Saturday, July 13, 2013

Information and Boundaries Within Games

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

-Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend about how The Legend of Zelda series has evolved over the years qualitatively.  One of his points was that The Legend of Zelda:  A Link to the Past is objectively better than the original Zelda, because it takes everything that the original did and improves upon it.  Better graphics, better sound, and arguably even better level design.  More importantly, he considered A Link to the Past to be the better game because it included an in-game map.  With that feature, the experience becomes more directed, streamlined, and user friendly.  For him, the experience becomes more enjoyable.

I don't necessarily agree or disagree with that point.  However, since that conversation, I've been thinking a lot about the boundaries of a game, as well as the implication of features such as in-game maps or guides.  The degree in which players receive information changes the dynamics of the experience.  By not providing in-game maps or information, players are instead encouraged to document their findings with resources outside of the game, such as with pen and paper.

One of the earliest instances of this can be seen during the Atari 2600 era.  During this time, almost every game involved players accumulating points in an endless game loop. The game would only end once the player had reached a fail state, and there was almost never a plot or narrative goal to reach.  Naturally, because these games were score-based, players found themselves competing with each other to see who could accrue the most points.

However, the games were unable to store high scores in memory; therefore, if players wanted to keep their scores, they would have to document them outside of the game.

Notably, players who accumulated high enough scores in Activision titles were even given physical incentives that took the form of fabric patches.  Much like the achievements and trophies that proliferate in gaming today, players were given meaningless tokens for reaching milestones.  However, back then they had to use a Polaroid camera and the postal service to claim their prize.

While interesting, the incentivization of a high score through physical goods didn't, in my opinion, impact the game's boundaries in a dynamic or meaningful way.  As games grew more ambitious in scope, the juxtaposition between game and reality became more nuanced.

As such, players found themselves getting lost within the game world.  For example, players often had difficulty navigating through the original Metroid, which featured no in-game map and very few landmarks to help players determine their location.  If players didn't have a subscription to Nintendo Power, their only option was to chart the game's world on paper.  This was particularly true for games not on Nintendo platforms, such as Wizardry, because there wasn't -- at least to my knowledge -- a magazine with all the answers.

I find this to be an interesting expansion of the game's boundaries as the player is no longer playing the game with just a gamepad.  While the core mechanics still occur within the digital space, an ancillary mechanic emerges from the need to map their progress.  In addition to being a hero with a sword or laser gun, the player must also be a cartographer.  Correctly charting the lay of the land becomes a game itself, as incorrectly documenting the world's geography could lead to disastrous results.

Some titles have even acknowledged this behavior, and integrated it into the core game system.  For example, the Etrian Odyssey series for the Nintendo DS uses the console's touch screen to emulate a pen and paper map.  While these games are essentially another take on the first-person dungeon crawling formula, there is an intrinsic beauty in making map drawing a part of the game system.  For one, players don't have to worry about having their work modified or tampered with.  Furthermore, because it is a digital map, the player is given ample space to make detailed annotations.  Finally, it is much easier to make corrections to a digitally drawn map than it is a hand drawn one.  The Etrian Odyssey series is a notable curiosity because it's a rare example of a system taking out-of-game behavior and bringing it back into the game.  The end result is, in my opinion, quite elegant.

A few other titles were even more creative with having players interact with real world objects.  For example, StarTropics featured a puzzle where players were required to take a letter -- which was packaged with the game -- and dip it in water in order to obtain an access code.  At the time, this was likely an early attempt to combat rental services and used game sales.  Either way, the letter became very difficult to find, thus making the game unbeatable for least until the advent of the internet.

It's an interesting riddle, because the solution doesn't exist within the confines of the game world.  To solve it in the way the designers intended, the player must make actions that are atypical for a video-game.  The issue, however, is that it prevented many players from progressing through the game naturally, as they did not have access to the object that the designers required.

The recently released Ni No Kuni:  Wrath of the White Witch attempts something similar, but handles it in a much better way.  Players who purchased the special edition of the game received a lovely reproduction of the Wizard's Companion, a book that the main character carries with him throughout the game.  The book outlines various aspects of the game, providing the player with alchemy formulas, a bestiary, and extensive backstory.  There are several points where the game requires the player to research this book to progress.  However, because the designers knew that not every player would have access to the book in physical form, a digital version is included within the game.

While the digital version of the book was smartly included, I still found that thumbing through the physical Wizard's Companion was a much more satisfying experience.  Whenever the game asks for information from the book, the player must provide the answer by manually typing it out.  Most roleplaying games would present a multiple choice question, whereas Ni No Kuni requires the player to fill in a blank.  This process was streamlined and made much more entertaining by the presence of a physical book, as I didn't have to close the in-game keyboard to interact with a clunky Wizard's Companion interface.  In other words, I was playing the game not with a controller, but with a hard-bound, 340-page tomb made to emulate a magical in-game relic.

As a designer, it's important to think about the boundaries established by your game, and realize that the degree of information given to the player will impact their interaction with the game.  By providing information in-game, the experience becomes streamlined and user friendly.  On the other hand, hiding information creates an opportunity where the player may interact with the system in a way that is unexpected or atypical.