Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Experience games" and ASCII graphics

I hadn't heard the term until recently, when someone was talking about Monument Valley.

They called it an "experience game".

You may have played the game; it got a fair amount of buzz for its Escher-esque puzzles and high production values.  The art is pretty stunning, and the gameplay is engaging.  And it is, as games go, exactly that: an experience.

But I think the term was used in a derogatory manner.  As in, "that's an experience game, not a real game."

To a certain extent, it's a fair criticism.  If you were to strip away all the artistic polish, the music, and the art, you'd be left with a puzzle game with only a few levels, which is over very quickly.  As a measure of gameplay, there are plenty of other puzzle games out there that deliver far more plentiful head-scratching moments.

But that's kind of missing the whole point of Monument Valley.  The name alone conveys this.  If, indeed, it's just a thin game gussied up with pretty pictures how would one explain its prodigious success? And the adoration of so many fans?

It is because it is an experience game.  And not in a bad way.

Everyone likes a good challenge game, but every once in a while, we play games to escape, not to test our reflex or logic muscles.  The experience of the game is a fundamental, inextricable element to the game, and every game will focus on it to different degrees.  Some will lean heavily on its core gameplay elements, sacrificing story, atmosphere, etc., to bring forward the primary game loop.  Other games will be more willing to postpone that loop in order to tell a story, or to slow down the player to get him thinking, or to just evoke a mood.

Where you land on that spectrum, as a game designer, is a personal choice.  There's no right answer, since the point is to entertain, and there are people who enjoy games at both ends of the spectrum.

When looking at the screenshots of Lone Spelunker, you might assume I'm not much of an "experience" designer.  After all, ASCII graphics.

But the experience is in more than just the graphics.  Graphics can carry the experience, but there are many other elements to experience.  Story.  Immersion.  Pacing.  Freedom.  Mood.  Even if you're constrained on graphics, it doesn't mean you can't focus on building an "experience" game.  Lone Spelunker, at least the game I have in my mind's eye, is pretty solidly on the "experience" end of the spectrum, because it is, at its core, about giving the player an experience.  Not totally - there are some pretty solid gameplay mechanics involved, too - but they are carefully chosen to be both fun and reinforce the experiential elements of the game.

We do this because we enjoy giving people memorable moments.  Every year, we do a "yard haunt" for Halloween in our front yard.  Sometimes, we let it get a little bit out of hand (sorry for the video quality - had to shoot with night vision to see anything at all).  But the purpose is the same every year: to give the neighborhood kids a magical experience.

One thing I've learned is that production values matter, but they don't matter as much as you'd think.  We don't have the budget of a theme park.  We can't hold a candle to the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.  In the video, while the kids are going through our attraction, you can see the walls of our yard, the garage door and the garage door opener mechanism over their heads, etc.  You'd think things like that would destroy the immersion.  But they just don't.  Kids love it anyway.  And parents love it.  Nobody cares.

People looking for a memorable experience are more than willing to meet you halfway.  They'll forgive a lot if you make it worth their while to.

This is exactly the phenomenon I'm finding is true with ASCII graphics in Lone Spelunker.  When I play, I don't see brown rectangles with an equals sign in them.  I see, in my mind's eye, the rocky wall of a cave.  I don't see yellow dashes and slashes.  I see my spelunking ropes.  If you want to see the cave, to experience the cave, you can.

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