Psalms, Awe, and Fun

by Darius Kazemi on February 26, 2007

in design,innovation

My post about Braid sparked a very interesting discussion about the nature of fun. In particular, Gillian noted that

Bubble Bobble would approach pure, unadulterated fun if you could save your progress rather than start over at level one each time you play/die.

She’s hit on something very important about games, or at least something that has been central to my thinking about games for about two months, and neatly ties back into Braid.

Back in January, Brian Moriarty presented at my alma mater an updated version of his Psalm 46 lecture from GDC 2002. It’s a brilliant lecture, and it has more in common with James Burke’s Connections series than your standard GDC talk. You can get the mp3 here.

Anyway, the much-simplified gist of the talk is that things (read: works of art) which inspire awe are endlessly giving. They don’t need to withhold anything from the viewer/reader/participant because they have so much to give.

Jon Blow has said at GDC that the infinite time control of Braid was partly inspired by this lecture: why do platformers insist on taking things away from their players, instead of giving freely? Games that have used time control in the past made it a limited resource, and yet it’s the most fun part of the game. Why would you do that? Are you afraid that your game won’t stand up to infinite resources? And if that’s the case, does that just mean your game sucks at its core?

A similar situation comes up when you look at Half-Life 2. Almost anyone will agree that the most fun thing about that game is the gravity gun. And originally, the developers were planning to make it sort of a prize near the end of the game. But at some point during development, they paused and said, “Wait a minute. This is the most fun thing about our game. Why are we letting players use it for only the last 25% of the experience?” And then they put it right at the beginning, just after the intro levels.

Gillian’s right: if Bubble Bobble let you explore it for all it was worth instead of punishing you for making a mistake, it would be a better game.


Scott Jon Siegel February 26, 2007 at 9:47 pm

I think we can agree that there needs to be a balance, though. Infinite resources are great, but limitations and restraints are what make games intriguing. Everyone wants to take all the time in the world to roll around a Katamari level, but it’s the imposed limits to this interaction that keep it interesting. If you could do whatever you want, it would get boring quickly. There’s a reason why you can unlock Eternal Mode, and it’s not available from the start.

Darius Kazemi February 26, 2007 at 9:53 pm

Why not give players Eternal Mode to begin with? Just because we think players will say, “Ahh, we got the good stuff, no need to go any further.” If that’s the case, then just give players the good stuff to begin with.

Bradley Momberger February 27, 2007 at 1:49 am

Well, in keeping with my theme of “uses for adulterants of pure fun,” Eternal Mode is unlockable precisely because the creators wants players to experience being the Prince in the mold in which he was created _before_ they can be star-rolling dilletantes with all the time in the world.

I can perceive Eternal Mode as “Katamari Gaiden” which dilutes the original storyline, one where players experience having to economically decide between exploration and going for already-seen surer bets. When you have played Eternal Mode sufficiently, there is no more exploration and your experience is irrevocably altered in story mode. Thus, Eternal Mode is relegated to a carrot for those who first play according to the designer’s wishes.

Of course, this is just my opinion and I could be making all this up.

Scott Jon Siegel February 27, 2007 at 3:15 am

This might be a strange argument, and potentially alienating, but I’m going for it: Not having immediate access to Eternal Mode is compelling for the same reasons that stripteases are compelling. And this isn’t just supposed to be a loose analogy. When a game offers you compelling interaction, but limits your play, there’s a near-sexual thrill attributed to working within those bounds.

Maybe that’s just me, but the first sense I had of Katamari being a groundbreaking game was that when time ran out on the first level, I still wanted more. If the game just let me roll around forever, I would’ve gotten bored eventually. But Katamari never lets you get bored.

Craig Perko February 27, 2007 at 6:46 am

Aw, hell no.

I’ll post on my disagreement tomorrow. It’s too long for 2AM in a comment.

Erg, I guess I’ll post my disagreement today. Just… way later today.

Steve March 12, 2007 at 9:01 pm

It’s true that I am one of the great Bubble Bobble apologists of our time, so I feel the need to chime in and say that whenever you die in that game you get a password that brings you back to that same level. No need to start anything over.

Bubble Bobble IS pure, unadulterated fun.

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