Introduction to Game Design, Prototyping, and Development (2015)

Part I: Game Design and Paper Prototyping

Chapter 3. The Layered Tetrad

The previous chapter presented you with various analytical frameworks for understanding games and game design. This chapter presents the Layered Tetrad, a combination and extension of many of the best aspects of those frameworks, and it is expanded upon throughout the following chapters.

The Layered Tetrad is a tool to help you understand and create the various aspects of a game. It will help you to analyze games that you love and will help you to look at your game holistically, leading to an understanding of not only the game’s mechanics but also their implications in terms of play, socialization, meaning, and culture.

The Layered Tetrad is an expansion and combination of the ideas expressed by the three game analysis frameworks presented in the previous chapter. The Layered Tetrad does not define what a game is. Rather, the Layered Tetrad is a tool to help you understand all the different elements that need to be designed to create a game and what happens to those elements both during play and beyond as the game becomes part of culture.

The Layered Tetrad is composed of four elements—as was Schell’s elemental tetrad—but those four elements are experienced through three layers. The first two, inscribed and dynamic, are based on the division between Fullerton’s formal and dynamic elements. In addition, a third cultural layer is added that covers the game’s life and effects outside of play, providing a link between game and culture that is critical to understand for us to be responsible game designers and creators of meaningful art.

Each of the layers is described briefly in this chapter, and each of the next three chapters is devoted to a layer of the tetrad.

The Inscribed Layer

The inscribed layer of the tetrad (see Figure 3.1) is very similar to Schell’s elemental tetrad.


Figure 3.1 The inscribed layer of the Layered Tetrad1

1 Adapted from: Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2008), 42.

The definitions of the four elements are similar to Schell’s, but they are limited to the aspects of the game that exist even when it is not being played.

Image Mechanics: The systems that define how the player and the game will interact. This includes the rules of the game and the following formal elements from Fullerton’s book: player interaction patterns, objectives, rules, resources, and boundaries.

Image Aesthetics: Aesthetics describe how the game looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels. Aesthetics cover everything from the soundtrack of the game to the character models, packaging, and cover art. This definition differs from MDA’s (mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics approach) use of the word aesthetics because MDA used the word to refer to the emotional response engendered by the game, whereas Schell and I use the word to refer to inscribed elements like actual game art and sound.

Image Technology: Just as with Schell’s technology element, this element covers all the underlying technology that makes the game work for both paper and electronic games. For digital games, the technology element is primarily developed by programmers, but it is critical for designers to understand this element because the technology written by programmers forms the possibility space of decisions that can be made by game designers. This understanding is also vital because a seemingly simple design decision (for example, “let’s move this level from solid ground onto a rocking ship in a massive storm”) can require thousands of hours of development time to implement.

Image Narrative: Schell uses the term story in his elemental tetrad, but I’ve chosen to use the broader term narrative to encompass the premise and characters in addition to the plot and to be more in-line with Fullerton’s use of the terms. The inscribed narrative includes all prescripted story and pregenerated characters that are in the game.

The Dynamic Layer

As in Fullerton’s book Game Design Workshop, the dynamic layer (see Figure 3.2) arises when the game is played.


Figure 3.2 The dynamic layer positioned relative to the inscribed layer

As you can see, it is players who take the static inscribed layer of the game and from it construct the dynamic layer. Everything in the dynamic layer arises from the game during play, and the dynamic layer is composed of both elements in the player’s direct control and of the results of her interaction with the inscribed elements. The dynamic layer is the realm of emergence, the phenomenon of complex behavior arising from seemingly simple rules. The emergent behavior of a game is often difficult to predict, but one of the great skills of game design that you will build over time is the ability to do so. The four dynamic elements are:

Image Mechanics: Whereas inscribed mechanics covered rules, objectives, and so on, the dynamic mechanics cover how the players interact with those inscribed elements. Dynamic mechanics include procedures, strategies, emergent game behavior, and eventually the outcome of the game.

Image Aesthetics: Dynamic aesthetics cover the way that aesthetic elements are created for the player during play. This includes everything from procedural art (digital game art or music generated on the fly by computer code) to the physical strain that can result from having to mash a button repeatedly over a long period of time.

Image Technology: Dynamic technology describes the behavior of the technological components of a game during play. This covers how a pair of dice never actually seems to generate the smooth bell curve of results predicted by math. It also covers nearly everything that is done by computer code in digital games. One specific example of this could be the performance of the game’s artificial intelligence code for enemies, but dynamic technology actually covers everything that a digital game’s code does once the game is launched.

Image Narrative: Dynamic narrative refers to stories that emerge procedurally out of the game’s systems. This can mean an individual player’s path through a branching scripted narrative such as L.A. Noire or Heavy Rain, the family story created by a play through The Sims, or the stories generated by team play with other human players. In 2013, the Boston Red Sox baseball team went “from worst to first” in a story that mirrored the city of Boston’s recovery from the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon. That kind of story, enabled by the rules of the game, also fits under dynamic narrative.

The Cultural Layer

The third and final layer of the Layered Tetrad is cultural (see Figure 3.3), and it describes the game beyond play. The cultural layer covers both the impact of culture upon the game and the impact of the game upon culture. It is the community of players around the game that moves it into the cultural layer, and it is at this point that the players actually have more control and ownership over the game than the designers, but it is also through this layer that our societal responsibility as designers becomes clear.


Figure 3.3 The cultural layer exists at the collision of the game and society.

The delineations between the four elements are much blurrier in the cultural layer, but it’s still worthwhile to approach this layer through the lens of the four elements:

Image Mechanics: The simplest form of cultural mechanics is represented by things like game mods (modifications to a game that are made by players and affect the inscribed mechanics of the game). This also covers things as complex as the impact that the emergent play of a game can have on society. For instance, the much maligned ability for the player character in Grand Theft Auto 3 to sleep with a prostitute and then kill her to get his money back was a result of emergent dynamic mechanics in the game, but it had a massive impact on the perception of the game by the general public (which is part of the cultural layer).

Image Aesthetics: As with the mechanics, cultural aesthetics can cover things like fan art, remixes of the music for the game, or other aesthetic fan activities like cosplay (short for “costume play,” when fans of the game dress in costume to resemble game characters). One key point here is that authorized transmedia properties (i.e., a conversion of the game’s intellectual property to another medium, such as the movie version of Tomb Raider, a Pokemon lunchbox, etc.) are not part of the cultural layer. This is because authorized transmedia properties are controlled by the original owners of the game’s intellectual property, while cultural aesthetics are controlled and created by the community of players of the game.

Image Technology: Cultural technology covers both the use of game technologies for nongame purposes (e.g., flocking algorithms for game characters could also be used in robotics) and the ability of technology to affect the game experience. Back in the days of the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), having an Advantage or Max controller gave the player the ability to press turbo buttons (which was an automated method of pressing the regular A or B controller buttons very rapidly). This was a massive advantage in some games and had an effect on the game experience. Cultural technology also covers the expansion of possibilities of what game can mean by continually expanding the possibility space of gaming and the technological aspects of mods made by players to alter the inscribed elements of a game.

Image Narrative: Cultural narrative encompasses the narrative aspects of fan-made transmedia properties created from the game (e.g., fan fiction, the narratives of fan-made tribute movies, and the fan-made characters and premises that are part of some game mods). It also covers the stories told about the game in culture and society, including both the stories that vilify games like Grand Theft Auto and the stories that extol the virtues and artistic merit of games like Journey and Ico.

The Responsibility of the Designer

All designers are aware of their responsibility for the formal layer of the game. It’s obvious that the developers of the game must include clear rules, interesting art, and so on to enable and encourage the game to be played.

At the dynamic layer, some designers get a little muddier about their responsibility. Some designers are surprised by the behavior that emerges out of their games and want to pass responsibility for that behavior on to the players. For example, a few years ago, Valve decided to give hats to players of their game Team Fortress 2. The mechanic they chose was to randomly reward hats to players that were logged in. Because the distribution of hats was based exclusively on whether the player was logged in to a game at the right time, servers sprouted up that had players camping in them, not actually playing the game, just waiting for hat drops. Valve saw this behavior and chose to punish the players for it by taking hats back from any player that they suspected of having camped on a server rather than actually playing the game.

One way of seeing this is to see the players as trying to cheat the game. However, another is to realize that the players were just engaging in the most efficient method for obtaining hats as defined by the rules for hat drops that Valve had created. Because the system was designed to give players hats any time they were online regardless of whether they were actually doing anything, the players settled on the easiest path to get the hats. The players may have cheated the intent of the designers of the hat drop system, but they didn’t cheat the system itself. Their dynamic behavior was exactly what was implied by the rules of the system that Valve set in place. As you can see from this example, the designer is also responsible for the experience at the dynamic layer through the implications of the systems she designs. In fact, one of the most important aspects of game design is the anticipation and crafting of the dynamic player experience. Of course, doing so is a very difficult task, but that’s part of what makes it interesting.

So, what is the designer’s responsibility at a cultural level? As a result of most game designers rarely if ever considering the cultural layer, video games are generally regarded in society as puerile and vulgar, selling violence and misogyny to teenage boys. You and I know that this doesn’t have to be the case and that it isn’t actually true of many or even most games, but this is the ubiquitous perception among the general public. Games can teach, games can empower, and games can heal. Games can promote pro-social behavior and help players learn new skills. A ludic attitude and some quickly devised rules can make even the most dull task enjoyable. As a designer, you are responsible for what your game says to society about gaming and for the impact that it has on players. We have become so good at making games compelling that some players are addicted to them to their detriment. Some designers have even made games that attempt to scam children into spending hundreds or thousands of dollars. This kind of behavior by designers damages the reputation of games in society and prevents many people from considering games worthy of their time or of being regarded as art, and that’s truly sad. I believe that it is our responsibility as designers to promote pro-social, thoughtful behavior through our games and to respect our players and the time that they dedicate to experiencing what we create.


As demonstrated in this chapter, it’s important to explicitly realize that the three layers of the Layered Tetrad represent a transition of ownership from the developers of the game to the players of the game. Everything in the inscribed layer is owned, developed, and implemented by the game designers and developers. The inscribed layer is completely within the developers’ control.

The dynamic layer is the point at which the game is actually experienced, so game designers require that players take action and make decisions for the games inscribed by the designers to actually be experienced. Through the players’ decisions and their effect on game systems, players take some ownership of the experience, yet that experience is still subject to the inscribed decisions of the developers. Thus, the ownership over the dynamic layer is shared between the developers and the players.

At the cultural layer, the game is no longer under the developers’ control. This is why things like game mods fit in the cultural layer: Through a game mod, a player is taking control of and changing inscribed aspects of the game. Of course, most of the inscribed game still remains, but it is the player (as mod developer) who determines which inscribed elements she chooses to leave and which she chooses to replace; the player is in control. This is also why I have excluded authorized transmedia from the cultural layer. The developers and owners of the inscribed game maintain ownership over the authorized transmedia, and the cultural layer is defined by the shift of ownership to the players and the communities that surround the game. Additionally, the aspect of the cultural layer that covers the perception of the game by non-players in society is also largely controlled by the player community’s representation of their gameplay experience. People who don’t play a game have their opinion of that game shaped by the media they read which was (hopefully) written by people who did actually play the game. However, even though the cultural layer is largely controlled by players, the developers and designers of a game still have an important influence over and responsibility for the game and its effect on society.

The following three chapters each tackle one layer of the Layered Tetrad and reveal it in more detail.