Dec 4, 2012

Breakin' the Law

I find that as gamers, we have grown accustomed to certain patterns, certain unwritten laws in our entertainment. See a crate and you know to smash it. Have a gun in your hand and you expect to be shooting at people at some point. See a gap and you know you have to jump it.

I was telling an idea of mine to fellow game designer Francisco Gonzalez today, and he pointed something out - that the idea reverses what is usually considered a standard feature in adventure games and makes us do the opposite thing, and this comment got me thinking about the concept of pattern repetition in games.

Some of my favourite moments in gaming have been when games have caught me off guard, and made me do unexpected things. When I met a group of monsters in Baldur's Gate who didn't attack me, but instead engaged me in conversation and then handed me their autograph, for example (which is completely useless for the entire game, but a fun feature to have). Or in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, when the solution to a puzzle was to close the Nintendo DS and then open it again.
Short AGS game Night Eyes plays with the tropes of the point and click genre - putting you in the role of a cat, and thus unable to do most of the things we expect adventure game characters to be able to do.

Moments like this catch my attention, they make me sit up and take notice of what a game is doing. So many games that I play often feel like I am not actually problem solving, merely acting out what I already know needs to be done. I'm not saying that this isn't interesting and challenging - often the best balance in gameplay arrives when the designers knows that we know all the rules and then makes us make our way through difficult situations using those skills. There is, however, an absolute joy to be found in doing something and seeing unexpected results with real game-world consequence.

There comes a point in any genre, no matter how much I love it, when I become bored by the actual gameplay and want fresh ideas. It's why I hold games such as Deus Ex and Planescape: Torment in such incredibly high regard, and it's why I keep trying more and more games, searching for more sparks of creativity. The strangest thing about games is that they're regularly entirely fictional - often they employ settings that are in no way even slightly realistic, with plots that go beyond belief and graphics styles that can be completely unique and abstract. Why, then, do we obey the unwritten rules of the genre as though they are absolute?

I remember a short indie game which put you in the boots of a spaceman landing on an alien planet with a gun. You're given the controls to jump and shoot, and you're set free to play, running along the surface of the planet. When you encounter little alien creatures, it's instinct to shoot them - after all, why be given a gun if we're not supposed to shoot? - however by the end of the (very short) game it becomes apparent that none of these creatures were hostile. A second playthrough confirms that the game can be finished without the use of the shoot button at all.

subAtomic plays with logic for comedic effect - such as making you extinguish a fire with a hammer. In a less restricted game, such stretches of logic would be frustrating, but in a contained area such as this, it's a fun way to mess with players.
I've mentioned that I've been playing Inquisitor - this gives a fun example of this behaviour right at the very beginning. When you approach the town gates - the very first thing you do - you're given a quest to go and kill the bats surrounding the town in order to be let in. This is so typical of RPGs it almost induces a groan, but the second time I started the game - not interested in such trivial quests - I chose the option whereby my character refuses to be lured into such a quest. The result? The guard let me in, of course. It goes to show how accustomed I've become to the RPG tropes that I blindly accepted this annoying mission the first time around, without a question.

There are these games that break the mold and do creative things, and I am absolutely compelled to seek them out. I want to have my expectations hurled against the wall, to be surprised and to think about games in new ways. Games shouldn't just be about recognizing the patterns we hold so dear, but also about being creative and making the players be the same. Designers, we can do this. Players, let's embrace this, and ask for this.

And if you've never played a game that messes with your expectations and want to see how it can be done in the next 5-10 minutes?

Try 9:05.

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