Learning from the past
A few years ago I was lucky enough to get the chance to go around Pompeii, a visit highly recommended. We spent almost the entire day there, wandering the streets of the ancient city, drinking in the history around us and learning everything that we could. One of the things that really stood out to me at the time was how modern a lot of the city felt, how organised and well designed it was. The roads being a primary example: sewers as we have them today hadn't been invented and the roads served the purpose instead.
This was common across the world, and open sewers don't just smell horrid but they spread disease. The people behind the construction of Pompeii evidently knew this and came up with a simple, but effective, solution. Building it on inclined land was the start, and the aquaduct was placed to come into the town at the top. Twice a day, at dawn and dusk, the sluices were opened to wash the streets. To further serve this purpose the roads were deeply set, and crossing stones added at regular intervals for people to get to the other side without having to step down into the sludge. Finally, said crossing stones were all made to one size - the width of the rear axel of the carts that delivered the goods.
I'm guessing by now you may be wondering what this post is doing on a technology based blog about videogames. The design of Pompeii stayed in my mind for two reasons. One, because it was so well laid out and the entire city was constructed to a set of rules that had obviously been clearly defined early on. And secondly because, compared to more modern cities I wondered how we'd lost the knowledge and reasoning behind the design of Pompeii. How were cities built later on so far behind?
Which brings me to this post: recently I started replaying a few games from years ago, initially just to see if they did actually stand the test of time or if my rose tinted glasses were getting in the way of my better judgement. After even just a few short hours with a couple of games (Ultima Underworld and Doom) I was relishing a few of the mechanics and wondering why we don't have them today in single player games. It seems I'm not completely alone in thinking this, as Eurogamer have recently done a retrospective on Doom, and I don't think I'm just being sentimental: I truly believe that some AAA games have lost some of their heritage.
This isn't about graphics, sound, music or physics as there's little doubt that modern games have advanced hugely in these areas. I'm not a complete believer that better graphics equals a better game though, as to me a strong art direction wins every time over pandering to the latest graphical technique. Saying that, there's little doubt that better graphics and sound are a large part of what has helped peel back the once very geeky image of gaming. We've also improved the general accessibility of games massively, control systems are generally better refined and tutorials guide players into how to play a game far more professionally than we ever used to. So, what have we lost?
The three main things that stuck out to me were:
- Navigational freedom
- Player death.
This isn't just about how you get around your environment, but what the reasons are behind that freedom. Ultima Underworld and Doom are very different in their approach to how you progress through the game. Ultima Underworld doesn't present you with very many locked doors, and often invites you to delve deeper into the dungeon. The main thing holding you back is the knowledge that your character isn't strong enough to tackle the enemies that lurk beneath. You want to get as strong as you can before taking the darkness head on. Doom, on the other hand, often presents you with a locked door early in a level and says 'go find the key and don't come back until you've got it'. Both allow you to take your own route though, often presenting you with multiple routes, secret areas and shortcuts for the way back. It's true that you can spend quite a bit of time being lost, even though both games have very extensive maps. But there's one key point to both of these games and, from my memory, many others of the time: it's up to the player to set the pace at which they progress.
In our efforts to be more cinematic in our approach to games today we end up pushing players through whole levels, trying to maintain a filmic like pacing. For sure, these moments can be exhilarating and do have their place but, I think, we've taken some of the control of their destiny away from the player, making games that feel very linear even though they might not be.
Weapons (and weapon inventory)
This is probably the part of games that have changed the most in recent times. Back in the days where Doom, Duke, Half-Life and Quake ruled supreme players could carry all the weapons they could find and choose when to use them. Weapons used to have a very clear hierarchy - number 5 on the keyboard was more powerful than 4. You knew this and you saved a few rockets for when you really needed them, and that feeling of potential power and domination when you found a new weapon seems sorely lacking in modern titles.
Part of this is down to the restrictions on it - when you find a big weapon in a modern game you know you'll either run out of ammo or have to put it down to open the next door. It's been created for the current spectacle and little else. The other part is just how complicated the underlying maths has become in our desire to provide a more realistic experience, which is a shame. I still haven't found a game that's as satisfying to play as Doom is when armed with a shotgun, plenty of ammo and a room full of imps.
With regards to player death, modern games have lost their soul. Going back to Ultima Underworld for a moment and, after I'd got to grips with the controls, I dived deeper into the abyss assuming that the knowledge from my previous play throughs would stand me in good stead. Alas, I was not a top level Avatar anymore and the poisonous bite from a green bat was sufficient to start my health depleting at a rapid rate. In a panic I dived into water to swim to where I thought there was a ledge with a plant that could cure me, only to be met with a creature from the deep. In spite of the old graphics, clunky movement and awful music, the game had me completely gripped, every part of my physical body tense as I struggled to swim to safety. Dying meant something, and I knew full well I hadn't saved the game and the last hour of play would be lost.
The consequence of dying in most games today is minimal, whereas staying alive used to be one of the primary mechanics pinning an entire game together. It wasn't realistic, but hunting for that magical health pack, or saving it until you really needed it, became a key goal which encouraged exploration around the world. Now we just sit behind a wall and wait for our health to regenerate. It's simply not as much fun and, really, no more realistic.
So how do we get back these mechanics that we've lost? Well, firstly, we should decide that we do actually want them back. It's possible that we do, but not in completely the same guise as before.
To allow for more navigational freedom it feels like we should develop a better way of telling stories. Cinematics are all well and good, but they can turn a game into little more than a glorified Dragon's Liar. Interactive cinematics often result in player's throwing chairs at key characters as they deliver a plot point. The best story in a game to me is Shadow of the Colossus, because the player becomes completely integral to it - your actions are directly relevant to the outcome. I know that the mechanics of the game annoy some people, as does its difficulty, and it's a shame that they stopped some people experiencing one of the highlights of gaming. This kind of story telling should be able to transcend into other genres, and the way to achieve it is to develop the mechanics and story together, rather than as separate entities.
Weapons too are something that need to be developed as part of the whole, rather than just as 'we need 7 weapons' or 'X had a rocket launcher so we should too'. Think about the reason behind the weapon and why it exists in the game. If there isn't a definable reason for it, then you probably don't need it. Spend as much time as possible dedicated to the low level mechanics involved in the weapon to make it as satisfying as possible to use. This isn't just about rates of fire and damage values to tweak down the line, but recoil and reload animations, enemy reactions, blood and, possibly most importantly, the sound effects. Make it fun.
Death is interesting because the biggest problem with it in games isn't dying at all, but the balancing of the game. As designers we need to stop setting up areas where we expect the player to die or even where we want them to die in order to stretch the game out. Dying should be the consequence of the player, and it should feel that it is their fault. That is their punishment. As soon as you feel you died because something was unfair the game has broken its spell, and becomes frustrating. Auto-saves should be there as a backup rather than a reliance.
The game I've seen with the best save game system is still Severance: Blade of Darkness. It auto-saves for you at the start of the level, and you're free to save again whenever you want. Underneath the save game name is a title, which changes depending on how much you save. Save little and you are "Brave warrior". Save a lot and you are "Scared little child" (I can't remember the exact titles but they were along these lines). So, so, simple and yet so effective. As with the story telling this is the kind of thing we should be doing - using the psychology of the player to deepen their connection with the game and how they are playing it.
Maybe that is the lesson to learn here: don't just look to the past, but look into the future. What do you want your player to feel when they play your game, and what do you want their thoughts to be about? How do the mechanics in your game complement that, and how do they invoke a passion for what they are doing?