Game Design: A Sense Of Wonder

I’ve been playing a ton of Fallout 4 recently. And surprisingly, it’s not because I love the game. I like it, but it has a problem that pervades the whole experience: a lack of wonder. Here, I want to talk about games that provoke a sense of wonder, what it does for players, and why recent games seem to have been dropping the ball on this.

My first Bethesda game was Morrowind, which I felt was a very wondrous game. You travel to cities made of mushrooms. You ride on giant bugs for taxis. You visit floating rocks in the sky that have been hollowed out and turned into prisons. You get attacked by crazed maniacs in your sleep. You meet talking crabs. You get interrupted by a screaming mage who falls out of the sky and lands to his death right on the road in front of you. There were so many elements in Morrowind that felt so fantastical, so different from reality. Those small bits were what made the game amazing.

Contrast that to Fallout 4, which to be fair has its share of wonder. You meet a cult of people who bathe in molten iron. You meet a mutant who believes that Shakespeare’s Macbeth will teach him how to become stronger. But really… when you sit down and look at it, it’s a little bit harder to be amazed at things in Fallout 4. And that’s sad, because there are so many things in the wasteland that could give you the same kind of otherworldly feeling that Morrowind did. So many people have become jaded by modern games, saying that they’re all the same and how they wish games could go back to the good old days, and I think a large part of that is because they’re missing a sense of wonder.

The nostalgia filter is definitely a large part of this problem. I played Morrowind in middle school, and naturally I was much more impressionable back then. People always look back at old games and remember them as being better than they actually were. But the nostalgia filter is not the only problem. Game design itself has shifted games in a different direction that can truly be felt.

Nowadays, people always talk about how games are becoming too cinematic, and I think it’s a related topic. You can try to simulate a sense of wonder by shoving the player into an unskippable cutscene where they see a brilliant beautiful horizon and the music swells into an epic climax. It sort of works, but at the same time, it sort of doesn’t.

Wonder In Dark Souls vs. Dark Souls 2

Here’s a clip from Dark Souls that I want to analyze. If you don’t feel like watching, it’s just a cutscene where a bunch of winged harpy demons carry the player and fly up to the top of a big wall and then they just drop him off. It’s exactly the kind of cinematic pseudo-wonder that I just described. But if you’ve played Dark Souls, you can probably still remember it as a wondrous moment. I certainly did. Why was that?

It’s because this cutscene represented a major shift in gameplay. You are suddenly in a new place and there is no way back. This goes completely against everything you knew up to that point, because Dark Souls is all about nonlinear levels filled with backtracking and secret paths. No matter what happens, you can always turn back… until this cutscene happens. You can’t just jump back down the wall (big edit: it turns out that there actually IS a way down that I didn’t know about). For the first time in the whole game, you are in a situation where your only option is to move forward (discounting the tutorial, of course).

Your first few steps in the game are the real source of wonder. The cutscene is pretty, but it’s just a cutscene. When it ends, it slowly dawns on you what just happened, and you’re in a situation where you don’t know what to do. Everything feels so new and different, and it gives you a mixture of wonder and fear.

The designers of Dark Souls knew this, so after you walk along your path for a few moments you run into a giant knight. They know that you as the player are struggling to come to grips with your situation, so they drop a new enemy into the mix to throw you off even more. Those moments are so much more wondrous than the cutscene.

Now, let’s look at the equivalent scene in Dark Souls 2:

Same thing. You walk up and you see a beautiful castle. But Dark Souls 2 frames the encounter very, very differently. For one, you still have a way back. You can still return to safety, which you couldn’t do in the first Dark Souls. Next, enemy encounters were placed before the player approached the castle, rather than afterwards the way it was done before.

What this means is that the castle in Dark Souls 2 functions no differently than any other area in the game. It’s a dungeon filled with enemies and loot and secret paths and you can jump around and die a lot. The castle isn’t any different from the forests or the caves that you passed through to get there. Just get through it and check it off your list.

On the other hand, the castle in the first Dark Souls was very dramatically different from the other areas. It’s filled with new game mechanics, new boss mechanics, and new traps to kill the player. But those moments aren’t as important as the first steps you take down the wall, when you get that feeling in your gut that there is no way back.

In Dark Souls 2, they actually did try to insert a fancy new game mechanic: you have to kill enemies near some cups, and their dead soul essence will fill the cup and something will happen. That definitely works as a shift in gameplay, but it’s not enough to really feel like anything new. You’re still killing enemies, you’re just trying to do it in a different way. The little burst of excitement from figuring it out is nowhere near as powerful as the first few steps you take towards the castle in the first Dark Souls.

Even though the two castles both looked very pretty and had appropriate soundtracks, one is much more wondrous than the other. In games, the sense of wonder doesn’t come from visuals or audio cues. It comes from a dramatic shift in gameplay. The sense of wonder must be felt by the player’s own hands. They must engage with the setting in order to be amazed by it. A game developer cannot directly try to build a sense of wonder: they must build a unique situation to present it in, and the player feels amazement themselves.

Wonder In Morrowind vs. Fallout 4

Let’s go back to Morrowind vs. Fallout 4. What do they do differently? I’ll pick out two examples from each game: mushroom cities and bug taxis from Morrowind, and the lava cult and Shakespeare mutant from Fallout 4.

Mushroom city? Some of the larger “buildings” don’t even have stairs, and you have to use levitation to get up. They do that intentionally to keep peasants out.

Bug taxis? They’re one of the only forms of fast travel in Morrowind. You can’t fast travel by yourself.

Lava cult? You just go and kill them all like you would with any other group of bandits.

Shakespeare mutant? He just becomes a companion that you can bring along with you, joining ten other companions that you can choose from.

The elements in Fallout 4 certainly sound wondrous and otherworldly, but when it comes to gameplay, they don’t actually do anything different. On the other hand, the mushroom cities and bug taxis in Morrowind look absolutely horrible with their 2000s-era rendering technology, but they represent major new avenues of gameplay.

There were probably all sorts of pretty things in Morrowind that I don’t even remember because they didn’t present any new gameplay mechanics. And some of the most wondrous things in Fallout 4 had pretty low art production standards.

Weapons are a great example that Fallout 4 did much better than Morrowind. In Morrowind, weapons were almost all practically the same, except for statistical differences. But in Fallout 4, different weapons can have so many different uses. You can pick up a new gun that you’ve never seen before, and feel excited to try it out. Of course, even that sense of wonder pales in comparison to something like Borderlands‘s procedural weapon generation system.

As it turns out, Fallout 4 has very little variation in its quest system. Everything that you do boils down to a form of either “kill these people” or “talk to these people.” When a random person on the street asks you to find his missing friend, you just roll your eyes and ask if he knows which bandit gang took him so you can know who to kill. It becomes very difficult to be amazed at any of the events in the quests because they all follow such a rigid formula. Go there, kill those people, pick up these things, come back, get experience and money. Wanna join a faction in Fallout 4, just go kill their enemies until the faction likes you. In Morrowind, you literally cannot progress in the mage’s guild unless you can levitate up their mushroom houses.

Nothing in Fallout 4 really amazes you. A big scary enemy jumps out at you, you just shoot it until it’s dead. A city is struggling to identify synthetic humans from real ones, you just wait for someone to tell you who to kill and then you go kill them. In the main storyline or in any of the other side quests, there was only one real part where I actually felt amazed, and that was when they revealed one of the game’s major climactic twists. Dark Souls didn’t need a story twist to make players feel amazed.

But, when an alien crash lands in the countryside or when a radiation storm hits you for the first time, you can feel amazed. Fallout 4 isn’t just completely devoid of anything new or interesting, it has its moments. But by and large, Fallout 4 and many other modern AAA games fail to deliver a sense of wonder on a scale that compares to older games.

What Does Wonder Do?

In keeping with the principle of charity, one has to ask why modern games have been moving away from these senses of wonder. The immediate obvious answer is because they want to make sure that their games are consistent. They don’t want any large variations in the core gameplay. If you’re playing for the first time or if you’re picking up from the middle, you still get pretty similar experiences. You can play for a short session, then come back later for more of the same.

But at that point, we have to ask ourselves why are players asking for this. The game studios wouldn’t be doing it if players didn’t want it. Aren’t players always talking about how they want more new content? And yet we’re stuck in a world filled with sequels and DLC packs that really aren’t that much different from what they were originally building off of.

The key is that novelty isn’t a question of black and white. It’s a spectrum where we can say that this thing is sort of new, but it’s still similar, or we can look at something else and say that it’s almost completely new but still retains some previous elements. In Dark Souls, removing backtracking was very new, whereas the soul-collecting cups were only sort of new. In Morrowind, giant mushroom houses were very new, whereas in Fallout 4 lava cults are only sort of new.

A pessimist would come to the conclusion that players simply do not want to experience a sense of wonder. When you introduce new elements, you invariably introduce something that the player has to learn and wrap their heads around, and that takes effort. No one wants to spend effort. If you could have a game that is filled with wonder and amazement versus a game that is consistently brainless, the pessimist says that people would pick the latter. People only want things that are new enough that they seem different, but nothing more than that. They say that they want new things, but in reality, they don’t. Even the greatest indie blockbusters will never make as much as the next Grand Theft Auto.

And there’s a lot of truth to that. When you start playing a new game for the very first time, you feel a little sense of wonder. You’re amazed as you explore through the world and try to figure out its mechanics. As it turns out, that sense of wonder ends up being very fleeting, especially if you’re playing a sequel or a clone game. Every time you try something new, you feel that sense of wonder. The pessimist says that people don’t actually want to try new things, and we game developers have to force them to.

But I want to be more optimistic. After all, if all of this were true, then Dark Souls 2 would be universally praised as a superior successor to the original (hint: it’s not). If people are rejecting new gameplay elements, maybe there’s an argument that they’re just being lazy, but on the other hand, there’s also the very real possibility that something is going wrong with the game design. One of the main purposes of good game design is to help ease players into new game mechanics, and the joy that they feel from doing so is manifested in the form of wonder.

I think that a game needs to prepare the player to expect dramatic shifts in difficulty. The player needs to be taught to expect challenges. They do not know what challenges to expect, but they know that whatever comes their way, they will need to struggle in order to overcome it. A game that sets players up with these expectations will later be able to spring unique moments on them, and the players will be able to take those moments in stride, moving forward through the new gameplay mechanics while still appreciating the sense of wonder.

People often talk about difficulty curves as the game’s difficulty over time, but I think it’s time to take the derivative: the rate of difficulty increase over time. If a difficulty curve is likened to velocity, then the rate of difficulty increase over time would be acceleration. It is subtle, but if done right, the player should be able to fall into a rhythm where they are receptive to radically new challenges and mechanics.

Dark Souls has a pretty consistent rate of difficulty increase over time. Every new area is approximately as difficult to conquer as the previous area, even after adjusting for the player’s increased skill. Whether you’re going into the second area of the game or the seventh one, you’re still going to die about the same number of times, even though you’ve gotten much better by the time you reach the seventh area. If I were to put this on a graph, it would look like this:

I use the term “adjusted difficulty” to refer to how difficult something is based on how skilled the player is at the time of confrontation. If something becomes more difficult but you became equally more skilled, it has the same adjusted difficulty as an easy challenge at the beginning of the game when you knew nothing.

On the other hand, Fallout 4‘s difficulty increase over time drops off sharply. There’s the starting hurdle that players need to jump over, but after that, it goes straight down. That’s not to say that the difficulty stays the same: it still gets harder as you go on. But the rate that it gets harder increases much more slowly than it would in Dark Souls. Eventually, there will be a point where the player’s skill (or the character’s skill) outscales the difficulty, and it just becomes a walk in the park. Of course, the designers tried to make sure that this will not happen before the game ends, but it will still inevitably happen. If I were to put this on a graph, it would look like this:

There’s a clear difference in design philosophies. In Dark Souls, the seventh area is exponentially more difficult than the second. However, in Fallout 4, the seventh area is only linearly more difficult than the second. This means that once you account for player skill scaling, Dark Souls still gets more difficult, whereas Fallout 4 wobbles around and drops off (don’t take these graphs too literally, Fallout 4‘s velocity graph is more like a slowly descending plateau, not to mention the position fluctuations). Finally, Dark Souls constantly throws unknown challenges at the player, whereas Fallout 4 stops presenting new information very quickly.

Morrowind works a little bit like the Dark Souls graph. Even though it’s not actually introducing new mechanics as the game goes on, Morrowind‘s systems are so obscure and complicated that it takes you a long time until you figure them out, which basically means you find those new mechanics over time. It’s a lot like when you hear people talking about games where they can keep finding new things to do even after multiple playthroughs.

The “constant rate of difficulty acceleration” approach works well for Dark Souls and I think it should be generalized for more games. However, it does come with the obvious fault that the developers would then have to create more content, which isn’t always possible. Fallout 4 just reuses the same mechanics and scales the numbers around, which is clearly much easier from a development perspective. But that gets into the “quantity vs. quality” discussion, and maybe that can come at some other time.

Conclusion

There’s always the counter-culture movement that says modern gamers are stupid and need instant gratification to do anything, and the good old games from the past were so much better. I don’t exactly agree, because I don’t think it’s necessarily the gamer’s fault. Game developers should be trying harder to ease players into games that introduce more new mechanics over time. Once that happens, we can finally get games that capture the sense of wonder again, the feeling that you’re actually in a place other than the boring world we live in.

At the same time, gamers do need to be more willing to push their own boundaries. I’m guilty of this too, I bought the Master Chief collection on launch and I’m planning to do the same for the next Mirror’s Edge. But if we want to see games with those little magical sparkles of amazement again, something has to be done. Otherwise, we just get a whole heap of generic reskinned FPS clones. Hopefully, the desire for wonder can overcome the desire for habits.

Case Study: Ezreal in League of Legends

So this isn’t so much of a case study as it is a fantasy changelist, but oh well. Ezreal is my favorite champion by far, but if I had a chance to rework him, there are plenty of things I would want to try.

He’s one of those weird cases where he can become OP simply by existing. Look at Ezreal’s history and you’ll see that he has been buffed relatively few times compared to the number of times he has completely changed the meta. Remember when people started maxing W first for the attack speed debuff? Or remember how Ezreal pretty much single-handedly nerfed the Iceborn Gauntlet and the Runeglaive for ranged champions? In all of these cases, nothing happened to Ezreal to make him stronger, people just found new ways to use him. Who’s to say that there won’t be even more new ways to use him popping up as the game evolves? It’s not sustainable to just reach for the nerf hammer every time something new comes up. Out of all the champions, this phenomenon seems to happen most often with Ezreal.

Then there’s the whole issue with AD vs. AP Ezreal. If you go AD, your W is almost useless, and if you go AP, your passive is almost useless. Both versions of Ezreal are essentially balanced around the fact that they only have 4.5 abilities rather than 5. Right now, Riot is trying to encourage more aggressive Arcane Shifts by adding an AD ratio, but I feel that Arcane Shift is really powerful as an offensive AP spell if you build Ezreal as a mage. What if the next Ezreal meta becomes full AP and max E first in mid? It sounds silly, but remember that it also sounded silly to max W first before the Koreans started doing it.

But putting balance and game health aside, Ezreal has a lot of untapped potential to fill a unique role in the League: an explorer. There isn’t really an explorer character in the champion roster. I’m talking about a pathfinder, a scout, a ranger who clears the way head first. Teemo is kind of like an explorer, but he is what I would call a passive explorer: he places traps and watches them like wards. I think Ezreal could be an active explorer, someone who gets his hands dirty and puts himself in risky situations because he can.

The Core Theme: Ezreal’s Identity

In keeping with my three-part system of game design, we start by identifying the theme. So who exactly is Ezreal? What’s he like? How can his personality translate into his mechanics?

Ezreal is cocky and arrogant, and he likes having situations under control. He’s most comfortable when he’s setting his own pace, and when he’s in his element he thinks he’s invincible. But if something unexpected throws his rhythm off balance, he panics and retreats, looking for an opportunity to try again.

Ezreal is a loner. Other people slow him down, and he sees cooperation as babysitting. He’ll work together with other people if he really has to, but he’s more comfortable launching a small precision strike by himself rather than joining a coordinated siege. When other people help him, he takes it grudgingly: he thinks he would have been just fine by himself.

Ezreal is selective and picky about his targets. When he fights, he loves intense duels and skirmishes. Nothing makes him happier than a true display of skill. Enemies who rely on their teammates, towers, or minion waves just seem cowardly. Summoner spells, monster buffs, and level/gold advantages are all external factors, and Ezreal hates external factors.

Ezreal likes to think of himself as omniscient. He is aware of everything that happens around him. If something hostile is nearby, he’s forming a plan to deal with them before they even reach him. When he’s being suspicious and careful, it’s difficult to surprise him, and it’s nigh impossible to hide from him. But he has tunnel vision, and when he focuses too strongly on his target, he loses sight of other things he should be paying attention to.

The Unified Elements: Ezreal’s Skills

Again, I’m not a god of game design, so I’m going to try to avoid numbers wherever possible. I can’t come up with balance off the top of my head. But hopefully, these reworked skill suggestions point towards a direction that helps support what I think Ezreal should become.

Rising Spell Force: Reworked. Ezreal gains a stack of Rising Spell Force whenever he hits an enemy champion with a basic ability (max 1 stack per spell). When he reaches three stacks, he enters Rising Spell Force mode, where he gains 50% attack speed, his basic abilities refund half of their mana cost when they hit an enemy champion, and his basic abilities gain new bonuses. Rising Spell Force mode lasts as long as he has three stacks, and its duration is refreshed if Ezreal gains another stack while it’s active.

Mystic Shot: Basic mechanics remain unchanged. Mystic Shot no longer applies on-hit effects, but has higher AD and AP ratios. It has a higher base cooldown, but if Ezreal lands a Mystic Shot on an enemy champion while in Rising Spell Force mode, it reduces its own cooldown by an additional amount (important: only its own cooldown).

Essence Flux: Completely reworked. No more attack speed buff, lower cooldown, higher mana cost. It now acts as an instant ground line cast. Ezreal goes into a short casting animation, the line indicator is drawn in front of him, then after a brief delay he zaps everything along the line. Hitbox and behavior is about the same as a fully-charged Arcanopulse from Xerath. Damage is lowered drastically, I’m thinking something like 20/50/80/110/150 (0.5 AP). When Ezreal casts this, he gains vision along the line during the casting animation, and if he hits an enemy, they are revealed for a brief period of time (even if invisible). If Ezreal is in Rising Spell Force mode, Essence Flux does a large chunk of additional damage, I’m thinking something like 100/150/200/250/300 (1 AP).

Arcane Shift: Basic mechanics remain unchanged. If Ezreal is in Rising Spell Force mode, the arrow from Arcane Shift slows its target by 20% for 2 seconds.

Trueshot Barrage: Basic mechanics remain unchanged. Mystic Shot no longer reduces Trueshot Barrage’s cooldown. No longer generates Rising Spell Force stacks.

So what does this do? First of all, it decentralizes Ezreal’s power in Mystic Shot. Too much of Ezreal’s strength lies in Mystic Shot, which is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a cool spell and it’s fun to use, but there’s a point where you’re going too far. Removing the on-hit effects on Mystic Shot is a really big nerf, and it’s alleviated a little bit by slight buffs to AD/AP ratios, but his power level is still lowered. Next, increasing Mystic Shot’s cooldown propagates a cooldown nerf on all his other abilities, because of how it reduces cooldowns when it lands.

In exchange, a lot of power is stuffed into Rising Spell Force mode. He is very weak outside of Rising Spell Force mode, but very strong when it’s active. This represents how Ezreal needs to build up his power through a prolonged display of skill (landing successive shots on the enemy). The three-hit mechanic generates a lot of interesting play: do you use three Mystic Shots over a long period of time, or do you unload all of your basic abilities at once to trigger RSF mode immediately? Note that Rising Spell Force stacks are much harder to gain now, since you only get them when you hit an enemy champion (and there’s an added limit of one stack per spell). Also, there’s no spectrum anymore, his passive is all or nothing.

RSF-enhanced Mystic Shot brings back the URF feeling of machine gun shots, but only if you can keep hitting your target. Even though it only reduces its own cooldown by a greater amount, that still means you can reduce the cooldowns of your other basic abilities faster by using more Mystic Shots. On the other hand, RSF-enhanced Essence Flux goes in the opposite direction that incentivizes players to be more accurate and deliberate in order to cash in on a more damaging payout. Finally, RSF-enhanced Arcane Shift is just a small buff to help Ezreal when he’s in the zone.

Trueshot Barrage is nerfed by no longer having its cooldown reduced by Mystic Shot. The enhanced Essence Flux is meant to act as Ezreal’s primary finisher, replacing Trueshot Barrage’s purpose in duels. With this, Trueshot Barrage is almost completely decentralized from the rest of his kit, which encourages him to save it for situations that are outside of Essence Flux’s reach.

The Ensured Delivery: Ezreal’s Dynamics

This rework would demand a lot of skills that people don’t usually associate with Ezreal. People are used to just forgetting about his passive and his Essence Flux, but now they are the most important parts of his kit. He will feel very weak, especially without the on-hits on his Mystic Shot. Ezreal is known for chopping out chunks of health with Mystic Shot, but a lot of that damage comes from Triforce or Lich Bane.

But under this system, Ezreal takes out larger chunks of health with RSF-enhanced Essence Fluxes. The Mystic Shots do some damage, but mostly they act as indicators to show how Ezreal is building up his power. He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee depending on whether he’s in RSF mode or not.

Mystic Shot and Essence Flux serve two different purposes: damage and utility. Outside of RSF mode, Mystic Shot is for damage and Essence Flux is for utility. But when RSF mode becomes active, it suddenly switches. Mystic Shot gains greater utility as a tool for maintaining RSF mode because of its self-cooldown reduction, and Essence Flux gains a massive damage boost. Ezreal tracks enemies down with Essence Flux and whittles away at them with Mystic Shots until he enters RSF mode, at which point he uses Essence Fluxes for nukes and Mystic Shots to keep track of his prey. This creates an interesting dynamic because Mystic Shot is nowhere near as good at tracking targets as Essence Flux is, but you have to get good at predicting enemy movement with Mystic Shots in order to keep Essence Flux ready for a nuke, because if you use Essence Flux for tracking you will lose its potential for damage. Skilled Ezreal players already use Mystic Shot to check brushes.

Ezreal’s AP and AD builds are also separated distinctly. AD Ezreal is the safer build, the one with consistent damage. If you can’t enter RSF mode, it’s still okay because Mystic Shot’s damage doesn’t depend on it. Essence Flux and Arcane Shift are used primarily for utility and scouting, and autoattacks still become his primary source of damage. AP Ezreal is the risky build that relies heavily on RSF-enhanced Essence Fluxes for damage, and Mystic Shot just becomes a tool to enter RSF mode and reduce Essence Flux’s cooldown.

He’s not comfortable with direct confrontations, but he’s strongest in jungle skirmishes where neither combatant knows where the other is. In those situations, he probes with Mystic Shots and Essence Fluxes until he enters RSF mode, at which point he starts using Arcane Shift more aggressively to line up an enhanced Essence Flux finisher. If the battle doesn’t go his way, he probably doesn’t achieve RSF mode, and instead Arcane Shifts to safety while using the vision from Essence Flux to make sure his escape route is clear.

In teamfights, Ezreal either tries to focus down a single target with Mystic Shots and autoattacks, or he lines up enemies for Essence Fluxes and Trueshot Barrages. He’s not a focused killer like Vayne, nor is he a widespread damage dealer like Miss Fortune, but he’s flexible enough to switch between them on the fly. But rather than being in the heat of teamfights, this Ezreal is much, much better during the start or end of one. Before a teamfight starts, he can scout ahead so he and his allies knows where the enemies are with consistent Essence Flux vision, making sure that they are never surprised. After a teamfight ends, he takes a pursuit role and hunts stragglers down with precise Essence Fluxes enhanced by RSF.

Principle of Charity

In keeping with the principle of charity, I have to ask why this hasn’t actually happened. This is the part where I tear my own suggestions to shreds, so I might not be the best person for this, but that’s the nature of criticism.

It’s really confusing and difficult to keep track of abilities that change uses. Abilities in League don’t usually change so dynamically between vision tools and damage nukes the way that my proposed Essence Flux does. Usually, abilities are straightforward and clear, and always do the same thing no matter what the context is. If you want to have an ability that does multiple different things, you split it up into two separate abilities and use some kind of transformation (Nidalee, Gnar, Jayce). However, my proposed changes are a lot more subtle than full-on transformations, so they force players to reevaluate their abilities in the heat of battle. Not a very easy thing to do.

Small bursts of vision have historically not been very well received. Just look at how the Warding Totem is so much more popular than the Scrying Orb. My proposed changes to Ezreal revolve around those small lines of vision from Essence Flux, but practically, they’re kind of difficult to work with. Vision in general is a source of power that isn’t very easily grokkable, in that it’s hard to know when you played your vision right. Long-lasting stationary vision just feels better than long-ranged temporary vision, and I don’t think balance can change that. Branching off of that train of thought, precisely aimed vision is even more troublesome. The new Essence Flux is basically like Ashe’s Hawkshot with a much shorter range, much shorter vision duration, and a much shorter cooldown.

Two long-ranged skillshots are kind of overkill and give too much zone control, especially when one of them (Essence Flux) doesn’t stop on collision. Currently, this is balanced by the fact that Essence Flux is useless on AD Ezreal, and it’s one of the reasons why AP Ezreal is so strong in the late game. Right now, my proposed changes mean that non-RSF Ezreal still gets a little bit of utility from Essence Flux, and RSF-mode Ezreal is basically as strong as late game AP Ezreal.

Finally, it’s very difficult for this Ezreal to fit inside a team composition. He’s not a strong sieger, he’s not a strong assassin, he’s not a strong split pusher. He is a strong explorer, and I’m not entirely sure when a team would want an explorer, at least in the current meta. In fact, I would see this Ezreal as a strong counter jungler, and he could possibly be pushed in the direction of an ADC jungler like Kindred (maybe he can charge Rising Spell Force on monster hits?). When you think about it, he’s not the type of guy to stay put in bottom lane anyway.

Narrative Design: Proxy Defense

Proxy defense is a term I use to describe a specific behavior that we people tend to do: we act more extreme when we are doing it in the defense of someone else. We’ve all seen it before, and we’ve all probably had experiences when we acted that way too. It feels noble and heroic, like the Saturday morning cartoon protagonist who says “I don’t care if you insult me but I’ll beat you up if you insult my friends.” But in this essay, I want to write about the darker side of proxy defense. There are many nuances to this behavior, some good and some bad, but in general people never pay attention to the negative effects that this can have. I firmly believe that proxy defense is a major contributing factor to groupthink, hiveminds, circlejerks, herd mentalities, or any other situation where a collection of people becomes less than the sum of its parts. If you were to ask me, I would go further to say that proxy defense is a philosophical crisis of the modern age, and we should try to resist it as much as possible.

What Is Proxy Defense?

I remember once I read a cute little love story on the internet. It went something like this: a girl and her boyfriend were at an amusement park, and they were about to get on a roller coaster, but the attendant stopped them and asked the girl her weight. The girl had been feeling insecure about her weight for a long time, and broke down in tears. In response, the boyfriend punched the attendant in the face, then took his girlfriend away.

Great love story, huh.

And what surprised me so much was that there were actually people who believed that the boyfriend was in the right. People thought it was really touching and caring and loving that he would go through such lengths to protect his girlfriend. There were people who wished their significant others were more like that.

But to me, I see it as a classic case of proxy defense. The boyfriend punched the roller coaster attendant in order to defend his girlfriend’s pride. He did something extreme and irrational, but to him, it was justified because he was doing it for the sake of someone else. In reality, he just committed physical assault on an innocent person. He just attacked someone because he didn’t like what they had to say.

This way of thinking is so pervasive. We see it everywhere. The boyfriend-punching-innocent-attendant story is an exaggeration and yet there would still be people who think he was in the right. Movies, novels, video games, every kind of entertainment medium uses proxy defense in subtle ways that are meant to be applauded rather than reviled.

Look at this trailer for example:

So Geralt of Rivia is just a blindingly cool badass who goes around saving helpless maidens from evil lynch mobs. Sure. Pretty standard setup for a heroic character. But when you look at it objectively, he just murdered three complete strangers in cold blood.

Geralt knew nothing about the situation, other than that a pretty lady was being sentenced to death. He didn’t know if it was justified or not. What if she had been a killer, or a spy, or some other threat? What if she was using polymorphism to look like a helpless lass for the sake of garnering sympathy? Of course, she could very well have been completely innocent and the lynch mob was corrupt, like the trailer implies them to be. But Geralt does not know.

And yet, despite not knowing, he still rushes in and saves the damsel in distress. Despite all this talk about ambiguous choices and lesser evils, he still decides to kill three random people. He does it in the name of proxy defense: his psychopathic actions are justified because they are done in order to defend someone else. You could argue the morality all you want, but the fact remains that Geralt committed murder. Whether or not that murder was justified is the real question.

Proxy defense is an excuse. People will find something to defend in order to launch their attack. Whatever they’re defending doesn’t matter anymore. It only exists as a justification for the attack. But the justification doesn’t change anything. A justified crime is still a crime.

Gay marriage? Christians aren’t attacking homosexuals, they’re defending the definition of marriage. Gays aren’t attacking Christians, they’re defending equal rights. But in reality, Christians are attacking homosexuals, and gays are attacking Christians.

War in the middle east? America isn’t attacking the middle east, it’s defending the world from the threat of WMDs. The middle east isn’t attacking America, it’s defending their way of life. But in reality, America is attacking the middle east, and the middle east is attacking America.

The Crusades? Catholics weren’t attacking Muslims, they were defending their god. Muslims weren’t attacking Catholics, they were defending their god. But in reality, the Catholics did attack Muslims, and the Muslims did attack Catholics.

Gamergate controversy? AGGers aren’t attacking journalism, they’re defending minority game developers. GGers aren’t attacking minority game developers, they’re defending journalism. But in reality, AGGers are attacking journalism, and GGers are attacking minority game developers.

You don’t have to agree with the other side’s reasoning, but you need to at least see that it is indeed there. Both sides believe that they are the righteous ones. They are the defenders, while their enemies are the attackers. Since they’re justified, they believe that they can act more extremely than they normally would.

When you act for the sake of someone else, it becomes an excuse to leave your own personal set of morals aside. But what set of morals do you replace them with? Often, the answer is simply none. That is a very dangerous state to be in.

And yet, this is exactly the kind of behavior that entertainment media sees as a virtue. Good guys act for the sake of others as a convenient excuse so they can beat up bad people, because that’s what’s exciting. But people wouldn’t want to admit that they’re being entertained by a psychopath, so the media creators use proxy defense to justify the protagonist’s actions.

Look at Taken. You can literally watch a movie where a guy kills 30 people, and he’s still the good guy all because he’s doing it for someone else’s sake. Is that really a valid justification to kill so many people? If I were kidnapped, I sure wouldn’t want that many people to die in exchange for my freedom.

People generally want to think of themselves as the defenders. They want to think of themselves as the righteous ones who are under attack by nefarious outside forces. Aggressors are the selfish ones, and defenders are the selfless ones. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity”, right? But what happens when both sides see themselves as the defenders?

In entertainment media, people are painted as defenders and attackers. The defenders are the good guys and the attackers are the bad ones. “Everything was fine and dandy until the fire nation attacked” and all that jazz. That way, it’s easy to know who to cheer for. But in reality, it’s not like that. Everybody is a defender in their own minds. You don’t see the other person’s side in movies and books and video games, and so we’re not trained to look for the other person’s side in reality either.

This is also a large part of groupthink and mob mentality. Religious fanaticism happens when a bunch of people want to defend their god. Patriotism happens when a bunch of people want to defend their nation. Internet flame wars happen when a bunch of people want to defend their waifu. Draw an insulting picture of me and I won’t really do anything about it, but draw an insulting picture of my god and suddenly I can take more extreme actions in the name of proxy defense.

I think that people need to realize when their attempts to defend someone else end up crossing the line. There are things that you cannot do even if you are doing them for someone else’s sake. If people saw themselves as attackers rather than defenders, if people saw themselves the way they saw their enemies, they could see how hypocritical their conflicts are.

Rethinking Narrative Structures

I see the film John Wick as a great foil to Taken. They’re both mindless action movies about a badass guy who goes around killing people. John Wick’s kill count is almost twice as much as Bryan Mills’s. But while the main character of Taken acts in the name of defense, the main character of John Wick acts in the name of offense. He is angry because people killed his dog. That is it. The whole movie is literally about him hunting down the people who killed his dog.

And as a result, we don’t see John Wick as a good person. He is not the classical heroic protagonist who oozes kindness from every pore. He is not a knight in shining armor who makes ladies swoon and gentlemen tip their hats. John Wick is none of that. He is a boogeyman, a grim reaper, a silent legend.

Are his actions over the top? Yes. It is absolutely, utterly, undeniably ridiculous how much he’s overreacting. That’s the whole point. He probably doesn’t have the healthiest coping mechanisms around. But all of that come through to the viewer. John Wick is a flawed person, and he’s liable to go too far when he’s provoked. The viewer sees his strengths and his weaknesses and understands him as a whole person as a result.

Contrast that to Bryan Mills from Taken. Are his actions over the top? Objectively, yes, but subjectively, no. Subjectively, everything he’s doing is righteous and good because he’s trying to save his daughter. All of that comes through in the cinematography and the script. The audience is made to cheer for him rather than condemn him. His malicious actions are made to seem badass rather than flawed. While John Wick was a rounded character, Bryan Mills is just a power fantasy.

John Wick knows that what he’s doing is wrong. The viewer also knows that it’s wrong. He knows that he’s going to pay a price, and he does: in exchange for unleashing all of his anger and killing all of those people, he must give up his comfortable civilian life and return to the underworld. It’s a sacrifice that he struggles with and eventually closes the deal on. That’s his way of repenting for all the horrible things he did in the movie.

Bryan Mills has no repentance. He has no reason to repent. In his eyes (and in the viewer’s eyes), he has done nothing wrong. As a result, he never has another side to his personality. There is nothing more to his character other than the fact that he’s a badass.

We can have more interesting stories if we break away from the protagonist defender/antagonist attacker paradigm. Here, John Wick is a protagonist attacker, and the fact that we don’t exactly agree with his actions gives him much more depth than a standard hero. There are stories about antagonist defenders who make you question whether or not they are truly wrong. Then there are other setups that completely transcend the paradigm altogether with multiple perspectives or setting everyone as either a defender or attacker. It’s not a new approach, but it’s definitely a less popular one.

It’s okay to like mindless violence. I love mindless violence. But we should be aware of it rather than being ashamed and trying to mask it with justification. John Wick proves that you don’t need a kidnapped girlfriend to make an action movie. The whole thing is better because it doesn’t resort to a cheap proxy defense.

Implementation Into Interactive Media

When it comes to games, you can even provide the player with a proxy defense. You can give the player someone to defend and they will go through the hoops you set out for them. They will go through the experience and do things that they probably wouldn’t normally do, and they will do it all for the sake of defending someone else. Everything I just said about crafting a proxy defense has been at work in video games for a long time.

Proxy defense in video games has all the exact same problems that it does in other mediums, but now the player lives it firsthand. That means the player becomes even further divorced from the ethics of their actions. Imagine Taken as a video game. That’s basically the setup for most hack-and-slash games.

I think that this problem is connected to violence in video games. People always take such a strong stance on whether games make people violent or not, but I think it really depends on the way the game’s narrative is structured. If you have a game that is up-front and unashamed about making the player an attacker who does horrible things because they’re fun, then it draws attention to the ridiculousness of it all, much like John Wick did. The Saint’s Row series is a perfect example of this. Then there’s a world of games that play with this distinction, like Spec Ops: The Line, which initially sets the player up as a proxy defender, but later starts challenging the player’s motivations and how they use heroism as an excuse for murder.

However, if you have a game that sets the player up as a proxy defender, then it implies that their killings and crimes and violence are justified and righteous. That’s the point where I become scared. There’s always the standard setup where the player has a girlfriend, the girlfriend gets abducted, then you spend the rest of your game trying to rescue her. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has actually had some moments that made me nervous. If someone insults one of your sorceress girlfriends, you can usually challenge them to a fight. It’s suspiciously similar to the boyfriend-punching-roller-coaster-attendant story that I opened this essay with. I personally didn’t feel attached enough to any of the characters to fight over them, but I can see how someone would honestly want to defend Yen’s or Triss’s honor.

A common argument is that violent video games don’t make people violent, but instead desensitize them to violence. It’s a valid train of thought and it makes sense, but I think that it happens because players don’t feel passionate about the digital characters they are defending. When they kill an enemy or inflict some other form of violence, the player does it for fun rather than for the sake of defending someone else. The proxy defense is usually boring and forgettable and players end up putting their motivations out of the way and just enjoy the experience. Nobody plays Mario because they have a burning desire to save the princess. But what happens when developers find a way to actually do it well? If a player truly honestly believes that the horrible things they do in a game are righteous and correct, will they cross the line from desensitization to justification? I’m not sure, and I’m a little bit afraid of finding out.

Conclusion

I knew a guy who got into heated arguments with his landlord because the AC in his unit was broken and his baby son was crying from the heat. I knew a guy who recommended a friend for a position at a project he was working on, and he got defensive and argumentative when people commented on his friend’s lack of work ethic. I knew a guy who rushed to the ER because his son had a common stomach ache. Would all of these people have acted so extremely if it hadn’t been for the sake of someone else?

What I really want is for people to have a widespread knowledge of proxy defense, and a desire to fight against it in their own lives. This doesn’t need to be a grand sweeping social shift for it to have an effect. Even the small things you do in day-to-day life can be affected by proxy defense. Do not act out of line of your own set of morals, even if it’s for the sake of someone else. I think that entertainment is the first step to solving this situation. Proxy defense is a real philosophical problem that has turned into a narrative crutch. We need more things like John Wick or Spec Ops: The Line to challenge the way people usually think about heroism.

Case Study: FFXIII System Easing

Japanese AAA games seem to have a penchant for convoluted, complex combat systems. I mean, they all have such ridiculous names. FFXIII‘s “command synergy battle.” TWEWY‘s “stride cross battle.” Tales of the Abyss‘s “flex range linear motion battle system.” Don’t get me started on Kingdom Heart’s real-time menu.

It’s interesting because American/European AAA games seem to be leaning towards minimalism and simplicity. The freeflow combat pioneered by the Batman Arkham series has been coming through in many other titles like Shadow of Mordor or Mad Max because it’s so simple and intuitive for the player. Movement in games like Mirror’s Edge or Assassin’s Creed is often reduced to a very few amount of buttons that cover many different actions depending on the context. When you think minimalism, you still think indie, but it’s leaking a little bit into modern AAA titles.

But this article isn’t about the differences between Asian design philosophy and American/European design philosophy (which is probably an article I should get around to sometime). I may not personally agree with the Asian penchant for overly complicated control schemes, but I do have to agree that they’ve refined their craft to a point.

There was a certain boss fight in FFXIII that struck me as very well-designed, particularly in regards to how they used it to ease the player into the game’s more advanced nuances. This was the boss fight (or rather, series of boss fights) against the Ushumgal Subjugator. Apparently, they like to name their bosses as strangely as they like to name their battle systems.

For a little bit more context about FFXIII’s “command synergy battle,” check out my post on the mana system paradox.

Anyway, FFXIII’s combat is just very weird. You have three people in a party, but you only directly control one. As for the others, you can assign them roles and they’ll automatically do things based on their role. A healer will heal, a fighter will fight, a defender will defend, so on and so forth. So you get a really weird situation where the player isn’t sure where they should put their focus. On one hand, you can control your one main character, but on the other hand, enemies are also moving and attacking in real-time, and on the third hand (???) your ALLIES are also moving and attacking in real time. It’s a lot to take in at once.

For the first half of the game, you never really have any extended periods of gameplay where you have a full party of three people. Instead, everyone splits up into pairs and wanders around as separate groups, then they all come together and you can swap party members out. This helps reduce the burden, because a party of two is easier to manage than a party of three. Not only that, but the game is very careful to make sure that the two people who are paired together can work together and cover each other’s flaws. There will never, ever be a situation where your team doesn’t have a healer, for instance.

But that means that there’s a very interesting design challenge: how do you ease players from controlling a party of two, to a party of three? The game continues in groups of pairs for a very significant amount of time, and the player has probably developed habits and tactics revolving around their two characters. Fortunately, the Ushumgal Subjugator boss fight does it in a very smooth transition that trains players to rethink their strategies and feel really powerful while they’re doing it.

The Ushumgal Subjugator has three stages: an aerial form and a ground form that is fought over two battles. When you first fight the aerial form, you’re doing it with a party of two, just like any other boss fight. However, it helps prime the player for the upcoming shift by introducing a new mechanic: knockups. Periodically, the Ushumgal Subjugator will use an attack that launches any characters hit up in the air, which renders them completely unable to take any actions until they land and recover. Here, you can see an obvious connection: if a character has been knocked airborne, you have a few seconds where you don’t need to worry about controlling them. During the first boss fight with two people, it’s a major setback, but when you have a party of three, you can afford to lose someone for a moment, and it actually helps ease the transition a little.

Otherwise, the first Ushumgal Subjugator boss fight isn’t particularly interesting or noteworthy. The player defeats it quickly (it’s meant to be an easy boss) and moves on. But then it shows up again during a sob story cutscene, and one of the characters is too wounded to fight. Now, suddenly the tables are turned: for the first (and I think only) time in the entire game, you fight against a boss with only one character. This second fight is scripted, and the boss does nothing interesting except keep attacking. Whether you run out of health or survive for long enough, two allies run in to join the fight and the third stage starts.

Now, the player controls a full party of three against a boss. It’s really sudden, but there are a lot of subtle mechanics in play to make sure that the transition goes as smoothly as it can. First, two of the three characters can be healers, which means that there’s always an opportunity to restore health. Second, the boss uses many light attacks that damage everyone on the team, which means that healers will always be topping off their allies: there are almost no times when a healer is useless. The player is most likely using some combination of two attackers and one supporter, so that the two attackers can be thought of as a single entity and the supporter is constantly topping everyone off from the boss’s multi-target attacks.

Third, and most interestingly, the boss uses a variation of the lockdown mechanic that was seen earlier during its first stage. It doesn’t knock characters airborne, but instead, it will select a single character and launch a series of concentrated attacks against that character. This is telegraphed ahead of time (the boss will say that it is targeting someone) so the player has plenty of time to switch their playing style. Now that the boss is focusing attacks on a single target rather than multiple ones, the player needs to take healing and defense more seriously: topping everyone off evenly isn’t viable anymore.

Whether the boss is doing light damage to everyone or heavy damage to a single attack, it makes the appropriate counterattack obvious and accessible. The player doesn’t need to think of their team as three separate characters, but rather in two categories: high offense, or high defense. They can put three characters on offense, or two on offense and one on defense, or two on defense and one in offense, or three in defense. No other mechanics are necessary for this immediate boss fight.

This is interesting because with the parties of two that the player has been controlling up until now, there were many more mechanics in play than offense or defense. They had to worry about buffing allies, or debuffing enemies, or splitting their attacks across multiple enemies, or removing status effects, or all sorts of other things. But the boss fight against the Ushumgal Subjugator involves none of that. It is literally just offense or defense, and the player allocates their resources on a slider across that spectrum. As the player progresses, they slowly have to relearn all of these mechanics with three people instead of two. The Ushumgal Subjugator bossfight acts almost like a hard reset: it brings the player back to a simpler time, before they need to worry about invulnerability windows or elemental typings.

I think the fight could have been improved if the Ushumgal Subjugator’s knockup attack was brought back for the third stage. For example, when the Subjugator locks onto a single target, it should do something to suppress that target for an extended period of time, and in exchange do less damage to that target. That way, it gives the player an opportunity to rethink the combat scenario with two characters instead of three. This would also be empowering because the player still has access to a wide range of actions while a single member of their party is suppressed, as opposed to before when they only had parties of two people.

This boss fight is a really good way of introducing complex game mechanics through play, which is a good thing. Many games will introduce complex game mechanics by adding more mechanics on top, which is a little counterintuitive but happens more often than you’d think. For example, in Lethal League, there’s a whole world of parries and special attacks that form a precarious system of checks and balances. When you hit a ball, there’s a special move you can do to make sure that someone else can’t hit the ball out of your hands, and that special move feels like a bandaid design solution. It’s solving a problem by adding a new mechanic, and maybe for them it was inevitable, but in general I think a designer should hesitate to add new mechanics.

And that’s not to say that FFXIII doesn’t have a truckload of extraneous mechanics, because it does. Upgradeable weapons, tactical points, full ATB attacks, the list goes on. But the Ushumgal Subjugator boss fight is a nice exception, because it doesn’t add anything new to confuse the player. Instead, it gives the player all the exact same mechanics they had gotten used to previously, and throws a third party member into the mix while keeping the overall tension level low enough that the player can understand everything that’s going on. I think that’s good design and it’s something to be learned from.

Narrative Design: Understanding Why

Earlier, I wrote about why layers. The basic idea is that as you develop a story, you should always be asking yourself “why is this happening,” and the more “why” questions you can answer, the more fleshed out the story becomes. But through it all, I seem to have forgotten my own rule.

Why are why layers important? Why do we care about finding out why things happen? Why do we ask why?

It’s a funny question, but it’s one that builds from the core of what narrative really means and why we engage with it. Even though it gets kind of weird, we still have to figure it out. But once we do, we can find many ways to use why layers and develop better stories.

But first, let’s start off with a joke.

Contextualizing The Little Moments

A man was walking along a beach in California when he found a genie in a bottle. The genie said “Okay, you know how this works, but I’m only going to give you one wish, so choose wisely.”

The man thought for a moment. “I have a vacation home in Hawaii, but I hate flying there. It makes me sick and nauseous. I’d like to have a bridge that connects California to Hawaii.”

“Are you insane?” the genie asked incredulously. “A bridge? How do you expect that to work? I’m supposed to lay concrete down all the way to the bottom of the ocean floor? Ridiculous. Give me something a little more realistic to work with.”

“Hmm,” the man sighed. “Alright. How about instead of the bridge, you tell me how women’s minds work?”

“You want two lanes or four?” asked the genie.

Pretty standard joke. You’ve probably heard it before. Let’s apply why layers to it. Why does the genie refuse to teach the guy how women’s minds work? Because it’s impossible. It’s even more impossible than building a bridge from California to Hawaii (which has been established to be quite impossible). That’s what makes the joke funny.

Now, let’s try changing the punchline a little bit.

“Hmm,” the man sighed. “Alright. How about instead of the bridge, you tell me how women’s minds work?”

“Understanding a woman’s mind is probably more difficult,” the genie replied. “How about I’ll just build you the bridge instead?”

Well… it’s not funny anymore. Even though it says the exact same thing, it’s not funny anymore.

The why layers aren’t the point. Just because they exist doesn’t automatically mean that they are interesting. Both versions of the bridge joke have the same why layers, but one of them isn’t even a joke anymore.

Why layers are interesting when the reader figures them out on their own. The reader has to figure out the connections and the reasons by themselves. When it works well, everything just clicks into place and the story makes sense. Every event has a cause and an effect, and you can trace them back to their roots. Suddenly, the story becomes nuanced and multifaceted, with multiple lines of thought trailing through different causal relationships. You become attached to the characters, because you stuck together with them and you know why they did the things they did.

The reader’s involvement is crucial to this process. If the reader does not actively try to dig into the why layers, then the narrative becomes meaningless. Even if the story is filled with rich backgrounds and context, none of it reaches the reader. As writers, we should make sure that the stories we create have a good amount of why layer depth, but we must not forget that the reader is just as important to the process.

It’s important for the why layers to be there, but we can’t present them all at once. If we just shove everything into the reader’s face, it’s not a story anymore, it’s a history textbook. There’s just way too much information to handle. That’s why great stories will slowly reveal the reasons why characters do the things they do. Great stories use careful pacing to make sure readers can follow the story without being overloaded by all the context.

A story’s climax is a great place to pull all the why layers together. At this point, the reader can make the tentative dive into the why layers you’ve prepared for them. All of the story’s plotlines converge into a single point, and the final clash shows you why everyone did what they did.

Take the climax of Lord of the Rings. Frodo stands at the edge of Mount Doom, hesitating before throwing the One Ring into the fires. Sam yells and pleads with Frodo to let go of the ring and let it fall. Suddenly, Gollum shows up and wrestles with Frodo for the ring. Their scuffle ends up in Gollum biting Frodo’s ring finger off and falling into the fires himself. Ultimately, the ring is destroyed along with Gollum.

This scene is just filled with plotlines and causal events that are just so fun to tumble around in your head. Suddenly, we see the reason why Gollum exists. He is the final factor that destroys the ring. Why was Gollum there? Because the hobbits allowed him to come along with them out of goodwill. People have tried to destroy the ring before, and they never succeeded. Elrond and Isildur stood upon the exact same edge that Frodo and Sam did. The reason why they didn’t succeed was because Gollum wasn’t there.

And do you think that they, a mortal man and a proud elf, would have tolerated Gollum’s presence on their way to Mount Doom? No way. They would have spurned Gollum as the disgusting, filthy creature that he is. But the hobbits, filled with goodness and kindness and innocence, brought Gollum with them. If they hadn’t, history would have repeated itself. Frodo would have escaped with the Ring, Sam would have been helpless to do anything, and after hundreds of years Sauron would reform again.

So why did the story happen the way it did? Because hobbits hold a level of purity that no other race does. Hobbits are silly and rowdy and lazy. They play all day without a care in the world. But it is precisely because of those traits that they were the only characters in Middle Earth who were capable of destroying the ring. All the grimdark humans and the zealous elves and the brutish orcs took their lives so seriously, but that itself was their downfall. The hobbits were simple, and you could see how simple they were because you followed their journey with the Fellowship. While everyone else is gritty and hardboiled and ready to save the world, the hobbits are dancing in pubs and eating two breakfasts. It makes sense. We see why it happened.

You can also see that Tolkien was careful to keep these why layers hidden until the final climax. Throughout the whole story, we’re wondering why these stupid little hobbits are taking the ring. Why not give it to a human? Boromir’s plotline shows us why, but it doesn’t give us the whole story. Or why don’t the hobbits just ride a flying eagle to Mount Doom (1)? Or why don’t they use a massive catapult to launch the ring into the fires? Or why don’t the humans just get a massive army together and crush Sauron’s empire and not even bother with the ring at all?

We only see the answer at Gollum’s climax. The ring can only be destroyed by a pure-hearted ideology. You can’t crush the ring, you can’t smash it with brute force. Tolkien wants us to know that the answer is not to fight and wage war and flaunt power. His answer is to go back to the roots and be simple-minded, loving people who enjoy life. To destroy the ring, you have to seek peace, not war.

Do you see how much context we can get from a little imp-thing biting off someone’s finger? How that one small action can reveal so many why layers underneath? If you showed LotR‘s climax to a completely new viewer, it would make absolutely no sense. But if you’ve followed Frodo’s and Sam’s journey through the whole ordeal, everything comes together. The joy comes from tumbling the scenario around in your head, letting all the pieces show what the story’s really all about.

This is what why layers are for: they contextualize the little moments. A story becomes great when it presents a scenario that makes no sense in isolation, but through the why layers we see the context and understand why it happened, and that it couldn’t have happened any other way. That’s how stories get people to think, and analyze, and learn.

Climaxes aren’t the only way to do this. All the little moments leading up to a story can have context. When Cobb spins his top in Inception, it has meaning. We don’t understand the meaning at first, but through the rest of the movie, the top becomes so significant that it becomes the ending shot. Or when the Joker talks about his scars in The Dark Knight, we know that he’s talking about more than events: he’s telling us about his personality and why he’s such a crazy guy.

A character’s idiosyncrasies are actually a great way to tell us more about that character and why they do the things they do. In Burning Tides: The Reckoning, we see that the character Twisted Fate is scared of water. He doesn’t outright tell us that he’s scared of water, but we see it in the small things he does: he comments about how he needs new clothes to replace the sea’s stink, and we also see how he opts to choose paths around water whenever available. So why does he hate water so much? Well, there’s an answer for that too, and it turns out that the answer plays a pretty big part in the story’s climax. But just the fact that we can think “oh, Twisted Fate hates water” is a small satisfaction in and of itself. It makes us think that we’ve grown to understand the character a little better.

It’s a magical moment when you understand a character so well that you can predict what they’re going to do. When it happens, it feels like there’s an actual bond, that you have a connection with the character, that you know how they think. That feeling is one of the reasons why we make friends at all: because we crave those little moments when we think we understand each other.

Why does the doll in Sebastian’s Voodoo stab his hand first? Because it’s wrestling with two conflicting problems: it wants to save its friend, but it also doesn’t want to die. The doll could have just stabbed itself through the heart from the very beginning, but it was scared. It wanted to see if there was a way to get the best of both worlds, to save its friend and still live at the same time. All of the tension in this short animation comes from the duality between those two problems, and the slow eventual realization that a sacrifice must be made.

Why does Ekko restore the mural in Seconds? Because it means a lot to him. We don’t know what it means, but we do know that it’s very, very important. The whole animation sets up his time machine’s mechanics very well, so we can see that it’s going to be extremely painful for him to restore the mural. But he still does it. That small realization generates so much curiosity. Just what is so special about the mural?

Why does Gordon Ramsay start every single dish with olive oil? Because he loves olive oil. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of his Youtube cooking videos without olive oil in it. It’s kind of surreal. He uses it in everything. He would use olive oil if he was making cereal. Maybe the reason why he’s such a popular entertainer is because he makes it really easy to understand how he thinks. When you watch his videos, you get that connection quickly. Many people say that they like him because of how honest and down-to-earth he seems, which is another way of saying that he’s easy to understand.

All of these tiny, almost inconsequential details come together to show us more about these characters. The why layers are buried underneath the story, but when we get those little glimpses into why people do the things they do, it feels really good.

Character Tropes

Through this whole discussion, we can start to see the reasoning behind using character tropes in a story. You have the hard-to-get girl, you have the good cop and the bad cop, you have the cackling villain. Tropes are everywhere, and the reason why people use character tropes is because they are a quick and easy shortcut to why layer contextualization. It’s hard to write a person who’s so nuanced that you can understand them. But it’s not hard at all to understand a trope. Everything’s already there. There’s nothing left for you to figure out.

Why does this guy want to see if Kazaoka-kun can solve the human clone mystery quicker than he can? Because he’s a proud arrogant character trope. You already know that he exists for no other purpose than to be a jerk to the main character. There are no deeper reasons behind his actions. He just automatically falls under the antagonist trope for the sake of pushing the story along.

Why does Chitoge always beat up Ichijou in Nisekoi? Because she’s a tsundere trope. She likes him but she doesn’t want him to know so she acts like she hates him. We’ve all seen it before. Chitoge is practically a color-by-numbers tsundere character, so when her actions and intentions don’t align, we instantly know why.

Why is Gordon Ramsay so mean? Because he’s an angry chef character trope. Word is that the American version of his show uses editing to make him seem angry all the time, in order to make the show more interesting and exciting. And it’s definitely easy to understand. When you watch US Kitchen Nightmares, you know that everything Ramsay does, he does it because he’s mad and that’s it. Maybe those other chefs should have used more olive oil.

When you’re viewing a story and you see the shy quiet girl, or the aggressive angry coworker, or the overzealous religious fanatic, you already know what’s going to happen. The why layers are already laid out for you. There’s an instant connection because the reader has seen it so many times before. It fulfills the purpose of why layers.

But the problem is that it just ends there. That’s it. There’s no deeper meaning, there’s no life lesson, there are no morals to learn. The story has nothing else to say. Now, you have a story filled with character tropes, but those characters may as well be mindlessly thrown together. Their interactions aren’t shedding any new truths about the human condition.

To put it in other words, a trope-based story is simple but shallow. You can throw one together quickly and without too much effort, but the resulting story will not have a particularly significant meaning. On the other hand, developing the why layers from the ground up is really hard, but you may notice that most masterpieces are written that way.

If you’re writing original characters with self-directed motivations and deep-seated why layers and they just happen to end up falling into a trope or two, that’s fine. A trope by itself is not automatically bad for being a trope. They are only bad when you build directly off of tropes as a shortcut, rather than starting from scratch.

Conclusion

In narratology, a common exercise is to figure out if the following sentence is a story:

“The king died, and then the queen died.”

The common answer is that no, it’s not a story, but it can become a story if you add a little bit extra:

“The king died, and then the queen died of grief.”

The point of the exercise is to enforce the power of causality. If the queen dies for no reason, then it’s not a story, it’s just a pair of unrelated events. It could be a coincidence for all you know. But if the queen dies because the king died, suddenly there’s a cause and an effect. One thing happened because of the other. We can make a link between the two. A why layer has been fulfilled. Why did the queen die? It’s because the king died and she was sad.

But here, after everything I’ve said in this essay, I want to present a third version.

“The king died, and then the queen committed suicide.”

Same thing. The queen died of grief. But now, the why layer isn’t explicitly exposed. With this version, it’s up to the reader to draw the connection. That act of drawing connections between things is what makes stories enjoyable. Now, it’s just like the bridge joke.

ENDNOTES

(1) Why doesn’t Frodo ride a giant eagle to Mount Doom? Lots of people like to pick at these kinds of plot holes. My personal answer is that if Frodo had taken an eagle, he would have chickened out right at the edge of Mount Doom, put on the ring, jumped off the eagle, and hid in Mordor to keep the ring. The key is that if they rode an eagle, Gollum would not have been there, and we already know what happens if Gollum isn’t there. In fact, this whole topic segways into a discussion about evaluating plot holes… but that’s another topic.

Game Design: Charitable Criticism

I like to browse game forums for titles that I play, and it’s really common to see people saying things like “hey I just had a great idea, I hope the devs are reading this.” Then they write a few paragraphs about their great idea, as if they’re expecting the game’s developers to look at their post and go “Holy shit we gotta do this now!”

And it’s not just a gamer/consumer thing, either. A lot of game developers are still wrapped up in the value of ideas. They think a good idea is valuable, and in particularly bad cases they think someone can be hired and paid to just sit there and think of good ideas. I’ve already written about why game designers are not just “idea guys.”

The thing is, it’s good to be critical of the games we play. It’s good to think about ways to improve them as we play them, or after we’re done playing them. But when you start thinking “why didn’t the game developers do this idea,” you start falling into an unknowingly destructive mindset that can hold you back from realizing your full potential.

There are enough game designers out there who will tell you that ideas are worthless because execution is everything. And it’s definitely true, but I hope to bring in a new perspective about ideas in game design and their overall value in the development process.

Principle of Charity in Philosophy

When you have an idea that you want other people to think of, you are essentially turning that idea into an argument. And once it becomes an argument, it becomes a construct of logic, and standard rules of logic begin to apply. Here, I don’t mean logic as in cause-and-effect and flowcharts, but rather I mean logic as in philosophical argumentation. Rhetoric, persuasiveness, all that jazz.

And in the world of philosophical argumentation, there’s this thing called the “principle of charity.” The principle states that when you’re hearing out someone else’s argument, you need to think of their argument in the best possible light. You should not be trying to nitpick at the small details in their argument, and you shouldn’t think of their argument in worst-case scenarios to make it easier to defeat. If you can defeat their argument at its best possible interpretation, you have truly won. Otherwise, it’s too easy for the other person to say “no, you don’t understand what I mean, so your rebuttal is invalid, here’s what I actually mean” and the cycle just keeps going on.

So if I say something like “Dishonored‘s hats have the best animal behavior in modern games,” you could say “what do you mean Kenneth, that makes no sense whatsoever,” and you would be right. Or you could give me the benefit of the doubt and assume that I meant rats, which are very prevalent and symbolic in Dishonored, and do indeed behave very realistically. Of course, everything would be fixed if I hadn’t been an idiot and mistyped “rats” in the first place, but that’s kind of the point. That was a pretty bad example because it was a physical misspelling, but the same thing happens with mental arguments. People don’t always present their arguments in their best possible light, so if you want to have a meaningful debate, you need to take on that burden even as the argument’s attacker.

If you have a cool idea for something that should have been in a game you recently played, you are essentially making an argument. Your stance is “This game would have been better if the developers did this thing,” and the opposing stance is “No, this game would not have been better (it possibly could have been worse) if the developers did that.”

Let’s take Towerfall Ascension as an example. Imagine if you said “Towerfall would be better with networked multiplayer” and I said “Towerfall would not be better with networked multiplayer.” The same argument happens for games like Samurai Gunn which are criticized for being local multiplayer only. So we’ve created our arguments and we’re about to have a logical debate, and there are two ways we could go about doing this.

One, we could strawman each other’s arguments to hell. You could say “Towerfall doesn’t have networked multiplayer because the dev is a lazy bum who doesn’t want to bother programming it.” Then I would say “Towerfall doesn’t have networked multiplayer because you stupid little gamers only want more features, you don’t want to appreciate the game as it is.” We would both see each other’s arguments in their worst possible lights, and the debate would quickly become meaningless.

Two, we could follow the principle of charity. You could say “Even though Towerfall is meant to be a personal experience shared with others in close proximity, that could still be done through networking if you also implemented a voice chat or smart ping system, and you would also get a larger target audience which means more personal experiences shared, thus fulfilling the vision that the game was supposed to achieve in the first place.” And then I would say “that’s a great argument, but then we run into the problem of internet trolls, the community nature of the game is important to get people into the game.” No name calling, no negative assumptions. Everyone takes the opposite argument in its best possible light.

And yeah, conversations don’t usually get this dramatic. Sometimes, they do (especially recently with the Phil Fish thing, the Gamergate thing, the Flappy Bird thing… way too many things) but when you’re just saying “hey devs I have a great idea, I hope you’re reading this,” it feels like just an innocent little blurb. But if you make an offhanded, absentminded comment about how much better a game would be if it added just this one tiny little thing, you’re making a pretty rude assumption without realizing it: you’re assuming that the game’s developers didn’t already think about your idea.

This is the opposite of charity. This is taking the other side’s perspective in the worst possible light. “They didn’t do this idea because they didn’t think about it,” or “they didn’t do this idea because they couldn’t implement it,” or “they couldn’t do this idea because they didn’t have enough money.” All of these assumptions are casting a negative light on the developers. You are thinking yourself to be better than they are, by assuming that your ideas are better than theirs.

Who knows, maybe some of those reasons really are true. Maybe they really didn’t have the budget or the technical know-how or the idea in the first place. But remember, the point of the principle of charity is not to maintain 100% veracity. The point is to make sure that your argument develops into its best possible form.

Try to think about why they didn’t do your idea. Assume that they thought about it, they had the budget, they had the ability, and despite all of that they still didn’t do it. Why? Maybe they had discussions where someone brought up a good point that shut the idea down. Or maybe they went even further and built a prototype for the idea, only to find a crippling problem with it. These are the kinds of things that you cannot find just by thinking about an idea.

If you can understand why another studio didn’t put your brilliant idea in their game, you can evolve as a game designer because you’re starting to understand more points of views than just your own. It’s too easy to just say “my ideas are brilliant” and go with that, but if you can recognize the flaws in your own thinking, you can fix them and get better. But if you just assume that the game developers didn’t use your idea because they didn’t think about it, you’re not challenging your own position to its maximum stress limit, and you’re not getting as much out of it.

I realized all of this the hard way. I was one of those people who sat there and said “man, why didn’t the developers do this instead, it would have been so awesome.” Then one day, I decided to get up and make those ideas myself. By doing so, I learned that there are reasons why armchair design doesn’t work out.

Case Study: Difficulty in The World Ends With You

So The World Ends With You on DS was my favorite game to think of ideas for. Its mechanics were just so novel and innovative, but the game itself didn’t really hit the ball out of the park with their delivery. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a pin that was like a Scorpion hook to pull Noise towards you, or wouldn’t it be cool if you could use imprinting on your ally, or wouldn’t it be cool if you could switch controls between you and your partner mid-battle, or… my friends quickly got tired of me talking about TWEWY.

All along, I felt that the main problem with TWEWY was that its difficulty curve was way too punishing. The mechanics were completely alien to fans of action-RPGs, fans of hack-and-slashes, fans of fighting games, fans of anything at all because no game had really done anything like it before. In TWEWY, you control one character on the bottom screen with the stylus, and you control another character on the top screen with the directional pad, and you do it simultaneously in real time. In the heat of combat, it becomes really easy to lose your focus, so usually you just focus all your attention on one character and control the other one by mashing buttons.

The thing is, the difficulty was symbolic. Connecting to other people, understanding other people, matching other people’s rhythm is hard. That was like the whole point of TWEWY, and the mechanics made sure you lived through it. Every time you blamed the second character for dying when your primary character was doing just fine, you felt like the game would be so much easier (and less frustrating) if you only had to control one. But later, as you get better at the game and figure out the controls, you begin to figure out how to use the dual character setup. You start switching your focus back and forth, rather than only concentrating on one. At the highest level of play, you wield both characters simultaneously with equal force. It’s just that that never actually happened, because the game was so difficult.

Then they remade TWEWY. They called it The World Ends With You: Solo Remix and published it on iOS. Obviously, there weren’t any more physical buttons, so I was very curious to know how they were going to implement the control-your-partner system, and it turns out they didn’t. In Solo Remix, you control your main character with your finger exactly the same way you did with a stylus on DS, and your partner was controlled automatically.

Solo Remix was a lot easier to pick up, and arguably a lot more fun to play. However, the original TWEWY was much more symbolic and meaningful within the game’s overarching message. As a designer, this contrast interested me deeply. Frustration and fun are practically opposing concepts, but TWEWY was inherently a story about frustration: the frustration of being unable to relate to other people, which later evolves into the acceptance that different people are different and that we cannot ever simply “understand” each other. Was there possibly a way to blend the two, to create a game that maintains the symbolism but is still intuitive to pick up and fun to play?

These were the kinds of things I liked to think about, and I had whole systems planned out to tackle the problem. I had tons of ideas, and I honestly believed that somewhere in those ideas was the solution. So one day, I decided to make my masterpiece TWEWY rework.

My masterpiece was called Psychic and Gangster. PaG is a one-player, two-character game with simultaneous real-time control on a single screen. It’s played on a PC, so you have mouse and keyboard controls. The game was a combat system proof-of-concept about a psychic and a gangster in a snowy forest fighting off a pack of wolves. And yes, the story was ridiculous, but the point was that I was trying to create game mechanics that were meaningful and fun.

When I was developing PaG, I had three design pillars that I wanted to orient everything around. These design pillars were the major flaws I saw in TWEWY‘s systems and ways that I could solve their problems. My belief was that with these three pillars, PaG would be both fun and symbolic. It would be everything I wanted TWEWY to be.

The first pillar was simplification. In TWEWY, your main character can have up to six different attacks, whereas your secondary character essentially only has one. That’s too much cognitive load to balance simultaneously, so it promotes button-mash gameplay for the secondary character rather than encouraging you to devote attention to them. To balance this out, I drastically reduced the amount of possible actions each character could take at any time: no defensive ability, and only two attacks, a light attack and a heavy attack.

The second pillar was indication. Enemy attacks in both versions of TWEWY happened very fast, so it was too difficult to react to them, especially so when your concentration was split up between two characters. Likewise, both versions of the game compensated by giving your characters extremely powerful defensive maneuvers which only incurred concentration cost, but that just meant the preferred strategy was to have one character spam defenses while the other character attacks. Instead, all of the wolves in PaG have a long windup phase that clearly indicates their striking zone, so you can actually react with a defense rather than having to dodge all the time.

The third pillar was synchronization. Characters in sync with each other are stronger, and characters out of sync with each other are weaker. TWEWY had a “light puck” system that made alternating attacks between characters increasingly more powerful, and Solo Remix had a “sync” system that would charge up your super attack when you attacked a single target simultaneously. However, these were still only numbers: I wanted to build synchronization into the mechanics. In PaG, each character’s light attack knocks enemies back, so it’s viable to just pinball enemies back and forth with alternating attacks. However, if you screw up, you can knock an enemy away from your own threat zone, so you can gimp yourself if you’re not synchronized with your partner.

So PaG was built with all these fancy design pillars and it was totally gonna be a better version of TWEWY. Only it wasn’t. It was still too difficult and new players were getting overwhelmed. I could try toning down enemy health and spawn rates and all that jazz, but it didn’t fix the core problem: the mechanics weren’t working out. It didn’t feel symbolic and it didn’t feel fun.

Why wasn’t it working? Maybe I wasn’t a good enough programmer, and the controls didn’t feel smooth enough. Maybe I wasn’t a good enough artist, and the hit effects weren’t satisfying enough. If I was the head of TWEWY‘s development and I had fleets of experienced artists and programmers to command, I would surely be able to do my three-pillar simultaneous-control battle system justice, right?

But no, those weren’t the answers. As bad as the art and the programming on PaG were, the problem was with the underlying design. I thought I had it all figured out, but the design was still not working out. In order for simultaneous action gameplay to work, each character would have to be so extremely simplified that the game would be unable to support RPG-style character progression.

The TWEWY devs didn’t use a system like mine because it didn’t work. They probably had someone bring it up. They probably had someone write a giant treatise about a two-player simultaneous control system. They probably even threw together a quick prototype to try it, and they probably came to the same conclusion as I did: that simultaneous control does not work in an action context. That’s why they designed both TWEWY and Solo Remix around alternating individual control, rather than constant simultaneous control.

All of my fancy three-pillar theories and ideas ended up not working out. I got to find out firsthand why they would not work out. And that’s just how game design works. Some things turn out awesome, way more things turn out horrible. But I didn’t come up with a revolutionary brilliant system that could make better gameplay than a triple-A studio’s flagship title. Someone up in TWEWY‘s development team was probably as attached to the concept of simultaneous control as I was, and they were probably very sad when they found out that it didn’t work, but in the end they had to do what they did in order to make the game good.

Always Ask Why

Instead of saying “the game developers should have done this,” try saying “why didn’t the game developer’s do this?” And really think about it. It’s hard to simulate a game development environment in your head, but think about all the possible counterarguments, and think about all the possible things that could go wrong with your idea. If you just sit there thinking that your ideas are brilliant, you’re doing armchair design and that does not work.

I still believe it’s very important to be critical of games, but the principle of charity encourages us to be critical in a different way than we would be if we just assumed that the game developers didn’t think of our ideas. Even outside the realm of game critiques, anytime there’s an idea floating around, you can turn it into an argument against an imaginary opponent, and you can start honing the idea down.

A good point I like to ask myself is “would this change make this game better, or would this change push the game in a direction that it’s not supposed to go?” Most games revolve around a core theme, and if you think a new element should be added or changed, it might be a good idea in isolation but it might actually disrupt the whole theme. For example, I like to trend away from random elements as much as possible, but if you took random elements out of a game like Fire Emblem it would completely change the theme that the game is trying to convey. That’s something you can learn by applying the principle of charity to your arguments.

Basically, ideas are still worthless, but they can be made slightly less worthless by applying the principle of charity. And for people who go heavy on theory like me, that can be really helpful. But the lesson to be learned is to iterate, be ready to throw things away, and build quick prototypes to test concepts that you can’t masticate in your brain alone. The principle of charity should be an important piece of a game designer’s concept refinement process.

Case Study: Emotion In Cave Story

Stab me with a pitchfork, but I’m really not on board with the whole nostalgia trip that’s been taking over the indie world recently. Too often, it just feels contrived and meaningless. If you want to use pixel graphics, cool, but is there any real reason why pixel graphics are good for the game, or are you just using them because you feel like it? That’s not a valid design reason for anything. There are too many games that are just nostalgic for nostalgia’s sake, which I guess is a potential target audience, but design decisions should be made for meaningful reasons within the product’s core theme.

That’s why I like Cave Story. It’s one of those nostalgia games, and usually I would just groan and roll my eyes at the pixel graphics. And that’s exactly what I did, up until one specific moment in the game that made me go “holy shit,” so that’s what I’m gonna talk about now. I started off thinking that this was gonna be a level design analysis, but this specific moment in Cave Story is much more than just level design. It’s aesthetics, it’s expectations, it’s controls, all leading to one giant punch in the gut. So, get ready for spoilers, because there’s gonna be a lot.

So Cave Story is a story about a cave. “Wow, brilliant observation skills Kenneth, you get a Nobel Prize in title deciphering.” Alright, more specifically, Cave Story is a story about a dude who wakes up in a cave. You play as this dude and you have adventures in the cave and you meet rabbit people and you get guns and you shoot things.

There’s a big giant evil dude who you have to kill to save the world, of course. It’s not a nostalgia game for nothing (although that’s not really a valid thing to say, because the “kill the dude to save the world” trope isn’t just nostalgia, it’s everywhere). But I’m not gonna talk about that. I’m gonna talk about the most strangely named character you will ever cry over: Curly Brace {?}.

Curly Brace is a robot, like you (first spoiler alert). You both have guns and you both kill things. The first time you meet Curly Brace, she’s protecting a small group of rabbit people and she thinks you’re a murderer trying to kill them, so she fights you. Later, you patch things up and become best robot buddies.

The moment I keep referring to starts with a completely unprecedented event: Curly Brace comes along with you on your way to fight some big evil boss. This is the first time in the game you have ever fought alongside a partner, and it’s empowering. Curly follows you around and she has a machine gun and she shoots everything. Her AI is a little wonky, but it’s okay, she doesn’t take damage. You and Curly have a brief segment where you fight through a bunch of bugs and things on your way to the boss.

During this segment, you notice something: Curly is immune to water. There are little puddles of water interspersed throughout the environment, and when she invariably steps into one (because of her wonky AI), a bubble surrounds her like a shield protecting her from water. This is new and interesting, because you have no such bubble. In fact, water is a very dangerous threat to you. When you enter water, an air meter starts counting down from 100, and if it reaches 0 you die. So it feels kind of unfair that Curly Brace is completely immune to water, right? But you can chalk it up to retro-style game design: she has the bubble because her AI couldn’t be improved. It’s just a lazy workaround that the game developer put in so people don’t whine about Curly being able to stay underwater: she can do it because she has a deus ex machina bubble shield you’ve never seen before, so deal with it.

Alright, you shrug and move on (or you ragequit, which you probably don’t). You go through the area together with Curly and her magical bubble, fighting enemies in water and solving water puzzles and doing so many water things that you’d think you were at a waterpark. Eventually, you reach the core of the floating island (second spoiler alert, the cave is a floating island). Then you start fighting the core for some reason I can’t remember. But the interesting thing about this boss fight is that it uses water in a way you’ve never seen before. The boss is in a pretty large chamber, but it’s a fully enclosed chamber, and for its attacks the core will sometimes flood the whole chamber. Since you can’t survive very long in water, you need to reach high ground and hold out until the waters recede, but sometimes the flood will last so long that you will die no matter what. When your air reaches 0, you die instantly, you don’t start losing health gradually like you might come to expect, so it gets frustrating. And while you’re being frustrated, Curly Brace is sitting there with her machine gun and her bubble shield. I don’t know if the designer’s intentionally trying to make you feel jealous of Curly’s bubble, but you definitely end up that way.

The boss’s flood attack, and the player’s dwindling air meter.

Then you defeat the boss. Once the boss is dead, something crazy happens: the whole room gets flooded. Every inch of the room, and there’s no sign that the flood is gonna recede like it did during the boss fight. You try to go back the way you came, but the door is shut tight. You go to the opposite side of the room but there’s nothing. You try to jump up, but there’s no air left. All you can do is fall down and watch your air go to zero. It’s disempowering and frustrating, and the whole time Curly is just standing there in her little bubble. Your air runs out, the screen fades to black, you’re notified that you can’t breathe anymore.

But the game doesn’t end. A text box pops up: “……? You can breathe.” Huh? What? How? The screen fades back into the game view, and you see Curly lying lifeless on the floor next to you in the flooded room. Her bubble shield is now centered around you. Even though all the water’s still there, the air meter is missing. Curly gave you her bubble shield so that you could live on.

Everything up until now has been leading up to this point. All the water, all the puzzles, all the boss attacks, everything revolved around water. And the whole time, you couldn’t help but be a little jealous of Curly’s bubble shield. It was easy to rationalize it because the whole game has a nostalgia tint around it, so you can just say that the bubble shield is a cheap workaround solution so that Curly’s AI didn’t have to take water into effect. But it wasn’t actually like that: the bubble shield was a real in-game element that she just gave to you in exchange for her own life. I don’t know about anyone else, but I felt pretty horrible about it. Here I was, blaming Curly for having a bubble shield purely because she was a dumb little AI companion. When I was treading water and managing air, I casually thought to myself that it would be nice if I had a shield like hers, and then she gave it to me.

Now that you have the air bubble, you continue on through your journey. You travel through aqueducts and you flow through underwater currents and you dodge submerged spikes and you battle giant fish. The whole time, there’s no air meter anymore, because you have the bubble. Even after the boss battle, the very next area you have to move through just continues to reinforce the water/theme and accentuate Curly’s sacrifice. For the rest of the game, you never have to worry about water ever again.

I don’t know if this is the same reaction that the average gamer will have when playing Cave Story. For me, most of this was because I had a special eye out on the nostalgia bias, and I was deconstructing the rationale behind Curly’s AI as I was playing. But there are so many level design elements at play to draw your attention to Curly’s shield. Everything is there to increase the tension at the moment of the final flood, right before she gives you the bubble.

Then, in true old-timey-JRPG fashion, there’s an obscure way to save Curly that you’ll never find out unless you read about it online. I am definitely not a fan of that design style, I think all options should be fairly presented as choices with consequences and that the game should revolve around what the player does with those choices rather than how the player finds out about those choices. Cave Story isn’t a perfect game by Chen-ian standards, but I think it’s good to break down and analyze specific pieces of games and appreciate how they worked in the larger context. There are tidbits of good design in bad games, and there are lessons of things gone wrong in good games. That’s why I never do game reviews, I do case studies.

And Cave Story is a nice game to study. It’s free, it can be completed in one sitting, and it’s got plenty of variety built into its mechanics. But more than anything, it’s one of the few games (rather, one of the few ANYTHINGS) that has made me feel sad over a character’s death. Level design is typically thought of in terms of mechanics and skill curves and learning over time, but it’s also important to recognize that level design can also carry emotions and feelings. As I get better at level design and design in general, I hope to use my skills to give players good experiences, both mechanically and emotionally.