Thursday 18 June 2020

Intrinsic-Diegetic Design

We're at risk of just layering one bit of jargon on top of another here, but it's helping me focus down on the type of design that I enjoy in games.

I spoke about Diegesis here, but in short:
  • Diegetic elements exist within the game world (ie equipment, losing an arm)
  • Non-Diegetic elements exist outside of the game world (ie Levels, HP)
There are various subtly different takes on Intrinsic vs Extrinsic rewards in game design, but for the purposes of this post I'm using:
  • Intrinsic Engagement: Being engaged with the activity itself. Painting something on a canvas because I enjoy the experience.
  • Extrinsic Engagement: Being engaged by rewards or motivation external to the activity. Painting your house because you're paying me.
Of course there are activities that exist between those two poles, but I think you can generally use a "best fit" model here. Likewise you can zoom in on a single part of a game or take a wider angle and consider the game as a whole.

There are elements of the game that are Intrinsically Engaging and Extrinsically Engaging, and there are also both Diegetic and Non-Diegetic elements. How could these look? 
(Vast simplification in parentheses)

Diegetic-Intrinsic: Do it for fun in the game-reality. (World Fun)
Non-Diegetic-Intrinsic: Do it for fun outside of the game-reality. (Game Fun)
Diegetic-Extrinsic: Do it for a reward in the game-reality. (Character Reward)
Non-Diegetic-Extrinsic: Do it for a reward outside of the game-reality. (Player Reward)

Can you sense a two-axis diagram on the horizon?

Using a video game example let's look at a game I constantly look to for inspiration, Zelda: Breath of the Wild

A lot of these are best-fit, and have elements in all four quadrants, but I want to drill down to their essence. Climbing to the top of Hyrule Castle nets you a Korok Seed, a very low-value collectable item, but from my perspective I climbed it for the challenge and the view, not for the prospect of a seed. Others might have been motivated by the collectable, but I can only see from my own eyes. 

Think of it this way. If Korok Seeds weren't in the game, would I still have tried climbing to the top of the castle? Definitely. Would I have mined rocks if they weren't useful for selling or crating? No way.

Shield-Surfing is the ultimate example of Diegetic-Intrinsic. It actually leads to a negative extrinsic effect, because it wears down your shield's durability really quickly. You still surf in spite of this because it's so fun. 

Shrine Puzzles fit nicely in the middle because they're usually fun in their own right, but also provide the most significant Extrinsic reward in the game (Spirit Orbs that let you get more health or stamina, including the side-effect of unlocking the Master Sword). Likewise, the reward has both a Diegetic (get a treasure chest, put a monk to rest) and non-Diegetic (abstract numbers go up) side. 

There's a bit of a gap in the Non-Diegetic-Intrinsic quarter. Part of this is that BotW tends towards Diegetic rewards in its design. This is where you might more commonly find your "system mastery" elements where people can find joy in manipulating the game system itself rather than the world. glitchy tricks that "break" the game would fit in here too. Finding a way to clip through a wall to beat a shrine in record-time. 

I've stressed before that Diegetic isn't better than Non-Diegetic and vice versa. Similarly, Intrinsic and Extrinsic Engagement can both be effective in different ways. You only need to look to free-to-play mobile games to see the sheer power that Extrinsic Rewards can have on hooking players. So every quadrant of this diagram is valid for different games, different audiences, different types of engagement. Some of the most popular games combine the two for activities that are both intrinsically engaging and provide an external reward. 

But I've said before that I want to make the sort of games that I enjoy, and I'm not interested in hovering around the middle of the graph. Of course a game will spread its elements across the two axis, but I want to put as much attention as I can into that Intrinsic-Diegetic area. I don't think you can design 100% in this space, especially in tabletop games, so think of it more like a focus. 

It's just a long way of saying I want my games to keep the players involved in what they're currently doing in the game-world, rather than the paperwork on the table and the external rewards that come with their actions. 

I want them to feel like they can stop playing any time, but they don't want to quit. Not because they're worried that they'll lose the time they've invested, but because they just want to play more. Most tellingly, I want them to look back on the game and think of it as time well spent, rather than feeling like they've wasted time in a Skinner-box of mathematical delayed-gratification. 

So what RPG elements fit into that Intrinsic-Diegetic quadrant? This is something I want to dig into later, but as an overview:
  • Problem Solving: That moment when you've gathered just enough information to put the pieces together and get a Eureka moment. 
  • Learning the World: The player-skill side of OSR dungeon crawling. Learning tricks to safely navigate spaces. There's an argument for this being non-diegetic, as it's linked to the player rather than the character, but it's still rooted in the reality of the game world. You aren't getting better at the system, you're getting better at the world purely through the actions of your character. 
  • Talking: Your mileage may vary, but I love talking to NPCs and finding out about them. This often comes with Extrinsic Rewards in the form of a useful connection, but it can be fun on its own too. 
  • Exploring: What's around that corner? What is this place? Of course, Treasure is an Extrinsic reward, and I'd definitely put it in my locations, but don't underestimate the innate appeal of exploration when the environment is interesting enough.  


  1. "feeling like they've wasted time in a Skinner-box of mathematical delayed-gratification."

    *looks sidelong at Destiny 2 account, idle for months*

  2. What about "I need to get these numbers up higher so I can see more of the interesting world"? Where does that fit into it?

  3. I am much more judgemental than you and do believe that more often than not diegetic and intrinsic are better than non-diegetic and extrinsic :D I think most people would say they don't find 'upgrading gear at the Fairy Fountain' very fun, and a good way to improve it is to make it either more diegetic or intrinsic. Example of latter would be to attach a puzzle to them.

    Of course, you can't always make a mechanic more diegetic. Struggling to think of even a single example to be honest. I think the reason people find Dark Souls so good is that every kill there feels diegetic. No killing bandits just to get a checkmark like in many other games.

    I guess I am saying it's probably good to align intrinsic and extrinsic stuff. Like experience! Going into tombs and getting treasure is fun so you also get rewarded.

    In computer games, it seems like extrinsic stuff is too often about giving something to the player for doing the non-fun stuff. Side quests in crpgs come to mind.

    I do hope you keep exploring this. Maybe trying to remove hp and stats totally in your quest for the diegetic! Similarly to what some other people are doing. Like these ones :

    And especially the author of these :

    I think all of those are radical designs deep into the intrinsic diegetic quadrant.

    Hope you stream another game soon!