Missing moments in games

Monday, April 16, 2018

Tagged: el shaddai, design, unification of theme and mechanic, everything

This weekend I finally played David OReilly's Everything. (I tried a pre-release build a couple of years ago, but I had trouble with the controller and gave up almost immediately. This time I played all the way through, or at least to what I can call an "ending".)

Spoiler warning: I am about to start talking about the ending ("ending") of Everything, and how it is constructed. I'm going to go into detail. So if your kink is surprises, buy Everything and play through it before reading this. It won't take you too long.

Death of the Author warning: I am about to start talking about the intent of games by seeing how they are constructed. Indeed, I will be making assumptions about how the design evolved. That is: I will be reading games as texts. I realize it's perfectly possible to go find the designer and ask what they intended, or how the game evolved -- but that's not the point here. That is not, as Alan Watts says in Everything's adopted narration, the game we're playing.

Everything is a philosophical game, and it ends on a philosophical note. Having explored all up and down the Great Mesh of Being, from carbon atoms to galactic clusters, you have now gotten stuck in a wasteland of junk and despair. This is expressed literally: pianos, shoes, and french fries wander by, bemoaning the hopelessness of their existence. You have gotten used to wandering the universe with absolute freedom, but now you are trapped. The "exit" button doesn't work.

Finally you meet a guide (the game Everything itself), and it tells you what to do. You have to enter the "thoughts" screen and empty it out by hitting the B button. Then you will be free to leave. And you do that, and it works. Freedom! Fireworks!

But it's an anticlimactic way to express this ending, ain't it? The game literally tells you what to do -- the pop-up help box says "press the back button to enter the thoughts screen, and then press B to erase everything." (I'm paraphrasing that, but only a little.) You follow instructions. It might as well start "Would you kindly"!

Thematically, it's a perfect ending. The whole game is underpinned by the aforementioned Alan Watts telling you that you are everything. Everything is you. Your ego and your separateness from the world are just habits of thought. So obviously the key realization is to discard all these thoughts -- all these expressions of individuality that you've collected from shoes and horses and planets throughout the game. Let it all go. Experience the universe with no preconceptions. Right?

To figure this out would be a powerful moment -- a mad idea which makes perfect thematic sense, and you try it, and it works. I think that's as close as a game could come to conveying the Zen experience of satori! But Everything balks. It never leads you to this epiphany. It doesn't even give you space to experience it. It just hands you instructions.

I can only imagine that the original design was for you to be stuck, stay stuck, until you came to this realization on your own. But then in playtesting it didn't work at all. No surprise: the "thoughts" screen is very marginal to the gameplay. I never entered it at all except by pushing the wrong controller button! There are no game mechanics concerned with selecting, discarding, or managing your inventory of thoughts. So to introduce one at the end is impossible -- I mean, you can try, but your players will never catch on.

One can imagine design changes to make this work better. Provide moments of blockage throughout the game which can be "solved" by selecting and discarding a specific thought. Then extend this blockage metaphor to the wasteland, so that the player realizes that all thought is now blockage and must be discarded.

I don't know (allowing the author a moment of resurrection) whether David OReilly tried such alternate designs. Maybe he tried them and they didn't work. Maybe they cluttered up the game UI too much, or bogged down the pacing. Maybe the notion of a difficult puzzle in a philosophy game was repellent, and he decided to commit to a model of a game which can play itself. (At which he succeeded.)

I might compare ending non-puzzle to the second-to-last puzzle ("puzzle") of Everything, in which you are told to "return to where you started". With no clues at all about how to do that! I found this genuinely difficult, and Googled for a hint, and then it made thematic sense. Sort of.

...But what the heck, let's jump tracks and talk about a completely different game: El Shaddai, a stylish button-masher beat-em-up from 2011. This game, too, left me with the sense of a missing epiphany.

Let's set this up. You are Enoch, travelling the realms of Heaven in anachronistic blue jeans, clobbering fallen angels. Because -- because -- look, the plot makes no sense. I think it's based on a manga. Never mind the plot. You wield angelic swords and things, but as you bash monsters, your weapon gets gunked up with evil red-glowing ichor. You have to back off and hit the "purify" button, which cleans away the corruption with holy fire and restores your weapon. This is the basic combat mechanic.

In addition to walloping nephilim, you are chasing a little girl named Nanna (or Inanna, Ishtar, etc). Then you are frozen in carbonite for ten years and Nanna grows up, because manga. Then she is infected by evil. You chase her some more, only now she's a woman being devoured by red-glowing ichor.

See where this is going? You finally catch up with Nanna/Ishtar as she lies dying. You pick her up and cleanse her soul, purifying the corruption with holy fire...

Except this happens in a cut scene! There is no moment where you push the "purify" button for the win. You just watch it happen.

This situation is not like Everything. The "purify" mechanic is deeply embedded in El Shaddai. You are taught it at the beginning and you spend the whole game practicing it. It's become instinctive by this point. So it would work perfectly well to have the game linger in that moment -- Enoch cradling Nanna's dying body -- and allow the player to catch the clue and purify her. It would work. It would be, in a sense, a quicktime action -- but quicktime done right, with semantically meaningful controls. No need for a time limit, either.

So why didn't the developers do this? I can't imagine that it playtested badly. Even if a player completely misses the point, it's a game controller -- button-mashing will work, albeit without the satisfying epiphany. Maybe the game engine wasn't flexible enough for this sort of non-cut-scene, non-gameplay mode? I don't know. But the whole game and storyline are shaped to come together at this moment at the end. Someone must have intended to do it. Then they... didn't.

When people ask how I design games, I say: I start with the interactions and work backwards to puzzles and story. (Take for granted that I like puzzles.)

Game design is hard, and I mean as an absolute percentage of the work of game-building. You want that perfect moment of gameplay -- the moment when the player sees a possibility appear out of the dense landscape of their learned game experience. Setting that up takes an incredible amount of work! The entirety of the game design, back to the first moments of play, becomes subordinated to this requirement: get the player to where this realization is possible. Give them the tools, make them use the tools, lead them to experiment with the tools.

The story becomes just another avenue for imparting expectations about game mechanics. For both of these games, I fully believe that the designers started with these core moments. Everything: free yourself from your thoughts and expectations. What kind of game leads to this point? A game in which everything is constantly talking to you, handing you mundane thoughts and complaints just like the ones that fill your own head.

Or El Shaddai: if you can purify weapons, you can apply that power to heal a human. What kind of game leads to this point? A game full of weapons, where using and then purifying them is a familiar cycle. But also: a game with a human NPC whom you feel protective towards and want to save if she becomes ill.

(No, it didn't have to be a cute passive anime girl who goes through puberty in the course of the storyline. The designers could have pushed the trope boundaries a little harder there.)

You can see this front-to-back design in my games, I hope. I see it in any successful adventure or puzzle game. Some lean towards systematic mechanics, some towards surprising combinations and outcomes. But this is a continuum, not an opposition.

It's these odd cases that really irk me, though. Games where I can see the setup; they've done the work; they just don't quite carry through. Near misses sting so much worse than simple failures, right? I can't even say "missed opportunities", because there's no way they were overlooked. Someone backed away. Something went wrong, something intervened. I may never know.

(Unless I ask the designers, which I won't do -- not within the confines of this post, anyhow.)