Friday, April 10, 2009

Thinking is for Losers

At work, I have random quote generator at the top of my email inbox that sends me down a surprisingly large number of mental paths. This week, I opened up my inbox and read the following quote:

"If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think they'll hate you."

It does not take much to get me thinking about video games, but this saying was particularly resonant in light of our completion of Resident Evil 5 and Jesper Juul's paper about the importance of failure in games. I am becoming increasingly convinced that some of the most thought-provoking game are ones that not only offer the possibility of losing, but also go out of their way to make sure the player must learn by failure and experimentation. In other words, if you want to think really hard about solving actual problems in games, you better be ready to lose.

It delights me when I listen to folks who played the same game as me, encountered the same events as me, found the same solution as me, but still derived from the experience a level of enjoyment completely different than mine. Iroquois Plisken over at Versus CluCluLand has some interesting thoughts on RE 5, and I will quote him at length as he describes one of the game's boss battles:

It's a fundamental unclarity about affordance that had us stuck on some of the later boss battles. RE5 leans heavily on its context-sensitive button prompts to inform you about the environment-- whenever you're in the vicinity of something that can be used (pulled, pushed, operated, swung, cut, uppercutted), the X button appears at the bottom of the screen. That's how you find out something is usable.

The problem is, when you're faced by some homicidal ex-partner who's flipping around and unloading clips into you, getting some proximity is the last thing you want to do. Nothing signals to the player that this enemy can be used in a totally novel way when you're both at close range. We spent a lot of time hung up on the wrong solution-- shooting from a distance-- before we
accidentally ended up at close range. And it was only then that the context-sensitive menus popped up and the game telegraphed the correct solution to us.

This basic issue recurs in a suite of late-game boss encounters-- these enemies have unique affordances that you need to know, but the only way you discover them is by approaching really close under select conditions and seeing the X button pop up at the bottom of the screen. This is bad puzzle design.

I agree with everything said except the last sentence. Like Jorge and Iroquois, I found this sequence, as well as the overall game, frustrating. Unlike them, I also found it exhilarating.

RE 5 is full of arbitrary rules with little bearing on our reality. While this can be confusing and frustrating, the game's rules, while arbitary, are constant and can be grasped, tested, utilized, and exploited with careful study (we discussed this in depth on the podcast).

Jorge and I approached the boss battle Iroquois described the same way we approached the previous ones: guns blazing. We actually succeeded in killing Jill. We rejoiced, thinking that we won, and were instead greeted by the game over screen. The encounter was designed to throw into question everything we had learned about the way the game worked up to that point, and in order to progress, we had to start thinking. We employed an in-game version of the scientific method we all (hopefully) learned in grade school:

1. Question: "How do we beat this boss?"
2. Background research: "We beat each previous boss and enemy by blasting the hell out of it."
3. Hypothesis: "If we blast the hell out of this boss we will beat it."
4. Experiment: "Shoot her with the rifle Jorge, I got the shotgun!"
5. Data Analysis: "We killed the boss, but still 'lost' the game."
6. Conclusion: "Using guns is not the way to win, let's try another tactic."

The catch with this way of approaching a game is that, like science, it requires trial, error, and re-trial. I like to think that games like Zelda help me flex my mind muscles, but the truth is I have not died or become stuck in a Zelda game since A Link to the Past. We praise games like Zelda for making us think, but I am not convinced the thought they inspire is particularly deep or creative thinking because there is little failure to learn from. The environmental puzzles are designed to catch the players eye and communicate meaning before any interaction has taken place. See a crack in the wall? Since there are no other cracks in any walls, something must be up. See a particularly well rendered boulder? Odds are you should interact with it. Encounter a new enemy after getting the boomerang? Well, guess which weapon is its weakness? Very little experimentation is required, and yet solving the "problem" is meant to feel rewarding.

Deep thought and analysis necessitates punishment, and gamers tend not to like punishment, which brings me back to the quote I shared at the beginning. When a game like RE 5 comes along, it is criticized for presenting challenges whose solutions are not readily apparent. Like the adventure games of yore, sometimes the answers in RE 5 necessitate some creative thinking and that often comes after failure.

As Jesper Juul's paper concludes, there seems to be "sweet spot" in regards to game difficulty. Players tend to function like game-playing Goldilocks: A game should not be too hard nor too easy, but just right. More research needs to be done, but I have a suspicion that the average "sweet spot" of analytical thinking in games is very low on the y-axis:

I want to save some of my thoughts on the relationship between thinking and difficulty in games for future posts, but I would like to hear from you all: How often do games make you think about the literalgameplay rather than the artistic meaning? Is there a place for "scientific-method" style gaming in modern games? Have there been any games that made you frustrated at the time and then proved satisfying upon your triumph?

Have I turned into a mindless RE 5 fanboy whose only goal is to shamble to the nearest Internet connection and try to corrupt your braaaaains? Some outside opinions are necessary.


  1. Love to read your articles, as always. I haven't played Resident Evil 5, so I'll judge from the impression I get from your and Iroquois' commentaries.

    The problem I have with this —one I think contributes to Iroquois' —is that I don't think it provides sufficient feedback before and after the player fails. The game seems to give little to nothing in its narrative or earlier gameplay suggesting that close combat was the answer. It is great that you chose to try again with a different strategy—the ideal player!—but I think that if I played, I would be discouraged from experimenting further when I fail with a seemingly valid solution. The big reason is that it is completely uncertain at this point if the game . The reward for experimentation is very random: unless one hits an arbitrary bullseye while blind, the player is punished with a game over—no positive feedback.

    Now, I don't know what feedback this particular game gives for the solution. But some examples off the top of my head that give good enough feedback that the player's failure encourages further experimentation would be most of the puzzles in the Monkey Island series. Would you say Resident Evil 5 encouraged you during the boss fight, or was it your own, enthusiastic playing style?

  2. I like the scientific method approach, but I'm also reminded of something I think Croal said not so long ago, about difficulty curves. The idea was that a gane's difficulty should never hinder the player substantially; that, ideally, a game should be just hard enough that most players can get through its trials the first time, even if by a hair's breadth. He seemed to think that this was especially important at the end of a game.

    I must say that most games which involve thinking and aren't Braid tend not to challenge me, so maybe this "thinking outside the box" approach isn't such a bad idea.

    That said, I was stuck inside the Deku Tree for months until I bought a guide and discovered that you had to look up at Gohma in order to fight her.

  3. Not to be a link whore or anything, but I've got to say my opinion sticks mostly to my previous post. The punishment and required response to failure from RE5 necessitates a scientific method that is removed from the game elements. That is to say, the gamey-ness comes from reminding me that I am playing a game. I'm sure its a preference thing, but that is too counter-immersive for my liking. I'm with Croal on this one. Games with "just the right difficulty" should allow me to be punished, learn, and progress without being overt.

  4. @Joshua

    Thanks for the compliment, glad you stopped by. I think you're on to something with the feedback argument. RE 5 does not give much positive feedback; it was mostly my gluttonous appetite for punishment that kept us going.

    I think the holy grail is the idea that a "valid solution" would work even if said solution wasn't even dreamed of by the designer.


    I think the sentiments you attribute to Croal exemplify the way we think of modern games: they are meant to exist as "experiences" that need to be seen in their entirety, rather than challenges meant to test oneself.

    As an extreme example, take Tetris and the newest Prince of Persia. I would argue the point of Tetris is the challenge, while the point of PoP is the experience (with some challenge thrown in to make things interesting).

    That is a hilarious anecdote about Zelda by the way. If only the Internet was then what it is now!


    I guess I just like my Zombie meat a little "gamey!"

    It's interesting the way we approach this game though. When I first read your comment I thought "but the scientific method immerses one in the game elements."

    I then realized that by "game" you meant something completely different, something that I think of as the "experience."

    Let's start a sit-com where I'm the messy one and you're fastidiously neat!

  5. This blog post made me think too hard. ;P

    I love the quote you mentioned:

    "If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think they'll hate you."

    It makes me think of the socratic method, which is a technique a lot of psychologists use when getting people to challenge their negative irrational thinking. As the therapist, you can already see that thinking things like "everyone MUST love me" is just not a rational expectation, but instead of just telling the client that, you ask them a series of questions that will ultimately lead them to that conclusion. The revelation is all the more powerful for the client because they figured it out for themselves, even if the therapist was guiding them and knowing where the conversation was going the whole time.

    I think Portal is like the videogame equivalent of the socratic method. The designers already know how to solve the puzzles (obviously), but the levels are designed in way that will only give you little hints about how to solve the puzzles, so you have to do a little thinking. For example, you start off in a room with an alarm and a coffee cup. When the first portal opens and you look through it, you can see yourself and the room you are in through the new angle provided by the portal. This was specifically designed so that you would put the visual cues together and understand that these portals don't take you to another dimension-- they move you to another position in the same room. This is the first building block of the puzzle design. Each new stage adds something to it. When they give you the aperture device, they first only let you control the blue ringed portals, and you see how the blue and orange ringed portals are connected. Later you have control of both. You learn to use objects in a simple way at first, which allows for more complicated puzzles later. You learn a simple puzzle that involves building your momentum through portal jumping, then this gets integrated into more complex puzzle solving. The whole game is brilliantly designed so that it doesn't really need a lame tutuorial that requires you read a bunch of boring text. The game naturally develops so that you learn how to play it while you're actually playing it. And you feel all the smarter for doing so. Portal is a textbook case of a game making you feel smart with a little guidance without just dropping you into a big complicated puzzle to figure out all on your own. And if you're really smart, you will learn that the cake is a lie.

  6. JT,

    I like the parallel with psychology, I hadn't thought of it that way.

    "Socratic Gaming" sounds like a great name for a website ;-)