Here I’ll list a few games that have inspired or made an impact on me in some way, and how their design might factor into my own. I’m not a “hard-core” gamer, so the number of games I’ve played is limited. I often get quickly bored or turned off by a game. It may be a bad thing that I don’t play more games, but I like to think it is because I’m picky and I know what I like. So, in no particular order:
The game Braid, designed by Jonathan Blow, is exemplary for puzzle design. I can’t think of another game that provides such challenging-but-accessible puzzles that provide such satisfaction upon solving.
Part of what makes the puzzles great could be that they are natural solutions to questions that arise from a given set of rules that are alien compared to those to which we are accustomed (namely the time modification mechanic). Braid also does a great job of gradually introducing the player to what would otherwise be a difficult world to understand. Basic concepts are introduced first, making it very easy to ease into the game.
To complement the brilliant puzzle design is a unique art style and an excellent musical score.
The story is never exactly clear, and what has happened is left up to the interpretation of the player in some part. The final level is brilliant.
Portal is another game that had very clever puzzles. They perhaps aren’t quite on the level of Braid however, and Portal’s art design is nothing special.
Another thing to note is that Braid is, in a way, non-linear. This is unusual for a platform game, but many of the levels can be completed in no particular order. Or rather, you can unlock the next level without fully completing the previous one (and you can come back at any time).
This is the only “AAA” title on my list. The original Mass Effect took video game cinematic realism to a new level for me. Bioware succeeded in making gameplay look like cutscenes in many ways. Though the dialog system is limited, they do a pretty good job making it seem realistic so that you feel like you’re playing a part in a movie rather than watching someone else play the part. The realism is helped with excellent voice acting and facial expressions on the characters.
The other thing Mass Effect does well is create the illusion of a living breathing world (or rather, galaxy). You get the feeling there is a whole lot going on outside your “little” story, and that helps the immersion. They do a decent job balancing mission-critical quests and side stories.
In Mass Effect, the story is told through talking to people and through “verbal foley” such as the newscasts that you hear while riding in elevators or the tourist information booths in the Citadel. There are cutscenes but they are generally kept to a minimum, and there is no long prose to wade through. Note: I suspect the long elevator rides were to “hide” level loading, but they mostly made up for it with the newscasts that come over the loudspeaker.
Many players complained about the combat in Mass Effect, but I actually preferred it compared to the “improvements” in ME2. I’m not a fan of twitch play because I’m not a very fast thinker. In ME you could briefly pause the combat and look around, calculating your next move. Though your teammates’ AI was stupid, the combat was enjoyable because it felt tactical and didn’t degrade into chaos as most “shooters” do. The final part of ME is one of my most memorable gaming experiences. The intensity is kept at just the right level as you make your way along the outside of a space station in low gravity fighting off enemies. Above you a large alien vessel from another universe is gradually destroying the space station. Pounding 80s sci-fi music completes the scene. Epic!
One pretty negative aspect of ME was the generic planet exploration. It was boring, repetitive, somewhat unpolished, and you had to use a hard-to-control vehicle to get around. ME2 addressed a lot of these issues. The lesson here is not to add filler content to pad your game. Everything should be there for a reason.
The RPG aspect of ME needed a little work – it was overly complex/confusing – and was simplified/improved in ME2 (whether it was improved is up to debate I suppose).
The correct way to play this game is to put it on a big screen TV and turn off all the lights and immerse yourself in Limbo’s dark, foggy, black and white atmosphere.
Limbo is a beautiful piece of art, with pretty clever gameplay and puzzles to go along with it. But the real star of the show is the artwork and the feel of the greyscale world. The almost complete lack of music works well here. Ambient sounds and various drones are all you need.
Like Braid, Limbo does an excellent job of gradually introducing new mechanics (e.g. the glow worms that force you to change direction). The user interface is bare bones simple and gets out of your way (as much as possible I want this for my game too). It also has one of the best “bosses” around, the spider that never seems to die. Strangely, it appears near the beginning of the game.
You also get the feeling that there is a whole mysterious world out there. Objects in the blurry background tell stories you can’t quite make out. Glimpses of figures that try to kill you but then run away. Who are they? The artwork is such that all you can see are their silhouettes. Almost Lovecraftian.
Limbo is extremely linear, but that’s ok. The focus is on the puzzles and the cool atmosphere. The puzzles are never terribly difficult.
As for flaws, the game is a little too short and ends a little too abruptly. There also isn’t much of a story, but maybe that’s ok. You’re left to make things up.
I’d go with any of the Ultimas between 4 and 7, but Ultima 5 was the last one I played as a child and the one with the darkest atmosphere. It came with a written prologue describing Lord British’s journey to the underworld where he was kidnapped by dark figures. It made me shiver! The game has a mature plot about the consequences of a system of virtue taken too far (think a theocracy run by religious fanatics). (I’d like my game to carry bits and pieces of political and social strife. Perhaps not as part of the main plot, but to “fill out” the world and make it real).
The key defining feature of the Ultima series was the sense that you were in a vast world with many mysterious to solve and places to explore. The Ultimas were “open world” games, with no artificial boundaries. Places that were inaccessible we that way because either they were guarded by enemies too tough to defeat at that particular time, or because there were real physical barriers that you could not yet overcome (needing a ship to cross water, or a balloon to cross steep mountain barriers). This is something that I will hold to quite steadfastly in my game. No artificial boundaries.
There was a day/cycle and characters that went about their daily lives, going to work, eating, etc…
In addition, the Ultimas had a conversation system that I still think has no par in modern gaming. It was a keyword system – you typed in a word (or the first four letters of one) and the NPC would respond. This avoids the “depth-first search” problem with dialogue trees and allows for additional puzzle design. For instance someone may have told you that person X is interested in topic Y. When you go talk to person X, they may not bring the subject up. But you are able to bring it up yourself if you know about it. Or, you might type in the person’s wife’s name and see what they have to say about her. This simulated real world conversation remarkably well.
Of course, there are dangers with this system – you don’t want to end up playing “guess the keyword”. This turned out to be much less of a problem in the Ultima series, than for instance in say the King’s Quest style games.
Unfortunately today I don’t think most gamers would put up with keyboard entry like that. This will be one of my biggest design challenges, as I want to retain the feel of Ultima’s keyword conversation system, but not require keyboard entry. I have some ideas and prototypes here, but have not play-tested them yet.
Ultima’s gameplay also pretty much required you to write down tidbits of information you had heard (there was no built-in journal system). I don’t think most gamers have the patience for that today. So I think I do need a journal system or quest log, but I want it to be non-intrusive and not identified as such (no formal quest system!): instead, something like an easily navigable list of the important bits of conversation you’ve had with NPCs. The danger here is the list growing big and becoming clouded with old information.
The turn-based combat in Ultima was simple by today’s RPG standards, but could be somewhat tedious to due to micro-management required for all your teammates. Later Ultimas had options to automate combat.
Though it was simple, combat could often be strategic. The terrain played a roll (objects blocked shots, water could not be crossed, lines of fire could be laid down), and position was important (combat took place on a grid in earlier Ultimas, I think in later ones position became less important). The magic system was pretty vast and allowed some interesting variations. On top of that, many of the spells had to be discovered. Spells were created with a reagent system, and you had to gather the correct ingredients. Common spells’ ingredients were listed in the player’s guide, but there were other more advanced secret spells you could learn about in the game. The reagent system was sometimes tedious, but I think there is a possibility to retain something similar and remove the tedium.
Other complaints lodged at Ultima 5’s combat system are:
- It’s difficult to target enemies (keyboard arrow keys)
- You can only move in the four cardinal directions
- There is no “quick combat” option
With simple 2d tile graphics, this series managed to conjure up a very immersive world. There was always a clear goal in mind, and yet always interesting things to do if you couldn’t make immediate progress on the final goal.
Someone’s play-through of Ultima 5 with lots of discussion of gameplay elements.
Forum thread comparing Ultima 7 with Oblivion/Skyrim