Thursday, September 20, 2018

A Dangerous Precedent

Hey all,

So, I was watching a friend of mine (also a game designer) play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and he had various... complaints. Complaints that I thought were not... accurate.

He was complaining about how the game wasn't telling him how to solve the puzzles, where to go exactly, what room to be in, even to the point that the camera wasn't accentuating certain waypoints enough.

One token example, he was stuck in Dodongo's Cavern, unaware that he needed to drop bombs into the eyes of the giant Dodongo skull, despite there being a sign cryptically saying that the Giant Dodongo needed to see red to open the path, and there being holes in the bridge directly above the eyeballs, and the camera looking down (admittedly slowly) when the player walks near said holes. He had just acquired the bombs, the dungeon treasure, and had seen that the bombs explode in a red cloud.

The game was giving him the pieces, but didn't tell him EXACTLY what to do; the game led him to the location, but didn't tell him the solution, you know, a puzzle.

I still enjoy this dungeon.

So after talking to him about these complaints thoroughly, I came to a conclusion that a lot of younger designers fall for a particular design paradigm. The paradigm that I'm talking about, to avoid being vague, is...

"The player must know everything" or "The player must be told everything".

Modern video games have a tendency to overexplain and overcompensate in detailing scenarios and puzzles, in an effort to maintain the game's flow and minimize the player's boredom.

I disagree with this style of design, for many reasons, but primarily it goes against one of my game design rules:

Exercise the Brain: Learning is fun!

Players do not like to be talked down to, especially in a puzzle situation. How many times do you remember when people made fun of Fi from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword? Getting all of the puzzle solutions and directions really killed the mood, at least for me, and a large portion of the internet.

"Master, a playtest in Japan shows that you have a 46% chance to solve this puzzle that you just saw on your own, so let me tell you the answer."

Disclaimer: I don't hate Skyward Sword, I just think there are some dumb things about it.

Why do I think that learning is fun? Good question. To me, I like to explain the fun of learning in this way: Remember the first day of school or work? Everything was new, including the trip there, and it certainly wasn't boring, now was it? That's because the human brain is good at consuming new information, in fact, it loves it! Learning new mechanics, learning about new countries or regions, or even learning about the trip to work, to your brain, it's all interesting, because it is LEARNING. Now, what about the 100th day of school or work? You need to find distractions away from your trip, because you know everything already, your brain doesn't want to waste precious energy on seeing the same stuff. Heck, you can probably do your trip without looking!

That's called "grokking", by the way. Also, that's why backtracking tends to not be fun.

For more details about this, I highly recommend reading Raph Koster's "A Theory of Fun for Game Design", it's a fast read and full of information.

Anyway, players like new information, and being told everything about a game, puzzle, etc. is the antithesis to that.

The goal should be to give the player just enough information, and then GUIDE them towards the solution.

A great example? Super Metroid. Remember the door that looked ominous and you couldn't get through without the High Jump Boots, well, without bomb jumping? That searing memory that you KNEW you needed something to help you through there? That was the hand of the designer leading you, not TELLING you!

Gunpei Yokoi will be missed.

Imagine how different this moment would have been if the game told you that you needed the boots here, or once you got the boots, told you to come right back here? Getting through would not have felt as good, now, would it?

You didn't know everything, and that was fine!

It's okay to not know everything about a game, in fact, I recommend it. But what things SHOULD the player know? In my opinion:

The player should know just enough to know what can be done, and enough to infer what needs to be done.

Great examples include:
  • Super Metroid
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: Dodongo's Cavern bomb puzzle
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: Forest Temple's painting puzzle
  • Catherine
  • Dark Souls 
A bad example would include:
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
If I had to summarize this post, it's that treating your players like they have no memory, nor awareness, is not fun, for you nor the player. Leave a little mystery in there, players will love you for it.

Anyway, it took me forever to write this post, and for that I'm sorry. I've been busy handling Studio Kumiho stuff, you can check the website here. We have some exciting developments coming up, and I'm excited to share it with you all.

Next post will be another design focused one, and it's in everyone's favorite format: a top 10 list! /sarcasm


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