Sunday, September 21, 2008

Grooved Space

I posted a Jedi Thought Experiment last time, and it got some good comments. TickledBlue points out that if we use the Force to mark opportunities ("trust in the Force") then we get something that, on the surface, seems like a quick time event. In the words of Brog: "If you're being chased near a cliff edge and suddenly the force flashes a safe colour over the cliff edge, you should know instantly that this means it is safe to jump off it RIGHT NOW and do it without hesitation, because in a seconds time it might no longer be safe."

While that does sound like a quick time event ("PRESS A NOW OR YOU TAKE DAMAGE!!!"), there is a huge difference in design philosophy, and this runs as deep as the difference between Dark Side and Light Side, yeah?

The difference is player agency.

The above example isn't the best example, but I'll use it because it's been established.

If this was a quick time event, when you don't PRESS A RIGHT GODDAMN NOW NO U PRESSED SWORDY BUTTON BECAUSE U WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF A KILLER COMBO U LOSE!!!!11!!! then you take damage and are required to do everything you just did again.

If you miss this "Force Opportunity", then... you miss the opportunity. The game keeps playing.

This can lead to incredibly irritating game design. The obvious example is if you need to jump off a railway and land on a flying car (I mean, duh, OBVIOUSLY). If you miss it... are you stuck on the railway? It can also be abused for single-time bonuses - oh, you didn't jump on that particular car, so you didn't get the easter egg/bonus points.

But just because it can be used for bad design doesn't mean it has to be. The philosophy of the Force is pretty similar to the idea of a benevolent and vaguely all-powerful god: trust it, it will provide, etc, etc. If your design is full of one-shot "tests" and tricky, unclear Force patterns, then you are a shitty god. The Jedi order wouldn't have formed, because the two sides of the Force would be Dark and Irritating.

In our example, what the Force does is "groove" space. Let me see if I can explain:

In Sly Cooper, space was grooved. The game could tell if you were trying to jump to a specific spot - say, the top of a spire - and it would helpfully land you there. But, at the same time, it didn't force you to jump to the spire. It's not "PRESS A TO JUMP NOWWWWW OR U FALL AN DIE!!!!!11!!!!!111!!!!1111!!", it's "Hey, you're jumping to the spire? Don't sweat the small stuff, I'll get you there." "Grooved" space, completely without any extraneous capitalization or exclamation points, because as it turns out, Sly is quite nimble.

Our example is similar: as a Jedi, if you want to jump off a spire and land on a passing car, the Force will show you the "grooves" that will let you. If you press the right direction and jump at vaguely the right time, it'll make sure you get there. The Jedi has some slight automation to give us that fluid, Force-following sensation.

But it still leaves all the control in the hands of the player...


This is actually a topic I want to talk a lot more about: how "chunky" your game controls are is a very interesting topic. Games run from things like that Simon Says toy, which is essentially a quick time event with batteries, to something like Quake, where you are free to move and aim very precisely in any number of increments.

But... let's not talk about it in this essay. I think grooved space is enough for now.


nb said...

I didn't examine it closely at the time, but that kind of feeling was very prevalent when playing the recent Prince of Persia games (Sands of Time being the best example) - the space described by the architecture seemed to fit almost exactly into the loose grid defined by your character's range of motion. Whether this was due to level designers with OCD (an admirable trait in such a profession!), or subtle trajectory tweakage, I'm not sure. Possibly a bit of both.

(though this approach is obviously unsuitable for more dynamic interactions - leaping onto spaceships and such.)

Craig Perko said...

Well, it certainly can't be exactly the same. But I think the idea can be adapted to more dynamic interactions, especially since your Jedi's limits are kind of malleable.

Mory said...

My mind immediately jumped to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, too. And with that as my frame of reference, I don't like it. I don't like it when I play badly and the game pretends I'm playing well. It makes me feel like the whole exercise is a shallow experience where I don't have room for self-improvement. It's an effective way of simplifying things you don't want to bog down the experience, but when the thing you're simplifying is a critical part of the gameplay it's a very bad idea.

I was surprised to hear you say that the makers of the wonderful platformer Rocket: Robot on Wheels would do this, but Wikipedia informs me that there's action and stealth involved in Sly Cooper, so maybe it's not trying to be satisfying as a straight platformer.

Craig Perko said...

That's a really important point, and one I alluded to at the end of the essay.

What you core play is changes how you need to focus, and what you need to make chunkier versus what you need to make smoother.