All Around The World, The Game Plays You – welcome back!

Ouch, it’s been far too long since I posted here. Since my last update I’ve been employed, unemployed, employed again and moved 120-ish miles north. It’s been a busy almost-year, with things like volunteering at the London 2012 Games being a big distraction from my own gaming endeavors.

But now, I’m back! Now we resume our erratically-scheduled programming.


Soviet Russian-themed memes aside, the title of this post is fairly accurate. There are games where this is obvious, and games where it takes you a long time to notice. But I believe it’s fair to say that games ‘play’ with the players more than people realise. (There is a whole audio aspect to this that I’m going to save for a different post, I think)

I’m going to juggle my psychology and game theory hats now, folks.

The goal of a game is to encourage the player get from A to B (or C/D/E, if you take an RPG route). In my view, this is done through a combination of narrative, level design and player intuition.

Stories have a logical progression that players can follow; a narrative can lead them to explore new environments or try new abilities/weapons without much conscious thought on their part. It’s just ‘what you do to progress’. An easy example is Portal; it is essentially a modular game at its most obvious. You start at Test Chamber 1 and go from there in sequence, picking up new add-ons for the Portal Gun that you require to keep progressing. Then ta-da!- you’re done, congratulations, and have an achievement or two.

The game as a whole and all the levels have been designed with linear progression to get players from A to B, so the players are doing precisely what the developers want. But in more open-world games like Batman: Arkham City, the players are given the freedom to run around the environment and do what *they* want in the order *they* like. Liberating for players, a nightmare for designers and testers. So to reign it in a bit, games like this tend to dangle shiny things in the player’s path to sneakily direct them onto a series of events that progresses the game without feeling like it’s forcing them to do things the developer’s way. Arkham City has a narrative that spans an entire city and, like many narratives, has a linear progression. The player finishes one campaign objective then is immediately shown (or hinted at) where the next one can be found. But the lure of the open city means hours can be spent just beating up goons and gliding around the buildings looking for Riddler trophies; fun, certainly, but doesn’t really move things on.
So instead, there are clever devices in play that gently steer the player into doing certain things. There are some trophies that can’t be obtained unless you have a certain gadget- and you can only get that gadget at a certain point in the main storyline. You can be gliding around the dockside and see the bat signal in the sky, tempting you to go and answer the call- which, of course, is pulling you back into the main campaign line. The goons you’re hanging above mention something going on in Joker’s Fun House- if you listen to them and go find the Fun House, you’re back on the main progression path again.

This is even true in platform games. Access points to ‘special stages’ and ‘bonus areas’ are often found by accident, but are often also sneakily hinted at. A collectable placed in an oddly featureless area? Maybe there’s a hidden door. An enemy patrolling an empty corridor section? It could be guarding the entrance to a secret level. The more you play of games like this, the more you see something that looks a little conspicuous and think “Huh, I wonder if they’ve hidden something for me?”

There are many ‘Let’s Plays’ online, a concept that is rapidly growing in popularity, along with the prevalence of online streaming sites. I’ve watched a few of my friends’ versions of these, and have picked up on a few occasions where the player has been conditioned into knowing what’s coming.

The Final Fantasy series, for example. There’s a save point before a door. What is your reaction?
“Boss fight” or “Mini-boss fight” is a common one.

You find a weapon pod with a sniper rifle or a Fuel Rod Cannon in one of the later Halo games. Thoughts?
“Technical fight” going down at the next checkpoint.

You suddenly gain an item that causes electrical damage while in a sewer. What would you think to that?
“Electrocuting enemies time!”

Developers can be deviously clever people, it seems!


~ by Tegan on March 13, 2013.

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