I had a bit of an “Aha! Moment,” and this is probably obvious to a lot of people, but I’m going to write about it anyway, because its quite important to me and my growth as a designer.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what makes the games, films and stories I’ve liked so memorable. For me (and I’m not saying this is the same for everyone), its usually the world, the characters. I don’t necessarily want to escape to there, but I enjoy visiting and spending time there. I used to re-read “The Great Gatsby” and stop before the end, because I didn’t want that world in its present form to die. I love Tragedy (if you haven’t guessed by now), but I love being in that world more.
Then, I started thinking about what elements of games, in particular, made those worlds and characters memorable, rather than just being a setting for which some story/set of game mechanics takes place. And it is almost always those little moments of surprise and delight when you figure something out naturally, where you have a little success. It might not even be anything to do with the gameplay, but its a moment when it feels like that world both exists without you, and yet entirely for you.
In “Seductive Interaction Design,” Stephen Anderson describes how the use of Easter Eggs can delight and emotionally bond the user. Well, I usually think of Easter Eggs as being something that breaks your immersion with a joke or side-reference, but I think I’ve been wrong about this, and that they work exactly the same way in games, bonding the user to the world and the characters.