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Green Barrels Don't Explode

Tim Latshaw | 14 Jun 2011 08:43
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Although we carry some of our fixations from reality into playing games, there are rarely one-to-one comparisons. The new worlds and rules of games brought with them new learned behaviors. When players first toddled through Super Mario Brothers, for instance, one of gaming's first tropes began to become ingrained: A is to jump, B is to shoot. As other platformers mirrored the success of Mario, the concept was further cemented. It has since become an almost instinctive setup for any older game focusing on jumping and an action, and woe to any game that tried to stray. When the Mega Man Anniversary Collection was released for GameCube, someone chose to delegate shooting to the system's much larger A button. On the surface it seems a reasonable move - the featured button should cover the most used action. But some players will never forgive how this version "broke" the collection. To them, it just didn't feel right. They were not willing to unlearn their expectations.


Our functional fixedness in the videogame world seems especially silly when it is parodied. In the adventure game Jolly Rover, the protagonist finds himself wishing to escape a locked room. For every object in the room, most of which would do the trick, he
finds a clichéd reason why it wouldn't work. There is even a "crate of crowbars" which he laments he does not have the right tool to open. Even though there was a cannon in the room, everyone knows it takes a crowbar or other melee weapon to smash open a crate.

In terms of first-person shooters and other games focused on quick responses, it most often makes sense to simply give in and go with what makes the player feel most comfortable. Sure, they may complain about the clichés, but it's ultimately better than having them complain that the game plays "wrong."

A representative of the Bulletstorm design team, known as Arcade, blogged about the process that went into making the exploding barrels in the game. They initially wanted to go with green barrels to counter the red stereotype. In the heat of the action, however, they discovered players largely ignored the barrels; they would see a flash of green while running and it didn't register as "explosive." In this case, the team rightly decided that conveying an instant message was more important that making a style statement.

"There's a lot of stuff going on in Bulletstorm at the same time, so it's vital for us that the player can quickly read the environment and act intuitively," Arcade wrote.

Other games, however, wish to give the player a deeper cerebral experience or emphasize fresh ideas. This is where developers must manipulate the fixated natures of players to teach them unfamiliar techniques or even coax them into an exotic new way of thinking.

Miguel Sternberg, game designer for Toronto-based indie studio Spooky Squid Games, has paid close attention to the ways other titles have approached the immersion of players into their innovations. Leaving a player too open to a new idea, he has found, can make them fall back on old habits.

"Brutal Legend is one of my favorite recent games, but it was terrible at teaching the player how to approach its stage battles," Sternberg said. "Those battles superficially appeared to be RTS-like, but they actually played very differently and were easier if you took a more casual approach to the strategy. It was just luck whether you 'got' how to play them or not and so the game really suffered in reviews where the reviewer tried to micro-manage everything. That's not the reviewer's fault; that's a game design failure."

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