Anybody who’s followed me knows my love of Super Metroid‘s game design. It teaches the player to play the game without a single word, tutoring and encouraging through level design and cleverly placed objectives. It makes plain the fact that it has secrets, but forces creativity in how to obtain them. When I blind play a game, I notice that there’s always some sort of indicator as to what the game wants of the player. Some games make it too obvious (like the giant blinking checkpoint markers or hand-holding tutorials), but others put exploration and discovery as the impetus for getting through the game (Ori and the Blind Forest being another great example of this). While playing a new game given to me by one of my buddies, it dawned on me: this element of game design is more than a tutorial. It’s an unspoken agreement between player and game about how it all works, and, when well done, it sets the expectation for what comes next.
Okay, that’s as vague as can be. To make the mud a little clearer, I’ll draw on Super Metroid (as always, I know). There are several times when an item is visible, but the path to it is not. Sometimes, the path is hidden in the current room, with breakable blocks masquerading as walls. Other times, it’s only achievable by finding an alternate route through different rooms. Both indicate to the player that in order to get all the items, they’ll have to explore every nook and cranny.
A lot of games pride themselves on this pragmatism and also of having online licenses. Everything has a purpose. JRPG’s are notorious for this, and you can expect going into a new one that if there’s a room, it has something in it. Dead ends are a no-no. Same deal goes for point-and-click, or puzzle games. You can also find a range of new bingo sites by Boomtown Bingo if you are interested in finding some of the top games available and also read a Scary Bingo Review, which has been on trend lately.
This is why Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons threw me for a huge loop. You control two brothers (shocking), who need to work together or separately to climb obstacles and solve puzzles. It feels a bit like trying to play solo the cooperative campaign of Portal 2. You must talk to townspeople who all sound like they speak folksy Simlish, getting directions or help. Some townspeople, however, don’t seem to have any purpose. You talk to them, and they don’t do anything. There’s an old woman sweeping, and if you talk to her with the older brother, he helps sweep. The younger brother balances the broom on his fingers while the lady exasperatedly asks for it back.
The JRPG lover in me said, “Where’s the plot point? Why animate this so thoroughly if it means nothing? WHERE’S YOUR SIDE QUEST, LADY?” I ran around trying to figure it out for quite a while, until I came to realize the truth. In spite of her memorable exchanges with the two
brats main characters, she served no gameplay-related purpose.
Okay, that’s a lie.
She serves to show the difference in how those two boys act in a given situation. That’s hugely important, and she’s not alone. There are many spots in the game that do nothing but deepen the characters and their personalities. In a game where nobody speaks, these moments are both useful and poignant when building characters. They show you three-dimensional protagonists that you don’t see while solving puzzles. There are even benches you can interact with that merely change the camera angle, and give a beautiful view of the surrounding area. In a very cranial game, you get moments where the only reward for exploration is the revelation of another beautiful part of the game’s world.
This is kind of the crux of understanding this gameplay element. Every game, no matter its genre, leads the player to an understanding of the results of their own actions. In most puzzle-based games, every interaction is either crucial for progress or a vital hint. This one subverts that expectation and replaces it with its own, more filled with wonder and grandeur. Super Metroid rewards thorough exploration with gear and weapons. Some other similar games only reward it with easter eggs. In some games like Megaman, the speed and grace with which one completes a level was rewarded with a rank.
How successful you are at playing the game and the freedom of your exploration in any environment is something a game ought to explain to you. Games like Final Fantasy offer treasure chests in obscure locations, and heavily reward talking to everybody. They let you know this upfront, and let you choose how much you want to engage in it. Brothers is initially less successful at explaining that their reward is less tangible, but the message is there nonetheless.
Good games do this well: they establish the unspoken “rules” of what to look for and how to go about the game. The best games expand on it and play with those expectations. Poke’mon hides enemies in their treasure balls/chests/whatevers. Final Fantasy in particular lets you fight special optional bosses if you explore while a timer counts down to your doom. It more heavily rewards exploration when it occurs under more terrifying circumstances. Games like Jamestown prevent you from accessing later levels unless you beat a previous level in a certain way.