When you design something, it being a Video Game, a Story, a World, or any medium that requires creativity, you start understanding the underlying of how this thing you need to design works. And the more you do this, the more cursed you get.
For this piece, I will talk about my experience with Game Design and not any other kind of design although it’s working for these as well I’d say. This is just because even if I’m also writing and have an analytic mind regarding movies, I have more experience designing games.
I’d like to say something before I’ll start. As it might undermine this text if you do not think that my knowledge is good enough, I believe that it’s better just to come forward. I was never able to secure a job in the video game industry apart from an internship in a small studio, not for lack of trying, but I studied Game Design for four years and participated in countless Game Jams (I like to do at least once a year and often get the jury’s honor and got one award for a wonderful game called Proximity created with an amazing team of 6). I also love to design games, board games, video games, and even if these never go further the point of prototypes, they still help me home my skills. I love keeping in touch with the new technologies and dev diary to keep my understanding of how things work under the engine and how people collaborate in studios. I’m not trying to tell that I’m the highest authority on this stuff but that I understand how they work.
If that’s enough for you, I’d like to talk about what I mean about designer’s curse.
Boo... Boo... A cuuurse!
In Thebes, Egypt, 1290 BC, high priest Imhotep has a love affair with Anck-su-Namun, the mistress of Pharaoh Seti I. When the Pharaoh discovers the affair, Imhotep, and Anck-su-Namun assassinate him. Imhotep flees, while Anck-su-Namun kills herself, intending for Imhotep to resurrect her. Imhotep and his priests steal her corpse and travel to Hamunaptra, the city of the dead, but the resurrection ritual is stopped by Seti’s bodyguards, the Medjai. Imhotep’s priests are all mummified alive, while Imhotep himself is sentenced to suffer the Hom Dai, the worst of Egyptian curses, buried alive with flesh-eating scarab beetles. Imhotep is sealed away in a sarcophagus at the feet of a statue of the Egyptian god Anubis and kept under strict surveillance by the Medjai to prevent Imhotep’s return.
This is, of course, the Mummy’s curse. Nothing to do with designer’s curse (And don’t bother checking, I shamelessly copied the text from The Mummy (1999) Wikipedia page.) but I have to say, The Mummy’s Curse is one of the weirdest you can find anywhere. I mean who curses someone to be an invincible killing machine should he find a way to come back thanks to two books that are literally next to his sarcophagus. That is utterly dumb for people who probably have thousands of other curses to use. I think it’s supposed to be the worse of Egyptian curses not because it’s an awful way to be cursed, but just because it’s literally the worst curse ever created. Some Egyptian must have made some mistake, hadn’t understood what his boss wanted exactly when he asked him to get the worse curse possible... Still, I have nothing but love for these movies. (At least The Mummy and The Mummy Returns)
Anyway. This here, is a curse, something that is forced upon you. That you feel compelled, by an external force, to follow.
Designer’s curse is a bit harsher than all these witchy voodoo bizarre curses, in the sense that we are the one to curse ourselves. The more you know how something is done, the more experience you have with something, the less effect it has on you. The less magical it becomes. You start seeing all the thing that doesn’t quite work like they should, even if most people would never see them. You see all the smoke screens and red-herrings. You start understanding the limits of some systems before you even played enough actually to see them. You spend way too much time trying to see how an awesome feature work, in case you may want to recycle it in one of you other game. (And believe me, as someone who spends a ridiculous amount of time trying to understand how some things work while you play which can be remarkably weird for anyone watching you try for the 40th time to see how the looking glass works in Prey, it is something that happens way too often.) You start looking at everything, the gameplay, the graphics, the level design, the meta gaming, the UI, at everything way too closely and try to understand how they intertwine and work all together.
In other words, you stop playing, and you start analyzing. You trade your fun for information. It might be fun to make Batman jump against a wall three or four times because you want to see a particular behavior, but, I’m telling you, after ten or twenty times it stops being remotely amusing. I know I’m a bit intense sometimes but almost any designers I know bear this curse in some fashion.
It will also make you play games you don’t even like or want to just because you desire to study this or that particular feature.
Which brings me to this.
How hard is it to relax and just enjoy?
When you are in this kind of mindset, it can be extremely hard. And it all boils down to a straightforward thing, time. The older you get and the harder it is to find a chance to play at all, so when you play you try to make this count, you no longer play for fun but you play because you have to keep that edge, be aware of what’s being done elsewhere, fill that library of features that you might want to revisit.
When I was younger, when I had all the time in the world, during my studies, often what I would do would be to play one walkthrough of a game and then once finished start back and analyze it. But now with more games that come out than ever and less time, I have to choose, and it’s hard to pick one or the other, so you have to try and do both.
I’d like to say that this part here is mostly things I’ve experienced in my own life. It might not apply to anyone else, but if that can help people who are struggling with this, then I’ll be happy.
After a while you start recognizing certain patterns, things emerge, and it becomes easier just to dismiss things you already know and, up to a point, just enjoy the game until you stumble on a feature you might be interested in.
One of the bleakest parts of all this is that like once you know how an illusionist does one of his tricks, you suddenly don’t really feel the magic anymore. It’s easy for you to understand what’s going to happen. How to cheat the game a bit. If you look too closely, you don’t get the same fresh experience, the one the developers wanted you to have. Doing so lowers your suspension of disbelief, you do not let the game surprise you. When you understand what the limitations of the game are then it’s just a matter of time before it stops amazing you, or playing with you.
But it’s not all black. Some games are just way too similar to another one you already played, so it gets easier to tone down that voice telling you to analyze everything. It’s why some sequels are good cannon fodder just to stop and relax. And sometimes you’re just going to find a game, a gem, that will just take you by the hand and make you forget all that; forcing you to enjoy the whole thing and make you wonder how you finished that one without even trying to analyze the shit out of it, which in return will make you want to investigate it even more (The last one which did that for me was Prey, and I can’t wait to find just a bit of time to go back there and observe just about everything, something I started doing near the end when it became a bit dull as you’re just a tad overpowered)
After a while, with experience, you do find a balance between fun and analytic behavior. But even then, it’s still making you play way longer at all these games you don’t really like, and the line is skinny between doing so because you’re waiting to see if you really like the game or because some part of your brain is just pushing you to go just a bit further to understand what are the underlying rules of this universe. (Looking at you, ME: Andromeda)
I’m sure, somewhere, there is a designer, someone, with enough control over his own mind to be able and just turn that voice down all the way. But I’m not there, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be there.
As long as I design stuff, this curse will probably be here, and that’s all right. It’s incredibly fun to create games or whatever. And sometimes, because it does happen too, it’s amazing to tear a game apart and look at what makes the clock ticking. And once in a blue moon, observing the game’s entrails will be even more fun than just playing the game.