Designing A Game Like An Amateur [Part II] – Objectives Which Demoralize

Fragile Dreams.

I’m not too particularly fond of this game.

But if you read my last post, you would’ve guessed that by now. If you haven’t read it but insist on continuing past this sentence, I advise you to go back and check it out so that the rapture this post will put you in won’t be completely, totally, and utterly destroyed when I reference something you don’t give two clucks about. Just a friendly suggestion.

Picking up where I left off…

Most games have a single core mechanic to snag the player’s engagement. Pokémon has its Pokémon battles, Halo has its shooting, and [insert JRPG title here] has its turn-based combat. And while these mechanics tend to be the keystone of a player’s experience, that doesn’t automatically translate to the game holding the player’s attention for the duration of its campaign. Chocolate cake, even if it gives the eater chocolaty orgasms, will begin going bland if they have chocolaty orgasms everyday for a month.

This is why it’s important that games throw some diversity the player’s way. The crux of the Halo experience may be picking up a rifle and bashing aliens in their phalanges, but it has the common sense every now and then to say, “Here’s a tank. Go muck infrastructure up with it.”

Fragile Lonely is the Night: Farewell High School Diploma After I Forgot To Turn In My Homework, to my surprise, does understand this concept. Early on in the adventure, it throws various story-based objectives your way to liven things up from the usual running-around-a-dark-area. None of it is to the scale of a Halo game which will discreetly drop a rocket launcher in front of a gaggle of baddies playing poker, but it does at times have you rethinking how the environment is used in minor ways. But, I know you can guess, it botches up its objectives to the length where they were the primary contributing factor to my fits of temper tantrums for the week following playing it.

The first round of my household objects suddenly becoming airborne came at the hour mark when I had to play hide-and-seek with a ghost girl. The setup it simple: it’s Seto, a little ghost girl, a goods shed, and your Wiimote to eavesdrop on her nonstop giggling, and you have to run around until you find her. Simple enough, but unless you’re within a six centimeter radius of Little Ghost Girl when you go to catch her, it counts as a miss and she barrels off to a different spot. Also, you have to do this three times before she concedes. And good luck if your Wiimote speaker is broken.

I can’t carry on with criticizing this mini-game, however, because upon reflection, I came to the horrible realization that I just suck tushie at hide-and-seek. I replayed this segment after seeing how every other let’s player in the galaxy could do it with their eyelids sewn shut and found myself afterwards so good at this mini-game that I pondered briefly if my vendetta against this game was a justified one, and that I was merely attacking it out of spite and revenge rather than offering up tiny gems of wisdom to pass on to younger inspiring game designers.

While I’m having my introspection, might as well pass the time by finding something to complain about.

The first two times you catch Little Ghost Girl, you can run about till your legs pop off, but for the final time, you have to crouch or else your elephant-loud stomping will alert her and she’ll bounce. Crouching diminishes your speed to about 1/100th of its usual pace, so even if you’re the hide-and-seek god I had become, the only thing this requirement does is force you to play the game in slow motion. It doesn’t up the difficult by any means, just adds more time for you to complete a specified task, and for anybody ever who has looked at a flow chart, you’ll know that if you’re tremendously excellent at something that requires no level of skill, you’re gonna be bored out of your cranium.

Flow Chart

Slower movement doesn’t automatically equal boring gameplay. In a stealth game or a horror title, where running kicks up noise, sneaking past a baddie can make for tense moments. The problem here is that Fragile Still of the Night: Farewell Debt-free Life After I Got Into A Car Accident And Had To Take Out A Loan At 32.8% APR substitutes constricted movement for challenge. Imagine that I ask you to sprint to the far side of a basketball court, then after that to crawl back on your hands and knees. Unless we have to call a code blue that first round, it’s likely you would say the crawl back was more challenging, not because crawling is more difficult than running, but because it felt like there was something fighting against you, that something being more time taken up. If on your sprint back I handed you a baseball bat and told you to fend off rabid mobsters, that would take up more time than the first dash, but you’re also testing your mobster-fending skills and using your head on how to not get mobbed. If all you’re doing is crawling, the only thing you would use your head for is to sweep up the floor while you’re down there.

Immediately upon stepping foot into the second major area of the game, Lunar Hill Fun Land, you’re practically bombarded with objective after objective to keep the story rolling. Slight exaggeration, but the game for all intents and purposes does grab you by your hand and take you on a tour of the place. “Here’s the Merry-go-round! Here’re the Teacups! This is the Roller coaster! Welcome to the secret underground test facility!”

Your tour guide for the theme park is a robot, and tours aren’t free, so he yoinks one of Seto’s belongings as the admit fee. Seto, however, believes it’s his apocalypse-given right to go anywhere anytime without having to pay anyone anything, so he chases down his tour guide, who gambols about the park, teasing him, bullying him, and generally being a dickhead. The park has seen fierce budget cuts to proper tour guide training due to the apocalypse. Also, should mention the fact that the robot is a robot is spoilers. Not something too difficult to discern when he takes a 32½ meter tumble from a Ferris wheel but gets up like his landing zone was a memory foam mattress. This revelation, although, takes Seto by surprise later on when he stumbles upon him leaning against a wall, saying, “I’m a robot powered by a battery and am dying because that battery is about to run out. Also, I’m a robot.”

Back to the tour, you perform a couple different tiny tasks in a row, and the one that sands my coccyx the most is when you have to sneak up on Dickhead Robot in an area with a lot of tall grass. Doable enough, until you realize his eyeballs are wired with Seto-tracking capabilities, so he’ll just stand and stare at you until the moon crashes into the Earth. You might be at a loss on how to go about this, since the game doesn’t say more than “sneak up on him,” but then Seto so kindly drops a hint by saying, “MAYBE IF I HIDE IN ONE OF THE TEACUPS, EVEN THOUGH DICKHEAD ROBOT IS STARING RIGHT AT ME, HE WILL FORGET WHERE I AM, WALK UP TO THE TEACUP I AM HIDING IN, THEN I WILL STAND UP, RUN LOUDLY UP TO HIM, AND THEN I WILL BE ABLE TO CATCH HIM.” “Seto,” I said in reply, “I know the possibility is exceedingly high that the grumpy old man who raised you dropped you on your head as a baby more than a couple times, but even you have to realize how many holes there are in that plan, right? Why don’t we unequip our flashlight, circle around him from a distance in the tall grass, and—goddammit, that’s exactly how we have to do this part, isn’t it?”

This objective right here is so precise in what it’s demanding that it robs the player of any creative thinking on their part, in spite of the total vagueness of the short-term goal suggesting that the player has total freedom with how they go about things. Imagine if in Fallout, instead of being allowed to empty out an old office building however you see fit, the game slapped the controller out of your hand and said, “No! If you wanna beat all the baddies here, you have to use this rusty knife while also jumping up and down in perfect rhythm to Stayin’ Alive by the Bees Gees. Boy, I sure do love that song.”

While I can praise Fragile Pleasure Stole the Night: Farewell Childhood Innocence The First Time I Discovered Masturbation for imaginative use of the environment, there’s a hard difference between the player choosing to hide in the teacup as one method of catching Dickhead Robot and the game forcing you to as the method for catching him. In the former, they’ll feel like the lovechild of Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, while the latter will make them feel like their mother is dragging them to the dinner table by the ear to eat a plate full of steaming broccoli.

The setup for this particular objective is, when you get down to it, similar to what you might find in a game like Portal, not to sound insulting to a game like Portal. In a game like Portal, you’re put in a room and shown the goal and the pieces of a puzzle. You have prior knowledge to how the various mechanics function, and if they’re new, the game teaches you so that when you later see them as one of the puzzle pieces, you know exactly what to do. Contrast this with Fragile A Hard Day’s Night: Farewell Favorite Character The Author Kills Off which throws in a puzzle piece with no way for you to realize that it’s a puzzle piece. It’s like if Portal in one of its test chambers went, “You know what, the player won’t be able to unlock this particular door until they ram their head into a wall while singing the national anthem of Moldova.” The worst offense for this segment is how Seto just gives you the puzzle solution, eliminating all interactivity on the player’s part aside from walking him to the teacup. At that point, the game might as well have made this a cutscene with the prompts Push A to Hide in Teacup and Push A to Catch Dickhead Robot because it’s the same effect.

Fast-forward to the next level, the Kurato Kankou Hotel, where all sorts of ghoulies check in but never check out because the rest of the real estate in the area sucks. Once you get to the halfway mark, you meet a scary ghost lady guarding a door she won’t let Seto through unless he brings her a random assortment of junk. Seto, not being one to disappoint a damsel in distress, plays her knight in shining armor and thus backtracks across the previous levels to collect this random assortment of junk.

This chunk of the game is a short chain of fetch quests, where you go to point A, get a thing, go to point B, get a thing, go to point C, fight a supposedly evil yet cosmically piece-of-cake boss, and then get a thing. It’s about as simple as I’m describing it and more mind-numbing than I’m describing, but I do give kudos to the game for shaking up your backtracking by giving you a flashlight that allows you to read secret messages on walls and stairwells and places. I teased this upgrade last time, but there was nothing to say on it because it adds next to nothing on the gameplay side of things. For story and atmosphere, it succeeds in how it ups the creep factor and paints the past in a foreboding miasma that feels as though it’s still lingering. It’s a genuinely neat item that would’ve been great for solving ghoulie mysteries, but its sole gameplay function amounts to seeing a single sign which reads Go Here, Stupid.

Another missed opportunity is how zero out of the three items the scary ghost lady has you running around for can’t be found outside of this quest à la Elder Scrolls- or Fallout-style. I know Seto doesn’t have any reason to go ripping carnival props from their foundations, but why not make that a mechanic? There’s a chicken-headed merchant man-thing who asks him to bring him an assortment of random junk, no questlines required. Just make it so that you can vandalize the environment in hopes of finding trinkets he’ll throw money at you for. And if an object is on the scary ghost lady’s shopping list, disincentivize the player from shucking it off by making it pay so little that it’s not even worth selling or just sorting it into a key item pocket for when she has you running around doing her bitchwork.

Even if I managed to smooth-talk Fragile Children of the Night: Farewell Paycheck After All My Bills Are Paid into making your errand-running the best gaming experience since the Goomba’s Shoe from Mario 3, it doesn’t fix this slab of the game’s greatest sin, which is that this whole questline is downright meaningless.

Once you’ve collected the items one-by-one and brought them back to the scary ghost lady, she goes, “Thanks,” and finally lets you into the room she’s guarding, and you find out that the scary ghost lady, all along, has been a scary old lady. She gives you some spiel on how the greatest treasures in our lives are the little things, then promptly kicks the bucket. Seto doesn’t receive anything that allows him to progress, and it’s not like the scary ghost lady was blocking the path forward. It’s set up as a sidequest but made mandatory to pad out the level. It’s unsatisfying, it’s unrewarding, and her message doesn’t align with what she has you doing or with the game’s more prevalent theme of loneliness.

Here’s a fun fact for you: One of the original drafts of this post was going to focus on this specific segment of the game and how we could line up the scary old lady’s message with the actions she has you taking. Since she was on about living life to the fullest, I sat down and got to asking myself, “How can we convey living life to the fullest in a game?” Eventually, the idea struck me like a lightning bolt in a desert—you take advantage of the game being a game.

Go up to a random stranger wearing a designer t-shirt that practically reads I AM A GAMER and ask them to describe video games in general with a single adjective, and if they say anything but “fun,” disregard their opinion and keep asking strangers until you find someone who says fun.

Games, as a medium, are fun. We play them because they’re fun, and we enjoy them because they’re fun. Going off this line of thought, I got it in my head to work a hypothetical build where the game abandons its previous design elements for more thrilling, engaging mechanics, such as fast-paced coaster rides and fine-tuned, intense combat. Mechanics, when implemented correctly, would create an experience many players would describe as “fun.” And from this point on, the game would remain with this new design philosophy to drive home the scary old lady’s parting words.

Of course, this is a build likely stabilized by Popsicle sticks and gorilla glue, and this is all thinking of video games in infant terms, where the designer’s common objective is to make a product the player will have a fun time with. We’re not there yet, but there have been breakthroughs in recent years of games stepping out of the fun zone and into experiences pumping other emotions into our grey matter. A lot of it is experimental at the moment, but it’s exciting in its own way, like watching a baby go from using a coffee table to learn to walk to a full-fledged adult who knocks their shin into one. There are plenty of hiccups along the way, but there’s clear, visible progress, and it gets the imagination simmering at what possibilities are slinking just beneath the horizon.

Getting back to Fragile Night Train: Farewell Hearing After Attending An AC/DC Concert, there’s actually nothing to get back to. After the scary old lady evolves into the scary dead lady, the game largely gives up on mini-games and sidequests like these, and all you get is “Go find that girl!” and “Keep going to find that girl!” Really scraping the bottom of the barrel of creativity with those objectives, so much so that we’ve scraped through the bottom and are beginning an excavation to China.

This brings up one needle-sharp point I’d like to make about this game, which is that during its run, it wears one of two masks, and it’s immediately after you finish up your chores at the hotel and drop into the tunnel to the next segment of the game that it switches gears at how it approaches its own design.

Which makes this the perfect place to hang us from a cliff and tease you with the contents of the next blog post, where I’ll focus on the level design of Fragile Wild Night: Farewell Pretty Lady I Don’t Have The Courage To Talk To and wrap up my thoughts on the game.

[the final line will go here once the final article is written.]

2 thoughts on “Designing A Game Like An Amateur [Part II] – Objectives Which Demoralize

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