I think about games a lot.
Bioshock Infinite is much more linear
than any of its predecessors. The flow reminds me of Half Life 2 more
than any prior *Shock game and I wonder if it might have been a better
game if they'd gone all the way. But they didn't.
Later in the game there's a few more
explorable hub areas, but even then there's a ghost-town feel if you go somewhere before the plot needs you to. It's a little jarring
after being otherwise rewarded for exploring every nook and alley.
Anyway. There's a trick they use to disguise the linearity that's quite interesting. It's this layout:
When you leave an area, you'll often find
that the corridor forks into two, both of which have a sharp corner
that prevents you from seeing down them. But if you backtrack after
following one to try the other, you'll find that both corridors go to
the same area.
It's a truism than non-linearity usually
equals skipped content. By keeping these corridor sections short, they
minimise wasted level design. But by knowing that there's a corridor you
could have gone down but didn't, it makes you feel like progress is
down to your own choices.
Except that The Wizard trains you to look
behind the curtain. Bioshock Infinite consistently rewards you for
exploring with tangible in-game rewards, and offers no benefit for
pushing ahead quickly. The same trained behaviours that give you
delicious voxaphones, unstable tonics and loot, also reveal the illusion
of your choice. And it was a bit frustrating every time I fell for it,
going back and expecting a new area to explore/pillage and finding
nothing but a switchback.
And it's interesting to me how a clever
technique to make the levels feel more open, clashes with the way the
game encourages you to play.
It's more successful when the areas look like this:
It's almost the same trick - whichever
way you go you'll reach where you need to be - but on a much larger scale. The corridors are long enough to be interesting, and exploring the alternative route will
have enough action to be rewarding. These areas are also large enough
that the circular layouts don't feel like corridors. And when they're
used as hubs, with different exits unlocking one by one, you might be
approaching the action from a different direction each time, which
wrings more mileage from the same scenery.
Another game is Darksiders 2. It has a
lot of mini boss fights. There's a small cutscene where a giant monster
makes a dramatic entrance and then you have to murder them. But it does
Sometimes you'll get the little cutscene
and slay the giant undead scarab hulk or whatever, but then two more of
the same monster jump down, sometimes with minions. Holy crap - the game
just served you up one as if it were a boss, and now you need to take
on *two*? And it makes you feel like a badass when you win. It does this
a lot, but it always feels good.
Of course they're not bosses, they're
just a new monster type that then gets added to the normal rotation. But
what a way to introduce them! Great showmanship.
And clever too. The first fight is
exciting because of the uncertainty - you don't know what this monster
can do. It's also a teaching aid that allows you to learn its attack
patterns in a simple one-on-one fight. The followup monsters require you
use those skills in a more dangerous and complex situation.
Like the *Shocks, the Darksiders games
also reward you for compulsively exploring every corner. It's the Zelda
thing where there's collectibles everywhere if you look for them. And
finding collectibles is fun, but as a completionist I find myself
compulsively looking behind me after every doorway, and carefully
inspecting the ceiling of every room. Which is slow and not enormously
Here's a thing:
The game is more fun to play when I'm not
actively looking for shinies. And when I *do* find a shiny, it's more
exciting when I haven't been compulsively checking every square inch. Obviously
that would be the most fun way for me to play, except for the gnawing
anxiety about missing shinies. And that's interesting to me.
Compare it with Minecraft. I get that
same thrill when I see an emerald or diamond block. The layout of caves
usually prevents 100% exploration - there comes a point where it's more
efficient to find a new cave to explore. But I don't get that horrible
feeling that there's diamonds left unmined. I feel no urge to strip-mine
the map chunk-by-chunk down to bedrock. Why is it different?
I suspect that it's because
Darksiders/Zelda/Bioshock are finite. I know that if I miss a voice
recording or health upgrade, that's something lost to me forever. The
game will end and I won't have gotten full value out of it. In Minecraft
I know there's always going to be more diamonds in the next cave, so
there's no stress. It's impossible to complete a collection so I feel no
urge to try. It feels so liberating.
Of course the problem is one that exists
inside my head. I couldn't argue in good faith that one way is better
than another (or even perfectly analogous). But it's fun to examine