System and Metaphor

“Let Me Bore You About Videogames” — Part 1


The concepts of system and metaphor

Any game has two aspects: system and metaphor. We can roughly order all games on a spectrum based on the relative prominence of system and metaphor: they might be system-heavy, metaphor-heavy, or more mixed. System and metaphor can also be aligned well or badly with one another. The relation between system and metaphor is an expressive device available to games makers that is not available to creatives in other media.

System is the underlying logic of the game, the relationships between inputs and outputs, and the logical structure of success or progress and failure.

Metaphor is the superficial presentation of the game, the images and sounds that tell you what you’re “doing” in the game. It’s a metaphor for the system — for what’s really going on. The racing car and the track are a metaphor for the underlying rules of when you should press which button and what the results will be.



In Nintendo's Game & Watch Helmet (Headache in Europe), the player uses two buttons — for left and right — to move a workman from a building to a shed, dodging falling tools until the shed door opens.

Nintendo Game & Watch  Helmet , as replicated in  this iOS app

Nintendo Game & Watch Helmet, as replicated in this iOS app

It’s easy to see that the shapes of the LCD electrodes — workman, tools, door, etc. — could be changed without changing the underlying structure of the game. (That is what your parents think videogame design is.)

The system in Helmet is in the rules of movement and collisions, the definition of what results in adding points or reducing the number of remaining goes, and the way these are manipulated by pushes of the buttons. On top of this system is the metaphor. That shape’s a workman, and he’s avoiding falling tools, which will kill him. He’s on a building site; he’s trying to get inside a shed; he’s panicking. These facts are all inessential to the system, but the metaphor helps explain the system to the player — it adds the workman character, his environment, his motivation and his purpose, and makes clear what the goal is.

Proving the point that system and metaphor can be separated, Nintendo’s Game & Watch Gallery 2 on the Game Boy Color includes a “modern” version of Helmet. The metaphor is completely swapped out: not a workman dodging spanners to get from a towerblock to a shed; Wario dodging mallets to get from a castle to a mushroom.

“Classic”  Helmet  on GBC

“Classic” Helmet on GBC

“Modern”  Helmet  on GBC

“Modern” Helmet on GBC

The metaphor is changed, but the system is exactly the same. System and metaphor are separable. So what?


Mostly system

The metaphor in Helmet (classic or modern) is pretty stupid, which shows that a game may depend on its system far more than on its metaphor.

Some other games like that are Tetris (Soviet tessellation fantasy, 1984), Tempest 2000 (fake vector hallucination, 1994), and, more knowingly, Super Hexagon (vomit spiral, 2012). Insofar as Super Hexagon has a metaphor at all, the hyperactive music and flashing colours serve more to confound and dismay the player than to elucidate the system.

So some games might be good because they have good systems.


Mostly metaphor

In contrast, some games get all their fun from their metaphors, and their systems would otherwise be desperately  tedious to play with.

Myst (postcard fever-dream, 1993), said The New York Timeswas “more like an interactive slide show than a conventional computer game”. The system is a very, very basic point-and-click setup, with slow navigation through static screens, interspersed with manipulation of puzzles.

If the pretty screens were reduced to abstract collections of clickable hotspots (exposing Myst’s system) then the game would be impenetrable, and if the screens were swapped out for other nice screens of different content, the game could be drastically and fundamentally altered. It could have been about ice cream. Everything memorable or successful about Myst comes from its metaphor and not its system.

To borrow a line out of context from media scholar Greg M. Smith’s essay, Navigating Myst-y Landscapes: Killer Applications and Hybrid Criticism, “Myst’s primary brilliance lies in the way it provides narrative justification for the very things that are most annoying about CD-ROMs.” Myst depends so heavily on its metaphor for its success that its system even detracts from the fun. Hence some gamers’ (my) distaste for the (stupid) game.

Games that mainly want to tell stories are usually metaphor-heavy and do not depend on their systems for fun. Ron Gilbert, Monkey Island creator and everyone’s hero, recently told us about adventure games, which he elsewhere calls story games:

And about his own classics:

Another way to put this is that if you replaced all the story with another, different story, metaphor-heavy games would be utterly different games, and not just the same games re-skinned, like “modern” Helmet.


Videogames are special

So system and metaphor are concepts we can use to describe any videogame, and doing so helps us see where a game’s focus is, which is important if you want to talk about games.

The things that make up games’ metaphors — mainly images and sounds — are available to other expressive media, film being an obvious example. But games do more. They don’t just stick a system on the side: the system and metaphor can relate to one another in all sorts of ways. That relationship itself is an expressive device available to games makers that is not available to creatives in other media.

Surface scratched. More scratching soon.




Photographer and writer covering Tokyo arcade life – the videogames, the metropolis and the people