Monday, August 08, 2005

Not Yet Beyond Good and Evil

I picked up Beyond Good and Evil. It was ten bucks, it looked like the sort of game I might like. Lemme tell you, if I had the option, I would donate another $10 straight to the account of the studio that created it. They did good.

It's not a world-shakingly good game, but it is fun. It's an adventure game with enough minigames tacked on to allay the producer's worries that it might, in fact, be an adventure game. As far as I can tell, all the minigames are totally optional save for a few easy and very forgiving jumping and ducking puzzles.

If you are in the mood for a relatively slow-paced post-adventure adventure game, this is a definite "should play". It's got great voice acting, solid dialogue, solid writing, good graphics, great animation, fun gameplay, solid level design, fun music, and only a few stupidly irritating puzzles.

Why the heck isn't it awesome? Most games which avoid making any real mistakes AND score dozens of points are generally kick-ass. But BGaE is... not cohesive. The elements are, individually, quite nice. But it's a mishmash - the only thing which cohesively supports any other thing is the music, which is occasionally a delightful surprise. The level design doesn't support the gameplay, for example. It's just cool level design.

Admittedly, it does seem to be slowly coming together - but too late! Too late! Why too late?

Ah. Therein lies the theory.

There is a thing which some people call "sensawonda". It is the entertainment value inherent in something new, interesting, and big. It is the fun of discovering, exploring, and explaining a new pattern. Generally, it is limited to setting. Although I think it would be fun to expand it to include gameplay and narrative, that's for another day, so for now, just setting.

This is what drew people to play Myst. In fact, it's what draws people to adventure games in the first place. The slightly wide-eyed, "hey, what's going on here?" feeling. The way that things are simultaneously inexplicable and yet very human. It is an extremely powerful sensation to a particular subset of the audience. Definitely me included, there. Big time.

There's a problem with it, though:

Nobody plays Myst twice.

Okay, that's exaggerating. But percentage-wise, fewer people replay Myst than, say, Final Fantasy III. Both use sensawonda, but Myst RELIES on it. Myst IS sensawonda. FFIII has it, but combines it with a sense of drama and human interaction. It's those two that bring the people back... but it's the sensawonda that draws people in. At least, it's what drew ME in.

Beyond Good and Evil has sensawonda, alright. The opening scene is EXCELLENT. From the time you click "new game" to the moment you collapse, that part of the game rates about an A+ from me. You've got a sense of scale, you've got a sense of humanity, you've got a burgeoning plot, you've got weirdness, you've got other weirdness that feels familiar, it's great! Well, aside from the fact that there's no real "tutorial" part - it just drops you straight into a fight without even telling you that "A" is attack.

But things don't really hook up from there. You get the player, and then you let them languish.

I have an old rule that I use as a yardstick. Think about it:

The resolution of a pattern has to flow into another pattern.

The greatest asset in the first hour of this kind of game is that immersion they gain from their setting. As the player starts exploring the setting, they start burning sensawonda. That's the way it works: their interest at this stage is in the setting.

You have only a few options for how to handle this diminishing sensawonda.

A) You can keep them from understanding the setting. This might work, but I have an instinctive dislike of it, and I think it would screw up.

B) You can continually introduce new sensawonda - new and interesting places and events. I would love a game based on this idea, but it's not exactly an efficient use of time alone, since you can combine this with either of the other options.

C) Lastly, you can use the exploration of the scenario to pull in longer-lasting patterns. In FFIIIE, right at the start they have this awesome Narshe bit that they use it to establish the drama of an armed occupation, the power of forces beyond your understanding, and the humanity of one girl with incredible power. They also use it to springboard into human interaction, which is the soul of every story.

Obviously, my preference is clear. (B) is good, but (C) is king. You can only do (C) while the player is feeling sensawonda!

Beyond Good and Evil starts in an isolated, Myst-like environment of a lab, a lighthouse, and a garden. They focus you on the place by hiding lots of fun stuff all over it, and by actually giving you rewards for taking pictures of people and animals. Also, your responsibility towards the children (which could have been pushed, oh, about 5000% more) gives you an anchoring in humanity. It's ALMOST very well done.

Except it never GOES anywhere. The children aren't involved with the game. The lighthouse has a very interesting history relating to your parents, the pig, and a space ship - but you don't learn that until all the sensawonda has worn off. They needed to start giving me some pretty clear hints right from the get-go that there was something interesting and special and utterly based in narrative and humanity about my home. By the time I got the news, I didn't really care. I had explored the light house. I had gotten used to it. I'm done: moving along. Why are you drawing me back?

They continue to do this: they'll sort-of introduce you to new and interesting things, but those things never take off. They introduce you to the people of Iris, but you never interact with them. What's the point? You've cleared up the mystery as to what "Iris" is, but you didn't replace it with anything I could sink my teeth into!

Of course, I think this is an approach which can be taken with ANY media. Star Wars does it: Meet this interesting new location. As you start to get a feel for it, WHAM, here's Darth and Leia, two integral players, both using this environment. WHAM, here's Luke, part of the environment. Sensawonda, meet narrative. Narrative, meet sensawonda. You have lots of cute children together.

The point is: that initial interest in a new environment, a new and mysterious pattern, is an extremely powerful drug. DON'T WASTE IT! Learn from a good game that could have been exquisite.


Craig Perko said...

Note: the next pattern has to be somehow entangled with the pattern you're solving. One belonging to the other is very common, or being created by the other.

Someone who's just passing through can act to highlight and guide, but he isn't part of the pattern and not, in my opinion, a valid "following pattern". Of course, that isn't to say he's worthless: he's just not where you should stop.

Textual Harassment said...

Maybe it would be useful to think of a "wonder arc", as analogous to a story arc. Where a story arc concludes with a conflict resolution, the wonder arc ends with an understanding or explanation.

Any story must begin with some hint of conflict or wonder in order to draw in the audience. Many stories make the mistake of explaining their universe immediately, completely blowing their chance for wonder. This is as pointless as a conflict immediately resolved.

From the first minute of Star Wars, you are hit with a steady stream of wonder with only minimal explanation. Along with equally strong conflict, it makes you want to keep watching.

There's sometimes a tendency to put in a bunch of exposition at the end of a story in order to "wrap things up" and end the sensawonder. This is unnecessary. The functional difference between wonder and conflict is that conflict demands a resolution to satisfy the audience, whereas wonder can last long after the piece is over. In fact wondering is be more fun than knowing. Go look at the message board for any unfinished story for proof.

Craig Perko said...

I agree 100% - you DON'T have to clear up all the patterns. You can leave quite a lot of mystery.

But I don't think you can easily use that mystery as a hook unless you explain pieces of it.

The thing is: not all explanations are created equal. For example, after exploring the lighthouse, I just shrugged my shoulders and decided it did not have any kind of special explanation. The pattern was "explained" - it was solved in my head - even though that explanation turned out to be wrong.

Essentially, what I'm talking about is trading wonder for longer-lasting, high-emotion content. In order to do that, the parts of the pattern you experience or start to understand have to be linked inextricably with the high-emotion content.

I hope I'm being clear.

Textual Harassment said...

Yes, I think I see what you mean. You want your narrative universe to be cohesive and to avoid losing the viewer's attention. And if wonder and conflict are metaphorically connected each becomes more powerful.

A lighthouse doesn't need an explanation--it's just a lighthouse (Haven't played BG&E yet so maybe there is more to it than I know). Wonder requires a sense of a gap in the audience's understanding. When something doesn't make sense, you will want to stick around to see how it works. It really is a way to create conflict in the mind of our viewer

The trick is to give enough information that the audience expects it to be explained somehow. Which is tough because wonder is something that goes on in the viewers' minds. They might come up with their own ideas and reject yours when you finally spell it out. Or, like you did in BG&E, they might be satisfied with what they are given and fail to wonder at all.

Craig Perko said...

Other than the "metaphorically" part, yes!

Textual Harassment said...

Well, I should have said "at least metaphorically". Either way, they should resonate.