Quickie: Two-sided Mechanics

Quick thought: When considering new mechanics to add to a puzzle game, consider how they can be useful AND detrimental to the player’s goals. Ie. ask yourself, does the mechanic have both pros and cons? If so, design puzzles that demonstrate both sides of it! If not, could you modify it in some way to make it two-sided? If they only have cons, the player may feel annoyed. If they only have pros, that’s probably fine, but less cool 🙂

Example of a con-only mechanic: The concrete un-portal-able walls in Portal 1/2. Portal 2 used them way more, and while it makes for some neat puzzles, I couldn’t help but feel that they were a bit cheap. Especially considering that Portal 1 used them in relatively fewer situations. Could they have been useful somehow? What if there were “enemies” of some sort that shot portals, and maybe in one puzzle you had to prevent them from portaling? That’s not really a great idea, so perhaps this is a lost cause. I’m sure the Valve folks pondered these questions as well!

Example of a pro and con mechanic: The magic items in Braid that were unaffected by your rewind. They were useful, such as the first key-in-pit puzzle, but they were also detrimental when applied to enemies and certain platforms. Same with the goo’s in Portal 2: Clearly they were useful in a lot of situations, but in others they acted as an obstacle. I’m pretty sure there was at least one puzzle where the bouncy-goo was in your way and you had to find some way around it.

In my current game, I was about to add lava – ie. parts of the level that will kill the player upon touch. But then I asked myself..is the death necessary? If I removed the death, and just made it rock that is unaffected by the reflection mechanic, it can still function as an obstacle by blocking the player’s path. But then it can also help the player as a platform! So I’m gonna implement it without death, give it collision, and try to design puzzles that also highlight its positive uses.

Spoiling Emergence

Emergent game play, where the mechanics behave in some non-trivial, unexpected, and beneficial way, is quite fun when it happens. One of my favorite moments in Deus Ex was getting past a turret by holding a crate in front me, effectively using it as a shield. This is something that many designers strive for in their systems. When the player stumbles upon such a moment, they get the joy of discovery, creativity, and pride. They want to tell their friends and the internet about it. It’s good for the experience, it’s good for PR.

However, these days with the internet and PR practices, such moments can often be “spoiled.” One example that comes to mind is BioShock. Before the game came out, the PR campaign talked a lot about how you could electrocute enemies in a puddle of water by shooting lightning into it. The NPCs even told you this in the game. Was this the best thing to do?

What if they had just let players discover that on their own? I think that would have been better for the game experience. By spoiling it all in the PR campaign and then in the NPC chatter, they robbed players of the joy of discovery. It’s simply fun to discover and figure things out on your own, and it’s one of the most unique aspects of games. Imagine if, during a heated battle, you just happen to notice that lightning travels through water. You may have thought, “Oh wow that’s so cool that they made that work! Neat! I’m gonna tell all my friends about this cool moment!”

Of course, BioShock was plenty successful anyway, but I think keeping things a bit more mysterious would have been beneficial. This is part of the reason why I’m not watching any of the PR media for BioShock: Infinite. I am totally pumped for the game, and I want to discover it all on my own – story and game play.