Electron Dance
31Jan/2012

Discussion: Selling the Inscrutable

Welcome to the January newsletter (sign up if you want to read it):

I’m reminded of a short discussion I had with Jake Birkett at Rezzed when I mentioned how exciting it had been to see so much local multiplayer on show. Birkett couldn’t understand the surge of local multiplayer games because it was such a tricky commercial prospect. If you wanted to forge a successful indie business, why would you get into local multiplayer?

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  1. As with all STOP MAKING THESE rants, I’d simply point out that the richness of gaming is in its variety. Don’t like this sort of game? Don’t worry! There are thousands and thousands that are not at all like it. I don’t get why people have to be so absolutist all the time, other than the notion that strong opinions are seen as the key to some measure of authority or relevance. There’s invariably an exception to their rules anyway (oh but that doesn’t *count* because – )

    Mystery games are an extension of the adventure game, I believe. Or perhaps they just have a similar relationship with the player: if the puzzle/mystery can be mastered, great, otherwise you’re stonewalled. I don’t know if I would call that a design failure, exactly, although the failstate is certainly severe and generates strong emotions. I love adventure games even though I don’t think I’ve ever beaten one without a guide. This goes back to Hole in my Chest, I believe?

  2. To be fair, I think the rant was initially more directed at making a commercially successful game but toppled over into “actually this is definitively not fun” which is an attack line that will never fail to get my heckles up. This was surfing too close to the “notagamez” zone. And, hey, I’ve watched my son play Fortnite and he really doesn’t look like he’s having fun, yet he still plays and Fortnite makes bajillions.

    Total Hole in My Chest detour
    I *feel* solving adventures with a hint book isn’t too bad, compared with puzzle games. The puzzle game cheat is a little like learning to like the violin and replacing a tricky song with a good recording: it stains your progress going forward and almost feels like your learning was broken. It’s slightly worse when it’s a puzzle game boss fight, because it suggests you were always Mr. Anderson and failed to become Neo. Whereas adventure game puzzles are very much independent of the other puzzles, learning one doesn’t help with another (this goes into Matt W’s distinction between riddles and puzzles), and it doesn’t feel so bad. I actually think The Outsider will fall into this category too, because each new puzzle you’re faced with is different. It won’t feel soul-destroying to look things up.

    You know, I should just look up the damn hints for Future Unfolding and be done with it. Thanks for the tip :)

    But you’re on the money that the problem with is the stonewalling issue, where you get completely stuck. But action games have similar problems too – and that frustration drives players mad. Like how I’m crap at parrying in Dark Souls. And some people get stuck on that Salvator boss fight in Control. There are ways to progress, but if you don’t quite click, it feels unfair. Are these scenarios different…? (Not rheotorical.)

  3. I really liked that article about prestige games but laughed at Doc grumbling about inscrutability after playing Paratopic recently! That felt like Lynch in a Blendo. I know he’s talking about ‘how to play’ not ‘what’s going on?’ but I couldn’t help but make the link.

    I’ve been playing a lot of Sea of Thieves again lately and, for the most part, it’s pretty easy to understand, but there’s the odd voyage or adventure you go on where you find some item or riddle and you’re not sure what to do with it. You read the journal and pore over the notes. You look at the map. You think about what characters have told you. You all speculate over what could be the next step. There’s no hand holding here.

    It’s a very open and organic game so these precise moments of confusion I cherish because in most co-op games, developers don’t want players to stop playing. Rare seem quite content to let the pace just slow right down and say ‘Well what now?’, as the wind blows and the ship creaks. This creates a totally different experience to facerolling everywhere. But finding the answer is what makes it so satisfying. There’s a genuine Indiana Jones kind of ‘Oooooo’ thrill when you finally open up a cave with your crew after working out the steps to get there.

    A couple of years back, when we first started playing, we looked up the odd hint and tip and it did suck some of the joy out of things, but there’s no saving your progress in Sea of Thieves mid-voyage so I think knowing we had to be done or start again next time (and this was during a timed event) pushed us into that. Since picking it all back up again, we’ve been trying to work everything out ourselves and it’s been a lot more rewarding and exciting.

    And you know, this isn’t just limited to the puzzley bits: you have to work a lot of stuff out yourself, which is also a big part of the appeal for me.

    Also: At A Distance. We spent a long time trying to crack that and it was glorious. Its inscrutability was meant to be the key part of its expo appeal and the viral nature of knowledge and discussion. Still one of my favourite co-op experiences!

    What’s ‘Hole My Chest’? Don’t Google that.

    The graffiti article was fascinating!

  4. This was a great news post that I enjoyed a lot! So many interesting threads to follow – so many I don’t even know what to comment about.

    I just watched a video of the end of Future Unfolding and, to take a bit of a self-satisfying “discoverable systems” tack, it looks like the systems, once discovered, are a bit boring. Lately I’ve been obsessed with game design as only useful for giving you the tools and motivation to play; in this light, I’d say based on my time with Future Unfolding and my short 5-minute viewing of what lies at the end of the game, I just don’t know what I’d want to play with in that system.

    I have more thoughts on doc future’s tweeto chaino and on discoverable systems but I’ll leave those simmering for now. Didn’t mean for this comment to just be criticism of Future Unfolding, oops

  5. Regarding Doc’s thread: I mostly agree with his take. I think what he’s complaining about is somewhat related to “moon logic”, which is a problem that still manages to be really prevalent in games (I’m looking at you, “Untitled Goose Game”).

    As for celebrities: the likes of Blow and Foddy are very influential within the games industry, at least in the indie sphere. However, indie game developers (and their admirers) only occupy a small minority of video game consumers. Ask a random person on the street if they know who a particular game developer is. They probably won’t know.

    Actually, there are some game developers more famous than Blow and Foddy, such as Hideo Kojima and Toby Fox. In particular, Fox is practically a mega-celebrity. He recommended “Later Alligator” because some of his friends made it, and it garnered quite a bit of success as a result. He contributed music for “YIIK” and “Little Town Hero”, which were huge selling points for those games.

    And I don’t think I have to tell you about Kojima’s accolades, do I?

  6. And we were just talking about Cinco Paus! One thing about the discovery phase of Cinco Paus is that it adds to the humor of the game. That being, among other things: the art style and typography, being a mighty magician battling shrimp, lizards, frogs, and roosters, and also the whole “the game is in Portuguese and isn’t translated and the designer doesn’t especially speak Portuguese” thing; but also the slapstick aspect I was mentioning, where things interact in unpredictable ways and it’s possible to have something literally blow up in your face. And when you’re still figuring out what can happen there are lots more surprises! More fun!

    Also individual jogos are so short that you can experiment without too much pain, and even muddle way your through a jogo well before you understand what’s going on. Unlike say nethack which is nigh-impossible to win without consulting spoilers, and if you die after fifteen hours of play because of something you didn’t know about it’s very annoying!

    Another thing is that Cinco Paus, like Starseed Pilgrim (hi droqen!), does a great job of balancing the discovery phase with the phase when you know the mechanics and are just playing. You can read spoilers and it’s still a good game. In fact I eventually did read spoilers when I’d figured out most of what things meant but didn’t understand some of the technical details of how they worked.

    –Doc’s thing about true roguelikes as an exception to the principle was a bit irksome though, because roguelikes aren’t all like that! Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup has a “no guide dang it!” philosophy, and Brogue is almost entirely transparent. You could say that makes them not roguelikes, I guess, but I think it’d be a pretty hard sell.

    The thing that really astonished me was this comment about Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead. Torn between “It’s not a roguelike?” and “Wait, it used to be less usable?”

  7. I forgot to even mention cinco paus – I found I enjoyed the initial learning phase more than the part after, where I’m trying to get a good/better score. I’m rather bad at setting little goals for myself, so I appreciate when a game has an inherent and really interesting goal I can work towards. i.e. in Cinco Paus: learn wtf everything does is a really yummy goal because it’s nuanced and difficult and weird (and slapstick. hi matt!).

    If I look at this real hard and squint, what I like about an inscrutable game is the process of trying my damndest to scrute something that I want very much to scrute. It’s a delicate balance, because I won’t scrute something if I don’t think I’ll be able to scrute it (it must seem scrutable), but if it’s too quick of a scrute the scruting will be over before it’s begun.

    And I have to want to scrute it. The idea of the scruted game needs to taste both achievable and desirable. So I guess in this sense I enjoy an inscrutable game!

  8. Someday a long time ago I picked up the word ‘grok’, but I’ve never liked using it. I think I might just replace it word-for-word with ‘scrute’.

  9. Yeah the thing about Cinco Paus is there are all sorts of little bits you can learn and it’s really engaging even if you don’t know what’s going on. Again, because there’s so much happening, and lots of feedback too–the icons flashing when they take effect helps a lot even if you don’t know why they’re taking effect. Starseed Pilgrim has the lots of things going on too, though maybe not so much the feedback–even if you don’t know exactly what to do, you can do things.

    I bounced pretty hard off Mirrormoon at one point because I did a few things, and they were cool, and then I couldn’t figure out what to do and there was pretty much nothing to do. (Also I had a suspicion that I should’ve not done a specific thing, and that it was going to be very hard to undo. And that I really needed to draw a map, and I absolutely hate anything that makes me draw a map and take notes.–I was just doing The Witness again for a bit and was reminded how much it annoys me that it doesn’t give you a way of doing any scratch work or taking snapshots of things.)

    Cinco Paus also has this dynamic where there’s an ambiguity over whether a game is a Jogo or a streak. “Get a long streak” is an easier goal for me to set than “get a high score.” Then, things build up over streaks in a certain way, and thanks to Joel’s Twitters I discovered that there is a way to Win, but also the streak is still pretty repetitive and the Win is so absurd that you really have to be a Cinco Paus scientist, like way beyond what it takes to be a Hoplite Master. But this goes back to the ambiguity–Cinco Paus doesn’t really ask you to win, you can treat it casually if you want to.–None of this speaks to scrutablity, it’s the post-scrutation phase.

  10. I remember Rand Miller saying that the majority of players of Myst never got off of Myst island, because they couldn’t figure out the linking book puzzles. Even before I “figured out” what my goal is in Starseed Pilgrim, I knew enough to mess around with seeds & build structures. Fool’s Errand had enough straightforward pen-and-paper-style puzzles that I was able to move through the pages before I was able to unlock the deeper mysteries. There’s a Raph Koster quote about how “play” means experimenting within a system’s capabilities, and “fun” is just another word for learning. I definitely draw a clear distinction between games that give players a system that’s satisfying to even experiment with, even when the rules aren’t clear, and games that lack direction and will punish you for not figuring it out.

  11. I’ve been reading these awesome comments but gah there’s been no time this week to put any proper words down.

    Gregg

    I think inadvertently you draw an interesting line between ‘how to play’ and ‘what’s going on’, because both are mysteries, but one is a mystery that the studio audience is more familiar with. Yet, Lynchian mysteries and ambiguous tales really get on some people’s cock. They would say a story is supposed to be story. They would say it’s not supposed to be hard work to figure out what’s going on. Let’s have an end instead of a what-if. They’ll watch Russian Doll who will be bothered it doesn’t have a precise technical explanation for why. So are these just different…?

    If I wanted to sound like a pompous elitist ass, I might ponder aloud and stroke my imaginary goatee – are we just discussing issues around game literacy? Traditions like WASD are barriers to people who have no experience with 3D games, but we okay that because enough people are familiar with those traditions. Text adventure games with – as Ethan pointed out – moon logic were pretty common at one point. I don’t want to defend that tradition because, frankly, we’re better shot of it, but it wasn’t called out nearly as much as you might think at the time.

    I also suspect this is one reason why walking sims have settled on “collectible shit” as a mechanic, because it’s become a recognised tradition in that space. If you do something else, something more esoteric, some players

    I will cheerfully admit there are some inscrutes that just don’t quite do it for me. At A Distance hit the spot, but Future Unfolding fell away for me. The game at Rezzed, Nth-Dimension[al] Hiking did bug me a bit, because figuring out precise button combos was a bit like figuring out old-style Mortal Kombat fatalities, but if you couldn’t figure out the buttons you would walk away from the game. I’m not sure it’s lack of explanation worked in its favour. Yes, there’s a bloomin’ art to it.

    Hole in My Chest SFW link.

    Thanks re: the graffiti article. I was very happy with the links this month!

    Ethan

    Moon logic is a real pain in the arse for sure, although your comment did make me think of something else which I covered in a reply to Gregg just above. (My main criticism of Doc’s thread is that no one is entirely sure what he’s jabbing at – and we have to fill in the blanks with “I think what he’s complaing about is”. Still, I thought it was a wonderful fertile ground for our own discussions!)

    “Ask a random person on the street if they know who a particular game developer is”: I get your point but it’s all relative. The Blow/Foddy one-two still has punch and earned Stephen’s Sausage Roll it’s own write-up on Polygon. Stephen Lavelle isn’t a marketing mouthpiece megaphone, it’s all word of mouth for him and bigger friends speaking up for him makes all the difference.

    who is this Kojima dude :)

    droqen

    I think that’s a good point on Future Unfolding. There’s an enormous amount of work to do after you scrute the mechanics in Starseed Pilgrim, there’s isn’t much on the other side of Future Unfolding. There is just the mystery. And that can be absolutely fine; The Room is all the magic of tinkering out solutions and not really systems. But Future Unfolding asks you to do more after that and it’s not really that exciting – I say that having progressed through multiple stages.

    You hit upon an important point though – that simply making something a mystery is not an automatic votewinner, that there has to be a hook in there. That hook can be something goal-driven (Cinco Paus, Starseed Pilgrim, Mystlikes) or something experiential (The Room, Vectorpark-anything, Mystlikes). In this way, Doc has a point. Maybe he shouldn’t have suggested developers are getting “inscrutable” confused with “difficult” but that they’re confusing “inscrutable” with “interesting”. It does not automatically follow. Scrute that.

    Matt

    I can’t really add to what youve said about Cinco Paus, mainly because my experience is so derisible. Cinco Paus is a best-in-class inscrutable. ALRIGHT MATT I WILL PLAY IT FFS

    I am not a great fan of Mirrormoon. It’s got a nice look. It feels nice. But once you’ve seen all the variations of puzzle mechanics and figured out the console… there’s not an awful lot more to drive you forward. Plus, of course, it’s actually a collaborative game. You’re not supposed to visit every planet yourself. (I have never finished a full season of Mirrormoon.)

    If you’re not doing the scrute anymore then shouldn’t we call it the… ex-scrutiating phase? (leaves room fast)

    Aaron

    I remember watching an Ian Bogost presentation where he made it clear that fun is usually created from frustration, but it’s a Goldilocks balancing act of not too much, not too little, but just right. I still think that Starseed Pilgrim tips a little towards a hard inscrute – to get beyond just making a few seeds into Solving The Game – but only a little.

    I’m now thinking I don’t want to necessarily be drawn into inscrutable => discoverable systems, because we have a lot of games which are not about systems on the other side – i.e. obscuring the syste. We have adventure games with are a sequence of unique problems. But it still follows that we can have bad scrute and good scrute :)

    Fool’s Errand! Now that’s a game I want to make some time for. One day. When I, er, have the time for it.

  12. Ah yes! Google didn’t bring up your site when I searched for ‘Electron Dance Hole in my Chest’! I have read it, but the title escaped me!


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