How Does It Feel? - A Games Writing Workshop

In a recent episode of Waypoint Radio, the crew answered a listener question about the difficulty of trying to write about how a game feels. And the crew expressed a similar sentiment. There is a wide range of vocabulary to describe images, narratives, or even sound design. But describing how a game feels is often boiled down to “good” or “bad”.

That’s because describing the way a game feels is profoundly hard. To describe how a game feels, you have to be able to describe a feeling that does not actually have a presence. You have to be able to take that abstract feeling and put it into words, ideally in such a way that it can give people an idea of what you’re feeling. That’s an incredibly obtuse and confusing thing to navigate.

So this is a thread about that. Let’s practice writing about how games feel.

What do we mean by how a game feels? “Game feel” is a term used to describe the tactile sensation of playing a game. When we interact with the game, by pressing buttons or keys, for example, the game reacts. How the game reacts to our inputs, the sounds, visuals, and values the game gives us in response to our inputs is how the game feels.

The goal of this workshop is to:

  • Better understand how we feel games.
  • Improve our personal ability to express how games feel.
  • Improve our ability to understand how others express how games feel.
  • Develop our own personal techniques that help us express how games feel.

How to participate:

  • Pick a game. Any game.
  • In as many words as you’d like, describe the sensation of playing that game. This can be in any style you like!
  • Avoid using words like “good” or “bad”. Try to describe the feeling precisely.
  • Provide positive feedback to others participating.

Also, feel free to:

  • Ask for advice or constructive criticism.
  • Write multiple entries if you so desire.
  • Share thoughts, observations, or questions about writing about game feel, both theoretically and practically.
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I’ve been chewing on this with Insomniac’s Spider-Man ever since it came out. Like, I know technically what’s going on with it. The sound design replicating the wind rushing through your ears. The Doppler Effect of passing through traffic. The slight horn swells as you gain speed when passing through traffic. The animation blending smoothly taking you through all the movements as you hurtle through the streets. They cheese the downswing to take you up just before you would fly into the pavement and instead just cruise along at traffic-level. It’s very obvious that they playtested the daylights out of it to get all of that just right.

But feel? The plummeting in your stomach you get when you hit L3 to dive is just like a roller coaster (or Tower of Terror at Disney). All of the sound design things I described above help convey an extraordinary sense of speed like riding in a convertible with the top down.

In the abstract, I’m finding it difficult to describe a feeling without describing a related experience. Or a “if you like Game A, then you will like Game B” kind of comparative buyer’s guide writing.

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Entry 1: Rain World.

In Rain World, you play as a most intrepid slugcat. If you were playing as cat, you might expect to feel lithe, quick, agile, deft. If you were playing as a slug, you might expect to feel slow, heavy, sticky. But moving around as a slugcat doesn’t feel like either of those things. The only thing shared of those two descriptions is that you feel like an animal.

The movement in Rain World is physics-based, both for you and the other denizens of the world. That means, as your intrepid slugcat jumps and sprints, they will wobble and wiggle around. When you grab onto a pole, they’ll sway from the momentum, almost about to lose balance. Climbing through a crawlspace is slow and awkward, as you slither your way through, making slimy noises as you squeeze through. Swimming is a fight against the current and a race for air. Throwing an item can feel like a gambit. If they connect with an enemy, say, a spear being thrown at a predator, three things could happen. The item hits the enemy where they are weak, making the sound of a spear sinking into flesh. Alternatively, it could hit them where they are protected, releasing a loud clang as your spear spirals onto the ground. If neither of those happens, then you miss, and the predator approaches.

Your slugcat dies in one hit. A mossy tentacle monster might wrap around you, as you frantically try to swim back to the surface as it pulls you under. A lizard might sink its teeth into you, and thrash you about before taking you home to eat. A vulture might snatch you by the tail, drop you after hitting against a wall, see you begin to run away, before taking you again just before you make it into a crawlspace. Dying has a feeling in Rain World, and it is a desperate struggle followed by a pitiful failure.

The result is that slugcat feels incredibly vulnerable. Their admittedly robust moveset feels finnicky. As a predator leaps to take a bite out of you, that moveset turns into a neat system to franticly claw for your life with. You are low, low on the foodchain, and it feels that way.

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Metal Gear Rising

MGR has you play as Raiden, a cyborg ninja soldier in the usual Metal gear tradition, so controlling him feels different from most character action protags. He’s stiff in his movements in free blade mode, focusing on precision, and his combos have often unskippable cooldown animations. It doesn’t feel like how you would control Dante, who has this flow to him, able to move into any other move from whatever he’s currently doing. Controlling Dante feels like an extension of your body, perfect control over what you want to happen, but controlling Raiden feels like you’re trying to guide stiffer techniques to the best of your ability, trying to recite memorized movements with your body at the right moments.

It makes sense. Raiden is a ninja and almost his entire body is made of metal now. There’s a stiffness to him, putting off the idea that he trains in a particular style rather than having natural talent. However, it feels satisfying to land a blow with him, because his moves hit so hard, sending enemies back like they just got hit by a car, further pushed by cutscene touches such as his foot able to break rock by just stepping out of a car. Controlling Raiden feels like you’re controlling a machine.

His free blade mode is different once you manage to get full bar, though. You’re rewarded with wild free slashing to chop up an enemy, making you truly feel the power Raiden has in his robotic body. You feel intimately connected with Raiden as a character, even pushed further with his Jack the Ripper mode giving him an untamed power boost that makes his normally unremarkable basic attacks unleash the same force as a full bar free blade swing, tearing through enemies and armor. Controlling Raiden feels like you’re carefully controlling a dangerous weapon, and letting the weapon do as it will in brief moments as a moment of indulgence, a rather grim aspect of Raiden’s character due to the VR training he went through as a child soldier.

Like any good character action protagonist, controlling Raiden feels like you are Raiden.

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Just a warning I’m going to probably keep returning to this thread to make writeups because I really like the premise of this! There are many specific games I want to talk about, but I want to shift focus away from actiony games, and think about how game feel is established in other games.


Feel in Non-Actiony Games


Feel is something I am careful not to fixate on in most games as I try to remain aware that often feel is a result of polish and primarily focusing on polish means I miss out on a lot of very interesting games. That said, it’s still an important aspect to any game, it is the game’s response to your inputs and indirectly reflects on the player’s role in a game, and provides the user an idea what the game is setting out to accomplish.

Feel is primarily - um - felt in games where you freely move and preform actions, platformers, shooters, character action games. One of the things I’m constantly curious about is how games that don’t do that establish a feel. For these games the user interface is very important to establishing this. And upon thinking about it, there are several clever ways developers establish feel through a games interface or in it’s response to interface input.

One very effective way to establish feel is to present the game in a specific medium. Games like Duskers or EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY or Her Story are presented as computer interfaces, and as such builds an expectation in how the game is going to react to your inputs, and when they can meet those expectations, it immerses you deeper. It makes navigating menus feel novel and interesting.

But many games cannot do this. For many games the key is how the UI presents a response to a user’s input, and how quickly, and balancing that is key. Darkest Dungeon is a great example of this. During it’s battles, using slow-mo animations and dynamic feeling camera perspectives to give your selections some weight. And these responses maybe a second long, long enough to be impactful, short enough to not get annoying as you play for tens of hours. In Corruption 2029, if you kill an enemy, the game will slow down, and their health bar will slowly creep down for a half-second, until it suddenly, drastically drops to zero. It is very satisfying to watch and gives the kill a little more excitement.

Feel can also present itself in how quickly you can navigate an interface. While many 4X games use “esc” as the key to go back to the previous menu, the Endless games understand that you will be navigating the game moving a mouse, and also allow you to go back using right-click. This may seem like a minor thing, but having your primary means of navigation - select and back - accessible on one hand, changes how the game feels to navigate. I love Amplitude games, and a big part is because how quickly I am able to do things as compared to other 4X games.

In contrast, I think a lot about Mass Effect: Andromeda and in the little time I played that game, how annoying the galaxy map was to navigate. Upon navigating it for the first time I knew using the map was going to be a plodding task every time. I eventually returned the game, there were several more reasons for that, but the menus were one of the few places the game clearly demonstrated how little the game cared about the players time.

I don’t have a conclusion for what makes a user interface feel good, but it always delights me to see how developers give games life through their interfaces, especially in games where its feel isn’t experienced in the ways we are used to talking about it.

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There’s a reason why UI and UX people are worth their weight in gold in the games industry.

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@DarthTythus

One little thing I appreciate is your willingness to refer to the actual action of pressing a button. I think a lot games writing will shy away from this because it is kind of, well, embarrassing to acknowledge that playing video games is pressing buttons. But when and how you press a button is a huge part of game feel!

I was listening to a podcast where they interviewed a professional taster, and therefore an expert of explaining how food tastes. Her point about this is that you can only describe tastes through other tastes because flavor only exists as that: flavor. Similarly, there’s not many ways to describe colors without referring to colors. The alternative is metaphor, which requires a lot more eloquence!

With game feel, we have a lot to work with, thankfully. We are afforded the language of audio, visuals, and touch, which thankfully gives us a huge range of description. The intersection of all those senses is where game feel lives.

@Glorgu

Thanks for bringing this up! This is something I’ve been thinking about, too. I actually intend to, over the course of the thread, to challenge myself to describe the feeling of games that would not be typically talked about in discussions of game feel.

I kind of buried the lead here, because in the OP is actually a kind of controversial take, I think. Namely, that how systems respond, not just audiovisuals, can contribute to game feel. An example I’ve been thinking about is Tetris. The feeling of Tetris is clearly supported by audio and visuals. But the way nailing a tetris (four-line clear) feels is greatly influenced by the systems. A tetris feels good because it takes preparation, planning, and patience. It is then elevated by its audiovisuals. Similarly, getting a critical strike in Darkest Dungeon, as you mentioned, feels the way it does both because of the dramatic animations and because of how the rarity of the occurrence and just how much better it makes the whole situation.

Weirdly, seeing a big number pop up on the screen can be incredibly gratifying, and seeing a small one can feel devastating.


Apropos of nothing, do you read the title of this thread in the voice of Bob Dylan or D’Angelo?

  • Bob Dylan
  • D’Angelo

0 voters

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Y’know, the rumble motors in our controllers are probably very upset at us right now for so gleefully ignoring them

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Your thoughts about “responding systems” bring to mind a lot of what I’ve thought over the years about Peggle, and how cleanly it distills the essence of the “push button, something happens” of moment-to-moment game design. You only set up the shot and hit one button, but you are greeted by a panoply of lights and sounds all tuned to be as joyous as possible (the hits are in the same key as the background music). Even the “spooky” levels are a Scooby-Doo level of spooky.

It’s not so much that there’s a “feel” in the 1-1 sense as there is a “feel” in the more “authorial intent” sense. Peggle’s about kicking off a fireworks display of dopamine hits in your brain through its audio and visual reactions to a fairly simple player input.

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I warned y’all I’d be writing a lot!


Boardgames


(I promise I’ll write something about traditional game feel at some point)

So clearly when one thinks about game feel in association with board games, the first thing that comes to mind is - well - the quality of components. And that is definitely a big factor in what makes some games feel better to play than others. Do the components feel good to touch? Do the cards shuffle cleanly? Does it feel satisfying to place the worker down? Does looking at the game set up on my table make me excited? Do I have to wipe down the cardboard pieces before playing to remove excess soot left from the production process (looking at you Victory Point Games)? Being a physical medium, the physical component of a board game plays a huge role in the overall experience. Though some of it is up to taste, I’d much rather play a game with simpler wood pieces and thick cardboard than plastic figurines for example. One of my favorite games is Quantum in large part due to the quality of components. It’s just cards, boards, dice, and cubes, but they all feel exquisite, and do a very good job at communicating game states and the decisions I should be considering.

But as far as I’m concerned there are a ton more things that go into to feel even before you begin to play.

A huge consideration for me with board games is how quickly can I go opening the box to starting the game. Does the game have a good inlay (this is HUGE)? How are the instructions organized? Does the board or the cards communicate the rules clearly? One of the big necessary hurdles, is learning the games symbols for different actions. Understandably, budget plays a role in this, but this process often mirrors how a game is going to feel to play.

But during play, one of the key aspects to feel in board games is how often are you making decisions during the game? Games have gotten much better recently in pacing out actions so you aren’t waiting forever to take your turn. Games like Red Raven Games Above and Below uses storytelling elements to make sure that you can become involved on other people’s turn despite the game being light on player interaction. Games like Settlers of Catan (I know) allow you to trade resources or the like so every other turn that isn’t yours is still an opportunity to make your upcoming turn that much better. Some other worker placement games have gotten smart with pacing out turns in “rounds” so instead of one player taking three actions, then the next player taking three actions and so on, each player takes one action per “turn” until each player is out of actions, which then ends the round.

But you don’t always want a quick, snappy pace. Some games (like the stack of Vital Lacerda games I’m staring at currently) are so dense, that you want some time to stew on decisions, thinking through every potential move you could make to advance your goals. This may take a long time, so having the time to think through that is key to making the game not feel too complex (though holy shit, Lacerda makes some complex games).

Again, I don’t really have any solid conclusions about what makes a board game feel good, but much like video games, many different aspects stack up to make playing the game either feel engaging, or like a chore.

Writing this up has really made me miss playing board games, gosh :confused: I might have to open some later and start reasding instructions just so I’m not rusty when I can finally play with my friends again

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As I said earlier, I wanted to challenge myself to write about the game feel of things that wouldn’t normally be the first to come to mind in these kind of conversations.

So… Castlevania: Circle of the Moon doesn’t feel good.

Let me explain why.

At first, I thought it was because the game felt sluggish. It isn’t the sound design, I know that much. The walk speed is slow, and it also feels bizarre when paired with the massive leap that is your jump. But soon in the game you get the dash boots, which lets you sprint. It’s activated by double-tapping on the D-pad, which works okay. But even by speeding up, the game still feels stiff, and off. So the speed isn’t the issue. And, while it’s rough, I don’t think it’s the three-frame walk animation. So what gives?

What I realize now was missing was any sense of momentum. I don’t mean high speed momentum as in a game like Sonic or Mario or Super Metroid. What I mean is that starting and stopping both lack any acceleration. Both in animation and in actual movement. Even something as small like a stopping animation or a few pixels of stopping distance can improve the feeling of a game. And Circle of the Moon just doesn’t have any of that. You just instantly are moving at the speed, or instantly at a dead stop. Motion is sudden and therefore jerky. The result is that movement feels stiff and awkward.

What puzzles me about this is there are plenty of games that feel fine that have the same lack of momentum. A lot of old games have the same lack of momentum and don’t feel quite as bad as this. Sure, they don’t feel great, but they don’t feel like this. Specifically the original Castlevanias don’t really have any sense of momentum, and, while a lot of people hate how those games feel, they don’t feel “stiff” as much as they do feel clunky. I personally don’t think those games feel bad, and they certainly don’t feel as bad as Circle of the Moon.

My theory about what exactly makes Circle of the Moon is actually the sprinting speed and the massive leap. By adding a second speed you can move, it actually makes the lack of momentum impossible to ignore. The jump seems so out of place moving at a slow speed. It’s also activated by double-tapping, which means that every time you sprint, you have to come at a dead stop for a fraction of a second. So at the core here is not only a lack of momentum in the sense that you don’t accelerate or slow down, but that you move between those different speeds so constantly. The third law of physics: objects in motion stay in motion, objects at rest stay at rest. It takes force to change that, and it never happens so easily. Not only does speed feel sudden, it feels unnatural and unearned.

In summary: Inertia feels good.

So, I’m double-posting, but I’ve been thinking about this post above this. As someone who likes to write with purpose, it is tempting to try to work a nice little thesis into these prompts, to have a central proposition I am asserting.

But the problem with that is that game feel is cumulative. It doesn’t hinge on one element. It might improve things, but I’m not convinced that fixing the sprint mechanic in Circle of the Moon would suddenly make it feel good. Inertia is important, but so are animations, and sound effects, and so on. Game feel isn’t just audio, or visuals, or haptics, or systems; it’s all of those things combining and interrelating. It’s a complex sensation made of many different parts.

So yeah, it might be sloppy to write a description of a game’s feeling by listing buttons you can press. But I want to encourage myself not to reduce the craft and to remember that game feel is an accumulation of sensations.