[27 January 2014]
Image from Antichamber (Demruth, 2013)
Players can approach a game however they wish, but a developer has a responsibility to provide some sort of guidance through their virtual world.
In gaming, people always talk about how much fun it is to discover things: A new location, a new weapon, a new ability, or a new system of rules. All games have rules, and it’s necessary to understand those rules to progress through the game. Yet there are a lot of games, mostly puzzle games, that obfuscate their rules in the name of “discovery.” This obfuscation is a dangerous game. “Discovery” is certainly something that’s prized in all sorts of games,since players just love it when old rules are augmented by new rules to significantly change the game being played. That expansion of our understanding is exciting. However, there’s a careful difference between “discovery” and “learning”.
Discovery is fun, but learning is work. Discovery is optional, but learning is necessary. Learning occurs quickly, or at least, it should. Before we can properly play a game, we must learn its systems and controls; we must learn how to interact with the game on a fundamental level. Any knowledge that then alters that fundamental interaction can be considered a discovery.
At least, these are just my personal definitions for this column. Semantics aside, my point is that there are some games that don’t explain their rules that are nonetheless able to ease players into their world through a series of simple puzzles that teach us the basics. There are also some games that completely botch this process. Two puzzles games released last year are perfect examples of both extremes. On the one side, there’s Antichamber. On the other, there’s Starseed Pilgrim.
Antichamber is a first-person puzzle game set in a non-Euclidean world, which basically means you can change the world simply by walking through it. A hallway can stretch forward endlessly, but the moment that you turn back, you’ll be facing the exit
Antichamber succeeds as a puzzle game because it eases the player into this bizarre world. There are no explanations of what a non-Euclidean world is, the word isn’t ever used in the game itself because Antichamber knows it’s better to show than to tell.
The first obstacle that you encounter is a deep pit with the word “Jump” hovering in the air above. Naturally, you’ll jump. And fall. If you had ignored the command and just walked across the pit, a bridge would have formed beneath your feet.
The teaching continues with the second obstacle that you encounter at the bottom of the pit (or at least the likely second obstacle, since you’ll see something different if you walk across the pit instead of jumping down): A hallway with a pair of staircases at its end, a red one going down and a blue one going up. If we take the red one up, it takes us to another hallway with… a pair of staircases at its end, a red one going down and a blue one going up. If we take the blue one up it takes us to yet another hallway that ends with the same pair of staircases.
After a few attempts at progression, the player realizes that he’s stuck in an infinite loop. The staircases (impossibly) circle back to the beginning of the hallway. The only other option is to turn around and go back the way we came, to loop around in the opposite direction. but this actually breaks the loop, taking us into a wider area that splits off into multiple puzzles. The training is now over.
These two moments teach you to view the world with suspicion, to not trust the obvious solutions, that the unintuitive answer is probably the correct answer. It’s necessary that Antichamber gets us into this mindset as soon as possible because it’s a recipe for frustration. No one wants to play a game that doesn’t explain itself and then punishes you for not knowing something important. Such a game feels unfinished at best, condescending at worst.
Antichamber succeeds because these initial puzzles limit our possible interactions with the world. In each case, we only have two options, jump or walk, then go forwards or go backwards. One action is obvious. The other is not. Since our options are so limited, it’s (relatively) easy to find the solutions, even if we stumble upon them by accident. These puzzles are designed so that you’ll come away with a basic understanding of Antichamber’s abstract logic.
The game never explicitly states its rules, except that it kind of does. These puzzles are tutorials, snippets of the larger game that explain the basics of interaction. They’re just not labeled as tutorials, and that lack of labeling allows the player to feel a sense of discovery upon learning the rules, even though that “discovery” is more like finding a hidden Easter Egg in an empty room.
Antichamber gets more complex, with other puzzles that rely more on what we see rather than on where we are and through guns that can add or remove blocks from the world. However, by the time that we encounter these other puzzles, we’re aware of the abstract logic that governs them. We’re ready for them. Antichamber uses its level and puzzle design to ensure that we learn things in a specific order, an order than guarantees we’re never overwhelmed or confused by the weirdness before us.
Contrast Antichamber, which seems to teach the player nothing even as it teaches us everything, with a game that truly teaches us nothing, Starseed Pilgrim.
Starseed Pilgrim mistakes confusion for complexity. It’s built around a single puzzle, so it’s specifically designed to be unable to ease us into its logic. The very nature of that puzzle is never explained, so the player is left to fumble around for a goal or objective or reason to play. Starseed Pilgrim has no interest in telling the player anything and mistakes our fumbling trial-and-error confusion for “discovery.”
You’re a “gardener” on a floating set of blocks in white space. You can destroy blocks by walking into them or plant seeds that will grow more blocks in various ways. Each seed has different properties: sometimes a set of blocks will grow straight, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, or snake around as they grow. It’s not clear initially why we would want to move away from our little floating home. there’s nothing around us but an abyss of white.
Starseed Pilgrim (Drogan’s Games, 2013)
However, as time passes, the blocks below you turn black, and this blackness spreads to the blocks around it. If you touch these black blocks, the world is inverted. What was once a block becomes empty space and what was once empty space becomes a block, so we go from floating in endless space to spelunking in a cave of our own making.
There’s a keyhole in the floor, suggesting that somewhere there’s a key for us to find, which at least implies a goal. As it turns out, the keys are floating out in the abyss of white, and we’re meant to grow our garden in such a way as to grab the key(s), then invert the world to unlock the door, then repeat. Learning theses basics can take hours.
Antichamber may be a visually bizarre, logically alien game, but it’s interested in conversing with the player. This keeps it compelling even as it gets frustrating. Starseed Pilgrim isn’t interested in having a conversation with the player. It’s not even interested in lecturing the player. In fact, it’s not even interested in the player at all.
Playing Starseed Pilgrim is like playing a sliding tile puzzle with the pieces turned over: Sure you can still technically play the game, you can still slide the pieces around, but since you can’t see the picture on the other side, you can’t know if you’re making progress. There’s no feedback, which breaks that fundamental contract between player and game.
In obfuscating its rules, Starseed Pilgrim makes itself seem more complex than it really is, and in pushing away all but the most devoted of players, it ensures that every fan becomes an evangelist.
Similarly obtuse games have similarly fervent fan bases: Minecraft, Don’t Starve, Warframe, Dark Souls. (I really enjoy the latter two, but my God, are the first several hours a pain in the ass.) I believe gamers are so addicted to a sense of “discovery” that we’re attracted to the pure effort of “learning”. We’re so in love with the idea of finding something new within a game that we’re willing to forgo any and all instructions just to have the chance to “discover” those instructions for ourselves. The actual quality of a game is less important than how much of it we can “discover” through play.
This is a fine way to play a game, but it’s not a fine way to design a game. Players can approach a game however they wish, but a developer has a responsibility to provide some sort of guidance through their virtual world because if the puzzlemaker can’t explain his own puzzle that does not bode well for me.
All games have rules, and all games should explain those rules in some form or another. The best games find a way to hide this learning process, to make the learning feel like discovery. The worst games just ignore the learning process altogether.