For me, a good game is tight and lean. It’s tight in that it tells me a particular story and wants me to have a particular experience. It’s lean because there is nothing extraneous–all of the game mechanics, the workshop, etc.–aims at heightening that core experience. In other words, the game has a strong premise and does what it takes to realize that premise during play.
I realize, of course, that this is only one style of game, but it’s the kind that sings to me. Having a premise is not part of some unified theory of game design–but it can be extremely useful when designing a game.
Although I’m relatively new to game design–my second American freeform game is due out this year–I’ve edited a bunch, played a bunch, and I have longtime experience with other forms of narrative, such as short stories, novels, etc. What I haven’t done is read a bunch of game design theory, and I think it’s pretty likely that someone else has written about this before. I’m not meaning to crib anyone’s ideas, so feel free to post think pieces or other sources in the comments.
For me, the experience of designing a game goes hand in hand with finding a premise.
What’s a Premise?
Premise is a term I’ve borrowed from some of the theory around novel writing; it’s the core of your story. It is what your game is trying to get at. It is the universal human truth embedded in your story. A premise is what your game is about, and you should be able to state it in a sentence or two without referencing the setting or plot.
Strong premises are usually couched in universal terms–they are a way of describing how your game taps into the shared experience of being human. They are part of what makes your game accessible to a wide audience. I might not be able to relate to being a mutant with superpowers, but anyone can relate to themes of loneliness and isolation. In the words of my journalism prof Samuel Freedman, great art boils down experience to the periodic table of human emotion. Premises express which periodic elements you are striving for in a game.
Therefore, premises usually explain what your players will experience. If the premise of my game is “pride leads to downfall,” then as a game designer I need to find a way to generate those emotions in the players using the tools of structure, character descriptions, setting, and mechanics.
I think “premise” is a slippery concept, so I wanted to give some examples to help explain what I mean.
Examples of Premises
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: The psychic wounds of war prevent healthy relationships.
- Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein: (Male) Friendship conquers all.
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: Society gaslights intelligent women.
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: One must overcome one’s character flaws to find love.
- Xena: You can’t escape the sins of your past.
- Law & Order: Crime doesn’t pay, but sometimes legal loopholes condemn or liberate the undeserving.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: High school is hell.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation: Humanity and decency are universal values.
- Fiasco by Jason Morningstar: Outsize ambition and poor impulse control lead to disaster.
- Under My Skin by Emily Care Boss: New love alters old relationships forever.
- Robin’s Friends by Anna Westerling: We must rise beyond petty conflicts to sustain meaningful friendship.
- Let the World Burn by Petter Fallesen: Romantic passion can be a destructive force.
Some observations about the premises
Of course, the premise of a work will depend a bit on your point of view, and what you see as essential to the narrative–I can imagine disagreement with many of the premises above. But you get the idea of what a premise is.
You’ll also note that there are nearly infinite stories that could be told about each of the premises. Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco particularly proves this point. In Fiasco, players select a setting–it could be a film noir setting, a setting more like Fargo, an 80s wedding, or a rock band on tour, and then build their session within the constraints of the structure of the game. Though these different settings produce different individual sessions, the core of the game, that concept of exploring failure, remains a through-thread. The premise is robust, and it’s the individual trappings–the setting, plot, and characters–that make each instance of the game unique.
Premises help you get to universal human truths, and through setting and characterization, you make those truths particular and concrete.
How Does Premise Help Me Design a Game?
For me, the process of designing a game is the process of finding the premise–refining the premise also means which elements should be added to or pared from the narrative.
Let me explain with an example. About a year ago, I had the idea of making a game about an artists’ colony. In the US, artists’ colonies are retreats where artists go for a number of weeks to focus exclusively on their work, and often result–like many other closed institutional societies–in a social fishbowl. I wanted to replicate the colony experience in a few hours for some larpers, and maybe get people inspired to work on their own artistic projects.
My first draft of this game was heaving on the bells and whistles, each mimicking a different aspect of the colony experience. The game had 7 identical periods! People were switching characters all the time! There was self-directed meditation! And people drew from stacks of cards to create characters.
Though the play storm went great, the first play test was a failure. I had reproduced the feeling of a colony with some success, but the game had no shape and often felt tedious to the players; I had a long way to go in concentrating the reality of colony life into an experience that would be interesting to play for a few hours. The game’s lack of focused premise was part of the problem–in larp, as in literature, it’s necessary to concentrate real life, and usually, to weed out the boring parts. I was generically reproducing colony life rather than working with one particular aspect or dynamic, which is probably all it’s possible to tackle in a four-hour game.
So I asked myself, “what interests me most about this setting?” as a way of zooming in on a premise. I decided that the most interesting part of the colony experience to me was the juxtaposition between working on intensely personal writing during the day, and then switching into cocktail-party mode at night. I suspected this juxtaposition had forged fast bonds between me and other colony artists.
And that became my premise: Switching between reliving a trauma and cocktail-party sociability bonds people.
With that in mind, I looked at my over-complicated game design and stripped away the mechanics that made no sense–the character-switching, for example, which mimicked the way people were entering and leaving the colony all the time, but didn’t support the core experience I wanted to produce.
The most recent play test of the stripped down and refined game, at Intercon in March, went much more smoothly, and I will publish the game, called In Residency, later this summer.
You can also use a premise to add elements to the game. If this is a game about uncertainty driving unpleasant choices, then I better find a way to make the characters feel that uncertainty, and I better give them some unpleasant choices to make.
All of which is to say that I rarely begin with a fully-formed premise–though some game designers might!–rather, through the process of designing I discover what my premise is, and that in turn tells me what to add, what to keep and what to cut from the game.
So for me, to find the premise is very much to design the game.
The Premise Should Be Accessible to All Players
Once you have identified the premise of your game, it’s important to ensure that all players can access that premise through their characters. If this game is about magic, and five of the six players get to use magic, the sixth one is going to feel cheated, left out, and pissed.
This does not mean that every player has to have the same experience. Premises are flexible, and it is possible to engage with them on many different levels. If the premise of the game is “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” I could give group A absolute power and let group B bear the consequences of the ensuing corruption. Both groups would be engaging with the premise through different angles. But what I wouldn’t want to do would be to make a group C off in the corner that wasn’t affected by the dynamic between A and B.
Sometimes, you can evoke the presence of something through its absence–and this is totally OK so long as you do it intentionally and not by accident, and it’s OK if it works for the narrative, and for the players who portray that character. For example, if this is a game about nine friends falling in love, and one is left out, that might be OK–perhaps that character ends up as a sounding board for the others, which heightens the theme for most of the players, and gives the unloveable character a longing for love that will never come. The absence of love then becomes a presence in the game that serves to mirror and reflect the core premise, adding an additional dimension to the overarching narrative.
Premises and Sandbox Design
I think premises work best when you’re going for a strongly narrative design, as opposed to a sandbox design. In a narrative design, the designer drives the arc of the story with the tools available, but in sandbox design, the designer gives the players the tools for fun, and lets them use those tools to create their own narrative.
As a player, I have a tough time with sandbox design* for two reasons–I end up with decision paralysis (should I do this? or this? what am I supposed to be doing? oh god! everyone is having fun and I’m left out because I’m doing it wrong), and because I like knowing where the arc of the story is going. In a sandbox game, you often have to create that narrative for yourself.
So in sandbox design, I think it is largely up to the players to create their own premises, while the designer decides what tools to place within the environment. So I’m not sure whether asking premise-based questions would help much with this sort of design.
Some Questions to Help You Focus Your Premise
What are the stakes?
How would you make me care about this game if I wasn’t interested in the setting? What’s the universal human story here?
What one element of this situation are you MOST interested in?
What elements of the game are working best? How can you focus the game on them more strongly? What sort of experience are those elements creating?
What do you want your players to be saying about your game after it’s over? What’s the take away?
If you’re interested in reading more about novelistic premises–and I think there is some ground worth plumbing here, you might check out Six Ways to Define the Premise of a Story, which details methods for inventing and describing premises. Per the comments, Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing also contains some wonderful stuff.
*This is not to say that sandbox design is not cool and wonderful and worth exploring, even for me, just that it’s not my favorite because I have a hard time making my own fun in game settings.
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