This should be a brief post of my journey of finding a game I could use for quickly absorbing and describing a game’s mechanics. My goal with this was to find a game where the core of the mechanics were described in bulk, up front. The reason for this is that I’m going to have to eventually describe the mechanics in the game, and I didn’t want to have to play the whole game to do it. Instead, I am focusing on what is presented to new players and how it is presented. The aim of this is to describe the mechanics of the game in terms of the PGDI model I created, based on the psychology of player types research. I ended up considering eleven games for this, and played through the intro stages of eight of them. The other three games I relied on my memory of recent playthroughs to determine their usefulness.
The first game I considered was Fallout 3. This was an easy choice. Fallout 3 has a really well-crafted introduction sequence that guides the player through character creation in stages and lets the player try out mechanics in safe environments. Further, it does a good job of introducing the game world and story. I would have been fine with using Fallout 3, had it not been for the fact that I used the game as a case study in my chapter on PGDI. A further stumbling block I had with the game is that Fallout 3 has an issue where it won’t work on Windows 7.
So I turned to the game’s sequel, Fallout New Vegas. After playing the game for about twenty minutes (it has no issues with Windows 7), I determined that the game’s gameplay introduction was far less tightly composed. The game thrusts you into the wide open world rather quickly, after teaching you how to move around. Prompts for how to use your inventory and perform combat are thrown up when the game determines that you need it, but it doesn’t prevent you from going off into an unsafe environment. None of the mechanics other than moving are provided to you in a safe environment.
After that, I decided to try a game that was similar, but made by a different company. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was made by 38 Studios (now defunct). Reckoning has, at its core, the same exploratory style of play as either Fallout game, with a focus on action combat. Its intro area is on rails, meaning that you can go forward, but rarely can you go back. It introduces concepts of combat, movement, and basic interaction in small pieces over the course of an hour’s worth of play, before exposing the player to the wide world. It introduces the backstory of the world through lengthy dialogue choices (most of which are skippable). There are a number of mechanics the game doesn’t get around to playing, not the least of which is leveling up, and barely describes what skills are used for. The skills will get just-in-time textual tutorials when the player first encounters something of that type, but my experience with the game suggested that some of those would not be seen for a while into the game. I decided to seek other options.
It was about this time that I decided that I might want to try a game that I had not played before. So I went to the store and picked up a few titles. I ended up with White Knight Chronicles and Fairy Tale Fights. White Knight Chronicles is a game, so far, about a princess who cannot speak and some store hands at a winery who need to pick up a shipment. The game’s mechanics are thrown at the player as soon as the player gains control. There are pages of text to read all at once. It is a nightmare of teaching the player how to play the game. It almost assumes that the player has played games like it and will just flip through the pages quickly. Although many mechanics are placed early in the game, I decided to try my other games just in case something better jumped out at me.
Fairytale Fights was not something better. The game made little to no indication that it was going to teach me how to play the game. While the first stage seemed to be paced in terms of difficulty, it took me nearly a half hour to figure out how to get to the first stage. The game was definitely designed for veteran players who knew how to operate in the space, but I was thrown for a while as well. It may simply be poorly executed. I could not gauge how much of the mechanics I learned going through the first stage, although it seemed like a fairly simple game in general. I decided it was not right for the project.
I next decided to try two games for the Nintendo DS. The first was Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift. I will not try to dissuade the fact that I was leery about this title simply because of how long the game’s title is. This game turned out to be rather a good choice at first glance. The game introduces all the basic mechanics (moving, choosing actions, navigating menus) by instructing the player what to do, while letting the player make some choices. The intro stages last for about an hour, which was the target time I was hoping for. After looking back on it, though, I realized that the game did not introduce a number of key mechanics, most notably the fact that the player can change the jobs of units in the menu. In fact, the standard, out-of-battle menu was not explained at all.
The other game for the Nintendo DS I considered was The World Ends with You. This is a game with a lot of interesting mechanics that really makes use of the touch pad and the rest of the handheld system at the same time. Even for players who are used to complicated controls, The World Ends with You can be a curve ball. The game is broken up into a set number of “days” and most of the main mechanics are described by the end of Day 2. This includes most methods of attack on either screen, as well as methods of advancement through the game. Some mechanics, like buying new weapons, gaining experience with some of those weapons, or some more obscure attack types are not yet described by that time, though. One thing that makes The World Ends with You a good game to examine is that the player and the characters are put in the same situation. Neither really knows what is going on at the start of the game. This makes discovering the story easier for the player, and allows it to unfold more naturally. Both DS games were strong contenders for a while.
I briefly considered Dark Souls and Fable 2. They both have well thought-out introductory areas that have a clear end, and both introduce most of the mechanics you will need to use for the rest of the game. I decided not to play either one at this time as I recently had played them and remembered how their intro areas were. I cannot give a very good reason why I never seriously considered either one. Perhaps I was looking for a game that was just a little bit different.
So, my first choice for a game that was a little bit different was L. A. Noire. L. A. Noire is a 1940’s police procedural game following one beat cop’s rise to detective. The intro areas for this game are a series of short cases that teach the player not only how to navigate the game, but also how to think about the game. About 75% of this section of the game is scripted to instruct the player what to do next, either by unobtrusive prompts in the upper right, or by asking your more-experienced partner. The game provides you with a series of cases that showcase different methods of investigation. The first is a crime scene canvassing and information gathering mission, followed by a chase sequence, designed to instruct the player how to move quickly. Then there is an action mission, to introduce the very frustrating combat controls. The game tries to tell you what to do, but the controls were so confusing to me that it took a long while to figure it out. After that, there is a mission which introduces interrogation techniques and rolls most of the other kinds of investigation into one. It is a very well thought out introductory sequence, and it took me a little over an hour to complete.
But then I thought, what if I went for a game that was really different? Possibly one of the most unusual games of 2011 was Atlus’s Catherine. Readers of this blog may remember that I wrote a blog on Catherine and how it relates to fun, as well as a post comparing Catherine’s and Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s description of difficulty as it relates to story. I appreciate Catherine because it is not a typical game. It isn’t “fun” to play because the games makes us uncomfortable. The game makes it hard to make the right choices. Mechanics-wise, in the first hour of the game, the player is introduced to every mechanic that will be used in the game. Sometimes this is subtle, like being forced to take a drink the first night at the bar. Some of it is overt, with a big announced telling the player how to proceed. The player also has no difficulty in grasping the story and situation of Catherine. In fact, the game hammers home the story fast and deep, because the game wants the player to feel immediately uncomfortable. As I said, it isn’t a fun game, but instead one that pushes home the concept of overcoming blocks. This is subtle with the story, showing the main character’s hangups, and it is literal, by having the main character climb towers of blocks during nightmare sequences. It is the mid-life crisis of games. I decided to try the game on a friend who knew nothing about the game. He felt that he understood how to do whatever he needed in the game, but that mastering it would be very difficult. He was also not sure if he wanted to master the game. He repeatedly stated that he it was a good game but that he did not like it. He did not enjoy what it was doing. This is the nature of Catherine. I feel like Catherine is a unique enough game that describing it with PGDI would be interesting, and would not be so derivative of genre, like many other games might be.