2007 GDC report - Clint Hocking

Games as Exploration of Systems, Spaces, and Self

2007 GDC session by Splinter Cell Lead Designer Clint Hocking

Reported by Neil Melville


I must admit that I am a sucker for this meta-psychological game design stuff, and this session promised to serve it up wholesale. I will relate what I got out of it, and that means my own thoughts and experience are included in a gestalt message from Clint Hocking and myself (as audience). This is a principle that Clint touches upon in this presentation.

Meet the Explorers

Every story is a detective Story. The reader is the detective trying to discover why he is reading the story. What message is the author trying to relay? Does it even matter what the author intends? Will each reader gain unique personal meaning because the experience is an intersection between the authorís style and the readerís mind in the context of the readerís own experiences?


Clint started by talking about the differences between an interactive game and a prepared narrative. In a story the reader follows the path of the characters. The audience has no say in the choices of the character, what they learn, or where they go. The exploration is a linear journey, and the course set by the author. The author uses a string of clues to reveal key aspects of the world, the characters, and the rules and goals of the experience.


Exploring in games is similar to reading a book, in that there are people and places and rules to experience, and they were created by another person. But we can choose to blaze new trails and encounter the information in an order other than what the author intended. In fact, some games are more like toys, like a pile of legos, that we can move around and push together until we have something that their original creator never even imagined.


So Clint defines exploration as playing with something to see how it works, and what it can do, until we become bored of it.

System exploration

In discovering the rules of a video game the player reacts to the information provided to make guesses about what can happen. The player presses a button, the character jumps. The player sees what looks like a wall in front of his character. Not wanting to be deterred by this obstacle, and based on its screen size, they make the assumption that they can jump over it.  They test this theory, and if the attempted jump results in clearing the hurdle, their theory is validated.


Now the player sees a mushroom with eyes. Perhaps it is friendly. The player moves the character to embrace his new friend, but instead of a happy experience, it results in the character jumping in pain and falling off the game screen. The hypothesis was incorrect, and the player uses the data obtained from exploring to revise his understanding of this creature. It is now categorized as another obstacle.


This rapid cycle of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and analysis, is not only the trial and error of the Scientific Method, but is the principle manner in which a player explores a game system. Two of the tools that game designers use to empower the player in this process are Affordance and Feedback.

  • Affordance = pre-emptive feedback (tells) for a player to observe that increase the accuracy of player hypothesis. The mushroom with eyes has evil eyebrows.
  • Feedback = data provided (results of experiment) for player to analyze, and add to observations used in making hypotheses. A thermometer gauges the heat level in a thermostat.

Collecting the best data allows the player to optimize the effectiveness of their game performance. In order to win, you must explore. The player is rewarded for exploring with a better understanding of the game. In addition, many game systems will also reward the player for overcoming obstacles. This reward is usually an increase in ability, and new challenges of greater difficulty. This cycle of reward and challenge is designed to give the player new areas to explore over the course of the game (and staves of boredom).

Space Exploration

Not all games have spatial exploration. While it may look like Pac-man is exploring his maze to find delicious dots to eat, the entirety of the map is presented to the player from the onset. If there was a portion of the map off-screen that could be accessed by moving in that direction, then there would be some exploration in a 2 dimensional space. This exploration rewards the player with knowledge about the game environment. Even text adventures allow for spatial exploration. By learning the game topology, the player is armed with strategic information about the relative values of different locations.


Exploration of the game space is not limited to environments, but can include learning about characters and items. For instance, a chessboard is a known environment from the star