Some forgotten things…

Posted in Game Design, Videos with tags , , , , on May 20, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

Somehow or another, I seem to have forgotten to post on the blog about this lecture I gave a short while ago. It is about how to go about designing puzzle games, with a focus on honesty and expression.

This video more or less coincides with my starting of a Patreon campaign to support the major articles or videos (and small games) that I do. It has been reasonably successful, although if you like the work that I do, then extra contributions will always be appreciated. :)

I suppose while I’m at it, I should also mention that I did some live puzzle-designing on twitch which you can find below:

And also, I never even mentioned my video essay series, Why Games Matter. Which you may find the latest episode of below:

Have to stop abandoning this blog completely. But hey, I do a lot of tweetering, so you should probably follow me there.

I’m also working on a new game…shhh…

Opposition Remix

Posted in Games, Released Games with tags , on April 14, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

oppositionA short while ago I made a game called Opposition. It was a short puzzle game designed in an afternoon. I was pretty happy with the design for how much time I had spent on it, but some of the puzzles towards the end of the game felt a bit too fiddly to me. So I have “remixed” the game so to speak, redesigning most of the puzzles to make them simpler. Perhaps you’ll enjoy it more, perhaps you’ll enjoy it less. :)

Play Opposition Remix

Again, both this game and the original on which it is based were made with Stephen Lavelle’s excellent PuzzleScript tool.

Duet, meet Unity. Unity, this is Duet.

Posted in Duet with tags , on April 6, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

Just thought it’d be good to post a bit on the status of Duet. After a couple years(!!!) of hiatus, I have started to feel like working on Duet again. I’m still pretty burnt out, because I made the mistake of pushing myself too hard on this project, working 14 hour days even when I didn’t feel like working at all. But, in spite of that, I believe that I have found a good way forward.

Hope to have you along for the ride. :)

Opposition: A Small Puzzle Game

Posted in Games, Released Games with tags , on March 5, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

oppositionSo, there’s this cool little tool called PuzzleScript made by Stephen Lavelle. ( Of English Country Tune, and Stephen’s Sausage Roll fame) Maybe you’ve heard of it, or maybe you have not, but either way it’s an extremely easy to use tool for creating certain types of puzzle games. I’ve played a few games made with it, but I finally decided to try making something with it myself and the result is this game:

Play Opposition

I really had a blast designing it, and I hope you enjoy playing it. Let me know what you think of it, and be sure to try out PuzzleScript for yourself if you’re so inclined. :)

Lost Potential, Talos Principle

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Games with tags , , , , , on February 20, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

Yo Dawg, I heard you like Puzzle Games…

Sometimes when I’m talking to people about games, I describe myself as someone who likes puzzle games. What I tend to fail to communicate without much further effort is that I dislike almost every puzzle game that I have played. I straight-up loath some of them. If I’m talking to someone who says that they don’t like puzzle games, I almost always have the same misgivings about them that they do. There are very few puzzle games that I think are very good, and most puzzles in general are terrible and uninteresting. So what I really mean when I say I like puzzle games, is that I like a very specific kind of puzzle game with a very specific kind of puzzle.

There are two major categories of design from which puzzles can arise. The first category, which tends to be the most common category, is that of the puzzle as obstacle. This type of puzzle is intended to halt the player’s progress until they can solve the puzzle, at which point they will be rewarded with more of the story or perhaps a tasty nugget. The typical adventure game puzzle is of this type. Solutions to these puzzles can often feel arbitrary, even ludicrously so. (As in the cat-hair mustache puzzle) Almost the entire difficulty of the puzzle is due to how illogical they appear from the player’s perspective. The player approaches from the point of needing to unlock a door, but the designer approaches from the other end, coming up with an elaborate obstacle to prevent the player from getting into the castle gardens. Working backwards from there, the designer layers on complexity:

“Okay, the player needs to get a key to unlock the door, but just finding a key is boring, so what if instead the player finds a mold of a key? And of course, all good keys are made of gold, so the player needs to get some gold! But where will the player find the gold? Well, the player still has the golden Magician’s Chastity Belt from the joke at the end of Act 3, so we’ll just have them melt that down! Aha!”

(And so on…)

I do not like this type of puzzle in general.

The second category is the puzzle as illustration of the natural consequences of a system. In this approach, the designer defines the rules of a system and explores the space created by and surrounding those rules. Puzzles are created in order to express the interesting discoveries found by the designer. These types of puzzles are almost guaranteed to be better than puzzles designed using the first method, because a deep system gives you back more than you put into it, whereas a puzzle that comes from the head is only as clever as its designer.

This is a complete shift in approach. Here the puzzle is not an obstacle to the player’s progress, but is the fulcrum of their entire experience. In the previous method, the designer works against the game, hoping to disguise the truth of a series of locked doors and keys. But when a puzzle comes out of the subtleties of a system, it already contains something deeply valuable embedded within it, and the goal of the designer is to work with the game to express that value as well as possible.

These are my favorite type of puzzle, and there is a broad spectrum even within this approach, with better and worse puzzles. But the best puzzles are those that express something fundamentally true. Something that resonates with you. The unmistakable joy of discovering fundamental truth is what separates the great puzzles from the average ones. Without that Richness, a puzzle is just a puzzle. It fails to be memorable and fades into the background radiation of mediocrity.

Witnessing Talos

I would not have played The Talos Principle if it wasn’t for Jonathan Blow streaming the game on Twitch. Even when I first watched him playing it, it still seemed uninteresting, but as happens sometimes when you hear a lot of people talking about a game: you start to feel left out of the conversation. There are also similarities between The Talos Principle and Jonathan Blow’s upcoming game The Witness, and since that is the game that I am presently most excited for, I took some time to sit down and play Talos.

I was pleasantly surprised at first. The early puzzles, although straightforward and not particularly difficult, had some cute aspects to them that hinted at a deeper thought process and approach towards design than is evident in most puzzle games. But as I continued on through the game, I started to find the game lacking. I hesitate to use the word boring because I think that is a personal value judgment which fails to contribute to the discussion, but the game did begin to feel flat and repetitive.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of “that’s now how I would design it.” However, since several other people have had similar misgivings with the game, it leads me to believe that I am not entirely up my own ass.

As my father would say, “You either like it or you don’t”, and in that sense I do like The Talos Principle, but there is a certain disappointment that looms over my experience of the game. The Talos Principle is an average puzzle game with a few great puzzles. That is more than enough for most people, but I felt as though the game fell just short of greatness.

One of the biggest design failings of the game is that the puzzles tend to approach difficulty by becoming more elaborate while still remaining relatively straightforward to solve. These “harder” puzzles are simply collections of concepts borrowed from earlier in the game, and they rarely give rise to any unique insight that was not found in their predecessors.

One puzzle in particular is exemplary of this issue.

But First, a Trip Down Memory Lane…

After I had designed a portion of the puzzles in Duet, I started to feel a bit insecure about the games difficulty. Part of what I enjoyed so much about Braid was that the puzzles could be quite hard at times, but here I was with a puzzle-solving game in which almost all the puzzles were easy to solve. Some were so trivial that it was hard to call them puzzles really. I had explored the consequences of the mechanics and assembled some interesting puzzles that I felt good about, but I wondered if people would find the game unsatisfying simply because it wasn’t that difficult.

So I sat down and built a few puzzles which layered concepts from earlier puzzles to form more elaborate sequences. These puzzles certainly took more time to complete, but I found them unsatisfying. Sure, they had a few interesting structural aspects to them, but they felt like a slog and were the worst puzzles in the game. Although I continued to struggle with the feeling that the game was missing something (and that maybe it was that level of difficulty), I ultimately cut the puzzles, feeling that they just didn’t live up to the standard I wanted.

I never really knew what to call those puzzles. They had a certain feeling to them, but I could never put my finger on a word. “Tinker Toy-box,” I thought. But it just didn’t really communicate much.

The Labyrinth

Then I played the puzzle in The Talos Principle called “The Labyrinth” and I knew what the word should be.
A Labyrinth is a puzzle with nothing new to say. It is, like its namesake, a long and arduous road with no branches. As a player, you simply must proceed from the beginning to the end. It is a puzzle whose difficulty lies entirely in execution. It is a thoughtless puzzle. Is it even a puzzle?

Unfortunately, this puzzle is not an outlier but is indicative of a core design problem. The game wears out and obscures the beauty of its concepts through repetition. Although the design of the game follows the design method of a great puzzle game, it is as though the designers didn’t see the truth revealed through the puzzles to be something to admire in and of itself, but rather as a building block for some sort of higher level “puzzle gameplay.” How many times did I have to remember that I could pull a fan off its gears and use it to depress a button? Four times? Five times? I can’t remember. It was brilliant the first time. It stumped me for at least half an hour. But the second time it felt like a cheap prank, and the third time it felt like a betrayal.

I don’t think there was a single puzzle concept in The Talos Principle that didn’t get reused at least once.

A Smart Puzzle

Jon Blow has stated that a good puzzle “knows what it’s about.” Without asking him to elaborate on what he meant by that statement, I can only offer my rough interpretation: I believe that a puzzle meeting this standard must exhibit deliberate intent on the part of the designer to avoid extraneous elements and clearly highlight what makes the puzzle interesting and unique. A puzzle that knows what it is about feels elegant and to-the-point, where one that doesn’t feels overwrought and confusing even after you solve it.

If you are a designer, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of understanding why your puzzles are worthwhile. On the receiving end, the player will be able to tell if you had a clear idea of what the puzzles in your game were about or not. The player is putting trust in you as the designer of the game, and expects that trust to be repaid. They want an interesting and beautiful experience, and since they are already sitting down to play the game, they believe that it is likely that you are going to give that to them. So your job as a designer is not to let them change their mind. This is similar to the suspension-of-disbelief concept in films. Engagement from players must be earned, and not just up front but continually across the entirety of the game.

So what is The Talos Principle about after all? I think the common approach to game understanding would say that the game is about robots attempting to prove their humanity and an omniscient God AI in the sky. I think it’s safe to say that the puzzles have equal presence in the game as the story and thematic elements, so what I’m really talking about is, “what are the mechanics about?” This is a strange way to think about mechanics in games, but I think it applies particularly to this type of puzzle game. I will cover the story in a bit, but since two rarely overlap—A design failing in my personal opinion—it is probably fine to treat the puzzles as their own independent entity. After all, as Thomas Grip said in a conversation on Twitter, “A horror game where an evil man forces you to solve sliding puzzles all day is still a game about solving sliding puzzles.”

There are a lot of mechanics in The Talos Principle, and to cover them all in-depth would probably be the subject of a thesis. I think it will suffice for my present purposes to highlight just one set of mechanics: the laser redirection puzzles.

Laser redirection puzzles are nothing particularly new, and maybe even their implementation in Talos is not out of the ordinary, but I found it to have some very interesting things to say.

I have been thinking about occlusion in my day-to-day life a lot after having played The Talos Principle, and in large part due to the laser redirection puzzles. The puzzles require the player to have line of sight in order to connect the redirection prisms from one point to another, and since the lasers cannot pass through solid objects, the prism must be placed at a position with a clear view of all its connections. This set of mechanics cause you to think about the environment in a different way, to pay attention to how things go from being hidden to being revealed as you move around. So in some sense the puzzles say fundamental things about what it means to observe from a fixed point of perspective inside a three-dimensional world.

Part of building a great puzzle means that you take that understanding, that core revelation, and you design the puzzle as an artful presentation of it. You architect the experience of discovery, and you can be sure that what is discovered is interesting because you had the same experience of discovery yourself. The puzzle is just an artifice which points in the direction of the truth. It beckons the player to pursue and reveal it. I would say that Talos does not do as good of a job at this as it could. There are a few puzzles that really hit on something deep, but the aimless feel of the rest of the game makes the poignancy feel like it was just luck on the part of the designers.

It is very important to maintain the clarity of your puzzles as the game goes through an art treatment, because art can have subtle impacts on how the puzzle is perceived by the player. One way in which Talos’s laser redirection puzzles fail at this is in maintaining a rigid correlation between what is visible and where a laser can be directed. Since the puzzle rooms can often be maze-like, there are some windows in the walls to allow players to find their bearings. But because lasers could be redirected through those windows, in order to construct proper challenges it is required to have some sort of window through which the player can see but lasers cannot be redirected.

This perhaps could have been accomplished with some sort of force-field, or even a glass that absorbs lasers. (Which would have allowed for glass which lets one color laser pass and not another, opening up more puzzle possibilities) Instead, the designers of The Talos Principle chose to have these walls be iron bar fences, which somehow do not allow lasers to be passed through the spaces in the bars. According to the mechanics of the game, a laser should be able to be directed towards any spot which is visible, but there is a direct clash between the art and the mechanisms of the game. The art says there is open space between the bars of the fence, but the mechanics say that the fence is completely solid and lasers cannot pass through it at all. In a sense, the art is lying to the player. It is confounding why such a poor decision was made in the art treatment.

It is not my ambition to shit all over the game or it’s designers, so I’d like to highlight one other aspect of the laser puzzles that I found insightful. There are puzzles in Talos where you sort of bootstrap something into working that otherwise would not have worked at all, by providing a laser that is only temporarily required. The power is applied and then it can be safely removed. It’s another fundamental concept, and I’m not sure what to call it, but it’s similar to jump starting a car, or the way in which static friction takes more force to overcome than kinetic friction. It takes more force to get an object moving than to it does to keep it there. Whatever it is called, it is another beautiful and sublime puzzle concept. It resonates because it illustrates something that is fundamentally true, not just within the confines of the game world, but also in the real world.

A lot of what I’ve said here could be interpreted as a suggestion that there is a recipe to greatness in puzzle game design, but I don’t believe that’s true. Although systemic behavior is a necessary ingredient, sometimes decisions must be made on just gut instinct. This dichotomy between logic and intuition can be difficult to reconcile.

In Talos, the laser redirection puzzles were extended by allowing for a second laser type of a different color. This means that a decision had to be made as to what the rules of interaction between the two lasers would be. There is no real right answer here. Although the decision was made that the lasers would not be allowed to overlap, they could have just as easily passed through each other. There are other gameplay possibilities which could have been possible under these rules that are not possible under the chosen rule-set. For instance, there easily could have been more colors of laser. Perhaps multiple colors could be shined through the same redirection prism, producing a composite color laser. However, the decision was made by the designers that there would only be two colors, and that they would not be able to cross each other, and out of this decision comes a certain set of gameplay.

We can look at all the decisions that must made as part of the design process as branches on a great tree of possibilities. At the far ends of all the branches are a certain number of leaves, which are the life of the puzzles. If we were to start at the base of the tree and trace our way up, we must make decisions along the way about which branch we choose to follow. Some branches may seem large at first, but perhaps they are broken off at some point and there are not many leaves on them to be found. Perhaps an unassuming branch is just full of leaves that we wouldn’t have expected to find. It is the nature of puzzle game design that you can never truly know all of the possibilities that you have missed out on based on a decision you made earlier in the design process. There is art to all good game design, but there is also an element of luck that should not be discounted.

On To the Story

Similar to the design of the puzzles themselves, I think there are two basic approaches to narrative design in puzzle games. The first type of design is to come up with a story independently and attempt to marry it with the mechanics of the game. This can be successful perhaps in rare cases, but I tend to think that the only real benefit that this type of design can guarantee is that, if your story is good, it can be a welcome break and rest for your mind between the hard work of puzzle-solving.

The second type of narrative arises from and is therefore integrated with the mechanics of the game. I would call this Illustrative Narrative. Comparable to illustrations in a book, this method sees narrative not as an alternative to puzzle solving, but as a layer of interpretation on top of it. It is story used as a different avenue of expression to enhance the players overall understanding. It stands outside of but lacks meaning without the text, which in this case is the gameplay.
A great example of this type of storytelling is found in The Swapper. The mechanics of the game involve the player using a device to make clones of themselves. This creates a ton of interesting gameplay, which would be totally fine without any sort of narrative framework. However the game creates effective storytelling by also exploring the moral and psychological consequences of such a device.

This type of story makes the game better because it offers a different perspective on the mechanics of the game. It encourages the player to step outside the abstract mode of puzzle solving and think about the puzzles in a more literal way.

The Talos Principle uses the first method, and is left with a story that, although enjoyable, fails to connect to the puzzles in any meaningful way. The mechanics are mostly talking about movement through and partitioning of space, while the story is about consciousness and what it means to be human. The gulf between the mechanics and the narrative is a huge missed opportunity, but I don’t have any great suggestions for alternative stories. The mechanics of a game of any complexity will always be the primary focus of the player’s attention, and good game storytelling involves embracing this rather than fighting against it. Although the game does well by providing multiple levels of engagement with the story, it is sometimes preferable to forgo story if the alternative is to create something incoherent when taken as a whole work.

References:

Designing to Reveal The Nature of the Universe—An IndieCade talk by Jonathan Blow and Marc Ten Bosch:

A Talos Principle Review:

For some interesting musings on alternative approaches to game storytelling:

http://hitboxteam.com/designing-game-narrative

http://frictionalgames.blogspot.com/2014/04/4-layers-narrative-design-approach.html

An excerpt from Raph Koster’s book A Theory of Fun:

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/130586/book_excerpt_a_theory_of_game_.php

Title image via reddit:

http://www.reddit.com/r/gaming/comments/2d48fa/tetris/

Using Sublime Text 3 For Handmade Hero

Posted in Handmade Hero with tags , , , on November 25, 2014 by Matthew VanDevander

Please note that this guide is intended as a supplement to the main video series for users who would rather use Sublime Text than Emacs, and does not cover all aspects of setting up your development environment. Namely the Visual Studio setup, which is the same regardless of what editor you are using. However, I have attempted to be as thorough as possible. If there are any errors or glaring omissions in this guide, please contact me on twitter @mvandevander and I will resolve them as soon as possible. Once again, although Sublime Text is cross-platform, this guide is not. I would appreciate any tips that would help the guide to be more cross-platform as well. :)

Setting Up the Command Line

Download Handmade Hero and put the source code inside a directory somewhere that you will remember. I put mine in “C:\Users\Matthew\Documents\Programming”, but anywhere is fine.

Create a batch file named startup.bat and place it in the Windows “Startup” folder, which can be found in the start menu or at “C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Startup”

Inside the startup.bat file, you will want to put the following, replacing the directory on the right-hand side with the directory which contains the “build” and “handmade” folders:

subst w: C:\Users\Matthew\Documents\Programming

Now after this batch file is run, W:\ will point directly to that directory. Double click the file to run it. Since we put the batch file inside the Startup folder, it will run every time windows is booted and we won’t have to worry about setting it again.

Note for Windows 8 users: Once again Microsoft has seen fit to make things harder and more complex for users who want to get things done. On Windows 8, when you “run as administrator”, it is considered a different user than your base account. Therefore subst will take effect under the “user” that you ran it from. If it is run from cmd as admin, you have it there but it doesn’t show up in explorer normally, and if you just run it without the admin privileges, it won’t show up if you run cmd as administrator. So be sure that you are not running cmd from a shortcut set to launch it as administrator. We will never need a command prompt with admin privileges. Also be aware that there appear to be issues if you actually do subst the same directory under both and admin and a normal user account.

Create a new shortcut on your desktop (Right Click->New->Shortcut) and paste the following into the location box:

C:\Windows\System32\cmd.exe /k w:\handmade\misc\shell.bat

Name it “cmd” or whatever you like.

Right click on the new shortcut and hit Properties to edit it. On the Shortcut tab, under “Start In”, Put W:\. Feel free to go to the Colors tab and change the text and background colors to whatever you like. Here are some nice values:

Screen text: 200, 180, 100

Screen background: 20, 20, 20

Pop-up text: 20, 20, 20

Pop-up background: 200, 180, 100

While we’re at it, let’s go to the Font tab and change that awful default font to something nice. I chose Lucida Console at size 14.

Adding Sublime Text to the Mix

Download Sublime Text 3 and extract it into a directory you will remember. I put mine in C:\sublimetext

Inside W:\handmade\misc, add a new batch file called “edit.bat” which we will use to launch Sublime Text.

Put the following code inside edit.bat, changing the directory to the one you put Sublime Text in:


@echo off

start C:\sublimetext\sublime_text %1

Now if we click our desktop shortcut, we can open Sublime Text by typing “edit” and hitting return. We can even open up files by appending them to the edit command like so:

edit handmade\code\win32_handmade.cpp

If Microsoft Visual Studio is installed, we should also be able to build our game from that command line, by typing “build” and hitting return. Magnifico!

Integrating Our Build System with Sublime Text

But what would be really awesome is if we could get our builds working from inside Sublime Text with just a keypress!

Open Sublime Text. Go to Tools->Build System->New Build System

The contents of the file should look like this.


{

"shell_cmd": "build",

"file_regex": "^ *([A-z]:.*)[(]([0-9]+)[)]"

}

Save the build system file as “handmade.sublime-build”, and make sure it saves into the User subdirectory of Sublime Text. (It should by default)

Now if we open win32_handmade.cpp inside Sublime Text and select our new “handmade” build type from Tools->Build System, we can build the project by pressing F7 or Ctrl+B. We can even jump between any build errors by using F4 and Shift+F4. Neat!

So far, this is all going pretty great. But we can make it a little better by installing a couple of packages. In order to make installing packages easy, we will want to first install a plugin called Package Control. We can do that by going to this website and following the instructions there.

After you have installed Package Control, go to Preferences->Package Control, and on the pop-up click Install Package. You will want to get SublimeLinter, SublimeLinter-annotations, and Highlight Build Errors.

Exit and reload Sublime.

Now all of our TODOs will be marked, and we will get line highlights for every build error.

Additional Tweaks

If you would like to change the settings for the highlighting, there are lots of options that you can access simply by right clicking in any code window and going under the SublimeLinter submenu.

I would suggest changing the Gutter Theme to None to remove the dots in the sidebar, and changing the Mark Style to Fill. Keep in mind though, that if you want to use the other linting features of SublimeLinter, most of those require those Gutter marks.

You can also edit the JSON file directly by either clicking Open User Settings from that menu, or you can go to Preferences->Package Settings->SublimeLinter->Settings – User. I am not sure why (probably a bug), but for some reason the settings file will be blank unless you have made changes to it from the right-click menu. To get the file to fill out, you have to save it and reload it.

I would suggest tweaking the file by adding “NOTE” to the list of warnings, so that NOTE is highlighted in our code. So that section will read like this:

"warnings": [

"TODO",

"NOTE",

"README"

]

We’re all set and ready to rock now! Happy heroing!

Alien Isolation, Ludonarrative Consonance, and Soft Rules

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Reviews, Games with tags , , , , on October 26, 2014 by Matthew VanDevander

Alien
I am amazed at how difficult it is for me to talk about my thoughts on Alien Isolation without talking about Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Perhaps that reflects negatively on the game since it fails to stand on it’s own, but I don’t really think that’s the case. I think that Alien Isolation is simply the first AAA horror game to take direct cues from Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In that regard, it is somewhat successful in recreating the tension found in that game. And somewhat unsuccessful in many other aspects.

So what do Alien and Amnesia share at their core? They are both horror simulators, games which put a disadvantaged player in a spooky environment with a deadly monster. Perhaps you could call them the antithesis to the power fantasy. Unlike Amnesia, in Alien you do actually get weapons as you go through the game, but they are extremely ineffectual. You always encounter enemies in groups, so even if you can bash one over the head with a wrench then another will be sure to shoot you in the head while you are doing so. And of course the Alien is pretty much invincible, much as it should be, so direct confrontation is just a no-go in that department.

I have been playing the game on the hardest difficulty level, which is the suggested way to play the game. In this mode, all enemies can spot you fairly quickly across the map. If you can see their eyes, they can see you. Or, in the case of the Alien, which has no eyes, if you can see it at all, it might see you. The game is brutal and death comes quick. You can still sometimes outrun a pursuer, unless that pursuer happens to be the Alien.

Though I found myself tempted to lower the difficulty upon hitting a wall early on, I still think it is the proper way to experience the game. Since Isolation is a horror simulator, it only makes sense to have a low chance of survival when sneaking around through a facility that is full of threats, including a 9 foot tall murderbeast. Hard difficulty creates the greatest opportunity for frustration, but it ups the overall tension of the game tremendously.

As terrifying as the classic monster design is, when viewed too closely, it appears as a goofy off-balance looking video game creature with imperfect animation. Knowing that you cannot get a good look at the Alien without being murdered allows the monster to retain at least a modicum of mystery and horror. When only seen from afar, it does better at remaining what it was designed to be: a lightning fast death machine. The mind is the greatest tool for terror.

Unlike Amnesia, Alien Isolation is a game that is so much better at tension than it is at elucidating genuine panic. The build-up to inevitably being spotted is intense, often unbearably so, but after being spotted, there is usually not much to do other than just watch yourself die. Amnesia had several sequences in which the player runs as fast as they can away from a monster and narrowly escapes with their life.

However, the downside to attempting these types of sequences is that they are rarely repeatable. If the player slips up and is killed by a monster, frustration occurs almost immediately if they are asked to repeat the same flight of terror sequence. Amnesia got around this in some ways through its unusual treatment of death. When the player died, they would be teleported somewhere else in the level, and something about the game world would be subtly changed. This definitely alleviates some of the possibility of fear turning to frustration, but there is only so far you can go. It is likely that Alien Isolation, with it’s rigid save structure, would’ve been more likely to spend undue amounts of time in the frustration spectrum.

There are several different types of enemies to encounter in Alien Isolation, but the best part of the game is the encounters with the titular creature. This is good, as it would have been easy to have had a game that failed to deliver the goods, but Isolation may suffer from the opposite problem: too much of a good thing. I think that the game would’ve benefitted from some heavy editing, leaving a much shorter game with more downtime between the appearances of the Alien. Giving the player a breather is a quite important tool for pacing a horror game properly. Amnesia did much better in this department as well, although it slips somewhat towards the end.

Ludonarrative Dissonance has become the sort of term in games writing that induces eyes to roll out of people’s skulls, across the hall and down the emergency stairs. However, I think it is important to recognize that game mechanics which do not match up with their narrative trappings is pretty much the status quo for video games. Therefore it is also notable that Alien: Isolation does not follow this trend. All of the verbs afforded the player are explicitly designed to play into the horror fantasy. You can hide in closets or under tables, you can lean back into the shadows and hold your breath. Guns are all but useless except for drawing attention.

I think some players misunderstand the intention of the mechanics. The “mini-games” that you play to open doors or otherwise progress through the game are not designed to be fun or exciting. They are designed to facilitate a specific experience. Yes, they almost always take excessive amount of time for a simple action, involve pressing an obscure button combination in a very deliberate way, or matching things that are stupidly easy to match. But when you are scampering across a hallway and attempting to unlock a door, your heart pounding because the Alien could come back at any moment it creates a tense moment that echoes the classic “struggling with the keys” moment from many slasher flicks. That is what it is designed to do and it is undeniably successful at that. Calling it “work” or “boring” is simply missing the point.

I think there is room for “soft rules” in computer games. Rules not explicitly enforced by the computer, but which by following, the player will be most likely to enjoy the game. We already have to concede that we will never be able to fully deal with “asshole players,” but the vast majority of players actually do want to play along and have the intended experience. I think Alien Isolation made a big mistake in not aping Amnesia in this department. A simple message at the start along the lines of, “This is a horror experience, do not play to win. Try to let the mechanics of the game fall out of your mind and instead focus on role-playing as if you were actually in the scenarios depicted. Play in short sessions and take breaks whenever you are tired.”

It might seem condescending to suggest to your players that they might be playing the game wrong, but the fact of the matter is that games have trained people over decades that the best way to play them is to approach with an analytical mindset; dive deep, deconstruct their systems and look for exploits. Alien Isolation, simply put, is a bore to play that way. Even Amnesia, which I consider to be the scariest video game ever made, falls flat if you play it like other games. So I think that through soft rules, we can at least in some part counteract the possibility of players who will choose to play the game “wrong” and thereby negatively impact their own experience.

There is certainly an argument to be made that any computer game that can be played wrong is, in fact, designed wrong. However, I think by accepting that some players will have a bad experience because they have disregarded a suggested method of play, we open up the possibilities for the experiences that games can deliver immensely. I would argue that without soft rules, games cannot truly be scary, since they are inherently built upon systems which can be deconstructed, picked apart, and ultimately understood. Irrational emotions require an irrational mindset to experience. Terror requires its object to be vast and unknowable, so by deconstructing enemy AI routines, we ruin the fun of being terrified.

Some people read books back to front. We don’t need to worry about those people, or hang out with them. They sound dreadful.

So yes, Alien Isolation is not designed to entertain, it is designed to recreate a certain type of experience. Crawling through a ventilation duct with a glaring flashlight and a loudly beeping motion detector, with nowhere to turn and the possibility of dying at any moment. Alien Isolation lets you live out these moments. Does the overarching story or characters rival the Ridley Scott classic? No, of course not. In fact, they suck, but it doesn’t matter. The story in the game is basically just an excuse for the gameplay experiences.

Alien Isolation is a true horror game. It is a simulation of powerlessness, of helplessness. Survival is optional.

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