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A Matter of Great Depth

When we talk about ‘depth’ in games we usually mean combinatorial richness. The number of elements in a game that can affect each other in a non-trivial way. For instance, Sid Meier’s Civilization is a deep game because there are so many things that can affect the course of play, ensuring that no two playthroughs are the same. On opposite end of the spectrum you have games like Ron Gilbert’s The Secret of Monkey Island, where you have to move through a set sequence of events in a set order.

This is not to say that one type of game is better than the other. Guitar Hero is a great game even if it has no combinatorial depth whatsoever.

Over at the Guardian Unlimited’s games blog, Keith Stuart has written an interesting article about depth in video games, where he argues against the type of depth displayed in titles like Devil May Cry as “out-dated”. This kind of game, where mastery is a matter of quick reflexes and memorizing long strings of button combinations was more the aesthetic of the arcade scene. Now that games are a comfortable part of the average living room we need to look for different kinds of depth for the “21 century”. He suggests narrative depth (which seems like a 19th century kind of depth to me) and “structural depth”, where individuals configure their experience in a vein similar to classic western RPGs.

Is he missing the point, or is our friend from across the pond on to something?


  1. He’s missing the point. It’s that shallow.

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at 5:18 am | Permalink
  2. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Hmm, I’m not sure what you’re actually saying.

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at 8:21 pm | Permalink
  3. The more form is meeting function, the deeper game play becomes. The game world needs all flavors though, from shallow to dense. Sometimes all I want is a juicy cheeseburger (aka a button mashing shooter), and other times I’m looking for duck in wine reduction (something along the lines of Portal). And like a chef in culinary school, I’m more interested in making Duck than flipping burgers. Game play (where mechanics meet narrative and subsequently present interesting decisions for the player) is the only sort of depth I’m concerned with as a game designer. But I don’t think it’s our place to will that onto other game makers.

    I’m just not sure his article deserves that much of a response.

    Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at 9:22 pm | Permalink
  4. Charles Edward wrote:

    He’s wrong. He hasn’t experienced the section of DMC that does have depth. He thinks you have to memorize button strings…it’s not quite like that. The game rewards improvisational avatar dancing, that’s pretty much it. The game rewards style and never being touched. The depth comes from the style reward system: It’s not about the story, it’s not about the single-player walkthrough, it’s not about killing enemies. All of those areas are cookie-cutter throwaway stuff. The genius of DMC is in its incredibly fluid and dynamic fighting controls.

    He should watch the dozens of DMC3 combo videos. There’s a huge community devoted just to flawless, expert gameplay in DMC.

    Charles Joseph, we’ve talked about this.

    This isn’t “out-dated” anymore than the depth of go is outdated. I’m not saying their depth is similar, I’m just saying that they have achieved depth and that their unique kind of fun is here to stay. It’s not going to get replaced by narrative or structural depth. Although, I’d argue the depth in DMC is exactly that: structural.

    Friday, February 15, 2008 at 2:08 am | Permalink
  5. Bob wrote:

    Maybe DMC would have an easier time with the critics if it weren’t culture-baiting them with the classical names of its main characters. When I hear about a story with two cats named Dante and Virgil, I expect me some sophisticated fisticuffs, there.

    Friday, February 15, 2008 at 5:35 am | Permalink
  6. Charles Edward wrote:

    Yeah…the name choices…the story….very big mistakes. They should have gone super low-key with that stuff, but hey, then it wouldn’t be the over-the-top groan fest that it is.

    EVERYTHING is cliché. I mean…trench coats? white hair? giant sword? woo-style dual pistols in a slow motion sideways dive? Naming your characters with deep roots and then having it turn out vapid seems to fit right in…I’m looking at you Kill Bill with your empty Hattori Hanzo reference.

    So yeah, don’t expect the sophistication to come from the narrative here. This one’s just a game.

    Friday, February 15, 2008 at 8:19 pm | Permalink
  7. Charles Joseph wrote:

    I actually kind of like the ridiculous goth-metal theme of DMC. I mean, if you’re going to make a game about killing demons with a giant sword and two pistols, you might as well take it all the way. It’s a little more honest than Ninja Gaiden in that way.

    Saturday, February 16, 2008 at 7:18 am | Permalink
  8. Frank wrote:

    I think Charles Edward nailed this one on the head. The original article is based on a false premise due to the author’s cursory analysis of the game in question. Next.

    Saturday, February 16, 2008 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

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