All experiences are built out of individual elements of different kinds. An element is anything the creator of the experience can directly create or control. There are three broad types of elements: sensory, narrative, and interactive.
The sensory elements include more than just visuals and audio--any direct sensory input falls under this category. Sensory elements are broken down into subtypes:
- Visual Elements: animation, form, value, color
- These elements are the responsibility of visual artists of all kinds.
- Audio Elements: dynamics, volume, pitch, timbre
- These elements are the responsibility of composers, musicians, and sound designers.
- Kinesthetic Elements: movement, pressure, texture, temperature
- These elements are the responsibility of choreographers, dancers, masseuses, and other specialists.
- Specialty Elements: smell, taste, etc.
- These elements are the responsibility of chefs, perfume makers, and other specialists.
The narrative elements are what connect the experience to the life and culture of the audience. Narrative elements are broken down into subtypes:
- Plot Elements: events, actions, conflict, climax
- The verbs of the story--what actually happens.
- Character Elements: protagonists, antagonists, companions, foils, minor characters
- The nouns of the story--who the plot happens to.
- Setting Elements: conditions, location, time, culture
- The place the story takes place in--both physically and culturally.
- Narration Elements: point of view, voice/form, tense/time-frame
- The method through which the story is told.
Narrative and sensory elements are used extensively in games, but game designers work primarily with interactive elements. Interactive elements are broken down into subtypes:
- Mechanical Elements: actions, abilities, skills, events, rules, systems
- The verbs of the game--things that are done or events that happen.
- Component Elements: tokens, cards, dice, devices, game objects, character data
- The nouns of the game--things that act or are acted upon.
- Spatial Elements: spatial layout (including abstract spaces), character placement, object placement
- The space the game takes place in--where things happen.
- Interface Elements: user input, user interfaces, control systems, feedback, ergonomics
- The methods through which actions are taken and feedback is given.
"Mechanics act on components, in a space, through an interface."
The theme of an experience is what ties all the elements together into a cohesive whole. If an experience is pirate themed, the narrative and sensory elements should all be pirate themed. If it is interactive, those elements should make sense for pirates as well (sailing and fighting mechanics, freedom to travel through large open spaces, etc.). An experience could just be abstract (i.e., no theme), but it will often not be as appealing to a large audience.
Types of Experiences
Experiences can be categorized according to which types of elements or sub-elements they use to deliver the experience. Each type may be used to a greater or lesser degree in a given category, with certain types being core to the experience. Some examples of the core element types of difference experiences:
- Art Exhibit: visual
- Album: audio
- Novel: plot, character, setting, narration
- Graphic Novel: plot, character, setting, narration, visual
- Film: plot, character, setting, narration, visual, audio
- Massage: kinesthetic
- Multi-Course Meal: taste, smell
Visual art and music often have narrative elements as a significant part of the experience, and it is easy to see how more unusual experiences might combine different element types (a cathedral service has visual, audio, and spatial elements, for example, while a day at a spa might combine kinesthetic, audio, and smell).
Types of Games
Games rely heavily on interactive elements, although modern digitial games also include visuals, audio, and narrative elements:
- Card or Dice Game: mechanical, component
- Board Game: mechanical, component, spatial
- Sport: mechanical, component, spatial, kinesthetic
- Text Adventure: mechanical, component, interface, plot, character, setting, narration
- Arcade Shooter: mechanical, component, spatial, interface, visual, audio
- Digital RPG: mechanical, component, spatial, interface, visual, audio, plot, character, setting, narration
Note that the extent to which an experience uses interactive elements is directly correlated with how much it "feels" like a game, and even more so if the experience results in the challenge and accomplishment engagement types for the player.
Types of Game Designers
When making a game, the designer generally creates the mechanical elements (when acting as a system designer), the component elements (when acting as a content designer), the spatial elements (when acting as a level designer), or the interface elements (when acting as an interface designer). The narrative elements are generally left to the writer, the visual elements are generally left to the artist, and the audio elements are generally left to the sound designer. However, a good game designer often takes a very active role in the creation of those elements as well (even if the actual implementation is left to the specialists). Very few designers excel in creating all types of elements, but the interactive elements are the critical ones for a professional game designer (although the narrativists would say the narrative elements are the critical ones).
Explicit, Implicit, and Emergent Elements
Any element can be either explicit, implicit, or emergent (although there are no hard boundaries between these categories). Explicit elements are ones directly created as part of the experience, including explicit rules, plot, images, sound effects, etc. Implicit elements are those strongly implied by the nature of the experience, but not made explicit. This includes the imagery in a reader's head when a novel gives a detailed description of a scene, an implied romantic relationship between two characters that is not explicitly stated, or the spatial layout implied in a text-based adventure game. Emergent elements are those not even implied, but instead wholly created by the person engaged in the experience. This includes music a player creates by firing a ship's weapons in a particular pattern, the backstory a viewer imagines for a secondary character in a movie, or rules that the players of a game make up themselves. When talking about elements, it should be assumed the elements are explicit unless specifically stated otherwise, but a designer must always keep the implicit elements of an experience in mind.
The audience for an experience is not considered an element. However, once an experience is actually engaged with by the audience, the combination of the elements and the audience creates the dynamics of the experience.