Thursday, March 18, 2010
Game design 101: Batman vs. Juggernaut
About five years ago, my ex introduced me to the game known as Heroclix. Heroclix, if you didn't know, is a boardgame in which players form teams of superheroes and using a system of rules, battle it out. One of my favorite moments of the teaching game she played with me was having her stealthed Batman perched atop a semi, flinging batarangs at my lumbering Juggernaut who could not for the life of him find the Batman. According to the game rules, Juggernaut could not target a character who is stealthed and Batman could not harm Juggernaut once my dice rolls stated that he was in the clear. What followed was me and my ex laughing uproriously at the scene we had created.
*Plink* "Dammit" "Huh?"
However, that same weekend, she would take me to play with a group of folks at a comic store in Portland OR. Now these guys got together and gamed almost every weekend, but they weren't what you might consider competitive. Even so though, there was none of that story-building in their sessions that my ex and I had experienced during the course of our game, these fellows were far more concerned with building an optimal team within the limitations of the game rules and did not consider character personality paramount when playing their turns. Moments that I found hilarious, like the Hulk flinging Spiderman into battle only to have him crash through a glass window on his way there elicited not even a smile from the player, but an inquiry as to whether or not Spiderman's agility would allow him to move further.
I'm not saying either way to play is right, but it does beget analysis. How is it that the same game with the same rulesets can elicit two wholly separate methods of play, even when the goal is the same? Is it also possible to achive such a balance in computer and video gaming?
Games like the Sims and Spore and nefarious for being procedural with storytelling, this much is true. No set script is produced and the story elements are produced out of the player's
interpretations of mostly random game events. On the other end of the spectrum, take almost any story driven game, let's grab God of War and Halo for two disparate markets, and see that the narratives of these games are driven by a focused and directive prose. The ability to create a story is taken away from the player but it allows them to still experience a crafted story while contributing in the form of progression of the main character's skill sets and perhaps a modicum of significant choices or branching pathways. Thus playing the game relies not on building upon the established narrative but on the manipulation of the games rules and resources to progress and reveal more of the narrative.
Have we seen any games that lay in between? Heavy Rain seemed to be unable to make up it's mind which it wanted to be. The overarcing story was a fine example of pre-disposed narrative, but the minor actions and everyday minutae seemed to want us to be so involved with them as to tell our own stories. I could, for example, brush my teeth agonisingly slowly, simply to express my character's world-weariness and lethargy. On the other hand, Half Life 2 surrounded the player with a focused narrative, but gave them an arm's length of sandbox and physics with which to experiment with. I could tell you a story about running out of bullets in Ravenholm and being forced to do brutal combat with the crowbar, but you probably never had that happen because you were too busy raining explosive barrels upon the zombies.
My point is simply this, these are two ends of a spectrum of game design. There is meeting place for them in the middle, and for me at least, that seems to be a sweet spot that engages me
emotionally with story and intellectually with gameplay mechanics. Other players may find one end or the other of this spectrum to be more palatable, but as a whole, the industry needs to take
notice of this dichotomy and start exploiting it accordingly, for the good of the player.