Monday, June 08, 2009


So, I've thought more about the essay I posted last night. You remember (if you read it), the one that kind of ended in a puddle of loose threads.

I got to thinking about it a bit more, and it became clear that all games are obstructionist when it comes to how players get to explore all the interesting things they can do over the course of the game.

The dynamics the player wants to explore grow from both the rules and the narrative structure, but there is really no difference between the idea of "rules" and "narrative structure". The two have to be taken as a whole and the designer's eye has to take in the overall dynamics that are created. There isn't even a difference, when we zoom out this far, between generative play such as Sim City and strict linear play like Gears of War. The end result is a complex terrain to explore, and whether the terrain was created by someone hand-digging every hollow or by someone just grabbing and shaking really hard is irrelevant. It's also, at this scale, irrelevant whether the mountains and valleys of this terrain are even all known to the developer.

Because all that matters, at the moment, is that the players are exploring those mountains and valleys.

Now, when a game thinks about how to guide the player on their journey, it tends to think obstructionist. That is, the game gates and doles out content at a speed far slower than the player would personally choose if given the cheat codes. This serves a few purposes, and those purposes are the real focus of this essay.

One purpose is to make sure that the player explores a variety of hills and valleys rather than jumping right to whatever his interest is. For example, the steady doling out of parts in Nuts & Bolts means that most players are going to become familiar with each part, rather than simply jumping to what they think their favorite parts will be and never giving a second thought to the others. This can be thought of as encouraging the player to explore various nearby valleys to the one he would normally notice.

Doling is different from pathing. Pathing is when the game requires you to do things in a certain way in order to force you to experience specific hills and valleys that the designers thought were the most interesting. This is usually done with scripted plot elements, both in terms of each dungeon being carefully designed and in terms of the actual cutscenes. Remember that cutscenes are just gameplay you aren't allowed to interfere with. Pathing can be severely restrictive like that, but it can also be gentle and subtle through level design or even more subtle means. It can be thought of as asking the player to explore hills and valleys unrelated to the ones they would normally notice.

Both doling and pathing are different from scattering. Scattering is when the game makes sure that you have to explore multiple hills and valleys simultaneously. An obvious example of this is the Sims franchise, in which it is impossible to focus your exploration on one thing, and you are regularly required to turn your focus to other matters - frequently very boring matters.

There's a difference between scattering as a hindrance and scattering as a means of pathing. There is no interesting hill or valley in the Sims when it comes to going to the bathroom. It exists primarily to make your time management more difficult.

On the other hand, scattering has been used well in many games, and is especially prevalent in RPGs where your experience is pockmarked by rapid oscillation between exploring dungeons, fighting monsters, getting loot, tweaking stats, running around towns, tweaking expenditures, and healing. All of these have some interesting terrain to explore, and they serve their purpose very well. It's mixed in with pathing to a large extent, but pathing involves player choice, and many of these mode-switches do not involve player choice.

There's a lot more to say on this matter, such as discussing patterns and pacing of exploration, but this is enough for today.

What do you think?

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