I am building a list of the “secret” books on game design. These are books that are not explicitly written about games, but which any game designer who reads them just knows that they are really about games. At the moment I have two:
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud
McCloud does for comics what every game designer would love to do for games: he writes a compelling argument for why the medium is more than the message. He shows that comics can be much more than escapist superhero fantasy, and he makes a cogent analysis of the mechanisms of comic book construction — mechanisms that readers are intimately familiar with yet may never have considered in isolation. And he does it all in the medium he describes! Could a game designer do the same?
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, by Christopher Alexander
I know that computer scientists are wild on the whole design pattern idea, but there is something about Alexander’s original book that isn’t there in the software-pattern community, or even in Bjork and Holopainen’s Patterns in Game Design. I just recently realised why.
Alexander is teaching that architecture, like game design, is essentially about interaction. It is the Mechanic – Dynamic – Aesthetic paradigm all over again. It’s easy to focus on the mechanics, in this case the structures that you build, and think that they are the source of the aesthetics (beautiful and usable environments). Alexander’s patterns, while they may name certain mechanics, are really about the dynamics — how do people interact with the mechanics and what are the aesthetic outcomes. It is only through understanding these dynamics that the link between mechanics and aesthetics can be properly made.
There are other books that I strongly recommend to game developers — The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman is one that springs immediately to mind — but these two feel more intimately about games. Are there others?