Design is Constraint

This is an essay for the indecisive. This is for the writer with the blank page, the game designer with the eternal tech demo, the perfectionist who might finish something one day.


Creative output tracks with the technical proficiency of a student, initially. (Many great games were made by budding programmers, for instance.) When the overwhelming potential of the medium becomes clear, however, a student with a wide purview and high standards suddenly becomes unable to complete anything substantial. Only when the student masters the paralyzing illusion of infinite choice does output grow again, and ascend gloriously, but specifically, through the boundless chaos of possible designs.  The master puts boundlessness aside and learns to choose.

And choice is clearly the imposition of constraint. But not all constraint is choice, and that’s the first wrinkle; we’re finite, and our mental, moral, physical, and technical capacities are finite, too. There’s no kind of guarantee that we’ll find the optimal design or anything close to it. We find our ways into media, schools, and genres, mastering techniques and tools; they open us to worlds even as they constrain us. It’s entirely possible to develop a new medium, forge a new school, or spin off a new genre (entirely possible and entirely reasonable) but it’s quite probably impossible to do without entirely. These are the constraints of the designer, though, not of the design; new techniques open new spaces while they close off others, but progress in one particular work always reduces the space open to potential designs. No matter how brilliant a decision is, it is only ever one of uncountable decisions that could have been made. When you’ve struggled to wider your options, narrowing them again runs contrary to emotional sense.

The point of recognizing all this is not to uncover the ontological underpinnings of human creativity or some balderdash like that. No, it’s closer to home: Creativity, when it gets out of the expansive phase and sets into the hard work of choice, hurts. Every possible outcome you reject was one you’d have been happy to come out with. The fear of shutting out those possibilities is worse than the feeling of erasing work already done. Work already done was one possible outcome, after all, but the vaguely perceived future is of inestimable value. Before you achieve anything, anything will do: Once you start getting results, you want the perfect realization of your artistic hopes and, if you don’t know a way to avoid the feeling, nothing less. The work of art, unbegun, is infinite.

It’s a dreary fallacy to fall for.

In Writing

No one with plenty to say will find the feeling unfamiliar, when looking at a blank piece of paper, that it’s all downhill from there.  On any theme that comes to mind, you could rhapsodize for hours over tea to an eager friend on a rainy day.  And the sum of it would come out beautifully, if a stenographer were listening in, and with a bit of cutting you’d have yourself the essay you wanted — but somehow the paper’s blank face doesn’t draw the words from you the way your friend does. Anyone who really writes must have a way around it.

The prolific writer simply avoids getting stuck. Bland, profound, insightful, insipid; whatever the product, the process looks about the same. Just keep writing, no matter whether it’s the right next thing to write. Accept that whatever you write isn’t something else you could have written, and move on.

The alternative is terrible. The longer writer’s block goes on, the more valuable the finished project must be, or the whole effort feels vain. Rapid fire writing feels inexpensive, disposable, expendable to the writer; it doesn’t lend itself to writer’s block. And volumes get written, and cruft gets cut, and the result might not be great, but it’s very probably good. Writer’s block trains the writer’s eye on the infinite, on the scenes that might be written but never will, and sets the expectation up that those scenes had better get written, or what’s all this waiting for?

Make a choice and get it written. What’s this next sentence going to be? Anything is better than the blankness there now.

In Games

The writer with no specific vision never gets anything written of any length. The game designer with no specific vision can write systems just about forever. What’s worse, it can (and inevitably does) feel like having a vision. I know; I’ve been there.

The joke goes that they made this great game that you can mod with absolute freedom, and it’s called gcc. “This is going to be the best game ever,” thinks everyone who ever dared to dream big, “because you’ll be able to do whatever you can think of.” And they never actually design anything in particular, and nothing ever shapes up.

The people who are out there, getting things done, making great games, are simply making them. They’ll write posts where they tell you to do the same. But knowing what needs to be done doesn’t help. You already wanted to make a game and just get it done, so why could they and why couldn’t you? And you know you could make an even better game than theirs, with more options. And yours would let the player map the controls however the player wants. And yours would have more variety in the level design and the puzzles. Enough. It’s all about constraints, and it’s about accepting that you need to apply them to your design, and that you have to turn it into something that can one day be complete. You need to deal with the pain of limiting your options, of accepting that most things you can do, you never will: So you’ve got to choose.

Do not design for every possible option. Do not make it so that everything can be put in a backpack, and a room is just a special kind of container, and items take damage the same way monsters do, and the player can control more than one character at once, and every fluid can be put in any bottle, and bottles are just containers, so rooms can fill with fluids and items can rust in rooms full of Potion of Peroxide and — Enough. Pick solid abstractions so you can change your mind later, but make it all as simple as you can, for your particular design. Make a choice and get on with it. (Now, maybe you want to make the simulationist’s dream. That’s ok. That topic comes later.)

You want freedom, yes, so you can do whatever you want — but you’ve actually got to do it, and once you do, you’ve given up some freedom. That’s the bargain. That’s the point. Get better at what you do so you have more freedom; then hurry up and give it up, so you have a game.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code class="" title="" data-url=""> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> <pre class="" title="" data-url=""> <span class="" title="" data-url="">