January 6th, 2017
Last year I wrote a chapter called ‘Cracking the Resident Evil Puzzle Box’ for the just-released edited book, Level Design: Processes and Experiences. Around the time I was invited to write the chapter I was interested in researching the knowledge game which underpins Metroidvania-esque exploration.
On a base level, the role of memory and level design is relatively easy to understand. As the player moves through a level, they encode chunks of the level design into memory. With each line of movement across the map, the player adds another row of bricks to their mental reconstruction. Yet games such as classic Resident Evil, Metroid, and the post-SOTN Castlevanias have the player pass through the majority of rooms multiple times and the level design change over time (with new enemies, routes, or player access). And so these games task the player with not simply encoding and withdrawing information from their memory banks, but doing so while also reorganising the schema and editing the information within. I knew that there was an artistry to way these games scaffolded and tested the player’s ability to encode, organise, edit, and withdraw information, but with so many other projects to finish I lacked the impetus to do a thorough analysis. The chapter submission therefore seemed like the perfect excuse to dive deep.
I sat down with Resident Evil: Code Veronica (the most recent Resident Evil game I had completed) and spent about three weeks full-time playing through the game, mapping out each instance of movement across the map (from each key to lock), and noting the implications for the player’s mental model. I ended up with 64 pdf files which each look something like the image above (Evil Resource is an incredible resource for Resident Evil maps by the way). The details were staggering, but fortunately everything coalesced around several distinct trends.
In brief, I found that each chapter of Code Veronica‘s gameplay had a different function within the knowledge game and built on what had come before it (tutorial, developing a mental model, testing the mental model, overhauling the mental model, etc.). The Prison area acts as a tutorial and focuses on a 4-step lock which sees the player doubleback through a handful of rooms. As Claire explores more of Rockfort Island the player is given access to large portions of the game world and the single thread of progression unravels into a system of branching paths. During this time the player can develop and refine their mental model in a freer environment. Claire’s brief excursion to Antarctica pauses the first half of the knowledge game before Chris Redfield arrives at a partly destroyed Rockfort and the player’s pre-existing knowledge of the island is used against them. The final chapter in Antarctica combines the earlier themes together, but stumbles due to the mish mash of environments which are different to mentally organise and logically fit together.
The chapter also covers progression, player choice, environmental story telling, and the components of survival gameplay.
It’s probably the most dense and challenging thing I have ever written. I found it difficult to give grounding and coherence to what is a highly detail-focused but also abstract topic. In any case, I found what I was looking for, so I can’t really complain…but I will encourage you to check out Level Design: Processes and Experiences. The line-up of contributors and range of topics covered is excellent. If this post has tempted you to read my chapter, then I would suggest playing through Code Veronica and reading as you go. The book is available on Amazon or through CRC Press in physical and digital versions.
April 14th, 2015
As is probably evident by now, I’m currently on a writing hiatus. I’ve stopped writing since September last year and will probably remain inactive for the near future. I’m currently doing a masters so that I can teach Mandarin in Australian schools. I’m also taking advantage of the opportunity to improve my Mandarin and bring it up closer to a native speaker level. It’s the right time for me to be taking these steps, so I’ve had to put writing aside for the time being. Such is life.
The good news is that I still have time to play games and take notes as I play. I’m also sitting on about three issues of copy for the new zine project, Adventures in Games Analysis. Daniel (Stolen Projects) and I were ready to release the first issue a bit less than a year ago, but I had trouble banging out the preface (which I’d left to the last minute) and decided to put it on hold as I stew over the direction of the series. The problem was that in the time between writing the original copy and being ready to publish it, I published GDC: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4, edited the Starseed Observatory, designed The Cave of Atman, and had been working to support a small group of critical gamers. These engagements changed my perspective on my own writing, and that change wasn’t reflected in the first issue of the zine. The actual analysis in the zine is great and doesn’t require much modification. Rather, I just need a few weeks to sit down and make some sensible cuts, additions, and tweaks.
Speaking of content and copy, here is a list of everything I’ve finished or have in draft copy for the first few issues:
- a breakdown of arcade racing and top-down racing fundamentals
- a comprehensive overview of Wipeout’s racing dynamics, weapons, and game modes
- a design-focused photo diary of God of War: Chains of Olympus
- an exploration of the social sim aspects of Animal Crossing
- collected insights on Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story
- a technical breakdown of DK: King of Swing’s unique mechanics
- a comparison of Other M and the original Metroid
- a Let’s Play take on The Graveyard
- a comprehensive breakdown of Syphony of the Night’s combat system
- a look at a small, but hugely destructive weakness in Wario Land 3’s metrovania design
- a 300-word review of Trauma Centre 2
- a 300-word review of Bit.Trip.Runner
- lots on Uncharted 2 and education and mastery
- an experiment in designing games in Twine
- a post-mortem of some of my best classroom games
- a discussion on learning and the path of least resistance
- a poem on LocoRoco
- collected insights into Super Monkey Ball Deluxe
- a deep dive into Crossword design and the augmentations of Crosswords DS
- a complete analysis of classic Resident Evil design through the lens of Code Veronica
- a complete analysis on Mario and Luigi: Dream Team Bros, including map, progression, battle, and RPG design
And there’s a few more things that are in various stages of completion. Just typing out this list makes me super excited to get back into the writing game. I’m doing all that I can at the moment to make my transition into Chinese teaching a smooth and successful one. The way I see it, any effort that I invest now is going to go a long way in freeing my time and energy in the future, so it’s worth putting in the hard yards now.
If you’re absolutely dying for your fix of games analysis, though, I recommend checking out Joe Rothenberg’s game Nobody Said it Was Easy. Joe studied Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4 and then applied the concepts to his own game. Each level is short and communicates its ideas succinctly, so playing with a critical eye is a great way to review your understanding of the concepts covered in the book.
See you soon,
July 1st, 2014
Play Here (in browser)
“The Cave of Ātman is a sequential strategy RPG puzzler inspired by games such as Fire Emblem (GBA) and Jeanne d’Arc (PSP). A band of brave warriors find themselves summoned to a mysterious cave following a short tremor. As they descend the cave’s many floors, they unearth a secret that rests deep inside their souls.”
– Game Description
The Cave of Ātman is a game I developed with my brother, Chris Johnson, and my games analysis buddy, Hayden Davernport. I did the game design and graphic work, Chris did the programming and project management, and Hayden did the music and sound effects. I came up with the idea early last year after I finished working on Game Design Companion: A Critical Analysis of Wario Land 4. Chris put the framework together over Christmas after I pitched the idea to him, I’ve been working on it on and off since January, and Hayden joined in March after we completed work on Starseed Observatory.
The idea evolved out of a series of notes I’d written on Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together (PSP), Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones (GBA), and Jeanne d’Arc (PSP) shortly after I finished the final edit of Game Design Companion. Since I’d been playing these three SRPGs at roughly the same time, my observations kind of congealed together. Before I knew it the only way I could cover all three games without heavy repetition and overlap: a three-in-one game repair.
Long story short: I discovered that many of the RPG systems in SRPG games (leveling, equipment, and custom unit selection) deconstruct strategic gameplay, and that the only way to maintain pure strategic gameplay is to remove these elements completely. No matter whether the RPG systems are heavy (Tactics Ogre), medium (Jeanne d’Arc), or light (Fire Emblem), they still place a strain of the strategy. In this sense, there’s an inherent conflict between the two halves of this sub-genre.
Another point that I often returned to in my mini-case study of the genre was Jeanne d’Arc‘s excellent Burning Aura system. After attacking an enemy, an aura appears behind the enemy. Players can then move a unit into the aura tile to launch a critical attack. I love how this system adds new strategic wrinkles to the game whereby you manage the spacing of units with various attack ranges so as to combo up critical hits. The only issue I have with Burning Aura is that the auras fade away at the end of each phase cycle and so, with only a handful of units at your disposal, you can’t create very deep chains. I wondered what Jeanne d’Arc would look like if the auras stayed around a bit longer.
With these two ideas in mind and my repair job turning into a game of its own, I started planning my own SRPG. As I was thinking through the potential unit spacing, attack combinations, and suspension elements, I realised that I could distill this concept down further into a puzzle game, and thus The Cave of Ātman was born.
It’s actually not like Jeanne d’Arc – The beauty of Jeanne d’Arc‘s Burning Auras is that enemy units can be attacked multiple times, and they usually have enough health that you need to attack them a few times. This anchors the spatial jig-saw around a central point. In The Cave of Ātman enemies die in one hit, assuming you’ve got enough aura, and therefore the puzzle challenges are centred around hot potatoes that move through the play space. The natural dispersion of enemies on the battlefield, where they might not always be in near reach, also makes it hard for the Jeanne‘s auras to be suspended across interactions (never mind the turn-based limitations). As I developed the rules for The Cave of Ātman, I realised that in order to turn the concept into a puzzle game, I had to shed some of Jeanne‘s identity and push the project into an alternative design space. The end result is more “inspired by” then “developed from”, but that’s cool.
The Particulars – When I write games analysis I always focus on the details and the power they have to influence a work on the whole. This is something that I found difficult to translate into game development. It’s easy to come up with ideas; the hard work is all in the implementation. Chris, who had the task of putting my ideas into code, would often ask for details on things I hadn’t originally considered.
Heavy Handed Tutorials – When I playtested The Cave of Ātman with a group of games analysis buddies, almost everyone said that the tutorial levels were so heavy-handed that players could complete them without even understanding what they were doing. Through their analysis, the group had unearthed a piece of me within the game. As a teacher (my job), I like to always be in control of my class and ensure that the students are getting enough feedback. I hold myself to the same teaching standards that I find in my favourite games and often compare my performance with those games. In this case, I hadn’t realised that my approach had been to the detriment of the learning design.
Planning Ahead – I had a clear understanding of the game I wanted to develop and the game we made turned out just as I envisioned it would. Having a clear understanding of the design space and also keeping everything limited (single turns, one enemy type, etc.) made it easier to work through some of the challenges that cropped up during development.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give The Cave of Ātman a go. Share it with your friends too. I’d love to hear your feedback. I don’t have any grand ambitions to get into game development or anything like that, this was just a hobby project, but I have put up a new page on the site which lists my background in working on games. With the Starseed Observatory and The Cave of Ātman finished, I can return my focus back onto writing, so expect some more of that soon. Big props to Hayden and my big brother Chris for their hard work and commitment on the project. 🙂