Abstract games, like Proteus, Dys4ia, and Tuning, are often a personal journey or exploration of something outside mainstream appeal. They take many different forms and provide a great range of experiences to their players. They can be powerfully motivating, introspective, vibrant, violent and completely unhinged. There is something pure about abstract games, and my goal here is to look at what sets abstract games apart from their concrete counterparts.
It's okay to let your stream of consciousness guide your design and let your inner self be expressed in as many ways as can be imagined. It's a big world with everyone having something new and special to say. There is rarely a "too far" with abstract games - try to not limit your expressions!
What Are Some Abstract Games?
Proteus - Ed Key and David Kanaga
Proteus is a procedural audio sandbox world where each living thing provides something new to the soundscape. It is a vibrant, exciting world where it is easy to get lost in the amazing environments. The player's "goal" is peaceful exploration and meditation.
Tuning - Cactus
Tuning was the 2010 winner of the IGF (Independent Games Festival) Nuovo award, an award for games that bring something unique to the industry. This game is a 3D abstract platformer with organically moving sections and no fixed position.
Dys4ia - Auntie Pixelante
Dys4ia is a powerful autobiographical game that uses iconography and minigames to discuss the creator's experiences with hormone replacement therapy. It uses an abstract soundtrack to reinforce the themes of each stage of the author's journey. The game requires simple interactions to move through it, making it more about the experience than about beating the game.
Johann Sebastian Joust - Die Gute Fabrik
This game does not use a screen. The objective is to protect your controller from your opponents' attempts to bump it. It uses variable speeds in the soundtrack to enable different strategies. When the music is slow, the controllers are more sensitive, but when the music is fast, you have more opportunities to attack.
Why Make an Abstract Game?
I believe that sometimes it is easier to share a view or experience in ways that are less concrete than traditional game development allows. In many ways, the restrictions lifted by pursuing an abstract game create opportunities for much deeper interaction between the game and player.
It can also make game development easier by engaging a player's imagination rather than using express imagery. A bright glowing circle and expressive music can be more impactful than simply showing the user a mirrored reflection of how they should feel based on what is going on within the game.
Abstract games provide an amazing outlet for personal expression. Making one is a great opportunity to feel free of restriction and to show as much of your personality as you would like. As a result, such games often have an unparalleled sense of uniqueness and freshness.
As with many different artist expressions, draw from your own life experiences. Start small! I would not recommend going for a vast world depicting many of the facets of your life. Consider simpler things that you may take for granted. What is your favorite color today? Did you have breakfast? Was it good? Anything can be inspiring, it just takes a seed of something and a little bit of design process to see if something sounds fun.
The goals of abstract game design are very free-form in my opinion: find something compelling to you and design an experience around it. Draw from nature, personal experience, a funny story you heard, secret desires, and so on. There is no limit to sources you can pull from; try something new every day, challenge yourself to dig deeper into your own ideas, and you might be surprised with what you find.
Modifying an Existing Genre
People like to communicate game ideas using established genres as a baseline conversation starter. It makes sense; people understand immediately when you explain that you are making a 2D side-scroller, a bullet hell, or a top-down racer. It becomes much harder to explain your abstract game when you deviate from these archetypes: "It's an amorphous free-style cloud simulator with hyper real color and water physics".
Connection - an action puzzler with bright lights and a dark soundtrack.
I'm not saying you should stick with the establishment. It can be a fun challenge to consider that 2D side-scroller, but instead of moving the player, maybe you are controlling the pitfalls or traps.
Maybe in that bullet hell, you are controlling a time dilation subsystem where the game's reality happens at a different timeframe than the one you are playing. As you iterate on your ideas, you will find that the 2D side scroller you started with has become its own entity, but you can still start a quick pitch with "It's a 2D side scroller with..." and have some common ground with an overall uncommon theme.
Of course, as with everything abstract, you may not even be considering a standard genre, and that is just fine! There is a great amount of satisfaction and coming up with something you feel is unique, fostering that idea and letting your own unique qualities mold that idea into something special.
Creating Your "Own" Genre
It has been said that there are no original ideas. I agree with that to an extent, but would like to explore how it can be bent a bit. Who is to say that there can't be a "brain-melting popcorn" game or an "electric field sunrise" game? What imagery do those game genres provoke? Do game ideas start to form around the sounds involved? How would you interact with a "plasticine heat wave" game?
In my opinion, if you brainstorm unique ways that you would experience your game, it helps the idea to become its own genre. It also helps take the game in different directions than you may have expected. It helps to stay open to the idea of iterating a brainstormed idea and taking it in a new direction or adding on to your current idea and letting it become something new. There may be no original ideas in the grand scheme of the design, but considering how your senses react to the game will help encourage growth in new areas.
Don't be afraid to try something new to you. Just because someone else has created something that may seem similar, if you believe in your idea, keep working on it and your individualism will show through. One of the greatest things about abstract games is their ability to be expressive, creative and inspired by a completely unique person. Stay true to yourself and the quality will follow.
Art Games and Audience Appeal
Expressive games and games whose purpose is to project the author's views in an abstract way inherently have limited appeal. There is a great challenge in creating something that appeals to a wide audience and stays true to the creator's intentions. One thing you will need to decide is how much you will take from your original design to dilute it for public consumption. It's not always necessary to take large chunks of gameplay away or to change the story completely.
Think of your intended audience. Is it people who like experimental abstract games? Don't hold back! Is it people who like to talk about 'that crazy game' with their friends, but don't want something too deep? Maybe refine the controls so their experience can still be fun on the surface and not require a deep commitment. It gets harder to prune as you get more specific. Consider what you want someone to get from your game and tailor the experience to fit their needs.
It's great to build a game completely on your own terms and to fit your own desires, but to reach a wider audience, you may need to tone some things back and make some things more accessible.
When creating abstract games, the world is your technicolor low-poly retro 8-bit oyster. There are no rules in the design of your game. Like all creative skills, the more you practice, the better you get. Above all else, experiment! This is your chance to really try the weird things you've wanted to check out. Play with blend modes, use a lot of magenta, add lens flares! Let all those ideas have their turn, it's great for getting a feel for where your designs will settle.
Relax - A "collection" game where there is no win or lose.
In my experience, during the design brainstorm stages, certain patterns start emerging and determine the final look of the game. For me, these patterns tend to be centered around strong, vibrant colors. I will notice myself starting off with a basic palette of greens and yellows and soon things start to blend together into magentas, cyans, and so on. I have tried to work against these tendencies and the for the most part, I am unhappy with the results until I follow my instincts and accept the original direction.
A second pattern that I tend to experience is an overall need to add more. Add more color, add more movement (rotations, entity flocking, shape deformation, etc...), and adjusting scale. At some point, these need to be reeled in, but when experimenting, it's a good idea to just see where things take you. In general, if the experience starts to lag, consider limiting your generated objects or post-processed effects a bit.
Excitement - A procedural audio action game.
Embrace the patterns; they will take you to the design finish line. Again, a lot of it is practice, but there are some things to consider when learning where your patterns start to show. Are you using more geometric designs rather than organic? Are you having more fun creating digital glitter than character design? Do you find yourself using more particles than frame-based animations? How do the different systems interact with each other? Do you have enemies and 'heroes' that share something in common? (Color ranges, size, form.)
As you hone in on these patterns, your game will start to take form. It's good to play with things as you go along, but once you get into a design groove, try to maintain it. I've found that I work more efficiently when working with my patterns, once found, rather than trying to reinvent them along the path to completion.
I hope that this has given you a chance to reflect on your own abstract games and encouraged you to create something. This is a great time to explore crazy, awesome and never-before-seen games, so try not to hold yourself back! Everything you create will have been created by a unique person with unique experiences and, with practice, will relay a unique view. Good luck - you're bound to make something truly special and wonderful!