Archive for Game Design

In Defense of Collectibles

Posted in Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games with tags , , , , on February 9, 2016 by Matthew VanDevander

collectibles

This article is a response to the video “Into The Black”, which is in itself an elaboration on some of the thoughts and ideas expressed in these two articles. The video is sort of a treatise on how the intrinsic value of exploring virtual worlds is damaged by the introduction of gameplay, pulling out collectibles as a particularly bad example.

I do not think that the point of “Into the Black” is that collectibles are universally bad. Although the video itself is somewhat vague on this, the articles upon which the video is based are quite clear in their terminology. Joel Goodwin uses the term “mass-produced collectibles” to refer to a very specific type of collectible which he despises. These are self-serving items, which exist with no other purpose than to be collected. Like the thermoses in Alan Wake, they are scattered across the world with no regard for believability or relevance to the rest of the gameplay or story.

I don’t think that these mass-produced collectibles (those that more or less serve no other purpose than to be collected) are that interesting. I am typically a holistic game designer, so I like to have reasons for things that I put in games. The reason could be as dead simple as the strings of notes in Banjo-Kazooie levels, where they are used to lead you to a point of interest, but you should not put anything into a game willy-nilly without thinking about how it affects the whole of the thing. If the only reason you have some item hanging around in your levels is “because you could”, then that’s not a good enough reason.

However, it is actually very rare in games to find this pure type of collectible. Usually the collectible is intended to encourage a specific type of behavior in the player, a way of playing that they would not have normally done. Now, in many cases the behavior is really just an obsessive Easter-egg hunt, but this is not the only possibility. Generally the best uses of collectibles are when the collectible really only exists to set up a challenge.

However, before I continue, I must digress that for many years people have used this same argument in favor of achievements—that they encourage alternate forms of play. In that sense, the achievement acts in much the same way as a collectible, as an integrated part of the design. But definitely achievements can be and often are bad, primarily because they are usually seen as an afterthought, when in fact they are a core part of the game design. Their mere existence can sideline the inherent enjoyment of interaction and play. This is why some people are less likely to play a game if it isn’t going to contribute meaningfully to their overall metagaming score.

As a game designer, you cannot ignore anything that affects how people play your game. So that argument that achievements “don’t matter” is utter bullshit. They, just like collectibles must be an integrated part of the game design process. Unfortunately, the industry has treated them as more-or-less a bullet point marketing thing. “Every game should have achievements, and it is really more the purvey of the marketing department to decide what they are”.

I can see why someone would want to say that collectibles are universally A Bad Thing. Design trends have swung so far in favor of their liberal usage that it’s reasonable to take up an aggressive stance against them. Collectibles can ruin games when used carelessly (see Donkey Kong 64 or modern Ubisoft open-world games), but I’m not about to go out of my way and say they are always bad. Some of my favorite games have loads of collectibles in them (Banjo-Kazooie), and although they perhaps could be better without them, there is really no way to prove that without building a version of the same game that does away with them.

Collectibles give space meaning in games and drive player behavior, so whether or not they are good or bad really comes down to how they are used.

Returning to the idea of collectibles as mere setup for a challenge, at perhaps the far end of that spectrum you have Braid; where the entire game is built upon collectibles, but the collectibles themselves only exist to provide structure for the game’s puzzles. I’m not sure you can make the argument that Braid would be better (or even still function as a game) without the collectibles. Yes, there is perhaps a version of Braid which exists as simply a big sandbox which you can explore at your own volition, but I think the game gains essential clarity through its use of collectibles as a motivator for player action.

Perhaps something is lost in that transition to a more structured game world. The loss is ephemeral, but I believe Braid does at times try to preserve some of that open-endedness through “soft puzzles” that are not marked by any particular reward. The primary path that most people will follow with the game remains highly structured, though.

I suppose it depends upon your opinion of Braid, but I argue that, in this case, structure and collectibles do not make the game worse as an absolute, but they do change the way in which the player relates to the game world.

Sometimes designers do use the “mass-produced collectible” somewhat carelessly, engendering an obsessive easter egg hunt. I think in open-world games this is a particular design failure. Unless the designers were really intending to encourage obsession, they were likely just following what they see as game design best practice: “never let the player find a dead end with nothing there.” This comes from a desire to not have the player be frustrated. And it is true that it just feels bad to be exploring a level and reach a complete dead-end with no reward. If you are viewing the world as a place that has been thoughtfully designed around you, in that moment it feels like the designer has betrayed you and disrespected the value of your time.

Although game worlds can be centered entirely around the player, that is not the only type of world that exists in games.

I would set out two main types of spaces in games: virtual realities and levels. In order to explain the difference between them, I need to define a term which I call “sense of place.”

Sense of place is the feeling that you are really exploring a world that exists beyond the confines of the screen. A world that the player is not at the center of. This feeling exist whether or not the design was intended to evoke it, and is not limited to 3D open-world games.

A good example of how sense of place is separate from the intent to evoke it is Yoshi’s Island. Unlike games like Grand Theft Auto, that have an obvious attempt to echo things about the real world, Yoshi’s Island is a side-scrolling platformer with discrete stages that you progress through in a linear order. It’s a highly directed experience, and yet it still has a very strong sense of place. Going into the exact reasons why is beyond the scope of this article, but the point stands that sense of place can be present whether or not it was intended.

So, therefore the difference between levels and virtual realities is not defined by whether or not they have sense of place, but whether their intent was to evoke it. Virtual realities intend to evoke it strongly. Levels do not.

Unlike many early games, with discrete and highly artificial levels, modern games are often sprawling and miles large. They strive for a verisimilitudinous experience, with sense of place as a core part of their appeal. The continued dominance of open-world games is evidence that this type of experience is very compelling to both designers and players.

However, because of these differing goals, I think that some of those old game design rules don’t necessarily apply. Dead-end alleys with no gameplay purpose are fine in virtual realities as long as they do not damage the suspension of disbelief. In fact, when the design goal is believability, adding collectibles actually has a detrimental effect. The real world does not have collectibles scattered about randomly, so adding them changes the nature of the the player’s relationship to the world. They can no longer see it as a world like our own, but instead see it as a big level. Thus, if they do find a dead-end with no reward, it is fair to see it as a waste. The player rightly expected a collectible, because there very well might have been one.

Once collectibles have been added to this virtual reality, the player feels obligated to explore, not because they enjoy the scenery, but because finding all the collectibles is part of playing the game effectively. The collectible has become a red herring to the player’s pursuit of enjoyment, because it actively encourages a degenerate method of play. Hunting collectibles obsessively might be the least fun way to play, but players will do it in misery because they feel it is the correct way to play.

Collectibles give space meaning. They are the hands of the designer reaching out to explicitly shape the experience of the player. So be careful what you incentivize.

I can understand the frustration with collectibles, since they are perhaps the most basic boiled down form of game design there is. Sometimes I find myself burnt out at the repetitive nature of game design. Why do we always need to collect, to expand our empires, to build bases, to loot, to kill? Just the other week I made a joke game about the futility of many of our core activities in games.

The lack of collectibles is a big reason why Far Cry 2 is one of my favorite open-world games. Unlike its more polished sequels, in Far Cry 2 you don’t “clear” a bunch of outposts by hunting down icons on your map. You don’t expand the borders of your burgeoning empire piece by piece. You don’t skin a shark to make a wallet. The world in this game has a obvious disinterest in the player. The mission design is always very light, never having that moment that other open-world games have, where you feel as though you have been pulled out into a separate world for a story mission to occur.

Playing Far Cry 2 feels like a seamless lived experience of a real place. The enemies in this world are not mere toys for you to express your dominance, but instead are set up as equals to the player. You will die a lot, often without warning. Some players even enjoy playing Far Cry 2 without using saves. They start a new game and when they die for the first time, they shut it off. The enjoyment of the game comes from its sense of virtual reality.

But I digress somewhat, as this article is not for me to gush about Far Cry 2, but instead to talk about world design in games and how it is or isn’t affected by collectibles. And in this sense, I think Far Cry 2 is perhaps the best evidence that for a certain type of game, not having collectibles is of great benefit to that world’s believability.

In a game that intends to create a world that is analogous to the real world, collectibles will tend to push it back towards the other end of the spectrum, where it feels more like a video game level. This is essentially a restatement of the argument in “Into the Black”. By turning virtual worlds into video game levels, you lose something pure in that transition. I agree and won’t argue with that. But I would also say that you can still gain things through use of collectibles.

I collected every single Riddler Trophy in Batman: Arkham Asylum, and had a lot of fun doing so. It was a valuable part of the game for me. Even still, perhaps the riddler trophies themselves were not entirely necessary. Many of them are earned by using an in-game camera to take a picture of something hinted at by a somewhat obtuse riddle, therefore the trophy itself is somewhat inconsequential, and could easily have just been represented by a number. The riddles are the core of the gameplay, and the trophy is really just a trinket showing your level of completion.

That leaves an open question as to why they decided upon having the collectible items at all. There are a certain number of them which are in hard to access areas in the environment, which makes sense, but there is no reason that those couldn’t have been replaced with other items which actually served a gameplay use.

I suspect that there is some sort of market research saying that a game is less likely to be resold if there are a large number of collectible items in it. This may be the reason that Asylum’s “bigger, better, and more badass” sequel stumbled over itself to double the number of trophies and took something that was an enjoyable activity in its predecessor and turned it into a chore.

So again, like achievements, business concerns can sometimes be the reason for adding collectibles to a game. To that, I will simply restate my earlier point: If the only reason you have some item hanging around in your levels is “because you could”, then that’s not good enough.

So let’s take a moment to think about the other question posed by “Into the Black”: whether or not the process of adding gameplay at all to a virtual world diminishes it. An example that comes to mind is Raph Koster’s bird flapping toy, which became much less fun to play with after goals were added. Adding challenge stripped out most of the joy of the thing. This perhaps means that there is merit to the argument. Either way, I am convinced that games are not the end-all-be-all of virtual worlds. As for what’s next, it is difficult to be sure, and definitely the subject of another article.

So, let’s sum up.

Collectibles, like their dark cousin achievements, need to be used wisely. You can’t just toss them around frivolously without thinking about how they affect the design of your game. If you’re making a game that demands sense of place, where you want to emphasize that the space may not mean anything, then collectibles are probably bad. If instead you’re making a game where space has very explicit meaning–such as a puzzle game– collectibles are not an inherently bad way to go about that.

Still, if you can achieve a design goal without having some sort of collectible bauble, then that is probably the better way to do it.

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Under the Sea

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on November 11, 2015 by Matthew VanDevander

Sebastian from The Little Mermaid

This article can in some sense be considered a continuation of my previously shared thoughts about Alien: Isolation and horror simulators, but also should generally stand alone as a review of SOMA. It is also spoiler free.

I’ve backed myself into a corner, in a room with just too many windows. The monster growls behind me, and I duck behind a support beam in the wall.

“Go away,” I say under my breath, as it paces back and forth in the hall. Instead, it decides to come into the room. My mind races as the creature continues to come closer. “What do I do? What do I do?” Soon it will come around the edge of this beam and surely see me.

Finally, I decide my best chance is to just make a run for it. I step out from behind my hiding spot.

The music crescendos as I am spotted. I sprint as fast as possible out the doorway and down the hall. I hear echoing footsteps behind me of something inhuman. Suddenly all the lights go out.

The terror is palpable as I realize I’m headed right for the only room that still has the lights on.

“Great, I’ll be a sitting duck…”

I rush in anyway and make my way around the desk to the computer. I fumble with the interface a bit, but manage to get the door locked down before the monster arrives.

I hide in the corner of the room. The monster thrashes at the door but is unable to open it. I wish I could sink further into the corner.

Suddenly I do.

I look to my right and see the backside of the wall. Turn behind me and there are distant inside out structures.

“Ah fuck,” I say, “the game glitched out,”

I try to step back into the room. There is some sort of threshold I have passed, and I can no longer return. I turn around and look down into the yawning void, make peace, and leap into the abyss.

SOMA is a difficult game for me to write about. It’s a game that I had been looking forward to for a long time. It’s ambitious. It’s certainly worth playing. But somehow, it’s also a disappointment.

SOMA is Frictional Games’ follow-up to their 2010 horror game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In the intervening 5 years since Amnesia’s release, there have been a slew of games to follow in its footsteps, including the notably big budget Alien: Isolation. One could happily call these games “Amnesia clones,” as they borrow so much from that game, but I have preferred to consider it a new genre, called horror simulation.

Most of these games put a small twist on the formula established by Amnesia, without really making any huge strides forward. SOMA is intent on changing that. Whereas most horror sims, including Amnesia, tend to tell the story primarily through audio and text logs, SOMA pairs these with strong environmental storytelling as well as dramatic scripted sequences and dialogue scenes. The game is intent on minimizing the limitation on player agency due to cut-scenes, and allows the player to continue to move freely unless the character is physically restrained.

Opinions on whether or not SOMA is “scarier than Amnesia” seem to vary wildly. Horror, like humor, is quite subjective. As for myself, I found SOMA to be much more intensely terrifying that it’s predecessor, although it’s much more of a slow burn than last year’s Alien: Isolation. Whereas that game felt as though it turned the volume up to full blast and never stopped, SOMA is much more content to explore the dynamics of horror, crescendoing into intensely terrifying set-piece moments, and then gently falling down and giving the player room to catch their breath and relax.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time with the game. It succeeds in more ways than it stumbles. The story is compelling and left me with a lot of interesting philosophical questions that I’m still pondering weeks later. The art direction and overall polish is super high for a game made by such a small team. And the storytelling is often effective, reminding me at times of Half Life 2 and Gone Home.

So what’s so damn perplexing to me is why I have this overall sense of disappointment about the game.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of how long I have been waiting for its release. It’s not uncommon for lengthy development times of games to grow hype to unmanageable levels (Just imagine what Half Life 3 would have to be at this point to not be a disappointment).

Thomas Grip, the designer of both SOMA and Amnesia, has written and spoken extensively about his “Four Layers” approach to narrative design for games. It’s some heady and ambitious stuff for narrative-focused games that don’t want to leave the player feeling like a bystander. In a sense, the idea is to keep the player constantly engaged in the storytelling even down to the moment-to-moment gameplay, a point at which most games struggle to maintain that connection.

SOMA can be seen as a field test of those ideas. And for the most part it’s successful; resulting in what is one of the most ludonarratively consonant (there’s that word again) games that I have ever played.

But even though SOMA effectively executes on its storytelling approach, there have been plenty of other games which have focused on storytelling in the past several years. Many telling stories that lie well outside the established sci-fi/fantasy safe-zone which games have typically stayed in. This often leaves SOMA feeling like it is playing catch-up more-so than innovating. Credit should be given where due, as much of the game’s storytelling is strong, but it is perhaps impossible to not draw comparisons and find the emotional core of the game to be lacking in honesty or vulnerability. When it comes down to it, it’s a sci-fi horror story set in an laboratory at the bottom of the ocean, which can only be so relatable.

Because SOMA considers the moment-to-moment experience to be the core of the story, at any given moment, the game is typically very compelling. However, this focuses the player’s attention so narrowly that the game struggles to effectively integrate its big ideas. It can be a thrilling roller coaster ride, but when the game tries to probe at deeper questions it often feels like it’s just paying lip-service; draping philosophical window-dressing on what is essentially a haunted house.

I hate to bring up the issue of length in video games, as it’s so often a major sticking point for people in a way that I usually find unsavory. Many players will look at SOMA’s roughly 13 hour playtime and see it as being woefully short. However, as I get older, I find that my time is increasingly valuable to me, and I tend to not like it wasted. At a certain point, I knew there were going to be two possibilities with the game. Either I was going to put it down and never finish it, or I was just going to have to steel myself and marathon through until the end. I chose the latter.

In that sense, I found SOMA to be significantly longer than necessary. This is not to say that I found any of the moments in the game to stand out as particularly low quality, or that I would find it easy to say where cutbacks should be made. It’s simply a personal observation that the depth of the story felt as though it was not requiring of a 12 hour game to communicate effectively. It feels as though a third of the game could be hacked off and the story would come across just as well. Again, this is somewhat of a vague criticism, but is reflective of my feelings as I pushed myself to finish the game, expecting to be very close to the end, but rather being many hours away from it.

It’s hard for me to be comprehensive about SOMA, and in many regards, I still feel as unresolved in my thoughts about the game as I was before writing this article. It’s a good game, almost a great one even. You should probably play it. I wish I could point to one thing and say what’s holding it back, but it’s not that easy. Somehow though, SOMA never quite lives up to its potential. Even though all of the parts of it are high quality, the whole is not the sum of its pieces. It’s like a bicycle made of high quality aluminum, with new tires, but with wheels that are just a bit too square.

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…

Lost Potential, Talos Principle

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, 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/

Alien Isolation, Ludonarrative Consonance, and Soft Rules

Posted in Game Criticism, Game Design, Game Design Essays, 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.

Prepare to Live ( Dark Souls Diary, Part 3 )

Posted in Game Design, Game Design Essays, Game Diaries, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2011 by Matthew VanDevander

Rest for the Wicked
Dark Souls is a unique game. Simultaneously planting one foot in the checkered video game past, and the other so far in the future that you will find yourself lost as you try to keep up. There is something truly special at work here. Even if you don’t enjoy the experience, it is impossible to deny admiration for the boldness of its conviction. It is truly a work inspired by a unbending philosophy and a belief that games can and should offer different experiences.
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Laugh a little. Seriously.

Posted in Duet, Game Design, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2011 by Matthew VanDevander

Seriously...

It’s so easy to get attached to a project when you work on it for a long time. I’ve already been looking at Duet for a year. Despite that, for the past six months or so I haven’t made much progress. This is partly due to laziness and working a full time job. Staring closely at what you are doing can make it seem so much bigger than it really is.

The fact is that Duet is a small game. If I’m being realistic, it probably won’t change the world; it probably won’t change much of anything. But I’ve become so intimately close with the project that it has grown an importance to me that isn’t really due. I’ve created an abstract idea of what Duet is, and it seems imperative that I must create that. I can feel the importance of what I’m doing, and I find that paralyzing.
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Silence.

Posted in Books, Game Design, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2011 by Matthew VanDevander

So, I haven’t been playing games recently.

After finishing Catherine, I haven’t really found myself in a financial affordance to purchase anything new, although I’ve been thinking of purchasing something old. Quite old, in fact. The game I’ve been considering is a PC game called Planescape: Torment.

Planescape has a reputation for being one of the most well-written RPGs ever. It is often brought up anytime a new RPG is about to be released, as some sort of evidence of a by-gone era of good game writing. Unfortunately, I never played this game and find myself somewhat intolerant of my ignorance. It is uncomfortable for me to proclaim the utter failure of games as a narrative medium when compared to film and books when I have not experienced what many consider to be such a great story.

Discussion of narrative in games is always a bit challenging, because the terms are so poorly defined in most cases. By which, I mean, most people do not understand any clear difference between the terms “narrative”, “plot”, and “story.” Plot being a unchanging linear sequence of events; narrative being an all-encompassing term for a collection of characters, plot, setting, dialogue, and themes; story being the cohesive experience created by the narrative as it’s parts come together in the mind.

Most of the time, people think of these as basically the same thing. But if narrative were just plot, there would be no room for the story to exist separately in the mind of the person experiencing it, and thusly there would be no need or room for discussion of a narrative. We would all be in agreement about the plot, and there would be really nothing else to say.

I think that games can be privy to many of the elements of narrative. But plot is something that they just do not excel at to the same extent as other mediums. However, they can effectively communicate themes, characters, and dialogue. And in the case of setting, I would argue they do better than any other medium.

So if I do choose to buy the game, ( which is conveniently available for download on Good Old Games, along with a bunch of other older PC titles ) I will be interested to see the way in which the game communicates it’s narrative. Especially if it is not as plot-driven as most modern games are.

On an entirely different note, I have just purchased two great books on games. I read the sample previews and just knew that I wanted to spend a little more time with them. The first book is “A Theory of Fun for Game Design” by Raph Koster. The second is “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter” by Tom Bissell. I will hopefully have more to say about those books very soon.

Games and Puzzles

Posted in Duet, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2010 by Matthew VanDevander

Work continues to crawl along on Duet, however I have been banging my head against a few things recently. Notably I have this question of “How do I know if a game is worth a person’s time to play?” I have been reading some literature on the subject of games and puzzles, so I felt it would be pertinent to share some of my thoughts:

On games, versus Puzzles…

Duet is a puzzle platformer. But that really just describes the mechanics of the game, without really delving very deep into the definitions of such mechanics.

So, in the worst style of writing, let’s define these terms with help from the internet.

A Platformer is a type of video game “mostly presented in 2D” which features “jumping to and from suspended platforms or over obstacles” Requiring the character to start from point A and get to point B by jumping and traversing various obstacles.”

A Puzzle is a type of problem that “tests the ingenuity of the solver”, and according to puzzle collector Stan Isaacs, it is “fun, and has a right answer.”

So, these definitions seem about right to describe Duet. But my research seems to suggest a divide between games and puzzles. So the question that I’m proposing, is where do I draw that line? Is Duet a puzzle or a game?

There are many definitions of what a game is, but my favorite is:

“A Game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.” – The Game, The Player, The World: Looking for Heart of Game-ness

Games typically are designed to be as replay-able as possible, the idea being to explore the nebulous space afforded by the game’s mechanics. Once that exploration is completed to the satisfaction of the player, Playing the game is no longer necessary or interesting. Therefore all games must be inherently educational and interesting, but one must remember that a person’s prior experiences in and outside of games can reduce the novelty of an previously unplayed game to a point where she may find it not worth her time.

Puzzles–as defined earlier–however are intrinsically free of replay value. Once a puzzle has been solved–deliberately and with understanding–it is no longer valuable to the solver. This is to say that puzzles are only replayable if the solver does not understand why he solved the puzzle in the first place. Puzzles are similar to games in that prior experience with similar problems can nullify the intrinsic value of a puzzle to the point where the intellectual gain from solving it becomes trivial. However, the primary difference between puzzles and games is the goal.

The goal of puzzles to find the solution, the goal of games is to win against an opponent. However, there are still contradictions within these definitions. What exactly is an opponent in a single player computer game, what exactly is a solution?

Duet, as well as other games (Braid, Portal) are (perhaps uncomfortably) straddling the line between games and puzzles. On one hand, they quickly fit into the earlier definition of a game, they are based on formal systems and rules, they do have quantifiable outcomes with different values assigned to them, the player does exert effort to influence the outcome, she feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences are negotiable. However, the games also fit the definition of a puzzle, they have a solution–solvable only once– having limited replay value.

So where do these games lie exactly, are they really games at all? Is a game a type of puzzle? Is a puzzle a type of game? Are puzzles, by their very nature, inferior to games?

The creative process…

Posted in Duet, Game Design, Game Design Essays, Games with tags , , , , , , on November 3, 2010 by Matthew VanDevander

The game that I am making currently is about cooperation. So what exactly does that mean? It means that every mechanic, every puzzle, and even every piece of art must be scrutinized to determine if it is core to this concept.

The process by which I create new mechanics for the game goes something like this:

Idea – From somewhere, either through playing the game, or from other games or other media, get a possible idea for a game mechanic.

Mentally Prototype – Imagine how the idea would affect the game. For some ideas, this is very easy. For instance, if the element has already been in another game. For others, I may have to skip mental prototyping, since the idea cannot be easily imagined.

Mentally Check for “Core-ness” – An interesting idea that does not fit with the games core theme is not worth implementing. For my game, the core theme is cooperation. In life, people like to establish relationships with people who have strengths where they themselves are weak. (In addition to common interests and similar experiences) Based on this aspect of human relationships, the players in my game must always have different abilities. Usually the bad ideas are those which do not create a give/take relationship between the players. Bad ideas are those do not create interdependence, but instead spur self-centered behavior.

Prototype – If the idea that I have cannot be discarded through mental prototyping, and seems like it may fit in the core of the game. Then I program it in, in the simplest way possible. Usually creating a bunch of dirty code. (But that’s okay, if it’s a bad idea, it’s a waste to write clean code)

Test – I try the mechanic out in many different situations, and in combination with existing mechanics. If the new mechanic creates any interesting puzzles that I couldn’t imagine when I first thought of the mechanic, then it is a candidate for the final game.

But how do I decide which things are interesting enough to make it in the game? That is certainly a tough problem, and there are many solutions. The simplest solution is to include everything that might be interesting. However, for my game, I have some fundamental guiding principles. I believe that the player of my game is an intelligent person, and should be treated as such. They are not stupid, and will be able to solve any of the puzzles that I can create for them, without breaking them down into simpler elements. I also believe that this player’s time is valuable to them, and I should respect their time, and not waste it. So therefore, I should never put filler into the game by repeating ideas that I have already explored.
Based on these principles, I will remove any puzzles which either waste a lot of player time on execution, or have very obvious solutions and may only be different than a previous puzzle in insignificant ways.

Even still, I struggle with this game every day. Sometimes I have to ask myself if the entire game is not just a waste of time for the player. It is certainly possible. But I am a game designer, and I want to make games, not incomplete products. So it is better to ship a game that I found interesting, even if no-one else will, than it is to not ship a game. As the Duct Tape Programmer says, “Shipping is a feature. A really important feature. Your product must have it.”

So time marches on…and there is much work to be done.