Setting and the Physical Language of Puzzles

I’d like to clarify my use of the word “should” in the last post. Game areas should form a cohesive game world iff this is a goal of the game design. Functioning worlds (by which I mean worlds that appear to have feasible ecosystems, economies, etc. within the fiction) are not important or necessary for all games, certainly; it’s not a good idea to try to limit possibilities here. For a game that seeks to immerse the player in its world and/or story, which very many games try to do, the world should make some sense, or it will detract from the immersion.

To go back to my Metroid Prime 3 example: would MP3 be a better game if this imposed interface were more blended into the world, if it made more sense for those spherical crevices to be there in the first place?

I’m not convinced it’s even possible. One gameplay component of Metroid Prime is the puzzles, and to have a good puzzle, you need to set up the physical language that the player interacts with and can “read” to solve the puzzle. The different devices in Metroid Prime, for example: the player sees a small glowing circle and learns, from the tutorial and from doing it over and over, that when they see one of those circles, they’re supposed to turn into a ball and drop an explosive in the hole. In this sense, puzzles in Metroid Prime are simply a matter of reading the symbols.

(Similarly, The Legend of Zelda develops its own language with the player: the player learns that a certain target will stick to the hookshot; how far Link can jump or if he has to use the hover boots; what rocks can be blown up with bombs; and so on.)

The point is, if the various technologies on each planet were more unique and made more sense, it would obscure the puzzle language that is very clear the way it is now. If that were to change, at minimum it would be the same problem with a thin layer of paint over it, causing some frustration for the player while not enhancing immersion at all. At the extreme it would cause gameplay that requires the player to relearn the same simple activities at every planet, and not allow the player to reuse knowledge from the last world, limiting the player’s sense of advancement. So in this case, making a more “immersive” universe in this sense would be detrimental to Metroid Prime 3‘s gameplay.

I get the feeling the environments in Metroid Prime were designed more for cool factor than immersion, which is totally fine by me.

Settings in Games Overview

In online discussions I keep bringing up how I want to see more variety in game settings, and I will be going into the topic more in-depth in the future, but I wanted to talk about it a little because of this recent post at MTV Multiplayer: Game Diary — May 7, 2008 (a comparison of The World Ends With You and GTA IV and how they evoke a sense of place).

First off, I can’t wait to get my hands on The World Ends With You. Everything I’ve heard sounds fantastic.

But anyway, place. Too often, games reuse the same old–or at least very similar–settings over and over. They tend to fall into three categories:

1. The War-Torn Future. These games tell us that our descendants will have nothing to look forward to but martial law due to alien invasions and/or interstellar war. Think mostly-deserted planets with ruined buildings and/or military outposts. Recent games of this setting can be easily identified by the gray-brown pallette and “grit”. Setting of many a first-person shooter.
Examples: Halo, Resistance, Gears of War, Doom, Frontlines, Mass Effect.

2. The War-Torn Past. World War II, usually.
Examples: Call of Duty 3. Lots more.

3. Ye Olde Fantasyland*, or Fake Medieval England. Forests and quaint villages, along with castles and horses and knights and princesses.
Examples: Fable, Lord of the Rings, The Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy I.

Many major franchises fall into one of these three categories (funnily enough, games actually set in the present or near past are not that common). Some notable exceptions are the later games of the Final Fantasy series (I haven’t played the middle ones and the first one is definitely #3 above), X and XII in particular. Both had unique environments that were part of a cohesive world, which operated on its own as well as being essential to the plot. This brings me to my next point:

Unique visual environments are important, but game worlds shouldn’t be a patchwork of levels sewn together by necessity of gameplay. The areas should form an operating world, and moreover, this operation should have some bearing on not only the plot but the characters and the way they interact with and look at the world–their world. This is essential to create a game world that feels cohesive and immersive.

To give an example of an exception that falls just a bit short, the various worlds in the Metroid Prime games are beautiful and unique (especially in Corruption), but in every area it’s the same switches and round slots that Samus interacts with while exploring. Why should beings that look like insects have machinery operated by detonating a bomb in a spherical recess? And why should this same technology exist on all the planets? That just doesn’t make sense.

It’s not something that bothers me while I’m playing, but in the end it does undermine the worlds that have been created. The visual style, atmosphere, and architecture of the places all go a long way to telling something about the inhabitants of the planet, and yet it’s as if someone imposed an interface onto the entire universe so that Samus can interact with it. Which is exactly what really happened, because it’s a game. The immersion is wounded. (But would Corruption be a truly better game with better immersion? Hard to say; this is something I’ll address in the future.)

That’s all for now; I’ll be revisiting this topic several more times in the future.

*I know I’ve heard this phrase before in reference to fantasy novels, but upon googling it I must attribute it to Shawn Elliot at 1UP (fantastic article, by the way–read it!).