Saturday, February 25, 2006

Time and Space... Oooooooo.

This is LONG. It takes up more than its fair share of space and, if you read it, time.

I just wanted to talk a tick about gameplay that most people miss. The innate gameplay involving time and space.

There's a set of restrictive rules and tradeoffs inherent in time and space. Many games simply let this slide without taking advantage of these rules. In the other gameplay loops - such as shooting monsters, earning cash, or building a house - the game tweaks and twists and explores every possibility.

But in the innate gameplay of time and space, few games explore other possibilities. Few games tweak or use it.

I think this is a real shame, because it's such a deeply integral experience. It's the perfect thing to tweak.

I suppose I should explain what the hell I'm talking about.

I'm talking about the act of walking around the game world. About what you see, how you move. The fact that in order to go one place, you have to not go somewhere else. In order to be near something, you have to be further from other things.

Here's some examples of the way this can be tweaked, and the success of these tweakings:

Frogger. Very popular. Pong. Very popular. Why? Because they were the first?

Yes, but their whole game was based around navigating space in a way few people had conceived of until that moment. Space as a set of hard, chunky coordinates - combined with realtime speed? How bizarre! Chunky coordinates, such as chess, always meant turn-based before.

Toejam and Earl. Classic Sega. Very popular in its day. Why? Because it was wonky and goofy? Yes. It also played havok with space and the way you travel across it (time). The whole game was maps of bizarre floating maze-islands, combined with rocket skates, jumping boots, and Icarus wings.

This made for an extremely bizarre game, at least until you got used to it. Movement was the key difficulty. Of course, the game turned out to be painfully repetitive, but that was hardly the idea's fault. After all, a similar idea was aced perfectly with:

Gauntlet. You can see sooooo much further than you can walk. Your relative vision is enormous - you have plenty of time to react. But you don't know, really, which way to go. You're stuck in a maze. A brilliant reversal of the standard:

Racing Game. Any racing game. These things don't let you see very far and make you move exceedingly fast. Spy hunter, for example. Or Gran Turismo. Whatever. This makes navigating space a massive twitch-level challenge. The repetitiveness of the levels made for easy navigation, which is one of the reasons I never much cared for these games. Instead, I liked:

Sonic the Hedgehog. Fast as a racer, but without the simplicity of a racer. You have complex goals and a complex level to do them in. While you could slow down to keep your relative vision high (giving you time to react), much of the game's cool stuff could only be found racing through at top speed.

All of these games. Popular, popular, popular!

How about more recently? Prince of Persia - allows you to do some really fantastic spatial navigation. Brilliant stuff which breaks all the norms in a really coherent way. But if you really want spacial navigation that breaks the norms brilliantly, Sly Cooper is the series for you. Absolutely brilliant, if not quite as popular.

How about Psychonauts? Have you seen some of those levels, twisting and breaking like a superior version of Toejam and Earl?

FarCry: Instincts gives you different ways of perceiving and moving through the levels. The only thing that was brilliant about that game.

Soul Reaver had two different versions of the same world, connected such that moving through one moved you through the other. Fascinating.

All these games - and many others - change the ways you look at and move through levels. They alter the basic relative vision that the player has from the everyday norm.

Even just this little amount of tweaking provides a game with a special sparkle, something that sets it apart from other games. But why tweak a little, when you can tweak a lot?

Nearly all games show space as space. You have an avatar (or, at least, a viewscreen) and you zoom through space at set maximum speeds, able to see a set distance, travelling in set ways.

Why not change the nature of how you travel? How you view "speed"? How you think of "distance". Even change the nature of space itself from being a simple 3D or 2D navigation?

Why not have it so that the faster you go, the further you can see ahead, but the less you can see off to the sides? How about a level where travelling doesn't necessarily move everything in that direction closer: just the thing that you're travelling to. How about a level where the faster you move on one axis, the slower you move on another axis, and visa-versa? How about just a game which lets me fly instead of walk?

It could make for some fascinating games, don't you think?

Here's the thing about the way a player perceives and travels through space in a game (the game's "space-time"): it determines how the player interacts with the rest of the world.

Imagine an MMORPG. Doesn't matter which, they all treat space the same.

You have a certain max speed cap, which is generally agreed to be abominably slow. The world has a certain size, which is generally agreed to be hideously large. There are ways to get from here to there, but they either cost money or take quite a lot of time. Or both. Boats, teleports, whatever.

This leads to an entire division of people whose sole purpose is to run from one end of the universe to the other, moving goods that aren't available at the other end of the universe.

You created this job class by designing your world like that. Is it bad?

Well, no, not really. It is underdone. There's no reason to make it such a boring job. Why not have a minigame of some variety? For example, teleportation can only be done with an accuracy determined by your skill at a puzzle game. Or interstellar travel generally has quite a lot of pirates running around.

But if you can create that job class by designing the basics of your world, you should be able to create others. Right?

How about a universe with no IMs, just an "online" or "offline" icon. You have to be in person to send messages. The other half of this equation is that you let people who aren't carrying any equipment teleport wherever they want.

Suddenly, you've created a class of people who journey all over the universe without any equipment. They carry messages, make maps, and so forth - but they can't take on any monsters.

A secondary class of people - bankers - pop into existence. Their whole purpose is to provide teleporters with local equipment and/or money - obviously, only to the the teleporters who have deposited money before. Probably via physical courier.

Why stop there? Why not make flight a possibility. Requires a jet pack or something. This gives all sorts of weird penalties - maybe you can only fly with a maximum of twenty pounds of inventory or something. What do these people do? They race around couriering gold and valuable baubles. They scout and map more reliably than the teleporters. They have to navigate winds, avoid air monsters, whatever. Make it interesting somehow.

How about a group of people for which gravity is reversed. They live on the underside of the sky - instead of seeing stars, you see the lights of their homes. They fly up on occasion to trade with you - while upside-down.

Make it more interesting: how about people for whom both gravity and matter is reversed? They walk on the atmosphere, breath the earth. Someone's house is, to them, a bizarre pit-like structure. This creates a weird tension where people from opposite sides of the surface are vying for land rights - or "air rights".

How about a group of people who can see through other people's eyes? Or see heat instead of light? Or life instead of either?

You can create so many dynamics, just by messing with how people perceive and move through the space you have created. Why limit yourself to eighteen variants on "kill monsters" and four variants on "make crap"?

We haven't even touched different ways of viewing time. How about someone who sees motion vectors? How about a one-player game where everything happens backwards in time?

Space itself doesn't have to be linear or 3D... there's so many options. The world does not have to be the way games keep portraying it.


Patrick Dugan said...

What about games where spatial navigation isn't inherent? Maybe those games could yeild more focus on time, like a storyworld platform that supports backward causation, allowing interactive flashbacks to determine yet unvieled details in the present.

Craig Perko said...

It's not really the focus of my essay, but thinking about how the player navigates and what the player sees should probably be forefront in the mind of any designer. :)

Duncan said...

Wow, that caused my brain to think some weird things. I get what you're saying about breaking the norms and creating gameplay out of a sideways look on reality. It's hard to think outside the box that way, but the rewards might just be a fantastic game and very interesting gameplay. More challenges for my brain. Whee! :-)