Game Design: A Sense Of Wonder

I’ve been playing a ton of Fallout 4 recently. And surprisingly, it’s not because I love the game. I like it, but it has a problem that pervades the whole experience: a lack of wonder. Here, I want to talk about games that provoke a sense of wonder, what it does for players, and why recent games seem to have been dropping the ball on this.

My first Bethesda game was Morrowind, which I felt was a very wondrous game. You travel to cities made of mushrooms. You ride on giant bugs for taxis. You visit floating rocks in the sky that have been hollowed out and turned into prisons. You get attacked by crazed maniacs in your sleep. You meet talking crabs. You get interrupted by a screaming mage who falls out of the sky and lands to his death right on the road in front of you. There were so many elements in Morrowind that felt so fantastical, so different from reality. Those small bits were what made the game amazing.

Contrast that to Fallout 4, which to be fair has its share of wonder. You meet a cult of people who bathe in molten iron. You meet a mutant who believes that Shakespeare’s Macbeth will teach him how to become stronger. But really… when you sit down and look at it, it’s a little bit harder to be amazed at things in Fallout 4. And that’s sad, because there are so many things in the wasteland that could give you the same kind of otherworldly feeling that Morrowind did. So many people have become jaded by modern games, saying that they’re all the same and how they wish games could go back to the good old days, and I think a large part of that is because they’re missing a sense of wonder.

The nostalgia filter is definitely a large part of this problem. I played Morrowind in middle school, and naturally I was much more impressionable back then. People always look back at old games and remember them as being better than they actually were. But the nostalgia filter is not the only problem. Game design itself has shifted games in a different direction that can truly be felt.

Nowadays, people always talk about how games are becoming too cinematic, and I think it’s a related topic. You can try to simulate a sense of wonder by shoving the player into an unskippable cutscene where they see a brilliant beautiful horizon and the music swells into an epic climax. It sort of works, but at the same time, it sort of doesn’t.

Wonder In Dark Souls vs. Dark Souls 2

Here’s a clip from Dark Souls that I want to analyze. If you don’t feel like watching, it’s just a cutscene where a bunch of winged harpy demons carry the player and fly up to the top of a big wall and then they just drop him off. It’s exactly the kind of cinematic pseudo-wonder that I just described. But if you’ve played Dark Souls, you can probably still remember it as a wondrous moment. I certainly did. Why was that?

It’s because this cutscene represented a major shift in gameplay. You are suddenly in a new place and there is no way back. This goes completely against everything you knew up to that point, because Dark Souls is all about nonlinear levels filled with backtracking and secret paths. No matter what happens, you can always turn back… until this cutscene happens. You can’t just jump back down the wall (big edit: it turns out that there actually IS a way down that I didn’t know about). For the first time in the whole game, you are in a situation where your only option is to move forward (discounting the tutorial, of course).

Your first few steps in the game are the real source of wonder. The cutscene is pretty, but it’s just a cutscene. When it ends, it slowly dawns on you what just happened, and you’re in a situation where you don’t know what to do. Everything feels so new and different, and it gives you a mixture of wonder and fear.

The designers of Dark Souls knew this, so after you walk along your path for a few moments you run into a giant knight. They know that you as the player are struggling to come to grips with your situation, so they drop a new enemy into the mix to throw you off even more. Those moments are so much more wondrous than the cutscene.

Now, let’s look at the equivalent scene in Dark Souls 2:

Same thing. You walk up and you see a beautiful castle. But Dark Souls 2 frames the encounter very, very differently. For one, you still have a way back. You can still return to safety, which you couldn’t do in the first Dark Souls. Next, enemy encounters were placed before the player approached the castle, rather than afterwards the way it was done before.

What this means is that the castle in Dark Souls 2 functions no differently than any other area in the game. It’s a dungeon filled with enemies and loot and secret paths and you can jump around and die a lot. The castle isn’t any different from the forests or the caves that you passed through to get there. Just get through it and check it off your list.

On the other hand, the castle in the first Dark Souls was very dramatically different from the other areas. It’s filled with new game mechanics, new boss mechanics, and new traps to kill the player. But those moments aren’t as important as the first steps you take down the wall, when you get that feeling in your gut that there is no way back.

In Dark Souls 2, they actually did try to insert a fancy new game mechanic: you have to kill enemies near some cups, and their dead soul essence will fill the cup and something will happen. That definitely works as a shift in gameplay, but it’s not enough to really feel like anything new. You’re still killing enemies, you’re just trying to do it in a different way. The little burst of excitement from figuring it out is nowhere near as powerful as the first few steps you take towards the castle in the first Dark Souls.

Even though the two castles both looked very pretty and had appropriate soundtracks, one is much more wondrous than the other. In games, the sense of wonder doesn’t come from visuals or audio cues. It comes from a dramatic shift in gameplay. The sense of wonder must be felt by the player’s own hands. They must engage with the setting in order to be amazed by it. A game developer cannot directly try to build a sense of wonder: they must build a unique situation to present it in, and the player feels amazement themselves.

Wonder In Morrowind vs. Fallout 4

Let’s go back to Morrowind vs. Fallout 4. What do they do differently? I’ll pick out two examples from each game: mushroom cities and bug taxis from Morrowind, and the lava cult and Shakespeare mutant from Fallout 4.

Mushroom city? Some of the larger “buildings” don’t even have stairs, and you have to use levitation to get up. They do that intentionally to keep peasants out.

Bug taxis? They’re one of the only forms of fast travel in Morrowind. You can’t fast travel by yourself.

Lava cult? You just go and kill them all like you would with any other group of bandits.

Shakespeare mutant? He just becomes a companion that you can bring along with you, joining ten other companions that you can choose from.

The elements in Fallout 4 certainly sound wondrous and otherworldly, but when it comes to gameplay, they don’t actually do anything different. On the other hand, the mushroom cities and bug taxis in Morrowind look absolutely horrible with their 2000s-era rendering technology, but they represent major new avenues of gameplay.

There were probably all sorts of pretty things in Morrowind that I don’t even remember because they didn’t present any new gameplay mechanics. And some of the most wondrous things in Fallout 4 had pretty low art production standards.

Weapons are a great example that Fallout 4 did much better than Morrowind. In Morrowind, weapons were almost all practically the same, except for statistical differences. But in Fallout 4, different weapons can have so many different uses. You can pick up a new gun that you’ve never seen before, and feel excited to try it out. Of course, even that sense of wonder pales in comparison to something like Borderlands‘s procedural weapon generation system.

As it turns out, Fallout 4 has very little variation in its quest system. Everything that you do boils down to a form of either “kill these people” or “talk to these people.” When a random person on the street asks you to find his missing friend, you just roll your eyes and ask if he knows which bandit gang took him so you can know who to kill. It becomes very difficult to be amazed at any of the events in the quests because they all follow such a rigid formula. Go there, kill those people, pick up these things, come back, get experience and money. Wanna join a faction in Fallout 4, just go kill their enemies until the faction likes you. In Morrowind, you literally cannot progress in the mage’s guild unless you can levitate up their mushroom houses.

Nothing in Fallout 4 really amazes you. A big scary enemy jumps out at you, you just shoot it until it’s dead. A city is struggling to identify synthetic humans from real ones, you just wait for someone to tell you who to kill and then you go kill them. In the main storyline or in any of the other side quests, there was only one real part where I actually felt amazed, and that was when they revealed one of the game’s major climactic twists. Dark Souls didn’t need a story twist to make players feel amazed.

But, when an alien crash lands in the countryside or when a radiation storm hits you for the first time, you can feel amazed. Fallout 4 isn’t just completely devoid of anything new or interesting, it has its moments. But by and large, Fallout 4 and many other modern AAA games fail to deliver a sense of wonder on a scale that compares to older games.

What Does Wonder Do?

In keeping with the principle of charity, one has to ask why modern games have been moving away from these senses of wonder. The immediate obvious answer is because they want to make sure that their games are consistent. They don’t want any large variations in the core gameplay. If you’re playing for the first time or if you’re picking up from the middle, you still get pretty similar experiences. You can play for a short session, then come back later for more of the same.

But at that point, we have to ask ourselves why are players asking for this. The game studios wouldn’t be doing it if players didn’t want it. Aren’t players always talking about how they want more new content? And yet we’re stuck in a world filled with sequels and DLC packs that really aren’t that much different from what they were originally building off of.

The key is that novelty isn’t a question of black and white. It’s a spectrum where we can say that this thing is sort of new, but it’s still similar, or we can look at something else and say that it’s almost completely new but still retains some previous elements. In Dark Souls, removing backtracking was very new, whereas the soul-collecting cups were only sort of new. In Morrowind, giant mushroom houses were very new, whereas in Fallout 4 lava cults are only sort of new.

A pessimist would come to the conclusion that players simply do not want to experience a sense of wonder. When you introduce new elements, you invariably introduce something that the player has to learn and wrap their heads around, and that takes effort. No one wants to spend effort. If you could have a game that is filled with wonder and amazement versus a game that is consistently brainless, the pessimist says that people would pick the latter. People only want things that are new enough that they seem different, but nothing more than that. They say that they want new things, but in reality, they don’t. Even the greatest indie blockbusters will never make as much as the next Grand Theft Auto.

And there’s a lot of truth to that. When you start playing a new game for the very first time, you feel a little sense of wonder. You’re amazed as you explore through the world and try to figure out its mechanics. As it turns out, that sense of wonder ends up being very fleeting, especially if you’re playing a sequel or a clone game. Every time you try something new, you feel that sense of wonder. The pessimist says that people don’t actually want to try new things, and we game developers have to force them to.

But I want to be more optimistic. After all, if all of this were true, then Dark Souls 2 would be universally praised as a superior successor to the original (hint: it’s not). If people are rejecting new gameplay elements, maybe there’s an argument that they’re just being lazy, but on the other hand, there’s also the very real possibility that something is going wrong with the game design. One of the main purposes of good game design is to help ease players into new game mechanics, and the joy that they feel from doing so is manifested in the form of wonder.

I think that a game needs to prepare the player to expect dramatic shifts in difficulty. The player needs to be taught to expect challenges. They do not know what challenges to expect, but they know that whatever comes their way, they will need to struggle in order to overcome it. A game that sets players up with these expectations will later be able to spring unique moments on them, and the players will be able to take those moments in stride, moving forward through the new gameplay mechanics while still appreciating the sense of wonder.

People often talk about difficulty curves as the game’s difficulty over time, but I think it’s time to take the derivative: the rate of difficulty increase over time. If a difficulty curve is likened to velocity, then the rate of difficulty increase over time would be acceleration. It is subtle, but if done right, the player should be able to fall into a rhythm where they are receptive to radically new challenges and mechanics.

Dark Souls has a pretty consistent rate of difficulty increase over time. Every new area is approximately as difficult to conquer as the previous area, even after adjusting for the player’s increased skill. Whether you’re going into the second area of the game or the seventh one, you’re still going to die about the same number of times, even though you’ve gotten much better by the time you reach the seventh area. If I were to put this on a graph, it would look like this:

I use the term “adjusted difficulty” to refer to how difficult something is based on how skilled the player is at the time of confrontation. If something becomes more difficult but you became equally more skilled, it has the same adjusted difficulty as an easy challenge at the beginning of the game when you knew nothing.

On the other hand, Fallout 4‘s difficulty increase over time drops off sharply. There’s the starting hurdle that players need to jump over, but after that, it goes straight down. That’s not to say that the difficulty stays the same: it still gets harder as you go on. But the rate that it gets harder increases much more slowly than it would in Dark Souls. Eventually, there will be a point where the player’s skill (or the character’s skill) outscales the difficulty, and it just becomes a walk in the park. Of course, the designers tried to make sure that this will not happen before the game ends, but it will still inevitably happen. If I were to put this on a graph, it would look like this:

There’s a clear difference in design philosophies. In Dark Souls, the seventh area is exponentially more difficult than the second. However, in Fallout 4, the seventh area is only linearly more difficult than the second. This means that once you account for player skill scaling, Dark Souls still gets more difficult, whereas Fallout 4 wobbles around and drops off (don’t take these graphs too literally, Fallout 4‘s velocity graph is more like a slowly descending plateau, not to mention the position fluctuations). Finally, Dark Souls constantly throws unknown challenges at the player, whereas Fallout 4 stops presenting new information very quickly.

Morrowind works a little bit like the Dark Souls graph. Even though it’s not actually introducing new mechanics as the game goes on, Morrowind‘s systems are so obscure and complicated that it takes you a long time until you figure them out, which basically means you find those new mechanics over time. It’s a lot like when you hear people talking about games where they can keep finding new things to do even after multiple playthroughs.

The “constant rate of difficulty acceleration” approach works well for Dark Souls and I think it should be generalized for more games. However, it does come with the obvious fault that the developers would then have to create more content, which isn’t always possible. Fallout 4 just reuses the same mechanics and scales the numbers around, which is clearly much easier from a development perspective. But that gets into the “quantity vs. quality” discussion, and maybe that can come at some other time.


There’s always the counter-culture movement that says modern gamers are stupid and need instant gratification to do anything, and the good old games from the past were so much better. I don’t exactly agree, because I don’t think it’s necessarily the gamer’s fault. Game developers should be trying harder to ease players into games that introduce more new mechanics over time. Once that happens, we can finally get games that capture the sense of wonder again, the feeling that you’re actually in a place other than the boring world we live in.

At the same time, gamers do need to be more willing to push their own boundaries. I’m guilty of this too, I bought the Master Chief collection on launch and I’m planning to do the same for the next Mirror’s Edge. But if we want to see games with those little magical sparkles of amazement again, something has to be done. Otherwise, we just get a whole heap of generic reskinned FPS clones. Hopefully, the desire for wonder can overcome the desire for habits.

2 responses to “Game Design: A Sense Of Wonder

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