On Synergy and Terminology

Originally published 25 Oct 2019.

This module is called Development Synergies, introduced with the tagline “Focus on synergies inside, outside and beyond games”. I was confused pretty quickly at how the word was being used and its application in our practice, so here’s some thoughts on that and how it’s being used in several different ways: as alternate terminology I find misleading/unintuitive, in a practically useful and traditional manner, and as a buzzword that contributes nothing to the discourse.

First for when synergies are useful in my eyes: the “inside games” portion. This is part of what I’d say is of foremost importance when it comes to making good games, i.e. interaction between mechanics. Synergy requires interaction, and is where interaction is particularly relevant (maybe too relevant). I like the model of depth that Chris Wagar proposes and explains in his blog posts A Basic Introduction to Depth (2015) and Cultivating Possibility Space (2019) (the first approaches it from a critic’s point of view while the latter is more aimed at creators), which has two main ways to achieve absolute depth: interaction between mechanics, and nuance in mechanics. Most of the time, I don’t think there’s any need to use “synergy” instead of “interaction” if all it is describing is a positive interaction (negative interaction being divergence). Moving and shooting rockets do interact and allow for rocket jumping, but you don’t always want to rocket jump and it has a cost. Moving and jumping allow you to do moving jumps, but I don’t see the result being greater than the sum of its parts. It’s still just doing movement and a jump, neither improves the other at a fundamental level, so I don’t find it too intuitive to call it a synergy. Something like moving and shooting could have positive interaction in one situation (lets you attack and remove enemies to move where you couldn’t before) but negative interaction in another (if shooting slows you down, shooting ahead to clear the path while running from an enemy is in part negative), so calling it a synergistic relationship at its base is misleading. For the most part, this is just different preferences in terminology and not a big deal.

Then there’s more strict synergies, easily seen in strategy games like card games or auto chess games. E.g. in Valve’s Dota Underlords (2019), each unit belongs to one or more alliances, and if you have a certain number of units of that type, you get bonuses. If you have 2 knights, they each take 15% less damage, so the pure stats of one Dragon Knight and one Abaddon individually will be inferior to having both of them at once. This is where synergy is used in the literal sense (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts), and it’s much more practical than trying to use “positive unit interactions” or something to describe the mechanics and strategies. It’s what I’d call the more traditional and strict kind of synergy if the above does count. Interestingly for how this applies to depth, interaction like this can become “too relevant” via poor balancing, in which case the units are only useful for the synergy itself and don’t have their own purpose and niche individually (so you have practically reduced two elements down into one).

Finally, in the lecture there was something posited as a synergy that fits neither of these as far as I can tell: Metroid’s (Nintendo, 1986) bomb jump. Bomb jumping is using bombs (used to destroy blocks or enemies generally) in morph ball (where you can’t jump) to gain height. Bombs are a great mechanic that has it own niche (it’s your only way to attack while in morph ball), multiple functions (killing enemies, clearing blocks, revealing block properties, gaining height in morph ball), and nuanced use (the boost gained depends on its position relative to yours, and bomb jumping results vary by execution). What it doesn’t really do is interact with other mechanics, because it’s a contextual action. You have to be in morph ball to use bombs so there’s no interaction between those as separate mechanics, and morph ball is a niche mode for you to be in that disallows using a bunch of other mechanics like jumping and attacking. Especially when you take bomb jumping specifically, which is a way to utilize the bomb mechanic, the only way to construe it as synergistic is that it is interacting positively with … itself. Which is counter to the very meaning of synergy.

Then there’s synergy as a buzzword, the usage “outside and beyond games”. Things like synergies in narrative, messages and language. For the most part, this seems to be a way to convey a feeling, like how a player might say they found a game fun or immersive, they might say there was good synergy between narrative and gameplay or whatever. When used to describe game mechanics it is a good lens to view the game through, breaking down its mechanics and analyzing how they interact. Here, it does no such thing and the claim of synergy itself is what needs to be analyzed to learn anything about the game itself. Maybe it feels synergistic because the player has solved the game and arrived at an optimal strategy that serves to underscore the inequality of the players, and the narrative is about the inequality of life. Maybe the game is about solving puzzles and the story is about solving puzzles so there’s this basic connection in theme. This seems like exactly the same kind of thing as synergy as a business buzzword.

As a final note, I also wish there was more of an explanation of why interaction / situational synergy is desirable and what exactly it is that happens as a result of it. The module mainly just pushes us to experiment and find some synergistic mechanics and interactions, and stops there (for now). This is why depth is useful, it serves as a tangible goal to work towards and see effects of designs in. What synergies do is increase the state space without increasing complexity much by having different, already existing elements interact. Synergies are good when this results in more meaningfully different game states, i.e. depth. So if it’s a poorly balanced synergy that makes those cards useless individually and only viable together, the depth may actually be harmed even though you’ve introduced more synergy.

References

VALVE. (2019). Dota Underlords.

NINTENDO. (1986). Metroid.

WAGAR, C. (2015). A Basic Introduction to Depth. Accessed on 25.10.2019 from: https://critpoints.net/2015/03/21/thoughts-on-depth-and-a-basic-introduction/.

WAGAR, C. (2019). Cultivating Possibility Space. Accessed on 25.10.2019 from: https://critpoints.net/2019/05/03/cultivating-possibility-space/.


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