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Honest game design almost requires that the game be self-aware. This means that the developer is not only true to their vision, but is true to their potential audience. Take Saints Row, for example. You never think of Saints Row to be that ground-breaking, socially progressive piece of work. And rightfully so because the franchise never claimed to be that. Saints Row is good because it’s honest with itself.
I rarely play open-world titles, but the thought put into Saints Row: The Third was admirable. Though it may be more accurate to say that the lack of over-thinking is admirable; it’s almost as if the developers at Volition just asked themselves “How can we make this game more ridiculous and more exciting than the last?” and followed through correctly. A question like this is important because it displays some degree of the game/studio being comfortable with itself, as opposed to trying to make every consumer happy.
As Yahtzee Croshaw of The Escapist put it in his review of Saints Row 2, one reason why the franchise shines lies in the bond between you and the main character. You’re both let loose in this sandbox world, and you’re both looking to have fun. Things I would do in a GTA game that would get me in trouble or require cheat codes are the basis of most of the missions. And therein lies the genius of Saints Row. The games never asked me to do anything that I didn’t want to do. The game and I were always on the same page.
I loved games like Flower, Limbo, Heavy Rain, and Braid. And for most of my experience, I kept saying to myself, “ I can’t believe I’m loving this stupid little game.” I was almost embarrassed about it until I realized that Saints Row is successful because it embraces its role in the industry as a “stupid little game” and runs with it. I find that because of this simplicity — this honesty — Saints Row is a success. That’s why it’s so good.
When I saw it as such, I was no longer embarrassed about enjoying Saint’s Row: The Third. And it ceased to be a “stupid little game.” It became an example of what happens when a studio is honest and makes a promise they can keep to the people who are most important to them — the people playing their game.
Honesty is a strange subject, especially when you think of game design. What is honesty if you’re a developer being backed by a big publisher? What does it mean to be honest if you’re developing an Xbox Live Indie Game?
In designing a game, honesty is dedication to a vision independent of outside influences. It’s making that slight distinction between making people happy before they buy your game and making people happy after they buy your game. Though it required a bit of faith and being comfortable with myself, I eventually realized that my friends were there regardless of how my jeans fit. Being myself and being true to that was enough.
Likewise, developers need to make that leap of faith and understand that people who are buying their game have already purchased a product based on some sort of idea or pre-conception. The duty lies on the developer to deliver on that.
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