Interestingness Increasing

I’m writing this post from a hotel room in central London. I’m visiting the UK in order to attend the Develop Conference, a Europe-centric conference for game developers. Yesterday I took the train south to Brighton for the first day of the conference, a special day focused on mobile developers, and gave a talk to a sparse audience about my Android game, Replica Island. This is the third big conference I’ve spoken at this year; last year I did about twelve different events, which, thinking back on it now is fairly crazy.

My talk yesterday differed a bit from my normal pitch. I usually spend a lot of time telling game developers how to get the most out of Android phones. While there was a little bit of that in this talk, I decided to spend most of my time talking about my particular game development experience. What went right, what went wrong, what I intended to do and what I learned in the process, that kind of thing.

Something weird happened while I was designing the slides for this talk: though my intention to was speak about how side-scrollers might be successful on a phone, I kept coming back to design ideas that originally clawed their way into my consciousness via horror games. I often reference Jonathan Blow’s point about ‘interestingness’ in my talks; this is the idea that a good game design is one that keeps the player interested any way that it can, be that via interesting game mechanics or art style or narrative or music or whatever. Blow warns that pursuing innovation for the sake of innovation is “misguided” because innovation isn’t always interesting. That idea was certainly instructive in my design of Replica Island: I explicitly chose to base my design on tried-and-true mechanics and then increase the “interestingness” of the game through other means. But it occurred to me while preparing for this talk that the real proof of Blow’s point can be readily found in horror games, and that my approach to making my cute retro side scroller more fun was clearly influenced by common horror game patterns.

For example, take a game like Rule of Rose. I feel pretty much the same way about Rule of Rose now as I did back in 2007: it’s terrible. It’s got fantastic art and an interesting story line, and I dug the music at first, but the game itself is basically unplayable: the collision detection doesn’t work, combat doesn’t work, the dog mechanic doesn’t work; I finally quit playing it because I got stuck in a section where I cannot progress and yet I cannot go back. The game is broken.

And yet, and yet, Rule of Rose has a pretty major following. It has its own high-quality fan site that, by the way, is still being updated here in 2010. Every time I post an angry rant about this game, a couple of hardcore fans come out of the woodwork to tell me to give it another chance (I expect the same result from this post, and it’s not even really about Rule of Rose). Clearly some people didn’t just complete this game, they really enjoyed it.

Rule of Rose is, I think, an excellent proof of Blow’s interestingness idea: though I didn’t get hooked myself, a lot of folks were so in love with the art, the style, the characters, and especially the narrative that they were willing to forgive and ignore absolutely egregious design and implementation failures. There are lots of other mediocre games that have better mechanics but duller story lines (like, say, Cold Fear or Carrier, just to name two), but nobody makes fan sites for those games. It’s not just that those titles are mediocre, it’s that they simply aren’t interesting enough.

When I went about designing Replica Island, I did it the way I expect horror games do it: narrative first. I wrote an outline to the story, decided it wasn’t interesting enough, and then reassembled it as an out-of-order mixture of past events (“memories” in the game) and present day. This narrative structure ended up defining the level progression and pacing for the game. I added a lot of dialog, and I tried to make my characters have a little more depth than the average side-scroller. Taking a page out of the book of traditional horror design, I added snippets of an old diary to each level, each revealing slightly more about the author than the last. I tried to make the narrative interesting first and foremost, though at the same time I worked to ensure that the narrative could be entirely skipped by players who just want to crush enemies. Once that foundation was in place, I spent the rest of my time actually making the game–getting the mechanics right and tuning the levels and doing all the super-important mechanical stuff that makes up most of the moment-to-moment gameplay experience. Ideally, my game should be rock solid without any narrative; just in case it isn’t, or to keep players who aren’t really partial to side-scrollers playing, I tried to use narrative as a way to increase the interestingness of my game. This is, thinking about it now, a throughly Survival Horror approach to game design.

It’s hard to tell how effective I was at actually making a fun game, or if the focus on narrative helped. The user reviews have been pretty good, but there’s no obvious preference exhibited by commenters on Android Market (comments about the narrative seem to fall into “great story” and “tl;dr” categories with equal frequency). I’m certain that the art quality and style (courtesy of my good friend Genki) had at least as much to do with positive reviews as the narrative. And though I messed up the mechanics in a couple of places, the game seems to be generally fun for people to play. I’m quite proud that it’s one of the most-played games I’ve ever worked on.

Standing up on the stage in Brighton yesterday, I struggled a bit to convey this line of thinking to the audience. I mentioned the focus on narrative being a side-effect of my horror research, but I don’t think this was a particularly salient part of the lecture (though I did notice a few raised eyebrows). But thinking about it later, it occurred to me that I probably couldn’t have made a cute retro side scroller for a mobile phone if I hadn’t had horror games in my back pocket as a reference. That’s evidence that the thesis of this site–that the traits of horror games might be applicable to other genres–might be true. That’s pretty cool.

12 thoughts on “Interestingness Increasing

    I hope you enjoy your time in London! Too bad you weren’t here last week when the weather was a lot nicer.

    Although I did enjoy and finish Rule of Rose; it’s hard to ignore it’s gameplay issues and it’s easy to get stuck. Plus, the story itself is told in an usual way with a lot of smaller details left to interpretation. You need to explore the game thoroughly to understand the plot but the exploring itself is hard to accomplish with crappy combat.

  2. The phenomenon you mention in regards to Rule of Rose (which I sadly never got to play due to its lack of a UK release) is mainly why I have a love/hate view of the original Siren. If its gameplay were taken on its own, stripped of its ‘interestingness’ it would a frustrating, mediocre stealth game with some of the most horribly obscure puzzles and objectives I’ve ever had to put up with (I have to have a guide on hand at all times whenever I try and play it). It’s when you factor in the chilling story, innovative sight-jacking mechanic and that it’s a genuinely scary game that all the flaws seem almost worth putting up with. Even early classics of the genre like the first three Silent Hill games don’t really escape this. We accept the clunky controls in those games because they help us to feel as helpless as the protagonist, but when taken out of context they then become rather awkward. It’s this interesting quality that seems to make games with a well-written plot or a strong atmosphere often garner more critical acclaim than games that are just mindless fun. Bioshock I think is a good recent example.

    It’s the relative lack of the interesting qualities that drew me to the survival horror genre in the first place that’s now starting to turn me away from modern horror games. Even the better games lack some of the qualities that I used to love about the genre back in its heyday. Part of the problem here is that recently the survival horror genre has absorbed a number of the tropes and conventions of more action-heavy genres like third-person shooters in what seems to be a misguided attempt to drag the genre kicking and screaming into the contemporary era. Can games with fast-paced action sequences, linear level design and fully controllable third-person cameras still be scary? Yes, but they’ll never be scary in the same way that Silent Hill 2 or Fatal Frame managed to be.

  3. I kind of laugh when I picture this lecture you gave. “Yes, the cute side scrolling robot game I made had heavy influences from horror games” I’d raise an eyebrow too.

  4. Excellent Post! I could really relate to the idea of Interesting-ness because I am a lover of obscure/weird games. I’ve come across several titles that have glaring problems but I end up liking becuase they do something different(Illbleed & D2 come to mind). I think a lot of games lack that interesting-ness nowadays and that’s why people get bored easy(its why I do). I look at Dead Space as an example of using other games interesting-ness a little too much, the only exception being its zero-gravity segments. Everything else about the game felt too familiar ala RE4, Aliens, Event Horizon, etc. etc. I think being more of a survival horror enthusiasts is what led to me not thinking too much of the game but it obviously caught on with the mainstream gamers. It’s that same survival horror enthusiast inside me that let me like Rule of Rose so much. It had loads of that interesting-ness, most of it that was taboo and hadn’t been seen by me that much in gaming. It’s why I love the original Clock Tower game so much. There is almost nothing else that plays like it! It’s dated but the thrill of hiding from scissorman has yet to be matched. Ok, I hold a little nostalgia factor in that I played the game at a younger age and I’m nostalgic for the fear I felt while playing the game but still. Again, great post.

  5. So, in order to finish your quest, you aim to play every survival horror game that meets your qualifications, including the bad ones, but in some cases, you won’t finish them (Rule of Rose)? How often does this happen, just out of curiosity?

  6. I remember when we played that game. What a piece of shit. That was honestly worse than The Ring on Dreamcast.

  7. > David

    Rule of Rose is only the second game that I’ve ever given up on. The first was Clock Tower 2.

  8. I’m one of those people who’ll put up with a lot of crap if there’s another element in the game that just clicks, feels right, does its job supremely well or, as you say, has a lot of interesting-ness.

    For us survival horror enthusiasts, the number one priority is: does the game frighten me? This is usually accomplished through atmosphere, art direction, sound and story. I’ll admit, I’m one of the few people who completed and enjoyed Rule of Rose. Not because of the combat mind you, which is just as bad as you say, but because of the aforementioned items. It was probably the most mature and disturbing story I’ve ever experienced in a game.

    It’s interesting to note that the recent horror games I’ve been playing feature fantastic controls, but they just don’t hook me in the same way that the older, clunkier games do. Resident Evil 5 gave up on scares all together, Dead Space is the same three or four enemies popping out of air ducts over and over again, the Silent Hill series has been passed from one western developer to the next, all of whom showed sparks of genius, but they just couldn’t apply it to the entire game. The last survival horror I really enjoyed was Siren: New Translation, but even that paled in comparison to the original. I’ve heard good things about Alan Wake, but alas, I don’t have an Xbox.

    Of course, the ideal to shoot for is a game that plays well AND captivates the player. I’m hoping the recent dearth of quality horror titles goes away when the action/shooter trend runs its course. As we near the final years of our consoles’ life cycles, development will get cheaper and developers will be in a better position to take risks, venture outside of the mainstream and craft games that will really grab us and refuse to let go.

  9. Rule of Rose Mysteries is a high-quality fansite? It’s not even a fansite, but a blog of theories, 99% of which are baseless or false, disproven within the game. Rule of the Rose is a better fansite, and it’s been around longer.

  10. I love atmosphere, it’s 90% of what I look for in a game, so I loved Rule of Rose despite its many shortcomings. The music, the art direction, the story, those bits were really well done. And the final boss is very possibly the creepiest enemy I’ve ever faced in any horror title.

  11. Rule of Rose Mysteries is a high-quality fansite? It’s not even a fansite, but a blog of theories, 99% of which are baseless or false, disproven within the game. Rule of the Rose is a better fansite, and it’s been around longer.

    I (like many others) disagree, “Rule of rose mysteries” are far more interesting to read.

  12. Rule of Rose is alright, good story line, and I didn’t have any problems with game’s mechanics, they were typical to any standard survival horror game.

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