Expressing Game Feel

Posted On: 2021-07-26

By Mark

How do I want my game to feel?

It's a profoundly important question, but attempting to answer it often leaves me at a loss for words. Game feel, the visceral experience evoked through the act of play, is central to how I judge a game's quality (both my own and others'), but whenever I try to distill that down into words, something is inevitably lost in translation. This is not something unique to my current project - for every game I've created/played, expressing game feel has proven elusive.

A simile is often a good start: saying a game feels "like flying" or "like shouting angrily" can quickly convey a rough sketch. Although there's plenty of room for disagreement on the details, a simile can help get everyone at least to the same emotional ballpark. For the flight system I recently prototyped, I wanted it to feel like gliding effortlessly. For my combat system, I tried to make the movement feel like flitting about whimsically, and the attacks feel like digging your feet in.

Getting into the details is where things become much harder. Personally, I tend to use precise description: articulating how each individual design element works together to create the particular experience within the player. Although this approach is generally useful as a creator (it codifies the "how" of creating the game feel), it's something I use just as often when describing other games as well. For example, when describing the feel of the combat in FTL, I've talked (at length) about how the cooldown on weapons (both your own and the enemy's) builds anticipation towards a sudden flurry of action (weapons firing, hits connecting/missing) after which the player immediately reacts, replans, and anticipation builds once again*.

An alternative to precise descriptions is to instead attempt to evoke emotions that simulate the game feel. This can be done through language alone or by augmenting language with other tools (such as images). From what I can tell, this approach is most commonly used when attempting to communicate game feel persuasively, rather than informatively (such as promotional materials trying to sell a game.) As such, it's better suited for communicating game feel to potential players/stakeholders rather than for communicating it between members of the same team.

Yet, even when both the rough and detailed view of a game's feel is clearly communicated, it still somehow seems incomplete. Game feel is something that happens continuously, filling all the space of every moment, pouring over the edges as it spills every possible next moment. Writing about game feel (even when explicitly evoking the same emotions) is inherently discrete and limited: the words capture a finite subset of the possibilities that games afford, collapsing an infinitely branching future into a one-dimensional pictogram.

How, then, do I want my game to feel? Though words may be limited: in my game, flying will be like gliding effortlessly; as you skim along the edge of a vine, smoothly following every twist and turn, the surging thrill of the motion will dance together with the calm of complete control. Yet it will be so much more than that - and I look forward to the day when you can feel it for yourself.