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Puzzle Action Games

There have been a lot of really interesting platformers lately, both indie and non…but a lot of them have left me cold. Even stuff like Braid and Limbo.

I’ve found that I dislike games where there’s only one solution to the level. I’m calling these Puzzle Action Games. You have a lot of freedom of movement, and usually some special powers, but there’s only one way to accomplish the level. The classic example is the Zelda games – when you find the awesome new item, like the Hookshot, you can be sure that you’re about to face a bunch of puzzles that can only be solved with the Hookshot.

Another example is a Playstation Move demo I tried, Funky Lab Rat. Your rat has the power to dispel clouds of darkness, to freeze time and manipulate the level, and to rewind time. And you can be sure that every level requires freezing, manipulating, dispelling, and rewinding. If the game gives you five uses of the Freeze power, it’s a safe bet that the level will require you to freeze it 3-4 times to win.

Here’s the thing. Let’s take two characters.

One can jump five feet. In this level, there’s a five foot pit. He jumps it.

One can jump thirty feet, then fire up his booster jetpack to hover, then slam into the ground four hundred feet away with a thunderous roar. In this level, there’s a four hundred foot pit. He jumps it.

Which character is more powerful? Neither – their core game mechanic is the same. Jump a pit. One is just gussied up and made really impressive.

If you give me a special power that breaks the rules, then let me break the rules a bit. Give me a pit that can be jumped normally, or can be made much easier with careful use of my special powers. If I can phase through walls, give me a few optional walls to phase through to take a shortcut to the exit. These things let me feel powerful, and let me feel like I can subvert the level designer’s rules instead of being dominated by them.

I feel like Portal did this well, even though it falls into that ‘only one solution’ framework. For the first half of the game, the player is trapped in a test facility, and is explicitly being taught how to play. It makes sense that there’s only one solution to the level, because when we start the level, we’re told “this is the level where you will learn about momentum.”

Halfway through the game, we break out of those test chambers, into dirty back rooms. Here, we are presented with obstacles that resonate with us as human beings: a locked door, a missing walkway, a broken ladder. We’re welcome to try to open the door, or try to jump across the walkway. We’re never forced to use our portal gun – rather, we’re given the opportunity to use what we’ve learned and subvert the level design, turning obstacles into opportunities, climbing in forbidden areas, and, in general, feeling like our portal gun is empowering us to break the level, rather than feeling like the level is designed around restricting us.

In video games, power is always an illusion. But that illusion of power can be the difference between an exhilarating experience and a mind-numbing slog.

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