I hear typing

This post is in the vein of more game design thoughts.

I’ve played alot of different video games. And I’m saying, alot. More frequently, I’m playing modern console games. Generally, these are more leaning towards casual, low-commitment play.

Recently, though, with a few of the more modern games, I’m getting this sense. Its hard to explain – I’m not sure exactly what it is. Its not a good feeling, surely, but I’m not sure if its bad either, and maybe its just me. Its the same sort of feeling I get when I’m watching a scene from a film or movie and an actor says what they’re thinking instead of acting it or showing it. I feel insulted, like I’m being spoonfed. Is it because I might have a higher literacy level than the film’s intended audience in the medium we’re looking at? I hate thinking that way, because that makes me appear snobbish, which I may be.

Either way, its an issue.

Specifically, the feeling I’m getting from games recently is that I’m being spoonfed. Not that the puzzle or obstacle is too easy, just that its forced and unnatural.

For example, in Half-Life 2:Episode 1 There is a moment where Alyx Vance and Gordon Freeman come to a door. Previously we’ve seen doors like these where you turn a knob on the side but, in this case, the knob is missing. Alyx says “Something’s missing.” Now, Half-Life is intended for the adult audience, and somehow I feel a little let down when I turn 180 degrees to see a pile of boxes. Sure enough, after some aggressive maneuvers with the gravity gun, I find the knob at the bottom corner of the pile and I attach it to the door to continue on.

My reaction is “Why did you bother to waste my time with such a simplistic puzzle?”

My later reaction is that I felt spoonfed. I felt like, not only was the puzzle easy, but that I was pushed along. Also, it felt very symbolic – too symbol. This particular puzzle can be generalized to:

“Something is missing, find it to continue.”

Valve calls puzzles of the type above “gates” (Ref. Half-Life 2, Ep 1 Commentary). Specifically, making sure something happens before the player can go on. Valve often mentions in the above commentary that they put in these types of puzzles to fight “combat fatigue”; meaning it is good to bracket intense combat with slower-paced puzzle-solving. I call this particular puzzle “symbolic” because I feel it is general, and has little to do with the actual situation the player is in.

My overarching issue is that this archetypal puzzle has nothing to do with our situation: Gordon, Alyx, the Combine, or even the particular type of door for that matter. It feels cartoony. It basically could have been “let’s stop the gameplay until this chess-playing demon allows us to pass.” For me, it brings my focus out of the realm of the game universe.

I worked with a playwright last year on The Time Project, which eventually became Heterotopia. One of the nuggets he left with me was that often playwrights, when listening to their own work, will often hear the clacking sounds of a typewriter. They are unable to experience their own work separate from the fact that they created it as a piece of work; they are unable to experience their play as a play itself, but also as something that was constructed.

I think that’s the feeling I’m getting. I hear typing – I can tell Half Life 2:Episode 1 is a game (and many others too). This shouldn’t happen.

When I had two guys over at my house last week to volunteer for the Kingston Improv Games I rented a bunch of games for my housemate’s Playstation 2. One of the games was Shadow of the Colossus, which I think is one of the best games I’ve ever played. To give an ultra-short synopsis, you fight 16 colossi (10-200m in height) in this deserted land in order to bring to life a young woman that you brought in on your horse Agro. Its a very still, moving and, at times, sad game. Although at times I felt I could hear the typing, it never made me break from the reality of the beautifully-constructed universe.

So, here’s the challenge: Let’s make gameplay that relates directly to the environment we’re in and doesn’t break our focus from it.

PS. Half-Life 2:Episode 1 is a fantastic game. It’s just the most readily available example I have. Valve does an amazing job.


The Deviants coming up next week. Watch here for press release/pictures/etc.