More on Mario Galaxy, and Some Thoughts on Portal as Well0
Matt posted in Games on January 22nd, 2008
This post started as a response to some comments posted on my rather long post on Super Mario Galaxy. It seems like despite my large quantities of words, some people misunderstood what I was trying to say. Perhaps I approach writing like programming. I want to solve a problem – communication. I keep typing and typing solutions (words and examples) until I think I’ve solved it. Perhaps brevity could become clarity with carefully chosen words. Either way, I feel my original post had interesting points and examples enough to fill pages and pages of text. Well, it seems I have more to add because I want to explain myself to commenters, and I think would be better suited to a full post. So, I’m going to repeat the comments and then respond to them.
Ziv said: “I completely disagree with your assessment. In fact, I wish games were, in your definition, less accessible. The thing I loved most about Super Mario 64 were the hidden areas that gave little to no hint of their existence such as the tiny painting that leads to tall tall mountain, the princess’s secret slide, the entrance to the haunted house level, and the secret slide in tall tall mountain, as well as the various 1-up mushrooms placed in out of the way locations that only appeared when you did certain things (such as the one-up mushroom that only appears when you do a handstand on a certain tree east of the castle. They gave incentive to explore the entire map (which worked out extremely well with the non-linear nature of SM64 maps), and were a huge treat to find. You, however, propose that everything be handed to the player on a silver platter, and that any and all challenge be eliminated.”
I think you are misunderstanding what I’m proposing. I’m not saying that the game can’t have challenging or secret elements. I think those are good. If you look at Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters, there are skill points that unlock cool cheats and other fun stuff as a reward to the players who want to take the time to really master the game. These skill points really do take a lot of skill to get and are very challenging. I haven’t been able to get them all myself and I worked on the game for over a year! I’m not saying that games shouldn’t have stuff like that. I’m saying that if I want to play the game all the way through, they should make it an enjoyable experience for me even if I’m not the most skilled gamer (and I know I’m not very skilled). For example, they could make the first 120 stars with Mario more accessible and make playing through with Luigi super challenge mode, and I think that’d be great. An unskilled gamer like myself I could play through all the levels and see all the content without getting frustrated by things that require too much trial and error.
I think a game that did this really well was Portal. They went out of their way to make an accessible game that would be fun for all skill levels. In fact, one of my few complaints about the game was I thought the early training segments were too easy and slow… I was getting impatient to get my portal gun, but after that, everything was really awesome. Because many Portalers are more talented than I, or are way more into it, they provided special challenge modes of the puzzles that were offered in the regular campaign. Those aren’t for me, but they provide that extra enjoyment for the skilled player. As well, Portal had quite a few hidden rooms that included some great stuff like a pin up girl with a picture of the weighted companion cube taped over her head. I’m not saying you should get rid of this stuff. Rather make all your content accessible to all skill levels, and then spend a bit of time making extra stuff for people who want more. One may argue that you only have to get 60 stars to beat Mario Galaxy. While that may be true, I don’t feel like I’ve beaten the game when I’ve only seen half the content. Ratchet and Clank, Portal and Resistance derived their challenge modes from the content they already had, so I don’t feel like I’m missing half of the game by not playing them.
Biovee said: “Well on some things I agree with you, like the camera angles and minigame controls. But I’ve never had problems with the Wii-mote, I think it rocks! As for the “unforgiving enemies”, well, it’s supposed to be challenging; I find the game to be quite easy if you ask me. Also the puzzles such as that fire torche incicdent [sic] and other things like how to kill certain bosses or reach certain spots are quite enteraining [sic] to me. It proves you ned [sic] a lot of intellect to progress through the game.”
Firstly, I’m afraid I’ve been misquoted. I didn’t say anything about unforgiving enemies. The enemies were very simple and didn’t put up much of a fight. That was never my complaint. In general, and perhaps we disagree on this point, I don’t think any of the puzzles required intellect in Mario Galaxy. In fact, I’d argue that what you call puzzles aren’t really puzzles at all. As a comparison, would you consider the task “guess what number I’m thinking” a puzzle? I think this is more analogous to the examples you cited in Mario Galaxy and many challenges in video games. In video games, you are presented with a world that doesn’t behave like our own. You can do a limited set of things, and those can only affect the world in ways that are programmed in. Every challenge in a video game has a solution unless the game is impossible. Normally the solution is created by the game developers and that’s the only solution.
When you are presented with something in Mario Galaxy, you have to either get the solution that the game designers intended or exploit bugs like I did in the case of the strange looking box. Now, the difference between something that is just puzzling and something that is a game of “guess what the designer is thinking” is that the mechanics need to be introduced and the solution needs to come from combining the mechanics you know in a logical way.
So, because figuring out these solutions aren’t building on knowledge that you have gained, they aren’t really puzzles. They are more guesswork. How did you know that lighting the box on fire would cause something cool to happen? Probably it reminded you of the tiki torches in the Legend of Zelda. What if Galaxy was the first video game you ever played? It probably would be very difficult to come up with the idea that you had to light that on fire because something magical would happen. There’s nothing analogous to that in the real world nor was this mechanic introduced earlier in the game. So, what do you do? Guess. If you happened to guess what the designer was thinking, then you win! Otherwise, keep trying stuff until you beat the challenge. It was the same with the first bowser fight. Nothing like that had really been presented before, so solving it was just a matter of running away until he happened to burn his butt. Once I saw that, I figured out what to do, but it really isn’t much of a puzzle.
Going back to Portal, I think there’s a game that did puzzles “right”. The first levels introduce you to every mechanic every application of the portal technology that you’ll need for the later levels. The puzzles come from combining them in interesting ways. This was one of the reasons I think people enjoyed Portal so much. You never had to bang your head against a table or guess random things in order to solve the puzzles. It was all about applying the mechanics that they thoroughly explained. In fact, my other complaint with Portal was there wasn’t enough actual puzzles (once you get passed the too long training stuff). Even still, I think it was much better that they did the slow training than having you “guess” what the properties of the portals are. For example, if they didn’t tell you that the velocity into the portal was converted into velocity out of the orientation of the following portal, some people would have trouble making that connection. It’s not really that noticeable when you put portals that you just run into, players who don’t try the experiment of putting portals on floors and jumping in, wouldn’t figure it out. Instead, they walk you through all the core mechanics, so you have all the skills necessary to solve the puzzles.
You’ll notice I qualified the statement about combining the mechanics with “in a logical way”. The reason for this is because if the solution arises from something that is illogical, then you still have to guess what the designer was thinking. A good example of this is old school adventure games, and their decline probably relates to that people don’t like guessing what the designer thinks. I’ll use another example to prove my point. In the greatest adventure game of all time, Sam and Max: Hit the Road, you get a golf ball fetcher and a severed hand. In order to progress in the game, you have to use the severed hand on the golf ball fetcher and stick it into the world’s largest ball of twine. The mechanics are simple and already introduced. You have items that you can use on each other and the world. The solution to the game is highly illogical. In most old school adventure games, you had two options – trial and error or use the hint guide. Many adventure games used to come with the solutions in book form that you could turn to when you ran into trouble. The copy of Sam and Max: Hit the Road Full Talkie Edition that I have came with the hint book. I was hoping with the new Sam and Max games, they would have advanced the genre with a more modern approach to guiding the player through the game, but it was still like the games of old, and I found myself constantly turning to a walkthrough.
Although some may like the type of puzzles presented in Super Mario Galaxy, I feel that they are the old school sink or swim guess what the designer is thinking style gameplay. These to me aren’t very compelling and are ignoring the advancements we’ve made in game design in the past several years. There was plenty of good stuff in Super Mario Galaxy, but I don’t think these “puzzle” elements are included.