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Perfecting Loss in 'N+'

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Tuesday, Aug 31, 2010
For as often as I died while playing N+, maybe the best compliment that I can pay it is that I didn’t mind a single time.

N+, like its free to play flash predecessor N, is a simple but elegant platformer. The purpose of the game is to get to the exit while collecting as much gold in the room as you like. Obstacles include mines, laser turrets, and heat seeking missiles which make escape more complicated. The ninja is a good abstract avatar that anyone can project on to, and all of your abilities will be familiar to anyone who has played a 2-D platformer. What’s impressive about the game is how much playtime it extracts, given that it is a game in which all you can really do is jump. It instead relies on only a handful of obstacles and shifting goals to make a game that you always want to play just one more time. For the purposes of this post, I played N+ on the DS, which unfortunately means I’m just discussing the levels included with the game in single player mode. They took the servers down a while back for DS owners.


The game is fast paced and you can easily die a dozen times per level. Difficulty is a uniquely layered system because the game challenges you in three ways. The first is the challenge that evry player must complete: get to the exit. The second is for OCD players who want to collect every gold piece on the level. The third is the clock, which keeps tabs on how quickly you can beat the level and will kill you if it runs out. Off the top of my head, I’d say the first 30 levels (there are 156 by my count) were easy in terms of completing all three goals. The next 30 made collecting all of the gold pieces a bit trickier. After 30 or so levels like that, getting to the exit is tougher. The final levels eventually introduce the clock itself as a barrier.  These are levels in which you are hauling ass just to open a gate and get out. After extended play, you can usually spot which of the three challenges that a level is focusing on trying to engage you with. For example, maybe the exit will only require a little careful footwork and hiding behind cover, but the gold is right next to the laser turrets. Or the gold is generally all along your path to the exit, but there are dozens of robots blocking the exit. Or you just have one minute to win. The more challenging levels can take a lot of practice to beat because often you have to figure out the precise sequence of jumps and wall slides needed to win. It’s not unheard of to practice the tougher levels for an hour or two individually before beating them.



  



This is a perfect set up to avoid what Taekwan Kim describes as overly invalidating consequences. His idea is that whenever you play a game you are forming theories about how the design works. When you beat the game, doing so satisfies your ego because it validates your ideas. When you lose, it means that you don’t understand how to play just yet. This often feels insulting and will result in the player quitting the game, smashing their controller, or explaining how the game is a stupid piece of crap. Kim explains, “The longer that the player has avoided acknowledging invalidation, the more he has to lose when he finally does, thus the more he will refuse to give it up. Not only would admitting to error invalidate the player’s current position, but it would invalidate everything causing and preceding that position, from his time investment to his fundamental understanding of and skill in the game (and the totality and weight of this at this point will feel as heavy as the player’s worldview). The only recourse for many will then be to bludgeon onward and insist on one’s validity” (“Validation Theory”, Gamasutra, 9 June 2010).


This is a really tough problem to fix in a game because you really can’t predict what weird crap people are going to do. N+ perfectly resolves the issue because you die too quickly to ever invest in a particular strategy. You know that you’re doing something right in a level if there aren’t little bits of ninja scattered everywhere. It’s what helps turn the game into something that you play repeatedly even if you die because you’re puzzling out the correct sequence of moves, making death an intrinsic part of play and also one that feels rewarding.


This experimentation process stays engaging for so many levels because of the diverse number of contexts in which the basic jump ability is applied. The three methods of challenging a player, along with the numerous ways that those challenges can be presented via the robots, make for a game that is about changing expectations. A great essay on defining game mechanics by Miguel Sicart describes a game mechanic as, “methods invoked by agents, designed for interaction with the game state” (“Defining Game Mechanics”, Game Studies 8.2, December 2008). The article is pointing out that often when we’re talking about a game mechanic we’re really describing a strategy or rule system. Gears of War is prime example, and Sicart uses the cover system to explain his point. It’s not a rule in the sense that you MUST take cover, and it’s also not really correct to call it game design because taking cover is a strategy that’s possible within the design. The rules allow cover and it’s the primary way to play if you want to win. So a game mechanic is something that’s occurring between the two solid states of rule and design.



Sicart acknowledges that part of the problem with even discussing a mechanic is that they are often composed of dozens of sub-actions. Driving a car in Grand Theft Auto is a mechanic composed of braking, accelerating, steering, ramming objects, etc. Applying Sicart’s ideas to N+ is handy because his essay relies on popular but complicated games while N+ is fairly simple. You can jump in the game, and it only offers the ability to perform a few sub-actions. Hold down the jump button, and you’ll launch yourself into a long wide arc that can cross most of the level. Lightly tap it and you barely hop. Wall jumping requires pressing away from the wall while timing the jump button so that you’re still sliding. It’s one of the simplest game mechanics out there and N+ builds an entire game out of this one form of interaction. The myriad of robots, explosives, and other traps are always changing the application of the mechanic because they give a new context in relation to the basic challenges.


As Sicart explains, “The only variation would be the level of abstraction: for a player who is playing the game, a mechanic serves a specific set of purposes, while a player that is playing with or within the game, a game mechanic loses its formal game design origin and becomes an instrument for agency.” N+ exemplifies this idea with its three types of challenge: the clock, the gold, and the exit. What kinds of jumps and how difficult the level is changes depending on the player. The game never forces you to engage with any of them except in getting to the exit. In this way, the player is always exploring the challenges voluntarily, using death as a signifier, instead of as a signal of invalidation.


Each level feels more like doing a quick crossword puzzle than engaging in one long training and development process. You can see the entire level from the start and rapidly experiment with it by dying until you figure out how to escape. The game is so adept at presenting this process of trial and error to the player that clinical psychologists actually use the game to train kids with learning disabilities. The creators of the game posted an excerpt from an e-mail that they received from a doctor in the field, “The level design also allows me to teach patients with learning disabilities and attention deficits how to gather information from failure, identify new strategies, practice the execution of those strategies, and then, following additional failures, reassess their strategies or need for further skill acquisition. This training teaches them meta-awareness which helps them to develop frustration tolerance in real world academic and social environments in a way that talk therapy alone does not” (“Mailbag! N: Big Brain Academy”, Metanet Software Inc., September 2009). For as often as I died while playing N+, maybe the best compliment that I can pay it is that I didn’t mind a single time.

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