The Little Things: Walls

It is the little things that truly separate a good game from a great one. That extra layer of polish can drastically improve an experience and make it all the more memorable and enjoyable. The little things make words more immersive, play more pleasant, and an entire game stronger. Among those things are a game’s barriers.

While game worlds vary from the straight and focused to the apparently endless, they all eventually have an end. The walls of these worlds are what keep us inside the experience and protect us from the messy underside of the sets on which our games take place. Bad walls, however, can be just as game breaking as slipping past them into the potential endless nothingness that is undeveloped game space.

Invisible walls and bits of questionably impassible landscape are hardly effective ways of drawing boundaries on the world. While they may keep players within the perimeter of the game, they do so in an unsatisfying way. When a game puts up an invisible wall or wall that only appears as the player approaches it, the game has admitted that the player is in a fabricated space. As players, we may consciously know this already–all games take place in fictional space by dint of being games with rules and goals–but when we truly become immersed in the experience, that foreknowledge becomes irrelevant. Until we try to wander over to that potentially interesting bit of landscape only to be told that it is not part of the game.

Not that kind of barrier

Not that kind of barrier

Invisible walls are not simply unexplained impassable points, either. Plenty of games have tried to justify their invisible boundaries through narrative or some mechanic, and most of the time it does not make things any better. A relatively popular example would be the invisible boundaries placed on Assassin’s Creed players through the Animus. Narratively, it does fit, but it is still unsatisfying and still reminds players they are in a game. The Wind Waker, as much as I love it, does the same thing with the King of Red Lions, having your very boat stop and tell you not to go further into uncharted waters. It makes enough sense, and there is no physical wall there, but in a game about exploring and endless ocean, I would have liked to opportunity to see for myself that there is nothing out there. The game could have let the player go out enough for the mapped world to go past the horizon or wander far enough out for all the islands to be outside the game’s draw distance before fading out and placing the player back on the map. At least in that situation the player would be able to decide for themselves that the world outside is not worth his or her time.

The best way for a game to keep its walls from breaking play is to make the walls as much a part of the game as anything else. Subtlety is the word of the day here. The less intrusive the boundaries of play are, the less likely players will be to try and overcome them. This is why most games just make the boundaries some kind of impassable landscape. It is difficult to make the world itself feel like a boundary, even if parts of it are. That mountain range or ocean you can only swim a little out to are part of the setting, so they feel natural enough even though they serve a greater purpose than looking pleasant. Some boundary scenery is more obvious than others, but for the most part it is a fairly safe route.

Better than subtlety, though, is unity. If the walls that keep the player in the game are integrated well enough, they can feel more like an enhancement than a restriction. Even invisible walls can succeed when used well enough. For a strong example, let us look at Shadow of the Colossus. The world within Colossus is massive, measuring some twenty square miles if scaled to real-world numbers, and everything within it is huge. From the stones along the ground to the plant life, to the titular colossi, all the set pieces paint the same massive picture. Mountains and cliffs rise high into the sky, valleys and lakes cut deep into the earth, and fields stretch ever outwards. The player has only Wander’s hands and his horse to traverse such a place, and can still reach the tops and bottoms of many of these giant formations, but the entire map is filled with them. The result is that the edge of the map feels no different than the middle. Everywhere feels just as much a part of the same cohesive world, and none of it feels like an outer boundary. It is all just one more thing to get around and admire.

Even the bridges are big.

Even the bridges are big.

There is, however, one invisible wall within the game. That said, it is a brilliant one. Should the player climb the central tower–a task difficult enough in itself–that player could then make his or her way onto the titanic bridge from which Wander enters the land of the colossi. Those patient enough to make it across will be met with a narrow chasm between the stony formations that make up that part of the world. Nothing can be seen beyond it but bright, blinding light, and if the player walks towards it, they will be met with a light breeze. As Wander gets closer, though, the winds becomes stronger and stronger until it knocks him off his feet. It is an invisible wall, but it is strangely fitting, and what is more it is one the player can contest. No amount of walking can get Wander through the crack in the world, but the game dares us to try.

Journey does something similar, blocking the players’ paths with powerful winds, but again, it is fitting, especially since part of the game is about attempting to best those winds. Plus, as Extra Credits discussed in their hero’s journey episode, that wind actually plays a role in the hero’s journey, acting as the force that denies the hero, or player in this case, the refusal to the call to adventure. The use of the wind in the early desert levels make it perfect for this, as most players, handed a desert that stretches to the horizon, will see how far away from the obvious goals at some point in the beginning, only be to blown back towards the parts of the game that has been specifically made for them to explore. The game practically encourages this to happen, and by getting it out of the way early, the rest of the game the player will spend their energy solving the puzzles and finding the findables rather than trying to test the game’s limits. An invisible wall, but a brilliant one.

These walls are such little things. One small part of the games we play, but an essential part of the experience. These boundaries can frustrate and annoy us as well as impress us, and find success when we do not notice them at all. The truly great examples, though, can be just as memorable as the rest of their game, and make the entire world within it a better place to play.

Lucky Shot

From Animal Crossing to Battlefield, randomness is a huge part of our medium of games. Random number generators decide which Pokémon we find in the tall grass, what items fall out of our enemies, how much damage we deal, how our bullets spread, how we grow and level up, and even how AI behaves. This randomness rules our virtual lives in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It creates uncertainty, which makes things more interesting, but sometimes that uncertainty is unwelcome. Even with all the randomness of games and the fun of uncertainty, there is a certain amount of consistency that I like to see as a player. Without it, the decisions players make become less significant, and the game weaker as a whole.

To understand why the consistency is important, it helps to know why the randomness is, too. The shortest version is: not knowing is exciting, down to a deep psychological level. Those familiar with B. F. Skinner or fans of Extra Credits may know that adding variation to reinforcement makes things more engaging. This means that, when you throw a Poke ball, for example, it succeeds every time, the Pokémon games would be a lot less interesting than if it had a chance to fail (and that chance changes based on health, status condition, catch rate…). The foreknowledge that throwing a Poke ball will not always work is what makes catching Pokémon feel rewarding. The fact that the ball can fail to catch, even against weakened Pokémon, is part of the genius of the series. Another good example by the big N is Animal Crossing, in which pretty much everything from day-to-day is random: the shop items, your neighbors’ moods, what you dig up or shoot out of the sky, whether your flowers have hybridized yet, but while those things are a big part of the game, they are not all that influential on the player’s decisions. How one decorates their house or town or which neighbors they like to pester the most, while potentially sped up or slowed down by the randomness, is not otherwise reliant on it. The whole game is about taking it slow, so it does not matter how long it takes to fill your house with blue roses placed on custom-designed tables. The fun of the game is the journey.

Of course, this comes with a tradeoff, as all good things do. For starters, Skinner-box methods are a cheap and shallow method of adding engagement. Players will probably not get bored immediately because the excitement of “what will happen this time?” is enough for a little while, but it is not interesting enough to make them genuinely care. Pokémon, to bring up a previous good example, makes it work because it makes you work for that chance at success. Even outside the context of catching ‘em all, or even just catching that one that you like, the game sets up a situation in which randomness plays a part, but does not entirely decide the player’s outcome. However, I do not want to imply Pokémon has perfect use of RNGs. Occasionally it does tip the scale too far in favor of the randomness, and catching a Pokémon becomes next to impossible without luck even with all the right conditions (I’m looking at you, Articuno). This domination of randomness is also why competitive battlers often ban evasion and accuracy-altering moves and abilities, as all they do is add a miss chance decided by an RNG. Now this sort of randomness is a method of creating difficulty using systems already in place. The trouble is, whether it aims to create difficulty or not, it is always frustrating.

Using that Skinner model again, in theory the less likely something is to work when given an input, the more one will want to try giving an input–this is the very foundation of slot machines and lotteries. However, when games put too much emphasis on the random, either in an attempt to create engagement or simulate difficulty, they tend only to succeed in being exceedingly annoying. For one, complete randomness is boring, which is never something to strive for in a medium of entertainment. After the initial thrill of uncertainty, random chance becomes uninteresting as there is nothing players can do with it other than hope. perhaps the bigger issue, though, is that randomness weakens the value of or completely removes a player’s choices.

Because you used it, Vulpix will still never miss.

Because you used it, Vulpix will hit anyway.

Games, a medium entirely built around the fact that its audience can interact with it and make their own choices when playing, cannot stand without player choice. As important as the uncertainty aspect is–it would not be much of a choice if you knew the outcome beforehand–there must also be something concrete to base the decision on. The player must have a certain amount of information they can be certain of, or at least believe they are certain on, to base his or her decisions on. If someone knows getting hit will deal them damage, they now have to make the choice whether or not to avoid getting hit, or better yet how to avoid getting hit. If a player knows a character hates chocolate, the player then has the choice available to give her something else or give her chocolate anyway to spite her. The player remains relatively uncertain of the outcome, but has something to base their decision on. If these two examples were good examples, the player would have even more to go on, such as a tell before an attack lands or a previous experience with the character.

These kinds of uncertainty are great because they give the player a chance to consider the result of their actions. If he or she dodges left, damage might be avoided, if he or she gives chocolate, he or she will probably disappoint the character: these are conclusions players can come to on their own using what information they have, which makes their choices more meaningful. The player still does not know for sure, but can stipulate. A weakness of random uncertainties is that it does not have this trait. The sheer nature of randomness means there can be no real thought process to aid in the choice made, which makes the player’s role much less significant.

A while back, the game League of Legends had dodge mechanics based on a miss chance. Riot Games did away with it, however, because the developers and players felt it added too much luck to the equation. Stacking evasion was a choice to be made, but even with a ton of it all it would take is one lucky shot, decided not by a player but by the computer, to turn the tides of a fight. It felt cheap and was not all that satisfying for either side, and the game is stronger now without it. In fact, League of Legends has done away with any randomness in its mechanics. Since the whole game is built around team player-vs-player games, the uncertainty is already there: other people are the most unpredictable source of it possible, but they are not truly random. People can be watched, read, and outplayed, which is a solid source of uncertainty. There are countless factors from which players can make their decisions, which in turn affect the decisions of everyone else playing, making a perfect feedback loop while never actually doing away with the uncertainty. League in particular does a good job of it, as while the game can be quite snowball-ey, it does have a negative feedback loop built in through player gold rewards, which means even a team that is behind can turn things around if they are clever about it. Even the team ahead is never truly certain in their victory, which makes it continue to be interesting for all parties involved.

Randomness is not an inherently bad thing. The wastes of Borderlands would not be as much fun without the randomness of its prize drops, nor would rougelikes with procedurally generated worlds, yet random number generators are not the only way to create engagement through uncertainty. What is more, without a certain amount of certainty to balance it out, too much unknown makes for a frustrating experience. Consistency and stability are as important a part of game design as uncertainty is. Without it, there are no mechanics to master or tricks to learn, and no value in our actions as players. Both sides of the equation are important, how else would I fight to weaken my opponent and still hold my breath when I throw an Ultra ball?

The Little Things: Game Menus

Persona 3 Menu Banner

It is the little things that truly separate a good game from a great one. That extra layer of polish can drastically improve an experience and make it all the more memorable and enjoyable. The little things make words more immersive, play more pleasant, and an entire game stronger. One of those things is the menu.

I say “the menu,” but I really mean all of a game’s menus. Menus may not actually seem little, but we tend not to think about them much. Pretty much every game has at least one menu, even if it is only the title menu, but those menus are as much a part of the experience as anything else. They can feel clunky or smooth, their sounds can grate or satisfy, and they can slow down or streamline an entire game. Menus are the lifeblood of JRPGs, our adventure inventories, and our character builders. Without them games would be enormously different. Their prevalence has allowed developers to get them down to a science, but it is hard to call them perfect, even now.

The Pokémon series has always been built on menus, but to this day they have been slow and too many in number. Of course, the games need a lot to function, but the PC in particular has always been in need of streamlining. Moving Pokémon around on the touch screen was a step in the right direction, but do we really still need to choose between “deposit,” “withdraw,” and “move” to get there? It can be done in the pause menu, but it always disappoints me when I cannot change the position of my Pokémon’s attacks in battle as well. When multiple Pokémon faint during a double or triple battle, you cannot simply select the next two or three, you have to pick them and switch them with their fainted partners one at a time, which is not intuitive at all. For all the reasons I love the Pokémon series, not much has changed regarding its menu layout since Red and Blue Versions six generations ago.

Pokemon PC box

It probably took as much time to organize these boxes as it did to fill them.

There is a balance that needs to be struck when creating menus. If they are complex, with several layers of sub-menus or large numbers of items, they should be fast. Players need to be able to traverse through their veritable mazes quickly, and they should be consistent enough or clear enough that a few trips through them is all it takes to memorize a path. For example, the item boxes in Monster Hunter get pretty full pretty fast, but one can get through them quickly, and since all the items have a pre-set order (assuming one uses autosort) and clear icon, it is not hard to fly through the item box to get a few things out or combine items. It is relatively complex, but the game sets it up so that players can waste no time digging for that extra potion. If menus are simple, they can be slower, especially if they hold a lot of information, but there are plenty of older games that I used to enjoy that I feel as if I now enjoy less because traversing the menus does not feel right.

Like everything else in a game, a good menu should have solid feedback, too. A silent, static menu, while functional, is a great way to make enemies. Sound feedback is cheap and easy, and some menu noises are so pleasant and satisfying that the simple act of scrolling is interesting. Of course, this goes both ways and some sadistic or tone deaf developer may decide shrill screams make for fun menus, which only makes players dread having to look at their inventory or change a setting. Animation is another great way to give menu feedback, but the tradeoff is that more animations means more time, which slows down the process of traversing the text and/or icons. Again I will turn to Monster Hunter’s item box as a good example, as not only does the game have great inventory and menu sounds, but the item box also has a subtle cursor animation when removing items. It only takes a couple of frames, it is not flashy or overly attention-grabbing, and it lets the player know their button presses did something. Perfect menu feedback.

I could go on forever about menus: cursors, layouts, colors, borders, fonts… They have as many parts as the rest of the games they are a part of, but for now I shall leave it at the largest of the little things. Menus are a big part of games as we know them, and for something so seemingly insignificant, those little menus can have a big impact on our experiences as players. Just like all the other little things.

Muscle Memory

Minish Header

On a whim, I recently picked up The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap after years of it waiting patiently in a protective case in a wooden box in my room with all my other old handheld games. Somehow I had remembered how much I enjoyed playing it the first time, but had no conscious memory of the game itself. It was a 2D Zelda game: There was simple sword combat, puzzle-filled dungeons, you could shrink real tiny to talk with the minish, and you had a hat with a beak named Ezlo. I had no recollection of the dungeon layouts, the puzzles, or many of the game’s secrets. Playing it again now, with so little memory of it, would be like playing it for the first time again.

I am sure you can see where I am going with this. While I cannot claim to have had a magical moment of clarity wherein I recalled the solution to every puzzle, the location of every piece of heart, or the trick to every secret, I have found, while playing The Minish Cap again after so many years, I hardly have to think to get through it. I am sure I played it multiple times, likely even multiple times in a row, knowing my younger self and games, but I went back into it with little-to-no conscious knowledge of the game outside of its simple story. That said, all the puzzles I have solved without a moment of thought or hesitation. All the paths and routes through the world map I have had little trouble finding and all of the enemies and bosses I have known the solution to without the need to experiment.

Green Kinstone Halves

                        Evasive little buggers

Now, admittedly, Nintendo is pretty good about making the world map, bosses, and enemies relatively easy to figure out–it is often just a matter of having the right tools–even more so for those who have played many games in the Zelda series. It is part of what makes Big-N games feel so good and polished to play, and perhaps that is all there is to what is going on in my replay of The Minish Cap. After all, it is an exceptionally well constructed game, my only major complaints being the soundtrack, which gets somewhat repetitive and is not as memorable as many other Zelda games’, and that the game does an exceptional job of making sure I never have the right shape of green kinstones on hand when I need them. However, I have always been of the mindset that the 2D Zeldas are more difficult than the 3D ones, or rather feel that way because they are a different kind of game entirely with a different kind of difficulty. Yet, playing it again today, it all feels so automatic, as if it is little more than muscle memory. The kind of muscle memory that never goes away, like riding a bicycle is supposed to be, or swimming, or typing.

I know it happens with games. I only recall having two games when I first got my Nintendo 64 as a kid: Ocarina of Time and Donkey Kong 64, and both of those I have played so many times they truly are ingrained in my body and soul. I hardly need to pay attention when playing either of them anymore, and no amount of remakes of Ocarina of Time has changed that. The difference is that I can consciously recall those two games. I know every step, every block, every button, but not so with The Minish Cap. However, I did enjoy the little Game Boy Advance game, enough to have played it a couple of times and replay it again today, and perhaps that is all that matters for it to have been so committed to my subconscious memory. I loved the game, so even when my mind forgot, my heart never did.

Games Against Bigotry – A Thing to Look at

Every had an online session soured by foul language and toxic behavior? If you’ve played anything online, yes, you have. Games Against Bigotry is a little pledge to behave in online games, and even if you don’t personally contribute to the garbage, a little encouragement for others never hurts. Sign up and tell your friends to, maybe some positive action will help make our in-game environment a little more open and fun for everyone. The whole reason we play games is to enjoy ourselves, is it not?

The Little Things: On Title Screens

It is the little things that truly separate a good game from a great one. That extra layer of polish can drastically improve an experience and make it all the more memorable and enjoyable. The little things make words more immersive, play more pleasant, and an entire game stronger. One of those things is the title screen.

A game’s title screen is its greeting. Barring publisher and developer splashes, it is the first thing the player sees, and is certainly the first part of the game one sees. Back in arcade days, they had to be interesting to draw the eye of potential players and their small change. A good title screen was dynamic and showed off the game beyond it. Of course, games still intended for arcades still make use of these sales-pitch title screens, but most games on the market are intended for home play. The practical purpose of the old title screen has changed to little more than a medium meant to initiate play, and over the years they have become simpler and simpler.

Now, I do not want to imply there is anything inherently wrong with this trend. Most people do not spend a great deal of time on the title screen, and if a developer had to pick between using their time to decorate the title screen more or polish the game itself, I would hope they choose the game. Nowadays, the main practical purpose of the title screen is the title menu, which even in its most complex form is fairly simple. Whether to include a global options screen in the title menu is likely the only major decision developers have to make in terms of practicality these days. That said, a good title screen can enhance a game experience far more than one would expect for its simplicity. Intro videos reminiscent of those in arcade-based games make for an exciting way to start a game when one first starts it up. It feels like the intro sequence of a television show, preparing the player for what is about to come. Frankly, many Japanese titles, such as games in the Tales of or Persona series, even model their title intros after anime openings, complete with catchy music and custom animation. This may be due to the game and anime markets being so closely tied over there, but it certainly makes for some interesting pre-game entertainment. The title screen movies that play in Persona 3, Persona 3: FES and Persona 4 are brilliant, all made with a great deal of care and attention and accompanied by awesome music. I would sometimes simply wait on the title screen and watch them a while before starting a play session. They add a great deal of atmosphere to the games and their similarities to anime openings help to establish the modern Japanese pop-culture aesthetic that the series is so well-known for.

A personal favorite title screen of mine is that of Ocarina of Time, though I know I am hardly alone on this. Barring any bias one might have from the rest of the game, from the moment the player starts it up, Ocarina of Time has set the stage for the experience it aims to offer. The screen opens with sweeping scenes of Link riding about on Epona, fading the actual title and logo in only after the initial introduction to Hyrule field. Wait long enough and the camera will make its way to the entrance to Kokiri forest, where the game begins. The newest 3DS version does not even show the title at all until the player presses a button, which only makes the whole screen stronger, as the player is given the chance to see the whole thing without the title card blocking the view. Once the player does interact with the game, it behaves exactly as a normal title screen would, with the logo and iconic “press start” visible until the player acts again.

If you haven't taken this trip yet, you probably should, but I'm sure you've heard that before.

If you haven’t taken this trip yet, you probably should, but I’m sure you’ve heard that before.

One of the greatest things a title screen can do for a game, however, is strengthen not the beginning of a game, but the ending. When one plays a game through all the way to the end, especially a particularly powerful one, more so than a sense of accomplishment is a sense of wonder and awe. As the player sits, after all the cutscenes and credits, past the final grades and closing remarks, if the game does not simply wait for the system to turn off (or program to close), it will fade back to the title screen. In rare cases, this moment can be made to feel all the greater with the right title music. A perfect example of this is Kingdom Hearts II. Its title screen is a fairly common affair as little more than a static image with relaxing music that cuts to an opening movie with enough patience, but its music is its strength. It is noteworthy just how peaceful it is, and that calm that it washes over its audience is exactly what they need after finishing the game. After all the action of an endgame, all I want to is stew for a moment and absorb the experience–to sit and reflect–and the song, “Dearly Beloved,” that plays on Kingdom Hearts II’s title screen is perfect for this. The game Journey, on PSN, does something similar, the transition from its ending to the title screen so seamless, one hardly notices the game has gone back to the title screen at all.

A title screen is such a little thing. A minor moment in a game’s entire experience, yet a quintessential part of it. A truly great title screen, though, can be as memorable as the rest of the game itself. From fun opening movies that catch the eye to passively setting the tone to empowering an ending, a title screen can make a good game feel great, and a great game feel greater still. We would do well not to neglect them.

Ramble on Consoles


It seems no matter where I look as of late there is nonstop talk of new consoles. Even my local newspaper had a bit on it recently. This sort of hype is expected–they are new and exciting. It happens every time a new console generation launches, but there is always one aspect of the so-called console war that bothers me. Everyone talks about how they own up to the last generation, who has the strongest hardware, how many features Microsoft can force into its next not-PC or how out there Nintendo is being, but something is missing. For all this back and forth about game consoles, there is shockingly little talk about games.

Putting aside the Xbox One nonsense and the string of press releases about the new generation, this phenomenon is hardly new. The first thing people talk about is specs, which is all well and good, but specs do not really tell me what I care about when I look at a console. I only really care about specs when PCs are involved. This console has a more RAM, this one has a bigger processor, Microsoft’s watches you sleep and Nintendo has more touch screens. At this point you can assume Sony’s has the most computing power, Microsoft’s is a glorified PC, and Nintendo is doing something different, though not everyone likes it.

Funny thing is, none of those details will sell me a console. The only things that will encourage me to get a new device to play games with are the games available. I will not pretend that I am not a long-time Nintendo fan. I’ve been playing their games my whole life and will in all likelihood continue, but I do not have a WiiU. Not yet, at least. All the games I want to play are on the Wii, PS3, or PC right now (or something older), and while I know it will not be a great deal longer until the games I want are available (see: Pikmin 3 and Wind Waker HD), I do not feel the burning desire to drop the kind of money needed for the WiiU prematurely. Sony has enough IP under their control that it is entirely likely I will get their next monolith eventually, but at present the Playstation games that have my attention are for the systems I already have. Until that changes, the PS4 is just another device. All the power and extras mean little without a library to take advantage of them.

I realize part of the reason all the other features get played up is an attempt to make consoles seem more accessible to those who do not play games. Netflix, a television-based browser, and general multimedia support is something everyone understands, whereas games could be intimidating to one unfamiliar with them. While valid to a certain extent, it is rather difficult to justify dropping the kind of money needed on a console if all it would be used for are things that the computers and tablets so many people already have can do. The Wii did not sell to the casual crowd based on multimedia support; the Wii sold thanks to Wii Sports and Wii Fit and accessible games. Even to non-gamers, it is the games that sell a console.

I like consoles. I play most of my games on them, and given the choice, I will often choose the console version of a game over the PC version. Something about being able to sit down in front of the television, pick up a controller, and start playing a game is attractive, because in the end, the games are what matter. Now, I do not want to suggest that some of the newer features of consoles are a bad thing–I love that the PS3 can play normal blu-rays and that the Wii has Netflix support. Those added features are great, but they’re not the reason I buy consoles. The Wind Waker, Xenoblade Chronicles, and Demon’s Souls are reasons I buy consoles, and it is our job as consumers to let publishers know this.

We Exist!

Games are strange creatures. They are form of escapism, entertainment, and art unlike any other–one that allows us not only to drown ourselves in another world, but experience it as the ocean itself. They offer a window into a setting unreachable through the constraints of reality and a mirror that can reflect our deepest inner selves and grow not only as players, but as people as well. A game can incite joy and confidence, anger and tears in its players, touching our very souls as we play through them. Or, perhaps, they’re just a lot of fun.

Bit Detection is a website wherein we talk about video games, sometimes objectively, sometimes not. Here a few voices of folk who simply love games will share our thoughts and musings on what we like, dislike, or simply feel warrants discussion. Games have been a non-negligible part of our lives since we were but wee tykes, and we have held onto them as if our identities depended on it. They entertained us a children and give us something less mundane to do as adults. Some of us even try to make them from time to time.

Welcome to Bit Detection, let’s talk about video games.