Here’s a question that’s had cause to gnaw at me lately: how intuitive does a game have to be? At what point does giving the player the freedom to find things out for themselves become being needlessly obtuse? I suppose this goes back to what I was saying last week about secrets in Yoshi’s Woolly World, and how making secrets totally invisible until you touch them might be crossing the line into unreasonable territory.
I bring it up again because of the secrets in Cave Story. The secret combinations of choices and actions that lead to the best ending and alternative weapons are pretty unintuitive, to the extent that even exploring the entire game from top to bottom might not help you discover them by yourself. It’s way too easy to accidentally make the wrong choice, often by skipping through text too fast, and then be locked out of the path you were aiming for. For example, as I said in the video, the first choice that leads to the ultimate ending is to not collect the jetpack at the moment it becomes available. Which is very unfair on us jetpack enthusiasts. And that’s just the beginning; you also have to go in a room half-way through a waterway level that it’s very easy to be dragged straight past by the current, and then fuck around with an untrustworthy mushroom.
Now, I like a game that’s challenging, and I like a game that’s explorative, as you should know by now. A game like Dark Souls that keeps tutorials to a minimum and leaves you to discover everything at your own pace is precisely my cup of tea. Yes, occasionally you step on a hidden touchplate and get pounded into ground beef by a trap, but the game gives you the chance to anticipate it, if you’ve gotten to the right level of foaming paranoia. You could have spotted the extruding floor tile, or the mysterious slot in the wall next to it, and if all else failed you could have heard the click as you stepped on it and hurled yourself aside before the giant steak tenderizer fell.
The point is, it’s fair, broadly speaking. What I don’t like is when games are unfair. When a game flat out lies to you. And that’s what Cave Story does. It’s practically trolling.
Take the jetpack example. How that choice manifests is that you enter a room, the game pauses for a cutscene, and a character from earlier in the game teleports into the center of the screen. Then gravity takes hold and they fall downwards, out of view. Everything about this presentation is screaming, “Hey! Look at this!” from the pause, to the way the downwards movement of the character draws the eye, to the little thud he makes when he hits the ground out of shot, indicating that the pit isn’t bottomless and we should come and look at what he landed on. To cap it all, even if you just come and look at him out of curiosity, you don’t get to choose whether or not you take the jetpack once you talk to him, because you can’t escape from the pit without the jetpack (or the fully upgraded machine gun). And bypassing the pit without a jetpack (or machine gun) requires a pixel-perfect jump.
All in all, I would go as far to say that anyone playing Cave Story for the first time will 100% definitely take the jetpack at this point. Which is probably the intention. The path to the secret ending is definitely not the one you want the player taking on their first playthrough; the standard ending is a perfectly adequate reward, and the path to the best ending is incredibly, unreasonably difficult, which would be obnoxious on a first playthrough but in a second provides the meaty additional challenge for the player who has established their commitment.
Indeed, I took influence from Cave Story when I made my own freeware platformer, Poacher; it, too, has a secret ending with extra hard boss fight that you can only get from doing some unintuitive things earlier on, because the standard ending is the intended one in a first run through. Not to toot my own horn, though, but towards the end the game does specifically tell you what affects the ending, so that the player can intuit what they have to do next time. I doubt that a player of Cave Story would think of their own volition to turn their nose up at the jetpack even on the second playthrough. You might do something like that out of curiosity when you’ve totally familiarized yourself with the game, but even that’s not certain, if you’ve not looked the game up on the internet.
Hang about, though. If you’re playing Cave Story, then you almost certainly do have internet, and first heard about it on the internet. Assuming you’re not one of those weirdos who bought the 3DS version. Maybe it’s perfectly valid in this day and age to design a game with the intention that you can only unlock all its secrets from looking it up online and taking part in an exchange of knowledge. That’s actually a pretty shrewd marketing strategy, especially considering that Cave Story owes most of its popularity to word of mouth.
I mean, not a day goes by in which I don’t light another candle on my home Dark Souls altar, and there are plenty of things in Dark Souls that are virtually impossible for a lone player to figure out without help. How to save Solaire is the first of many things to spring to mind. I’ve always accepted that about Dark Souls because it’s quite overtly a game to be explored partly through open discussion and a loose sense of co-operation. The capacity to be discussed among fellow travelers who are all having different experiences – the whole ‘water cooler gaming’ thing – is a property I’ve always admired in games.
Perhaps the difference is that, if you miss something in Dark Souls, you can still continue exploring and finding your own way, and if you find out about the thing you missed later from the off-game discussion then nothing’s stopping you from going back and getting it. Whereas, if you go hunting for the secrets of Cave Story then you’ll hit a big wall and be forced to look up what you’re supposed to do.
What I do know is that, when I was a kid, it was all about the adventure games. If you were stuck on the puzzles, there’d be at least one other kid in the playground who was a bit further in the same game and could offer some guidance. Adventure games started losing their appeal when the internet suddenly made it easy to instantly reveal the solutions, and so perhaps video games have had to turn to other methods to keep the conversation going. I dunno. What do you think, comments? Which is best: a game where you can figure it all out on your own through intuition, a game that provokes an open discussion, or taking all your clothes off and slowly sitting down on a slightly warmed-up birthday cake?