Qualitative approaches to study games

(c) Petri Lankoski, 2017.

(Version 0.2, A very drafty draft. Architecture of levels part is the most refined one)

This chapters describes various qualitative approaches that can be used to study games as artifacts. Games are concrete cases of designs. By playing a game and examining its various design choices it is possible to reconstruct, for example, how the game delivers its experience or how it is stylistically constructed. It is also possible to trace the evolution of design by looking how the design of a specific aspect of have evolved.

Relation to what in architectural research is called historical research.

A wide range of qualitative methods can be used to study game systems or graphics.

Qualitative analysis of game systems or game graphics is intended to build a detailed understanding of design choices in a specific game or games.

Design related approach. For example, formal analysis intends to describe design features whereas close playing (close reading) is a method for criticism. However, criticism has different aims that qualitative analysis of the design.

Formal analysis


There are different frameworks for formal analysis of gameplay (Lankoski and Björk, 2015). Gameplay analysis is always done by playing. One can record the gameplay and use the recording as help to get back to the details when documenting the analysis. Part of the method is that the researcher tries to use the game system in different fashions in order to learn how the system behaves and reconstruct its design.

Primitives are the basic building blocks of games. The primitives are:

  • Components: Components are game entities that can be manipulated by players or the game system or that are used to define game space. For example, Pacman, ghosts, dots, power-ups and walls are components of Pacman.
  • Actions: Player actions are actions that a player initiates, such as move left, right, up, down in Pacman. Component actions are actions that can be perceived to originate from a component, such as Pacman moving left, right, up, down, and eating a power or dot. System actions are actions that does not have a clear source, such as timers or some type of component spawners (as in Tetris).
  • Goals: goals are descriptions of specific targets that the game system keeps track of and can be researched or failed. Goals can form a structure: for example, complete a goal A, then a goal B and after that a goal C. In addition, goals can be obligatory or non-obligatory. (Lankoski and Björk, 2015, pp.25-26.)

Formal analysis can be used to describe a game in various levels: The simplest form is to describe the primitives of the game. One can describe what is the role of  each primitive in the overall game design. In addition primitives can be used to compare different game designs.

A simple example: Describing a game

One and one story (https://www.miniclip.com/games/one-and-one-story/en/). The level in figure below is used multiple times in the game. Following formal analysis describes levels 2, x, and y.


  • The boy, the girl, spikes, a box, a platform (where the box stands) and the borders of the level


  • Move the boy and girl next to each other

Player actions:

  • Move left, move right, jump, push a box, change whether controlling the boy or girl in level 2

Component actions

  • The box falls if there is no border or platform under it

Spike actions

  • Spikes kills the boy or girl if they land on the spikes

Boy and girl actions in level 2

  • The boy moves based on the player actions if  the boy is active; otherwise the girl moves based on the player actions.

Boy and girl actions in level x

  • The boy moves based on the player actions
  • The girl moves towards the boy if the boy and girl are at the same y-level

Boy and girl actions in level y

  • Both the boy and girl are moving based on the player actions
A One and one story level

Even these three levels have same components placed exactly the same and the same goal the level puzzles work differently because of the component actions of the girl and the boy are changed. All variations requires that the box is pushed from the platform and dropped on the spikes. After that the platform can be used to get across the spikes.

Level 2 introduces the base solution. In level two the player needs to be fast when jumping over the spikes so that the girl does not fall on the spikes. Level y requires using obstacles to stop the boy or the girl moving while moving other. The shape of platform (that there is an obstacle) becomes relevant in solving the platform puzzle in level y.


An example: Comparing games


An example of theory based formal analysis

An example of theory based formal analysis is Lankoski’s (2010) study player-characters. He uses person schema to focus the analysis on aspects of gameplay that are used to depict player-characters’ personalities. Even the person schema contains the body (that includes, hear, beard, clothes) including codes relating to the body might not necessary if the focus is in an analysis of the behavioral design of the game characters.

Table: person schema

Code                 Explanation
Perseptual activity  An instance where a character shows perseptual 
Self-awareness       An instances where a character shows self-awarness
Intentional actions  An instance where a character show intentional 
Emotion expressions  An instance where a character shows emotional 
                     expression. This might be needed to split to specific 
                     emotions and each emotional expression is coded 
Persistent traits    A charactes show persisten trait such as skill, 
                     attitude. This also might need to splitted to 
                     separate codes depending on the research question.
Body                 ...

Below is an illustration of the gameplay segment from the beginning of Silent Hill 3 (Konami, 2003) after the cut-scene where Heather meets Douglas and hides from him in a ladies room. Following is an example of making notes about gameplay:

Short discription    Long descriptions
Refusing             I tried to move Heather back to corridor where 
                     Douglas is waiting. Heather refuses "That weird
                     old detective is out there, so I am not leaving."
                     Player action – character action disparity
Heather focuses      Heather looks at to a symbol on mirror when near
                     Character action triggered proxitmity of an object
Heather comments     Heather comments when looking at the mirror "I don't
                     like mirrors. [...]"
                     Player action – contextual character action
Heather comments     When acting on the mark on the mirror "That mark on
                     this mirror... It looks so familiar somehow. [...]"
                     Save screen appears
                     Player action – contextual character action
Heather climbs       Action on small window at the back of the ladies 
                     room starts a cut-scene where Heather climps out
                     through the window
                     Contextual Character action (climbing is an action 
                     that is notalways available)

From these kinds of player and character actions, Lankoski derives the categories of predefined functions and possible and impossible actions using thematic analysis (cf. qualitative data analysis methdos). Predefined functions describe how the player-character is programmed to act based on the commands the player is giving. Heather’s attacks are slow and clumsy looking. Possible and impossible actions then describe what is made possible and what are not possible in the game. For example, Heather can walk, shoot, fight, talk (in some situations), use certain objects. However, she cannot jump (except in some special situations) or pick locks.

Visual analysis

The formal analysis of art is developed to describe traditional depictive fine art. Hence, the concepts are most useful to describe framed objects that are frozen in the time. In the context of analyzing game visual design, this perspective is the most useful in looking a single visual design element and describing the design of that element. The formal analysis looks at elements and the principles of design:

Elements are

  • Line
  • Shape and form
  • Light (what, source, emphasis, shadows,…)
  • Space
  • Color
  • Texture

Principles of design are

  • Balance
  • Emphasis
  • Unity and variety
  •  Scale and Proportion (weight, how objects or figures relate to each other and the setting)
  • Mass/Volume
  • Rhythm
  • Function/Setting
  • Interior/Exterior Relationship

Example: Ico

Ico (Team Ico, 2001). Ico uses constraint interiors and exteriors with a feeling of height. This is the design around the first save point in the game.

Ico (Team Ico, 2001)

  • A castle at the top of a mountain. A lake or sea underneath. The castle works as a maze.
  • Ico rotates between small interiors and exteriors. The exteriors are used to give a glimpse to the castle and show how huge the castle is even the the player can explore very restricted areas in the castle.
  • Exteriors are here is a bridge. The bridge gives a view to the castle and water while restricting the movement to a line towards a door on the another side of the bridge.
  • XXX


  • Balance
  • Emphasis
  • Unity and variety
  •  Scale and Proportion (weight, how objects or figures relate to each other and the setting)
  • Function/Setting

Architecture of level design

Architectural analysis of levels is a variation of formal analysis. The focus in the analysis is on spatial aspect of design. The analysis architectural design of level in relation to its function in a game can be conducted describing the structure using limited vocabulary presented below. Alternatively one can use a data-driven approach where the concepts and themes describing levels arise from the data.

Basic spatial arrangements are

  • Labyrinth: Labyrinth provides a linear path trough a level. The path typically is not the shortest one between the beginning of the level and the end of the level.  Examples of games that builds use labyrinth structure throughout its levels are Ico (REF) and The Last Guardian (REF).
  • Maze: mazes are branching spatial structures that can contain dead ends. Hence, not all paths always lead from the beginning of the maze to the end of the maze. Dungeons and caves are games are often mazes.
  • Grid: The grid structure is typical in newer cities and games depicting cities.
  • Open space: Wilderness areas and bigger rooms are typical open spaces where players have wide freedoms to explore the space. Witcher 3 (REF) and Fallout 4 (REF) are examples of games using wilderness open spaces.
  • Rhizome: in a rhizome structure all points in a game level are connected to all points or all points are connected to some specific points in the level space. Fast travel mechanics introduces rhizome structure in the game levels.

The spatial arrangements (with an exception of a rhizome) are depicted in the figure below.

Figure. Basic spatial arrangements. The exact shape of the structure can vary.

The game space is confined by edges that prevent moving out from the developed areas. The typically edges are defined by physical walls, mountains (that are too steep to climb), and invisible walls. Spatial arrangements can be combined in a game and combinations are very common. For example, Elders Scroll V Skyrim (REF) uses an open space, a wilderness where there are cities — that are grids or mazes — and caves and ruins — that are labyrinths or mazes.

Landmarks or architectural weenies are recognizable elements that can be used to orient oneself in the level space.

Paths: XXX.Arrivals XXXX, Nodes, A path can be horizontal or vertical or include both. A critical path (also called as a golden path) through a level is the shortest path that a player can take to complete the level. Nodes and junctions of paths….

Two notable functions of parts of game space are

  • A refuge is a (relatively) safe space
  • A prospect space is an area where the player-character is in danger. Examples of prospect spaces are PvP areas, raid areas, dungeons, windless areas where hostile random encounters can happen.

Line of sight

Gameplay functionality

  • e.g., shadows, lights, materials in Thief series that influence stealth & use of space
  • Rewards
  • Enemies

Example: Thief 2, Shipping… and receiving

This example describes the design of the Thief 2: The metal age (Looking Glass Studios, 2000), Shipping… and receiving mission.  I have left out interiors, upper floor in the both building, and gangways at the upper floor level, as well as guards inside and gangways to keep the example simple.

The goals of the level (in the normal difficulty) are:

  • Collect 650 worth of loot
  • Steal shipping label and five bags os spice. The places where the PC needs to visit to collect these are marked with blue on the map below.

All above-mentioned goals influence how the level space needs to explored in order to fulfill the goals.

Thief 2 / Shipping… and receiving, a simplified level map.

The arrival of the level is in shadows so even a guard patrols right to next to the arrival point, arrival works as a refugee. The level uses a maze structure. All shadow areas works are refugees. The PC can stalk within those without concerns to be spotted by the guards (the guards will follow sounds if the PC is making too much noise, though). All lighted areas are prospect spaces where the PC is at risk to be spotted. The well-lighted area with the multiple guards adds extra difficulty because it is hard to knock out or kill the guards in the area without being spotted and guards causing an alarm and attacking the PC.

the PC needs to visit the room where the door controls are multiple times multiple times in order to open different doors because only one door can be open at one time. That room can be accessed via the roof of the building.

The critical path takes PC via obligatory points to the ship. The easiest route is via shadow areas. In addition, some other rooms need to be visited as those obligatory places does not contain enough loot to satisfy goal conditions. However, there are multiple different ways to fulfill the loot goal.

Design histories

Lineages for understanding evolution of design features, e.g., Bateman’s lineage of inventory systems

Phenomenological analysis

Appearance, form (both architectural and gameplay) and their relations to phenomenological experience of researcher…

Further reading

Architecture and game design

  • Totten (2015)
  • Brown and Chen (2001)


  • Stout (2012) on the level design of the Legends of Zelda (Nintendo, 1986).


Brown, D. and Chen, S., 2001.GDC 2001: The Architecture of Level Design. Gamasutra. Available at: <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/131460/gdc_2001_the_architecture_of_.php?print=1>.

Konami, 2003. Silent Hill 3. [Game]. Konami.

Lankoski, P., 2010. Character-driven game design. DA. Aalto University. Available at <https://shop.aalto.fi/media/attachments/939f9/Lankoski.pdf>.

Lankoski, P. and Björk, S., 2015. Formal analysis of gameplay. In P. Lankoski and S. Björk. Game research methods: An overview. ETC Press. Available at: <http://press.etc.cmu.edu/files/Game-Research-Methods_Lankoski-Bjork-etal-web.pdf>.

Looking Glass Studios, 2000. Thief II: The metal age. [Game]. Eidos Interactive.

Nintendo, 1986. The legends of Zelds. [Game]. Nintendo.

Stout, M., 2012. Learning From The Masters: Level Design In The Legend Of Zelda. Gamastutra. Available at <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/134949/learning_from_the_masters_level_.php>.

Team Ico, 2001. Ico. [Game]. SIE.

Totten, C., 2014. An architectural approach to level design. CRC Press.