Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 6, 2011
I guess the picture of old-school level design verses modern level design that came out a few months ago has really caught on. I noticed John Romero and Tom Hall even used it in their post-mortem of Doom at the Game Developer’s Conference earlier this year.
(And might I add… what a cool idea, to do classic game post-mortems like that? I imagine those sessions were full the minute the doors opened.)
Now there are a lot of things wrong with this picture. For one thing, there’s still a lot of linearity in 1993 map. My memory is a little fuzzy on this map (E1M6 of Doom), but as I recall in general the maps were still pretty linear in single-player. They opened up a bit more for Deathmatch modes, where you really wanted multiple paths to every area. But while there were plenty of optional and hidden areas with extra goodies and monsters, so you might be able to get a weapon early or something like that, for the most part had to traverse the map in a pretty straightforward fashion, picking up the keys necessary to progress to the next section.
However, you were able to do it at your own pace, without being interrupted by cutscenes. And the level designers (mainly John Romero, Tom Hall, and Sandy Peterson) weren’t afraid of letting the player get a little lost finding their way through the map. Finding the exit was never a huge challenge, as I recall, but it wasn’t always a given. There wasn’t a marker on the screen showing you which door to go through to get there.
Now, I don’t play too many modern “mainstream” action games, so I’m not much of an authority here. Though of what I’ve played, I can’t deny that A) They often led me by the nose a bit more, through on-screen navigation tools or simply a more constrained environment, or B) I still had fun playing them. But I have to appeal to gamers with more genre experience to point out anything as a “trend.”
Gareth Fouche, creator of the Scars of War RPG in development, recently ranted a bit against a trend that may sum up the situation a little better: a trend towards what he calls passive engagement. It’s maybe not quite the same as passive entertainment, like watching a TV show, but more like reading a book. To extend his analogy, a TV show will progress with no action whatsoever on the part of the viewer – I can fall asleep in front of the tube if I want. But a book does require active effort on the part of the reader.
So there are levels of passivity, and reading a book isn’t really all that passive. Modern games, he contends, are tending to engage the player on more passive levels.
Maybe this is true. I’ve avoided most games that have the dreaded “Quick-Time Events” which I always thought were incredibly lazy game design way back in the day before they had a name – when instead a game had you repeatedly mash a button as fast as you can or something inane like that to succeed. For me, that kind of thing does not make me feel like I’m now participating in what is effectively a cutscene… it further pulls me out of the game. It makes me feel like I’m the kid brother tagging along in the back seat of the car being given busy-work to keep me occupied while the big kids do their thing.
Barring that particularly annoying exception, though, I have to ask – are games becoming more passive, or simply more focused? Are they dumbing games down, or simply stripping away the parts that are “less fun” to focus on the key aspects of the game? If the core of the game is supposed to be mowing down aliens emerging all around you, then is getting lost in a maze of buildings where the aliens have already been “cleared out” really add to the experience? In an open-world RPG, would I really prefer to be hunting for a needle in a haystack on some quests without having an indicator to show me where to hunt down a unique item? (My answer: No, but I also say that’s poor quest design for that kind of RPG, but that’s another story).
I didn’t used to worry about these kinds of things. Maybe we’re over-thinking it now. I mean, complaining about reduced complexity or lack of breadth in modern games doesn’t make sense when you compare a modern XBox 360 controller to the old NES controllers, or the one-button joysticks and paddles of the Atari era, now, does it?
I don’t really know the answer to this. Maybe it depends upon the game. And maybe it’s a side effect of the quality of the production values and modern interfaces. Back then, you really couldn’t play a game without committing yourself to it, to a degree, forcing the engagement. You had to dig in and find out what the particular colored collection of pixels on the screen was supposed to be, and what it was supposed to do. There was rarely an extensive tutorial to step you through everything. You were expected to RTFM before you played. You had to engage your imagination to permit yourself to accept the metaphor the clunky graphics were trying to express. In our RPGs, we were forced to make maps and take notes manually (even if we could record them on-screen, which was nice).
Once you were engaged at that level, everything else clicked into place.
But now the quality bar is so high we can just kind of coast in, mentally. And we do. I’m not sure I’d call this a bad thing, but it does change the dynamics a bit. Maybe it really is a bit like the difference between watching a TV show and reading a book. Maybe that’s part of the reason many readers prefer books over the movies adapted from them.
So what do you think? Are modern games encouraging the player to engage them on a more passive level? And if so, is it really detrimental to the game experience?
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