attempting to grasp at a system that will embody the game's spirit and present it in a beautiful fashion. I just wanted to share my current state of mind regarding the game's mechanics and design. Hopefully it was interesting, gives some insight into what I'm doing regarding the game, and perhaps it helped clear my thoughts as well.

Thanks for reading, everyone!
Abner Coimbre,
I haven't followed your game design ideas too closely, but it seems you want to investigate the nature of sound organized in time (melody) and how the fruits of your exploration can be expressed through gameplay?

I wonder if you've considered harmony as part of your studies. Just recently I came across this harmonist, Jacob Collier, and is known for his rather extreme use of re-harmonizing (Flinstones example here). More interesting though, are the random interviews where Collier talks about harmonization. It's pretty evident he spent significant time reading, theorizing, and iterating on harmony "design" until his eyeballs came out.

If what you want is to succeed in following through a specific philosophy of "clarity and purity", then eyeballs falling off is part of it. I know you know this, but hopefully I can provide some reassurance!
Ryan Fleury,
Thanks for the comment, Abner!

I've actually seen the video you linked in which Collier explains harmony to differently experienced individuals (though I wasn't too familiar with Collier himself). That's extremely interesting stuff, though, and I'll have to check it out.

You're right, though; maybe it's a good idea to investigate harmony as opposed to melody (or maybe my exploration in harmony will lead to progress in melody as well).

Thanks for the reassurance, though; it seems that I have something new to think about (and research) which seems to be what I needed. :)
Abner Coimbre,
Water is taught by thirst!
Oliver Marsh, Edited by Oliver Marsh on
Hi Ryan,

I have trouble with this too. Even though I really like and (I think) I understand the Forward Design approach, I have trouble making interesting things with it. One thing that comes to mind with music is that it itself is such a great example of a system and musicians design within this system, that you want your game system to exist seperate and interesting in it's own way. I think maths is another example. It's such a great system, that making a game that embodies this system would be really cool, but runs the risk of making the game _about_ the system, instead of existing as a seperate system, with it's own consequences etc. I think 'serious' games are like this; it just becomes more exciting to actually investigate the original system i.e. maths or music etc. than play a game about the system.

I think I've been trying to be more relaxed with the game design process. I realised when I listen or play music, most of the time it's the ambience or feeling that I really like. I like an A minor chord played it a particular way, more than a complex music piece. I think FEZ is an example of this other approach.

I think Jon Blow said that it was designed differently to how he would have designed it. It has the 3D/2D puzzle aspect but I think doesn't push it as a system, it's just part of the world. Same as the music, the music is a huge part of the game, but doesn't have too much to do with the game mechanics. I think Phil Fish said he wanted to make the game as a place you wanted to spend time in. Although this may be part of a wider system, I think being open to wider possibilities has helped me.

Martin Fouilleul,
Hello !

Some random thoughts about possible music mechanics :
You said that music feels one dimensional because a note can only go up or down. Abner already told about harmony, which is a whole world in itself, but even if you stick with melody, that statement is a bit wrong : you don't take the other scale on which melody develops, which is time.
There's several ways you can include time into your system :

  • Of course, rythm, eg rythmic patterns can be as meaningful as melodic ones. That's a parameter that you can complexify at will with less monotony than melody in my opinion (think poly-rythmic patterns, tempo changes, time signature equivalences)
  • Synchronization (eg with other "singing" entities ? with visual cues ?)
  • Duration (eg the effect of a note will expand and change depending on its duration)
  • Repetition (you can count notes repetitions, but also fragments of a melody, eg if you imagine that some kind of "spell" is tied to a given melody that the player has to learn, its effect could decrease/change each time it is used, forcing the player to learn new fragments or enrich the melody)
  • Memory (long term memory if the player has to learn specific patterns at one point and remember to use them later, or short term memory if the player has to immediately repeat some melody that is sung by some other entity in the game. You could also imagine hiding a meaningful memory fragment into multiple variations, and let the player exert its memory/recognition skills to find the common patterns)

Aside from time, the melodic aspect could feel less one-dimensional if you take into account relations between consecutive notes as opposed to only one note going up or down. Given some musical "rules" (that can be classical harmony, serialism, etc... or something you create entirely for your game), and given a current note and a surrounding context (the preceding notes, the harmony, etc), there's a number of acceptable following notes and a number of following notes that you should avoid (once again it depend entirely on your own ruleset). So you can view melody as a branching process. You could give your player some notions of the rules (or let them discover it by trial and error), some starting points, and build a melodic "tree" with different outcomes for each path. At each node you can give them feedback or additional context by the accompaniment, and let them react accordingly.

An other thought that crosses my mind is that it could be interesting in the context of a game to explore the notion of synesthesia (For instance you can read / listen to Messiaen, who associated chords to specific colors - by the way, its work is also interesting for its melodic aspect, as he drew a lot of inspiration from bird songs). In a game you could tie the environment (eg the lighting, the weather, the attitudes of entities, the color space, etc) in a number of ways to the musical content, not only in term of game mechanic, but also as a way to provide a mood / sense of agency / feedback to players, etc.

Well it may all be a bit out of order, but I hope that helps ! Anyway, I'm looking forward to play the game !

Ryan Fleury,

You've made an interesting distinction between, say, music just being a part of a world as opposed to the world being a literal demonstration of music as a system. Part of my inspiration in making this project was the exact feeling you describe: A sort of peacefulness or ambience provided not by complicated sequences of notes but simple shifts of chords. That's not to say that complicated sequences of notes can't be interesting (they enhance music, of course), but it seems that the core of music and how it can make humans react emotionally is really chords and how they change in a piece of music.

I think since writing this post I've regained some sort of sanity and motivation in designing the game. I think I was misled in the thinking that the game had to be a certain way, but I think I was forcing the design onto the game as opposed to letting the game be designed by exploration of some initial spark or idea. More thoughts on this will follow in the next devlog and probably upcoming blog posts as well. :)



Thanks for the comment :)

Yeah, I had realized that music is in fact nowhere close to one dimensional. Honestly, I wrote this post in a time of complete confusion about where the game was going and what I wanted it to be.

I think your ideas regarding music/time are very interesting, and I've actually had similar ideas recently. Rhythms, I've found, can emerge from particular situations. For example, imagine a cannon shooting projectiles that make notes upon hitting something. A rhythm is dictated, then, by how often the cannon shoots, how far the cannon is from the nearest obstacle its projectiles can hit, etc.... This can also dictate player movement. For example, if the player is in a long hallway and must dodge projectiles, the player must adapt their play to the rhythm of the cannon's firing.

Regarding your comment on synesthesia, I too have been very interested in this idea recently, and the game actually already employs this concept to some extent. Notes, when produced, are visually identifiable in the world by a light source with a color that corresponds to the note's pitch.

I tweeted something once that shows an example of this.

Your comment was very helpful- this game's design has been extremely difficult to lock down, but these types of discussions have been instrumental in helping me doing that :)