What’s an item, anyways?

I’m currently working on a side project with friends, where you control a character in an apartment complex. It’s about the day-to-day lives of these other characters, and we were considering whether or not to include items in the game. This post is just some open, loose thinking about the topic of items in story-driven, single player games with more or less fixed stories.

Spoiler: the conclusion is that ‘should we include items’ depends on lots of other choices, so this post is mostly driving in circles… but anyways…

(If you have comments, thoughts or ideas that might be useful for a mostly linear, story-focused game set in an apartment, please let me know!)

History of Items?

This led me to think about the history of ‘items’ and games. The usage of items in games stems far before videogames existed in the mainstream – the earliest that I know of would be Dungeons and Dragons and early Interactive Fiction from the ‘70s. Of course, I could say that a football is an “item” in the game called “Football”, but I think at that point things are getting too abstract and I don’t really care.

So, for this post, let’s ignore games with ‘physical’-esque elements – combat, platforming challenges – games in which items change how big the numbers get when you slash a slime, or change your moveset. Let’s just talk about games where you can move around a space and talk to things – games that are closer to visual novels, or perhaps are visual novels.

Items as Currency?
In this case, items represent a type of ‘currency’ for the player that can be exchanged for narrative. For example, if Asako lends her hat to Kosuke, but you obtain the hat, you can then ’spend’ that hat by returning it to Kosuke, in order to receive narrative relating to Asako and Kosuke. In another way, it’s a way of the game shifting the game’s storytelling progress more towards the player, since the story doesn’t advance until the item is “spent”.

This can take various complexities: a common use is to make a puzzle out of figuring out what item to use. In a very boring context, this is a fetch quest: find 3 Apples for Asako. Neither the apples nor giving Asako the apples probably feels that significant. In a tightly designed context, this is something like presenting the correct court evidence with the correct chunk of a witness testimony in Phoenix Wright: the puzzle forces you to inhabit the role of the attorney more, pay attention to the mystery, and the puzzle also just makes sense with the context of the game.

One note is that when it comes to story-focused games, innovative uses of items seem to require very good writing! Which shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s worth noting that I don’t think writing can really be an afterthought in a story-focused game that is using items. A simplification I wanted to consider for our game is to remove items. Which made me wonder: what are pros/cons of having/not having items?

Gathering Items can stand in for prose/dialogue

In a game where you talk to characters, if text is related to getting further in the overall story – that dialogue takes on significance more than flavor text (witty jokes on objects, or short lines by minor NPCs).

So, in story-driven games with items, the items are usually used to drive the story. Items are used as a type of currency to give you more story. But also, the process of finding an item – done by controlling a character – is part of the story/feel of the game. The way that the game deals with the abstraction between the concrete – players physically doing each thing – and the abstract – using text to describe stuff happening – builds the texture of the game.

The player’s focus shifts to the character who is finding these items. If you go around a community in a game, and talk to everyone, the story still filters through that controllable character’s personality. A designer can add cutscenes not featuring the controllable character, but these still have a lower level of precedence since you’re not controlling those characters. You could also allow multiple characters to be controlled, but the same idea around ‘focus’ still applies.

That is to say… it’s all in how a designer puts items to use, whether they end up irritating or interesting.

…Removing items?

Okay, so what if items are removed entirely? Well, there’s still a character to control. So I think the range of storytelling possibilities is not that different from a game with items. To me, what would change is what the designer might find themselves designing around. A game in which you’re not employing items would probably lead to complexity in some other system (unless the game is intentionally very straightforward.) For example, maybe talking to people has complex, state-tracking actions. Maybe information becomes a type of item. Maybe the characters have detailed schedules and move around. Maybe it’s like a JRPG, or a novel, – you have a cast of characters and you put them in different contexts (It looks like I have just defined what a story is… maybe this post is going nowhere…)

What about when focusing on a community?

Umm… so my initial question into thinking this is that the game I’m working on wants to represent the community and relations of people living in an apartment complex. I initially wondered if having items would make the game feel too ‘about’ the player character, but now that I look at this analysis, I think what I was worried about was a boring usage of items in which the character ferries items around for other characters: where “Here, take this package to Bob” becomes the driver of the story, versus any other game design system possibility or way of storytelling with a cast.

Complexity of items in the game’s design

With items, there’s a whole dimension of complexity added. In Point and Click adventures or games like Chulip, Giftpia or Moon, there’s often a lot of experimentation with using items with the right character at the right time. It can also be prone to frustration if a player gets stuck and experimentation is difficult (dying in Chulip is pretty rough…) or if there’s not a very good hint system available, or if there are just too many minor items that it’s hard to tell what items are important or not! Inventories can be powerful by creating a whole dimension of choice, but they also carry a lot of complexity if not carefully considered.

To bring up Phoenix Wright again, I like that game’s inventory since you only carry relevant items, and it’s a small enough space of items that you aren’t that confused. Moreover, the items aren’t used in a blatantly transactional quest-like exchange.

On the topic of confusion, I was also thinking about times after playing Ihatovo Monogatari, a minimal SNES no-combat RPG: it’s a game with a very simple inventory and quests, but you’re often at a loss as to who you need to talk to in order to progress the game. The game tries to conjure up a shared town community, which the game partially succeeds at, but your time there is mostly about seeking out the next person to get a key item from, and the frustration of trying to find where to go next takes away a player’s stamina towards interacting with the town more.

The presence of items in the game causes you to wonder if you might be missing something, instead of just knowing you haven’t talked to the right person yet. So… not knowing if there are items left increases the mystery of a game’s world, but it also has its downsides.

But if you do remove items, it means you do lose a layer of interaction with the world in finding stuff on objects or on the ground. But it does mean that now the game primarily has to be driven by conversations with characters, so that could be a good thing. Like I mentioned before, maybe items are just ‘unfulfilled wishes’ (like in Giftpia), or something else.

In Conclusion

Items seem to be like the color red. In the sense that there’s nothing inherently good or bad about it… it’s just something you can use. So I think in this case I was asking the totally wrong question.

What this sort of indicates to me is that there are unknowns elsewhere in the game’s design that need to be addressed. So far, we’ve decided to keep the game scale down by setting it over 5 days, focusing on the protagonist’s interactions with a particular apartment resident on each day. I guess the next thing is to try out some writing drafts, and hopefully that leads us to figuring out the best way for the characters to be shown and the stories to be told on each day.

Pitching for the Future

This post is just some elaboration on some short Twitter threads I posted over the past weeks.

Elevator Pitches

Someone posted a quote by Flannery O’Connor on Twitter.

It’s a sentiment I agree with: while reviews and criticism are useful for helping me ground and deepen my understanding of a game or book, there’s a lot inherent to the experience of consuming a complex work that can’t be replicated merely through summary or a few sentences or tweets.

When I saw this back in June, I tweeted a bit about not liking elevator pitch/GIF-driven design. While I think it’s good to have something about your game that translates well to showing it to people who only look at something for a few seconds – I also think that there’s a path in which you prioritize or overfocus on social media appeal that could weaken the core of the game. This mostly comes to mind because I see developers who scream about “Elevator Pitches”, but the thing is that ANY game can have a good elevator pitch and I feel like yelling about this gets young developers to interpret it as “well the whole GAME has to be elevator pitch-able!” which… it shouldn’t! Some games when I see them – they feel optimized to ‘look good’ on Twitter or attract the eyes of publishers. When games are primary driven by an urge to appeal to trends of the time, they feel… flatter to me – designed for some generalized viewer’s immediate pleasure or amusement instead of anything deeper.

I like to think about Anodyne 2. Had we been overly concerned with the game being easy to pitch, we probably wouldn’t have combined 3D and 2D, right? It’s impossible to ‘pitch’ Anodyne 2 in 10 seconds, so I ended up focusing on the ‘nostalgia adjacency’ of the graphics (even though that wasn’t a deciding factor of why we chose low poly art/pixel art)

Worrying about elevator pitches or how well the game translates to GIFs… especially in pre-production/planning – can really bog you down and prevent you from brainstorming more exciting design ideas.

The Future of Games

Leading on from that, it makes me think about games that we’ve seen praised as ‘the future of games’ for looking very realistic or basically being movies. I mean… if you’re reading this I probably don’t need to convince you that what Corporate Games offer us is an extremely narrow view of what’s possible. The future of games feels like more games that are hard to define or describe without playing, one where one player’s comparisons might vastly differ from another player’s. Games whose creation and design are inspired by more than lofty ideals of someone’s GDC talk or famous games in a particular genre – games inspired by history, the current era’s events, etc…

Marina wrote a good essay about “Divesting” from the Games Industry – imagining other futures for games. https://medium.com/@even_kei/divest-from-the-video-games-industry-814a1381092d

Right now a lot of indies seem to be designing for the ‘present’ of games. Trying to find the next slight modification to a niche that’ll grab the attention of streamers. Focusing on art too early at the expense of design, trying to game social media to maximize retweets and favorites. Creating games like a business (sure, that’s necessary to an extent if you’re doing it for a living, but pursuing this to its logical end of scaling/hiring… only results in having to rely on funding and conservative market-tested game ideas)

The Present of Indie Games: A Field Of Funhouse Mirrors Reflecting Gods

Games often feel like some kind of weird pyramid scheme where indies collectively pay tribute to Gods (the “classics” of games… Mario, Zelda, etc), treating the games as the ideals which can never be surpassed. Designers take their design for granted, imitating it without thinking about where those choices came from. The games that result are these strange mixes and distortions of those games: like a house full of mirrors, distorting and misshaping things.

Occasionally in this system, one developer manages to strike gold, via pent up nostalgia for games – Pokemon, Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, Zelda, Metroid… in essence it feels like occasionally, these eternal game brands are rewarding a few lucky developers for sacrificing enough of their life in order to resurrect the brand in the minds of many players. Occasional clever twists may come and go, but indie games often feel eternally stuck in the past, even if their art may be updated for present-day tastes.

Obviously as designers we’re indebted to the past… we hone our craft and art by analyzing the past and looking for trends and seeing how other designers handled problems. But we don’t need to put ourselves in the shadow of a popular game – thinking of ourselves as inferior replicas. Doing that only guarantees that we forever get trapped running circles in the past. Our ideas have worth: they have more worth than the ideas of large corporations trying to drown out the entire audience of game players.

Lagism

Okay, this isn’t related to any of the above. What the hell is with gacha mobile games being so damn laggy? I can see the future now… in 2040s, GDC talks will be about how “Lag” teaches patience. It’ll be taboo to have a UI transition take over 0.1 seconds. Changing a volume slider takes 10 seconds BECAUSE it encourages mindfulness. And then some indie designer who got famous for a meme game about being a shoe named “hat” in the 2020s will win a BAFTA in 2050 for “removing lag from games”, showing their vision…

But… anyways… laggy mobile gacha games. Clicking on buttons, opening menus – everything takes 3 seconds because the game has to contact a server to make sure you’re not cheating so that the IAPs people purchase are legit and so on. God, what a miserable fucking future for games, where every single one of our button presses are verified by some anti-security thing. Once you realize Gacha games are so anti-cheat because – otherwise – it would discourage gambling-addicted players from spending thousands in order to grind and rank at the top of time limited events if their achievements were dampened by cheaters – Gacha games feel a lot more grim.

Moreover, every time I open a Gacha game, within 5 minutes I get depressed and think about how literally anything I could be doing would be more worthwhile than playing this fucking Gacha game. Fuck gacha games. So many (all?) gacha games are a mediocre gameplay system padded out , and maybe peppered with scraps of story (or decent one, hello FGO). The characters are then themed on gross anime stereotypes and possessing idealized women or men. Everything about the game is designed for user retention.

After a few hours, you hit a wall. You need better gear! Whoops! Better play the game on Saturdays at 3:10 PM to 3:35 PM to grind for Pink Slime Gel so I can level up my Unfulfilled Highschool Waifu Fantasy to “Decadence Rank 14” so I can get +10% damage against Chocolate-type monsters to beat the new event quest under 14.5 seconds!!!

Gacha games are exploitative as fuck, designed to take advantage of people prone to gambling addictions, and giving the rest of us mild dopamine hits. A $70 single time game purchase is a hell of a lot more honest than well, Gacha Games. Also Gacha Games are ahistorical and will be canned the instant they’re not profitable.

I look forward to seeing designers in 10 years reflect upon their childhoods playing this crap.

I will say that they’re not worthless to play. Actually, the idea of a game taking up a tiny bit of time over a long period of our lives is interesting. Some games already do this. It’s just gacha games are the absolute worst form of this and only encourage habits that make us sad or give FOMO when we forget to get a daily login bonus.

In fact I’m willing to admit there’s probably a good gacha game out there! Haven’t found it yet though!

Okay, that was therapeutic… uh..

What I’ve Been Consuming

Ihatovo Monogatari (SNES)

I was lucky enough to get to play this for a HardcoreGaming101 Podcast. It’s a very simple game where each short arc is based on a Kenji Miyazawa short story (he’s a famous Japanese poet and writer from the early 20th century). It’s pretty experimental for the SNES – to be honest, it pales pretty badly in comparison to the original works, but I have to give the game credit for trying. It’s mostly walking around trying to find the next character to talk to in order to progress the story – which isn’t something I dislike, but it’s often hard to figure out what to do in Ihatovo…

Miyazawa’s short stories are full of the natural world coming alive in mystical or strange ways, and are often clever or funny subversions on fairy tale, fable or other short story formats of the time. I read through a book of his short stories and enjoyed some of the humor and surrealness, as well as how his deep experience with agriculture (I think) influences his writing. A lesson that we should all get hobbies! Ha ha ha…

All Flowers Bloom (A Novel)

https://westphaliapress.org/2020/01/06/all-flowers-bloom/

This is the 2nd novel by Kawika Guillermo, who is also a professor who studies games, race and more! This novel is about a spirit in the afterlife who is on some ‘afterlife cruise’ and occasionally jumps into the ocean to revisit their past lives, always looking for some lost love. I’m only about halfway, but it’s a fun and exciting novel that jumps across 4,000 years of time from a wide array of perspectives. I’m… not describing it that well, but trust me, it’s good!

In Conclusion

Well, that sure seems like enough for today’s writing!

Um… join me next week (if I manage to write…)

Semicontinuity (A framework of analyzing videogame space)

I found myself thinking about the Dark Souls trilogy, again. Maybe one day I won’t have to think about them again… here is my attempt at exorcising them. Okay. I’ll refer to them as 1, 2, and 3 here.

So the other day I wondered some things. In particular:

  • I had meticulously (and wastefully) platinumed 3. Then why do I have little impression or sense of wonder when recalling it?
  • Why does 2 stand out as the most fascinating and exciting in my mind, even if I only played through it once?
  • Why despite 1’s first half being so strong, is it still not as memorable as 2?

I skimmed a speedrun of 3. It’s easy to see why it’s less memorable than 1 or 2. It has a fairly standard and safe art direction (undead decrepit stuff, dreary boring high fantasy). Environments out of that genre that don’t mystify me (sprawling castles, medieval villages in visually dense cliffs, swampy woods, European halls, catacombs…).

I can recall many of the spaces and levels in detail, but I don’t have the tinge of awe and jealousy I tend to get when being impressed.

Drawn in contrast to 2, some other reasons surface. 3 is far more world-design continuous (here on just continuous) than 2. 

See the Appendix at the bottom for definitions of the terms I’ll use in this post – hyper-, normal-, semi-, and discontinuous. I’ll assume you sort of understand what I mean by these terms going forward:

Okay, so Dark Souls 3 – or just 3 – the game is split into three chunks – Castle, Forest, and Snow Castle. There is a break between Castle and Forest (where you fly, conveying a sense of descent into the world), and a break between Forest and Snow Castle that’s articulated by a level (catacombs, conveying a sense horizontal-plane traversal into the world). These chunks are nearly hypercontinuous within themselves – while they’re not open world, there are handfuls of mutual vantage points, things are detailed and realistically sized. (3’s three chunks are circled here:)

Dark Souls 1 is roughly similar to Dark Souls 3 in continuity, but it takes place in a vertically oriented world. We could pick apart definitions as to what extent these two are continuous, but my focus isn’t on those games. Still, this glass model by Twitter use @rigmarole111 captures 1’s world well: Notice that the game has four strata: the top-level areas – Anor Londo, Duke’s Archive, mid-level areas (Sen’s, Parish, Burg, Garden), lower-level areas (Blighttown), and subterranean areas (not pictured). 

People love 1’s first half because you’re exploring the middle and lower-level areas, totally on your own, shrouded in mystery, and the game is good at helping you create connections between the world (as you play for the first time the structure is not at all obvious). The goal of the game is initially to reach Anor Londo, but you’ve got to explore all over before you get there, and many closed off/difficult paths will tempt you.

I would say 1 gestures at hyper-continuity at times, but actually some of its major mutual vantage points are faked (to good effect), and I would classify it as actually closer to normal-continuous. That is to say, none of its connections are confusing or baffling. If we are walking down, we’re going to the underground, and reach fire-y lava areas. If we go up, we go towards grand, royalty castle areas. It’s standard videogame world stuff (see any castlevania game), executed well in 3D.

Still… it’s not as inspiring as 2 to me. Why? By most popular accounts, 2 is a ‘mess’. The areas don’t make any sense, they connect randomly, there’s no ‘blog-worthy shortcuts!’.

Here’s a world map of Dark Souls 2, where I’ve highlighted the game’s paths.

A few notes:

  • Everything spirals out from Majula, a seaside village.
  • Game Structure:
    • Collect 4 Important Things at the end of 4 paths, located in: Black Gulch (deep dark area), Iron Keep (fire castle in mountains), Brightstone cove (church/caves near a settlement near the ocean), and Sinner’s Rise (moonlit fortress near the sea)
    • Visit Drangleic Castle, go deep deep down all the way to Undead Crypt
    • Go way way up to Dragon Shrine
    • End the game at Throne of Want (in the castle)
  • There’s basically no crossover between main paths and there are barely any mutual vantage points

2 varies from 1 because 2’s world is representing an entire continent. There are little to no mutual vantage points because as you walk from one area to another – even without loading screens – you might be implied to travel miles. The player is going on a world-spanning adventure, much like a JRPG, just without the game giving us the abstraction of a world map to make that feel more coherent. We walk through a mysterious tunnel from Majula to Heide’s tower, and emerge 10 miles away. A quick trek through some woods and a small cave system shoots us out at a shore all the way at the other end of the world. An elevator at the top of a poisonous windmill takes us to a fire-y lava keep. And so on and so forth.

Because 2 is missing a world-map-esque abstraction layer, the game world inevitably connects in some confusing ways. Walking 100 meters can actually imply travelling all sorts of distances. Thus 2 has inconsistencies to how you travel between spaces, and it approaches being discontinuous, and thus becomes a semi-continuous game at times.

Back to Dark Souls 1: while playing, you are oriented within the world. Even as you uncover new places, you’re still aware, roughly, where you are vertically within the game’s world, and if you’re not aware (perhaps as you go to blighttown for the first time), a mutual vantage point (Great Swamp to Undead Burg) comes along and situates you within the world. Or if you wandered into Demon Ruins early and are disoriented, you’ll still become oriented once you see Demon Ruins from Tomb of the Giants.

As a player explores a game’s world, tension slowly builds as they sense they’ve drifted far from home, far from the familiar. And within this tension is where lack of continuity can be used to achieve various effects. Connect the player back to a familiar place and let them feel grounded. Or lead them further and further from the familiar, connecting areas in surprising ways.

2 doesn’t do anything to situate you within the island unless you go and look it up. It’s just one area after another, and the sense of endlessly going deeper into some fever dream of a continent. You just pick a random direction from Majula and keep going and going and going, and it feels like you may never reach any end point. You just know you’re either “sort of far” from Majula or “really far” from Majula.

Eventually, you do hit the end of a path, and the magic wears off, and you get one of the 4 magic items and go on to find the next.

This kind of semicontinuity is fascinating to me. It happens when a game establishes a consistent physical logic but then chooses to break its rules at certain times, or to at least not be consistent in one method of arranging the game’s world. Dark Souls 2 creates fairly continuous areas such as Forest of Fallen Giants, but at the same time does absurd things like having a well take you to a rat-infested catacomb, which THEN takes you to a poorly-lit cave with shambles of wooden housing, and finally some eerie, green cave. Nothing in the game really explains how this connects spatially to the rest of the game (unlike 1’s Lost Izalith, which you can see from elsewhere in the game). Instead, 2 is content to shove you from one area to the next. 2 feels like the randomness of some old videogames’ worlds, but expressed through a detailed 3D world with no loading screens. It’s full of interesting and inconsistent ideas, and like some Twitter mutuals put it – feels like playing a romhack of Dark Souls.

2 is the most memorable for these reasons. You take an elevator down from the top of a castle, and for some reason it shoots you out into a sprawling, blue, underground lake:

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s another elevator which takes you to an underground crypt.

In another section, a mansion sits off the side of a road: you then take the world’s tallest elevator up to a floating set of islands and dragon temples. Now, these strange transitions extremely memorable just because of how bizarre they are, peppered in between fairly reasonable transitions (e.g. walking through misty woods, to forested pathways, to some shady ruins). These moments are strange because the game has lots of non-strange transitions (like the interior of Drangleic Castle), and the game plays them both off as normal.

What semicontinuity gets at for me is the exciting ways we can represent our game worlds as designers. There’s no need to adhere to any one formula or idea: the ways areas are connected can be carefully thought through and become expressive.

It’s something we thought about while making Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (Spoilers ahead.. if you quit Anodyne 2 after 1 hour this is a good time to go finish it!!).

We initially establish a videogame-y logic to shrinking into people located in the 3D world, putting the game in the vicinity of normal-continuous. But as the game goes on, it’s revealed that the linkage of “3D character” and “2D world” is not always paired. Iwasaki Antimon takes you to a mailbox of a person Iwasaki obsesses over. The fur of a dog-creature ends up being a village you reside in for weeks. The desertnpc takes you to something completely unexpected. Pastel Horizon, Minorma’s Orb and New Theeland connect through an alternate Anodyne 1’s Nexus. The notions of space and how they should connect shift from a straightforward videogame-y premise to something disorienting and discontinuous. Anodyne 2’s continuity shifts as you get further… and it uses this to suggest a certain location in 2D as further away.

These sorts of formalized techniques can be used hand-in-hand with the story themes to make certain ideas resonate stronger with the player. For example, putting Dustbound Village inside a nano area makes you wonder about the rest of the 2D worlds you’ve visited – and gets you to rethink what you’ve learned about your role as a Nano Cleaner in Anodyne 2’s world. The strange large areas in the Outer Sands break down an attempt at a ‘logical’ understanding of Anodyne 2’s world’s fabric and suggests something that exists on a more fantastical layer. Thinking about and using continuity in different ways can create different headspaces for a player to inhabit as they read what you’ve written or prepared for them to play through.

Anyways, all degrees of continuity can result in interesting games. On the hypercontinuous end, we could have an exploration of a single bedroom, not necessarily sprawling and repetitive corpgames. Or an exploration of a single town (like in Attack of the Friday Monsters). There’s no right approach to making games or picking the level of continuity. But if you’re designing games it’s good to find some approach that you care about.


Appendix on defining continuous/etc

As always, game design theory is… sort of made up, right? These ideas may bear fruit when analyzing certain games, they may be worthless for others.

I’ll define continuity as a game’s tendency to have unbroken, realistically-sized spaces that you travel through without many cuts. On one end of the spectrum, games can be hypercontinuous (painful accuracy to real life – exteriors of buildings always match the interiors, the camera never cuts, there is no fast travel). I don’t know of many large games that are hypercontinuous, but the majority of recent open-world corporate games (corpgames) are close to this (Breath of the Wild, God of War, Grand Theft Auto).

Or games can be discontinuous – levels connect with seemingly no underlying logic (Yume Nikki, Goblet Grotto, Chameleon Kid).

But most games tend to lay in the middle – normal-continuous. This is when a game employs the standard set of breaks in its spatial traversal that we expect: a JRPG brings you from a world map (abstract) to various towns and dungeons. We traverse the world both concretely (through dungeons and towns) but also abstractly, through a world map. However, to the player, it’s always understood where you are in this world and the game generally intends its world to be remembered as a continuous space, even if it may change the level of abstraction from time to time. Normal-continuous represents what today’s commonly accepted practices are in terms of how a game articulates its transitions from one area to another.

Hypercontinuous

  • Characterized by a game whose spaces have an experience of moving about them that is very close to real life.
  • Likely to not have restricted levels (e.g. you can walk anywhere)
  • Exists at big and small game scales: From “See that mountain? You can visit it!” to “spend a day sitting in an apartment.”
  • Usually 3D, just because 2D more or less is always an abstraction from “realistic” representations of 3D space

Normal-Continuous

  • Most games. E.g. JRPGs with world maps, visual novels with different areas
  • Spaces may not be ‘realistic’ in representation or connection
  • a player can make sense of where they are in the world most of the time, because areas are connected with consistent logic and the game makes an effort to let the player situate themselves (through a world map, etc.)
  • travelling between areas is consistently represented and has consistent outcomes. E.g. when a game has 3D houses you can enter, if you enter the door and then always enter an interior area, the game is following its own rule that “Going into houses leads to an interior space”. A continuous game is unlikely to violate this rule. Other rules could be – Doors take you to new areas, doors take you to the same area if you re-use them, etc. A discontinious approach would be that sometimes a house’s door takes you to a beach or something

Semicontinuous

  • Either a mixture of discontinous and normal/hyper-continuous approaches, intentionally (or not ) breaking ‘good practices’ and breaking the sense of logic to its game’s world

Discontinuous

If a game never situates its player in a familiar place, but shows one surprising locale after another, it enters the realm of discontinuous, like dream-exploration Yume Nikki, labyrinthian platformer Chameleon Kid, semi-procedurally-generated 0n0w (https://colorfiction.itch.io/0n0w)  or  spiraling 2D/3D maze 10 Beautiful Postcards (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68N1udqRrvk) , or various early PC games that didn’t seem to ‘care’ about player’s navigation or “good practices”. Games that use this approach can explore unique feelings, sometimes terrifying. Digital space within discontinuous games can be implied to be infinite and unknowable, and that’s a very interesting situation to place a player into.

In choosing not to embody a place and be hypercontinuous, a discontinuous game begins to embody an abstract sense of feelings depending on the game, but also the game opens up more space for a player to relate *their* spatial memories with that of the games.

Anodyne 1 is somewhat discontinuous, by way of Yume Nikki’s influence. And I think it’s a big reason why many people remember its world and take away different things – in a discontinuous game world, a player is left to form many of their own associations based on what images and text the designer provides.

As a game changes its digital space from more realistically connected to more discontinous, the world may feel unknowable, a fever dream of unrelated parts and images that seem to go on endlessly, a fearsome nightmare or dream, all contained within a few bits on a computer’s hard drive…

(If you liked this post… I’m on Twitter! https://twitter.com/han_tani . I also run a discord for my game studio Analgesic Productions at https://discord.com/invite/analgesic

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Sean’s Some Games of the Decade 2010s

Here’s some games of the decade! I probably should mention some more console and flash games from early in the decade, but… this will do, I guess. It’s not exhaustive, just some highlights I can remember.

Detention – Investigates the White Terror period of Taiwanese history through horror, thinking about Taiwan’s struggles of modernization and the ways its citizens might reflect on its history. I’ve seen a few other games dealing with similar topics, and I hope in the 2020s we see more games that can act as historical texts or reflections in some way. Also shout out to Devotion, which I haven’t played yet, but on watching a playthrough seems well-written with an interesting mechanic of recontextualizing a single space. Also I need to bring up Devotion’s relation to China, and how that game was taken down for criticizing China’s president. (The specifics are unknown, but China’s political situation is obviously one of the underlying causes, regardless of the specific machinations of how the game takedown occurred.) I can only hope Red Candle Games (the creators of these two games, based in Taiwan) are okay after. Also, the One China myth perpetuated by China and its desire to re-absorb the independent Taiwan, has resonances with that entire situation. But, moving on…

Oikospiel – A formally memorable 3D game that inspired me to think about all the strange spatial possibilities of games intertwined with novel storytelling formats. And, is a pro-unionizing story, too, on top of all the interesting sound and art design! This was inspiring for me in a lot of ways, pushing me to really try out 3D for the first time. I think a year after playing I released All Our Asias, then more recently, Anodyne 2. I also loved the camera angles and various types of 3rd person control there were.

Facets – Other than mind-diving being a favorite trope, Facets illustrates the expressive possibilities of JRPGs made with prefab assets, depicting the unraveling reaches of a mind. And its battle design is tight, showing the expressive potential of systems that often get ahistorically written off as grindy or “old”. There’s so much depth to a small kit of tools, which inspires me to really push a simple-feeling system to its limits (right now we’re designing a intimidating (for us) game with jrpg-esque mechanics.) There’s even a cool post about how these battles were made in Facets!

Subway Adventure – A grab bag of 3D spaces connected via subways, the motions of waiting, boarding, and getting off trains and wandering stations (with their evocative names), the ways they disturbingly parallel real life and the circulation of people. While playing, this game really takes me to a weird place with my relation to transit and just moving around to different zones. Bodies moving in large numbers. Makes me think about tourism and wandering – what can you actually do as a tourist other than just stare and gawk? Why travel? Why does tourism exist, what’s the history… etc. Well, other than that, formally this is just a cool 3D game, too. Each station has some unique theme to it and a mini-treasure hunt.

Mouse Corp https://thecatamites.itch.io/mouse-corp– I like a lot of thecatamites’s games but picked this because its saturated 3D environment and abstract political story and mechanical play on open world grindy games have stuck with me despite me only playing it once years ago. The way the atmosphere changes as stuff passes to night, or the strange 3D creatures lurking the overworld – there’s a lot to love here on top of the narrative aspects.

Knytt Underground – Dark, lush, calm, mysterious, memorable. In some ways, a 2D ‘open world’ platformer. Some goals, but they feel like tactile texture so you can enjoy the collaborative soundtrack and art style. A very unified feeling game, left an impression on me when I played it in 2012.

LUCAH – Extremely unified ambience to everything and I love seeing that level of control from a development team. Also the action is good. The narrative/atmosphere is just loose enough where you can still make out its themes, but also lets you involve yourself in the process of unpacking the ideas around religion, gender, etc…

Lacuna III – rook (acclaimed musical artist!) also makes videogames! Framed as an emulation of a gifted ROM from one person to another, Lacuna III has a really strong, oppressive atmosphere and intimate-feeling narrative that form a cool pairing. It’s like if Link to the Past’s Dark World was good hahahahah

Fishing Minigame 2 – Takes the twist of NieR Automata’s multiple endings, but uses a single screen and a clever re-use of JRPG name entries to let you gain layers of understanding to the game’s characters, granting depth to what’s usually a random distraction in JRPGs (the “fishing minigame”). The creator’s other works are all great ideas expressed via RPG Maker.

Corporate Games

NieR (2010) – A multifaceted interpretation of the Ocarina of Time archetype. Its graphical/gameplay ‘shortcomings’ make it much stronger and argue against the excesses of the decade’s AAA games (despite being a bit excessive itself.) I can’t pick one great thing – the dream-like, over-exposed bloom saturating the grassy hills and shores? Song of the Ancients? Sense of hope/desolation in its overworld? “Weiss, you dumbass?” The factory and seashore town song? The Forest VN section? One thing’s for sure… if your game doesn’t have prose text on black fades, it should.

Attack of the Friday Monsters – I’m less into the slathered layers of nostalgia here, more into the light elements of fantasy imbued into a childhood community. Using a simple card game as texture, the small (and beautiful) Japanese town’s fixed locations gain a lot of life/meaning (following in footsteps of games like My Summer Vacation, love-de-lic games, etc). I always think about this game a little as a designer, but haven’t found quite the right idea to borrow from its structure yet.

Dark Souls – I did a photography project on these games! Learned a lot about 3D space and how you begin to remember it by walking across the same paths over and over. While I haven’t made any games that involve the idea of repeatedly visiting a space and seeing it change, there are still a lot of great spatial ideas you can learn from playing the slow-paced Souls series. I like Dark Souls 2 the most visually, but they’re all pretty good. (Demon’s too.)

“Complex”

Every one of the 80 or so collectible dragon in Spyro the Dragon’s remaster is uniquely modeled and animated. They each appear for about 10 seconds on screen. It’s a fact that these dragons are entirely pointless to the overall game and that the amount of work that went into them borders on reckless.

Recently Marina and I have tossed around the term ‘complexity’ when it comes to making Anodyne 2.

Complexity is easiest to explain on the level of visual art. It’s the trap for beginner game developers, especially those attuned to visual art but not other aspects of design. It happens when any of the following get too big for the artist to handle.

  • Number of art assets in the game (characters, enemies, environment objects)
  • Number of animations per art asset
  • Art style

If there’s too many art assets or animations, each asset takes longer to revise, and overall art production takes longer. Risks a revision. Art style being elaborate just makes that worse. Imagine hand-painted or pixeled backgrounds. The iteration takes a very long time. This is why if you see a game with an extremely complicated art style and a tiny team, you can bet that it is probably not coming out soon, or if it does, its design might suffer given the difficulty of revisions or iterating.

This applies to game design, too. For every thing the player can do, you’ve gotta somehow fit that into your game. That’s something to think about. If it needs to be clearly communicated, is it? More playtesting. More bugs. It also creates tasks for the programmer. Or, it creates art to make or music and sound to make.

It also applies to writing. Too many main characters? Now you have even more plot arcs to write, more cutscenes to make, more balancing to do with where you read them in the game. Oops, now the programmer has to code all these things too! More chances for bugs. More things to tweak. Good luck! You’ll need it. Have fun remembering all this alongside the 100,000 other things in the game.

Now, is it worth working 10 years on a game? I don’t think so.

My game Even the Ocean is a textbook example of this happening, stretching out a game’s development to 3.5 years. By not properly setting a good scope for the game within pre-production, we waffled around, resulting in numerous design, writing, and art revisions. The game was also too big – too many cutscenes, maps, levels, mechanics. If the game was drastically shorter or scoped down, these revisions wouldn’t have been as numerous or time consuming.

I think we’ve recognized this while working on Anodyne 2. I think, inevitably, some things will be and have been more complex than I think necessary. Some steps we’ve taken:

  • No dynamic music (less music and debugging to do.)
  • No autosaving (less bugs related to saving in weird places or at weird times.)
  • No baked lighting (less time spent making art in areas)
  • Very simple combat (simplifies the possibility space for 2D mechanics)
  • Reusable boss patterns (reduces programming time)
  • No collectibles outside those that advance the main game (reduces design, testing, coding, writing time)
  • Removing extra supplementary cutscenes we used to have planned (reduces writing, coding, etc)
  • Some level design tricks which I can’t talk about yet (reduces art time as well as design time and code and everything really)
  • Using Unity, saving tons of time on tools programming
  • Use of ‘fade text’ to simplify and reduce cutscenes and animations. This is the use of fading partially to black and displaying text on top, describing a cutscene, rather than actually programming and animating what the text describes.
  • Few custom shaders (less coding!)
  • Very simple models and textures (quicker art!)
  • Relatively loose main story (after the first hour), meaning the player less often must be guided by hand-crafted cutscenes (less coding, writing, etc!)
  • Few main characters, reducing complexity of the script (easier writing!)
  • Minimal platforming mechanics in 3D, due to the difficulty of debugging 3D physics and camera mechanics. (less coding!)
  • Many NPCs share animations or only have a simple bob. (less art!)
  • Little need for optimization thanks to most Unity scenes being small/separate. (less coding and bugfixing!)

Of course, the game is still ridiculously complicated and stressful to work on! Even with all these simplifications! Part of it is inherent to the genre we picked – a story-driven adventure in 3D and 2D, which often requires lots of unique assets.

But imagine if I had all of the above to worry about, too.

Anodyne 2 wouldn’t be coming out next year, that’s for sure.

Remember, your game doesn’t need to be complex to be good. Your ideal version of your game is not necessarily the minimum it needs to be good.

Also, a lot of this matters less if your game is much shorter. Keep in mind complexity mainly becomes a problem based on how long your game is. Also, this advice probably applies most to games that could be called similar to Anodyne, Even the Ocean, Anodyne 2, All Our Asias. I don’t know how to make an elaborate roguelike game.

A lot of what I’ve outlined above falls into a ‘lo-fi’ production ethos – trying to find shortcuts where possible and work within your capabilities. Trying to work commercially, like with Anodyne 2, does make things harder as we have to make some compromises (like putting in extra polish in parts because it helps with marketing the game). But…

I hope we can deliver Anodyne 2 on time! I’m always worried about it… but at least, this time, I’m thinking about these things.

 

2013-9-30 journal, design

While working today, I decided on something sort of interesting with one of the entities in the game.  It arose accidentally.

In Even the Ocean, there are entities which launch water very quickly. It’s magic water though (…or something!), and when you touch it, your velocity becomes the same as the water – so the bullets launch upwards, thus, you kind of get boosted upwards into the air when touching a bullet.

 

I can choose how many “bullets” each entity launches – I set the default to five. The bullets all launch at the same time, but have staggered velocities (i/n * max_vel, where i = bullet index, n = nr of bullets). The way I set the velocity of the player is: if on a frame of the game, the bullet touches the player, then increment a “push velocity” counter which will be added to the players velocity in player’s physics routine, before the position of the player was updated (whew , that was a mouthful).

Anyways, what this basically amounts to is that if you are touching multiple bullets at once, the velocities end up being incremental. So if the bullets launch at velocities 90, 60, 30, and I touch all of them, I get a boost of 180 (whereas my desired behavior was only getting a boost of 90)

i.e.:

for each bullet:

   if bullet overlaps player:

     player’s velocity += bullet’s velocity.

What usually happened was, only the fastest bullet touched the player anyways (since this usually hits you on the ground or the air), so things behaved normally.

But sometimes, multiple bullets overlap the player in one frame, so instead, we get the effect of shooting the player up REALLLY fast.

I couldn’t reproduce it consistently, likely because there is some random factors I added into the initial bullet velocity. I instead now choose to use the fastest velocity of any number of bullets touching you.

But that interaction with boosting you too far was interesting, so additionally, I decided to be able to make it consistent, and sort of a “skill” thing. So now, when you press jump within a certain time frame, the bullet velocity that affects you, it is doubled (and then some). To sort of visualize this, just look at the GIF up there. If you jump *right* before the bullets launch, then the effect is doubled.

 

This isn’t physically realistic or anything, but it’s interesting and allows for various scenarios (needing to time it correctly to get some secret, needing tot ime it while avoiding other stuff, etc.)

Bugs can be great!

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Human Nature Through the Lens of The Binding of Isaac’s Game Mechanics (By Marina Kittaka)

Human Nature Through the Lens of The Binding of Isaac’s Game Mechanics 
By Marina Kittaka

Note: this essay was written in an academic setting, so it’s in a slightly different tone than I would use for an average article or blog post. It also is written assuming that the reader may have little to no background in video games. 

The interactivity and nonlinearity possible in video games allow for the creation of alternate realities with their own internal rules and value systems. In one sense, all fictional and non-fictional narrative communication functions in this way: altering or exaggerating aspects of reality in order to convey some feeling, theme, or idea about our own existence. In games, however, the resulting experience is inherently unique each time the game is played, even before the player’s interpretation of that experience. The Binding of Isaac adds a large amount of randomly generated structure to this already variable experience, pressing the player’s mind to search for patterns; this creates fertile ground for the formation of superstitious, mythical, or supernatural beliefs. By tapping into this shared human psychology within its own alternate reality, Isaac creates a powerful space in which to contemplate the religious themes that populate its explicit narrative.Structurally, The Binding of Isaac is often classified as a “roguelike.” Rogue was a dungeon exploration game released in 1980, which featured a great deal of procedurally generated content. This means that the game designers did not create one specific dungeon for the player to inhabit, but instead created algorithms with which the game would generate a unique dungeon each time the game began. Like Rogue, Isaac features procedurally generated dungeons, including randomly appearing items (often with themes relating to childhood or religion), enemies, and boss creatures. Isaac also features “perma-death,” a common feature of roguelikes. While in many games, death simply sets back the player’s progress in an otherwise consistent storyline, death in Isaac means you must start over in a new, procedurally generated dungeon, without any of the items that you collected on your previous playthrough. The result is that Isaac is played in distinct “runs,” lasting around 20 to 80 minutes each. Depending largely on random factors—although also on player performance—runs take on various characteristics: slow, tense, over-powered, fun, etc.

Humans are programmed to search for patterns and to find confirmation for their feelings and beliefs. These quirks and biases come out strongly in the face of the randomized and mysterious events in Isaac.  For instance, on each floor, there is an item room containing a single item that grants new abilities or changes the players stats (movement speed, damage done to enemies, attack range, etc). Naturally, some items are much better than other items, and this can have a dramatic effect on the player’s perception of how frequently they appear. Across many runs, a powerful and coveted item may seem extremely rare, while an item you hate is exceedingly common. In reality, Edmund has confirmed that the items found in item rooms are “literally random” and not weighted to bad items over good items (McMillen, Formspring). One explanation for this phenomenon may be that the player frequently hopes for the good items, thus noticing every single time they don’t appear. All of these small disappointments add up to create the illusion of the rarity of the desired item. Even regardless of “good” items versus “bad” items, random chance sometimes leads to a player getting some items more frequently than others. It’s hard for a player not to desire some sort of meaning in the distribution; players will ask Edmund about this on Formspring, making statements like, “I’ve seen harlequin baby and chocolate milk in almost every run I’ve done over the past month, and things like stigmata and mom’s eye haven’t shown up since may” (McMillen, Formspring).

The strange psychological effects of The Binding of Isaac become even more apparent while watching someone else play and describe their thought process throughout. “Let’s Play” (LP) videos on YouTube and other sites provide that exact opportunity. Northernlion, a popular Let’s Player who uploads Isaac runs every day to YouTube, makes frequent commentary on the item combinations and character of the runs he’s been having, creating a narrative across runs out of an essentially random series of events (Letourneau). Perhaps even more interesting is the way he personifies the randomly generated aspects of the game, frequently thanking or cursing “The Troll Engine” for the items and enemies encountered throughout the game. For instance, if a single key could spell the difference between life and death, and a key is trapped across a chasm, Northernlion might say that the Troll Engine is messing with him. Of course, rationally speaking, Northernlion is not convinced that there is a real personality behind the random events in the game. Nonetheless, when facing a particularly unique, ironic, or unfortunate outcome, it is easy to feel—on some gut level—as if someone is pulling the strings.

Notably, not every situation in Isaac is up to pure chance. For instance, some items and statistics can change how often you receive money, keys, and other items. Some playable characters have secret stats that make them more likely to find certain items. In other words, sometimes correlation is due to causation. Experientially, this is true to life—there are factors that affect every situation that are not obvious or explicit but are also more relevant than random chance. The presence of these factors only serves to encourage speculation about hidden effects that other items or characters might have; the fact that the odds occasionally do change feeds directly into hypotheses that can essentially function like superstitions.

All of these facets of Isaac’s design serve to highlight the strange ways that humans tend to deal with information and events in our own reality. In particular, Isaac serves as a potent exploration of religious belief. In many cases, religious experiences are comprised of sequences of events that simply seem too meaningful to be random. Similar experiences can occur in Isaac through verifiably random incidents. However, Isaac’s structure does not lend itself to simply condemning religion as pointless superstition. The sense of wonder engendered by engaging with the mystery of the game’s mechanics is one of the main reasons to play the game at all. Ascribing a god- or fate-like persona to the game’s random generation is an intensely human response, and allows the game to have an emotional and personal relevance. And beliefs about the game’s mechanics—whether true or not—can change the decisions that the player makes, for better or for worse.

The Design of Anodyne’s Tutorial

This is a write-up of how I designed the intro bits of Anodyne (vote for Anodyne on Greenlight!), and the successes and failures of the final design decisions.

One of the earliest decisions was to limit the game to two items, a jump and a broom. The mechanics in dungeons  could replace the need for multiple items, and act as things the broom can do – so reducing the flow-breaking process switching items inherent in Zeldas, but still giving the nice feeling of discovering new dungeon mechanics.

This meant I could finally make the tutorial, one of the most delicate and important things for games, because it lets the player learn the rules of the game universe, and begin to immerse themselves.

So what needs to be taught in Anodyne’s tutorial? A few things, including: fighting, interacting with NPCs, exploring, and later, jumping (though we won’t go into jumping, which I feel I taught poorly, maybe I’ll cover that another time). I consider these to mechanics be axioms of Anodyne, in that they are thought of as basic as possible  (an axiom can be thought of as a rule or idea we take for granted, in order to see what truths we can find when accepting the axioms as true – this is most notable in mathematics – so the analogue is, if I can attack and jump, then what else can we do? )

Other less explicit axioms are things that frequent gamers take for actions  – pressing keys, moving, talking, death condition…so those are taught as well.

Anodyne’s tutorial, in my mind, spans a few areas:  the white area, the nexus area, then the street dungeon, although tutorial-like elements are strewn throughout the rest of the game, those are more of “theorems” (in mathematics, theorems are truths that are reasoned about and proven through the assumption of axioms – which forms nice analogues with game mechanics), in that you can see interaction of the mechanics with other mechanics (e.g., riding dust on water, using dust to block things, pushing enemies around, etc).

PRESSING KEYS

Although the game says you need to press C to continue (in order to reinforce the notion that you will be pressing ‘C’ a lot later), most people never really bothered reading that. So more than one key works in the title – but we wanted to limit this to one in-game, so in the first text box, the little arrow icon says ‘C’ until you press ‘C’ a few times, then it turns into the arrow. I aesthetically prefer the arrow, but it was still confusing for some to not have a reminder, so that’s why the ‘C’ was chosen to appear for a bit.

Note that people can rebind the controls at will, so that to deal with this, I allow “ESC” to pull up the controls-rebinding menu at the title screen, in case one forgets the controls – though it would have been ideal to outline this somewhere, it’s not stated in the README or anything…

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MOVING AROUND

So, great, the person knows that C advances dialogue, and if they read it, C can be used to interact. Now they stand across from a portal. The dialogue mentioned that you use the arrow keys to move. There is no visual indication to that in the first screen, though it is arguable that it might have been a good reminder, but I never had a playtester that didn’t figure out the arrow keys moved – in any case, only people very, very new to games wouldn’t be able to know to press the arrow keys, and they’d probably be more likely to read the intro text that tells them to do so – as you can see, it’s a bit hard to come up with perfect solutions to all of these choices, but the choices here usually make this part okay 99% of the time.

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Player has no choice but to walk into the portal.

Anyways, making it through that portal, now you have to move up and down to progress to the next screen.

INTERACTING WITH THINGS

Here, you learn about interacting with objects, to teach how to talk, and eventually enter portals and open treasure boxes. This is told in the dialogue, but even if it is skipped, the flashing of the screens is naturally attractive, and the player only knows one input, C, which is the required one to flip the computers and open the block gates.

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The only thing to do here is interact with the computers.

REGRETS WITH THE HUD

On the next screen is a bit of a negative. It tells the player to use ENTER to open the menu. It’s arguable that it’s better of this comes here, rather than later, as we want to break the 4th wall with controls as little as possible – but many people would open the menu early and be a bit confused as the current area has no map…in any case, it at least puts into the player’s mind that you do have a menu, and there’s a constant reminder of it in the top left corner.

Which brings me to my next point, the issue of the HUD being there too early. The Menu, health, and keys are totally irrelevant information, and in fact, it probably would have been a good idea to restrict the key text to appearing ONLY in dungeons (it appears everywhere, though keys only show up in 7 of the areas in the game).  The menu = ENTER…we should have figured out some way to make it change based on your current key, but it seemed like too much work, plus no one probably reads it, and even fewer people even rebind the key, so it was deemed a relative non-issue. Call this technique “justifying laziness”…

The HUD elements were brought in a bit early, and the early bringing up of the menu can be confusing.

The HUD elements were brought in a bit early, and the early bringing up of the menu can be confusing.

TALKING, EXPLORING

In any case, you enter the portal, and begin the game! Here, we begin to teach exploration and more interaction. You can talk to the rock, or the statue behind Sage. Even multiple times, if you desire…

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We allow the player to move in the 4 directions from the Sage room. Left is the direction they are told to go (in order to progress to the Street tutorial dungeon), but you can go up (which is blocked by gates), or right (which is also blocked by gates). This was done after watching too many people wander aimlessly in the Nexus area. A benefit of giving this choice is that people feel a little freer, and also see that the game world is fairly large, with each portal leading to a new area.

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Allowing the player to explore the hub a bit (without getting lost) shows that the game world is large

Anyways, the player again has to use C to interact with the active nexus portal to enter the Street dungeon.

TUTORIAL DUNGEON – Teaching the basics

So here is the street dungeon, which is intended to equip the player with the necessary set of basic skills to get them through everything the game will throw in their path. The dungeon’s design was iterated upon many times, and is nearly overdesigned, far more than other areas in the game. The reasoning behind this is that finishing the tutorial gives you a set of “axioms” as you play through it, allowing you to figure out the rest of the game, and that the more “hands-off” we are (with very few words), the more likely someone is to absorb these skills.

If the player missed the checkpoint in the Nexus, they’re forced to walk across this one, so that they KNOW they need to use them in order to save their game (or if the player explores the menu, they can save through there, but almost  no one does that)…of course, if the player doesn’t read, they still don’t exactly know what to do, but I think it’s a natural instinct to stand on something, hear a sound, see it flash, and then press the only key you know does something (the C key!)

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You are forced to step over this checkpoint.

From there, the only direction you can walk is up, which leads you to a crossroad. You can’t go north – walking into the block and interacting tells you it is a locked door. Heading left are some enemies, which you can’t kill yet – so the player will just leave the room, or walk into them and die. Again, reinforcing the notion of exploration, and further that not all paths are always open.

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Again, choice to emphasize exploration, but the only feasible way to progress ends up being going to the right.

DYING

You can die by walking into those slimes. Most “gamers” intuitively know those red icons in the HUD are health, but it can be reasoned that when you touch an enemy, there’s a hurt noise, and then one disappears, that those represent SOMETHING, and if the player really has no clue, then when they all disappear, you get a  Game Over screen.

FIGHTING, PUZZLIN’

The only other way is now to go to the right, through an empty screen, then pressing a button to open a gate – which is to show the cause (pressing buttons) which makes an effect (opening this obstacle, a gate). In the next screen are more slimes, and then a treasure box. Hopefully the box attracts the player, who then goes up to it and presses C, getting the broom – which tells you to use C to attack, but it doesn’t really matter if you read it, since C is the only key you know, which conveniently also attacks. at that point, the only logical thing to do is to attack the slimes, and killing them opens the gate.

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Buttons can unlock gates. This is the simplest version of this idea.

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To teach fighting, I limited the actions in this room to attacking the slimes with your broom.

So hooray! Now, the player has seen that pressing buttons opens doors, as does killing enemies. These are the ways that progress in dungeons is hindered. The only thing left to do is to travel back to the 3-slime room on the left end of the dungeon, kill the enemies, and take the treasure – which is conveniently a small key. Which can then be used on that door in the middle of the dungeon, since there’s nowhere else to go!

REMINDERS

In the screen north of the locked door, there is a slime and a gate. Just a reminder that sometimes, all the enemies need to be eliminated to open a door.

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3-Slime room, which leads to a chest with a key.

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The “reminder” room, for killing enemies and opening gates.

AESTHETICS

The whole tutorial is a street, which leads north, giving a feeling of “oh, I need to go THIS way…” The music is also fairly hands-off, fitting the feel of the unknown, slightly creepy street….then in the underpass area where the music goes off, there’s a creepy zombie. People always wonder “what is this?”, and, well, it doesn’t come back in the game, but like a lot of things it’s more of a symbol of themes in the game, so I’ll leave it to you to decide (sorry!). Moreover, it lets you know that not everything in dungeons necessarily is an enemy…though for the most part, things are enemies 🙂

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MISC

There is a minimap in this area, which was added per suggestion at TIGSource – and a good idea, it helps make local navigation easier, though there is a full map in the menu (which not a lot of people use)…

ENDING

You go through the under pass, go through another screen, then are confronted with dust. Most people are likely to attack, which gives you a dialogue that you can pick up and place dust. We decided this had to be verbal, because there wasn’t a necessarily intuitive way  to teach that you can pick up and place (though we could have done something like make a little “C” key pop up when you have dust, for the first time, but oh well – I guess in a way it’s nice to limit your wall-breaking to the dialogue popups).

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And, the next room, the dungeon ends.

So through all of that, the player learned actually a lot of things, whether they realized it or not – progressing through text, interacting with objects, movement, the concept of doors, talking to NPCs being optional, the necessity of exploration, the scale of the game, checkpointing and saving, the concept of dying, how to open locked doors, exploring a dungeon, fighting enemies to open gates, pressing buttons to open gates, and that the game has a dream-feel to it.

 

 

 

All said with not too many words! If you’re making a tutorial, I encourage you to use as few words as possible – if you can teach things well without words, it’s far more likely to stick with the player.

That’s all for now, maybe more design posts later.

If you found this interesting, follow me on Twitter, and make sure to vote for Anodyne on Steam Greenlight.

The final “Street” tutorial dungeon (entrance at bottom)
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Old Zelda-like Dungeon Design in Anodyne, part 1 of ?

Throughout development of Anodyne, one of the largest challenges I’ve faced is the task of developing a number of dungeons for the player to explore.

What are Old  Zelda-like Dungeons?

At a very high level, an Old (for the Zelda fans, I define this as everything up to and including the Oracles, excluding Zelda II of course)  Zelda-like dungeon (we’ll refer to this as just “dungeon” from now on)  is a game mechanic that takes place in a grid of interconnected rooms, where the player starts in one designated room (think the entrance to your house – A), and ends up at some final room (think your bedroom – B). This journey from A to B must have a few additional details to bring it from some abstract definition to the more “Old Zelda-like” category:

  • 1. Going from A to B involves defeating enemies which exist to kill you – example – killing a bat that gets in your way.
  • 2. solving puzzles, which are just sets of entities which need to be manipulated in some fashion to progress – example – pushing a block that triggers a door opening.
  • 3. finding items in order to progress, or serve some more game-specific goal –  example – finding keys to open locked doors.

In the context of Anodyne and *most* old Zelda games, the interconnected rooms are just a grid of equal-sized rectangular rooms. Very much like grid paper, with each cell being a “room”. In the context of only Anodyne,  dungeon rooms are fixed at 10×10 tile dimensions. The choice of a fixed size for tiles was based in hardware for the old Zeldas, but in Anodyne’s case is just a design choice – 10×10 is easy to deal with mentally, and usually offers wiggle room of 8×8 tiles for room design. (where the border can serve as walls for the room.) This is an example of a dungeon, this is the tutorial dungeon from Anodyne, as of 8/10/12 (very prone to tweaking, being the intro dungeon and all – where design matters a GREAT deal)

The tutorial dungeon from Anodyne.

Designing and implementing a dungeon comes in a few steps: (At any point:)

  • 1a. Entity design – enemy and puzzle entities
  • 1b. Scale choice – how many rooms
  • 1c. Flow design – abstracting out sections of the dungeon, pacing through those sections, complexity of sections..

Then, when those are roughly finished

  • 2. Chunking up the map and concurrently implementing rooms or outlines of room
  • 3. Finishing up room designs
  • 4. Playtesting to iron out bugs and other imbalances.

With my workflow, it works best for me if I solidly have 1b and 1c down, and at least 1a partially done before I get started in the later steps. This order isn’t definitive, they can come in any order and often do interweave as you iterate on ideas or need to tweak. It’s a ton to talk about, so we’ll just touch on a few points this time around. In this case, I want to discuss 1b (Scale) and 1c (flow, or structure of the player’s route through the dungeon) a bit, and a little specific to Anodyne as well, in order for me to get a more solid understanding of what I’ve been trying to do, and also to give you some stuff to think about if you’d like to go try designing dungeons as well.

Scale

Turtle Rock is…big. Image credit from VGMaps!

Is your dungeon tiny, like the picture of the Anodyne tutorial dungeon? (or, for the familiar, Maku Path (OoA), that other intro in OoS)? Or is it monolithic (Turtle Rock (LA) – see picture, Ganon’s Tower (LTTP))?

Scale correlates to the number of rooms – the game boy zeldas usually cap out around the high 40s and low 50s – , but obviously whether or not this even matters depends on the structure of the dungeon. (More on that in a bit). But it’s a good rule of thumb to be aware of how many rooms you’re planning to implement. You want to be very aware of the size of your dungeon and where it comes into play in the timeline of the game – it’s a good idea to keep the size of your dungeon in mind depending on how much the player has experienced too far. Give a large dungeon early, and you risk frustrating the player by unfairly expecting skills out of the player that haven’t been developed through a logical progression of dungeon difficulty, give a small dungeon late, and you risk the perception of both being a lazy game designer and boring the player. That much seems obvious, but it’s useful to keep in mind.

In the case of Anodyne, my smallest dungeon is a mere 10 rooms, only 5 of which actually require some sort of meaningful interaction. On the other hand, the largest dungeon so far is a little over 60 rooms, although a handful are deliberately not very content-filled, and an entire part must be completely finished before going into the rest of the dungeon. Once you have some sense of scale pinned down (which you might still come back to, nothing really gets set in stone), you can think a bit about

Dungeon Flow Structure

Okay, that’s a lot of buzzwords…this is the high-level “flow” of the player through the dungeon – a overview of “how does the player get from A to B, and what are the main sections of this travel?” In Anodyne and the Zeldas, locked doors are used to help segregate sections of the dungeon, and give a sense of pacing – rather than making the player sprint through 25 action-packed rooms, maybe the designer chooses to have finishing 5 rooms open a door that lets you come back to that point quickly. A basic example:

  1.  The player first travels through these 6 rooms (section A). There is a key.
  2.  Player opens a door in section B, which leads to 6 more rooms (section B), and another key.
  3.  Key opens another door inside of section B, which leads to a large enemy.
  4.  Killing the large enemy leads to a treasure room.

These sections don’t necessarily need to be physically separate rooms. Perhaps the environment of a room changes so that you can only go through certain exits, maybe the room changes itself, maybe there is overlap in the sections based on some item you get that lets you move. Etc. When I design the structure, I generally do have a few rough mechanics or events related to the dungeon in my head – it’s hard to go off of absolutely nothing when you just have “a big dungeon”.

For example, one dungeon I decided that I wanted to have some big triggered events that open up new parts of the dungeon, and went from there. With these mechanics, I think of a segregation of the dungeon that makes sense for the necessary complexity at that stage in the game, roughly decide what keys go where, and then move on from there. The tutorial dungeon in Anodyne (pictured above) is incredibly deliberate in each room’s design – it has a short latency for death in terms of returning to where you die, and object placement is intended to make the desired action very difficult to not do, in order to show the player what to do. More on those mechanics later and why this is important (basically, because it’s the tutorial), but the structure is:

  • Player solves easy puzzle.
  • Player gets weapon.
  • Player kills enemy for key.
  • Player opens door, solves easy puzzle.
  • End.

How you teach the player how to do these things in a nonintrusive way is an entirely different ordeal, but that’s for a later post. Two other points:

  • It’s important to also take into account for player choice moving through the dungeon, if you have a lot of locked doors, absolutely be sure that you don’t have a possibility where the player becomes permanently stuck! There’s some easy-ish graph theory ways to think about this if you split sections that are lock-segregated (or event-segregated…or whatever your dungeon does) into vertices in a graph, and making sure each vertices has as many keys as it has outgoing edges (locks)…etc.
  • Through designing dungeons I’ve been forgetting a bit how difficult it is at time to keep a picture of the dungeon in my head as I play it for the first time. When I say “complexity”, I mean how much the player needs to passively keep in their head to avoid being totally lost and confused. In real life, navigating a  one way street isn’t very complex if you know where you need to go on the street. Navigating, say, Manhattan, is a tad more difficult – you need to maintain your bearings, for one, as well as be aware of the convention of increasing street and avenue numbers. In games, a dungeon can be very large in scale, but not have a “complex” structure, if it’s one linear romp (note that doesn’t necessarily make a BAD dungeon, it could be action packed, etc…). Or, a slightly smaller dungeon could be very complex if it has intertwining paths that are sometimes one-way depending on the dungeon state.

Scale and structure build off of one another. Most of these words don’t have super strict meaning, and there really aren’t rules so much as guidelines that strive to help create a sane experience for the player, but hopefully this will give you some things to think about if you want to design a level like this in a some Zelda-like of yours (or maybe it helps in other sorts of level designs!)

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