Friday, April 30, 2010

Experience First, pt.4

Resident Evil (1) is another example of gameplay some would call "bad" helping a game. In RE, controlling your character feels like driving a tank. You use L/R to rotate and U/D to move forward or backward, and must come to a complete stop when aiming rotating your gun up and down in front of you without any effective cue to mark its position in 3D space. To make matters worse, it all goes to hell with a single jump cut of the camera. Supposedly, you play a special-ops agent, but you feel more like an epileptic Roomba.

And it helped the experience because I was terrified to encounter anything. I walked down halls in utter terror that I would have to fight something -- turning awkwardly, dying while I tried to get a bead on it -- jumping at every audio cue, and practically fainting at the notion of a boss fight.

On a side note, "bad" controls only helped because someone hadn't done it better yet. Once someone improved control in the survival-horror genre, it became like an arms race between decent controls and designers' ability to maintain a sense of fear. Resident Evil 4 features better controls, but still locks you into place when you aim, making the paradigm palatable with nuanced and innovative shooting-gallery gameplay (e.g., hitting specific points at certain parts of enemy animations to defeat them). When control limits are completely removed, like in Left 4 Dead, the agility and numbers of enemies are scaled significantly to maintain their status as a threat. Could the lumbering of zombies of the original Resident Evil exist in a game that gave you player control like Left 4 Dead?

But if the original RE creators prioritized control, would more important elements have suffered? If you experienced Resident Evil before other modern survival horror games, you might remember how scary it was to walk through those halls, with the twisted camera angles only increasing your fear, and realize "bad" control helped make a classic. One more example, tomorrow... [1][2][3][4][5][6]


  1. The whole judgment of whether something is good or bad depends on what you're trying to achieve. In the case of game design, that would be the experience. If game mechanics create the desired experience, then you would call them good in that context, and the only way to improve on them would be to find changes which preserve the desired experience while eliminating the parts of it that are not wanted.

    Attempting to label mechanics as objectively good or bad (as if true objectivity were possible) requires a comparison of the raw mechanics on their own. But I don't think "the experience" and the game design can really be separated like that. I suppose the "objective" evaluation you're talking about is something along the lines of, "does this mechanic by itself increase or decrease the fun the player is having?" But even that assumes the target experience is "fun" (which I don't think necessarily has to be the case for games, even though in most it is).

    I found this post last week really interesting, and I agree with him that rather than remembering an overall experience, or a story, we remember moments (if we don't necessarily remember the specifics of a significant moment, still our entire memory of the event/game/movie/story/whatever is significantly shaped by the emotion of that moment). Sure, that is the experience, but I think it is a useful distinction; in many cases the "bad" mechanics which did detract from the experiences of games may not have been necessary to create that experience. The game still seems great because the great moments overpower those frustrations. I think that would apply to what you were saying about Monkey Island, and I know it applies to my experience playing Psychonauts.

    So in game design I think the goal is (or should be) to create an environment (the game: mechanics and everything else that goes into it) which is conducive to generating as many specific moments as possible of the intended type ("scary", "tense," "funny," "sad," "power trip," whatever). And they must be much more powerful than the undesired emotions created by the rest of the game (achievable either by decreasing the undesired emotions created or increasing the desired ones).

    But anyway, I'm interested. Carry on! : )

  2. I utterly agree (hence the word "bad" in quotes)! I hope upcoming posts reflect this.

    The point of this series is to point out that designers sometimes falsely view gameplay mechanics in objective terms (be glad that you don't -- I seen it all too often), and too often build games mechanics-first, because they because they confuse their role as "shepherd" (of the experience), which is critically important; and "craftsman" (of mechanics), whose importance is determined by the experience target (and resources at hand).

    I'm hoping it also serves as a grounding for future posts on other design topics, about how to approach design for an experience, particularly a story experience that should have a wider emotional range than a painting, and why certain very popular games are successful for reasons I never hear anyone talking about.

    Hopefully you still enjoy the ride, even if you know where it's going. ;-)

  3. The article you linked was interesting. I think I agreed with his point but declaring that games are about "interaction" is unhelpful because I parse it the same way: as one of the elements of a piece of art being manipulated to evoke a sensory response. It read like being told the type of paint you use is not the most important part of a painting (right!), so it's clearly the canvas (huh?).

  4. Yeah. But for me the thing about moments being more important than story was kind of an "aha" moment. I actually have one story in my head I started to write as a graphic novel script which really revolves around one specific moment I wanted to create. Not sure if I'll ever finish that one but the point is I guess I was kind of already working from the moments-first perspective without realizing it.

    And it does seem to help explain the common commercial success of certain works which could be seen as less sophisticated, and the relative commercial failure of others which may be brilliant.