A big trend in game design these days is user experience design – creating an enveloping experience for the player to immerse themselves in. The side effect is that you probably have to have a linear playthrough – think Call of Duty 4, Condemned 2, F.E.A.R. 2, and the newly simplified Prince of Persia.
What all this means is that the big blockbuster titles are veering away from being transparent and moving into ‘experience territory’. After all, one of the big advantages of the digital medium in games is that developers can substitute art, sound and tactile controls for what your imagination would have provided if you were playing a tabletop game or a sport. Simply put, the first medium for games was real life (Tag, Tic Tac Toe) then it was some paper and plastic (Monopoly, D&D). Now game developers are even providing ‘the experience’ part of gaming.
And while it’s all quite cutting edge and interesting, it’s a very fragile thing. One peek behind the curtain and the experience is exposed. Discovering the machinery running a game is like waking up in The Matrix. Take Mirror’s Edge for instance – if you don’t scrutinize too much and follow the rules you can have a fun time running away from police and scurrying up the sides of buildings. However, things start to fall apart when the user wants to break the rules. Try to punch a cop and he’ll shove you back every time – it takes over half an hour to kill four enemies you’re not supposed to kill in Mirror’s Edge. A game with a focus on user experience has to break when someone rubs it the wrong way, and DICE’s solution was to try and kill you.
Even Call of Duty 4 follows suit; in fact the whole franchise does. Whether it’s an unending enemy spawner that assaults you forever until you discover the magical boundary you must cross to turn it off, or a pair of soldiers framing a specific door you must go through, even the masters of linear gameplay fall victim to the inherent awkwardness of their design philosophy. I recall some of the reviewers at 1Up were told by Infinity Ward that the game was meant to be played on Hard. What the reviewers found was that it was marginally less fun when they died so often; it broke the seamless playthrough – and dying often means seeing all the dirty tricks first hand. This ambush always comes from the left, you can’t shoot the guy in that window, etc. It presents the pretense of choice where there is none, as far as progression is concerned, and when the player is exposed to the machinations of the designer they can quickly grow tired of jumping through the hoops.
A relatable example can be found in old cartoons: it’s easy to see which vase will tip over onto the character’s head because it’s brighter than the other objects around it, and it’s very clear that it’s been drawn on another layer and laid overtop the background. The viewer knows exactly what is about to transpire. There is no chance any other objects will fall on the character’s head; it’s clear as day the vase is going to animate. In the same way when players discover that the game has narrowed their choices down for them instead of giving them real options, the course of action becomes plain as day. In a medium that aspires to simulation it would seem that pretending to simulate choice is a dangerous business. The viewer of a cartoon might not care if they can predict an action onscreen, but the player of a game has his play spoiled when he discovers his actions are ultimately being controlled. Most gamers get into a fit of rage when the plot of an upcoming game is spoiled for them; it shouldn’t be a stretch to assume that the same applies to gameplay.
Those of you that are somewhat code savvy can think of it like a program – a good program needs to fail well, not crash, when something goes wrong. While games that provide a great user experience are fun rides, they’re not very flexible, and when they are flexed they often snap and break. Game designers like to refer to the effect of being immersed in a game as being “in the magic circle.” When a game breaks it’s because the player has found a way out of the magic circle, and the experience is broken.
An example of a game that breaks well is Rainbow Six Vegas 2. Because of its transparently RPG-like weapon unlock system you can actually have more fun playing the game incorrectly. Rather than notice the hoops and jump through them begrudgingly, you can jump through the hoops the way you want to and get some loot while you’re at it. For example, I managed to find one small area of the game, a parking garage with a hostage situation just beyond it, which I exploited for two hours to unlock every weapon in the game. It sounds like tedious grinding, but it involved the formation of a plan of action and very quick reflexes.
I would run out of a door, leaving my teammates behind, and head towards the garage. Every shot was rehearsed and I never stopped moving, throwing grenades into just the right spot, with just the right timing – throwing grenades one after the other; first blowing open a door then blowing up the enemies that spawned behind it. Then when I was done I would run into the hostage room, kill the first enemy I saw, and let the others kill me — then I would gladly respawn and do it all over again.
Instead of playing the slow-paced tactical shooter Ubisoft wanted me to play, I was engineering a very quick Groundhog Day scenario, playing the same little shooting puzzle over again every two minutes. It was so fun that I kept doing it after I’d unlocked all the weapons, which was my original intention.
It’s a precarious balance, to be sure. Rainbow Six Vegas 2 is flexible enough to break well when the player goes against the grain (you could say it allows you to create your own, smaller magic circle to play within), but it doesn’t come close to the narrative guidance allowed by a heavily scripted game like Call of Duty 4. Just to nail the point home, you should know that the last boss in Vegas 2, a tactical cover-based shooter, is a helicopter you fight by yourself. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, as they say.
Maybe one day game developers will have enough time and money to create a game system that doesn’t rely on heavy scripting to be cinematic and guiding, and videogames won’t have to have a transparent set of rules if they want to deal with players who want to go against the grain. But in the meantime there are games like Grand Theft Auto 4 that just skirt the problem entirely by designing the game to be broken all the time. Failing a mission and driving a car off the highway during a police chase is hardly the wrong thing to do in GTA.
But if we want that sort of flexibility in games then the game players have to be proactive about it. Game developers are obsessed with demographics; hitting a stereotypical target audience. If you don’t tell them what you want they’ll never give it to you in your lifetime. So stir up trouble, find exploits and show the world how fun doing the ‘wrong’ thing can be. It worked for Tribes – the ability to ski, or skim, along hilly terrain after falling from the sky was originally a bug. Soon enough it was “working as intended” and became a defining feature for the Tribes franchise. Question everything, break everything, and you’ll be helping to find the fun. Because who is some game developer to tell you how to play your game?
Nick Halme is a freelance (out of work) designer who enjoys writing too much, and stays up late enough to qualify for vampire taxes. He’ll die a happy man when games are more art than business.