As my fireteam and I made our way through The Inverted Spire, the sole Strike available in the Destiny 2 beta, I was surprised to find a number of quite breathtaking gaps which must be overcome to reach the Vex construct Protheon, Modular Mind. I shouldn’t have been surprised—it’s implied in the name, “The Inverted Spire,” after all—but it’s less the existence of these drops as the result thereof which made them stand out.
It was with a sense of déjà vu that I entered a metal ring that glowed with some non-specific energy and found my avatar flung across a massive chasm. I’ve encountered such apparatuses before in Battleborn which segment each of its Player-versus-Environment campaign missions into discrete sections delineated by similar launching pads. Those pads enable a swift ride to the next area, depositing the player character at a point of impact in defiance of gravity and kinetic energy. My player character barely survived my first trip through a launching ring in Destiny 2’s Inverted Spire, landing in a narrow tunnel with a grunt of pain and the faint beep indicating I was near death. My two companions weren’t as lucky; turning, I saw them impact into the cliff face above me, plummeting to their death, waiting to be revived.
It’s interesting to juxtapose Oceanhorn with another 2017 release, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a monstrous game which players and scholars will, spend the rest of their lives exploring. It is a representation of what The Legend of Zelda will look in the future. Oceanhorn is beholden to the series’ past: It looks a lot like The Wind Waker and plays a lot like A Link to the Past, but with the scale of a budget-priced indie videogame.
Oceanhorn is derivative and it knows it. It never tries to ascend higher than copying the well-worn Zelda formula, and I get the impression while playing that escaping the formula is anathema to its ethos. This is nothing less than a Zelda videogame made without the Zelda license. From this derivation, we get a glimpse into what another developer thinks of as the “essence” of Zelda. Breath of the Wild makes the statement that freedom of movement and the glory of discovery are what makes Zelda work; Oceanhorn states that respect for tradition and solid-but-predictable design is its true core.
In the corner of my office, sitting above the multimedia case in which I sequester my videogames, there is a dry erase board where I write down ideas I’d like to write about on Play Critically. For months I have agonized over the piece you are reading now, and this may be due to that whiteboard where I had scrawled the name “Carver” in black marker. It would be narratologically irresponsible to talk about The Walking Dead: Season Two without writing something about this character, but I couldn’t find the words. The list of ideas grew longer and longer, but I remained roadblocked by Carver’s name at the top. Finally I reached a precipice of despair and erased everything off the board. It’s a writer’s cliche to lament the tyranny of a blank medium, but in this case the tabula rasa proved cathartic. No longer locked into Carver by the oppressive whiteboard, I realized I needed to step back to see his role in a wider context.
Carver is essential to what I will write about today, but he is not the actual topic.
Time is an important part of human existence, albeit one that can easily go unnoticed or unremarked-upon. It follows, therefore, that videogames, in trying to embody simulations of functioning worlds, would be equally ruled by this omnipresent force. In early videogames, a sense of the passage of time sometimes takes the form of the “time limit,” resulting in player death upon expiration, or else is hard-coded into the environment: this level takes place in the morning, the next takes place at noon, the next at sunset, etc. etc. etc. Less often, and particularly in games that try to simulate complete worlds, the passage of time is represented in its entirety, though usually at a truncated rate. At the very least, if a virtual world or sequence of levels does not try to convey a passage of time, they at least give a sense of events occurring at a time.
This scene from Ninja Gaiden uses its representation of the environment to illustrate the events occurring at a specific time.
As technologies have increased in power and videogames have increased in sophistication, these approaches toward showing the passage of time have remained largely unchanged. What is rather more interesting is the way these virtual worlds show the passage of time in relation to our own reality. When a player plays a video game, they experience two time states at once, their own and that of the game world, and these two states may not be congruent with one another. Videogames must necessarily abandon the specifics of time, or else encounter problems in presenting a coherent game experience. Batman: Arkham City demonstrates this fact of game design in a number of ways.
At the beginning of Link’s newest adventure in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, he is guided by a psychic voice to a shabby structure on the Great Plateau. Holding his Sheikah Slate, a kind of medieval-technological tablet computer, over a console, the structure bursts with a bright blue light and Link finds himself hurtling into the air as it sprouts into a massive tower. With a ruined Hyrule stretching as far as can be seen in every direction, I feel a sense of dread as a portion of a blank map on the Sheikah Slate is filled in.
Lincoln was cribbing from the Gospel of Mark when he said “a house divided against itself cannot stand” in his unsuccessful campaign for an Illinois Senate seat, but it portended the events which the United States was already heading for, inscribing a lesson on the American psyche: Two fundamentally conflicting forces in a single construct will inevitably lead to destruction if they cannot be reconciled. This is a fatalistic appraisal of what happened to Clementine’s group in The Walking Dead: Season One, and are echoed in the schisms of her new Season Two group. But the events of “A House Divided” introduce more wrinkles as Season One characters return, forcing Clementine to choose between old and new friends.
In order for a game to be entertaining, it must be competitively balanced. Some might argue that a game that is too easy can be fun in its own way, as the player is free to exercise complete authority over the game world. This is a valid argument, as it is not down to an individual to declare definitively how others must enjoy their game. However, there is evidence that players consider games that provide them with a challenge to be more satisfying to play, or rather, more fun to play; Jesper Juul in The Art of Failure describes a survey he gave to players of a game, and those who liked the game most were those who struggled to complete it a little, but not a lot. Players who completed the game without difficulty tended to give it a lower rating. The implications are clear: A game that achieves the broadest amount of satisfaction among players must have its difficulty balanced such that it provides challenge to experienced players without alienating the inexperienced ones. The simplest way to achieve this is through the application of difficulty levels, allowing the player to decide what level of challenge on a scale the software-based game systems will provide them.
Some games take this “Difficulty Scale” to literal extremes.
Pictured: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U
But when gameplay exists in a player-versus-player environment, such considerations are much more difficult to apply. This is where competitive symmetry enters the game design process. Competitive symmetry is exactly what it sounds like: A game is made competitively fair by giving all players equal access to the same advantages. Character abilities, access to equipment, even positioning and repositioning of the player character in the game environment is presented equally to all players. Games that utilize competitive symmetry could be said to have the most claim to fairness, as the only difference between individual player’s ability to compete is respective skill levels and environmental factors. Competitive asymmetry is also possible, but much more difficult to achieve, as it requires a great deal more testing to ensure that two sets of advantages and disadvantages confer an equal chance of victory to two players of equivalent skill. Given the constantly-evolving state of competitive metagames and fluctuating, if not downright subjective, levels of player ability, a well-balanced, competitively asymmetrical game may exist only in theory.