Adapting the “Hierarchy of Understanding” to Games

Christy Dena
6 min readJul 26, 2022

Designing the opening experience

[Reposted from my 2019 blog]

Today, a colleague tweeted out a call for examples of good onboarding experiences in games. Onboarding is a term that didn’t originate in games, where the term “tutorial” is more widespread. Onboarding refers to the whole entry experience, whereas discussions about tutorials are often concerned with player instruction regarding mechanics, etc. I am fond on the notion of “onboarding”, or to be clear, I’m fond of designing the entry experience. Although, in truth, it is more a threshold experience, as “entry” implies a separation that is not upheld by the continuity of our human experience. But we do move through *worlds* all the time. And so onboarding is about designing that entry experience, that threshold between worlds. Today I want to share a particular method I’ve been using the past few years to design onboarding experiences in games, and beyond.

It is a method I came across in 2013, when I attended a lecture by Stephen Cleary held at the Victorian College of the Arts. Cleary is a film development consultant, who has worked on films like What Happened Miss Simone?, and is the former Head of Development at British Screen. I was so taken by Cleary’s ideas that the next time I realised he was in Australia, I flew to Melb over a couple of weekends (I was in Brisbane at the time) to participate in his Structure Workshop at Open Channel.

[I’ve since found some earlier discussions about this by Linda Seger]

It was in the 2013 speech, and latter at that 2015 workshop, that Cleary spoke about what he terms the “Hierarchy of Understanding“. This hierarchy is a list of eight (8) questions that the audience has in their head at the beginning of an experience, and at the beginning of every scene. Those questions need to be answered before they can connect emotionally. Out of respect for Cleary’s IP, I will refer to what is in the public domain regarding this technique, as stated by Apocalypse Films in their writeup of the 2013 event:

According to Cleary, viewers ask themselves these questions, in chronological order, at the beginning of every new scene. It is a subconscious process that occurs in the blink of an eye. […] The screenwriter’s aim should be to propel the audience to questions seven and eight as quickly as possible because it’s there that empathy with the character begins.

The questions in the Hierarchy of Understanding are:

  1. Where are we in time?
  2. Where are we in the world?
  3. What is happening now?
  4. How do I contextualise it?
  5. Who or what motivated it?
  6. Who are the characters involved?
  7. How do they feel?
  8. How do I feel?

Cleary explains:

“Time then place, followed by cause and effect, because it underpins plot, the understanding of which drives intention, thus revealing an underlying motivation and so defines character which allows audience identification with the character.”

The authors at Apocalypse Films think through an example with Star Wars:

To show how our brain might take all this in, using these eight questions, let’s look at the opening scenes of Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) starting with the iconic scrolling text, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ Question one and two answered right off the bat. When? A long time ago. Where? A galaxy far, far away. Right. Onto question three. What’s happening is a period of civil war. Four? The context is that a rebel alliance is trying to defeat the evil Imperial forces that rule the universe. Five’s answer is the evil Empire again. Question six? We can’t answer six because there are no characters so far as it’s just been text on screen. Then a space-ship flies overhead and we jump on board.

What I love about the “Hierarchy of Understanding” method is that it is an audience-orientated writing approach. It helps you write your film with the audience thought process in mind. It also highlights the need for certain elements that the audience needs to orientate themselves. In this regard, it is in some ways an internal “wayfinding” method. Through the notion of a hierarchy, it highlights the need for certain information to be there before emotional connection can happen. These insights are, to me, transdisciplinary, and so I have adapted the method for different contexts.

The Hierarchy of Understanding in Games

Taking these insights, I’ve been playing with how this works in games. Here is my latest sketch of the questions a player needs:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Where am I?
  3. What can I do?
  4. Why am I here?
  5. What is my objective?
  6. Who is involved?
  7. How do they feel about me?
  8. What needs to happen now?
  9. How do I feel?

The order of these change according to your design context, and they can repeat or spiral through. For example, here is the entry experience for Animal Crossing Pocket Camp:

  1. Who am I? — Connect to Self (questions to player)
  2. Who am I? — Self in Game (customisation of player-character)
  3. Where am I? (Camp)
  4. What can I do? (this is how to move)
  5. Why am I here? (You’re the Camp manager/also who I am)
  6. What is my objective? (camp managing)
  7. Who is involved? (Slider/K.K., Isabelle)
  8. How do they feel about me? (“It’s great to meet you!”) (“I’ve heard great things about you”)
  9. Who am I? (“enter a nickname”)
  10. What needs to happen now? (“My name’s Isabelle, and it’s my pleasure to show you around and explain how things work.”)
  11. What is my objective? (“You can set up amenities and furtive any way you like! There are so many possibilities”) (“host guests”)
  12. How do I feel? (“Sounds good!” or “I’ll do my best.”)
  13. What do I care about? Why do I care? (“Tell me, how would you describe your ideal campsite in one word?”) — choice.
  14. What do I do now? (“Actually, now that I think about it…would you be able to help me out a teensy bit?”) (“Why don’t you drive that shiny new camper over to Breezy Hollow and see if anyone needs help?”)
  15. What is my objective? (“Trading craft materials around is kind of how we do things out here in the country. You’ll see!”)
  16. What do I do now? (arrow to map)…

This is just one example of how an entry experience can be examined, and how what happens can have some function on the hierarchy of understanding. But the exact questions, and the order of the questions are not rules. For example, a game or interactive project may begin with a cinematic, which in turn calls on questions from Cleary’s list. So the method is instead a way to highlight the informational and emotional functions of the entry experience. It guides our attention towards the potential obstacles preventing our players/users/guests/audience from understanding and connecting with our work. Indeed, the questions can be used as a generative guide for the design of the entry experience, as well as an auditing tool when analysing why your players/users/guest/audience are having difficulty. That is: think about what you haven’t answered, and test whether that is the issue.

The Hierarchy of Understanding in Presentations

I have also used this method when thinking about what is needed in a presentation, a pitch-deck or a project description. For instance, depending on the project, questions may be:

  1. What are we talking about?
  2. Why is this important to you and/or me?
  3. How will I experience it?
  4. What will it make me think, feel or do?
  5. What do I feel about it?
  6. How do I contextualise it?
  7. What motivated it?
  8. Can they pull it off?
  9. What needs to happen now?
  10. What do they want from me?

For me, when I’m asking for artists to tell share their research, I use a hierarchy guide like this:

  1. What are you searching for?
  2. Why are you searching for this?
  3. Who else has searched for this?
  4. How did you embark on your journey?
  5. What did you discover?
  6. How are you changed now? How is your project changed now?
  7. How does this change things for others, or me?

There are many directions you can take this method. But I have found looking for what questions have been answered, and which haven’t, and whether it still works, is enlightening.

The big questions, though, begin before we enter the presentation, game, or film. They’re the kinds of questions I’ve discussed previously in light of transmedia/cross-media promises, and there are others. They’re questions that we take with us to different worlds, questions that are up there in our personal hierarchy of understanding, like:

Will I find myself here?

Am I here?

…and they’re the ones that we ask ourselves again at the exit experience.

P.S. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what hierarchy of understanding operates in the projects you make!



Christy Dena

writer-designer-director story games, F/S, Crafting Intangibles, EXLab. Currently writing a book about “Redesigning Narrative Design” (this is my 2nd account)