One of the biggest misconceptions that game designers seem to carry around with them is the idea that games make people feel. This mistake manifests in a variety of ways, but for the most part the designer ends up making his game talk at the player, while they are unable to do anything. Using ham-handed dialogue and clumsy imagery, the game in effect lectures the player.
Games do not make people feel. No art does that. Feeling is a response, but the kind of response that it evokes is neither uniform nor a simple metric. It is partly a result of stimulus, but also partly what that stimulus means to them. Fear, love, humour, excitement and joy all come from within, and this is why art relies on symbols to try and draw them out.
A symbol in this context is anything which signifies something with which the player already has a relationship. A Nazi flag, for example, reminds some people of atrocity, others of action-war movies, and to a few others is an aspirational symbol. So when Nazi flags appear in a film, they mean different things to different groups. The flag of Franco also holds similar meaning to Spanish people. However its appearance in an English-language film usually yields no reaction at all from most of the audience. As a symbol it means nothing to them.
Flags are a crude example. Other symbols are more subtle, including day to day life relationships, archetypal symbols such as family bonds, or cultural symbols such as Famine-era songs are to Irish people. Symbols establish a communication with a resonant audience and convey so much in an instant that literal material cannot.
Players bring themselves into your game world, and they bring their symbols with them too. Super Meat Boy means something to indie gamers partly because of its game dynamics, but also because its visual design is something that is culturally relevant to them. Call of Duty holds a separate set of meanings. So does FarmVille.
Smart creatives learn depiction. To depict is to create something that the player can take or leave. It’s on the screen, play it, don’t play it, do what you want. Notice that Rez is set in a cybernetic landscape of culturally interesting memes. Or just shoot stuff in time to music. It’s up to the player, and the art is simply there, without judgement.
The alternative is to be didactic. Grab the player’s attention, force him to listen to what you have to say. Have the characters talk at his doll. Make them emotional. Make him feel. Didactic art is like a man on a street corner holding up a sign saying Repent Your Sins. It’s boring, like school, or a tedious sermon in church. Didactic lecturing doesn’t tug on the heart strings in the way that its deliverer intends. And the more he does it, the more the player becomes antipathetic toward the art rather than sympathetic.
Effective worldmaking walks the tightrope between where the audience’s symbols already are, and what the art is trying to depict. Simply catering to symbols with pure flattery works to an extent because people recognise it, but it only yields lower-level engagement. It’s also no good going so far left field that the audience just don’t relate to it on any level.
The trick is to use the symbols they already know and then twist them into something new. And to do so without lecturing.