How Planet Narnia Changed My Game Designer Mind

This summer, I finally read Michael Ward’s 2008 book Planet Narnia, and it blew my mind. It completely changed my understanding of C.S. Lewis, but what I never expected is that it would also provide useful new tools for making games.

I’ve always had a warm relationship with the Narnia books. C.S. Lewis is an unapologetic Christian apologist and I’m about as far from a Christian as a Westerner can get, but I always felt like Narnia was common ground, and that he had something to teach me. But even kid-me could tell that Narnia didn’t fit particularly well into the classic Biblical take on Christianity. That seemingly shambolic quality was part of its charm, really.

Ward did something nobody had done in fifty years: he saw the clockwork precision behind Narnia’s genial shuffle. I won’t spoil/ruin his argument through oversimplification. (You should read the book!) But Ward shows how Lewis, who was a master medievalist and theologian, applied those skills to create an intricate symbolic engine that unifies and hammers home the themes of all seven books.

Ward’s argument is a big claim, and I was skeptical at first. But about halfway through the first chapter of Ward’s explanation you get it, and the entire series suddenly falls into place in front of you. It’s an amazing feeling, especially if you love Narnia.

Planet Narnia and Game Design

Ward’s close reading is value (and pleasure) enough for one book, but Planet Narnia also brings out Lewis’s ideas of Contemplation and Enjoyment. Lewis thought that art asks you to to either think about a subject with our rational minds, or to look “along the beam” of divine or narrative illumination and simply experience an idea. A lot of Lewis’s academic and theological works were Contemplations; Narnia is all about Enjoyment. And it’s no accident that Narnia is what most of Lewis’s readers have read and learned from.

This split of Contemplation and Enjoyment feels like a powerful new lens for game design. When games get serious, they often ask us to contemplate a subject, to absorb facts and figures. We do a lot of exposition and world building through audiologs and other narrations. But isn’t immersion what games do best? As I pursue development of my own game, I’m looking for ways to teach by creating feelings.

As Planet Narnia shows, Lewis did this with careful choices of words, phrases, and key images. He built a precise structure of language to built his message across. The question is: what orrery of game design can have the same impact?