It is Alright to Blame the Game

One of the (few) downsides to being professionally involved with games is that there is a certain pressure towards being an expert at all games. (I believe my subpar Foosball skills once disappointed a group of people.)

So, perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many games are broken: since most people testing are in some way involved with the industry and/or are gamers wanting to show off their amazing skills, they are afraid of admitting to finding the game/UI too hard. We are afraid of looking stupid, so we keep quiet about obvious usability and balancing issues.

Fortunately, the backlash is here. In order of appearance:

1) The reviews at Games for Lunch are successful in their honesty about such matters. Here is the Parappa the Rapper review:

0:49 The next stage is a cooking show. “My style is rich, dope, phat, in which/We’ll make a cake today that looks rich.” That almost sounds like English.
0:50 “The other day I was called a little turkey/But I’m a chicken, got it, ya beef jerky?” This line always cracks me up for no good reason.
0:52 I fail the song, but I have no idea why. I thought I was doing OK, actually…

I admit it: I failed here too and never came back to the game.

2) How do I Play Game is the chronicle of a “non-gamer” playing Half-Life.

I played for 10 whole minutes last night. Got off the train, started moving around, started opening doors and wondering through. I figured out I was supposed to be looking for this test chamber. Scientists and security guards were talking to me but I didn’t have the sound up and wasn’t really listening.

Found a “break room” with vending machines and stuff … wtf?
Found a men’s restroom with feet under the stalls … wtf?
Found a room with a suit that looks like I’m supposed to get it but I couldn’t figure out how to get it from behind the glass.

Found a door, but a security guard wouldn’t let me through because I didn’t have a suit on.

Got frustrated and exited for the night.

3) Jurie Horneman has an honest post about failing at games:

  • Skate and Burnout Paradise, where I respectively got stuck in the tutorial and failed to find the game.
  • Mass Effect, where I instantly got lost in the first mission. I mean, be serious: Spawn the player in the first level and then point him in the wrong direction? Do you know how much trouble I went through to rotate the camera just so at the start of some of the Manhunt 2 levels I worked on? Maybe this was a glitch – I can’t believe this was left in the game.
  • Assassin’s Creed, which generally befuddled me.
  • Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Don’t get me started on the first boss battle.

4) Jurie also mentions Donald Norman’s observation that most users (of anything) tend to blame themselves, rather than the design / game / object.

That leads to the good news: It is alright to blame the game. Don’t be afraid of admitting to failure.

Which gives me the courage to admit how I utterly failed at the desert level of Patapon. Here is how it went:

  • I went to the desert.
  • At the totem pole with some controller markings on it (X O triangle, something like that), pressed those buttons. No feedback either way.
  • Was told to watch out for the desert heat. No indication what I was supposed to do to counter said heat.
  • Died.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat some more.
  • Looked up some walkthrough. It told me that I should have the Juju. Unfortunately I did not recall every hearing about a Juju, had no idea what a Juju was and no idea where to get one.
  • Put the game back in its package.
  • Behold the 145.000 google hits for patapon + desert. I am not alone. (Phew – makes it a bit safer to admit it, doesn’t it.)

5) I think it should be officially OK to blame the game: What games did you fail at?

30 thoughts on “It is Alright to Blame the Game”

  1. Hey, I failed at Parappa the first time I played it, too!
    For some reason, though, I came back to it a few years ago and breezed right through it!

    Only other game I’ve failed at that I can think of right now is Europa Universalis. I have absolutely no idea what to do and just end up staring at the screen for several minutes. And it’s not just the complexity of it – I’m a whiz at the much more complex strategy game Victoria.

  2. Sitcom logic demands that you now be mocked mercilessly for failing at Patapon. But not by me: I don’t own a PSP and have never played it.

    I did not fail at games: the games failed me. And my posts were not honest in the sense of bravely admitting to some shameful weakness: I go out of my way to tell people about how stupid these games are. I get really worked up about it. I don’t know why – it makes me a lovable rogue, I hope. Of course, I am super-polite and calmly give constructive feedback when I am a producer, although that may change as I have just discovered Gordon Ramsay.

  3. Oh man I remember that first boss fight in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. I still have my savegame right before that fight because I never managed to get past it.

    I also failed at STALKER. I failed so hard at it I had to use a trainer to make myself invulnerable because I wanted to complete the game for academic purposes (no, really!) Unfortunately it scared me so much I stopped playing at the second underground lab.

  4. There’s an interesting theoretical question here, I think — no one wants a game to be unplayable, but on the other hand one often wants to feel that one genuinely *beats* a game, in an “I fought the law and I won” kind of way. An oppositional relationship to the game is constitutive of a lot of ludological pleasures.

  5. I not sure there’s really an oppositional relationship. There’s a difference between something being a challenge and something simply being obtuse. It sounds like what a lot of the problems listed above were problems of people not knowing how or what they were supposed to do. This is different from knowing both and just not having the skill.

    Also, the exact same thing happened to me in Mass Effect. I quit pretty soon after that for different reasons, but it definitely soured a large part of the experience for me.

  6. Charles — you’re right, of course, but then there’s also the case of environmental puzzles. Arguably a great environmental puzzle is one the solution to which shocks you when it finally dawns on you.

  7. Jurie, what I appreciate is exactly that you call it what it is, the games failing you. I think many people simply won’t admit such things.

    But overall, my feeling is that the industry as a whole is getting slightly better at this, no?

  8. Peli and Charles – yep, big question. I actually did write a paper on the role of difficulty in games, will post it soon.

  9. In some cases, I want the game to befuddle me. Really. The game shouldn’t always take my hand and point me directly into the direction of the princess I have to rescue. That would be too easy, in most cases.

    That’s a completely distinct phenomenon to a proper interface system. My inputs should be intuitive and spot-on, so I can concentrate on figuring out the best way to save the princess|planet|universe.

  10. “But overall, my feeling is that the industry as a whole is getting slightly better at this, no?”

    But what about Megaman 9, with it’s celebrated high level of difficulty? I think that while the industry is moving towards expanding their audience, there is also a backlash against that – see also Contra 4 and Etrian Odyssey on the DS.

    I think a good example is 3D platformers – jumping puzzles just do not translate into 3D, and I am not optimistic than anybody will ever make it work well. I literally spent 40 minutes last night in Twilight Princess trying to jump across 2 swinging chandeliers. Having the camera centered on Link’s shoulder blades did not make things any better. I never finished ICO for similar reasons. In these instances I would say the game failed me – it’s not my fault I fell to my death if I couldn’t see where I was going.

  11. I love the poor neglected space sim genre with an allmost unreasonable passion, however, they unfortunately tend to deliver some of my most frustrating game play, and in at least 2 cases I just stopped playing without going any further. Both X3 and ‘shudder’ Universal Combat left me floating in space with no idea what to do and how to progress. They both seemed to punish me for having the audacity to jump into a region of space that just happens to contain uber powerful bad aliens that blow me up before I can fumble open the manual to determine the key to press to target them. X3 also seemed to dislike you pausing the game as they buried the ability to do so deep within their menu structure that I was usually dead prior to finding it.

    I do wish they could have taken a leaf from Freelancers book of acceptable UI and let me enjoy their vast and complex universes without feeling like I was sitting for an exam.

  12. Jason, by “getting slightly better”, I mean that user testing seems to becoming more of a universally accepted practice in the industry at large.

    That would be the research question: Are games in 2008 less broken than games were in 1998 or 1988?

  13. Fresh off a degree in technical writing and information design, one thing that was constantly hammered into my head was the importance of user testing. Can the user read this? Can they find info on your website? Does it all make sense? In the tech writing industry, the opportunity to observe people using your document/site/whatever is the holy grail of the design process, something that everybody constantly wants more of. The impression I have of the games industry is that this phase is frequently neglected or removed outright for budget/time concerns.

    With regards to your research question, like any good academic I would say you have to define “broken” first :-)

    One question that I have is about where usability ends, and puzzles and challenges begin. My better half and I recently played through Lego Star Wars 2. She is decidedly a non-gamer, but she was able to pick-up and understand the game pretty easily. The controls are simple, the UI is easy to understand. Yet many of the game’s puzzles were so obtuse that we kept a laptop nearby so we could check out gamefaqs three or four times a session. In many instances we just did not know what to do. So is that a puzzle for us to figure out, or is the game just poorly designed? Can you even make such an objective judgment, or is the answer ultimately defined by the player?

  14. Some quick thoughts on what is “broken”. We could start by looking at when we describe something as “broken”.

    As several commenters have pointed out, we tend to describe a hard-to-use interfaces as “broken”, whereas the case of a hard-to-complete puzzle is less clear.

    What is “interface” and what is “in-game challenge”? It seems to me that we could use an HCI distinction between “tools” and “domain objects”, i.e. the interface is a tool we use to do things with the domain objects in the game. We want easy-to-use tools that gives us easy access to the domain objects, but the domain objects can be arranged in a way that makes it hard to achieve what we want to do.

    For example: A computer chess game feel “broken” if it is hard to move the pieces (difficulty in tools), but the fact that it is hard to win against the computer is not broken at all (difficulty in domain objects; in-game challenge).

    What is the border between interface and in-game challenge? I think it cannot be entirely generalized, but it isn’t entirely subjective either. In the chess example the usability/challenge distinction seems clear, but if we analyze an RTS, the player’s ability to click very fast on the interface is part of the in-game challenge of the game.

    In other words, individual games appear to have different distinctions between interface and in-game challenge. If your character is hard to control in Tekken, the interface is broken. But when your character is hard to control in Toribash or Rag Doll Kung Fu, that is non-broken, as the interface seems to have become part of the “in-game challenge”.

    Rag Doll Kung Fu is probably the more subjective case – I just never liked moving individual limbs in an action game. To me, the interface gets in the way of my access to the in-game domain objects (controlling my character). Your mileage may vary.

    Here is a tentative rephrasing of the question: Good game design must make what the player perceives as _tools_ are easy to use, and sure that challenge is only perceived as _in-game challenge_ (related to the configuration of the domain objects).


  15. Regarding the antagonistic relationship with the game, I’m siding with Charles, and against Peli’s assessment. I for one am never thinking of playing a game as “beating it”, and I take no satisfaction in beating it for the sake of demonstrating some sort of high skill or whatever. It may be significant (or not), but in French (where I’m from anyway) we say that we have “completed” a game (“j’ai fini le jeu”), or “passed through it” (“j’ai fait le tour”, or “je l’ai passé”).

    I am interested in living an experience, not in beating some designer – who, if he had wanted to, could very well have made his game impossibly difficult. In this sense a challenge still has its place insofar as it serves the story’s purpose (or thematic mood, progression logic, internal coherence of the game world, or whatever else if the game has no story). As much respect as I have for the classic Mega Man games, if I have to replay a level a dozen times or so to figure it out, I’m pretty sure I will lose interest quickly and go check a FAQ. To me, extreme difficulty curves are an artifact of early technological limitations (with a reasonable difficulty level, Ghosts and Goblins would have been a 15-minute experience) and should not be regarded as an industry standard. Sure, there can be difficult games for those that are interested in this kind of thing, but it never ceases to surprise me when I read gamer comments in forums complaining that a game is “too easy”, or that player X has not “really” played the game because he didn’t “beat” it on “Hardcore” difficulty.

    Back to the main, original topic, I believe I mostly only get stuck when playing bad games, or badly designed moments in good games. :) The theoretical model of actional modalities I helped develop along with the Ludiciné research group at Montreal University establishes four types of player-action that can be required by a game. I think Jesper’s usage of “interface” VS “in-game challenge” can easily be resolved in the case of strategy and resolution sequences: the gamer must use his cognitive skills to understand what he has to do, and when he has figured out a solution, the implementation itself is not the challenge. In this case, knowing what you have to do is the challenge, so it is pretty obvious that the interface should allow you to do what you have thought of. The trouble still lies in the Execution modality, where it is the gamer’s actual motor skills that are challenged. It does not follow that everything should be easy to do and responsive in this case, for if it were, I could finish Ninja Gaiden Black in a timely manner with a reasonable level of investment to master the skills needed, and it is obvious that I cannot. Likewise if the Street Fighter controls allowed for instant blocking even in the middle of an attack, fights would likely never end. So the fact that your character cannot cease an attack to block is not unresponsiveness or bad design, but a “legitimate” challenge. Unlike the general sluggishness of the controls in Shaq-Fu…

  16. I failed at the War Of The Worlds game (by GT Interactive). It is simply a realtime strategy game broken up by a world map where you can research new technologies to take with you into battle. I fail as the Aliens at the start of the game and I fail as the humans at the start of the game.

    The problem is that as the Humans I can’t defeat the aliens with 18th century technology. And as the Aliens I do fine until the Humans develop somekind of new cannon and then I die very quickly. As the Humans again the tech tree is so confusing I have no idea how to get that cannon.

    So I fail. On Easy. At the start of the game.
    Awesome soundtrack though.

  17. Great, conscious-clearing post for many I suspect. Does anyone expect that Stuart Scott is amazing at all sports he reports on on SportsCenter? I imagine not, and I seriously doubt Stuart loses any sleep over it.

    So on to the games at which I am bad. Besides finding it impossible to beat a certain someone at Street Fighter (did that ever really happen?), I have a litany of games at which I have just not got it. A few choice puzzles in Professor Layton and the Curious Village; the first surgery in Trauma Center: New Blood (attempted after bypassing the tutorials); and I even had a hard time figuring out how to throw the @#$! ball in Wii Sports’ bowling. These are merely the examples I can think of off the top of my head.

    Now I have no real problem with my lack of “getting it” with some games. Jesper’s reference to Norman is something I’ve thought about for quite some time. Sometimes it is my lack of knowledge of interface/interaction conventions (does WASD really make a lot of sense to anyone?), sometimes it is poorly designed mappings of mechanics to interaction design.

    My poor play abilities and inability to make heads or tails of a game become interesting of course when I walk into the classroom. With many of my game-oriented students (I teach in a program in which interaction design, game design and game development are the same department), they seem shocked to discover 1) I haven’t played every game ever; 2) that some of the games I have played I am bad at or didn’t really understand; and 3) that I haven’t finished all the games I’ve played. Sorry to disappoint.

  18. John, WASD (kind of) makes sense if you were there when it came along. It grew out of early “pro” fps play – people wanted close access to various personal key bindings, and WASD meant you didn’t have to move your hand around as much as when movement was bound to the arrow keys.

    (Of course, some of us don’t think WASD went far enough. Back in my PC gaming days, I always went for QWESpace – every finger got its own key… :p)

  19. I always thought that WASD arose out of comfort – it’s easier to keep your left hand on those keys and your right on the mouse than to have your left on the arrow keys.

  20. I often find myself looking up coordinates for a given item/mobile/location rather than following (sometimes spurious, sometimes obvious) directions given by quests in WoW.

    Is there a failure here? Each case would have to be measured on it’s own, I suppose; Bad directions which leave me wandering around for an hour looking for the guy who has the FOO of FOOslaying that I just can’t progress without seems like a failure on the part of game design.

    But if I’m simply not engaged enough by the gameplay to REALLY explore an area to find my FOOslayer, is it my failure, or the game?

    On a related note, any thoughts on the gamers who truly enjoy writing the walkthroughs and coding the trainers for games that we fail at? There is almost never any financial benefit for them in doing so, but the level of dedication I’ve seen, particulary in writers of console game walkthroughs, is intriguing.

  21. Dominic, I frankly disagree with your assessment.

    Games can deliver excellent experiences, but at the same time they possess a unique pleasure of challenge that is not present in any other entertainment medium. Improving one’s own skills and abilities is one of the best experiences that a human being can have; games allow us as designers to present that experience to other people. When I was playing Ouendan, for instance, the difficulty curve was a little steep; I flubbed some songs several times over, but every time I could feel that I was progressing – getting better at the song, getting better at the game. That’s the kind of experience and pleasure that a good challenge can provide – to distinguish it from an obtuse one. Similarly, with Ikaruga, some times I don’t do so well, but some times I can do better, and there’s a rush there that you can’t get from playing all (well, most of) the console RPGs in the world.

    You may claim that such an experience of development is “fake”, but then so are all the other experiences we sell to players. That doesn’t make them irrelevant or “cheap”.

    On the other hand, I agree that obfuscation is almost always the result of poor design. Obtuse challenges result in the inability of the player to feel that they’re making progress at all, which leads to frustration.

  22. n.n, I fully respect one’s preference for a good challenge, desire to improve, etc. I have no problem with that – in fact, I am currently trying to beat a boss in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow on Julius mode, dying, and trying again. And I enjoyed playing Guitar Hero too – I finished it on expert! So I do have these moments – it’s just not my primary drive for playing.

    What I meant is that there are many possible player postures, which can be determined for starters by what a player wants from a game – to satisfy a desire for mastery, to satisfy a desire for curiosity, or for fiction, for aesthetics, for comedy, simply a pastime, etc. And recognizing these player postures means that what a “challenge” is and how it will be perceived may be a question of kind as well as degree.

    I think most people would agree it is OK to blame the game if I told them that after playing God of War on Normal for the whole game, dying around 3-4 times each boss battle and once or twice in a while (usually due to falling down a pit), I get killed 20+ times by Ares at the end and have to downgrade difficulty to easy – and still die 4-5 times!- to narrowly beat him. This is clearly a difference in degree, an imbalance. Likewise with the uneven difficulty curve between songs in Guitar Hero which many reported.

    However, if I were to blame Myst for being a game that is obtuse and does not present any puzzles or tasks that are readily identifiable, many fans of the game would reply that it is what makes it challenging, and that the puzzles of the game are really good because they don’t hold your hand and tell you what to do. They are right in blaming me as not being good/patient enough, and I am right in blaming the game as not being forward/clear enough. This difference is in kind, and I believe in this respect, absolute relativity will always points its head on what constitutes a challenge or not, and whether it is any good. The most we can hope to achieve is semi-generalized statements to the effect that “Game 1 offers a good challenge to player types A and B, but merely annoys player types C and D”.

    Also, I may just be thinking out loud, but the examples you give, n.n, are short games intended to be replayed many times. I would think that the mode of challenge is very different in games of emergence than in games of progression (as the Blogmaster termed them). You can definitely see the improvement you get between two games of game X, but when a game of game X takes 10-20 hours and you’re only going to play it once, you cannot know whether you are doing good or bad. Maybe you die a lot, but maybe the game is super hard, so in the end you’re pretty good. Maybe you’re breezing through the game, only to discover at the end boss that you had to kill the zombies with your knife to conserve pistol ammo and now you’re stuck (as in RE: Code Veronica).

    Well, that was a digression. I would just like to say that I feel games are perfectly entitled to be challenging! As long as they are fair, and not like those rigged carnival and fair games where you must throw a baseball in a basket inclined at 50 degrees, except the basket has been fitted with springs inside so the ball always bounces back.

  23. Dominic,

    A game of progression may still be played many times over (sometimes as “speed runs”), and the player will eventually develop a sense of how well they are doing versus previous playthroughs.

    Additionally, in playing the game through over and over the game may exhibit some unexpected emergent behavior. In my college days some friends and I hosted/participated in several Final Fantasy VII races – the idea being to complete the game as quick as possible over the course of a weekend, with set stopping points for breaks. It was interesting to see how different strategies developed and evolved with each new race. But if you just play through the game once, it will probably seem very linear (the relative worth of spending your time playing FFVII over and over and over again is a discussion for another time :-)

  24. Of course. Every game is replayable, and every game contains a form of emergence, if you are willing to extend the concept to embrace any single branching of two possibilities. In my opinion, this waters it down and reduces its use dramatically, though. I think it’s more worthwhile to consider multiple types of emergence, acknowledge that any game is emergent on the lower levels, and then get to discussing the higher-level distinction between games that are intended to provide one long experience versus those that are meant to be replayed over and over.

    Speed runs and FF7 no-materia single-character low-level challenges are all good, and nobody would dispute that people can create their own games by taking a game as a starting point (what Bernard Perron termed ‘gameplayers’). I can time myself when cooking my potato-and-ham omelette and try to get better, and award myself a second glass of wine with my dinner if I succeed in not spilling any egg shells on the counter. But that has nothing to do with the omelette, except that I am using it in a specific purpose.

    FF7 is not emergent and not any less linear because you and your friends decided to do challenges using it. Just as frisbees are not suddenly amazingly emergent for haute cuisine because yesterday I flipped one over and ate my omelette in it. (Not a true story…it was actually a steak.)

    I would claim that while FF7 is a game of progression, it contains emergence on a low-level basis, but this emergence is reshaped by the higher-level principle that it is first and foremost a long game where you progress through events to reach a definite goal.

    Actually, it seems to me now that you’re using “linear” in a different sense than what I mean. I am on the structural level: a game is linear in the sense that you have to complete zone A before going to point B, then when you enter the cave past the Midgard Zolom you are going to see a cut-scene with the Turks that is fixed, etc. Whereas you seem to be implying that FF7 is non-linear because it can be played using different strategies – i.e. no summons, no magic, using always the same three characters, etc. But this fact pertains to all games. Play Soccer defensively or agressively. Use 4 tall&thin guys in Ice Hockey or a balanced team. Down Flash Man or Metal Man first. Spam DOTs and run away or spam Pyros and run in. Etc.

  25. Yeah, I realize that those types of games are not truly emergent, and I would call them just as linear as you do. I was just trying to contrast what you had said re: n.n’s examples of short games meant to be completed in a single setting. A longer, linear game can be treated in a similar fashion, depending on the player, and you can (if you really want to) track improvements over each play.

    On a somewhat related note – if you’re familiar, would you call Ikaruga progression, emergence, or both?

  26. ^I wanted to clarify – obviously it’s a game of progression, but does it have emergent properties? At any given point you have basically three strategies (shoot, shoot for chains, don’t shoot), but it has little bearing on the outcome save for your score (the exception being on a few levels where if you move through it quickly enough you get extra fodder at the end). If I understand the principle correctly, because you always encounter the same enemies in the same order, it’s not really emergent.

  27. I was just trying to contrast what you had said re: n.n’s examples of short games meant to be completed in a single setting. A longer, linear game can be treated in a similar fashion, depending on the player, and you can (if you really want to) track improvements over each play.
    Oh! I understand. I didn’t see what you meant. What I am interested in, ultimately, is what the game aims for, and its intention. But that isn’t really the place to go into that here.

    In my gut-feeling view, Ikaruga is not really emergent for the reasons you stated. But we can agree that it is more “emergent” (in the low-level sense) than 1942, for instance, as could be argued that the Choose-your-own-adventure books of the Fighting Fantasy series are more emergent than those of the Lone Wolf series.

  28. Excellent points on emergence v/s progression, Dominic & Jason. I had not noticed that bias myself, perhaps because I tend to consider games of emergence generally more suited to the experience of challenge than games of progression, and hence tended naturally to present such examples.

    However, to what extent would you consider God of War or Guitar Hero to be “games of progression”? It seems to me that in the end, we’re simply discussing different games within the same category of emergence; Ouendan is not that different from Guitar Hero, for instance. I think we can all agree that challenge is an important type of experience, but not the only one, and possibly not even the most important one. That being said, I wonder about the supposed difficulty spikes in Guitar Hero (disclaimer: haven’t played it). Is it really a problem if you take 20 tries to complete a song, as long as you can see yourself gradually improving as you play? Perhaps the frustration is not so much in the hardness of the song, but rather in the fact that the following song is easier. Perhaps it is also in the fact that success in one song does not always transfer to increased aptitude for other songs.

    Which leads me to a few other observations.

    1. Long-form games are often short repeatable games of (semi-)emergence strung together along a progression arc. But this is something of a truism. The problem with long games and games of chance, when attempting to deliver the experience of “challenge”, is that there are so many extenuating factors which may impede the player’s ability to “read” the influence of their skills on the outcome. Did I get an A rank on this boss fight because my skill has improved? Was it because I got a new sword? Or because the boss is just easier than the previous one? Nobody knows.

    2. Impeding the player’s ability to judge their own skill level can often frustrate the experience of growth. If the boss is too random (Trauma Center, I’m looking at you), players will experience frequent setbacks and may feel that they won “because of luck”. Likewise, if there are too many factors to consider (equipment, opponents, etc), then that also can have a detrimental impact. Which is why I like what some designers do; late in the game, they bring back an early-game boss as an opponent, to show the player how far he’s progressed. If you really want to be a Kojima, I suppose you could divest the player of all additional accoutrements (via the usual “you got captured” expedient, or something more creative) and have them fight the boss with the same, or fewer, resources that they had in the earlier fight.

    I have been playing Soulcalibur 4, even though I am a poor player of fighting games at best, and I find it to be interesting but also frustrating in some ways. Sometimes the reflection of improvement comes through very clearly; for instance, when playing through the Story with the same character, the parameters are similar enough that any personal skill growth I have experienced is actually tangible. However, the randomness of the AI and the system of weapon/equipment/skill progression both work against that (although the latter is, on its own, quite interesting).

    As for Ikaruga, I think it has a fairly high degree of emergence for what is essentially a linear game, because there are so many different ways to tackle each situation. However, the number of “right ways” is often limited, which to a certain extent limits the emergence. (More truisms!) For example, in the middle part of stage 2, there’s a bit where the path splits into two. Although both paths are about the same and thus a non-choice, an ambitious player might choose to destroy the blocks which separate them, hence exposing themselves to fire from the other side but also being able to fly to the other side and attack enemies on both sides. Does the player destroy the blocks? When? How many? What approach does he take to avoid the consequent problem of being exposed to interlocking fields of fire? Beyond the simple problem of execution lies this series of questions, and the answers can change the outcome in quite fundamental ways.

  29. I agree with all your observations, n.n, on clarity of feedback, smooth difficulty curves, etc. However, to expand on my position on emergence, I’ll just respond to your last paragraph. I argued succintly in my master’s thesis on narration in the video game that there was a fundamental divide between choice-based interactivity and repertoire-based interactivity (borrowing a term for this current blog’s provider ;)).

    A choice offers a definite, finite number of alternatives which have been wholly fixed; in a choose-your-own adventure book, you choose to flip to paragraph 17 or 136, and what happens then is you either die or don’t. Naturally those books tried to implement a portion of randomness with hit points and ability scores and dice rolls and whatnot, but the core of the argument remains valid.

    Up from choice-based interactivity is repertoire-based interactivity, where the rules are themselves scripted, but the low-level actions are not pre-scripted. In Super Mario Bros., a jump takes you up 6 squares and forward 6 squares (for instance, I didn’t measure exactly), bricks block your path, and if you fall below the horizontal lower limit of the screen, you die. If you encounter a pit, none of your possible actions are pre-scripted; a jump is a jump is a jump, wherever you decide to jump. We still, however, metaphorically refer to the various tactics one can adopt to get across a pit (walk on the uppermost blocks and face a koopa, jump under them and risk falling to death, break the bricks with Super Mario, let the koopa fall before jumping, etc.) as “choices”. But these various possibilities are not coded in the game engine as “choices”; the player must come up with the strategies, instead of them being presented to him “on a silver platter”, so to speak.

    So through all this, my point was that every game not based on an interactivity of explicit choices has some form of emergence, because that is how rules are meant to be. But with games like Super Mario Bros., God of War, Guitar Hero, Ikaruga, etc., though the low-level possibilities afforded to the player by his repertoire of actions are emergent, the structure of the game is pre-scripted: the challenges are introduced in a specific order. There are different ways to overcome the obstacles (the aporias, in Aarseth’s terms), but they themselves are fixed. In contrast, in Chess, Solitaire, Soccer, or Deathmatch in all FPS’es, etc., the challenges vary with the player’s actions.

    Naturally, this opens up “what’s a challenge”, etc., and I think it’s a thornier issue, that I’m sure I don’t want to tackle right now. I should be playing, this is week-end! :)

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