I thought I had no preconceptions when launching Feather (Samurai Punk, 2019). It was something about being a bird. Possibly an exploration game.
Turned out I was not far off the mark: I was indeed a bird who could fly anywhere I wanted on an island. Oh, I also saw these throbbing hoops, inviting me to fly through them.
Did you catch it? Did you spot my reaction to the hoops? Let me zoom in, Bladerunner style, because it’s quite faint. Enhance: Oh.
I assumed the hoops were a form of collectible. That I must fly through each to complete the island. Oh, of course. Another game selling out its explorer fanbase for the goal hunters. Oh.
This isn’t the punchline because more experience with Feather revealed I was wrong. The hoops were not collectibles at all and Feather was completely not that type of game.
Yet I wondered about that instinctive rejection and what it was a symptom of.
If you want to know what Feather is, my best approximation would be Proteus (Key & Kanaga, 2013). Like Proteus, Feather is partly about exploration, but much more about how you feel. There’s even a bit of The Endless Forest (Tale of Tales, 2006) about it, where you can meet other player-birds but the only direct interaction at your disposal is a squawk. Feather does have its secrets – it’s got a big, delightful one, too – but it is not a game meant for finishing. Feather is a safe place to retreat into, a home away from home.
Collectibles would kill it as an open-ended experience, by providing an endpoint. There is but one achievement on Steam which is awarded as soon as you start the game. Everything after that is all yours.
But the hoops, man. The hoops. They looked like collectibles. How many people grunted, like I did, at the mere implication of them?
The assumption is not without merit because, as I covered in Into the Black, the developer reflex is to use collectibles to reward explorers. It is not the only function of collectibles, of course: consider the shiny trinkets of VVVVVV (Terry Cavanagh, 2010) which signal challenges. But we would be wise to remember the law of the probable collectible, which I totally just made up:
The Law of the Probable Collectible
Game designers have never encountered a virtual landscape they couldn’t fuck up with collectibles.
I played Omno at Rezzed recently and it had a collectible called “explorer stones”, which is definitely the kind of choice name that gets my back up. You might as well call exploration games “walking simulators”. They invite the player to leave no pixel unturned. But those pixels are never the same once they bear the sin of the collectible.
But collectibles are just a particularly simple gameplay system imposed on a virtual environment, common in “walking simulator” experiences. Most games employ far more complex systems.
Any system is just a massive matrix of numbers and developers normally want to expose the player to this matrix. The tension at the heart of a game system is how visible and manipulable the system is. If I have a button that eliminates an obstacle, that’s too easy. If, however, I have to track the movement of the obstacle with a reticule AND press the button, the developer has injected frustration – and this frustration is what makes it fun.
Now when the system is embedded in a virtual environment, which came first, the system or the world? Did the interesting theme suggest a particular system? Or did the interesting system seek a natural virtual home? It depends on the specific design history of the game and, in some cases, the origin story is a story of symbiosis.
But the virtual world is a useful tool that designers can use to convert visible parts of the system into something players can articulate and understand; similarly, it can also be a natural way to camouflage parts you want to hide from the player. The virtual world is a frustration slider, to control player’s exposure to the system.
This means the system, inevitably, infiltrates the virtual world and crowns itself king. The virtual world becomes a control panel for the system. It must display clear feedback and expose buttons and switches for the player to interact through.
In INFRA (Loiste Interactive, 2016), I can often tell when a door might be openable or not on sight. The door’s appearence confirms whether it has function in the game system.
The ammunition in an FPS usually looks absolutely identical wherever you might be: a magazine is a magazine is a magazine. When you pick it up, you might get a nice click or rustle as the magazine is collected.
To do away with rigid visual presentation can complicate system interaction creating confusion. If a game breaks the rules of presentation or never erects any rules in the first place, we might be wandering an environment thinking we’ve run out of ammunition, not realising it has been under our noses all this time.
Putting aside the design and GPU expense of having 100 different objects to represent ammunition, diversity in presentation might add something to world-feel but detracts from the systems, which are the core. Everything orbits around them. The people who come for the shooting are gratified there is a lurid, dystopian cyberpunk city to wander around with a few interesting interactions. Maybe there’s an above average story, too. Maybe the player cries on level 17. But if you have problems finding ammo and drop to “bare hands” all the time, you’re going to get mad quite quickly.
Eastshade (Eastshade Studios, 2019) is an open-world game without combat but has spades of errands and fetch quests. The central conceit of Eastshade is that the player-character is an artist who loves to paint what they see. For each painting, the player will need to craft a canvas first. Canvases are crafted from “cloth”, which present as a folded white sheet, and “boards”, a wooden crate.
As painting is the centerpiece of Eastshade, these ingredients need to be ubiquitous, and the player ends up nabbing cloth and boards from wherever they can find them. There are other materials you need to gather as well and Eastshade encourages the kleptomaniac impulse of the RPG player – to swipe whatever you feel like from people’s homes, take the candles from their tables before their very eyes. One character even recommends you do this. This isn’t collectibles undermining exploration, this is system undermining world. Are you entering houses or loot drops? Why has a game about painting turned into one of busywork and crafting?
It’s the same problem that leads you to stick your hand in every identical-looking trash can in Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013) because there’s a good chance you’ll find some ammunition, coins or even edible food in there. And the more realistic the world, the more standout the systems must be – from glowing auras to nav markers. This is Object X I need to take to Thing Y to do verb Z.
We should be careful as we’re hanging out a bit too close to the the ludology/narratology border here. Writer Tom Jubert (The Talos Principle, Subnautica) named his blog “Plot is Gameplay’s Bitch”, to reflect the complicated relationship between story and gameplay. We know writers are often forced to reshape stories to support new gameplay ideas and Dan Pinchbeck’s PhD thesis “Story as a function of gameplay in First Person Shooters and an analysis of FPS diegetic content 1998-2007” framed story as affordances for gameplay. All of this applies equally to the virtual worlds in which systems are embedded. While Dark Souls (From Software, 2011) is talked up as the great unspoken narrative, is it a surprise that in a game heavily weighted with systems, that the average player misses the narrative glory all around them?
Naturally, I’m not the only person troubled with the impact of systems on virtual spaces. I can go back to 2006 when Adam Foster, developer of the Half-Life 2 mod MINERVA: Metastasis, rejected Valve’s level design which was hyperfocused on delivering the perfect shooty experience. As he told Bob Watson for Idle Thumbs, Valve’s approach was “working out the gameplay first, in a bare-bones, orange-textured series of empty boxes, and then dressing that gameplay up into a realistic, living and breathing world”. With Metastasis, Foster would “design and build a realistic location, moulding it around some interesting gameplay as I go along”. After Metastasis was completed, Valve absorbed him into the hivemind.
I am resigned to systems remaking worlds in their own image which caused me to baulk at Feather’s hoops before the game even had a chance to tell me what was going on. It was a conditioned response, built over years of exposure to modern game design. I am not sure it is even possible to talk of “fixing” this problem of systems calling the shots. Not because we lack the language or the motivation but simply because having the virtual world behave like a virtual world is tantamount to removing the systems.
I would like to assume that designers are always mediating for a comfortable middleground, where the needs of the system are met without completely reshaping the world. But the open sandbox template now commonplace in AAA has a habit of exposing wiring everywhere, a world bustling with signs and portents.
The trouble is the impact of prevailing AAA design on more lightfooted games. Offbeat works like Feather can be unfairly maligned. Nuanced efforts like Eastshade can introduce overbearing busywork and bury their unique properties. These aren’t the biggest issues in the world – Eastshade turns heads because it looks good and, arguably, the systems are secondary – but it’s certainly something to chew on.
- There is always a system. Let’s not kid ourselves. How you move around a virtual world is a system. Can you move through walls? Is there gravity? Is the world finite? It’s a tricky balancing act, but I’m trying to focus on systems that are extrinsic to the virtual world.
- System-embedding is fine. This is not about the rights and wrongs of putting systems in virtual worlds, because then we’re back at the notgames movement. This is just about the vulnerability of virtual environments to the whims of systems. Some games with their nav markers and minimaps and are still fun. Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017) was steeped in systems yet astounding, which brings me to another important footnote.
- Players are good at seeing through systems when it counts. Despite the fact we can game these systems, we’re still drawn to playing good people as Amanda Lange’s 2014 survey showed.