A game is a collection of symbols and rules for how those symbols can interact with one another. I described these as being obstacles and tools, one of which defines the parameters of success and the other of which are used to navigate through those parameters – but the division between the two isn’t necessarily as harsh as I implied. Sometimes obstacles and tools are the same – that is, sometimes you can use one obstacle to navigate another.
There are a number of interesting examples of this – you could jump off of an opponent’s head to reach a higher platform or, inversely, you could jump to a higher platform to cut off an opponent’s pursuit. You could lead a group of enemies from one faction to encounter a group of enemies from another faction so they start fighting each other, or you might reposition a trap to activate another trap safely. You might even intentionally jump on an exploding trap to boost yourself to a normally unreachable rooftop. In addition to obstacles sometimes behaving like tools, on occasion a tool will take on the characteristics of an obstacle. The most common example that we encounter in games is probably the hand grenade, which is both an extremely potent weapon and also a convenient way to quickly separate the component parts of your bloody carcass.
There’s no reason for tools and obstacles to be different at all, in fact, when they all just boil down to being a set of physical properties and behaviors. There’s no reason for an object to know what its purpose is, only for it to behave in accordance with a set of instructions. In Spelunky, for example, you can pick up and throw almost everything in the game – rocks, pots, laser turrets, unconscious yeti – and, once an object has been thrown, it affects the environment in pretty much the same way no matter what it happens to be – well, unless it happens to be explosive, in which case its effects will be more dramatic. It’s actually fairly commonplace to throw a rock to set off an explosive only to have the rock blasted back in your face by the explosion and hit you… into a yeti who throws you onto a collapsing platform which falls on top of a mine which blasts you into a pit.
When items are agnostic of their origins and purpose, surprisingly intricate interactions become possible. In many other games, rocks would only be useful for hurting opponents or for setting off traps – in many other games mines would only be activated by the player, enemy bodies would be inert, explosions would only affect things which could be damaged. It’s fascinating what can be achieved when we allow items to be exactly what they are, instead of design them specifically to fit a particular role in the game.
Another interesting example is Phantom Brave, a tactical RPG from Nippon Ichi Software: In this game, the main character Marona is the only living character you control, with all of your teammates being ghosts she has befriended and which she can summon to help. The catch is, to summon a ghost she has to have something to summon them into, which can be something as ordinary as an everyday bush or rock or as ornate as a cursed sword. Whatever they get summoned into, they gain properties of that object so, for instance, if you summon someone into a tree they’ll probably be more vulnerable to fire damage. The other catch is that literally any object on the battlefield, including other characters, can be picked up and used as a weapon. These systems, interacting with others such as a system where every item comes with a stat-modifying adjective before it, enable some really strange and intriguing strategies. Sometimes it’s necessary to pick up one of your characters and toss them across a pit, pick up an enemy and beat up his teammate with his body, or summon a weak character holding a really nice rock you’ve found and have them drop it there for you to summon a more important fighter into. Later in the game some enemies are even scripted to start picking up and throwing powerful items off of the stage to keep you from summoning allies into them.
In some ways, this functional agnosticism of game objects is the default – when I say a game is a collection of symbols and rules, I’m not just speaking conceptually, but also in terms of how games are made, what the internal programming logic that goes into their operation is. So, one might ask, if this is the natural state of the game, and if this creates so many interesting and emergent situations, why do so few designers allow their games this kind of leeway? Unfortunately, when you increase the possibility space in a game this way, you also increase the odds of something going haywire, of an uncontrolled feedback loop or absurd dominant strategy that completely undermines the intended game design. Part of why this openness was possible in Spelunky and Phantom Brave is that these are very tightly controlled designs – Spelunky through having a small set of game elements with only a couple of methods of interaction and a straightforward and minimal progress path, and Phantom Brave through presenting a restrained and traditional tactical RPG interface. For a look at what this ends up looking like without this sort of restraint, take a look at Dwarf Fortress – which is an important and fascinating game, to be sure, but is not easily accessible to most audiences and results in scenarios which, though they are amazing stories, frequently represent bizarre and illogical breakdowns of the symbolic logic as the system recursively interacts with itself.
Still, it’s worth considering: How am I restraining this object, making it behave in a more constrained way than it has to – and a less interesting way than it could? How would it affect the overall design if these constraints were to just, maybe… disappear?