Posts Tagged ‘game mechanics’

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Metroid II and the Danger of Subversion

March 5, 2013

It will surprise nobody who knows me that I got lost, and often, throughout my time with Metroid II: Return of Samus. It’s not that it’s a huge game, really, it’s just that it’s in black and white, it’s big enough, and it seems to take pride in re-using some environments for the sake of making the player lose any sense of directional bearing.

Also, I have no sense of direction. I spent a lot of time — a lot of time — taking the controls while my brother barked directional instructions at me when we were kids. Spatial reasoning has never come easily to me; I can read a map just fine, but put me in the middle of a city and tell me to find my way out of it, and I might remain trapped forever.

Of course, I’m too stubborn to actually draw maps as I go…but I digress.

About halfway through Metroid II, I got lost. Hopelessly lost. I had done what I needed to do to that point, I had fought and won against a handful of “gamma metroids”, and I’d picked up a mess of missiles and a couple of energy tanks along the way. I followed the implied suggestion of the game to clear an area of metroids, let the energy-draining lava that blocks off other areas recede, and then move on to the next area. It seemed like a nice way to let the game dictate where I should be at any given point, something the game uses to keep the world from getting too big at any given point. But then I got lost, running around in circles, bombing every wall, checking each area once, twice, three times for secret passages.

Finding nothing, my resolve fell.

The Metroid Life Cycle

As it turns out, a combination of a few energy tanks and the half-damage ability of the varia suit allows for the ability to go through the lava-filled passages into segments of the game that theoretically shouldn’t be open yet.

Really, this is a strength of the game, given that the ability to go into these areas opens up the game in a way that will appeal to those who don’t care for forced linearity. You can seek out and find a few of the overpowered omega metroids if you like, you can get a look at terrains that you’ve never seen, you can practice fighting enemies that you’d only seen in the instruction book to that point, and you can save your game in areas that you’re not supposed to be. You can explore the entire world of Metroid II, aside from perhaps the final boss, once you can withstand enough punishment to speed your way through the lava.

The problem with subverting the intention of the lava is that the entire point of the game is to eradicate all of the metroids, not to get to some predetermined destination. If you go exploring in places you shouldn’t be, you are necessarily increasing the scope of your search for those metroids, and when you get to the point where, say, you have one left, you have the entire world of the game to explore, rather than one comparatively smaller section of it.

That said, it’s difficult to resist the pull of new things, especially when you’re not entirely sure whether the lava is truly telling you not to move on. The last retro game I spent this amount of time with was The Legend of Zelda, a game that delights in slowly breaking down the rule set it establishes early on, forcing the player to consider possibilities about the world that would have seemed impossible in the early going (walking through walls, whistle-triggered staircases, and so on, particularly in the game’s second adventure). Unable to find the metroid that would trigger another lava-clearing earthquake, the question lingered: was I supposed to be navigating my way through the lava to progress? What if my self-imposed limitation, my understanding of the implications of the game’s mechanics thus far, were hindering my ability to conquer it?

Don't do it!

Don’t do it!

Until I did finally figure out what I was missing, a simple strategy allowed for the exploration I needed: go where I like, but don’t save until I have an answer to my question. Metroid II‘s usage of save points allowed for the approach, and my own fear of trapping myself somewhere I shouldn’t be was enough to get me to restrain myself from using them — no matter how off-track I got, I knew that the simple act of video game suicide would return me to familiar territory. Eventually, I did find the metroids I’d been missing, and I didn’t have to go through the lava to get to them.

And thank god, because I might have been at this game for months (or until I dropped it for a prettier, newer game).

The ability to subvert a game’s implicit rule set is one of the things that makes even playing a video game a creative experience. The way you play is unique to you. Whether it appeals to you, however, may depend on how willing you are to accept the consequences of that subversion. Subverting a game’s rules terrifies me, at least until I’m familiar enough with it to turn it into my own personal sandbox; I’d rather see what it has to offer on something as close as possible to its own terms before I start forcing it to conform to mine. Now that I’ve beaten Metroid II, I’m much more willing to go in and try to break it.

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The Cognitive Disconnect of The Crystal Bearers

February 3, 2010

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers has had a bit of a rough go of it in its sales so far, and it’s no wonder — a stream of largely negative early reviews has usurped the rest of the Final Fantasy name-generated momentum that the oddball December 26th release date didn’t already kill. Despite the presence of television commercials and the consistent acknowledgement that this is one of the most technically impressive Wii games to date, the laboriously-titled Final Fantasy adventure is swimming upstream.

Look at those reviews, however, and one criticism keeps popping up: the “map”, if it can even be called that, is awful, and its awfulness means that you’re going to be spending lots of time around the countryside, completely and utterly lost. Typically, this is a criticism I discount; aimlessly exploring the countryside is usually one of the aspects of a role-playing/adventure game that I enjoy the most. Talking to the townspeople, picking up odd jobs, and uncovering cleverly hidden treasure chests is a fine way to kill a few hours, even if no progress on the quest proper is being made. Besides, it’s typical in these types of games for the protagonist to be feeling as lost in the world as the player is; doesn’t it make some sense that exploration would be paramount to the players inhabitance of that protagonist?

Actually playing The Crystal Bearers prompts a change of heart, however.

This is Layle, a.k.a. you.

The assumption that I made in formulating my mental counterargument to the criticism of the reviews was that we were exploring unknown lands. This is not the case, as it turns out. The hero of the game, Layle, actually spends the majority of his time flitting from one part of a kingdom he knows very well to the next. Oftentimes, he is asked to go to visit people he obviously knows in places he’s obviously been — part of his own background knowledge that the player does not share.

In non-interactive mediums like literature and film, the consumer’s lack of background knowledge is generally not a problem. We find out the pertinent details eventually, without the need for gratuitous amounts of setup; a smartly done film or story can reveal the past without making overt reference to it, be it through the use of setting or characters’ reactions to events happening in the “present” time of the work. In an interactive medium in which we as players are being asked to play the game as one of those characters, however, there is a sort of cognitive disconnect forced upon us when we are expected to figure out for ourselves something that our avatar already knows. Finding our way to Cid the engineer shouldn’t be a problem, because he’s a friend of Layle’s, and presumably, Layle should know the way to his workshop like the back of his hand. Instead, we are forced to bumble around town until we find the lever next to Cid’s large, garage-like door, and then know enough to activate it.

"Hi, Cid! What, did you move?" "No."

As reviewers have said, what map functionality does exist is so disconnected from the world of the game as to actually be a detriment. Furthermore, the game’s plan to mitigate this disconnect is a little Moogle named Stiltzkin (a Crystal Chronicles regular) who shows up periodically to give you hints as to how to get where you need to go. While this is nice, it also comes off as an awkward sort of crack in the fourth wall, given that Stiltzkin is quite obviously talking to the player here, even if it is Layle that is being addressed onscreen.

There are a number of ways this could have been addressed, whether through a proper map function, a hint system, or even a Fable II-style “trail of breadcrumbs” leading to the main goals. While none of these things would quite act as replacements for Layle’s body of knowledge, they would at least smooth the rough disconnect between knowledge and the lack thereof. Where The Crystal Bearers ultimately fails, then, is not in forcing the player to explore; rather it’s in making the player feel like an idiot for flailing around the countryside, trying to figure out things that his character is supposed to know.