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Dictionary of Game Design Symbols

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This is something that I have wanted to do for some time now but have not taken the initiative...until now. <backstory>As I have been studying Mythology as of late, I have paid particular attention to symbolism--its power and universality--and have wondered how a "dictionary of symbols for Game Design" may help to organize design mechanics and understand the universal psyche of gamers. As designers have borrowed from past examples, some objects or ideas have transcended their origins to become a part of the "gamer unconsciousness" that today's designers rely on for their own work. Some objects have become imbued with reliable mechanics (outside of their real-life counterparts) that are assumed to be known by gamers as a body of knowledge that exists in them before they play. If this sounds like an interesting undertaking, perhaps we may build a useful tool for game designers for which to refer. This is not simply a repository of the game mechanics of the symbol, but also an expose on the nature or psycholoy of a gamer who encounters these symbols. How will they react and what are the processes (generally unconscious considerations) that result from an encounter with these symbols? Dragons are often used in (European) mythology to denote greed. They are usually thresholds that protect a prize--sometimes gold or a prized object. Writers of myth often use a dragon to represent this principle...and many psychologists use this connotation in dream analysis when a patient shares a dream with this figure. Because a dragon symbolizes this idea almost universally, many people who see dragons in their dreams are addressing a particular obstacle (or greed) that stands in the way of a prize. However, people may not be aware that their minds project the image of a dragon in order to explain this idea of greed to them during sleep. It is a symbol of the unconscious, which is why many people may not realize that the dragon they saw in their dreams was a form of greed, even though their mind is trying to tell them this. Surely the game world has presented us with certain unconscious ideas to which we react without conscious thought. What kinds of unconscious symbols has the game world given to us? </backstory> What in the &@Q#* are you talking about? What kind of "symbols"? A star, heart, wooden box/crate, mushroom, flower, object with a red cross, a black hole in the floor, an "orb" left by a fallen enemy, etc. The type of object (item, texture, etc.), idea, or pattern that gamers know and understand without requiring explicit teaching. Things whose behaviors or conditions can be assumed to some degree. so what would NOT be a kind of game design symbol? A switch, door, life guage/bar, unusual/glowing "interface", or a key. These are the types of objects found in the games that are true to their real world counterparts and have no new game-world connotations. They are strictly denotative: a door opens; when the guage runs out...; a switch is flipped; a key unlocks a door. wooden crate (or wooden barrel) In many shooters or platformers, the wooden crate has been used to store goodies or to be used to reach higher platforms. A gamer is likely to survey the area for possible uses as a stepping stone and if no value in that respect is apparent, it is usually broken for possible prizes (coins, stars, gold, armor, etc.). One of the first impulses of a gamer is to break a wooden crate. Take caution to them and don't assume that the gamer is a gentle creature in your world. Examples: Diablo, Mario, Zelda. residual orbs When enemies are killed, they oftentimes leave orbs behind. Whether or not the value of the orbs are known, a gamer is likely to go to great lengths to grab it with the assumption that it is worth points, health, ammunition of some kind, or mana. They may come in many different colors (to help differentiate their value from other orbs), but they are almost always seen as objects with positive values. A coin or heart may be an example of a residual orb. Examples: Ninja Gaiden, Genma Onimusha, Zelda.

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Are the symbols in this dictionary confined to interactive objects in games? Because it seems rather redundant to mention symbols that are already employed in writings, and visual arts.

Some speculations on what such a dictionary can be used for:
1) as the guideline for intuitive gaming (where options are made obvious)
2) as a blacklist

anyway.

stone statues
A stone statue typically implies that it cannot be destroyed, but can be moved as part of a puzzle.

sparkling star
Signifies a hint or a small special quest item that the hero is supposed to pick up.

cracks
Implies destructibility, when appear on structures that cannot be broken, attacked, or destroyed normally.

unlit torches
usually involve in puzzles, and can be lit as part of a puzzle.


When you look at wooden crates and stone statues, both symbols are derived from the common notion that wood (and ceramics) can be broken, and stone can't. The notion that an orb signify something positive not because it is an orb, but because it is left after an enemy is defeated, which implies reward. Sparkling star, Cracks and unlit torches fall into the catagory of the use of abnormality, in these cases abnormality are used to get attention, signify opportunity or the existence of a puzzle.



[Edited by - Estok on March 8, 2005 4:19:11 AM]

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Huh... this is an interesting idea for a post. Some that I've noticed are:

Hearts - almost always restore your health.
And in genreal, for gauges or potions, red = health, and blue (or sometimes green) = magic.

Red cross - also health, though this has a basis in the real life Red Cross symbol, unlike the ubiquitous heart.

character flickering/ghosted - universal symbol for "temporary invulnerability"
character flashing different colors - "temporary superpower/invincibility"

buzzer sound = universal "no/you can't do that"
tinkly bells or trumpet fanfare = universal "yes/you found some secret"

vague chunk of meat on a bone - the classic representation of food, usually health.

green smoke - poison

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Whoa. Neat idea. Games have been creating a special game language, and formalizing it a bit allows us to make them more intuitive and/or manipulate the player's expectations to our own (devious) designs.
My contribution:

-very Dark / very Light room at the end of a hallway: Exit to next section

-object turning red or pulsating: This object can be used

-character's shadow dissapearing/character turning transparent/character flattening or sinking in the ground: Unreversible Death.

-character suddenly flashes/sparkles fly out of character: level up, improvement.

-overall screen format change (letterbox, sepia tint, etc): interactivity changes in a significant way (time slows down or you enter dialog mode) or is suspended altogether (cutscene)

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goggles/glasses - allows you to see something not usualy seeable.

Boots - allows you to jump/move faster/higher.

Quote:

-character suddenly flashes/sparkles fly out of character: level up, improvement.

Could also mean character is invulnarable.

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Just a quick suggestion, how about adding examples? Because reading through a list, I can see the connection, but then I get to some and I just don't understand the wording, but if I had an example it would probably make more sense.

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Quote:
Original post by Kars
Quote:

-character suddenly flashes/sparkles fly out of character: level up, improvement.

Could also mean character is invulnarable.


I forgot to add brief. Sudden and brief.

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Game Design Symbols could also include other things than objects, like some other people mentioned.

For examle, sounds. When the player hits something and it goes "Ting", we assume that the form of attack we used has no effect and to try another one. theres also that weird soft "kppfff" sound that usually means that your attack does some damage. We just assume these things, even though in real life, it makes absolutely no sense. Why would something go "ting" if you cant hurt it? Ever punch a brick wall? That is deffinitly not a ting sound.


Personally, theres one game design object that I'd really like to see less of. I mean, ALOT less of.
That is: The Exploading Barrel. Generally, if you see a metal barrel, you know it will expload if you shoot it.

Destructable Cases - Wooden Crates and pots are most used. If you break it, theres a reward in it. It usually doesnt take much to break the object and theyre often found all throughout the game (Zelda, RE4)


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You know in doom3 there are explosive and non explosive barrels. I found the non explosive kind first, shot it, and felt kind of dissapointed.
Then I laughed my head off.
Also when walking by a pile of (usually empty) barrels, I sometimes do a shooting gesture with my hand. That symbol is carved in my brain.

I wish more devs would pay attention to the conventions that are being set implicitly, these will shape the future of games.

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Or more generally, anything that stands out too much in a character is assumed to be it's weak spot. Like that jewel incrusted in the middle of the chest. Or the glowing eye.

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Numbers on top of NPCs if you hit them: Numerical representation of damage done to them.
Specially big, flashy or in a strange color numbers on top of NPCs if you hit them: Numerical representation of damage done to them and managed to do a critical hit or hit a weak spot.

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Hey that's an excellent idea, but are you interested in the underlying symbolism, or the more straightforward conventions.

So far the posts list what I would call cliches, conventions that have been used throughout gaming history.
Stuff like colour coded enemies. Guys with the same appearance, but only different colours to show that they are stronger versions of what you used before.

If you are thinking of deeper concepts... mmmh... that would be more interesting, but I think a bit harder to analyze.

Oh, I just went through your post again. Right, things that have taken their own particular meaning in the context of games.

Well, food items !
So often you kill monsters and suddenly food items pop up, giving you points. Do you remember a game like Prehistorik ? Going around collecting food for your tribe. Or Commander Keen ?
The food item becomes a Pavlovian symbol, a treat you give to a good dog as a reward.

I am sure SunAndShadow would have something to say about all this [grin]

I looked at Symbols.Net but they don't have gaming symbols there, nor at Symbols.com

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