Off Book: A Look At Jesse Shell's "Art of Game Design"

Sean Grafton's picture
By on

Today I want to look at Jesse Shell’s book The Art of Game Design. Games are my second passion outside the theatre, and the shared capacity for audience engagement has lead me to find some very interesting skills that can be transported to the stage.

Shell’s book uses a series of perspectives he calls lenses to analyze his work. Today, I want to share with you three of them, and consider how they can be applied to theatre.

THE LENS OF EMOTION

The Lens of Emotion (in some editions the Lens of Essential Experience) is the very first thing Shell asks us to think about. The author asks us what emotions or experiences we want our audience to have, and how to best deliver that experience.

How to use this for theatre:

Imagine a scene where one character is threatening to kill another. The first character has a gun, and is slowly moving the other into the kitchen. Eventually, when the second character gets a split second chance, they grab a knife. There is a scuffle, and ultimately, the first character comes out alive.

There are several things we want to express here - anger, fear, desperation, possibly others depending on the context of the scene. We can use technical aspects of theatre to deliver these experiences. Heart beating sound effects, dim red lighting, flashes at the pivotal moment, all of these work wonderfully. In contrast, bright greens and yellows would detract from the experience.

THE LENS OF INFINITE INSPIRATION

Shell says to the reader “to use this lens, stop looking at your game, or games like it. Instead, look everywhere else”. He asks us to explore our own experiences, find those feelings and events that have importance to us, and find out how best to share them with others.

How to use this for theatre:

Shell, in many ways, is describing what the theatre world recognizes as Stanislavski’s method, and those styles deriving of it - relating your own experiences to those of the character, and using that as a base for your performance. In place of actually experiencing trauma or pain, as Strasberg would have an actor do, most other theorists, including Stanislavski, encourage use of the imagination and the brain's capacity for empathy.

Next time you’re working on a character, consider their most primal emotions - fear, anger, joy, etc - and some of the more complicated levels to their motivations, and think back to moments in your life where you have experienced something similar, or perhaps imagine what you would do in a similar situation. Use this as a baseline for your performance.

THE LENS OF HOLOGRAPHIC DESIGN

Here, Shell asks us to look at both the structural elements of a work and the audience's experience of said work simultaneously, acknowledging all the intricacies that influence that experience. We are to look at what elements make the experience enjoyable, what elements detract or distract from the experience, and what elements we could be changed such that it would improve the experience.

How to use this for theatre:

Use it in much the same way as the Lens of Emotion, except instead of focusing on -what- you want the audience to -feel-, focus on how to best deliver that feeling. Think of how you can minimize costs to maximize effect. Could costuming be simpler, or do we need it as detailed and accurate as possible? Could the set be bare? Would that have more impact than a complex moving and intricate set?

SHOULD I BUY IT?

Probably not. Far too much of the text is technical knowledge or only applicable to games. This was just an example of how you can find comparisons between various art forms, though I hope you found it helpful.

Next time, we’ll be looking at Robert McKee’s “Story”, a book on screenwriting and story telling.


Sean is a twenty two year old student, musician and aspiring game designer. Sean has been involved in community theatre in both Brantford and KW for the past eight years, volunteering mostly as an actor, with some experience in directing, stage managing, and technical direction. Sean specializes in musical theatre, and has been a member of KWLT since 2014.


Have an idea for a book that Sean could cover in this column? Email me and look for more book reviews in the future.