Video game essence


Devil Dahu or Nicola (the author) has no affiliation what-so-ever with Sakurai, Nintendo, HAL or anyone.

This blog is usually technical, this post is very handwavy and abstract, but it touches to the soul of games and I wanted to share it.

(tldr at the end)

I’ve a feel for games. A deep belief, I need to share it.

Well, more specifically, it is Masahiro Sakurai’s video on game essence that prompted me.

I don’t agree with Sakurai on what Game Essence is.

This is mostly a play on word and a way of looking at games, so it’s not of much practical applications, pretty much only good for occupying disk space and inking paper.

Anyway, close this browser tab if you don’t want it to also occupy your precious limited time on earth, because I’m going deep.

What is Game Essence?

To Sakurai, Game Essence, far from being a brand of perfume smelling of cheap alcohol and sweat, is an extension of the “Risk/Reward” equation.

What is the Risk/Reward equation?

Risk/Reward is a classic video game design idea.

I’ll defer to Sakurai on this one, see his video.

Let’s see this model applied to existing video games:

But Risk/Reward is clearly absent from a lot of great games.

Sakurai says this: What is important is the balance of tension an relief. In a puzzle game, the tension is the closed door, the unsolved puzzle gating further progress.

The player gets relief by solving the puzzle, which the puzzle game generally rewards with… more puzzles.

The Essence of a game is then how the game decides to present that Risk/Reward equation to the player.

Sakurai’s model is pretty good, but I have a different way of looking at it.

A game is a language

Game is play, play is interaction between people. Fun is understanding and gaining a new shared understanding with a playmate.

The developer of a puzzle game creates a new language, like the private languages some twins develop. This new language the player discovers with bafflement, this is something they never saw before. Solving puzzles is learning a new language, grokking its grammar and discovering its vocabulary.

Learning a language shared between themselves and the developer only. A secret and precious connection, a break up from isolation.

Similar to Noita’s magic wand system. Literally a grammar: The reverse polish notation. And a language: With nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs.

Action games are languages too. Languages in a different register. This is the language that the model of Risk/Reward describes. It is a language of threats and rewards. The game speaks in urgent tones to the player, the player replies with groans: “How am I supposed to beat that?” And hopefully, later, other groans: “I did it! VICTORY!”

But ultimately, victory is this: finally understanding the language of the game and speaking it yourself.

Or maybe it’s the game giving up and just letting the player through, not a hard game, just a reproduction of a template that is known to sell.

Each player will find their own language. What the game is, is not exactly a language, but a seed for a shared understanding, from which sprouts a language unique to the combination of the player and the game.

Playing a game is speaking with the developer. A game is a language through which the player and the developer communicate, through which they negotiate, argue, laugh, cry, care, remember good old times or ponder on life.

A game is a unique personal connection, a connection stronger than words or pantomime, that unite player and developer.

Tension, Squeeze/Release, Risk/Reward, game flow are dull incomplete models. They help understand some games, but at the price of fleecing them of their beauty. They are crude models of human communication.

Game Essence is flavor

Where does this leave Game Essence?

Game essence is what makes a game unique and places it in relation to other existing games. I call it flavor.

A developer is an alchemist, picking up existing game flavors, breaking them into their elemental constituents, game design atoms, aromas, and mixing them back into something new and unique. A new flavor, with its own bitterness and sweetness, each player appreciating it differently, according to their own personal history and innate preferences.

Developers stand on the shoulders of giants. Even genre-defining games like Dark Souls, Spelunky or Slay the Spire are but mere copy of pre-existing games.

Split Super Mario World in its constituent parts, take most of it; Split Rogue in its constituent parts, take some of it. Mix them, you get Spelunky. Something fundamentally unoriginal, yet completely new and innovative.

Those are genre-defining games. The new mix of aromas created a new completely distinct and compelling flavor.

We have not just a new flavor, but a new class of flavors. This is what a genre is. Games in the same genre share many aromas, yet all have their own subtle distinct flavor.

Games of the same developer have different flavors, yet have a consistent undertone. This is because the developer, like the player, has their personal taste, favorite aromas.

Aromas and flavors are a language indeed. Game design and play is a communion, a cryptophasia of players and developers.

I’m not proposing anything practical here (indeed, I warned you of that much at the beginning of the post).

I want to share a way of looking at games as beautiful things and allow anyone to appreciate them more for what they are. The language model of games may not help a company bump their quarterly revenue, but is a beautiful way of talking about games, it helps see into the core of the game, its essence, and appreciate all its flavor and scent.

Maybe it’s pure navel gazing, maybe this could be honed into a game design tool? Who knows? Anyway, I hope I helped make things more beautiful.


Game is a medium, a mean of communication. Play is the resolution of a personal dialog between the developer and the player. (Or sometimes, between multiple players)

Game essence is what makes a game unique and places it in relation to other existing games. I call it flavor. Flavor is a sum of many aromas.

Aromas (or elements, game design atoms) are shared between games. Each game has however its own exact combination of aromas, which gives it its unique flavor. A genre is a common set of aromas.

The game developer picks up aromas from all the games they want (consciously or not) and put them together to create their own flavor in a new game.