Exploring Design Space

“Oh my god, what- how did I do that? I just threw a fireball! Am I a wizard?”

Street Fighter 2 was a pretty big deal. It more or less created a genre, of course, and is probably indirectly responsible for what little remaining and waning relevance the arcade scene has left in America. It is a classic, to such a degree as our young medium has classics. It is, to put in another way, well understood at this point. It has few surprises remaining. But let’s think back to when we first played it; was it in a spiffy new cabinet with official art? Was it in a dingy rear room of a pizza parlor in a cabinet labeled with some other game? Why was this game so enticing? The graphics and sound? The visceral gameplay? Chun-Li’s legs?

Damn, girl. Damn.

For me, the most compelling part was that, sometimes, magic happened.

When you play for the first time, even if there are no labels on the buttons, the basic controls are pretty self-evident. Top row is punches, bottom row is kicks, and the further right the button the stronger it is. 30 seconds of feverish experimentation while your brother refrains from beating the crap out of you (or doesn’t) is enough to ascertain that much. Congratulations, you know how to play the game now.

Except you obviously don’t, because the enemies you’re fighting seem to be sorcerers of some kind, flying around and summoning fire from their fingertips, and it would be easy to feel cheated except for sometimes, when you’re frantically flailing around trying desperately to keep your chosen character’s teeth firmly attached to their skull, you sometimes, somehow, do it too.

Magic.

i don’t know what i’m doing in this hat

Of course, as time goes on you come to understand the game. Either someone explains the motions required to you or you finally put two and two together and get fireball and you understand how it all works, even though you still can’t do the damn fiddly uppercut move when you’re on the right side of the screen. The magic gets a little bit less magical. The first semi-sequel-expansion-pack-thingy comes out and it has all of the character’s special moves printed on the side of the new fancy cabinet which all of the arcades spring for because they know it’s a certain money-maker now, and even though you’re thrilled to find out all of the moves you didn’t know about before it feels a bit hollow, like you cheated to get there.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Nowadays, we have tutorials. You start a game up and some cheerfully pedagogic persona appears at the start to encourage you in your quest to become a wizard. Because nothing says powerful and mystical like a sidekick explaining it to you in anachronistic language.

To clarify, I don’t think tutorials are a bad thing. However, I don’t think they’re unequivocally a good thing either. We get very caught up in the idea of the ‘correct’ way to design a game, in precepts earned over decades of game design. The player must not, we say, be frustrated. The player must not, we say, be confused. Challenge is circumscribed, it must only occupy the realm of the firmly understood. If your player doesn’t understand what they should do next then you have failed.

Something I think is always interesting is what games and our reaction to them can tell us about the world we live in. Games are challenging, yes; that’s part of their appeal. But even someone who can conquer very challenging games with relative ease may have a very difficult time coping with the challenges life throws their way. Life doesn’t clearly delineate its challenges. Life does not tell you what your success or failure conditions are. Is a challenge within such a limited scope really much of a challenge at all?

Why are these challenges so narrow? Is that a prerequisite for fun?

The adventure genre fell by the wayside some time ago, though it has recently seen a resurgence. In the classic adventure game, you’re given nothing but a character with a motivation and a few tools to aid you in achieving your goals. However, the specific goals and sub-goals you must achieve are often not explicitly stated. In fact, a substantial portion of the challenge is to figure out what your next goal is. These games do not have tutorials, usually. Your role is that of an explorer- not of physical space necessarily, though that is often also a facet of these games, but of dialogue and objects and the way these interact with each other.

Seriously?

We generally accept that exploring physical spaces is ‘fun’. Sandbox games and non-linear designs have exploded in popularity since Grand Theft Auto 3, but the entire trend towards three-dimensional engines was fueled by the joy of exploring a 3d space. Look at Quake, look at Mario 64; these games revel in their three-dimensionality. Even though three dimensional design has been somewhat flattened in recent games (which is a topic for another article), the joys of spatial exploration are popular and well understood features of some games. No one doubts the value of spatial exploration. The same cannot be said of exploring a design-space. If players are forced to discover interactions on their own, they will complain that your game is confusing, that it doesn’t make its expectations clear. In some cases they may be right: There is certainly danger in combining this form of exploration with more traditional challenge models.

See this from another perspective: In story, skilled exposition is generally considered to be that which is elegantly interwoven with plot and character elements. The reader or viewer of such a story should feel, not that he is being lectured to, but that he is discovering. He is inferring. Show, don’t tell, as the adage goes. If we compare the way we expose design spaces to the way we expose stories, it’s obvious how clumsy we still are at this. We tell, we do not show. Press X to jump. Combine these two items in this menu to make a new item. We tell them everything they could possibly want to know about how to play the game, all exposed so clumsily it would make George Lucas blush.

What was the most fun that you’ve had with a gameplay mechanic in recent memory? Tell me: Was it something that was in the tutorial, or something that emerged unexpectedly out of the fundamental rules of the game? Give them something to discover when they play your game. Give them something that they could never discover just reading a script, or looking at a map. Let your game be explored.

Let them find magic.

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1 comment
  1. mno said:

    I really agree with this! It’s just insulting how much time modern games spend babying players, as if they have never played a video game in their life!

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