These Books Offer a Cross-Section View of Classic Game Designs

The 'Reverse Design' gets beyond design platitudes with close interrogations of classic games' inner workings.

by Cameron Kunzelman
Aug 23 2017, 4:00pm

FFVII screenshot courtesy Square Enix

Game design is paradoxical. On one hand, lots of people will tell you that it's a science. You can find a plenitude of books, talks, and thinkpieces written about how to best grab a player and keep them in your grasp with shiny items, perfect sound design, and a treadmill of content.

On the other hand, game design is sometimes spoken of as an arcane ritual, with it practitioners constantly doing new and exciting things that had never even been considered before. Predictability and novelty run hand in hand here, and if you read enough about game design, the contradictions tend to reveal themselves.

For this reason, The Game Design Forum's "Reverse Design" book series about popular games such as Final Fantasy VI, Half Life, and Chrono Trigger is interesting. These books are not solely about figuring out universal rules of game design. Instead, the books delve into these massively popular games in order to describe how they were successful at attracting players to them.

Unlike much design analysis, which often tries to rely on pop psychology or unofficial design "rules," the "Reverse Design" series relies on a number of different methods to come to conclusions about the games under analysis. For example, the free sample of the Chrono Trigger analysis looks to monster damage resistance and its frequency, narrative information, NPC sociology, and a damage-to-resources chart in order to provide context for a quest in the early game.

Because it requires a degree of expertise with the many disparate fields that compromise "game development," this style of analysis is rare. But that doesn't mean it's not important—check out Robert Yang's 2013 talk at Practice for both a great example of this sort of "close reading" and also an argument for why it's valuable.

By delving into code, story, and historical context, The Game Design Forum books provide a brilliant look at how games work and how their workings might be appreciated or, with the right borrowing, replicated.

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Final Fantasy VII
Reverse Design