Designing from form vs. content

I’m starting to work on a new game, which has got me thinking about how I come up with game ideas. The answer is obviously “it varies”, but I have noticed that in general, I tend to start from one of two places: form (how the game is going to play, look, and feel) vs. content (what the game is going to be about). Ideally, in a finished game, both are strong and complement each other; it’s just that more often than not, one of them tends to come before the other.

Here’s how this dynamic has played out in some of my previous projects:

you used to be someone: Form. I started out wanting to play with a particular 2D/3D first-person aesthetic in Unity, and the idea of making it about going for a walk when depressed came after.

DomPam1: Form. I wanted to make a stop motion musical adventure game. Making it about a genderqueer detective came after.

DomPam2: Content. I wanted to explore the idea of what it meant to write a sequel to a game with multiple possible endings, especially in the context of the previous game, its success, and how it affected me. It ended up becoming a weird Frog Fractions-esque pastiche of different game genres.

Coffee: A Misunderstanding: Content. I wanted to explore the fan/creator dynamic in an interactive narrative. Turning it into an interactive theatre piece for multiple players emerged later.

Interruption Junction: Form. I wanted to make a one-button conversation game. Then, it turned into being about my anxiety around when to interject in group conversations.

Impostor Syndrome: Content. I wanted to make a game about speaking up against abuse and how hard it is when you’re already so used to being devalued as a person. It turned into a Twine game with only one decision point, and a hard one to find at that. (I still stand by this design decision even though it was extremely unpopular with IFComp judges.)

Conversations We Have In My Head: Form. I wanted to make a game about people talking while walking. It became about imaginary conversations with an estranged ex.

Quing’s Quest: Content. I had a lot of feelings in the fall of 2014 about a certain harassment campaign against people I consider friends and colleagues. It became a very campy and sparkly Twine game.