Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

6 August, 2016

Abstraction of game reality
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:13 PM

While discussing games with a friend, we started talking about abstractions. While some games attempt to simulate reality, not every element in a game is a direct simulation of reality. Some elements are abstractions of reality.

Let’s take a look at abstractions and why they’re used.

Taking things literally

Sometimes people look at game and think some particular behavior is silly. A classic example is the early Ultima games, where characters say simple words when interacting with NPCs. For example, most NPCs respond to “NAME”, “JOB”, and “HEALTH” in Ultima IV.

Taking this literally, it seems a bit silly. Imagine someone in the offline world coming up to you and barking one word commands at you. “NAME!” “JOB!” “HEALTH!” It’d be a little off-putting, to say the least.

But, a better interpretation of this is that this standardizes and summarizes the conversation you’re having. Typing in “name” means that the avatar asks someone’s name. “Excuse me, could you tell me your name?” But, without having to store all that extra fluff that would get tedious to read every time you wanted to talk to an NPC.

Of course, people take this a step further. Someone wandering up to you and asking your name out of the blue might seem slightly less off-putting, but still odd. Would you give your name to someone who just walked up to you?


Again, we can look at this as an abstraction of what is really going on. The Avatar might be going up to people and engaging in a bit of chit-chat. Asking about the weather or some other trivia. After a bit of talking, the Avatar then says, “Excuse me, I didn’t catch your name….”

That would make a lot more sense in context. But, do you really want to read dozens if not hundreds of instances of small talk in the game? Probably not.

Let’s take a look at this in another game, such as the common complaint that enemies in MMOs are nearly blind. While you’re fighting one enemy, another enemy seemingly a few yards away does nothing, even though they are likely within seeing distance or at least within earshot of the terrible din a combat would create. So, why don’t they come to help?

This time, we’re seeing an abstraction of space. Instead of putting enemies a distance that would make them unable to see or hear combat, the game assumes that they are actually further away than they appear. Otherwise, enemies would be spread out quite a bit, and after fighting one enemy you’d have to wander around a lot to find the next enemy to kill.

Abstractions in other type of games

Some games are almost entirely abstractions. Take chess as an example; it’s an abstraction of a battle between two sides. The abstraction is pretty deep here, with rules about how each piece moves that seem only vaguely related to the piece. I mean, how does a castle tower move clear across the board, let alone move at all?

Board games work similarly. Many board games with “spaces” you move through are an abstraction of distance. In the board game Clue, moving from location to location to collect clues requires moving through a bunch of spaces representing hallways in the house. This is an abstraction of the distance, with the die roll being an abstraction for how quickly one can move through a strange house.

Tabletop RPGs also have a lot of abstraction. The character sheet is an abstraction for a person in the world, a list of numbers that categorize physical and mental attributes, as well as list possessions and any other data representing the person. It usually takes the player to take this abstract data and breathe life into the character for the game.

Reasons for abstraction

There are a few reasons why games abstract reality like this.

The first is technical constraints. Ultima IV was originally released in 1985 on computers with a fraction of the power of just about any mobile phone from the last few years. They couldn’t store a lot of data, load a lot of data into memory, or do natural language parsing. But, it could store one word inputs for a very simple dialog system.

Even as technology gets better, some things still remain hard. Natural language parsing is still pretty tough, so dialog systems are still pretty simple. You might select a type of response from a list, such as in Bioware’s RPG dialog system, and get responses based on that input.

The Bioware dialog trees show another element to abstraction: design considerations. Often the option you select in a Bioware game isn’t the literal words you say. Usually the dialog option gives you a sense of what you want to say, the meaning and emotion you want to convey. The actual response (and voiced dialog) might seem ambiguous without body language and tone of voice that can be shown when giving the response.

Finally, we run into efficiency. Watching the Avatar engage in small talk might be interesting the first few times, but eventually you’re going to get bored with having a 15 minute friendly chat just to find out what shrine is in the area. In Ultima IV, you can find out relevant information after a minute or two of dialog. In the MMO example with oblivious enemies, this saves you from having to run 5 minutes between every single battle in order to spread out the enemies wide enough so that they don’t all come running to every battle.

Finally, some abstraction is just necessary for the game to work. In a shooter, pushing the a button is an abstraction for pulling a trigger and/or loading the weapon. Creating an interface that allows you to actually pull a trigger takes a lot more work, requires specialized peripherals, and changes the nature of the game.

Too much abstraction?

The job of a designer is to figure out the right level of abstraction. Too little abstraction and you might have a technically infeasible game, or a tedious game that feels like a chore to play through. But, what about too much abstraction?

In some games, the lesser amount of abstraction is the point of the game. Some games attempt to simulate reality more, such as flight sims. Sure, you could abstract all the details about flying the plane, but that wasn’t the point for fans of the genre. Too much abstraction and fans feel the game becomes too “arcade-like”.

But what about in games that aren’t hard-core simulations? Abstraction often eases gameplay, eliminating some activity because it’s not fun. But, people play games to engage in some kind of entertaining activity, so it’s possible to eliminate the “fun” activity from a game. The old game Progress Quest took the MMO love of abstraction to absurd levels, allowing the game to essentially play itself. Yes, the game had its fans, but it hasn’t quite stood the test of time like Everquest, the original target of it’s parody, has.

As usual, there’s no one universal right answer here. For some people, abstracting the process of forming a party and going to a dungeon into a “looking for group” interface is fine, for others it hurts the experience. People who like the abstraction feel that the part before running the dungeon was tedium, but for others it was an exciting part of the process. Who is right depends on the design goals of the game and the audience it hopes to attract. In general, though, it feels like design trends have favored more abstraction to ease gameplay.

So, what are your thoughts? How much abstraction do you like in games? How much is too much?


  1. Two thoughts:

    A) I don’t like the bioware dialog system. They seem to manage to always use a summary of your dialog choice that conveys a sufficiently different meaning from the dialog you actually unlock that I feel that the game is reacting to choices I didn’t actually make. It annoys the hell out of me.

    B) With regards to progress quest, the “games” that are currently popular on mobile do in fact play themselves. My friend helped build Nonstop Knight (Android), and tells me not only did the game do very well, the most requested features are for more automation. Life imitates art.

    Comment by unwesen — 6 August, 2016 @ 11:25 PM

  2. The argument for abstraction of language is solid but I think the explanation for abstraction of distance as you describe it is either post-hoc rationalization or wishful thinking. Yes, in large outdoor areas, where a guard on the far side of a camp doesn’t react to a fight on the near side of a camp, it’s possible to rationalize the lack of reaction as an abstraction of a greater distance between the two locations than the visual evidence suggests. That explanation won’t wash for the countless scenarios where a guard on one side of a small room stands idle while huge explosions, ferocious animals and half a dozen people in armor and fancy dress are tearing one of his colleagues into small pieces just eight or ten feet away.

    The scale of interiors in most MMOs is not abstracted. Furniture is the appropriate scale to those who use it. You can even sit on the chairs and look in proportion. A country inn does not have kitchens 200 meters long. There is no possibility that the cook at the range cannot see and hear the waiter being murdered at the serving hatch a few feet to his left. It’s an abstraction, yes, but not one that can be rationalized away. It’s sheer convenience that has no correlative in reality.

    These games are freighted beyond apology with this nonsense. What’s the abstraction for swimming at full speed in plate armor? Or carrying things inside backpacks that are larger than the backpack itself? Or running at full speed and performing balletic martial arts moves while carrying ten fullsize, fully-laden backpacks? How do wild animals produce metal breastplates or longswords or even items of furniture when killed? Obviously I could go on and on and on.

    Other than “magic” there is no explanation for any of this other than “players prefer it that way”. And that’s all the explanation that’s needed – provided it’s true – of course not all players do prefer it that way.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 7 August, 2016 @ 1:35 AM

  3. unwesen wrote:
    I don’t like the bioware dialog system.

    Yeah, I think they sometimes fail to convey the nuance of the conversation in the options. I’m not sure what causes this, perhaps different writers working on different parts? So, not every use of abstraction is the best. :)

    The most requested features [in mobile games] are for more automation.

    I think that’s partially due to the interface. When you have a limited touchscreen, particularly if you’re playing in an environment where precision isn’t possible (like standing on a moving train), then more automation makes sense. On a PC, though, I think total automation isn’t quite as desirable.

    bhagpuss wrote:
    That explanation won’t wash for the countless scenarios where a guard on one side of a small room stands idle while huge explosions, ferocious animals and half a dozen people in armor and fancy dress are tearing one of his colleagues into small pieces just eight or ten feet away.

    Sure you can explain it: consistency. If a guard 5 feet away in the outside world doesn’t react to a combat, it’s consistent if the same thing happens inside even if the scale of the inside doesn’t feel as easily abstracted. If you used different abstract scales for inside vs. outside, then people would get frustrated. You’d also get weird situations where the guard that wanders inside either suddenly seems to gain perception of his surroundings, or remains oblivious while the other guard who started inside notices everything around her.

    What’s the abstraction for swimming at full speed in plate armor? Or carrying things inside backpacks that are larger than the backpack itself? Or running at full speed and performing balletic martial arts moves while carrying ten fullsize, fully-laden backpacks?

    Porters, baggage trains, bearers. A group of people traveling the lands trawling though dungeons for relics would probably have a large retinue handling a lot of things. Having to deal with that would be tedious for players and would have been murderous for frame rates in older games, and some modern games! Plus, if I can fit a few full-sized horses in a backpack, why are you complaining about a few sets of armor?

    Now, I will grant you two things. First, that sometimes the game designer doesn’t always make a conscious decision and understand the abstraction they are using. Sometimes game designers will fall back and copy what other games have done. Mounts get neatly packed away in your backpack instead of being tended by a handler waiting for you outside the dungeon because that’s how it’s been done in every other game. It’s entirely possible that the first person to make enemies oblivious within sight range just did it because it seemed like the more fun thing to do at the time, rather than having any deep design consideration for the choice.

    The second thing, related to the first, is that sometimes abstraction becomes idiom. The abstraction of porters and bearers to slots of inventory then takes on the dressing of the abstraction. For example, in WoW you get bigger bags with more slots rather than more people maintaining your baggage. The idiom of inventory slots becomes the primary expression of the concept, and like language idioms you have a different meaning than what is explicitly used.

    Comment by Psychochild — 8 August, 2016 @ 6:05 PM

  4. @bhagpuss
    Actually, if you play with scaled real life measurements in Second Life for a bit, you;’ll see that interior scales in most 3D games are also off, just in a different way than the exteriors. There are good reasons for this (eg. need space for the 3rd person camera, our mental model of position is space is more related to camera/eyes than the avatar model, etc.) And that doesn’t begin to touch speed of motion scales.

    Comment by John Dougan — 8 August, 2016 @ 6:18 PM

  5. I think that’s partially due to the interface.

    Yes, definitely. However, the example of Nonstop Knight is already an (almost) fully automated game, it literally runs on its own. Your figure runs around and kills and gathers gold and XP entirely on its own.

    You have special abilities and equipment, and those aren’t upgraded on their own. Progression here is linear, though (or very nearly so), so it comes down to pushing the “upgrade” button as often as your resources allow, balancing a bit between armor and weapon.

    The other thing that isn’t done automatically are boss fights.

    So here you have, as suggestions: use special abilities automatically ( and fight bosses automatically (

    With those two implemented, the game would only be a question of upgrading by human interference. I’m sure there’s a feature request for that as well somewhere, but I’ve not read through the forum entries, only the titles.

    TL;DR interface is only one part of the issue; there seems to be genuine interest in a game that plays itself.

    Note: it’s quite possible that different people want to automate different things. One player type might want to get rid of the fighting because character builds are what they’re interested in, and another might want to get rid of the character builds, because they care only about the boss fights. Still, the high level view is that players want a game that plays itself.

    Comment by unwesen — 9 August, 2016 @ 2:07 AM

  6. Yeah, I think they sometimes fail to convey the nuance of the conversation in the options. I’m not sure what causes this, perhaps different writers working on different parts? So, not every use of abstraction is the best. :)

    Perhaps. Or the writer genuinely assumes the short version is clear with regards to hidden intentions. I would not be surprised by this; text is a very expressive medium, but it allows for a wide range of interpretation nonetheless.

    Later BioWare titles try to hint at what direction your reply is going with the different mood icons each reply is associated with, but that isn’t necessarily better. For example the “show/use strength” icon might be interpreted by the writers as “intimidate or threaten” or as “kill everything in sight”, and I don’t know which it is meant to be.

    There’s IMHO a fundamental UI issue here. From a very high level perspective, regular app UI tries to make expected outcomes highly visible to the user (and at the same time very simple). Game UI tries to hide expected outcomes and only show available actions, so that the outcomes become discoverable.

    In this kind of dialog system, the icon hints should IMHO relate to available character actions. I have no problem with the “show/use strength” idiom, but technically the available actions are “intimidate” or “kill”. If the script writers interpret “show/use strength” as sometimes one, sometimes the other, the player cannot consistently shape the character as they desire.

    Put differently, the icons should relate directly to character actions so that the character stays consistent. This is where BioWare’s writers sometimes seem to fail. The textual description should also match, of course, but that’s more of a problem of word choices than of script structure.

    What’s entirely feasible, of course, is for writers to have NPC reactions that force one path through the script or another. If I “intimidate” (clear action) some characters, they might react by laughing and attacking me. Fine. The outcome is the same, but the character I’m playing also stays consistent with my intent.

    BioWare has the basics right, IMHO, but the script writing is sometimes a bit flawed in this regard.

    Comment by unwesen — 9 August, 2016 @ 2:23 AM

  7. unwesen wrote:
    TL;DR interface is only one part of the issue; there seems to be genuine interest in a game that plays itself.

    Well, again, look at when these games are played. They’re usually little time-fillers while doing something else: waiting in line, riding on the bus, etc. It makes sense that people would want less cognitive load from the game as these are sometimes situations where you can’t just focus on the game exclusively, and sometimes rapid and/or precise input is difficult. This usage heavily influences the UI. So, it’s not surprising that some people are asking for more automation.

    There was a while where companies tried to do “triple-A mobile” games. And they failed, because people playing mobile generally don’t want deep and engaging experiences. They want something to pass the time, not something that will engage them for a long time.

    So, I think it’s different on desktop. While the market isn’t as dynamic and growing as mobile currently is, it does have a large installed base. And, people do want the engaging experience that occupies some time. So, automation has a lot less pull there, although you do have issues of convenience to look at, as we’ve seen in MMOs.

    Comment by Psychochild — 9 August, 2016 @ 4:36 PM

  8. Oh, absolutely, if you look at the UI as a symptom of the “time filler” style of gaming, then we agree. My point was really that the root lies elsewhere, and not strictly in the UI restrictions.

    There is of course the ubiquity requirement that comes with the “time filler” style of gaming, which means mobile, which means UI restrictions, which will drive this to an even sharper point. There’s no denying that.

    As a complete aside, I don’t think “triple-A mobile” games need to fail. It depends how you define “triple-A”. To me it means a mixture of breadth, depth and production values hard to achieve on a small budget. What mobile “time filler” games require is not contradicting these characteristics, but rather places a requirement on them: the game needs to be easy to pick up again after an interruption.

    That results in a bunch of design choices that you don’t typically see in “triple-A” games, but you can still make games that follow these design choices and have breadth, depth and high production values :)

    Comment by unwesen — 9 August, 2016 @ 11:02 PM

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