The Rusty Toolbox – 2

It’s this very element that developers often forget or ignore in favor of the sexier things that get the press — graphics, story, characters, tricks of the trade. The first element of any videogame shouldn’t be what you see, hear or comprehend — it’s what you feel. The purest example of this is Street Fighter II and other such fighting games. Players enjoy these games not because of what’s on the screen but because they feel good to play. The more quick moves and combos one learns and the higher the skill level one plays at, the better one’s hands and muscles feel while manipulating the controllers. While I don’t believe anybody’s ever done it, I’d love to see a brain scan of somebody playing a fighting game really well. I’d be willing to bet they get the same sort of “runner’s high” that athletes do during a great performance. In short, your hands need to be happy before your head is.

Everything else needs to be layered on top of this basic player-restricted paradigm. For some games — the most abstract ala Tetris — this isn’t a problem. Since they’re not that far removed from the reality-restricted possibilities of a physical game their quality is very obvious because there isn’t a big layer of whipped cream atop the gameplay cake. It’s the unique possibilities of games unbound by physics and the rules of reality that cause problems. Videogames allow developers to put experiential layers atop the actual gameplay that mask or otherwise hide the arbitrary restrictions of the gameplay. Indeed, one of the holy grails of the game developer is to make the illusion of exploration and freedom so complete and convincing that the player ultimately accepts the restrictions as an intrinsic part of the game world rather than an arbitrary blockage.


Some developers get this. Some don’t. Some almost get it and then lose confidence in their own creations. I can think of several examples right off the bat. The now-defunct Looking Glass, developers of the Thief series, stated that the reason they put in several combat-heavy levels in the first game in the series was because they weren’t sure that players would enjoy sneaking around in what looked like a first-person shooter. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth made this same mistake years later when the game became boring and tedious every time the player had a weapon rather than running and hiding. More recently Mirror’s Edge took flak for its combat sequences and distracting backgrounds. What players really wanted was to run and jump and grab onto ledges, something they got via downloadable abstract race courses. The latest Prince of Persia, on the other hand, got it exactly right — minimal fighting, no death, just the joy of near-superhuman acrobatics and the collection of orbs. If it works, if it’s enjoyable, let the gameplay breathe. It will carry you places where mere graphic trickery won’t.

The inspiration for this particular column was the just-released Cryostasis. This is a game that in many ways I could praise. It’s dripping with style and atmosphere, has a ton of unique and interesting ways to present its story and even manages to give some genuine scares. Yet the game ultimately fails because the combat and movement system feels clunky, slow and awkward. Was that deliberate on the part of the developers? Possibly. Regardless, it just doesn’t work. In a moment-to-moment experience like a videogame, my hands weren’t happy so I simply couldn’t enjoy the rest of the proceedings. I refuse to accept the all-too-common developer excuse that a game in development will get better once all the elements are in place. If your game isn’t fun to play with Xs and Os, you need to go back to the drawing board until it is. All the bells and whistles can make a good game great. They can’t make a bad game good.

Page 1


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s