Archive for August, 2011

Veritas Ex Machina: When Mechanics Break a Game

Here are a few muses I have regarding jarring mechanics in videogames.

A lot of complaints people have about promising games is that there are certain parts that do not gel with the expectations built up by the rest of the game. That is to say, there are certain parts that do not seem to take place with the same laws or tenants.

Imagine you’re reading a book. You’re thoroughly enjoying it, it’s a pretty standard genre piece, but at a pivotal moment, it turns into choreography for a baroque dance. This is an unsettling experience, since you are not familiar with dance, you just want to read your book. Unless the book you’re reading is House of Leaves, it’s probably something you don’t want in your library.

Why, then, do we accept this in videogames? Part of game design is to create a consistent, believable (if not realistic) world for the player to play in. The player should not be asking at any point “Why can’t I use the other mechanics to solve this puzzle?”.

There are a couple of types of immersion-breaking inclusions.

The Broken Cog
Sometimes, it’s just one thing that when included, will break a game. Something that runs against the stream, makes the machine that is the game hiccup occasionally, but will nonetheless mar the experience for the player.

One big thing in videogames recently was Quick Time Events. Every game had it, and it seemed like a cheap way to make cutscenes interactive. It’s an old mechanic, from the days of Dragon’s Lair. But in most games, it didn’t mesh with the rest of the game – players were left frustrated that they had to use twitch reflexes to solve something their mind wanted to do. But it is not the quick time event itself that is to blame – games like Heavy Rain show that consistent use of this oft-hated mechanic can create a good game. But even within itself, Heavy Rain is consistent. Buttons do particular things, and never change. But Resident Evil 4 will randomise the buttons in it’s QTE segments. This was a major complaint amongst players. It just didn’t feel right amongst the survival horror.

Most recently, however, a bruhaha has begun amongst players of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, over the inclusion of mandatory boss fights – something taken for granted in a lot of games. DEHR advertises four different styles of play, but the boss fights facilitate only one. Whether or not this is intentional is not part of this discussion – no amount of rationalisation can subtract from the fact that this breaks immersion three out of four times a player encounters this situation, since it is asking for a gameplay style they have not chosen to play. No matter how many interesting, immersive features you add to a game, the inclusion of one which jars against the theme you have decided will ruin it.

The Incredible Machine

Sometimes, however, a game will try to do too much. It will try to be everything, mechanics wise. A good example of this is Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. It contains four distinct sub-mechanics:

  • A Parkour Platforming System
  • A Cover-Based Shooting System.
  • A Vehicle System
  • A Quick-Time Event System

    While the Quick-Time Event system is a given, there seems to be a dichotomy between the platforming and the cover-based shooting sections of the game. Neither blend together very well, and all attempts are forced and rather lukewarm. This is because the shooting subsystem is designed counter to the platforming, that is to say, the cover shooting has to stay in one place or duck into cover, while the platforming has you jumping around and being dynamic. Having to stop one style of play and pick up another is cumbersome, and especially in a game where the protagonist is shown to have the reflexes of a rhesus monkey, cover based shooting just doesn’t work. I can see why it was in Gears of War, but I can’t see how it was in Uncharted.

    A better implementation can be seen in Assassin’s Creed, where the combat system encourages you to move from place to place and never stand still, so the transitions between the two subsystems are fluid and seamless, instead of being audible gear changes.

    An older example of two subsystems that work together but have a distinct difference is the Core Design version of Tomb Raider. In Tomb Raider, the protagonist had two modes – platforming, and shooting. Drawing your guns (of which there are two, to avoid having to program in clinging to ledges and shooting simultaineously – more on that in another essay) activates a combat mode which is very primitive and rudimentary. You shoot, and you continue to move and jump in order to avoid your enemies’ attacks. Entering the combat mode robbed you of your ability to cling onto ledges, but it [i]did not[/i] rob you of the ability to do your basic platforming moves. Enemies were few and far between, and often the most entities fighting you were three or four, as opposed to the countless waves in Uncharted. While your health was finite, you could withstand a lot of punishment before dying.

    Another game whose design works against itself at all turns is Alone in the Dark 5. It is a survival horror, with shaky handgun controls and scarcity of ammo, but it requires precision aiming to defeat even the most rudimentary of enemies. It has “realistic” vehicle controls (that also crop up in games like GTAIV, but done much better) but demands action-movie style driving for it’s vehicle levels. You cannot design a game for one purpose and force it to do another.

    So what can be done to stop all of these problems? Not much, unless you have a super organised team who is willing to make sure the game is tested in the right way (for game enjoyment rather than just bugtesting). When in preproduction, game design choice should be based on the style of game you are making, not on what mechanics are popular. This is a problem that has always been in games – back in the early 90s, games inexplicably became 3D without regard for how this would change the game’s paradigm. The refusal to publish 2D games by some publishers (like Sony) resulted in hasty and poor game design decisions by designers who had very little experience with the style of game 3D is made for (Simon the Sorcerer 3D being a prime example).

    The Design of a game is just as important (if not more so) as it’s story, sound, graphics or engine. It must harmonise with itself, be believable in the context of the game, and most importantly: Never make the player angry at it’s existance. A player can be frustrated at their own skill, but if they feel the game has cheated them by including a broken mechanic, that is a black mark on the game’s report card.