Competitive Single Player

I don’t seem to play games the way I used to any more.

Studying game design changes you. To a certain extent, the change happens when you just play enough games, but actively studying their design catalyzes a greater change. The change happens when we begin to think of the game as something designed, rather than just encountered. Once this switch is flipped, once we begin to perceive games in this way, there’s really no going back.

Single player games start to not be.

When I play competitive multi-player games, I try to focus intently on where my opponent is facing, how he’s behaving. I try to anticipate what he wants to do next and to cut him off. Unlike others who may try to fortify their own skills or keep their opponent from being able to move freely, my greatest strength is in predictability; both in seeing it and in avoiding it. And increasingly, recently, I’ve noticed that I’ve started using these skills completely outside the context of competitive multi-player games.

A few days ago I finally got around to playing through Limbo, which I have been remiss in getting to despite greatly anticipating its PC release. I came to a puzzle which was giving me a lot of trouble, in particular because I spent a long time trying to solve it in a very stupid way. However, I didn’t spend nearly as long as I might have, because after a few false starts I thought–

“Wait a minute.”

“This game is not incompetently designed, but the way I’m trying to solve this puzzle is entirely at the whims of the physics system, requiring it to behave in an incredibly particular and not-very-intuitive way. If I were designing a game like this there’s no way in a million years I’d make the solution to the puzzle the one I am trying.”

And, sure enough, upon closer inspection there was a far easier and more elegant solution.

This is merely the first example that comes to mind, but I find myself playing every game this way now. Each gun is a Chekhov’s Gun, each crane a Chekhov’s Crane, each NPC a Chekhov’s Blood Dispenser. Every time I pick up an item, I think: “Why are they giving this to me now? What does this signify?” Where someone newer to gaming might see a city, I see a set of meticulously designed apparent affordances of interaction, and each one has its own meaning, something the designer wants–or doesn’t want– me to do. It’s a language under a language; I can see what the designer’s underlying intent was in trying to communicate something to the player. And I’m sure there are many other players out there who, to one degree or another, speak the same language.

Now I start to wonder if this is the reason why procedural generation has been gathering steam recently. It’s impossible, when playing a designed game, not to see the hand of the author in the levels, and to end up competing with the designer for victory (or collaborating, depending on how nice said designer is). However, when the world is generated randomly we can, once more, begin to see it as a truly alien environment.

Spelunky is a good example of this. In Spelunky, If you think of a clever solution it’s because you were clever, not because the designer was clever and cleverly placed a clever puzzle for you to solve. When I find a rock, I know it isn’t placed there just so I can toss it over a wall to trigger the mine to destroy the barrier so I can save the girl (read: dog).

It’s just a rock.

It’s heavy and when you hit things with it it hurts them.

Kind of refreshing.

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