My brother has been hounding me about how to recreate that crazy mysterious glitchy feeling from old NES games, and this whole time I’ve been telling him that I figure it’s impossible. But uh, I guess not!
Apparently the trick is to actually focus on making it seem mysterious and glitchy!
Well, the focus here is on the glitchiness — mostly because I think that would be a cool-n-subversive way of doing things. I think the real point is in the kind of thoughts and emotions and behavior that those glitches trigger in people who are prone to pick at them. I think all of those qualities are very close to the ideal purpose and potential of videogames in general.
It’s that feeling of breaking through the boundaries of an established system — of the suggestion of unknown yet possibly grand potential hidden somewhere beyond the mundane, that you — as a free agent and very clever person — are specially qualified to unlock.
The way a person might break through the boundaries could be mechanical or emotional or intellectual. Some of the best touches in some of the best games borrow from this principle. See the scanning in Metroid Prime, how it comes directly out of the themes at hand, then ties everything together, hinting at a sort of order and coherence and reality to the entire Metroid series and everything in it that you never really suspected before. Yet it never shoves the stuff down your throat; it’s just there for you to put together on your own — much like all of the abstract stuff in the original Zelda and Metroid and whatnot, except deliberate and intellectual rather than incidental and material.
And then there’s Riven.
I think my point with the overt fake-bugginess was to exaggerate and glorify the whole pointless search process that we go through — poking the edges of the scenery, seeing what’s possible within the world, experimenting, and only rarely being rewarded with anything for our effort. And when we are rewarded it feels cloying and false, like those dumb treasure chests that have to be at the end of every single cul de sac in every single dungeon, to overtly reward you for going down and simultaneously make you feel obligated to go down every one.
It’s working on the suggestion that maybe this behavior has a real purpose behind it after all, that sometimes — just sometimes — there’s something magical and special and completely unprecedented to find. And the point to that is to bring into light that whole behavior, that whole mindset — which, again, I think is implicitly what videogames are made to suggest, yet which I don’t feel is often really addressed for all (or even much) of its potential.
I think this mode can be addressed in less gimmicky ways, even if the gimmick is maybe one of the clearest ways to illustrate it. The problem is that a videogame has to work on a couple of levels at once. It needs to have a completely workable status quo, that feels solid, that the player is convinced is meant to be solid, for the player’s subversion of that status quo to mean anything. There’s a lot of psychology here; the player shouldn’t know immediately whether he’s supposed to be able to do what he’s doing, and that it has been accounted for; just that, for whatever reason, he’s able to.
Beyond the psychology and the multiple layers to keep track of, the game of course has to be designed and programmed as well as possible, to avoid unintentional exploits. So there’s a certain level of virtuosity required here.
Maybe I’m overstepping the line a bit, in defining the importance of these characteristics. The basic nature of a videogame lies in the causal relationship between the player and the gameworld; the basic potential lies in the narrative ability of that causal relationship (what it means for the player to act, given the established boundaries of the gameworld). The natural mode of player action is to explore those rules and challenge them. I suppose it doesn’t follow that the player need subvert a status quo as-such; it’s just, this is a good way to illustrate that mode of player interaction and its narrative and emotional potential.
The player should feel free; that he is at all times in control over his immedate decisionmaking, and that through his decisions he is just perhaps blazing into unknown territory, doing something nobody else has done, having a unique and visceral personal experience that’s entirely generated by his own free will. Half-Life 2 is great at making the player feel clever and subversive for doing exactly what the game is expecting.
I think it’s a misdiagnosis of this quality that has led to this sandbox nonsense (most recently reined in and made less inane by Dead Rising), and sense that players want “freedom” in their games.
I’ll get back to this. Will post what I’ve got now.