Bastionland’s Intrinsic/Diegetic Theory

August 29, 2020

This post over on Bastionland on intrinsic/extrinsic and diegetic and non-diegetic fun has a great system for talking about activities and subsystems you build within a game. (Vincent Baker’s post on cues and fiction from 2005 ties in very well with this.)

What’s really useful about this from a design stand point, is that it helps you figure out how a tool is generating the behavior and fun you’re getting from it, or, as a way to consider “why isn’t this quite right?” (Or, “Is this not a good fit for the TYPE of fun I want this game to create?”)

Cohesion vs. incoherency in design

For example, one of my favorite mechanics is Primetime Adventures‘ Fanmail system – it would count as both Intrisic and Extrinsic Non-Diegetic fun – you get tokens that increase your effectiveness in play, but those are given as part of the social reward between players – the group applauding your roleplaying (and, also, encourages everyone to entertain the group as primary behavior). It’s a powerful play loop. (Along with the other mechanics in the game, it sets up the Fruitful Void Vincent Baker referred to.)

The opposite sort of thing might be one of the things that was quite common in 80s and 90s game design – an essay or whole chapters on what “good roleplaying” was supposed to be but worked in direct contradiction to the rest of the mechanics – the Intrinsic and Extrinsic Non-Diegetic rewards were at odds – you were supposed to rely on group social pressure to stop players from following the reward path built into the system too deeply. A lot of the hanging “one-true-way-ism” attitudes about Immersion is leftover from the demonization of Non-Diegetic aspects of play from that era.

Fine tuning design choices

Anyway, from a high theory point, it’s a useful set of axis to start narrowing down some of the issues when people start jousting about Creative Agendas – there’s a LOT of range of different design options and ways to have fun within ANY one of these and I’m thinking this grid is a good way to start isolating factors even within the same Agenda in a way people can identify. (“I like cars” is a phrase many people can say, but why they like them, and what for, can be DRASTICALLY different.)

I think the most use you can get from this early in a design is if you’re looking at other games and trying to identify what’s working or not working in a given system, and when it comes to games you are designing, probably not until you hit the point where “some things just AREN’T working” and you can’t figure out why. That’s when it’s probably good to step back and ask if it’s missing aspects are turned to the wrong type to function well.

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