Aporia: design ruminations

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Comments: 2   (latest 3 hours later)

Tagged: reviews, ruminations, exploration, ico, puzzles, wordless narrative, shadow of the colossus, frictional monster, aporia, myst, genre dissonance

I occasionally repeat the mantra, "All game genres hybridize over time." Today's example is Aporia: Beyond the Valley, which presents itself as a Myst-genre puzzle adventure game. Okay, it's a graphical adventure game and it's got puzzles, but I was surprised at how much it didn't remind me of Myst. (Or that genre's modern exemplars, like Obduction or Quern.) Aporia reminded me of several different games, in fact, at different points.

The game opens with an extended introduction which I would call "linear" if that term weren't entirely dessicated. It is, at any rate, an amble down a trail of minor obstacles, geared to teach you mechanics rather than work your little grey cells. Fine; every game starts that way. But Aporia's intro is long enough to let you assume that you've got the rhythm of the entire game. Paths branch just enough to give you the sense of exploration, without letting you miss the next locked door or the key that opens it.

So that's not quite Myst / Quern / Obduction. The usual adventure formula gives you a small introductory area, and then throws the gates open on a world of puzzley madness. Aporia's guided exploration (with wordless narrative and a bit of resource-foraging) is more like, say, Ico. I don't mean it has combat or serious platforming; I just mean the shape of the map. Complex geography with a clean route through to the next area.

Then you pass through a major building, and the gates are thrown open on... a world. The valley. This is a game about a valley, remember? And the valley is enormous, wide open -- a puzzle shrine here, a puzzle building there, but primarily hills and rocks and waterfalls and trees and marshes. You've gone from Ico to Shadow of the Colossus.

That's not the usual adventure formula either, is it? I love open-terrain exploration, but coming from the Myst mindset, I suddenly wanted to wail: guide me! Show me a shiny beacon of goal in the sky! Where's the next locked door? Where am I supposed to solve?

Okay, no. Deep breath. You've got a map and you can see some nifty standing stones in the distance. You push forth and start learning the world.

The funny thing is that this is where the real puzzles start showing up. I might say they lean closer to the action-adventure model (Tomb Raiders, Princes of Persia) than to Myst-style puzzles -- but that's a thin and hazy line to draw. What I'll say for sure is that you spend your time discovering what's over the next hill, not how to open the next gate. The feel of Shadow of the Colossus dominates.

This is also where other genres start creeping in. You walk into a misty glen, and an evil red ghost jumps out and hoists your ass. Aiyee! You can't fight; running might or might not save you. Getting caught doesn't kill you, or even cost much health, but it knocks you back to home base and annoys the heck out of you. Could it be... the Frictional monster?

No, it's not full-on survival horror. The ghost doesn't show up often enough to dominate the game. But it adds a distinct touch of discouragement to your exploration -- which feels weird in a story-exploration game. Do you really want to go back to that glen? But what else is there to do? By definition, you want to visit everywhere on the map.

But you spend a little more time hunting for health-bushes.

The health-bushes also help with, or perhaps fail to excuse, some hurry-up-hurry-up sequences. Not puzzles, but areas where you have to do something while hot stone or toxic smoke slowly burns away your health. These are small and fairly simple -- but you can die. Dying means being kicked back to the last save-point, and perhaps redoing a fair amount of routine exploration. Again, this would be unsurprising in a Tomb Raider game, but it leaves one a bit out of sorts in an adventure game. (And, I must say, the Tomb Raider series has better autosave scheduling, for exactly this reason.)

On top of all of that, you come across optional puzzles, which are a whole different kettle from the main plot-goals. These are the sort of extra-achievement rewards which are common in action-adventure games and practically mandatory in CRPGs -- but I can't remember seeing them much in the Myst genre. They vary widely, from pure plumb-every-crevice exploration to thematic challenges to formal puzzles. (You'll groan when you run into the three different-sized beakers.)

I rather enjoyed this aspect of the game. The extra-ness of the puzzles allows the designers to push you outside your mental box a little. On the other hand, I solved maybe half of them and I don't intend to go back hunting for the rest.

Overall, my feelings are... mixed, like the game model itself. I admire the designers' intent to pick ideas from any source that suits their needs. They're not stuck on one set of design decisions just because Cyan tripped over them back in 1993. Want to throw in a boat ride? Okay, here's a boat ride. Health meter? Sure. Environmental puzzle sequence in a constrained underwater area? Have one. Aporia isn't afraid to do a lot of different things.

But I felt like the ground was shifting a little too often. Do I expect to spend this game exploring, not exploring, hiding, running, solving, optimizing, collecting... what? The mechanics never quite gelled. It's not that I dislike any of these genres, but you know how it is when your mouth is set for apple juice and you drink iced tea instead? Repeatedly.

Here I have deleted a snarky paragraph about Aporia's wordless-narrative model, because I've railed about that before. The presentation is, at least, interesting and distinctive. And it's neither annoyingly generic-and-vague nor annoyingly wall-of-text info-dumpy. So that's good. You'll have to live without my extended Steven Universe metaphor.

And here is where I explain that this is a design ruminations post, not a review. I like to write long posts about what's strange, unusual, or off-base about a game's structure.

This is not to say it's a bad game! Aporia is engaging; I had a great time playing it.

The visuals are particularly nice. You move through geography, from misty swamp to underground cavern to craggy moor, and each domain has a distinct texture: light, shadows, palette, haze, aural environment. Plus day, night, clear, and rainy variations of each environment! (Okay, not of the underground ones. Except when a shaft of sunlight or moonlight slants down a sinkhole, which happens surprisingly often, because... well, because it's awesome.)

This is not just graphical pizazz. It's part of what gives the game its sense of geographical expanse. As the atmosphere of the world changes around you, you feel that you've travelled a significant distance, even if it's really just a compressed jaunt over a ridgeline. I hate to bring in Shadow of the Colossus again, but that's the game that I think of as pioneering the trick. Aporia does it very well.

If this were a review, I would recommend Aporia, with warnings about falling into assumptions about what kind of game it is. I definitely want to see more adventure genre hybrids -- particularly if they're this beautiful, this imaginative, and this much fun to explore.

I just want designers to think more about how their mechanics fit together in the player's head. What does this toxic smog, this breath limit, this threatening ghost tell the player about their goal? Does it pull them forward or push them back from the kind of gameplay which will get them through the game? Ask that.

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