Howard’s Law of Occult Game Design (or just The Law of Occult Game Design or Howard’s Law) can be expressed as a formula: “Secret Significance ? Seeming Innocence × Completeness.” Translated into everyday speech, this equation means that the power of secret significance is directly proportional to the apparent innocence and completeness of the surface game. In this case, innocence refers to a surface that appears simple, cheerful, even carefree. Completeness means that players can experience the game naively as a conventional platformer, shooter, or other standard game genre without being aware of any thematic depth. Sudden knowledge of the game’s depths transforms players’ experiences. The Law of Occult Game Design is often connected to a sense of the esoteric, of occult significance in both the connotation of dark magic and the original definition of occult: hidden.
The Law of Occult Game Design is why many indie game designers with emotive and thematic design goals tend to work in retro genres with simple mechanics and art styles. Indeed, many successful independent games could be boiled down to “the game seems like a simple platformer (or shooter/adventure game/puzzle game) but then. . . .” Retro genres and styles bring with them nostalgic expectations of simplicity associated with the early history of games. A metaphysical meditation on unseen cosmic forces is more unexpected, and therefore more powerful, in a sidescrolling shooter with eight-bit graphics and a chiptune soundtrack.
Often, a particular mechanic has an unusual twist that operates in both the narrative and gameplay universes of the game, thereby exemplifying excellent narrative design. For example, Braid is a sidescrolling platformer in the style of Super Mario Bros., but Braid’s time-reversal mechanic encodes a reflection on the nature of love and loss. Eversion appears to be a platformer into which Lovecraftian cosmic horror gradually intrudes, revealed partially through the player’s ability to evert (shift between dimensions). Terry Cavanagh’s Don’t Look Back appears to be a simple platformer, but the player is not allowed to move backward as he emerges from the underworld in the second half of the game. This gameplay rule mirrors a narrative rule attached to the hero, Orpheus, when he tried to rescue his lover, Eurydice, from the underworld: He could never look back, or her spirit would be pulled back into the land of the dead.
All of the games mentioned here create a similar transformative experience for the player, in which a seemingly ordinary game is revealed to have concealed thematic depth the entire time , much like a Magic Eye picture from which a secret design suddenly emerges. Howard’s Law suggests that the intensity of this transformation will be greater to the extent that the game initially seemed to function as a one-dimensional, self-contained experience.
Occult design is also connected to the idea of the Easter egg (a secret hidden within the game, such as a designer’s initials), but the Easter egg as integrated with the enterprise of world-building. The first Easter egg appeared in the Atari 2600 game Adventure, in which players could access a secret room with the initials of the game’s creator, Warren Robinett. Some Easter eggs promise a vast expansion of the original game, as if offering players the opportunity to peer beyond the veil into another world. For example, in the original Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), players who input the name “Link” after completing the game once revealed a second quest with altered dungeons.
Howard’s Law has design consequences in space, time, mechanics, and cumulative experience. In level design, densely packed, interconnected labyrinths with many hidden passageways and alcoves are the most effective ways to hide secrets. Demon’s Souls exemplifies this level design principle, which is writ large across the overworld in the game’s spiritual successor, Dark Souls. In terms of time, games that contain events that recur at regular, but unexpected, moments are especially powerful, as when black demonic dogs roam the streets after midnight in the cult horror game Deadly Premonition. Occult design can influence obscure mechanics, such as world tendency in Demon’s Souls, in which an undisclosed global variable allows an aggregate of player actions on the server to unlock hidden events, areas, and characters. Such secrets function most effectively when they combine cumulatively to reveal larger truths about the world of the game, as when the demonic dogs of Deadly Premonition echo an overarching dog shape in the map layout, as well as the pet dog of the game’s disguised cosmic antagonist.
The amount and nature of information that a player has at their disposal at any point in a game can dramatically change the decisions that player makes. For instance, without knowing the rules or the general state of the game, the player cannot reason through the decisions they need to make. Instead, all they can do is make wild, uninformed guesses. So the type and level of information that is available at different points in a game can dramatically change the nature of how it is played.
Information about a game can take several forms and can be categorized for easier consideration.
Structure of the Game
First and foremost of these information types is the game structure, including both its setting and rules. Card games, for instance, print the entirety of the rule set for the game in booklets or on the side of the box. Board games like Checkers have strict rules about valid moves.
The playing environment itself should be regarded simply as information. Consider how the board layout and piece set-up for Chess can be communicated clearly as pure information using algebraic chess notation.
Even the random elements in games are clear information when considered as parameters, rather than as specific values. For instance, in Monopoly players can’t know exactly how far they will get to move on their next turn, but they do know movement is determined by rolling two dice.
State of the Game
The second category of information is the state of the game at any point in time. Broadly, it can be summed up as “what is going on right now?” This information can include positioning of units, scores, resources, and so on. And the state of the game can be broader information than the specific placement of units on terrain. For example, some board games alternate through “movement” phases and “scoring” phases. Information regarding which of these two states the game is currently in determines which player actions are valid.
Game theory goes on to further describe how this information is used in games. Of course, the exact implementation of these principles varies from game to game, but general classifications help to better describe how game designers can manipulate this information.
The most basic and least restrictive style of information dissemination in games is that of perfect information. Perfect information describes an environment where all players know every single thing about the game—the environment, the rules, the current location, and the status of all items as well as the current phase in the game. Simple board games often fall into this category. Certainly Chess, Checkers, Go, and Monopoly are prime examples of games with perfect information. Nothing is kept secret or hidden in these games.
In contrast, if some part of a game is hidden from one or more players, it is considered a game of imperfect information. Examples of this kind of game include the classic board game Clue, or the party game Werewolf. In both these cases, the fun revolves around finding out information that is kept secret from one or more players. In Clue, the secret information is the who/where/with what weapon of a murder. Werewolf is a village-wide hunt for secret were-wolves in hiding. Both of these games and many more use the manipulation and pursuit of information as their Core Gameplay Loop.
Games of imperfect information are further broken down and categorized, but that is covered in this book under the principle of Transparency, since all games of imperfect information revolve around the implications of secrets. Another principle that tackles this topic is Howard’s Law of Occult Game Design.
100 Principles of Game Design
By: Wendy Despain; Keyvan Acosta; Liz Canacari-Rose; Michael Deneen; Zach Hiwiller; Jeff Howard; Christina Kadinger; Chris Keeling; Casey Kuczik