ICE WORLD LAVA WORLD: An infrequently-updated and utterly inconsistent waffle-house of video-game-related nonsense from the brain, spleen and other organs of Tim Furnish, a software developer and misery based in the UK who's used his clearly-not-as-precious-as-he-figured-it-was spare time to create interactive electrotainment about stupid wildfowl, science-fictiony space kidnappings and, most recently, everything spherical he could think of. And he wrote it all just for you, because you mean the world to him.

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Sunday, 19 July 2009

The big OUT OF ORDER retrospective, part 3: A-hunting pixels we shall go

Finding stuff is difficult for me. That's because I am male and have male eyes and a male brain and a narrow field of view or sparse rods and cones at the back of my eyes except for right at the very centre or different headwiring or something. OK, so I can't remember exactly why women and men quite literally see the world differently, but self-proclaimed experts say that we do. I read it in a book. I'd quote a section from it here if I could find it, but I can't see where I put it on the bookshelf at the moment.

Locating stuff for which you know you're looking is often tricky enough. Not knowing what you're looking for is tricky too. Putting the two problems together can be a recipe for disaster. And, I'll be the first to admit, it's unfortunately a recipe which I followed a few times in Out Of Order, an adventure game which I made a few years ago and over which I'm now casting a hindsight-tinted eye (imagining for a second that hindsight is a colour - otherwise that last bit makes no sense, and I'd hate that to happen because I can't be bothered to go back and replace it with something better now. Onwards and downwards, people, onwards we go...)

At least I let players collect and do things whenever they wanted for the most part. There are games - commercial, sold-in-shops, look we're bringing the adventure game back in the 21st century games - which have a nasty habit of featuring tiny objects in quite large screens and even if you do manage to find the thing there, trying to pick up or use it gives a pretty bland meaningless "I don't need it" or "I can't use that" comment. What signal does that give the player? Is it just me, or does that indicate that that's what'll happen whenever, as a player, you try and use or pick up the item in the future? A comment like "Hey, it's a [something]. I don't need it right now, but I'd better remember where it is in case it'd be handy later" would make it (maybe a bit too) obvious that even though you can't do anything with it yet, the item is important.

Anyway, as I say, I made a genuine and, for the most part, successful effort to let the player perform actions and take objects before he or she actually had any reason to. You can take the blue Stuff-Stik from Hurford's (the player character) bedroom wall at any point - there's no "I don't need to stick anything together at the moment" comment. You can play your CD before you need to. You can wander into several rooms before there's anything to do there - the restaurant and lower floor of the office block spring to mind and, later on, the office bathroom - in order to get the lay of the land. Locked doors imply that the player actively has to find a key or other way through; a locked door which opens automatically after an arbitrary section of the game has been completed is therefore a bit misleading, because the player will quite possibly spend time trying to find a way past it whereas in reality he may need to further the story elsewhere, triggering a series of changes all over the game-world. (I may talk more about the player's actions in one place triggering completely unrelated effects elsewhere in a later article but we'll both have to wait and see.)

I digress. Locked-up doors are one thing; locked-down items suffer from the same issues but are generally smaller on-screen and trickier to see with the naked eye than doors (or to discover by roaming around with the mouse pointer). And despite the fact that I tried pretty hard to make items collectible and usable as soon as the player discovers them, I could have done much more to let the player find these 'hotspots' in the first place.

Two of the worst offenders were both in the first room of the game, the less-evil of the two being the aforementioned Stuff-Stik. However, I personally forgive it. There are several blobs of it on the wall, and it's bright blue, and it's on a cable which (if memory serves) is non-interactive, so anyone running the mouse along the cable should see a change in their mouse pointer and realise they've gone over something of interest. Also, the player's likely to want to explore everything in their room as the very first puzzle of the game needs solving before the player can exit. Really, I don't think much more could have been done to make the Stuff-Stik more obvious on the player's wall. A huge glob of it wouldn't have looked terribly good. So what solutions could there have been?

A) Maybe there should have been a pack of it in a drawer. That might have helped.

B) I'm not sure about the world-wide reach of the product on which it's based. Did everyone playing the game know the blue blobs on the wall were pick-uppable and know that it was for sticking stuff to walls? Many people may not have realised that the blue patches on Hurford's wall would be handy material to have in one's inventory in an adventure game. Perhaps Hurford's comment when looking at the item (either on the wall or in his inventory) could have been more useful, although the line "Made from 100% melted smurf" still amuses me.

C) Why is it the only sticky thing that the player can find in the game? Perhaps I could have put other items around the game-world - chewing gum, glue, putty - which could have been collected and used in place of the Stuff-Stik in the puzzle which it helps to solve. If the player's looking to stick something to a wall later on in the game and didn't collect the Stuff-Stik from his room, there are no clues that he needs to go to that location to find something, and he's going to be hunting for a while to find the one sticky thing in the game.

Or maybe I'm being way too critical? I don't know. Perhaps a better (or worse, depending on point of view) example is part of one of the later puzzles. It involves the stereo in Hurford's room and, I must admit, it caused issues for a few play-testers and I was too stubborn to fix it properly. Spoiler alert! At one point in the game, you need to copy the audio from a CD onto a cassette. You do this by putting the cassette into the stereo, and then using the CD with the new 'cassette in stereo' area which appears in the middle of the always present 'stereo' region. If you just use the cassette with the stereo, even if the cassette is in it at the time, you tape nothing. However, if you use the CD with the stereo you still play the CD and there are no comments made that you've not recorded the CD onto the cassette. It's one of those times when players could well know what to do, but won't know how to tell the game what to do. Finding the new 'cassette in stereo' area of the room is tricky because (a) unlike the Stuff-Stik it's not been there until this moment and (b) it's surrounded by another interactive area (the stereo itself) so the mouse moving over the 'cassette in stereo' region doesn't start glowing like it does when you hover over the Stuff-Stik region as it's been glowing already. Nasty.

My concession to this being an issue was to add a comment when Hurford takes the cassette out of the stereo without having recorded anything onto it. He says "OK, I'll take the blank cassette again. I guess I can always come back here and record something onto it later" or words to that effect. This at least stopped players heading off with the blank tape thinking they'd recorded something on it, only to discover that it hadn't worked later on. But a lot of people probably just got confused by this. I remember a few comments on the Hungry Software forums asking how to copy the CD onto the cassette. It also happens in the videos which have been posted to YouTube of someone playing the game.

I also mentioned, back in the Pointless Busy Work section of this big ol' retrospective, a pen. Yes, there's only one pen in the entire game, and at some point in the game you have to fill in some data on a form. You can't do this without a pen. Without the pen. This is despite the fact that other people are capable of filling in data on the forms in question. Perhaps I should have included an option in the conversation tree with each of those people which read "I don't suppose I can borrow your pen for a second, can I?". It's not terribly realistic for there to only be one pen in the entire place.

I'm sure there are several other examples too, but I'll stop there. All games could have more time spent on them, more options added to them. The issue is, when does this stop being helpful and start being blinding? Maybe had there been glue, chewing gun and Stuff-Stik in the game, people would wonder what the difference was, and spend time trying each of them with everything else in the game-world and actually end up taking longer to randomly stumble upon the solution to something.

Still, the fact remains that there will have been times in Out Of Order (and there are in many games, for that matter) when the player will quite possibly have worked out the logical part of a puzzle - "Ah, so I need to write something on the form myself" or "Right, so I need to record the CD onto the tape" or "So what I need to do next is stick this thing to the wall" - only to be stumped by the actual, physical slog of finding the object in the game-world which enables this to happen or, worse still, hitting the right pixel with their mouse. And whereas adventure games are often full of hints and clues as to the solutions to the logical parts of a puzzle, very rarely are there any hints with regard to the treasure (or, indeed, pixel) hunting. "That won't stick there at the moment," or words to that effect, says Hurford if the player tries to stick the object to the wall without attaching Stuff-Stik to the back of it first. However, he doesn't add "But I'm sure I've got something on the wall of my room which could help," and maybe he should.

Is Out Of Order any worse than any other adventure game in this respect? Probably not. But that doesn't make it OK. Still, I don't want to sound like overly negative, and I should probably end on a good note. So... er... no matter how much pixel hunting you have to do in the game, Hurford still has great slippers. Yay! There, that should do it.

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