Request Brochure

Blog & News

5 Observations on Game Design from "Groundhog Day"

students collaborating on coding project

Groundhog Day came and went and, well, I’m not certain what the outcome was – I never really pay attention. The only real time I considered the meaning of this bizarre superstitious(?) holiday(?) was when I first saw the titular movie starring Bill Murray.

In a nutshell, the comedic (and sappy) film is about the nasty television reporter Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, who mysteriously repeats the same day over and over again, until (Spoiler Warning!) he becomes a better person (sure). After my recent addiction to the very iD Tech-like platformer, Super Meat Boy, I started reflecting on how game-like Groundhog Day the movie is, and what aspiring designers in our Game Design Classes can learn by watching it.

(the other) Pete Playing Super Meat Boy

(me playing Super Meat Boy)

1. The Story is the Thing

I’m going to start with the simplest direction I could ever give: The story is what makes the movie. Sure, Phil Connors is in a sandbox-like game (I’ll get to that later) where he can do virtually anything he wants – but the most compelling part for the audience is that underneath every encounter is a somewhat deep character and an ever evolving narrative. I know that this direction can apply to just about movie and/or game, but I like to enforce story wherever I can because some young designers (particularly in Video Game Development Courses) consider it an afterthought.

Super Meat Boy (my example of the day) doesn’t overburden the player with too much story, but there’s enough to keep the player captivated and wanting more. A sense of humor really helps too.

2. Repetition

Why do we play? Phil Connors constantly repeats the same day, again and again. The only thing that changes is his personal history(!) Play is about fine tuning skills, whether they happen to be worthwhile or not. Phil is allowed to grow through experimentation and learn how to master the world around him.

Super Meat Boy is all about repetition – the player must try a level a couple of times in order to find the shortest path (and get the “A+”). Very seldom should players master a level on the first try – that would mean the game is too easy and not even worth playing.

3. Unlimited Lives

Phil Connors is allowed to reinvent himself at his own pace. The process of self discovery varies by the individual and a character that rotten needs a lot of time to have a breakthrough. The dynamic of this time-warping movie allows Phil to use as much time is necessary to have the final realization that sets him free.

Some games give unlimited lives, such as Super Meat Boy, and some games give unlimited chances through continues, such as New Super Mario Bros. These games do not penalize the player for trying and failing – only reward the player once they have mastered technique. Super Meat Boy has multiple ways to play – simply finishing each level and world, finishing the dark worlds and getting an “A+” in every level. This gives more than enough incentive to play and replay every level until absolute completion. Limited lives thwarts the player’s ability to reach their full potential and assumes that players have similar skill-sets (which they don’t).

4. Sandboxes and Quick Sandboxes

Phil Connors is in a sandbox game – meaning that he can do whatever he likes without clear direction. He is part of an expansive non-linear experience where there are no rules.. The only limit put on him is time, and every new day refreshes the world to exactly as it was the day before. Sandbox games can be incredibly fun and are really popular (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, etc).

There is a major peril for many players of sandbox games, however – one that Phil Connors falls into. A quick sandbox is a phenomenon that a gamer completely loses direction and eventually motivation because they don’t know what exactly is expected of them. In a world that is open where anything is possible, many gamers tend to do nothing – or nothing that particularly advances the story of the world. This leads to frustration and boredom because the story starts to lag and repetition becomes stale. Phil hits this point and decides to simply kill himself in an act of desperation – something that results in another morning in the same bed, reliving the same sequence of events.

5. Clear Goals

The only thing that was missing from Phil’s adventure was a goal – but maybe that was a good thing. The Quick Sandbox effect happened because Phil didn’t have direction and had absolutely no clue what to do next. The process of self-realization, though, required him to figure everything out on his own. If he had known the secret formula for success (through a cheat manual, perhaps), the entire experience wouldn’t have done anything to cure him from his nasty tendencies.

Gamers, however, shouldn’t be treated like Phil Connors. Clear goals and direction are needed most of the time – even if the gamer is allowed to ignore them. Super Meat Boy has to save his princess in the shortest amount of time possible – there are few goals clearer than that!

I know that there are always exceptions to any rule of design. I’ve played very entertaining games that didn’t have clear goals, many games have limited lives, and everything else that goes against what I wrote – in fact, I know some teen summer programs in particular that would purposely challenge these observations. Regardless, the main aspects of this movie bring to light some design decisions that should be recognized when creating a game… especially one that’s loosely associated with a mystifying holiday.

  • PeteV

    That is absolutely correct. I suppose the level of goals that are revealed, versus those that are discovered, dance in a delicate balance. Some goals, such as moving from left to right without dying in Super Mario Bros., are small and clear. Some goals, like actually defeating Bowser and his cronies, can be discovered. I think the real difference is that Phil Connors was unaware there even *was* a goal – which put him through a great deal of frustration. If he was aware that there was simply some way out of the loop, it may have changed his experience without hampering it.

  • PeteV

    That is absolutely correct. I suppose the level of goals that are revealed, versus those that are discovered, dance in a delicate balance. Some goals, such as moving from left to right without dying in Super Mario Bros., are small and clear. Some goals, like actually defeating Bowser and his cronies, can be discovered. I think the real difference is that Phil Connors was unaware there even *was* a goal – which put him through a great deal of frustration. If he was aware that there was simply some way out of the loop, it may have changed his experience without hampering it.

  • Jack Derbyshire

    Well, I suppose the goal in Groundhog Day (one of my favorite movies) was to escape the loop. At first, he has no idea what’s going on. Eventually, he realizes he can do anything, and revels in it. When he has discovered all he can about the world contained in that day, he grows bored, and longs to escape. His goal, to escape from the time loop, is clear. He doesn’t realize how to do so at first, but eventually he figures it out. (Perhaps this is what’s missing from many sandbox games – when you finally want to escape from the world, there’s no way out!)

    I’d be interested in what you think of Minecraft, but I’m sure it’ll show up as a topic on the staff corner!

  • Jack Derbyshire

    Well, I suppose the goal in Groundhog Day (one of my favorite movies) was to escape the loop. At first, he has no idea what’s going on. Eventually, he realizes he can do anything, and revels in it. When he has discovered all he can about the world contained in that day, he grows bored, and longs to escape. His goal, to escape from the time loop, is clear. He doesn’t realize how to do so at first, but eventually he figures it out. (Perhaps this is what’s missing from many sandbox games – when you finally want to escape from the world, there’s no way out!)

    I’d be interested in what you think of Minecraft, but I’m sure it’ll show up as a topic on the staff corner!

  • PeteV

    Ah – but I think my point is that the goal of “escape” in not inherently clear. You assume that every video game has an end – that’s there’s some way out. This belief is what can lead to ultimate frustration when the system doesn’t give you enough clues as to where you need to go (think early Sierra adventure games).

    Phil Connors thought that he would simply be jolted out of the loop (at first)… then thought that dying would stop the loop… then gave up. His desire was to leave the loop, but he had no idea that it was possible – particularly after the 10+ years it took (according to Harold Ramis).

    Now something like Minecraft really plays with the idea of goals – but that’s also because it’s really an art tool.

    And yes, I will talk extensively about Minecraft… perhaps my next blog entry 😉

  • PeteV

    Ah – but I think my point is that the goal of “escape” in not inherently clear. You assume that every video game has an end – that’s there’s some way out. This belief is what can lead to ultimate frustration when the system doesn’t give you enough clues as to where you need to go (think early Sierra adventure games).

    Phil Connors thought that he would simply be jolted out of the loop (at first)… then thought that dying would stop the loop… then gave up. His desire was to leave the loop, but he had no idea that it was possible – particularly after the 10+ years it took (according to Harold Ramis).

    Now something like Minecraft really plays with the idea of goals – but that’s also because it’s really an art tool.

    And yes, I will talk extensively about Minecraft… perhaps my next blog entry 😉