Inscrutability in Game Design: Perils and Possibilites

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Ian here—

Earlier this week, I sat down with some friends to play David OReilly’s Everything (2017). We were all suitably hyped, and ready for an evening of being different things while chuckling over the political indefensibility of object-oriented ontology. (Yes, really. We’re those people.)

But our evening hit a snag. Somewhere along the line, in our first playthrough, beginning as a cougar, we encountered a weird bug. One of the little “gain a new ability” thought bubbles failed to pop up in the environment. No matter how far we traveled, or how many objects’ thoughts we listened to, we simply could not unlock the ability to scale up or down into bigger or smaller entities. We were doomed to be a cougar. (Or, cougars, rather. We were able to expand our ranks, and become about a dozen cougars, rolling across the rocky landscape. But being a dozen rolling cougars is small consolation in a game that promises that you can be, well, everything.) For 75 minutes, we wailed at the screen. “I thought you could be lint particles and galaxies and stuff!”

We tried, to no avail, to look up walkthroughs to Everything. Everywhere we looked, we found glowing reviews of how chill the game was, how it allowed you to sit back and let the experience of being everything wash over you. We couldn’t fathom how we got stuck in a game with no real objectives. To pour salt in the wound, the game seemed to be actively mocking us. “As long as you keep moving, in any direction you choose,” thought a tree, “that will take you where you need to go.” “Over time,” thought a rock, “you might find there’s no right or wrong path to take here.” We were seriously stuck, and the only feedback we were getting were Zen aphorisms that told us to take it easy and not worry so much.

Eventually, we deleted our save file and started over. Thankfully, this solved the problem, and we spent the rest of the evening enraptured. But it did get me thinking about the trickiness presented by purposefully inscrutable game design.

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Personal Puzzles

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Ian here—

When you first start playing Eli Piilonen’s The Company of Myself (2DArray, 2009), it feels as if someone found a way to perfectly weld together a diary entry with a puzzle platformer. This was back in the heady days in the wake of Jonathan Blow’s Braid (Number None, 2008), when the public at large was still reeling over the idea that puzzle mechanics could mean something. And, at first glance, The Company of Myself seems to take this trend and go somewhere quite confessional with it. Its central mechanic of cloning yourself to solve puzzles stood as a perfect expression of feelings of self-reliance. And not just any self-reliance, either, but rather that specifically incorrigible mode of self-reliance that emerges when one is a bit too much of an unreconstructed introvert, refusing even the most basic forms of assistance because you desperately wish to not bother, or to be bothered by, anybody.

The “cloning” mechanic has popped up elsewhere in games—for instance The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom (The Odd Gentleman, 2010)—but The Company of Myself was more ambitious, wedding the mechanic with a personal story of interior life. Or, at least, it seems to do this, until you realize the whole thing is bullshit. The story takes an eleventh-hour delve into the lurid, revealing itself as an over-the-top fiction, rather than a form of sincere self-expression on the part of its creator.

The Company of Myself takes the easy way out, tacking on an over-dramatic denouement that destroys its potential as a diary-game. But … what if it didn’t? Could one actually use puzzles to communicate the intricacies of internal lived experience, in an emotionally sincere way? In this entry, I’ll be looking at two games that try: Liz Ryerson’s intimate and beguiling Problem Attic (2013), and Atrax Media’s more slick and straightforward Sym (2015). Along the way, I’ll also be dipping a bit into Braid, just because it’s hard to talk about contemporary puzzle platformers without doing so.

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A Practical Guide to Problem Attic

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Ian here—

Liz Ryerson’s Problem Attic (2013) is a classic of the personal games movement. It is also notoriously difficult, for a number of overlapping reasons. I have come to realize that there are no real walkthroughs of it online, to help players that might be interested in examining Ryerson’s game and seriously considering its themes, but simply cannot get through an especially tricky area without help. I have decided to rectify this, before I teach the game for a class.

If you are looking for pedagogical notes or analysis, be forewarned: there will be none of that in in this post. This is a walkthrough, pure and simple. I’m planning on posting something more genuinely analytical on this game in the weeks ahead, but first I thought I’d do the world a public service. (If only making walkthroughs was something one could put on a CV…)

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