Friday, October 12

Puzzles, Learning, Shifting Gameplay Dynamics, and Design Limitations

Do you like Half-Life 2: Portal? Of course you do; you'd be crazy not to. The team at Armor Games loved it so much they created a flash version, for all of you who don't have computers good enough to run the real deal. Obviously the flash game was created as a port of sorts of the first-person-shooter. Even so, Portal: The Flash Version stands on its own as a fantastic game. You should definitely play it.

Another awesome flash puzzle game is Launchball. Launchball almost has an edutainment feel, it teaches players about physics and power sources and all sorts of cool stuff. The goal is to get a ball from its launch point to the goal in a series of levels. Players must use a specifc palette of blocks to achieve this goal. The blocks come in the form of springs, wind turbines, batteries, and any number of other forms. Whats cool is that all the blocks interact in realistic ways, some having to due with force, others with power. The game is seriously fun.

Both of these games are fun, worthwhile investments of one's time. What makes them so fun, like all good puzzle games, is that genuine, powerful feeling of accomplishment you receive as a player as you work your way through the levels. Good puzzle games are, at their core, about learning. And learning is fun. Portal gives you a basic explanation of the portal gun's functions. Launchball gives you basic explanations of each block type. Its up to the player to figure out everything else. I will always argue that experimental learning is the best type of learning. From experimental learning is derived the greatest sense of satisfaction. In Portal players learn the properties of momentum and how concepts like right and up have to be percieved in a completely new way. In Launchball players learn how all the block types are interconnected, how they effect one another; then they must apply this knowledge to judge the placement of each block.

This is the beauty of these games. The process of learning. The games are fun for those "aha!" moments, when you figure out exactly how to use your knoweldge, and you think, "I'm a Friggen' Genius!" And you are. Good puzzle games make geniuses out of all of us. And thats an amazing feeling.

Before I let you while the hours away playing awesomeness, there one more thing I want to say about each game. Critiques, if you will.

Keep in mind I am discussing the flash version of Portal throughout this article, not Half-Life 2: Portal. As the levels progress in Portal (I'm on level 28, currently), a new gameplay dimension is introduced, requiring another set of skills on part of the player aside from critical thinking and problem solving. Later levels of Portal require timing and dexterity. This gameplay addition is interesting for a couple reasons. One, by the time you get to these speed required levels, you have mastered everything else the game has to offer. If mapped out, the game difficulty would look something like a snake curve: there are peaks of difficulty, then dips of simplicity. These valleys in difficulty result from players having already learned the concepts needed applying to the levels. Eventually, the game has taught players, or rather, players have taught themselves, everything they need to know about velocity and gravity and portal jumping. When the levels requiring problem solving alone reach their peak in difficulty, Portal introduces another dimension of gameplay, dexterity.

This design decision makes sense. The game has nothing new to offer, nothing new with wich to challenge the player. So, when critical thinking has already been mastered, the next obvious design choice is dexterity and timing. Players must now time their portal jumps to coincide with the flow of electrical fields and react quickly enough to avoid spiked walls. These physical challenges become more nad more difficult as the levels progress. My issue with this gameplay addition is that, once it hits, we're playing a completely different game. The challenge now is not to figure out how to solve the level's puzzles, you've already got that down; the new challenge is to portal jump quickly enough and at the right time, and to make sure you land on platforms correctly. What was once a game of learning mechanics and using them to solve each puzzle, is now a game that requires players to pass through the hole at the right time, and to jump and run the right distance quickly enough. You no longer have fun figuring out how to solve a puzzle. Now, you may or may not have fun trying to time a jump correctly. Regardless, the game really isn't the same anymore. I feel like this change completely alters the gameplay so much, that its really not even the same game anymore. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Or is it neither? The game could have potentially thrown more criticial thinking problems at the player and then finished. But what the game did instead is to offer the palyer a new challenge. Weather or not you like this new face of Portal is, perhaps, a personal thing.

Launchball's gameplay does not change throughout the game, like Portal does. But Launchball has its own entirely different issues. The problem is that each block has a specific function, a very specific function, and usually a single function. Not only that, but the function is explicitly explained to players. Furthermore, the level layout sometimes lends itself to fairly obvious solutions. If there's a gap inbetween blocks you pretty much know where to put your spare blocks. Though the blocks are all interconnected, each only functions in a specific way, so if you have a wind generator you know you need to blow a wind turbine on it to work. Essentially,what makes the game so unique and fun, also limits its challenge. I think the game is awesome for its educational elements, and for its experimental learning. But sometimes the learning is hampered by the blocks functioning in such obvious ways. These games are awesome, but as a blog about game design, we want to look at how the games function, why certain things work, and why others don't. And then we need to learn from playing these games, learn what makes them successful, or otherwise, and apply them to our games.

But don't let me get you down. I've had so much fun, so much fun playing these games the last few days. I have no doubts that you will also. Open up some tabs and tear away at Portal and Launchball.

Source: Kotaku

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