Feedback Loop

Previously on Spectre Collie, I snapped my tether and responded to a critique of games I worked on. The claim was that adventure games are bad at giving feedback to the player, partly because it’s impossible for the game to know what the player’s thinking. I agreed that adventure games are usually lousy at giving feedback, but disagree that it’s a problem unique to adventure games. It’s a problem for any game that requires the player to make deductions more sophisticated than “put the red key in the red door.”

And, I claim, it’s not because videogame puzzles are inherently cerebral, but because we all like to believe that they are. We emphasize the “a-ha!” moments, where the player suddenly figures out the solution to a problem and all the remaining pieces fall into place, at the expense of all the “but what if…?” moments that build up to that. That leaves developers trying to second-guess what’s going to make sense to the player, and leaves the players trying to second-guess what the developers were thinking when they set up this puzzle. And to me, that’s not a fundamental game design problem, but a communication breakdown.

After I posted that, a friend in the comments interpreted the post as saying “games should have in-game hints.” And for some reason, another blog interpreted it as talking about the Strong Bad games instead of Sam & Max. Those are unintended but convenient examples of what can happen when there’s a communication breakdown. It’s also a convenient excuse to give more concrete examples of what I’m talking about, explain why Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is the most frustrating game in recent memory, curse Minority Report for repeatedly insulting my intelligence, and say that difficulty levels in videogames are bad.

Myth 10: Player-selected difficulty levels are the best way to ensure a videogame is accessible to the widest possible audience.

First, a reminder: so far, every one of these “videogame myths” is an actual thing I’ve read somewhere on the internet. In this case, it was an argument on a message board I used to read, where one side claimed that including difficulty levels was developer laziness, and the other side claiming that not including them is developer arrogance. Yet another reminder that I need to get a hobby outside of work.

The author of that Design Lessons post made a complaint that was fairly common about the Sam & Max games: the first season was too easy, and the second season got too hard. When the games were first released, they got the most attention from fans of the LucasArts game, people who’d been playing adventure games for years. And now that the first season has been released on the Wii (and the second season is coming soon!) you can see a pretty clear shift in the response: more people complaining about “frustration” and “needing patience.”

What’s interesting to me about all of those is how adamant the reviewers are. You’d rarely if ever hear that the game was too easy or too hard “for me,” but that it was clearly, insultingly easy, and what were the developers thinking? (And, it should be mentioned, every single episode of Sam & Max has had people on the forums asking for hints). Or on the other end, it’s not “I got stuck,” but “the genre is broken and deserved to die.” The OMG INTERNET BIAS!!! implications of this are legion, but that’s a topic better left to irate forum-goers. What’s interesting to anybody working on ostensibly “thinking” games is the realization that there simply is no such thing as a universal standard of difficulty.

And if you cater too much to one group, you’re inevitably going to alienate another. The worst thing you could do would be to shoot for some idea of the “lowest common denominator,” which games are starting to do to an increasingly alarming degree, and which movies have been doing for years.

Thought crimes against your intelligence

Case in point: Minority Report. After all the complaints about “the aliens” at the end of AI, I can understand Steven Spielberg’s wanting to make sure that absolutely everyone in the audience understood what happened at the end of his precog murder mystery movie. But I was able to piece together the story as we were shown the clues the first time through. And then I had to watch as the story was explained again, then again, and then a fourth time. Seriously, the last 30 minutes of this movie is all recap.

I’m not claiming to be any type of film savant — just the opposite. There have been movies that I can figure out completely the first time through, but more often I’m taken completely by surprise by whatever they decide to throw at me, no matter how predictable. I’m reminded of David Chase’s quote about seeing The Planet of the Apes for the first time: “When it was over, I said, ‘Wow… so they had a Statue of Liberty, too.'” Even the “smartest” person in the audience is going to process a movie at his own rate, and it varies not only from person to person but movie to movie.

It almost makes you wish for some type of “interactive storytelling,” where the story doesn’t proceed until the audience has understood everything that’s happened so far and can predict what’s going to happen next, because it’s the audience who’s putting the story elements together.

And that’s essentially what an adventure game is. You’ll frequently see the complaint that a game without a twitch component is just like an “interactive storybook,” where the story waits for you to press the A button to advance. There are certainly plenty of games like that. But the ideal is that the story is waiting for you to figure out what’s happened so far, and then understand it enough to perform the next action to make it advance.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one

But even though we’re working in an ostensibly interactive medium, we’re still stuck on the idea of videogame storytelling being a fundamentally static presentation. “Here’s our story, you figure it out. Come back to us when you’re done.” We tell the player a story, turn control back over to him to shoot some guys or jump on some platforms, and then take the story back again to show the next piece of the story. There’s a lot of action going on, but not real interaction. Or to put it another way: a lot of talking, but no listening. And when the player hits a snag, we fix it by talking some more.

For example: the end of Half-Life 2: Episode Two has you driving around a lumber yard in a converted muscle car, tracking giant strider creatures on your radar, hopping out and firing sticky bombs at them with a rocket launcher, all in an attempt to keep them from destroying the resistance headquarters. In other words, pure awesome.

At least, in theory. The reality is that I’ve seldom felt such blind rage towards a game and its developers as I did when playing that section. The problem started with the intro to that segment: your character is given an explanation of what’s happening and what you need to do to stop it. And then, as with Minority Report, you’re given another explanation, then another, then another… It all involves slides and practice areas and elaborate multimedia presentations, in a sequence so prolonged that you begin wondering whether these credits will be transferrable to a four-year college.

After your schooling in Remedial Strider Destruction, you get to hop in the car and actually try it. This begins the second phase of frustration, where everything you try to do ends in shame, death, and exploding buildings. My colleagues kept screaming stuff at me on the radio, but it was all things I already knew: that I suck at driving and am only slightly better at shooting. I kept wishing that they’d tell me some secret, like a hidden way to get to the attackers, or a particularly vulnerable part on the body. But after countless deaths, I started to realize that there just wasn’t a secret.

I suspect, although I have no way of confirming this, that the reason for all the tutorials at the start of the section was because the developers realized that that section of the game was wicked hard. But the problem wasn’t knowing what I was supposed to be doing; the problem was actually doing it. I’ve no doubt that there were players who didn’t get the idea behind the strider battle, so for them, that extra tutorial time was useful. And I’m sure that there are plenty of players who had no problem with the shooting and driving, so for them, more help “in the field” would’ve been annoying. But the game treats us all the same.

Good at Movies

We don’t have a sense of somebody’s being “good at watching movies,” but we have no problem believing that people are “good at games,” or good at certain types of games and bad at others. Of course there’s a level of skill required for the “twitch” component of any action game, and that’s the kind of thing that’s easiest to put on a sliding difficulty scale: just increase damage points or decrease hit points and keep playing until it’s balanced. That’s part of the art of level design.

But even that is unpredictable: what’s “balanced” to a level designer (and definitely to a QA guy) is going to be too difficult for somebody with my poor motor skills. And trying to account for logic and deduction is even worse: you can’t reduce it down to numbers and play through again to see if it’s any easier, so you just have to make educated guesses at what people are going to be able to figure out. (And do as much playtesting with as big an audience as you possibly can).

Adding difficulty levels that the player selects at the beginning of the game is no fix. You’ve just made three to five educated guesses instead of just one. Maybe it’ll hit a wide swath of the audience; it’s just as likely that you’ve underestimated or overestimated your “target” audience and have managed to miss every one. And it’s even more likely that your “normal” difficulty is the one that’s gotten the most attention and play balancing, and the others are either ridiculously easy or ludicrously difficult. Now, add the fact that the player has to choose his level at the very beginning of the game, knowing nothing else except whether he’s “good at shooters” or “good at strategy games.” And even that isn’t consistent from game to game: I can play as a “Noble” in Civ IV, but I’m a King in Civ IV: Revolutions.

Ideally, we wouldn’t be making educated guesses, but keeping an eye on what the player’s doing and scaling the difficulty up or down accordingly. But that’s difficult. So as a result, most games put in tiers of difficulty for the stuff that’s more straightforward to gauge — the action sections — and assume the worst on the stuff that’s more changeable — the “thinking” sections. Which results in games with objectives screens telling you exactly what to do, mini-maps leading you directly to your next target, and interactivity that consists of plugging a power cable into the one empty slot on a wall and then being universally praised as the savior of humanity. (I criticize Half-Life only because I love it so much). That hasn’t made the games easier, since the obstacles between moments of empty interactivity are often maddeningly frustrating. It’s not easy to do, it just doesn’t require any real thought.

Does this bug you? How about now?

Scaling difficulty has been done before; it’s just never been done particularly well in the games I’ve played. (Or maybe it’s been done so well that I never noticed it was happening!)

Morrowind and Oblivion both have enemies that have more health and better equipment based on the player’s level. But this is pretty much the opposite of how it should be done, since it ruins the “dramatic arc” of the game. You can have a titanic battle with Bandit_A_2 that you randomly encountered in the middle of a field, followed by an anti-climactic showdown with the All-Powerful Archenemy Who’s Destroying The Universe. On the flip side, if you have static levels for all enemies, then traveling through the countryside and fighting random enemies is tedious. And the big story-based conflicts are unsatisfying, because you know that no matter what you do, the bad guy’s always just a little bit more powerful than you.

A possible fix for that — bearing in mind that I don’t work on action games, and I’m not a level designer — is keeping enemies in leader/minion groups. Send out a minion against the player, see how hard it is for him to beat, then scale the other enemies up or down accordingly. Or, since a lot of action games have linear sections anyway, just use the random enemies as a representative sample of how “good” the player is — however well or poorly the player does against the bad guys in the hallway determines the difficulty of the mini-boss at the end.

In terms of puzzle-solving, the situation’s not quite as dire as I made it sound earlier. Half-Life 2 in particular does some pretty clever things in terms of player feedback (albeit static). The places where you are confronted with a puzzle are typically self-contained, so you’re unlikely to wander off too far from the solution. And in a game where you spend most of your time alone in a world that’s intended to seem like you can go anywhere and do anything, they came up with an ingenious way to reassure the player that he’s on the right track. You can always look for a lambda symbol painted on a wall or on a sign somewhere, which not only reinforces the story of a planet-wide resistance against the aliens, but as a sign that yes, you are supposed to be here.

In adventure games, the hint system used in Telltale’s games has been universally regarded as a success, at least partly because players can choose how much or how little help they want at any time. But that’s only part of the feedback you get from an adventure game: there’s also the responses the player’s character takes when you try to do something, your conversations with NPCs, and even story events themselves. When we’re doing playtests, we don’t stand over the shoulder of someone who’s stuck and just say “Nope.” “Wrong.” “That won’t work.” every time he tries something. We try to give a clue that pushes him in the right direction without giving the puzzle away. If we can do that in person, then eventually we should be able to do that within the game. And once we’ve proven it in adventure games, then ideally that kind of thing can make its way into more action-oriented games.

And then I’ll never again have to interrupt a round of slaughtering bad guys to have a game treat me like a genius for pushing a square block on top of a square hole in the ground.