Problem: Explosive Gel introduces inconsistencies to the game that can break immersion.
I’ve seen a number of games that utilize terrain destruction to some degree, such as blowing through a wall or using a crane to remove an obstacle. This can draw the player into the world, and make the experience seem more immersive, but it can also backfire. Interacting with an object can remind the player about all these other objects nearby that the player can’t interact with, and remind them that they’re just playing a game.
Arkham Asylum’s explosive gel, as cool as it is, fell a little too far on the latter side for me.
- Certain walls can be destroyed entirely, but other walls will be completely unharmed by the explosive gel. I could apply the gel a hundred times, and not even chip the masonry. This reminds me that I’m not really in this world – it’s just a game engine.
- It violates Batman’s character. Batman carefully avoids killing or using any kind of lethal force against his foes, yet he doesn’t mind detonating a patch of explosive when a guy is one foot away. Sure, the game will tell me he’s only unconscious, but it still seems like a risk Batman wouldn’t take – unless he knew he was in a video game, and the bad guys will never get killed. Again, it reminds me that it’s only a game, and breaks my immersion.
- How much explosive gel is Batman carrying? He seems to have an unlimited amount, which makes me want to be able to apply it liberally to blow down doors, or pour out a bunch to blow through some weak flooring. As a player, I know that more of an explosive agent = a bigger explosion, but I can’t choose to have Batman use more explosive. It breaks my feeling of control over Batman.
The problem is that we, as players, know what explosions do. They destroy anything. But the explosions of Arkham Asylum have a different set of rules, where they destroy certain specific things, stun other things, and don’t affect most things at all. Explosive gel can end up feeling more like a different kind of keycard than a cool explosive device.
Solution: Change Explosive Gel to a more technological item.
Instead of explosive gel, I’d have Batman carry another device to accomplish the same effect. Let’s call it a Bat-Sonic Device for now.
The Bat-Sonic Device has the same gameplay features as the explosive gel:
- When placed on a weak wall, it vibrates the masonry until it crumbles.
- If a bad guy is close enough, the sonic screeching will overload his senses and knock him unconscious.
- When activated, it makes a noise that attracts enemies to its location.
- It’s disposable, at least as much as the Batarang and explosive gel are.
The Bat-Sonic Device also avoids the problems of the explosive gel.
- When placed on a strong wall, the masonry is supported and not susceptible to vibration.
- It’s more technological, and less messy than explosions, which feels more Batman-like.
- There’s no risk of killing an enemy with sonic waves.
- The player doesn’t know how the Bat-Sonic Device works. They don’t expect two Devices to be twice as powerful as one – maybe some quirk of this technology is that the sonic waves from two Devices just don’t interact with each other at all.
The more general principle here is that, when designing a game, you shouldn’t utilize known interactions between objects unless you’re prepared to handle every possible interaction of those objects. By ‘known examples of interactions between objects,’ I mean explosions, setting things on fire, hitting things with a sledgehammer, or even just climbing on a box. How many games have you played where you see an object that looks like you should be able to jump or climb on it, but you can’t?
These are actions we innately understand, from our lives or from movies. Explosions destroy things, fire burns wood and paper quickly, sledgehammers can tear a chunk out of concrete, and we can climb on anything about chest-height (or higher, depending on how athletic our protagonist is).
Many games avoid this problem by limiting ‘every possible interaction’ to one – such as jumping in a stationary crane to lift an object out of the way. Many ignore the problem entirely – look at any game with grenades, where they go off with a boom and a flash, but no real damage to the scenery around them – but they ignore it consistently.
I’m looking forward to more games like Red Faction: Guerrilla, to embrace the possibilities of interaction. That game avoided inconsistency with the destructive power of explosives by simply letting the player destroy everything, even mission-critical buildings and vehicles. After playing RF:G, it’s hard to go back to games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, where I can clearly tell that my power to interact with the environment is just a thin veneer over a traditional, linear level design.
(I feel like I should mention again that my comments on the game’s design flaws do not necessarily indicate that I disliked the game. Arkham Asylum is a totally amazing experience. I just don’t know why they gave me explosives if they didn’t want me to explode everything that gets in my way!)
Problem: A prevalence of one-hit kills causes the combat system to contradict the player’s expectations.
The combat system in Uncharted 2 seems to reward closing in with the enemy.
- Most of Drake’s weapons are less effective at long range.
- The cover system encourages quick movements between cover, allowing Drake to quickly and safely move forward.
- The game has a simple but fun close combat system, which makes it satisfying and effective to fight enemies at close range.
- The game allows Drake to take plenty of damage before dying, allowing the player to take some shots then dive behind cover to heal.
About halfway through the game, enemies start appearing with body armor and shotguns. These shotguns are one-hit kills at close range, and the body armor prevents the player from having enough time to defeat the enemy if they’re too close. Suddenly, the player’s entire combat strategy is invalidated – getting up close is suicidal.
It would be okay if their combat strategy was simply challenged, and close range became more dangerous. The player could take some risks and learn the right strategies for each situation. But a one-hit kill isn’t challenging or dangerous – it’s suicidal and frustrating. The player can’t even attempt the close-range strategy anymore, because there’s no margin for error. If they let these enemies pull the trigger once, they have to restart the entire battle.
The game can’t seem to decide – does it want the player to move forward and engage the enemy at action-hero close range, or hide at a distance at take carefully aimed shots? The entire combat system seems to encourage the former…then it blows Drake’s head off with a shotgun if the player actually attempts it.
So the game progresses a bit further. The player learns to remain behind distant cover, carefully lining up their shots. Then the player encounters enemies with rocket-propelled grenades and other explosives, who are an accurate one-hit kill at long range! Now carefully lining up your shots behind cover is invalidated as a strategy. Now, getting close is suicide. Hiding at range is suicide. And running around out of cover is always suicide. What is the player supposed to do?
(Get frustrated and angry at the frequent cheap kills and restarts, most likely.)
Solution: Enemies with the potential to kill the player in one hit should call attention to themselves as priority targets, and should never be heavily armored.
Enemies with instant-kill weapons should be lightly armored, and dressed in light colors. For enemies with shotguns, bands of bright-red shotgun shells should alert the player to the weapon they’re carrying. The player should be able to identify them as potentially deadly targets, and prioritize them appropriately. The player will still get killed by them if they get too close – a point-blank shot from a shotgun isn’t survivable – but at least they’ll feel like the death is their fault for not prioritizing that enemy and eliminating them before advancing, rather than the game just being unfair.
If I were running a well-funded private army, I’d definitely put my shotgun users in heavy armor, so they’d be able to survive long enough to get close to their target and use their shotguns effectively. But I’m not a Russian psychopath, I’m a game designer, and it’s okay for my shotgunners to die like punks if it’s more fun for the player.
Solution: Enemies with instant-kill explosives should be lousy shots, and have limited ammunition.
Ranged explosive attacks have a role in the game – they should shake up the player, knock them out of cover, and force them to prioritize on defeating the enemies with explosives first. They should not be a real threat to kill the player, unless the player is already wounded. Nathan Drake is an action hero, and action heroes thrive on diving away from explosions, or getting knocked to the ground with no real damage.
Enemies with explosive weapons should be terrible shots. They should be able to hit near Drake, injuring him behind cover, but it should be nearly impossible for them to score a direct hit and kill the Drake instantly. There are a few enemies near the end of the game which are particularly bad about this; if the player doesn’t stay in motion constantly, they’ll be hit right between the eyes by an overpowered explosive. These fights also feature enemies which can quickly kill Drake if he’s not behind cover…which is a frustrating combination. Hide and die, or move and die.
Lower their accuracy significantly, so that Drake can at least take a moment to hide behind a pillar and recover. The game’s health mechanic rewards hiding and catching your breath; turning that into a death sentence is unfair.
Additionally, enemies with explosives should have limited ammunition. Drake can only carry two RPG shots; why can an enemy with an RPG fire shot after shot? After they’ve fired two or three times, have the enemy switch to a pistol or close-combat weapon and move forward to engage Drake at close range.