How game design encourages order and chaos in equal measure

A while ago I’ve had a discussion with a certain Spelunky-loving editor of this website in which I argued that most roguelikes, Spelunky in particular, were too chaotic for me to handle. I like the orderliness of a JRPG or a round-based strategy game, games where after a while things follow a reliable pattern.

However, there’s a flaw in my argument, which is that game design, no matter what type of game you prefer, is all about learning patterns. It’s only through learning these patterns that emergent play, the chaotic and unexpected stuff, can actually happen. On the box, The Banner Saga, Spelunky and Spider-Man have nothing in common, but they all introduce you to their own set of rules before letting you explore what to do with them.

This is most obvious in the beginning of every game you play. JRPGs are notorious for having text-heavy tutorial sequences at the start of the game, which can be overwhelming even when you get to try the moves you’ve just read about. Resonance of Fate for example has a tutorial you can spend over half an hour on, since everything is cramped into one single arena. It’s not only confusing due to large walls of text, but also because you’re introduced to many different skills at once and are expected to use all of them immediately to be successful in battle.

Other games have a more tangible approach to tutorials, the good old obstacle course or training facility. I will never forget the amount of time I spent in Croft Manor in Tomb Raider, and games from Half-Life to Final Fantasy XV still use this approach. It’s likely you’ll notice how differently a tutorial in a safe space plays from the actual situation you will need to use your skills in, and so many games now dole out tutorial content over time. That way you don’t get overwhelmed and you have a blueprint of the type of situation you can use a skill in right away.

Depending_on_their__armor_and__skills__you_need_to_find_different_ways_to_kill_orc_captains_in_Shadow_of_War
Depending on their armor and skills, you need to find different ways to kill orc captains in Shadow of War.

Spelunky’s creator Derek Yu, meanwhile, was in favour of players learning the game’s system through trial and error. In his book on Spelunky, he argues that since the game has many emergent systems, it makes more sense to work things out for yourself. At the beginning, the barrier of re-entry is also rather low, which means that you don’t have much to lose yet should you die.

While you’re encouraged to just see what happens, there will likely be a few things about Spelunky that will seem familiar. No one has to explain to you that spikes are bad, or that jumping is a frequent method of getting around. You have played this type of game, or games in general, often enough that designers may be able to rely on a shared understanding.

The same is true for Spider-Man. I can’t count the reviews that likened the flow of battle to Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham series, with its gadgets and the ability to quickly move between enemies. Not only that, Spider-Man also uses enemy types and situations that are generally familiar. You know you have to approach a bulky enemy from behind, and blocking at the right point in time allows for counters. Despite all this, it’s is also another game that had me die quite a lot in the beginning, before muscle memory and an understanding of the systems set in. From the point at which I knew what types of movement and what gadgets I had at my disposal, I could then go and solve situations however I wanted. Some of the best games show you how to efficiently use a tool, but from that point on you can solve situations however you please.

Similar_to_Spelunky__your_heroes_have_the_same_properties_as_their_enemies
Similar to Spelunky, your heroes have the same properties as their enemies.

Even more interesting is how the pillars of design that make this possible can be applied to any type of genre. In their book Challenges for Game Designers authors Brenda Romero and Ian Schreiber apply the following traits as necessary for designing a good puzzle:

  • It should be easy to figure out the controls
  • Patterns in the design should be clear so that players can work out the solution by themselves
  • The user interface should be helpful and unobtrusive
  • Players should be able to improve their skills on encountering the same kind of puzzle several times, to the point they can adapt to variations.

Good enemy design is also crucial to helping you make sense of a system and to improve your skills later on. Each foe in Spelunky has their own attacks, but what makes them stand out even more is how these attacks function so well together that it almost seems like you’re being cornered. Your spelunker and his enemies also share the same physical traits, meaning that they bounce the same way when an explosion hits them, for example.

Several games have different types of enemies working together so you don’t run the risk of using the same method over and over. In Middle-earth: Shadow of War orc captains can become impervious to a certain type of attack if you use it to often, and from poison attacks to long-range attacks they have a specialty. One captain may use a similar attack style than someone you’ve already fought, but he will also add curse damage or just be especially quick. This way, even though the building blocks and immunities are the same, a fight against even just two of these foes can feel dramatically to a previous encounter with a similar enemy.

Having you fight against mixed groups of enemies is also a great way in which Persona 5 lets you play around with its systems. It follows the standard JRPG standard mechanic by which most enemies have an elemental weakness of some sort. In Persona 5 this isn’t just a gimmick to end battles faster. Instead, finding the right weakness often makes the difference between victory and defeat, since an enemy becomes dizzy and thus unable to attack you for one round if you find their weakness. In many cases this is a process of trial and error, and the more different enemy types you fight in any given battle, the more skills you have to gain and make use of to come out on top in such situations.

Heightened skills should lead to new challenges, or a game gets repetitive and boring. From emergent gameplay to a game surprising you by simply not giving e everything away, the skill learning and skill execution processes use the same tool box to make you feel good about your progress and keep you on your toes at the same time.

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