The Designer’s Dictionary: Cool

The Designer’s Dictionary is a new series of blog posts looking into different aspects of game design, each time focusing on one word. 

One of my many favorite movies is Pulp Fiction. It’s got good story, great characters, fearless structure and a pitch perfect Tarantino cool. Unfortunately none of his other movies seem to fuse that specific brand of coolness with interesting characters quite as well as Pulp Fiction, however entertaining they might be. His latest movies appear too self aware, like their style is padding rather than an inherent quality.

The Tarantino cool is found somewhere between characters, dialog and the violence, and cinema as a whole would be less without it. It’s amoral, but its just so good that we forgive it. We only get a slice of it once or twice every decade, so whenever it comes our way we’re just happy to get a taste.

But imagine if most of Hollywood was defined by it. What if the majority of movies were – more than anything – striving to be cool? The whiff of excitement and freshness would quickly turn into a stale and putrid stench. Tarantino, a huge film nerd, really makes movies about movies, celebrations of film genres. His movies are morally empty, defined by style over substance. A movie industry plagued by Tarantino wannabes would be a terrible thing.

Unfortunately the games industry is to a large degree just that. One of the most common words in game design discussions, brainstorming sessions, PR events and perhaps even games journalism is “cool”. 

Good writers and movie directors understand that the experiences they craft require some level of substance and cannot simply be a series of cool events. They know that their works require careful pacing between the fast and the slow, between the highs and the lows, between tension and release. That the audience must be able to not only believe in the characters but also identify with them and their struggles. They get how important it is that the plot grabs hold of the audience, allowing them to invest emotionally in the outcome.

It needs to be about something. Something people care about.

Here’s what I think. I believe “cool” is a crutch for the untalented, the lazy and the immature.

If you happen to not have what it takes to do something good, making it cool is still accepted as a substitute. The bar is still set that low, if only because there are too few trying to push it higher.

For those that do have the chops but not the will, going down that route is always an easy way out. Proper design, proper writing is very difficult indeed, so why not make it easy for yourself? Well, you should have some pride in your work and respect for the art.

For kids, cool could be enough. I guess it’s often more than enough, looking back at my own childhood. But the majority of our audience are grownups now, so we better grow up too. Sure, adults like spectacle as well – but only momentarily. To hold their attention for a longer period of time, something deeper is necessary.

Let’s stop confirming the public’s poor perception of our craft. Let’s make better games.


  1. Sören Höglund

    I’d argue that Tarantino’s movies transcend just being ‘cool’ simply by being about something, even if it’s something as self-reflexive/navel-gazing as movies, rather than just the surface trappings.

    I’m going to paraphrase the inimitable FILM CRIT HULK here, but since he’s entirely right, it saves time: Indiana Jones is one of the most beloved movie heroes, because he *isn’t* cool. He’s not in control, he constantly gets himself into a complete mess, and then barely gets himself out of it. He’s both what we *are*, and what we *want* to be. And the first part is critical, because it builds empathy, empathy you can’t have for a roided out, detached asshole posturing in his shades. And empathy engages more than cool every time.

    The pursuit of cool is hollow and disingenuous. If you’re doing something just because it’s cool rather than to further theme/character/narrative, it’s going to ring false.

  2. pixelpark

    Thank you for a great comment, Sören. You are probably right about Tarantino’s movies.

    The Indiana Jones example is great. It is strange how useful George Lucas early work is for using as examples for good storytelling… And his later work for the opposite.

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