Zarathustran Analytics in Video Games, Part 7: Application of Forms

[19 May 2008]

By L.B. Jeffries

PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor

So with all these definitions, variables, and conflicting goals for what games should be, what is the role of the Zarathustran process? How does it work? Essentially, you’re analyzing the experience of the game itself. The important shift that critics must be aware of is that they are no longer judging the game by just one single element. How do the plot, player input, and game design work together to make the experience? Although a game may be extremely cutscene heavy, should this plot device work well to create a powerful experience then that isn’t a flaw. If a game has strange controls, do those ultimately improve the game or make the player feel like they have less input? The application is to see these things as means rather than ends in video games.

With that in mind, we’ll go through the process a few times. One of the more interesting examples of a player’s input facilitating an experience is Gunstar Heroes. The game’s a first person experience, despite the heavy elements of third person setting. It makes this shift by putting the emphasis on the game design of power-ups. You have two power-up slots and one of them is set for the duration of playtime. The second can be picked up during a level and will change the way your gun works. There’s a pretty impressive array of strategies as a result of this that lets the player truly individualize his own approach to the game. Whereas one may prefer the weak but auto-targeting attack, another might opt for the light saber combination. What it adds to the experience itself is that the player-input gives two kinds of positive feedback because you’re relying on strategy and reflexes. You don’t beat Gunstar Heroes, you figure it out. And as a result, the game design features a remarkable shift in connection that improves it.

One of the more important virtues of a plot element is the creation of a proper setting for a game to take place in. Activision’s Western Third-Person game, Gun, captures the experience of being in the West by putting the player in a relatively inactive setting: the desert. Sacrificing game design for the sake of the feel of a Western, Gun allows the player to ride a horse through a very large, beautifully rendered Western hub system. Although it throws in the occasional bandit attack, large portions of the game are spent traveling to missions in this huge empty space. As a result, you really feel like you’re traveling in the West. The huge mountains of the Northern Rockies come alive as you both see them in the distance and climb around them on horseback. The experience may be a more sedate one for the player, but the long minutes spent riding through the mountains begin to have an odd cathartic element as you slowly learn your way around the hub. When you’re told bandits are attacking settlers out in the badlands, you dart down that familiar pass, leap a few cliffs, and manage to get there with plenty of time. The game takes it even further by having the player go through all of the typical “Western” activities as side missions. Working for Federal Marshalls, hunting down opium dealers, and delivering for the Pony Express may be quite basic in terms of gameplay but because the setting works them in so well, they take on new value, emphasizing the third person experience.
It is important to always remember that when a game takes away options and game design, there should be a concrete goal behind such omissions. An empty space can be as beautiful as a filled one. The same is true for game mechanics when their absence serves a purpose. An excellent example would be the indie game Knytt Stories, which can be downloaded for free here. Although its game design is 2D exploration, what makes it interesting is that there is no attack option. You dodge mostly passive creatures, gain access to new areas with power-ups, and generally explore a very sedate world that needs a little help. It’s a quicker game, but thanks to music and carefully changing tile sets, the player ends up being absorbed into the levels and appreciating it more. For a graphically minimalist Third-Person experience, it’s impressive that the game defines itself by the feeling of each area rather than dialogue or plot. It dismisses these elements all the more thoroughly by the absence of a major antagonist, the last boss is simply turning off a machine that has been causing problems. This simple relationship you develop with exploring the landscape creates an amazingly soothing game experience that feels more like solving a crossword puzzle than having a big battle.

The main virtue of applying the Zarathustran Analytics is that you’re looking at a game in terms of the big picture of overall experience. Just because a game doesn’t have a game design does not mean it cannot work well in terms of the story. Shadow of the Colossus may be a gigantic empty landscape, but this makes the game truly lonely and powerful one for the story’s setting. Just because a game doesn’t have a deep Shakespearean plot does not mean it shouldn’t be considered brilliant. The original X-Com was a clichéd plot of aliens invading Earth and the player defending it. The research tree, battles for funding, and ever dwindling allies in the United Nations made the game design induce real struggle in the player. The phase of the game where the invasion becomes so driven that you start picking out which countries you’re going to abandon is still one of the most personalized moments in video games. And fortunately, there are always new and exciting ways for player input to establish the connection that makes the video game experience possible. What this series, what the application of these ideas really means for video games, is to create an environment where game developers can really get to the good stuff.

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