An introduction to the elemental tetrad

August 1, 2018

Games are complex things, even for the people designing them. They consist of code, images, models, characters, music, gameplay, ... It doesn't take much to lose track of your design and stop seeing the forest for the trees. Then one day you have your game tested and the results are dissapointing or even poor and it's up to you to fix it. What do you do? Do you make changes to the visual style? Do you add more story beats? Do you remove a certain mechanic? What will happen to the rest of the game if you do any od this? How can you know what is going wrong, if you don't know exactly how all of the pieces of your game are related to one another? 



If you break a game down it consists of four parts : aesthetics, technology, mechanics and subject matter. These are known as the four elements that make up the elemental tetrad. I first came into contact with the concept of the elemental tetrad in Jesse Schell's book The art of game design : A book of lenses. If I had to name one book that's a must read for any established or aspiring game designer it would be this one. Schell uses a map to clarify the game design landscape in a way that will help you to have an understanding about the entire chain of game development, from creator through player to experience.

Here is how I break the tetrad down :


Technology : This contains everything from coding to engines to the controller the player has in their hands. Any input or output device, any choice of development software, any technological choice really that has an impact on the design of the game. If your game is played in an arcade cabinet for example, the cabinet also is part of the technology used and as such is part of your design. 


Mechanics : How do your rules work? What happens if a certain NPC runs into another one? Can a bat be killed by throwing a salmon at it? Mechanics entail everything that is allowed and isn't allowed in your game world. They determine the actions the player can take, but also how all of the pieces of the game work in unison.


Aesthetics : This category is the one players are most familiar with. It's everything they see, hear, feel and perhaps in certain situations even taste and smell during the experience of your game. This is where we connect to the players senses. Every piece of art and sound is part of this element and if you have a game with custom controllers, the feel of those controllers also is part of this.


Subject matter : In Jesse Schell's book this one is called story, but I rather call it subject matter because I've been in situations where there's written content that changes the design, that can't be classified as story. This element contains the heroes journey, the incredible worlds we find ourselves in during gameplay and the personal relationships between all of the characters in your game. Besides that it can also contain educational or other content that needs to find it's way into the game. I've had projects where we had to create games about spelling. This content had a big impact on the design and fits best into this element. 


It's important to note that none of these elements are more important than any other. A good game design will find a balance between all of these elements and will find ways to use them to strengthen one another. How can the mechanics of your game help tell the story of your heroes? Is there a way to clarify a mechanic through the visuals? Is there a technological constraint that can be justified through the setting of the game? 



Another cool thing to recognise is that game ideas can find their conception in any of the elements. Here are some examples of game ideas that might originate out of the different elements :


Technology : A game utilising the Pico 8 fantasy console engine. 

Mechanics : A digital TCG where players can trade their cards and alter their decks during battle. 

Aesthetics : A game where the music makes you feel powerful.

Subject matter : A love story in the emptiness of space.



So how can all of this help you?
If you break down your game into it's elements and place them next to each other you'll start to notice things.


Perhaps one of the elements has a lot of information while another is nearly empty?
If this is the case you are probably overemphasising one part of your design while neglecting another and your game might feel lob sided or incoherent. Think of a beautifull game with boring gameplay or a potential fun gameplay experience ridden with bugs. To fix this you should spend some time on the lacking elements in order to balance your design. 


Perhaps certain adjectives find their ways into several elements?

Subject matter : 'The Zenkuga are dark monsters that eat your soul.'

Aesthetics : 'All of the levels are very dark and feel scary.'

Mechanics : 'A Zenkuga can eat an NPC's soul if they are unarmed.'

Technology : 'A custom script creates dark auras around powerful Zenkuga.'

You'll notice that the word 'dark' appears in 3 of the 4 elements, perhaps there's a way to incorporate it in the mechanic of eating souls? Maybe NPC's can only lose their soul if they are in the dark instead of being unarmed. This is a way to tie your game design closer to the core identity of your game, I'll come back to this in a later blog post. 


As we've seen the elemental tetrad is useful from the very first moment you start designing, all throughout the creation of your game. If you keep your tetrad up to date while developing your game you will have a very good understanding of what's in your game and how it all relates to one another and even find ways to tie it all closer together. In the end your game will feel more coherent and will be of higher quality because of it. 


If you find it difficult to apply the tetrad to your design feel free to contact me through the form on this website. I'll be glad to help you. 


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