Welcome to Gameological Q&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. It’s extremely similar to The A.V. Club’s AVQ&A feature. You might even say it’s exactly the same. If you have a brilliant question that would make a fun Q&A, send it to brilliantquestions at gameological dot com.
Today’s question was inspired by an email submitted by comment-thread mainstay Aurora Boreanaz. Here it is:
Game makers learn from each other’s ideas all the time. Once Shenmue introduced “quick-time events,” zillions of other games followed along (and are still following along). But sometimes, great ideas show up once and are never heard from again. What’s an unusual design idea or feature that you wish other creators would copy?
Anthony John Agnello
Here’s a little piece of design that not only every game should take on but also every app and chat service on game consoles: the keyboard from Beyond Good And Evil. Entering text using a controller is a freaking chore, but Michel Ancel’s team of French aesthetes came up with a perfectly elegant solution. In BG&E, whenever you find a door or computer that needs a text password, there’s a spiral interface for the alphabet and numbers that pops up. You can scroll through or jump left and right to different sides of the spiral to get to letters smoothly and seamlessly. It’s fast too, unlike the basic text fields on pretty much every modern gaming machine, from the Nintendo 3DS to the Xbox 360. This game came out a decade ago and yet no one else has copied this logical, perfect interface.
To rally for collective action, sometimes we need to have something at stake at an individual level. Mythic, the makers of the massively multiplayer role-playing game Dark Age Of Camelot, wanted the players of three separate realms to engage in a never ending war with each other out in a shared frontier zone. Thus, they created a relic system that worked like a giant game of capture the flag. If an invading army managed to bust through your main castle with player-crafted battering rams and slay the A.I. controlled Lord of the keep, they could capture one of two relics. If brought back to their own keep, each member of that realm would gain a worldwide 10 percent bonus to damage in future encounters until the stolen relic was returned. With incentives that high, DAOC cultivated a weird patriotism where you felt obligated to drop whatever you were doing-—fetch quests, crafting armor—to serve your nation by manning the walls of a besieged base or joining an invasion force. Some players complained that the rewards for relics were too high, which is likely why Mythic lowered them for their follow-up Warhammer Online. To my knowledge, no other competitive multiplayer game has borrowed the smart system.
Probably my favorite thing about the original PlayStation was the way it could alter games using music from my CD collection. Certain games could read the songs from a music CD and incorporate them into the experience. Those jewel cases that littered my shelves were suddenly transformed into stages in Vib-Ribbon, creatures in Monster Rancher, and sweet samples in MTV Music Generator. The content was unique to each game, but it was still recognizable as its source material (my Zebrahead CDs turned into part-zebra creatures in Monster Rancher 2). There was an entire world of possibilities hidden inside the thoroughly modern media all around my house. I kept waiting for the PlayStation 2 or the Xbox to pull some similar trick by turning my DVD collection into a shooting gallery. Or maybe my current internet-enabled consoles could transform my tweets and status updates into dungeons. But it never really happened again. The 3DS and Vita both fiddle with QR codes to bring games into the “real world,” but come on, does anybody really scan QR codes? Everyone I knew had hundreds of compact discs, and each one of those was an opportunity to discover something new within the game.
The Resistance series, a trilogy of PlayStation 3 first-person shooters from Insomniac Games, never hit its stride, but there was a kernel of an idea that persisted across all three games and always fascinated me. Like most shooters of the past seven years, you spend a lot of time behind cover, but many of Resistance’s weapons encourage you to remain aggressive even while you’re in hiding. There’s the alien assault rifle that can tag enemies and send bullets around your cover—and theirs. Another machine gun lets you see through walls and fire through them, as well as create your own cover. One of the pistols can shoot an explosive that you’re free to detonate at will—say, once you’ve lodged it in an enemy’s chest and scampered behind a large crate. The folks at Insomniac have always been dedicated to unique weaponry—a reputation bolstered by the Ratchet And Clank games—but with Resistance, they used that talent to solve one of the most prevalent game design problems of the last near-decade: It’s usually pretty darn boring to run behind cover and just hang out while your health recharges. Unfortunately, it seems like this little twist on the modern shooter formula has gone unnoticed.
I’ll continue my run as the “Token British Person Who Nominates Obscure British Things” and suggest a 1987 graphic adventure called Sláine, based on the character of the same name from the comic book 2000 AD. You control the game by clicking on thoughts as they drift through Sláine’s mind, so if you were in a new location, the idea of LOOK AT WHATEVER would drift in and out of a little brain-window. As certain actions became more urgent, they would appear repeatedly. Also, the option to HIT UKKO, Sláine’s grotesque dwarf sidekick, was always there, and therefore always on his mind, which was a nice touch. It was a way of bridging that gap between stark text input and characterization. It didn’t work very well, but it was an idea that definitely deserves some refinement.
A fairly amazing sight greets you the first time you boot up Tim Schafer’s awesome LucasArts adventure Grim Fandango: nothing. No list of commands. No maddening text parser. No cursor that changes from a hand to an eye to a mouth as you scan for elusive hotspots. Instead, the game prompts you to engage with it in a beautifully unobtrusive way. Maneuver Manny, the game’s hero, past something he can interact with, and he simply turns his head to look at it, as though the item just happened to capture his interest. Not only does the lack of an on-screen interface let you view Grim Fandango’s gorgeous environments in all their glory, but Manny’s shifting gaze serves as a gentle nudge, neatly mimicking the internal “wait a minute, what’s that thing do?” reaction crucial to solving the game’s tricky puzzles. My colleague Anthony John Angello tells me this device crops up now and then in Japanese horror games, but I haven’t experienced anything quite like it before or since. You can keep your pointing and clicking. I’ll take a swivel-headed skeleton over pixel-hunting any day.
Keith Courage In Alpha Zones is an exercise in relativity. Half of each level is spent as normal Keith, putzing around on the surface world, using his tiny sword to slay even tinier monsters. It’s some of the most boring shit you will ever play in your life. But the second half of each level transforms this unimpressive waif into some kind of rainbow robot monster guy, battling his way through an underworld with a laser sword, dismembering bad guys who have six-shooters for heads. Each level utilizes this dichotomy; a quiet and boring section seasoned with a slightly less boring section. The thing is, the underworld part—which seems so fun in comparison to its sibling—isn’t even that good. It’s essentially the same game, but on mild steroids. But the way the game paces itself, a truly horrible first half augmented by a passable second, repeated, proves to be a surprisingly successful formula. Rather than have a mediocre game all the way through, they made half of the game worse than mediocre, so the truly mediocre bits felt better than they actually were. There’s something to look forward to, at least, at each stage. At the risk of sounding cynical, it’s an approach I think a lot of game makers today could learn from.
Almost every big-budget shooter I play lately has only a handful of lines that are recycled endlessly among the waves of idiot meatbags who come into your crosshairs. (Anyone who played the original Mass Effect has the phrases “Enemies are everywhere!” and “I WILL DESTROY YOU!” etched into their gray matter.) If they’ve got to recycle, I wish more studios would follow The Sims’ lead and ditch the English language altogether. Instead, they can invent a gibberish language for their characters. This is one of the underrated master strokes of that daily-life simulation game. None of the characters speak a lick of English; instead, they communicate with pictorial word balloons and nonsense utterances. (“Sul sul!” means hello in Simlish, according to one online dictionary.) The makers of the Sim games realized that it’s less grating to hear word-like utterances repeated a thousand times than it is to hear specific words with familiar intonations—the former mode of speech just washes over you as you get a general sense of the speaker’s mood. This impressionistic dialogue style could do wonders for games that need to skimp on voiceover work.