OSR and Negative Space

I wrote a really terrible article last week about my distaste of formalised core loops in game design theory. I was honestly kind of surprised that some folk responded at all, and I had some really good explanations from people far more versed in this sort of thing than I am. That said, my view hasn’t altogether changed, and I still find the idea of tightly structuring and defining what the player can and should do to be infuriatingly narrow.

There are so many examples of entire gaming subcultures based around breaking out of imposed limitations: Speedrunning, boundary-breaking, virtual tourism, pacifist runs are just a prominent few. These are not new developments, and I would argue contribute a houge amount of worth and richness to gaming as a medium. And yet there is a lot of talk in design circles about saving the player from themselves or ensuring they don’t optimise the fun out of a given game, which while no doubt well-intentioned, can feel condescending and paternalistic.

I think part of my newfound distaste for this kind of approach partially stems from my newfound infatuation with the OSR (or, OldSchool Roleplaying/Renaissance) movement, which unlike more conventional pen-and-paper roleplaying, favours mechanical simplicity, and relies on conversation between the players and game-master to arbitrate what is or is not possible or plausible in a session of play.

Games like Knave, Mothership, The Black Hack or Best Left Buried, and modules like The Stygian Library, Deep Carbon Observatory or Lorn Song Of The Bachelor are all hugely imaginative, but share a common design thread of minimalist rulesets that encourage a more freeform and interpretative approach to play that is wildly exciting to me.

This is radically different from looped approaches, which attempt to model player behaviour in predictable and repeatable ways. I also think this is a solid example of what Jennifer Scheurle refers to in her wonderful article about Valheim and use of negative space in game design on Polygon. This, as somebody without much formal design experience under my belt, was absolutely eye-opening. Simplicity of formal mechanics and trust in how the player engages with the game are really at the heart of what I yearn for more of.

I realise I have touched on a lot here without going into detail on any of it, as to do so would take way more time than I have to spare, so I will just instead bullet point a summary of my thoughts:

  • Trust in how a player engages with your work is preferable to me over trying to define how they experience it.
  • The concept of defining a core loop’ for a game is potentially useful, but often abused.
  • OSR is a wonderful movement from a really diverse set of voices that deserves more serious consideration in game design circles.
  • OSR mechanics would be staggeringly difficult to interpret into videogames, but perhaps negative space in design is a common thread.
  • There are alternatives to established videogame design conventions hugely worth exploring

March 10, 2021

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