Platformers can offer a reliable breath of fresh air from the cornucopia of complex and dense games. The exhilaration of moving quickly through a level or mastering skilled jumps with ease is endlessly rewarding. More than this, I love the frequent transparency of platformers and the joy of a well taught lesson.Take Outland for example, an overlooked 2011 release from Housemarque. The game is aptly described as an Ikaruga platformer. The protagonist swaps between emitting a blue and red aura, dodging or absorbing colored bullets while platforming between stages. These distinct colors literally put the mechanics on artistic display, and after an hour of play, even the rate at which hearts drop from enemies becomes predictable. Like numerous adventure games before it, Outland also unlocks locations and abilities gradually to ease players into the world. Ubisoft Montpellier’s Rayman Origins also utilizes such a gradual teaching method with amazing finesse and offers an even better opportunity to explore the risks and rewards of gated learning.
Rayman Origins is a surprisingly tight and aesthetically charming platformer that I encourage you to play. The game feels like a quirky French Saturday morning cartoon, with all the silliness this implies. All the characters pop off the screen, and the animations of Rayman and his gang appear jovial and fun.
Now for a bit more detail. Players have access to only a few verbs during the course of the game. Rayman can run, jump, attack, hover while in the air, shrink in size, swim, and run up select walls. Occasionally he can ride a flying insect and shoot things, but he predominantly moves from left to right while avoiding pits and spikes as usual. However, players do not have access to all of these verbs immediately—for some time the majority of buttons do nothing. After jumping through the initial level of the first stage, players unlock the ability to attack. The next four stages follow the same pattern: Unlock an ability, then work your way through a series of levels using that ability.
Learning gates are beautifully simplistic. Like some classic school curriculum, each lesson builds upon previous lessons and assumes familiarity with that material. Once players have mastered attacking enemies and avoiding obstacles, they must master attacking enemies and avoiding obstacles while hovering, swimming, or running up walls.
Each stage is also themed around these lessons. Players learn to swim or shrink in size at the beginning of a stage that demands these techniques to survive. Yet crucially, Rayman Origins rarely leaves previous abilities behind. Progress still hinges upon hovering occasionally, and shrinking can still offer clever players access to hidden locations.
These abilities unlock at such a gradual pace that the entire first half of the game feels like an incredibly long tutorial—but a brilliant one at that. Sebastien Morin, Director of Rayman Origins encapsulates this design philosophy in a comment on the game’s difficulty:
“In this one we playtested it a lot so that beginners could learn at their own pace. At the same time, a game for beginners would have been dull for veteran platformer players. So we populated the game with a lot of (really, I mean really) hard challenges, that can be done, when you’re ready for it.” (Alan Bell, “Rayman Origins - Developer Interview #2”, NZGamer, 7 November 2011)
Leading up to the midpoint, newcomers can take their time learning the ropes of platformers by gradually combining each ability, particularly when supported by more skilled players who can tackle each level’s more difficult challenges. In the last half of the game, players face a much harder version of each stage. These stages require the dexterous use of all of Rayman’s powers while still emphasizing a particular ability above others. By the game’s end, your accomplishments feel earned.
Of course, the gated learning system can also come off as artificial and tedious. Most of us have played platformers since we could hold a controller. Maneuvering through crazy environments is second nature, so why block access to a potentially interesting game mechanic? The themed stages can also seem gimmicky. Is anyone surprised by water levels in platformers any more? Do we really need another swimming lesson before jumping into the deep end?
Well, no. Rayman Origins could have been unapologetically difficult and unwelcoming to new players, cutting straight to the chewy core. Ubisoft could have followed a philosophy of self-guided learning and asked players to master their abilities on the fly. Instead they constructed a clean and gradual difficulty curve, at times artificial and a tad uninspired, but an entirely satisfying learning experience. Playing the game can be a delightful experience of self-examination. You can watch yourself grow in skill and confidence because Rayman Origins gives you the time and space to taste the simple joy of a lesson learned.