Review: Uncertainty in Games

This is a good book. It’s short, but I also believe it could be shorter; it has some great information and is a worthwhile read. Costikyan’s basic premise is that a essential feature of games is uncertainty, and that uncertainty originates from several locations: performative, solving, randomness, etc.

The book has seven chapters, but I see it as having three distinct sections: a general introduction to uncertainty and its sources, a lengthy analysis of many games using these sources, and a section on how designers can incorporate the idea of uncertainty to improve their games. While I grew tired of the lengthy analysis of games, it was in the applicability section that I felt the book really shines. My suspicion upon finishing the game is that Costikyan, an accomplished designer, has a very intuitive sense of games, and knows about manipulating uncertainty; that for this book he felt obliged to defend his own design experience with the analysis of classic and interesting games. Costikyan himself claims that looking at games through the lens of uncertainty is but one way to do so, and that such an approach is one tool in analysis and design:

Nor should you assume that uncertainty is the only important aspect of games, and that by understanding where uncertainty lies in a game, you understand it in an essential way, any more than, say, by understanding the role of plot in a novel, you understand everything worth understanding in it: subtext, the use of language, and the ways in which character is expressed are all of equal importance (Costikyan, 113).

Overall, this is a very worthwhile book for the demands it puts on the reader, and a very worthwhile addition to the study of games.

Update: I just realized that Greg Costikyan was one of the original designers of the Paranoia RPG. That’s bloody fantastic.