MDA: Mechanical Alignment

In the previous essay, I explained that games can be classified into 9 Aesthetics proposed by Marc LeBlanc, Robin Hunicke and Robert Zubek in their 2004 paper: The MDA Framework. But to keep things tight and orderly, I didn’t elaborate on how to build an Aesthetic for a game.

In this essay I’ll focus on that part with the help of two concepts, Mechanical Modulation introduced in 2003 by Staffan Björk in its Game Design Patterns. The other concept is one I’ve been working on since we published the Integrated Framework for Game Design in 2019, and it’s the idea that every mechanic has a certain inherent texture that adds to a specific Aesthetic. I call this property Mechanical Alignment and it’s the idea that every mechanic is aligned to an Aesthetic to some degree.

Alignment and Modulation

Imagine we are building a First Person Shooter. Consider the Aim & Shoot mechanic that uses the movement of the mouse to aim, and the left click to shoot. This mechanic depends entirely on Fine Motor Skills, the ability to move the mouse quickly and precisely before hitting the fire button defines how good you are at this particular mechanic. This mechanic is aligned with the Challenge Aesthetic, the sole insertion of this mechanic introduces into the game an element of physicality. The amount of time you are using this mechanic defines how much the Challenge Aesthetic is present in the game, so if 80% of the time you have to Aim & Shoot at stuff, this is probably a Challenge-First game.

Let’s propose a slight variation, an Ammunition mechanic that makes each time you shoot, a number goes down, if this number reaches 0, you can no longer shoot. This modifies the way you use the Aim & Shoot mechanic because now you have to think about managing a resource, now there is a tactical element that pushes the whole system ever so slightly towards the Puzzle Aesthetic.

The new system feels different, now every time you shoot, you are not only thinking about the moment-to-moment “get the target and shoot” experience, but somewhere in the process you are also thinking “I have so many bullets and I need to be efficient”. In this case, Ammunition is modulating Aim & Shoot, and by doing so it’s changing not only the way you as a player use the Aim & Shoot mechanic but also the way you perceive the whole game, your emotional experience changes, thus the overall Aesthetic of the game.

In simple terms:

  • Alignment is the inherent property of a mechanic that makes it provide a specific Aesthetic to the game.
  • Modulation is the dynamic that comes when one mechanic modifies the way another mechanic feels and works.

Detect the Alignment of a mechanic

For most cases, understanding the Alignment of a particular mechanic should be fairly intuitive, given you already mastered each Aesthetic. This is the part where experience kicks in, if you take your time and analyze enough games of each Aesthetic, you’ll start seeing some patterns. My approach is to understand the game as a learning experience and try to visualize which skills is the game teaching me with each mechanic. I also try to look for a homologous mechanic in another game and see how well they fit.

Let’s try to work a few examples:

  • Dancing in DDR: It’s all about timing, the game wants me to learn to feel the rhythm and time my movements to the prompt on screen. Prompts are represented by big bright colorful arrows that match the ones under your feet. Time is represented by the position and movement of the arrows on the screen. Success is marked by strong visual and sound effects. This is a Sensation mechanic. Every variation of this mechanic (moving in Crypt of the Necrodancer, dancing in Just Dance, hitting blocks in Beat Saber, playing guitar in Guitar Hero) is working on the same skill: feeling the rhythm.
  • Hearts in The Legend of Zelda: It’s dangerous to go alone!… For real, that’s the idea, that you as a player understand the world is dangerous and this string of hearts that deplete when something bad happens to you is the perfect metaphor for it. The heart is usually associated with two ideas: love and health. If you see a string of hearts it can only mean two things: either you are very in love, or each of those hearts represents the health of your blood-pumping muscle (well, Link’s actually). The dangerous outside world is an enticing idea, you try to avoid danger in your real life, but in the videogame, there’s such an appealing element to it, to go deep into dangerous adventures. Add to it the fact that you can get more hearts and become stronger. This is a Fantasy mechanic. Every mechanic that acts as a metaphor for some aspect of the body and mind of your avatar (Points of Experience, Ability Points, Skill Trees) in the fictional world is trying to convey a similar idea: the world is dangerous and you need to become stronger to survive in it.
  • Decisions in The Walking Dead: Kenny will remember that! The words you choose matter, and the people around you have the ability to reflect on them. Not only that, sometime in the future things you said or did might come back and you’ll have to face the consequences of your actions. That is what the game is trying to teach me: think before you speak, think before you act, what do you want your story to be? (This is especially funny because of how painfully linear TWD games are). This is a Narrative mechanic. I think there’s not really much difference between branching dialog systems, Fallout, Mass Effect, TWD, Life is Strange… all the same IMHO. The only example I can think of as I write this section is the decision-making in Papers Please, because at surface level you have always the same two choices, but the game manages to bring back your decisions to haunt you. Maybe the decisions in Bioshock 2? To kill or not to kill…
  • Parry in Dark Souls: It’s all in the wrist. Learn the patterns and hit the button at precisely the exact moment. Learn how to move fast, react, work on your reflexes, on your muscle memory. This mechanic is all about Fine Motor Skills, it’s like catching a baseball in the air, the only way you can achieve perfection is through practice. And it will hurt, but no pain no gain (this metaphor is getting out of control). This is a Challenge mechanic. Challenge mechanics always play with precise timing, fast reflexes, and complicated combinations of inputs at specific moments. These mechanics try to teach you through repetition. Think of the Fatalities in MK and you’ll get the idea (what is “jumping distance” anyway?).
  • Portals in Portal: Deceptively simple, just put a blue portal in point A and an orange portal in point B, then get to point B and finish the level. But a few tweaks and this mechanic has endless applications in tons of different scenarios. It’s a simple tool with a lot of uses, but in all cases, you have to first take a breath, study the layout of the level and plan your actions. This is a Puzzle mechanic. Puzzle games are all about the order of operations. Learn the steps and execute them in the correct order. Find the pattern and apply what you’ve learned, maybe try a new way to use a familiar tool. Oh, and many, probably a majority of Puzzle games are actually about programming, which in itself is like the ultimate Puzzle game.
  • Voting in Among Us: “-Green: White WTF! -White: What? I was fixing O2! -Green: You were near the body, we all saw you!” The voting system of Among Us allows the players to chat and vote in a limited amount of time. Whoever gets the most votes gets thrown into outer space. It’s all about trust and imperfect information, if you were chilling with Green in the cafeteria, then Green is not the impostor, right? It can’t be but, what about the other players, the ones you did not see? As you discuss, the chat shows you in real-time who has voted, which pressures other players to vote, and through pure social engineering, you can influence others by timing your vote after someone is accused. This is a Fellowship Mechanic. Look for mechanics that allow you to act with or over other players. Mechanics that only work if there is another player. It can be a cooperative mechanic like a trading system or an antagonistic mechanic like killing a crew mate in Among Us.
  • Tallnecks in Horizon Zero Dawn: You just got out of the tribe, and you have one instruction: travel west, to Meridian, there you might find clues to the answers you seek. The world opens before your eyes, it’s kind of overwhelming. As you travel the path, something picks your attention. Something white and tall breaks the horizon, is it moving? You leave the path, only for a moment, to investigate. As you approach you can hear the sound of its steps, IT IS MOVING! it’s a Tallneck, the biggest dinosaur-robot in the game. Now you have to get near, can you climb it? As you get near it you notice there are small structures near its path, maybe if you climb one of them you can get a closer look. Tallnecks are Horizon’s implementation of the Radio Tower pattern in open-world games. It’s a tall structure that breaks the landscape and calls the player to it, like a beacon. From there the player can get a clearer view of the map and new side-missions reveal. This is a Discovery mechanic. Discovery is about uncharted territory, about owning the terrain. Discovery mechanics work by guiding the player to new places, pushing them into the unknown, but only a little bit. Expand your frontiers one inch at a time.
  • Building in The Sims: What happens if I remove the ladder of the pool while they’re inside? OH! THAT HAPPENS!! Is this color best for my living room? does it match the furniture? I’m going for a 50’s Americana style for this house. If you have ever played The Sims, you’ve probably lost more hours than you care to admit picking paint color for your virtual house walls or choosing the right coffee table to complement the living room. This game is not rushing you, on the contrary, the game allows you to set the pace, to pause at any moment, to be free. As the game progresses, you have access to more content, and a cycle reveals itself: get in-game money to improve your in-game house, and then use that house to improve your in-game family that goes get more in-game money. This is an Expression mechanic. Expression Mechanics are easy to detect, usually, they allow you to modify the environment in extreme ways. God games and Tycoon games are good sources of inspiration on how to approach this Aesthetic. Character creator systems, common in Fantasy games, are actually Expression mechanics.
  • Click in My Name is Mayo: Just… keep clicking the Mayo jar. Not much to learn here. OH look, something happened! Click on it and… well just keep clicking. It’s kind of therapeutic, isn’t it? The game is not really trying to teach you something new, just relax and keep clicking, enjoy the music. This is a Submission mechanic. Submission games don’t teach you anything. With intuitive gameplay, the whole idea of the submission game is that it’s devoid of challenge, devoid of struggle, and only a hint of difficulty is perceived, but it’s not something you must overcome, it’s more like a minor inconvenience, enough to keep you engaged but not that much that you could even think of rage-quitting the game. A masterful Submission game is in itself a thesis on UI design.

How to adjust the Alignment of a mechanic

Let’s make a mental exercise. Suppose we are building a combat system for two different games. Game A is Sensation-First, with lots of fast-paced action. Remember that Sensation games are nondemanding, forgiving of errors, and focus on fast and sustained high-energy sections. Game B is leaning more towards a Puzzle Aesthetic, we want to focus more on strategy and tactics. In Puzzle games, the player controls the pacing, not the game, and the system should press the player to think before they act, to plan ahead their actions, and execute them carefully.

The combat system for both games will have the same mechanics:

  • Locomotion (Discovery): The player will move forward with the key W and backward with the key S. The player will strafe left with A and right with D. The player will use the movement of the mouse to rotate the camera, and forward will always be towards the front of the camera.
  • Aim & Shoot (Challenge): The game will have a visible reticule in the center of the screen. To aim the player has to align the view with the target using the movement of the mouse. The Left Mouse Button will be used to shoot.
  • Health and Damage (Fantasy): The player will have a numerical representation of their health. Enemies can attack the player, reducing the value of health. Health is linked to a defeat condition, if the value of Health drops to 0 the game triggers a Game Over condition.
  • Ammunition (Puzzle): Each gun will have an ammunition counter. Each time the player fires a gun, its ammo counter will go down. If the ammo counter reaches 0 the gun becomes unusable. The player can find more ammo in the form of pickable objects called ammo boxes.

By adding this system we are also introducing a lot of complexity into the game’s Aesthetic composition. As we can see, each mechanic adds some texture into the game that changes the overall experience. However, this is not proportional, the fact that the system has 1D+1C+1F+1P doesn’t mean that this system is one part Discovery, one part Challenge, one part Fantasy, and one part Puzzle, each mechanic can be designed in a way that supports the main Aesthetic. The original alignment of each mechanic will still be present in the final product, but it can be adjusted, tuned down, and modulated to fit better with the target Aesthetic.

For Game A we want the combat system to support the Sensation Aesthetic, so we want a combat system that is forgiving, fast, heavy on visual effects. For Game B we want a combat system that is player-paced, requires strategic and tactical planning, and careful execution.

Game A (Sensation)Game B (Puzzle)
LocomotionFast: The player character will have only one speed, somewhere between 15 and 20 meters per second. Turning will also be very fast, around a full turn per second, allowing the player to change direction quickly while running.
Forgiving: The character will align automatically when they hit a wall in a slanted angle, this way the speed is maintained and the player can focus on moving from point A to point B without thinking much about adjusting their movement. Especially useful for narrow corridors.
Self-Paced: The player character will have two speeds, one walking at ~3m/s and while holding a modifier button the player will start running at 6m/s.
Careful: If the player hits a wall, their speed will be hindered by the natural friction of the physics system. The rotation speed will be slow too, around 90 degrees per second. The player cannot run backward, only walk.
Requires Planning: Corridors and rooms will be littered with obstacles, demanding the player to maintain a mental map and plan their movement through each room.
Aim & ShootFast: Always on. The reticule is always visible and the gun is always loaded and ready to fire. Enemies move fast through the field, requiring the player to chase them and close distance to get a better shot.
Forgiving: Bullets will have a wide area of effect, allowing the player to aim somewhat carelessly and still get a target.
Self-Paced: The player needs to hold a modifier button to pull up the gun and aim. Enemies move slowly and circle the player before attacking. This gives the player some time to get the target on sight.
Careful: The gun will add a margin of error while the player is moving, increasing the probability of a missed shot unless the player stops for a moment before pulling the trigger.
Health and DamageFast: If an enemy hits the player, the hit is resolved instantly. VFX and SFX will be used to signal the player of the damage taken, but movement is not hindered. Strong attacks will produce a small knockback.
Forgiving: Each attack will reduce somewhere between 1 and 5 hitpoints, with very strong enemies hitting up to 10 hitpoints at a time.
Careful: If an enemy hits the player, a scripted animation will trigger, taking control from the player for a brief period of time. Changes in camera angle and the position of the character will force the player to regain their bearings after an attack.
Planning: The player can sustain only four attacks in a row. Forcing them to evade damage as much as possible and play defensively, using the convoluted space around as an advantage.
AmmunitionForgiving: Ammo can be dropped by enemies on death. The chance of ammo drops increases when all the guns have low ammo. Since the chance of ammo drops depends on a random event, there’s a gun with infinite ammo, although lower power, this will allow the player to keep pushing forward and target weaker enemies to try and get an ammo drop.Careful: Ammo is limited in the whole game. Each time the player fires a gun, that is a bullet less in the overall count of ammo available in the whole game.
Planning: The player cannot carry much ammo, they will have to choose which type of rounds to take in between sections of the game. Certain enemies are more resistant to certain types of ammo.

Of course, we are talking about DOOM (2016) and Resident Evil 2 Remake (2019). In both games we have a combat system that can be described as “similar”, but each implementation has different considerations that clearly separate both games to a point that almost no one would consider both games to play the same.

In this oversimplification of the combat system of both games, I’m leaving out some dynamics that are very important for the overall experience. In DOOM the Glory Kill mechanic is purely Sensation and its insertion into the combat system has a huge impact on the way the game feels: A nearby enemy is glowing bright orange (non-verbal information), the player hits one button and automatically the Doomslayer jumps into the target at breakneck speed (non-demanding, fast), an animation triggers and the player witnesses how the Doomslayer destroys the enemy with his bare hands, blood and guts splat everywhere (heavy use of VFX and SFX), and bright orbs of health and ammo spawn from the carcass (forgiving). This mechanic tips the balance of the whole combat system heavily towards the Sensation Aesthetic. Add to this the heavy use of motion blur, simple and colorful UI, and scenarios with bright lights and lots of contrast.

While DOOM is a very simple game by design (Badass guy kills demons with things that go BOOM), RE2 is a much more complex experience. In the previous essay, I classified RE2 as Narrative for its heavy use of dialog, environmental, and epistolar narrative. However, the Discovery elements of RE2 are very strong and the balance …

The MDA Framework

When it comes to game design, I can say with some confidence that most game designers learn their craft in the trenches: either by working with more experienced designers or copying what they like to play into their games. One of my favorite books on Game Development is Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop in which she describes a process that involves a focus group of players that test the game and the designer takes their feedback and their behavior as input to modify their assumptions and direction. In this approach, the designer surrenders their control over the product and acts as an interpreter of the game that the focus group is building.

These methods are effective, we have great games today, many of them products of these empirical processes. But because of my training in sciences and engineering (and probably because I’m a neurotic) I don’t feel comfortable with this kind of method. I need my process to be predictable, a language to describe the elements I’m working on and guides and templates that give me a structure to work on top of.

A brief history of game design

In 1994 the renowned author and game designer Greg Costikyan published an essay titled I have no words and I must design in which he expresses the need to develop a formal language for the discipline:

As game designers, we need a way to analyze games, to try to understand them,
and to understand what works and what makes them interesting.
We need a critical language. And since this is basically a new form, despite its
tremendous growth and staggering diversity, we need to invent one.

Costikyan, 1994

In his essay, Costikyan struggles to establish a definition for the concept of game, one that includes every product understood as a “game” but at the same time defines clear boundaries for things that most designers would agree are not games games. This attempt was (to the extent of my knowledge) unfruitful, and the discussion didn’t move forward for almost a decade.

In the time between 2001 and 2004, Marc LeBlanc started talking in conferences about a “taxonomy” for game design, something to understand the nature of the game as an emotional experience. Inspired by LeBlanc’s efforts, Costikyan tried again and published another essay titled I have no words and I must design: Toward a critical vocabulary for games. Although the new document has the same title, the content is vastly different. In those 8 years, Costikyan matured his ideas and arrived at what is my favorite definition of game:

An interactive structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle toward a goal.

Costikyan Sir, I’m your biggest fan…

Finally, in 2004 LeBlanc banded with Robin Hunicke and Robert Zubek and published his taxonomy in what we know as the MDA Framework. This along with Staffan Björk’s Game Design Patterns, Charmie Kim’s Core Mechanic Diagram, and my grain of sand in the form of the 5-Part Model (derived from Costikyan’s first paper) constitutes the body of work I call The Integrated Framework for Game Design. This is my template, my guide, my structure.

I’m obsessed with the MDA, to the point I’m making my life’s work to understand and, if my limited capacity allows, improve upon it, to the point we have a proper body of knowledge for game design.

Aesthetics in the MDA

At its core, the MDA Framework is still a taxonomy, but its main premise is that games are emotional experiences. What the framework attempts is to classify the type of emotion a game can provide. In their paper, Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek define eight classes (Aesthetics) that more or less can be used to define any game.

Each Aesthetic is a specific emotional expression, which they quickly define in a short table:

For example, consider the games Charades, Quake, The Sims and Final Fantasy. While each are “fun” in their own right, it is much more informative to consider the aesthetic components that create their respective player experiences.

Charades: Fellowship, Expression, Challenge

Quake: Challenge, Sensation, Competition, Fantasy

The Sims: Discovery, Fantasy, Expression, Narrative

Final Fantasy: Fantasy, Narrative, Expression, Discovery, Challenge, Submission

Hunicke, LeBlanc & Zubek, 2004

How to use the MDA


And of course, I have already broken the first rule. You see the problem is this: for them, Challenge is defined as either a physical or an intellectual challenge. I just can’t wrap my head around this. The way I see it, Challenge is a physical thing: fast reflexes, muscle memory, hand-eye coordination. The emotions I feel when I play a challenging game, like Mortal Kombat, are very different from what I feel when I’m playing a game that requires a lot of intellectual energy, like The Room. So I work with a list of 9 Aesthetics, the 9th being Puzzle: Game as a test for the intellect.

Okay, so… now…


Before inventing your own taxonomy, I believe that as a game designer, you should first understand the current one, and try to work within its limits. So, since the original list is not… detailed in its definitions, I’ll elaborate on what I understand are each of the aesthetics.


Consider a game like Guitar Hero. This is a type of game that you experience through all your senses. You have to pay attention to the music, the flashy visual effects, fire explodes on each successful note, the music muffles and distorted noises appear on a mistake. While you’re playing you are on your feet, you are feeling the guitar in your hands, you slide your hand up and down the neck of the guitar to hit each fret, and before you know it, all your body is moving to the music.

A Sensation game is defined by the following features:

  • Emphasis on non-verbal information: The game transmits information through visual and sound effects. Text and numbers are sparse if any.
  • Strong use of VFX, SFX, and Haptic Feedback: The game attacks multiple senses at the same time. The experience is full and hectic.
  • Nondemanding fun: The player is happy, even if they lose a match. The game can be difficult to master, but even so, the experience is engaging.
  • Fast and Sustained: In a Sensation game the action runs at a very fast pace and for relatively long periods of time (in the order of tens of minutes, half an hour). But in a very physical game, this is limited to sessions of 5 or 10 minutes.

The fun in a Sensation game is to surrender your senses to the experience. The player disconnects from their environment and engages in a visceral, reactive way. Almost as if they are acting on instinct.

Examples of games that are Sensation First:

  • Guitar Hero: Sensation, Challenge, Submission
  • Beat Saber: Sensation, Challenge
  • Just Dance: Sensation, Challenge, Expression, Fellowship
  • DOOM (2016): Sensation, Challenge, Fantasy, Discovery


The world is in peril and the only hope is YOU!!!!

In a Fantasy game, the player assumes the role of a character in a fictional world. Fantasy games usually are larger than life, with hundreds of hours and tons of activities for the player to experience. The world is a playground for the player, filled with quests and things to do.

Key features of a Fantasy game are:

  • Role-Play: The player has an avatar in the game. This means the player IS the character. This goes hand in hand with the silent protagonist trope. The character is silent because they have no voice, no opinions, nothing to say about the world. The player is the one with a voice and an opinion. The character is just an empty shell for the player to inhabit.
  • Growth Mechanics: Experience points, Skill trees, Ability scores, and any mechanic that transmits the concept of getting better at stuff.
  • Big Stakes: In a Fantasy game the world, nay the Universe is always at stake. Epic adventures are common in this type of game. The player is the center of the universe.
  • The Hero: The player is the hero of the story. Usually in this type of game when a player relates their experiences, find themselves talking in first person: “I defeated the dragon” “I joined the faction A, and that made faction B my enemy”.

The fun in a Fantasy game comes from the make-believe. The player suspends their disbelief and becomes part of the fictional world.

Examples of Fantasy First games are:

  • The Legend of Zelda: Fantasy, Discovery, Challenge, Narrative
  • Fallout: Fantasy, Discovery, Puzzle, Narrative
  • Dungeons and Dragons: Fantasy, Fellowship, Narrative, Puzzle
  • Borderlands: Fantasy, Challenge, Fellowship (only if you play with friends), Narrative


Lee crawled his way up to a fence, evading the zombies surrounding him. He climbed and entered a house. In it, he found a radio through which he met Clementine for the first time.

Narrative games have a written story, usually linear, that the player follows along. A narrative game favors decision-making and dialogue systems. Fantasy and Narrative usually come together, although it is possible to find a game that has the Narrative component and not the Fantasy one.

Narrative games are characterized by:

  • Complex tridimensional characters: The characters of a Narrative game have their own voice, their own opinions, and attitudes toward the world and the events unfolding. It’s not uncommon that the player might disagree with the character of a Narrative game.
  • The player as witness instead of protagonist: Since the characters in the game have their own voice, the player is a silent witness that accompanies and aids them through their adventure.
  • Small scale, big emotions: Narrative games can explore complex topics with more depth than Fantasy games. Through the moral and ethical lens of the characters in the story, different themes and events can be contrasted and discussed. Because of this depth, Narrative games tend to be smaller in scale. Not world-defining adventures, but adventures of huge importance to the characters involved.

The fun in the Narrative game comes from the drama. The player becomes engaged with the characters and wants to know what happens. In my humble opinion, the best narrative games are character-driven, not event-driven.

A few Narrative First games are:

  • Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Narrative
  • Life is Strange: Narrative, Puzzle
  • Final Fantasy VIII: Narrative, Puzzle, Discovery, Fantasy
  • Resident Evil 2 (Remake): Narrative, Discovery, Challenge
  • God of War (2018): Narrative, Fantasy, Challenge, Discovery (order may vary depending of the difficulty setting)



What else do you need to know? Challenge games demand practice. A Challenge game requires fast reflexes, muscle memory, and hand-eye coordination. The Challenge game pulls no punches and has no patience, either you get good at the game, or do another thing.

Challenge games usually feature:

  • Player Centered Combat Systems: Systems that require the player to become skilled.
  • Easy to play, hard to master: Challenge games are usually simple, but tight. Responsive controls, precise animations, and predictable behaviors from both the Player Character and the obstacles or enemies around.
  • Fair and Unforgiving: Usually if a player loses a match, is their fault, not the game’s. A Challenge game is clear and fair, in the sense that every ounce of difficulty is on display. Random Number Generators and Dice Rolls are not welcome in this type of game.
  • Short Bursts and Good Pacing: Challenge games can be taxing for the player. So the Challenge game tends to engage the player in very short bursts of hectic action. No more than 5 minutes at a time with periods of rest. Challenge games usually are very well-paced.

The fun in the Challenge game comes from the cycle of tension and resolution. It’s a cathartic experience, during the highest tension sections the player is engaged, stressed, and in a state of pain (sometimes literal pain), once the tension drops, the player relaxes completely. This cycle works even if the player loses the match, but it’s way more satisfying if the player is successful, probably because of a huge discharge of endorphins and dopamine.

A few games with the Challenge First Aesthetic would be:

  • Mortal Kombat: Challenge, Fellowship, Sensation
  • Grand Turismo: Challenge, Fantasy
  • Super Meat Boy: Challenge, Submission
  • Cuphead: Challenge, Sensation, Fellowship (if you play with a friend)
  • Voxel Blast: Challenge, Sensation


This is the one I added to the list.

A puzzle game is a challenge for the intellect. In a puzzle game, you’ll find the player scratching their heads, retracing their steps, and questioning their life constantly. Usually, puzzle games are slow-paced, they let the player take their time to figure out what they need to do. Puzzle games can be classified into two groups: Puzzle Solving games present a sequence of puzzles linked by some sort of story or dramatic backdrop. Problem Solving games give the player a box of tools and a problem to solve. While a Puzzle has only one valid solution, a Problem has many and it’s possible to optimize. Both types engage the same abilities and provide the same type of fun, but their design is different. A Puzzle is designed backward, from the solved state to its unsolved state, a Problem is designed forward, creating specific challenges for the available tools.

Common characteristics of a Puzzle game are:

  • Puzzles (DUH!): Structures that require a specific order of operations to solve. Think of a puzzle box or an escape room.
  • Strategy and Tactical Systems: The player has to plan ahead, design a course of action and execute it efficiently.
  • Resource Management: Puzzle games require a lot of mental energy. This type of game is complex. The player has to handle many data points at once, a little mistake can snowball out of control or have unforeseen consequences.
  • Pattern Recognition and Lateral Thinking: Many times the correct solution is not the most obvious one. Pay close attention and think carefully. What do you know so far? What is different? What seems out of place?
  • Random Number Generators: Luck favors the prepared. Many tactical-oriented mechanics feature some sort of dice-throws.

The fun of the Puzzle game is similar to the Challenge game. The player engages in a problem that seizes their attention for periods of time. The difference is in the pacing, while the Challenge game has regular pacing with short bursts, in the Puzzle game the pacing is controlled by the player, and usually has longer bursts of lower intensity. The tension during a puzzle is not painful but could be described more as frustrating. Once the puzzle is solved the player feels intrinsically rewarded, it’s what we could call an “AHA! MOMENT”, which also (probably) hacks their dopamine pathways.

Examples of Puzzle First games:

  • SOOT: Puzzle, Narrative
  • The Room: Puzzle
  • SpaceChem: Puzzle
  • X-COM: Puzzle, Narrative
  • Starcraft: Puzzle, Narrative (if you play the campaign) or Fellowship (if you play against a friend)

You might’ve noticed that, at least the way I understand both aesthetics, Puzzle and Challenge are pretty much opposite to each other. Challenge is simple, Puzzle is complex. Challenge is transparent, Puzzle is obscure. Challenge is fair, Puzzle leaves much to chance. Challenge is fast, Puzzle takes its time. That’s why I could not wrap my head around the idea of Challenge being both the mental and the physical expressions of difficulty.


The game as a social framework. Fellowship games are built as systems of communication between players. The game acts as a moderator for the type, tone, and nature of the communication possible. Fellowship games don’t work unless you have multiple players interacting in the system. A Fellowship game can be competitive, cooperative, or both. The communication in the game can be verbal, physical, abstract, or concrete. Fellowship games can be classified in three groups: Party games have short sessions with silly mechanics and feature a lot of self-balancing techniques, Coop games have long sessions and are designed for in-person communication outside the game itself, and Competitive games take advantage of internet technology to provide a complex in-game non-personal communication structure.

Some common features of a Fellowship game are:

  • Multiplayer Only: The game only works if there are multiple players in the system.
  • The environment is inert: Usually, the game allows players to interact with each other, the environment (NPCs, maps, levels, etc…) is just a backdrop, not really interactive on its own. This is especially true for competitive games.
  • Unbalanced and Unrated: In a competitive environment, there’s little the designer can do to truly balance the game. Matchmaking techniques are limited and inherently flawed. The game can’t provide a truly balanced experience since the opposition is another human being. There are imperfect ways to rebalance during a match (Handicap and Rubberbanding).

The fun in a Fellowship game is anecdotical and complicit. It’s through the interactions between the players that the fun is provided. In a group of friends, people with a lot of mutual trust, the fun comes from the bonding and playfulness of the events during the game. The game can also become a tool to meet new people with common interests and engage in adventures.

Some Fellowship First games I can mention:

  • It Takes Two: Fellowship, Narrative, Puzzle, Challenge
  • Mario Party: Fellowship, Submission, Challenge
  • League of Legends: Fellowship, Puzzle
  • Nidhogg: Fellowship, Challenge, Submission
  • Hookbots: Fellowship, Challenge, Submission
  • World of Warcraft: Fellowship, Fantasy


My personal favorite. In a Discovery game, the player is presented with a world of secrets and mysteries. The game is built on top of mechanics that allow the player to interact with the environment. Modulated by Puzzle, a Discovery game has the player constantly stopping in every corner, looking everywhere for things that pop. Discovery first games tend to allow the player to go anywhere they want.

A Discovery game usually has these features:

  • Non-Linear Structure: Space has two or three dimensions, sometimes four. In a Discovery game, the player is allowed to go around at their leisure. Open-World games are good examples of this property.
  • Guided Exploration: Discovery games have to deal with a delicate balance between freedom and aimlessness. Usually, the dramatic premise of the game helps guide the player, and Discovery games try to guide the player in a general direction. The player is free to ignore this guidance and go wherever, but the fact that there’s a “correct” path helps the player trace their own path.
  • Layered Exploration: As the player becomes acquainted with the world around them, the game provides them with new tools that allow them to move faster or reach new places. The game allows the player to push their boundaries and own the space around them.
  • Hidden Mechanics: The “space” can be a physical place or an abstract one. Discovery games usually feature secrets in their mechanics as well. Combos with certain items produce weird results, easter eggs hidden in the game and in the meta-space (achievements and collectibles for instance).

The fun of the Discovery game lies in the sense of exploration. Finding a new place, a hidden treasure, solving a mystery. In a way, it’s a very intimate experience with the space itself. These games work better in single-player experiences.

Examples of Discovery First games are:

  • Gone Home: Discovery, Narrative
  • Horizon Zero-Dawn: Discovery, Narrative, Challenge (order might vary depending on difficulty setting)
  • Metroid Zero Mission: Discovery, Challenge
  • Journey: Discovery, Sensation, Fellowship


While Discovery games struggle with aimlessness, Expression games embrace it. In this type of game, the player is presented with a toolbox but no problem to solve. Usually, the Expression game has a sandbox structure that allows the player to do whatever they want. The game acts as a creative outlet for the player. Expression games are more toys than games, untethered freedom is the goal.

Expression games can include some of these features:

  • Non-Enforcing Progression: Expression games can feature tracking systems with different goals for the player to engage with. But the game makes little to no effort in forcing the player to pursue these goals. Sometimes a small benefit can be attached to these small goals as a means to incentivize engagement.
  • Infinite Gameloops: The lack of a global goal means the game ends when the player stops playing. There’s no end-game in an Expression game.
  • Chaotic Synergies: When designing several mechanics in a system, the game designer usually tries to contain and direct synergies, but in an Expression game it’s common that whatever unexpected behavior found in the game dynamics is left unhindered. The result is usually chaotic and ridiculous, which are the most desirable characteristics of a viral meme.

The fun in an Expression game is silly by nature, innocent and free. Most Expression games allow situations that resemble those of Free Play. The player decides which level of engagement they want from the game, and it can range from simple fun to the most complex and elaborated self-imposed challenges. The trick is: the game is not pressuring the player in any direction.

Examples of Expression First games are:

  • Minecraft: Expression, Discovery, Challenge
  • Cities Skylines: Expression, Puzzle
  • The Sims: Expression, Submission
  • Goat Simulator: Expression, Sensation, Submission


This is the game you play on the bus, on the toilet, a quick session before sleep. Most commonly found in mobile devices, a good Submission game doesn’t expect anything from the player. Simple experiences, infinitely replayable, with irrelevant progression or no progression at all. The submission game is something to switch the brain off for a few minutes, something to kill boredom in between tasks.

A good Submission game has the following characteristics:

  • Non-Demanding: There is no such thing as “getting good” at Candy Crush… A good submission game can be learned quickly and there is nothing to master.
  • Shortest or Longest Sessions: A good Submission game can be played for a few minutes or a few hours at a time. Its simple structure allows the player to engage for long periods of time, but the player can disengage at any moment.
  • Infinite Replayability: Submission games lack drama, and thus you can replay them again and again without spoiling the experience in any way. Tetris’ 1000th playthrough is as fun as the first.
  • Deceptively Simple: Submission games usually masquerade as other types, typically Puzzle games. Match 3 mechanics require pattern recognition abilities, but the level of complexity of Bejeweled is in no way compared to something like a Missing Object game. The secret sauce lies in the game’s difficulty: Submission games don’t have any.

The fun of the Submission game comes from its simplicity. It’s just a distraction, nothing more.

Good examples of Submission First games are:

  • Bejeweled: Submission, Puzzle
  • Plants vs Zombies: Submission, Puzzle
  • Tetris: Submission, Puzzle
  • Temple Run: Submission, Challenge
  • CANABALT: Submission, Challenge
  • My Name is Mayo: Submission, Narrative

A GOOD Submission game doesn’t demand anything from the player. But Submission games have a peculiar property: they are extremely effective at hijacking the dopamine pathway. This means Submission games tend to be addictive more easily than any other type of game. Add the fact that Submission games are very easy to develop, and the result is a market section that specializes in addictive games. This doesn’t mean every Submission game is dangerous or ill-intentioned. Tetris is as good today as it was in 1985. But from an ethical standpoint, I think it’s important to acknowledge this Aesthetic is linked to one of our biggest issues in today’s game industry.

Closing Remarks

Consider this document an essay, by that I mean this review of the Aesthetics has a lot of my own personal perspectives and opinions weaved in between the lines. Some of them are evident, some are not so much. So take everything I say with a grain of salt.

That said, understanding each Aesthetic has helped me become a better game designer, and this analysis is my main tool when I teach game design, to which I can report pretty satisfying results.

This is only the first level of design, I hope to complement this article with some insight on how to provide Aesthetics through mechanics (Mechanic Alignment) and how to handle multiple Aesthetics in one game (Subordinate Aesthetics). There’s a method to my madness, maybe if I leave it in writing this might be helpful for someone in the future.

And if you are Greg Costikyan, Marc LeBlanc, Staffan Björk, Jenova Chen, or any other of the authors I mention here, and you happen to hate everything I said… please don’t tell me :D.



The little exoplanet Callisto is named after a Nymph, the daughter of the infamous king Lycaon and the Naiad Nonacris.

The myth says that Callisto joined the hunting party of the goddess Artemis, and thus she was constantly seen close to the goddess.

Zeus seduces Callisto while disguised as Artemis. Extracted from the Zeus music video by Pascu y Rodri.

Zeus obsessed with the charms of the young huntress and followed her during their hunting trips. Once she was alone Zeus disguised himself as Artemis and seduced Callisto, impregnating her.

Artemis, who demanded all her followers to remain pure, found out about the affair and expelled Callisto from her company. The poor Nymph roamed the forest alone as the pregnancy advanced.

Callisto's demise. Extracted from the Hera music video by Pascu y Rodri.

Hera found about her husband’s infidelity and transformed Callisto into a bear only to trick Artemis to shoot her during a hunt. Zeus felt pity for the Nymph. He sent Hermes to rescue the unborn baby, Arcas, and take him to the Nymph Maia. Then he transformed Callisto into a constellation, Ursa Major, the Great Bear, where she could live save from Hera’s wrath.

Her son, Arcas, succeeded his grandfather Lycaon and his kingdom received the name Arcadia in his honor. On his death bed, Zeus transformed him into a constellation, Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, and put him next to his mother in the sky.

In Mason’s Diary, Ferdinand refers to the planet as a “Sterile hunk of rock”, which probably refers to it being a solid core exoplanet, devoid of any signs of life. Mason describes it as mostly iron and mineral carbon, with traces of copper and other minerals, in a solid compact, almost spherical formation. Some traces of methane rivers and lakes can be identified on its surface, but most of it has evaporated, and it’s missing, probably extracted for future use. By the time the Ziggurat reaches this planet the mining operations are finished, but the planet is still exploitable. Mason has the task to clean it up in case the Mining crew decides to return.


Check out the incredibly good music videos about Zeus and Hera from Spanish YouTubers Pascu y Rodri:

Indivisible: Excellent gameplay, but why is its narrative so bad?

A word of warning: this ended up being a very long piece. I got carried away, but I, like Arngrim, have no regrets. Enjoy 🙂

My love for Valkyrie Profile.

This is important, please bear with me…

Valkyrie Profile is a game developed by TriAce and published by Enix, back when Enix was just Enix, in 1999 (21 years old now, Valkyrie Profile can now go to a bar and drink a beer). The game is a classic JRPG with an extremely agile and satisfactory turn-based combat system that allows the player to perform cool combos with flashy VFX, cringe-inducing 2D-3D graphics mashing, and amazing voice acting.

However, the single most amazing feature of VP is its narrative. The game centers around Lenneth, a Valkyrie tasked with traveling the earth looking for tormented heroes in the brink of death. She witnesses their final hours and decides if they are worthy of fighting alongside the gods in the ultimate war: Ragnarok. The game features 24 different characters, each one with a different tragic story, many of them intertwined. The player has a chance to see first hand their stories and relate to each different character and their tragedy before recruiting them.

The game is structured in 8 chapters, in each one you can pick up a few characters and then go with them and clean a few dungeons. Each new character has to be trained, in the hardest difficulty new characters arrive at level 0 and you must level them up if you want them in your party, which sounds troublesome, but I actually found it kind of fun, it’s a chance to revisit old dungeons and check what cool abilities the new members of the party have. Before the chapter ends, you have to send at least one hero to Valhalla to fight with the gods, which usually is a tough choice since the heroes you send won’t be playable again until the end of the game, and some heroes may die in the war. At the very end of the chapter, Freya updates you in the state of the war, tells you about accomplishments from your Einherjar (your heroes), and gives you a quick summary of your performance.

The game has 3 endings, the best of which is Japan levels of hard to get, not because the game is hard to play, it’s actually very easy even in the hardest difficulty, but because the order of actions you have to make is super obscure and extremely precise. As far as I remember there’s no clear hint in the game on how to get Ending A. Only the disappointment of finishing the game and getting Ending B (or C if your performance was abysmal and Freya came down to kick your ass).

To get the best ending you have to make some incredibly tear-choking sacrifices amplified by the fact the game acknowledges your progress with new super tragic sections of gameplay and story that will make you feel powerless and angry, followed by a whole new section with higher stakes, and anime cinematics, and a cathartic last fight, and everything. It is freaking beautiful.

In summary, this is one of the best games ever made, second only to A Link To The Past.

But this piece is about another game, right?

In October 2015 Lab Zero Studios launched an IndieGOGO campaign for a game that claimed to be a spiritual successor to Valkyrie Profile. Indivisible showed very similar gameplay, with amazing anime-style art, voice acting, similar combat system, the works. The moment I saw this my heart skipped a beat, I HAD to play Indivisible.

After a fairly successful campaign, the game stayed in production for four years, which I find perfectly reasonable, and finally got published in October 2019. I happily got my copy and played the whole thing with a stupid smile on my face. I think I might’ve burned the midnight oil on this game 4 or 5 times because I wanted to take it to the best completion rate my poor gamer skills allowed me before the end of the holidays. The moment I get back to work I drop whatever game I’m playing *cough*Hollow Knight*cough* because my poor sick old body cannot take too much load at the same time. I didn’t want that to happen to Indivisible, so I made sure to play the most out of it till I properly finished it.

The game is really good, mechanically speaking. The combat system is a little different from VP’s, but not in a bad way. They added some Metroidvania elements to the formula (I’m a sucker for Metroidvanias), with innovative platforming, nice puzzles, quests, and stuff. It’s a good game, well made.

If the game is so good, then what’s the deal with this piece?

The game is well made, almost all of it, except for its writing. Man, I swear the game’s plot had a lot of potential, a lot. If I were to put the story in bullet points, outlining the major events, you’d say I’m crazy and talking BS.

The story has it all, it’s a coming of age tale with tragic twists and turns, characters suffer and get angry, and sad, and happy, bad things happen, good things happen, then you have to face the dire consequences of your careless behavior and acknowledge your mistakes before taking further actions to fix your own wrongdoings and literally save the world. It’s a movie grade plot, with the right actors and director, maybe even Oscar-worthy.

I’m not kidding, the plot is that good, but the delivery, oh boy is it baaaaaaaaad, real bad, it’s so bad I can’t help but to feel sad thinking of how amazingly great this game could’ve been. I truly believe this could’ve been the next Valkyrie Profile if only the script of the game was at the same level as the plot.

WARNING: Massive spoilers ahead, for both games.

What I love about Valkyrie Profile is the narrative, the small stories of every hero and their downfall, how the writers managed to create such engaging characters with very short screen time, and I honestly feel here is where Indivisible fails spectacularly.

For this to make sense I have to give a few examples of both games, so you can compare what I’m talking about. So I’m just gonna give two long and very detailed examples of how both games are written. I hope to make them not painfully boring (I’ll add videos with playthrough in case you don’t want to read that much 😉 ).

Valkyrie Profile and the tragic tale of the berserker and the princess

In Valkyrie Profile the first two heroes you pick are Arngrim (based on the myth of Arngrim the berserker) and Jelanda. Arngrim is a brutal mercenary who has no concept of honor, fights only for money and has no loyalty. At this point in the game, it seems Arngrim cares only for three people in the world: His younger brother Roland who appears to be a sickly young boy that never leaves home, a young soldier and pupil of his named Lawfer, and Lawfer’s father who is actually the captain of the king’s guard.

Arngrim serves in a war for the kingdom of Artolia and its prowess in battle is acknowledged by the king himself, who honors him in front of all his army. Arngrim publicly offends and even threatens the king. The king’s young daughter, Jelanda, tries to defend his father and orders him arrested, but Arngrim is so respected and feared by the soldiers no one dares to confront him, he just walks away.

Jelanda, furious for Arngrim’s behavior, concocts a plan to force him to apologize to the king, or at least to her. She disguises herself and presents to Arngrim as “Angela” claiming she has a job offer for him. During the meeting, she accidentally gets poisoned (she drinks a glass of Sake like water) and passes out. Arngrim brings her home with his brother and takes care of her while she’s out. They then find out Angela is actually Jelanda. Arngrim realizes she must be mad for the way he treated her father and she’s maybe trying to get back at him. Moved by the courage of the girl and the fact she’s trying to defend her father’s honor, Arngrim keeps playing along with her deception. He then decides he’ll apologize to her the next day when they meet. But she doesn’t show up.

A few days later Arngrim is hired, along with another guy named Badrach, to escort a carriage to the next kingdom. Halfway there the caravan is intercepted by Artolia’s soldiers who demand to inspect the cargo. Arngrim and Badrach comply and immediately try to escape, but before they can run away they see the soldiers take out Jelanda from the crate they’ve been escorting.

Badrach lets out the contractor is Lombert, the king’s counselor, who also happens to be a spy. Arngrim pieces out Lombert kidnapped the princess and tricked him into delivering her to Artolia’s enemies. Things get worse when the soldiers, following Lombert’s instructions, give the unconscious Jelanda a potion that turns her into a monster and kills them. Arngrim realizes Jelanda won’t survive, and Lombert is to blame for everything. He swears to kill Lombert, but first, he has to deal with the princess turned monster.

Lenneth reveals herself and helps Arngrim kill the monster. Arngrim then marches back to Artolia to kill Lombert for his treason, and to avenge the young princess.

The Valkyrie recruits Jelanda, and she begs her to save Arngrim. Lenneth accepts reluctantly and helps Arngrim fight Lombert who, of course, turns out to be a powerful necromancer. They win, but Arngrim is surrounded by the king’s guard, he is now guilty of murdering the princess and the king’s counselor. The soldiers who admired him previously, now fear he has gone mad and corner him in the palace. He fights as many soldiers as he can until Lenneth appears back and scolds him for his blind pride. Jelanda reveals herself by Lenneth’s side and Arngrim realizes she is safe (her soul at least). Lawfer’s father enters the room and confronts him. Arngrim refuses to fight Lawfer’s father, so he throws down his sword and opts to take his own life. His final thoughts: “I Have No Regrets”.

Lenneth agrees to let Arngrim join her einherjar, but Freya warns her Arngrim is no hero and he will never enter Valhalla.


Now, this fragment is not perfect. I find it believable Arngrim grows fond of the princess since he’s impressed by her courage and honor. Arngrim really questions everything he believes thanks to Jelanda. What I find a bit weird is why Jelanda grows fond of Arngrim since she originally sees him as a brute mercenary who offended her father. But besides that and a few lines with weird voice acting, I like this fragment very much. I love how Lenneth scolds Arngrim and explains to him that heroes are more than just strong bloodthirsty dudes.

If you want to crossreference what I wrote and point me on my errors, here’s a video playthrough with this section of the game.

Now, let’s look at how Indivisible begins, so we can compare the two pieces.

Indivisible and the should-be-tragic tale of the girl, the father, and the soldier

Indivisible starts with Ajna, the main character, who is just getting up and is already late for a training session with her father Indr. Along the way, you can talk to many villagers who let you learn a little about the town and constantly remind Ajna she’s late and her dad will be mad.

Once she reaches the training grounds Indr scolds her and they begin training. She still has a lot to learn and Indr makes sure to tell her. But Ajna is impetuous and doesn’t take criticism very well, she gets angry and starts arguing with Indr about how he never acknowledges her. Indr pushes back and shuts her down and that only makes things worse, Ajna gets even angrier and starts asking about her late mother, who she never met. Indr, attacked and cornered, avoids the whole conversation and leaves Ajna hanging, he just dashes back home.

Ajna, of course, is still angry and follows him, but when she reaches the village she finds it in flames, invaded by troops of an unknown army. Dhar, a young soldier in command of the invading force, is fighting Indr and Ajna reaches them in time to hear Indr final words of fatherly pride and love before passing away in her arms. She jumps onto Dhar and they fight, after a few rounds Ajna absorbs Dhar with her mind, a thing that simply never happened before. Both argue a lot until Ajna meditates and finds out she can enter her own mind, which happens to look like a pandimensional eco-resort. Dhar is trapped inside and they quickly find out they cannot fight inside Ajna’s mental realm. Ajna leaves the village in ruins on a mission to kill Dhar’s commander, Lord Ravannavar.

Here it’s important to note that Dhar is now a playable character. That means the guy who just killed Ajna’s father is now a party member.

Just outside the village, she finds Razmi who just burned her own home with a troop of soldiers inside who tried to take her stuff. Ajna and Razmi exchange pleasantries and then Razmi is also sucked into Ajna’s mind. Ajna and Razmi just brush it off like absorbing people into your mind is a completely normal thing people do.

Then you find a dungeon, inside, you find the Axe of Ajna’s mother, a precious item Indr treasured and promised to give Ajna eventually. Lying next the Axe is beside the corpse of a soldier. Dhar finds odd that a soldier of his be this far away from the village. Ajna picks up the Axe and uses it cut down some roots blocking the way.

They reach the end of the dungeon, fight a big monster and Ajna discusses with Dhar how this beast is probably what killed his soldier. Dhar feels bad for his man.

Right outside the dungeon, they stumble upon two monks who tell Ajna about a collectible in the game. Ajna absorbs them too and then uses the Axe to climb a wall.

Then they find Gingseng, a very young botany enthusiast, and Honey, a huge turnip with hand-drawn eyes Gingseng carries in his hat. Gingseng tells Ajna he’s looking for Resurrection Lilies, so Ajna absorbs him and they go find the lilies…

I’m going to stop here because Indivisible is not as clearly defined by chapters as Valkyrie Profile, and because I think my point should be clear by now.

Here’s a video of the first hour of gameplay, a bit more of what I just described.

What’s the difference?

I get they wanted to give the Indivisible a lighter tone, but the way the game handles its story is so weird.

In Valkyrie Profile you feel each and every death of the einherjar, they handle the narrative with a lot of respect and give you time to understand what’s going on and process it. Lenneth always reflects back on the events she witnesses, she even intervenes from time to time or discusses with the heroes about their death.

In Indivisible Ajna sees her father die in front of her and suddenly you are in the middle of a dungeon fighting alongside her father’s killer, and an emo witch that’s wearing the skin of her late pet tiger. And don’t get me wrong, I love the characters of this game, Dhar has a very emotive arc, Razmi is simply awesome, and Gingseng is intelligent, loving and loyal. But the game just doesn’t let you digest anything. Everything happens so fast there’s no way to engage with the events.

I think Ajna’s Axe is the best example of this. She finds her Axe just there, lying in the middle of the ground, and kind of picks it up and uses it to break a wall. This moment should’ve been really emotive, it’s the only memento she has of her mother, who she didn’t get to know. But it is not, it just happens and then you keep going forward. Ajna just lost everything and in a second she’s joking with Razmi and helping Gingseng pick up random weeds.

I believe the problem here is the narrative in Indivisible is kinda rushed. In VP the story has a very slow pace, with long scripts and pauses. Even the screen transitions are slow, they take their time to show you the events. While in Indivisible you feel the narrative pushing you forward as fast as possible, there’s no time to breathe. As a consequence, the tone is all over the place, you have very emotional moments followed immediately by a quick joke. Ajna is furious, then sad, then happy, then furious again. And the many times Ajna makes a mistake and someone gets angry at her, everything just resolves quick and clean, everyone says “ok, I’m not angry anymore, let’s be friends again”.

So, how to fix that?

The whole idea of me writing this blog is to get my ideas in order and learn from other projects. There’s no fixing Indivisible, the game is already published and they are doing well. As I said, the game is very well done, it’s a fun game to play certainly. I managed to finish it getting all the incarnations (characters) and getting every single bit of story, upgrades, and lore from it and I really liked playing it.

But still, we can hypothesize how we could fix the story so it works better for a game like this.

Now, I’m not a writer, I mean, I dabble, but I’m not even close to a professional writer, so what I can do is very limited. Someone more capable than me could do this way better (less cliche for instance). So be warned this next section could be an exercise on futility. Here goes nothing:

Indivisible and the hypothetically better tale of the girl, the father, and the soldier.

Let’s keep the first scene intact. Ajna wakes up and walks around her hut, then leaves for the training field happily strolling through the village, with not a care in her mind. When she finally reaches the training field, Indr scolds her for being late, they train for a bit. Ajna gets angry at Indr for not acknowledging her progress and for not talking about her mother. Indr gets all uncomfortable, pushes Ajna away and goes back to the village alone.

When Ajna gets back to the village she finds everything in chaos, an army is invading, everything is in flames and Dhar is fighting Indr. Ajna reaches just in time to catch her father’s final breath.

Here’s where I begin to change the script.

Dhar has accomplished his mission: To destroy the village and kill their chief. So he leaves and his unit is left behind cleaning (killing everyone that’s left). Ajna holds her father’s inert body and sobs. Sadness gives way to anger and she cries in fury as Dhar’s men approach.

Ajna fights a few men, then remembers about the Axe. She goes to her hut, now in ruins, and retrieves the Axe. Ajna takes a second to think about her mother and reflects on how her mother’s weapon will help her avenge her father now, she then goes after Dhar, fighting his men as she pushes forward.

Just outside the village, she finds Razmi under attack. Ajna joins the battle and together they defeat their foes. Razmi is now homeless and angry. Ajna pushes forward and Razmi follows reluctant but grateful. “Great, now I’m in debt with you. I don’t like owing anything to anyone so I’ll help you kill this guy and we’ll be even. Besides he also has a score to settle with me.”

I’d take full advantage of the dungeon ahead, set the tone, make the music more intense and fill the place with soldiers from Dhar’s unit. And most important of all, I would not use the “sucked into my mind” thing just yet.

Ajna and Razmi advance through the dungeon, in a frantic section of fighting and platforming chasing after Dhar. I’d make sure there’re many enemies here, but make them easy to kill, quick fights to help the player get the hang on the fighting system. Finally, they catch Dhar at the end of the dungeon. Now the player knows how to fight and since we’ve pushed the player through the dungeon, they had time to process Indr’s death and they are now as angry as Ajna. I’d make the fight with Dhar a really even one, and use every resource available to make it last a bit longer, a good boss fight to help increase the tension. Once Dhar is low on health cue a cutscene where Ajna explodes in rage and she absorbs Razmi, Dhar, and herself into her mental realm.

This is a good moment to take a pause, I’d put Ajna in a black empty space for the first time, make the player run around in the dark for a few seconds. Then reveal a mini-dungeon here, with a very surreal design, driving a metaphor for her mental realm forming out of chaos. She finds Dhar first and they resume fighting, but Ajna is angry and confused, her anger manifests as a big demon that now attacks both of them. I’d use the design of this foe to foreshadow the monstrous form Ajna adopts mid-game. Ajna and Dhar are forced to fight together against this monster. I’d make sure Dhar is really op here, so the player gets hooked on the idea of having him as a playable character.

Ajna and Dhar defeat the big monster. Once the dust settles Dhar runs away. Ajna is angry, lost, and confused. She keeps moving forward and finds Razmi who is freaking out. Razmi lashes at Ajna and they both make catharsis. Let this be an opportunity to show off their personalities. Ajna is intense and naive, she’s in terrible pain right now and doesn’t understand what’s happening. Razmi, on the other hand, is more restrained, she’s also clever and with a dark sense of humor. So I’d make Razmi really angry at first, but when she sees Ajna react in a more emotional way, I think Razmi would switch from angry to unsettled and would try to defuse the situation by trying to comfort Ajna awkwardly. Since Razmi is a shaman it’d be perfectly reasonable for her to understand that they are trapped inside Ajna’s mind and maybe hint Ajna that she should meditate to assert control of the situation.

Ajna manages to calm down and her mental realm rearranges into the beautiful grotto. After a few more dialogs, Ajna exits to the material world. Now Ajna is in a more stable frame of mind, so she can display a more jolly disposition as she discusses with Razmi how she and Dhar are both trapped inside Ajna’s mind. They then reach an agreement. Razmi has nothing better to do, so she agrees to keep an eye on Dhar, who, now a prisoner, agrees to guide them to Ravannavar’s fortress. And we are back in sync with the game. From here the game could show the scene with Gingseng and handle more graciously the exchange with the monks.

This would be my proposition to fix the first half-hour of the game. Not only the script changes, but the pacing for this whole section should be slower. Once Ajna exits her mental realm for the first time she’s had time to process what happened and literally dealt with her inner demons. Razmi also adopts in a more clear way the supporting role she has during the rest of the game.

A few quick notes for the rest of it

I’d deny the player the chance to play with Dhar for a while, at least from this point to the first encounter with Ravannavar. Dhar is a prisoner, he has no motivation to help Ajna in her journey, for all he knows if Ajna dies he might be able to escape. I’d also make sure to have Dhar talk from time to time about Ravannavar, have a dialog where he explains how he’s an orphan and Ravannavar is like his father. This way Ajna could confront Dhar on how he killed her father and thus she will kill his. The whole “my father doesn’t know who I am” comes a bit out of nowhere in the game, there’s little to no setting of the relationship between Dhar and Ravannavar.

That way when they do face Ravannavar for the first time and he disregards Dhar, it’s a bit more clear why Dhar would get angry at him. Here I’d force the player to push Dhar into the party and make them fight together against Ravannavar. At this point, Dhar should be at the same level as Ajna, but since we teased him previously to be a really op character the player will most likely want to play with him. This will also give Dhar’s arc a bit more of nuance since Dhar is a really odd character. He’s like a fanatic but at the same time a very reasonable guy, he has no real turning point, which feels weird.

With Ajna, I’d make her reflect more on the losses she’s suffered. I’d make a secluded corner in her mind space with a symbolic gravestone for Indr. If the player goes there, I’d let them interact with it by making Ajna talk to it about what’s happening (asking her late father for advice), or just by making her contemplate the memorial in silence. This will give an opportunity later for Ajna and Thorani to discuss how Ajna has to let Indr leave, you know, basic phases-of-mourning stuff. This will drive home more strongly the surrogate mother figure of Thorani, and make a lot more clear that Ajna has overcome her sadness before the game’s end. I’d frame this as a mandatory quest, probably by going back to Ashwat and help rebuild the village.

Every other character you encounter has a story, but these are dealt with in a very superficial way. Many of the characters you find just randomly join the party without much consideration. I feel they should have a more clear motivation to follow Ajna and to accept the fact that she’ll be basically taking them hostages for a while (kind of, it’s confusing).

I’d make sure each character’s backstory has some relationship to Ajna’s quest. Zebei is a good example of a character who’s motivations to follow Ajna make perfect sense within the game, and I absolutely abhorred the way Zebei made peace with Ajna after she destroys Lhan.

The game has a very particular structure for its characters backstories that I feel could be exploited better. They all have a problem that Ajna neglects during the first half of the game. Then Ajna screws up, big time, and the party splits. Ajna then has a chance to find them, and make up for them by helping in their respective journeys, many of which intersect with Ajna’s.

I particularly like how they handled this for Naga Rider and Thorani, I feel their stories were the best developed since you get a good idea of the stakes and their journey is actually very interesting, involving more characters and more emotional load. Razmi’s story is profound, but a bit of a missed opportunity since it resolves pretty quick, you just have to go to a particular desolate place and fight a monster and that’s it. I feel Razmi deserved better since she’s probably the most important character to Ajna, followed closely by Thorani.


When writing a game (or any story for that matter) a good theme, setting, and plot are the foundations. Good foundations mean you have solid ground to build, but you still have to build on top of that, and the story is built out of the narrative. If the narrative is badly executed, your good foundations go to waste, since you still have a poor result in the end.

Indivisible has very good foundations. The theme is right, the plot is great, the setting is charming, but its narrative is rushed and shallow and everything still falls apart. Those good foundations went to waste and that makes me really sad, honestly, because you can tell the hard work behind the game and the wasted potential to be an amazing piece of art.

My problem with Hollow Knight’s very specific design flaw


First and foremost, I love Hollow Knight, this game is solid with great lore, amazing art, inspiring music, and very well-tuned mechanics. That said I’m a game designer, so whenever I play a game I can’t help but dissect it and study it. I need to check its entrails and see what makes it tick and how.

This is a simple game to understand, its mechanics are transparent and clean, which makes it very easy to analyze. There’s a lot to learn about a game like this.

For this piece I want to focus on one particular aspect I dislike about the game. That doesn’t mean the game is badly done, but if I were to make a game like Hollow Knight, I would definitely take this into consideration. So I’m going to discuss what I think is a design error. During this process, I’ll try to explain why I think it is a design error and how to prevent it, which I hope is somewhat useful from a designer perspective.

Tools and lenses

Now I’m going to get ridiculously formal with this analysis. Although I do believe it’s very possible to design a game from a completely empirical process, I’ve seen it happen and with good results, I think analyzing something from an empirical process is not possible. Tools are necessary to understand what works and what not and why.

The problem with that is that the tools chosen for analysis may not fit entirely with the product, or that different tools may yield different results. Design and analysis tools are based on models and every model is imperfect in nature. So when I use my tools to review the game, the result may strongly differ from that of a different approach.

My tools for this piece are Charmie Kim’s core mechanic diagram and Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek’s MDA Framework.

In a very compact summary, Designing Around a Core Mechanic states that the game’s mechanics are stacked in layers. The first of them, the Core Mechanic is one that’s mandatory to play the game. That means that whenever the player is playing the game is using this mechanic and it is not even possible to play the game if not through this mechanic.

MDA is about how every game evokes a particular emotional response from the player. That experience is called an aesthetic and every game can be classified in one of 8 aesthetics (I personally work with 9, but that’s a discussion for another day).

Both lenses are completely independent, but interact nicely when applied together: the Main Aesthetic has to be supported by the Core Mechanic. What I mean by that is the Core Mechanic (and the way it’s implemented specifically for the game) is the one causing the player to feel what the Main Aesthetic pretended.

What’s the what on Hollow Knight

Hollow Knight’s Main Aesthetic is Challenge. That means the game is HAAARD. But to be more specific, the game is physically hard. To progress in this game, the player has to demonstrate they have good reflexes, eye-to-hand coordination, and muscle memory, also a good sense of rhythm helps a lot. There’s some progression (charms, nail upgrades, mask shards, vessels), but at the end of the day, these tools help the player to a very limited extent. The game gets easier over time mostly because the player is getting better at it over time. Then the game increases its difficulty by introducing new challenges that further test the player skill.

So, given that this is a Challenge Game, what’s Hollow Knight’s Core Mechanic? Well, for a game like this, it’s kind of weird, because the hardest thing this game does is the fighting. The combat system in this game is simple but deep and well crafted and every tiny enemy can become a threat for the careless player. However, you CAN play the game without fighting. By that, I don’t mean you can win the game without fighting, but there are long sections of gameplay that don’t require combat at all. What you absolutely have to do every waking second while playing this game is platforming. Even during a fight, you are forced to jump, dash and run around.

Platforming is Hollow Knight’s Core Mechanic. That’s why, to make this a Challenge Game, the platforming has to be challenging in itself. And oh boy is it challenging. There are several platforming sections in this game that made me lose my cool. I literally had to apply breathing and meditation techniques to traverse the White Palace (which I haven’t finished as of yet) and I’m definitely not going to play the Path of Pain because I have stuff to do and I simply don’t have the time to “GIT GUD”.

Funny enough I found most of the boss fights really stimulating (except for the Soul Master, I hate that guy). Some bosses kicked my ass really hard, but every time I lost a fight I could retrace my steps, check what the boss did and how to better answer. I’d then check my build, switch a few charms here and there and went back with a different strategy. Most of the time that meant I eventually got the best of the fight and emerged victorious.

For instance, the first time I fought the Hive Knight*, this guy made me cry. I just couldn’t even hit him. So I left the room, went exploring and a few hours later I came back with Sharp Shadow and Dash Master and won in the second round and with life to spare.

Something similar happened with the Mantis Lords. At first, they just owned me, but I went away, upgraded my nail, got a few new charms and went back to better results.

The design flaw

So what’s this “error” I’ve been talking about. Well here’s the bone I pick. If this game’s Core Mechanic is Platforming, that means fighting is a secondary mechanic, a very prominent one, but secondary nonetheless. The game features a ton of progression mechanics that help you fight. The nail upgrades, the spells, most of the charms are combat-oriented (with the exception of Dash Master, Sprint Master, and Sharp Shadow, I’ll talk more about this later). But very few progression mechanics help you platform, and not in the same way.

So which mechanics help with platforming and how? Well, there’s Dashing, which allows the knight to jump longer distances, Monarch Wings allows to double jump, Mantis Claw gives you wall jump and resets the ability to dash and double jump without touching the ground, Crystal Heart allows you to make an impersonation of Tom Cruise in Top Gun, Isma’s Tear allows to avoid acid damage, and Shade Cloak allows to avoid enemy damage and cross certain barriers when dashing.

Since the game is a Metroidvania, all of these mechanics open sections of the map that were previously unreachable, that’s their main reason to be. Along the way, these mechanics make platforming easier for general sections, which is very good. Added to those is pogo-ing (hitting down with the nail) which is available from the beginning of the game.

Just like the boss fights are like the pinnacle of the fighting mechanic, the game features a few platforming sections that are like “boss sections” for the platforming mechanic: Nail Master Sheo’s hut in the Green Path, The Traitor’s Child Grave in the Queens Gardens, a very irritating vessel fragment in Deep Nest (I really hate pogo-ing), Life Blood Core charm and of course The White Palace and The Path of Pain, among many others.

Here’s my problem: Why if every boss fight has several strategies to it, do these platforming sections have only ONE strategy, and that strategy is: do it perfectly or die.

Why is that an “error”

So the platforming is hard, and there are some platforming sections that are significantly harder. Why is that an “error”? A design error is a difficult thing to explain, it has to do with design intention and execution. The fact that the game behaves like that is not an accident, the awesome guys at Team Cherry intended the game to be like that and obviously designed each and every one of those sections with a lot of care and attention to detail.

What I find annoying about these sections is the fact that a secondary mechanic (fighting) got a lot of attention from the devs, with a lot of options for the player to try new strategies to overcome the challenge. Because of this, the fighting system is very deep and complex. While the platforming system is way more shallow, in spite of being the core mechanic.

The single aspect I hate the most of the way the platforming challenges are designed is the fact that if you hit spikes you get sent back to a checkpoint. I’d rather bounce back and forth in the spikes losing all my life in the process, but at least with a glimpse of hope that I could recover and keep advancing. With that little change, all the life-enhancing charms would become truly useful in these sections, suddenly there’s a real benefit from equipping Joni’s Blessing or Unbreakable Heart, other than watching yourself die in the same section more times over.

In this humble designer’s opinion, the platforming system should be as deep and complex as the fighting system. That’s what I personally consider a “design error”. Obviously they took steps to craft interesting challenges for both systems, which makes me think they realize the platforming was really important and they should feature cool platforming “bosses” in the game. So I find it a bit annoying they didn’t add more depth to it, the way they did with the fighting system.

Two types of hard

When designing a hard section of gameplay, there are two types of hard. There’s the “this is so hard you either ace it or fail it”, this means that, unless you know exactly how, you won’t solve it. And there’s the “this is so hard you’ll sweat bullets and have a heart attack while solving it”, this means it’ll maybe take a lot of time and resources, but with enough perseverance a decent player should be able to solve it in one go, one incredibly exhausting and hair-pulling go, but only one (or significantly fewer attempts for that matter).

The first type of hard is more frustrating for the average player since it’s the kind of thing that makes you fail over and over again in a very short span of time. The second type is more rewarding but brings a rhythm problem, most players will not be able to keep it up if the game is always like that. You need to give the players a moment to breathe from time to time, otherwise, they’ll get exhausted.

Hollow Knight uses both types in their boss design. There are examples like Hornet or the Mantis Lords which are easier to evade but difficult to hit. These fights are long and intense, the player has to move constantly and react to their attacks waiting for an opening to strike. It’s more likely an average player will be able to win both fights within a few attempts, but surely the one time they won was a long run and they had to pause the game afterward, drink some water and soak in their success for a second.

On the other hand, the Soul Master and the Traitor Lord hit really hard and fast, they are easier to strike but very hard to evade. An average player will have to learn their patterns by heart, probably by failing over and over again, and finally beat them in a very quick and precise round.

This variety allows the game to appeal to different kinds of players, those who don’t mind getting their ass handed many times over, but to gloat in that calculated feeling of precise gameplay and premeditated action will enjoy fighting the Soul Master. While those who are a bit more sloppy and don’t mind taking their time to understand what’s going on, but have a shorter fuse for frustration will enjoy more the first fight with Hornet.

The fact that every platforming challenge in Hollow Knight features those spikes that send you back to the last checkpoint clearly favors the first kind of hard and never the second. That means the player that likes precise gameplay will enjoy a lot of these sections, but the other player, the one that takes their time will only sigh in frustration when they see a pit and hear the music change at the start of a platforming challenge (awesome soundtrack btw, except for the White Palace, those saws are annoying).

How to fix it?

I don’t pretend to teach game design to the good guys at Team Cherry. I mean, I know this whole piece is about how a very particular aspect of their game is “”””wrong””””, but at the same time, the game is incredibly solid and well designed. The only reason I was bothered by the fact that the platforming of the game is not as deep as the fighting is that I am a game designer myself and can’t help to be bothered by that kind of thing.

My intention with this piece is to register for myself (and any other designer that stumbles upon this website) how to improve over the already very good craft that Team Cherry gave us with Hollow Knight.

However, that sentiment would be hypocritical if I don’t offer at least one way to “solve” the perceived problem. So I have a few ideas, things I’d try if I ever develop a game like Hollow Knight.

The first resource I would’ve used is the most obvious one: The Charms. As I mentioned before, there are only three charms that affect the platforming system: Dash Master that allows the player to dash downwards, and is utterly useless by itself. Sprint Master which makes the Knight run faster (way faster if combined with Dash Master). Sharp Shadow that besides damaging enemies when dashing through them, also increases the length of the dash when combined with Dash Master (Dash Master is only useful when it’s modifying other charms, it’s proper effect is meh).

I feel it’d had been really easy to include a charm that allows the Knight to jump higher, dash upwards (my favorite), or to triple jump, and to lock it in a place only accessible by the player after they get the Monarch Wings. Also, a charm that allows the player to bounce off spikes, maybe even taking damage while doing it, but avoiding the pain of getting sent back to the last checkpoint.

The second resource is one that I really don’t understand why is a restriction (I suppose during playtest they found it to be problematic in some way): Allow the player to Shadow Dash through environmental obstacles and hazards. Imagine that combined with an upwards dash, the general platforming in the late-game would become extremely agile and satisfying. Challenges like the fragile flower would change from ridiculously hard to mildly frustrating in a snap.

Finally, I’d look for a way to design platforming sections that are by nature the second type of hard. Maybe taking more advantage of wall-jumping and the Crystal Heart and featuring less godawful spikes everywhere. There’s a section in the Fog Canyon that features lots of explosives everywhere. I thoroughly enjoyed that section because it allowed me to take my time to solve it step by step, using different tools. Also, the singing trees sections were very enjoyable for me, for the same reason, not exactly a challenge, but a fun piece of gameplay anyway.

If I had to choose, I honestly prefer the solution with the charms, because that’s how to give the system more dept, in turn giving more agency to the players on how to overcome the different challenges. That way the frustration of one section can translate to an AHA! moment when the player finds a different strategy that works better for them, allowing them to come back and tackle the challenge with renewed strength and enjoy a section that previously caused them anguish.


When designing a game it’s really important to be clear on what is your core mechanic. Once identified, it’s important to create dept for this mechanic first, before supporting other secondary mechanics, no matter how prominent they are (the core mechanic by nature will always be the more prominent in the game).

It’s also important to make sure your game features diversity in its challenge structure. Playing the same scenario over and over again can get frustrating, even for the most loyal niche player you have.