Player Agency – The Experiences Only Games Can Bring Us

Pope’s follow up to his 2013 hit “Papers, Please” has a stunning 1-bit art style, adding to it’s unique charm even more.

I recently played through Lucas Pope’s new game “Return of the Obra Dinn”. It’s an amazing game and I can’t sing its praises enough, but I’ll just be focusing on one key aspect of it, and that’s how it made me feel. The game has been getting a ton of comparisons to “Her Story”, a wonderful 2015 title by Sam Barlow, and I absolutely see the connections too. But the game that Obra Dinn reminds me of the most is Johnathan Blow’s 2016 masterpiece “The Witness”. Both of these games elicited an emotion from me that most art never even tries to achieve: the feeling of epiphany.

In doing research for this article I found an amazing piece about romance in games by Andrea Phillips, which you can read here. I’ll try not to retread what she has said too much, but she does come up with a great term that I’ll borrow here: emotions of agency. These are the emotions that only video games can produce. The best stuff that any media has to offer will elicit strong emotions from you. Most of these are second-hand though, games can make you feel these emotions firsthand.

One of the first puzzles you’ll solve in Obra Dinn. All of the pieces are available to you, you just have to find out how they fit together.

I’ve seen tons of mystery films that don’t feel like a tangible, solvable mystery to the viewer. I often find that we simply get to see the characters show off their wit as they unravel clues. We marvel at their intelligence, but the audience doesn’t get to experience these eureka moments for themselves. To be fair, it is possible to experience the feeling of epiphany in other mediums. I can think of a few films whose plots unwrap like puzzles, where dedicated viewers will guess a twist ending thanks to some subtle clues. These moments are pretty rare though and will usually only come once a movie, if at all. Video games however can make you feel like the detective, and you’ll get all the satisfaction of solving the mysteries. Games have the ability to be based entirely around making the player feel clever, and like they’ve figured something out using only their ingenuity.

That’s exactly what games like Obra Dinn and The Witness offer. In these two games you’ll always have all the tools you need to solve the puzzle, so it’s up to you to see how everything fits together. And when it finally clicks, it’s an immensely satisfying thing. While these games are amazing in their own right, the reason I admire them so much is because puzzle games are so rare. I love a good action game, but it’s such a well established genre that you need to do a lot more to stand out. A good puzzle game on the other hand is much harder to find, and will offer an experience that tests your intellect where most other games will challenge something like dexterity. This makes puzzlers unique experiences, even in the realm of games.

But there are other games that elicit emotions that just cannot be replicated in any other medium. You can’t, for example, feel embarrassment by watching a movie or reading a book. When something awkward happens in a movie, you might be embarrassed for the person, but you’re not embarrassed yourself. With the interactive medium that is video games however, we can experience these feelings for ourselves. Hence first-hand emotions, emotions of agency.

Shadow of The Colossus is a pretty cliched example to bring up when talking about this kind of thing, but it’s so trite because it just works so well. No other game has even attempted to deliver the kind of experience that it brings. I’m going to dive into the main plot of the game, so if you want to play it but haven’t yet, I would highly recommend that first. It’s an incredible game for many reasons but in order to discuss a lot of them, I will have to spoil it.

The following section contains spoilers for Shadow of the Colossus.

A picture from the 2018 remake of Shadow of the Colossus. Here you can see Wander clinging onto the massive colossus’s weapon. Needless to say the game’s sense of scale is incredible, and it looks gorgeous.

Shadow of the Colossus is about remorse, and it’s the only game I’ve seen even attempt to capture that emotion. The game lets you control the protagonist, Wander. We don’t know much about him, except that he’s grieving after the loss of a young girl named Mono. We don’t know anything about their relationship, but the journey Wander goes on to try and save her speaks volumes. He takes nothing but his horse and his sword, and sets out to slay the sixteen colossi across the land (you can see one in the picture above), being promised by an ancient entity named Dormin that if he does so, Mono may come back to life. That much is never even made a certainty.

This is the exposition you get at the start of the game, more or less, and the rest of the story is incredibly minimal. You follow Wander as he seeks to kill the colossi. These gigantic beasts are majestic, and mysterious. They’re beautiful, yet you have to kill them. Unlike most violent video games where you just assume the people you’re killing are evil, SotC makes you feel guilty for slaying these creatures. Many of the creatures aren’t hostile at all. One of them merely holds you in its hand and glares at you as you stab it, as if it’s just as curious about you as you are as it. You gain a strong sense of empathy for the creatures as you’re causing such pain, and no doubt it starts to give you some hesitation.

You may start the game with no qualms over killing these creatures, feeling like a badass for taking them down, but by the end you start to feel intense regret and guilt. These emotions are not second-hand, they’re very palpable and real. You didn’t watch a character in a movie slay the colossi, you slayed them. These creatures were beautiful, most didn’t attack you unless provoked, and some were entirely peaceful. Yet you killed them, and you’ll finish the game feeling that maybe your task wasn’t as heroic as you originally thought it was. Long after the credits roll you’ll still be thinking about the consequences of your actions.

Spoilers end here.

If you don’t understand the desire to experience things like this, that’s fine. I personally think it’s fantastic that art can create safe places where we can experience things we never would be able to in real life, uncomfortable or otherwise. At the very least they can offer us a valuable new experience we would have been missing out on otherwise, and at best they can teach us something new about the world, and maybe even help us grow as people. These are the things I love to feel when I’m enjoying a piece of art, and video games are no exception.

I think games as a medium have an incredible amount of potential to provide people with unique experiences like this. I love and care about this medium dearly, but it is far from perfect. There’s many things I think the medium could accomplish, and will in the near future, but we aren’t quite there yet. Romance is a big one. There’s a lot of reasons games have never been good at portraying romance. Dialog and story standards have been incredibly low up until the past couple years, and the medium has a spotty relationship with women. This year though an incredible little game called Florence came out, telling a slice of life story about the relationship of two young people as they fall in love for the first time.

I won’t go into detail about the plot, but at it’s core is a love story. You play as the eponymous character Florence Yeoh as she meets a man named Krish, and you’ll follow their relationship through its highs and lows. The gameplay is simple, consisting of WarioWare-like micro-games, an example of which you can see below. In order to talk about what’s going on this picture, I need to explain a very useful term: “mechanics as metaphor”. Mechanics as metaphor was coined by the wonderful ExtraCredits team in 2012, and it’s essential to talking about art games. It’s pretty self explanatory, it’s when the mechanics of the video game represent something other than the literal. In the example of the picture below, you just arrange puzzle pieces into the shape of a thought bubble. Literally you’re solving a simple puzzle, but metaphorically you’re Florence going on a date, thinking of things to say. Over time she gets to know Krish better, and the number of puzzle pieces decrease as it becomes easier to think of what to say, and their conversation flows better.

One of the many examples of how Florence uses mini-games to show the characters’ relationship.

I know these mechanics are incredibly simple, and their metaphors are obvious and perhaps even shallow. But I think it’s a wonderful first step for the medium. Florence was created in the hopes of being a unique experience among the hundreds of derivative games out there that offer the same mechanics and themes, over and over. A first hand look at relationships and love in the modern age, told in a way only video games can tell a story. This interactive medium has so much to offer us, it’s growing and will only continue to grow as time goes on. Games like Florence, Obra Dinn, and SotC are just the beginning. Every year, amazing new video games come out that can offer us experiences unlike anything else. It’s an amazing medium, and I couldn’t be more excited to see where it goes from here.

Thank you for reading.

Player Agency – Crazy Taxi Could Be a Perfect Game

Crazy Taxi is a near perfect video game. That’s high praise, but nothing unprecedented for the game, as it has been hailed as an arcade classic since it originally came out in 1998. However, when I sat down to play it the other day for nostalgia’s sake, I came away with more problems than I did positive things to say about it. The game is still incredible, and there’s nothing that truly feels quite like it, but it’s so close to greatness that it hurts. With only a few small tweaks the game could turn into a timeless masterpiece. Naturally I don’t have the means to make or even pitch this hypothetical project, and I’m not sure there’s a demand for this kind of game in the marketplace today. That being said, if I were at the helm of designing a quasi-remake/sequel of the beloved game, this is just a little wish list of what I’d like to see in this imaginary game.

The playable characters are a great example of the awful caricatures present across the game.

The game’s aesthetic is a time capsule of the 1990’s, warts and all. This stylistic choice isn’t innately garish, just look at Jet Set Radio to see an example of this style well made, but the game has aged incredibly poorly. It’s intentions were never artful, and a game as goofy as Crazy Taxi shouldn’t take itself too seriously, but the game right now plays it a bit too straight, as opposed to the over the top satire it’s meant to be. That of course is my opinion based on how I perceive that game, it’s possible the game was trying to be a genuine portrayal of the culture it embodies, but if that’s the case it did an awful job. It seems much more likely the game was targeting parody, but as previously stated it’s in a weird limbo in between satire and straight. The game could still be Crazy Taxi with a completely different aesthetic, and I encourage future game developers to experiment with the style as they wish, but for the sake of this think piece I’m going to critique the game as is. So in it’s current state, I think the punk aesthetic is fine, it just needs to be turned up to 11.

The music is hands down the most obnoxious part of the game, and it has to be the first thing to go. The game seems to think of itself as a bit punk, but saying that it dips its toes into punk culture might even be an overstatement. If the game wants to be punk, an inherently anti-establishment genre, the poppy tunes are the anti-thesis to that, they have to go. The game’s incredibly shallow dive into punk culture means merely presenting the parts of it that have seeped into mainstream culture. I need noise rock, I need no-wave, I need post-hardcore. The soundtrack doesn’t even need to fall under the umbrella category of punk rock, there’s tons of genres that embody that same “Fuck everything!” attitude. There’s hardcore hip hop, industrial rock/rap, and metal just to name a few, and those are still leaning towards mainstream. There are a lot of artists that have one foot in the underground and the other in pop culture, bands that become mainstream despite their abrasiveness. Artists like Metallica, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, and Death Grips, for a more modern example. All these artists found their niche and arguably extended their reach beyond that, and made their way to a wider audience, and they would be a perfect fit with their straddling of artistic merit and broad appeal.

An archetypal example of cel shading, Jet Set Radio.

As for the rest of the aesthetic, it also needs to be pushed towards the more extreme side. It’s a tough line to ride, lean too hard on the aesthetic and it’ll come off as a gimmick, and less focus on it could prove boring. Crazy Taxi’s art holds up about as well as it can due to it’s cartoony style, and in order to modernize it not much is needed besides the upping of the texture quality. Luckily there’s a modern art style in games that would fit Crazy Taxi in every way: cel shaded. The textbook definition of cel shading is “… a type of non-photo-realistic rendering designed to make 3-D computer graphics appear to be flat…”. The most notifiable distinction to a layman is simply the thick bold outlines over every model, making them pop in a very stylish manner. You can see this in games like Borderlands, anything by Telltale, the list goes on and on. Jet Set Radio is probably the defining example, and it’s a great parallel as it too embodies a kind of tongue-in-cheek tribute to punk.

Now for the main issue here that keeps this game from being the greatest thing ever made: the gameplay. The gameplay is already near perfect, but that’s the key word right there: NEAR. Before I talk about what needs to be changed, I need to explain why the gameplay is so exciting as it is. Crazy Taxi is a pretty simple concept, as the taxi driver you have to drive around a small open world picking up passengers and dropping them at their destinations. The fun comes from how absurd the driving in this game is. You don’t obey a single law of traffic, the passengers don’t even seemed to be buckled in. You crash into cars that block your way and shoe pedestrians off the sidewalk so you can take shortcuts. The game lets you attain ludicrous speeds far above any legal limit, and let’s you get insane airtime as you almost literally fly off makeshift ramps.


There’s just an intrinsic excitement that comes from being able to go so fast and do such crazy stunts with zero repercussions. The problems arise when the game slows down. Basically, the game should never slow down, yet it often forces you to. The core gameplay loop is like so: Drive around until you find a passenger, slow down to pick them up, drive them to their destination so they can exit, then repeat. Notice how I mentioned that you have to slow down, this single action is so simple yet so frustrating. On paper, that probably sounds like a nitpick, but if you actually sit down and play the game yourself it’s immediately noticeable and grating. In game design, every element of the game should reinforce the other, and all mechanics should reinforce the main one. There’s an inherent dissonance in a game about speed telling you to slow down, even if it’s just for an instant. It would be infinitely more fun if instead of having to slow down to park and pick up the passenger, you could speed past them and have them jump inside. Or maybe you could even drift into them, a la this absurd scene from Wanted. This would keep up the pace of the game and allow you to maintain and build your speed for as long as possible. Pedestrians already jump out of the taxi if you don’t get them to their destination fast enough, and they’re capable of superhuman acrobatics in order to avoid your erratic driving, so these aren’t even far fetched suggestions.

The only time you should slow down is if you fail, so you’re slowed as a punishment. This makes the times when you are reaching top speeds that much more rewarding as you need a certain level of skill to reach this point, making the experience feel earned. Maybe crashing into an immovable wall or flipping over and getting temporarily stuck. But maybe you shouldn’t even stop then. Instead of a building blocking your path, you could bulldoze through it. In the original game, you can send cars flying when you run into them, but they impede your momentum a little bit. I say ramp up the cartoony slapstick nature of this and have the cars fly farther, with you not slowing down a bit. The problem then seems that if there are truly no obstacles in your way, where’s the challenge? Tons of modern games have found ways to be fun and even challenging without such strict fail or win states, and some games have ditched them entirely. They’re not an essential feature of game design anymore, at the very least not in a traditional sense. There’s pacifistic walking sims, and games like Kirby’s Epic Yarn where it’s impossible to die. This is the extreme, the logical conclusion to fail states, but Crazy Taxi doesn’t need to be that abstract, in fact it would probably be against it’s ethos to do so. Still, the challenge and “failure” can come from elsewhere. The challenge of the game should just be on getting from point A to Point B as fast and as stylishly as possible, true to it’s score attack roots.

My main gripe with the game was everything concerning speed, but I do have a few smaller points that I’d like to touch on before I conclude. These aren’t really critiques as much as suggestions and little ideas; a series of unrelated points that, while more minor, will create a better game overall. The list follows:

An original Crazy Taxi arcade cabinet, notice the gear stick on the right. While a fun gimmick in the original context, it translates poorly to consoles without any additional peripherals.

1. Drop the gear changing mechanic. The whole mechanic of switching between driving and reversing is incredibly archaic and frustrating, and it’s clear this was just a leftover from the arcade cabinets before it was ported onto consoles. It’s arguable that all of the game has dated arcade design philosophies in it, and that it’s just an inherent part of the game. This is true to extent, the games score chasing nature and quick sessions are clearly intact because of the games arcade origins, but these design choices actually work perfectly in a modern context, possibly more so then they did when the game originally came out. People are seeking shorter and tighter experiences in today’s busy world, and the immediateness of an arcade title is innately exciting in the modern market.

2. Trim the fat. The original Crazy Taxi entries all have tons of unnecessary mini games. My reason for proposing these extra features be dropped is twofold. For one, this niche is already exhibited in other modern games. The Grand Theft Auto series for example, often devolves into these absurd mini-games in it’s multiplayer aspects. You’d often find mods that would allow you to engage in activities, but as of the latest entry the game has legitimate game-modes such as shuffleboard with cars. And hell, Rocket League is a game entirely about Soccer with cars, and it was a hit! So, we really don’t need another game occupying this niche, especially when the results would probably be lesser than the aforementioned examples. Which brings me to my second point: quality. With more focus on the core of the game, that part of the game will naturally be more polished. There’s no need to tack on extra game-modes, or multiplayer, or whatever a modern publisher demands. A shorter experience that’s amazing from beginning to end is always more compelling than a long experience packed in with filler and forgettable moments.

One of the many “crazy” mini-games from the original title’s Sega Dreamcast release.

3. Make the locales interesting. Okay, I know I said those points would be brief, but this last one is admittedly kind of lengthy. Let me start off by saying that the San Francisco setting of the first game is far and away the best the series has ever seen. Whether this proposed new entry in the series is a sequel, a reboot, a remaster, whatever, it needs to take cues from the original’s world map at the very least. The locales are fun and the city is a decent enough locale, but it’s the level design that shines. It’s entirely thanks to San Francisco’s architecture, the steep streets lead to moments of absurd airtime, and all the cars and pedestrians provide hilarious obstacles. There are other locations that no doubt would also provoke similar tests of the laws of physics, and be insanely fun, this is only the first that comes to mind. The sequels had a few interesting ideas, but they were generally just lacking in any interesting level design. Perhaps this is because the game is rooting itself into reality too much, and needs to let loose with it’s design. I’m not calling it to launch itself into the sci-fi genre immediately, I’m only saying that the levels don’t have to be a 1:1 mirror of reality, or anything remotely close.

To add an extra layer of challenge it could perhaps be interesting to drop the obnoxious green arrow that’s present above the player character’s vehicle at all times. The point behind this would be to encourage the players to know where the locations where on the game map, making the time pressure even more intense as you’re never sure of the objective fastest route, or even where the location is. This would also ensure that the developers are forced to make memorable landmarks that standout. In replacement of the giant arrow, I propose a new system that follows like so: The player picks up a person in their taxi, we hear the cliched but necessary exchange of dialog where the passenger tells the taxi person where to head, and a picture of the location along with its name pops up on screen.

The game’s dizzying action is best seen in motion, but nothing comes close to playing it yourself.

So now we have the name of a location, and a picture of it, but how to get there isn’t entirely clear. The player will have to rely on their knowledge of the game world and visual cues in order to navigate there (this whole system is reminiscent of the memories in Breath of the Wild). Dynamic difficulty can also be easily implemented into this system, the longer you take to reach the destination the more disgruntled the passenger becomes. The passenger will naturally start condescendingly reminding you of areas surrounding their destination, and questioning if “you even know where you’re going.” This both fits the games tone, and it’s mechanics. It also just makes sense to have this kind of navigation system should the game still be set in the 90’s, where GPS’s were less advanced and accurate presumably.

The point of this article was to propose a completely theoretical successor to a game that is hardly talked about today, and frankly has little demand (as far as I can see, anyway) in today’s landscape. And I myself don’t have the necessary resources, funds, skills, or licenses to make such a game. So this is simply a pipe dream of mine I’m releasing on the internet for all to see. If by some miracle an executive decides to reboot this franchise (and in this climate, it’ll probably happen eventually) and genuinely cares about making a quality product, then I do hope they also miraculously see this article and take my advice. As I said it’s a pretty far out dream, but I hope there’s a market for it.

It’s been a while since my last article, so I thank you all again for keeping up with me. Expect more in the near future and, as always, thanks for reading.

Player Agency – Video Games Should be Funnier

There was once a time where if someone said that a game had good writing, they meant it had good writing for a game. Nowadays stories in games aren’t seen as rare, they’re almost commonplace. The quality of storytelling has improved greatly, and standards are a lot higher. In the present day games are seen less as toys for children and more as a serious art medium like film or music. That doesn’t mean they don’t still have catching up to do however. While writing overall is much better than what it was a decade or so ago, games are still incredibly lacking when it comes to humor. For that reason, today I’m going to be taking a look at comedy in video games.

The Secret of Monkey Island, released in 1990 by Lucasfilm Games, is the godfather of comedy games.

Art is subjective and what makes a piece good is never set in stone. But there’s still ground rules, and though some of the best pieces break these traditions, there’s always classic do’s and don’ts. Games though, are still relatively new in the grand scheme of things and we haven’t yet created ground rules for a lot of things. Think about the “WASD” control scheme on a PC game, it’s the standard layout for a majority of titles on the platform. Today it’s a staple, but there was a time not too long ago when it didn’t exist. And comedy is a place where no such standards exist to this day. No one has figured out a foolproof way to tell jokes in the medium as of now. Games are so notoriously unfunny that when someone brings up the topics of games that make you laugh you’ll hear the same two or three titles brought up: Monkey Island, Portal, maybe Undertale… So why are most video games humorless, and how can we make them funnier?

The problem lies partially in how we categorize games. We define them first and foremost by how we interact with them. Any signifier of tone or style is secondary. The first thing you hear about a game is whether or not it’s a platformer or a shooter, not whether it has a noir aesthetic, or if it’s a romance. So where entire movies might be defined as being a comedy, in games these descriptors are less important. Another big reason is the disconnect between game writers and the rest of the development staff. Writers often create scenarios for the game they think are funny but will have no other input in the development process, leading the designers to guess how the joke is supposed to be played out. These things are very important, but today I’m just going to be taking a look at the issue from a design perspective.

Being an interactive medium, games struggle with what is arguably the crux of comedy: timing. It’s hard to predict if a joke will land when every player in your game is going to behave differently. A player can easily interrupt the timing of a joke by triggering an event before or after the developers intended. Naturally then if developers want to attempt to be funny they’re going to opt for a very static kind of comedy. A line of dialog in a cutscene, a visual gag, etc. If these things are done right they can be great. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this way of going about comedy, but it’s not taking advantage of the biggest thing that sets games apart from other mediums: interactivity. Not every game needs to be super experimental about the way it tells jokes, but the medium is young and growing so there’s no reason not to at least try to innovate. There are a few titles that have attempted to make genuinely funny interactive content, and I’m going to take a look at how and why they work (or in some cases, why they don’t).

The Portal games succeed by reacting to the players inputs. If you screw up the obvious timing for a joke, a different punchline will take place. Often the other characters will ramble on about how you “didn’t do what you were supposed to” and quickly get sidetracked, and the aimlessness of their monologues ends up becoming the joke. This is a pretty gimmicky solution, but the well written dialog keeps it from getting too repetitive. Beyond that though, the writing in the game is pretty straightforward. Most of the comedy takes place in scripted cutscenes where the player has no agency.

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A level from the 2011 Valve hit, Portal 2. Along with it’s precursor, it’s widely considered one of the funniest games of all time.

The Stanley Parable takes it a step further, giving the player much more freedom. The entire game is a satirical take on player choice and the game has a quip for pretty much everything you do. The Stanley Parable is not a wholly comedic game, there’s times of existential dread and serious dramatic moments, but in its comedic moments it’s a shining example of how to do comedy. Every step of the way it’s obvious the game’s satirical tone was present from the beginning of development. Most importantly though, it feels like a comedy game, as opposed to a movie stuck in a games body which is surprisingly common. There’s a lot of developers that seem more like confused filmmakers in the wrong field of work.

Jazzpunk takes a very different, surrealist approach to comedy. It doesn’t always stick the landing, but you can’t say it’s not unique. The game presents itself as an interactive pastiche of 60’s spy films. Its world is made up of a few large, open levels where the player can wander around, and though you always have an main objective you’re bound to get distracted by the things around you. This is where the true fun of the game will come from. It’s design is similar to a sandbox game, but instead of a physics engine to mess around with, you’re interacting with various characters and objects to see what kind of a gag they’ll pull off. The reason Jazzpunk fails though is because all of it’s jokes are non-sequiturs that mean nothing to the player. They’re completely absurd and require no real input besides pressing a single button. The way it approaches jokes might work in a different game if the punchlines were more grounded in reality, but it comes off sloppy here. Luckily, there are games that take a sandbox approach to humor that do work.

A screenshot of the absurdist comedy-adventure title Jazzpunk, developed by Necrophone Games.

The previous few games we’ve been talking about have been made to consider player interaction, but they’re still grounded in authored experiences. Every joke was still completely intended by the developer. The player had a little input in how some of them would play out, but for the most part it was all predetermined. In recent years though, there’s been a trend of games where the humor comes entirely from the player. Games can often be funny due to glitches or bad design choices, and certain developers have started taking advantage of this fact and built an entire sub-genre of game centered around this kind of humor. Games like Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Surgeon Simulator intentionally give their games awkward controls, unpolished mechanics, and unfinished levels for the sake of laughs. The purposefully bad design is an odd choice that has led to mixed reviews, but it does lend itself to unique gameplay. The games become a sort of interactive slapstick, with the clumsy characters constantly hurting themselves and others in amusing ways.

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In Octodad you have to be a good husband and father, while keeping everyone from finding out that you’re an octopus. It’s as crazy as it sounds.

Now that we’ve taken a look at a couple of the most famous examples of comedy games, what can we learn from all of them? This first thing may seem obvious, but the comedy has to be considered a part of the game from the get go. Jazzpunk was originally designed as a serious game and it wasn’t until later in development that it took a comic turn. If you play it with this in mind it’ll make a lot more sense why it doesn’t usually work. You can’t force comedy into a game where it doesn’t belong. We need to have a better mindset about the tone of our games before development even starts. For example we need to think of our adventure games as “comedy adventure games”, as opposed to “adventure games that just happen to be funny sometimes”.

We also need to let go of control as developers and give some of that freedom to the players. Authored experiences are great, but if we wanted to watch a funny movie we’d go watch a funny movie. If we want to play a funny game then that game should be funny in a way that only games can be. It doesn’t have to be something as strange as Octodad or Jazzpunk. The game can be funny in subtler ways too. You could fill the flavor text and dialog trees with witty jokes. You could offer a minor choice that gives players a sense of freedom and adds personality to the experience. The sky is the limit and as I said earlier, there are no objective wrong choices. All of this is uncharted territory and no one knows what works in every scenario, so we’ve got nothing to lose by being creative and trying something new.

Games don’t have to be completely serious and unfunny, and to be fair a lot of them aren’t. While there’s nothing inherently comedic about party games, their style of play leads to a lot of funny moments. Their environment allows for banter with your friends, as you often get the opportunity to surprise or screw them over. So the medium is clearly a place where wholesome fun and laughter can be had, after all that’s the experience a lot of games are attempting to provide in the first place. When we go out of our way to intentionally design a game with the purpose of being funny, we just need to keep this stuff in mind and let our imaginations do the rest. Just about every year there’s a game with some inspiring new mechanic that becomes a must have for everything that follows it. I truly believe that someday soon, someone will make a comedy masterpiece that really shows the potential of video games as a comedic medium. Until then, we need to keep experimenting and playing with expectations until we can find a formula that truly works, and one day we’ll get there. And I can’t wait for that day.

Thank you for reading.

Player Agency – How “Breath of The Wild” Evokes Being a Kid Again

Our protagonist on horseback as he’s pursued by a Bokoblin.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild captures the experience of being a kid better than anything I’ve ever seen. No video game, or any piece of art for that matter, captures that very specific feeling of childlike wonder so well. The game is wildly popular and most aspects of it have already been talked about ad nauseam, so there’s lots of brilliant items of design I will be skipping over so as not to be redundant. That being said, if you would like a more general overview of all the game’s innovations then I highly recommend Mark Brown’s video on it, which you can find here. His game design series “Gamemaker’s Toolkit” is one of my favorites. Not to get off track though, let’s dive in to why exactly this game is so special.

Let me explain what I mean when I say “childlike wonder”. I’m talking about that feeling as a kid when you had a more active imagination and it seemed like anything was possible. As you get older it becomes harder to surprise, as you’re more aware of how the world works. As a kid it’s a lot easier to impress, your imagination would fill in the gaps where things had flaws or missing pieces. The older, more linear Zelda games felt like true adventures when you were young. The secrets you found felt like they were tailored for you, like no one else had discovered them. You were the adventurer and only you. Growing up you start to see the limitations of these games. They’re made up of rigid systems that have very strict rules, and are all incredibly authored experiences. Their limits are very obvious, which is understandable considering the series is over 30 years old. Breath of the Wild manages to recapture those feelings of adventure however. Naturally it still has rules and logic, but the systems it uses are so open and free it can feel like magic, even to an adult.

A screenshot from the first 3D Zelda game, Ocarina of Time. It remains a fan favorite today.

If you’re familiar with the history of Zelda you’ll know that the desire to deliver that childlike experience is baked into its DNA. In 1986, Japanese game developers Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka released a game called The Legend of Zelda on the Famicom, and the next year overseas on the NES. Miyamoto has since stated that he was inspired to make the game by the feelings he got when exploring the forests and caves around his house as a kid. Like a lot of the games in the franchise, the original doesn’t hold up incredibly well if you’re playing it for the first time today. The game was still widely influential in its time though and is not to be discredited, and lot of the great things Breath of the Wild does are modern twists on the aspirations of the original game. The desire to explore and navigate an uncharted world has been a focus of this series since the beginning, it’s just BotW that does it best. And a lot of what makes this adventure so magical can be summed up by a single mechanic: Climbing.

Climbing is one of the most fun ways to explore as you struggle to find footholds and retain your stamina.

“You can climb anything in the game”. It’s hard to sell the novelty of this idea without actually playing it, but if you go back and play almost any adventure game you’re going to notice places the developers didn’t want you to go. And you’ll always find some excuse that an area was out of your reach: “You can’t jump high enough”, or “that area is too dangerous to travel to”, etc. Something along those lines. There’s no such thing in BotW. Everything you see in the game is reachable, at any point in the game. If you can figure out how to go there, you can go there. This extends even to events that in other games would be ordered chronologically. There is no such thing as “doing the game out of order”. You can finish the quests for the game in whatever order you want, or not at all. The final boss is even open to fight from the very opening moments, you just probably won’t be prepared for it at the start. But if you want to fight it, you can. This stuff extends throughout the whole game. If you see any cliff, it can be climbed. There’s no arbitrary “you must be at least level 10 to enter” at any point in the game. There are areas that are filled with dangerous creatures that will most likely destroy you if you enter, but nothing is stopping you from getting your ass kicked right out of the gate. If you want to take them on you can, the only thing stopping you is your own cleverness.

One of the many fearsome creatures you’ll stumble upon during your time in the game.

These ideas are probably only novel to someone who is aware of how this genre typically works. Before Breath of the Wild, so many of these roadblocks were considered standards, and were thought necessary for the game to function. It seemed an impossible task to make a game without all those arbitrary requirements that would still work and be fun to play. If you’re not familiar with these kinds of games or maybe even games in general then these things might sound obvious. If you do play games then you’ve probably had the moment where someone who didn’t would look over your shoulder while you were playing and ask you why you couldn’t do something. “You just can’t”, you would tell them; that’s just how the game works. That’s the harsh reality creeping in, when the immersion is lost and you realize that this is indeed a video game that like all other things has to follow a strict set of rules. The fact then that you can describe Breath of the Wild to a layman and have it make perfect sense is an incredible feat, and perhaps the kind of goal all games of it’s kind should try to reach.

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The player attempts to roll a boulder onto a camp of unsuspecting enemies.

The physics system is another area where the game delivers on the “you can do anything” philosophy. Its the kind of thing that makes Zelda comparable to the “Immersive Sim” genre, a title touted by games such as Deus Ex and System Shock. When you break it down the goal of these games is also player choice and emergent gameplay, but Zelda outshines all of them by nature of being much more modern in both technology and design choices. In the original Deus Ex you could strap sticky bombs to walls and jump on them, an unintended part of the design that ended up lending it’s hand to the game’s feel. It made players feel creative by realizing there were multiple solutions to every problem. A similar example in Breath of the Wild is when you’re solving a puzzle that involves directing electricity. Some players will realize that their metal weapons conduct electricity and instead of using the tools the puzzle provided, they use their own. They “cheat” with this and end up solving the puzzle their way. Unlike Deus Ex though, this was an intended consequence of the games engine. The fact that weapons made of metal conduct electricity like they would in real life isn’t just a fun little factoid, it’s a part of the game. Everything in the game can interact. Another commonly cited example is that while a carrying a metal sword in a thunderstorm you could get struck by lightning. Fires create updrafts that you can ride on, rain makes cliffs slippery, boulders will roll down hills, and so on. The developers made sure that there were no inconsistencies in the games logic, that every part of the world felt alive. Under the hood there are still rules, but the game feels like a playground for you to explore and discover how things work.

Breath of the Wild bucks an insane number of video game conventions, all in order to  give the player a sense of freedom. It knows that standards for video games are higher than they were in 1986, and it knows that older people just have higher standards anyway so you need to work harder to get them immersed. It eschews linearity to create a truly open world. You feel free to let your imagination take hold, the sky’s the limit. There are no boundaries, you can do whatever you want.  Everywhere you go, there’s a discovery to be made. One of the most exciting parts of the game was simply seeing something in the distance and making my way there on foot, knowing I could do it and that nothing would stop me. It makes you forget you’re even playing a game, it makes you feel like a little kid experiencing childlike wonder and fun, it makes you believe anything is possible again. You feel like a little kid before the harshness of the real world became obvious to you. And for the hundred hours I played the game, I discovered what it was like to be a kid again, and all I wanted to do was explore it’s magical world. And that is a wonderful feeling for a video game to offer.

Link approaches a Hinox, not yet being spotted by it.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is perhaps my favorite game of all time, and that’s a pretty common opinion to have. Its legacy will be felt for years to come, and it’s one of the few games that feels so monumental that anything made before it is now null. When the original game came out, people had similar feelings. It felt like an evolution of the medium of games as a whole, and a testament to what you could do with them. Since then the industry has continued to be creative and to innovate until we reached where we are today. This probably means that though many hold the opinion that BotW is an untouchable masterpiece, one day it too might be considered dated and clunky. And that’s a good thing, nothing lasts forever and if people stopped being creative because they thought the original Zelda was just untouchable then we never would have gotten here. That being said, Breath of the Wild is still an incredible game and it’s going to be pretty hard to top. It’s a game that can only be surpassed by something that takes everything the game did, and doing it ten times better. So basically, it can only be surpassed by the next Legend of Zelda game.

Thank you for reading my first post. And thanks to the BotW community for providing the screenshots I used. I’ll be back two weeks from now with another post.

An Introduction to Player Agency

Hi, and welcome to my first blog post! My name is Wyatt, I’m 18, and I’m a writer as well as an avid fan of games. I decided to join those two passions of mine together to form this blog. I plan on using this site as a place to host reviews, think pieces, and other things related to the world of video games.

My goal is to provide a unique perspective in the world of game design. I’ll take a look at aspects of video gaming that I think are overlooked by others, and try and give my take on them. I also want to make content that can be understood and appreciated by people that aren’t ludophiles, and maybe even turn them onto the medium. Watch out for my first actual post this coming Friday. Feedback is much appreciated, as well is sharing this blog. I hope you enjoy : ) -Wyatt

On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer. — Satoru Iwata