Display the Options

Make things visible on the execution side of an action so that people know what is possible and how actions should be done; make things visible on the evaluation side so that people can tell the effects of their actions.
— The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

Decoration and interaction appear in non-user-friendly forms, frequently and sometimes intentionally. If done well, the “intentionally” can add to a game; other times, the developers are demanding that you ignore things on one hand and use them with the other.

Games abstract. They include many realistic details to create verisimilitude, but then you are required to treat them as purely decorative. MMOs let you play paper dolls, but most other games give you characters with carefully crafted costumes that are sewn into their flesh. You probably cannot take off your shirt; if you can, you cannot set it on fire as kindling or to startle zombies. Your inventory contains thousands of pounds of metal (somehow), but you cannot use it to depress a pressure pad. Wood doors and glass windows frequently resist attacks that can one-shot tanks and dragons. There are cars all over, but unless it advertises driving on the box, you probably cannot get into them. A shovel is a weapon; you cannot dig.

Then the game suddenly demands that you treat something as an item not a decoration. That ladder on the wall is not decorative (or worse, some ladders are not decorative). The answer to the puzzle involves setting something on fire, because the blue torches in this room set things on fire while the red torches have all been decorative light sources. You are stuck until you realize some background object is actually an object you can use as a platform.

And then what you do with an item could be completely obscure, so that you do the right thing without intending to do that. Adventure games were always the worst for incoherent interactions. So if I put honey on the cat hair, I get a fake mustache? Yes, exactly what I intended to do. You similarly discover your intentions when you put nails in a board and the game returns “half of a giant comb.” Right, I was planning to use this to make a crop circle, how did you know?

I am not making up these examples, by the way. I think many of us got tired with … oh, just read this.

And this is part of our MMO world too, which is one reason you watch a video before the raid boss. Neither the possible nor the desirable is readily apparent in some cases. As experienced meta-gamers, you know that the puzzle boss will have the answer in the room, so if it is invulnerable, you must find the right combination of glowy things that makes it vulnerable. Maybe it will even have a hint, although “hint” can have broad values.

Pen and paper RPGs have the advantage of making everything possible. The rules will encourage or facilitate certain paths, but you can try anything using anything. Toss a blanket over the guy’s head and club him with a surfboard, why not? A planter became a projectile in my last gaming session. If it is there, you can interact with it.

We love games that give us that freedom. Dead Rising was celebrated for letting you attack zombies with squeaky toys. It is an object, so you can swing it. We love games that provide strong guidance. You never need to guess whether you can interact with something in Torchlight. Its name will be floating if you can. Trouble comes from the in-between cases, when some toys in the sandbox are inexplicably off-limits or you are expected to guess that one degree of freedom has suddenly appeared.

: Zubon

6 thoughts on “Display the Options”

  1. This is a gameplay issue. Consider Portal or Half-life 2. Lots of things can be manipulated, not by much, but to an extent. Gameplay is linear, not always simple, but it’s a great ride.

    The adventure games you suggested were linear, featuring bizarre combinations of things, in a world that might as well have white-panel walls. Note that Portal actually did this, to focus on the puzzle, and not overstimulate people so they didn’t know what surface was what, or which piles of stuff can be fiddled with.

    Back then, it’s hard to say what you could do with stuff. The methods behind the world were a mystery. You’re basically dropped into another dimension, the physics you know doesn’t work, good luck! Oh, and it’s actually a multi-dimensional environment, so don’t expect everything to react in the same way!

    This doesn’t mean everything is bad, it’s just that bad design was and is still rampant.

  2. Speaking of Pen and Paper RPGs, I’m still not sure why there isn’t an MMO that utilizes the concepts of a GM. (As in, they (a team of GMs) create the plot as it goes, kind of like a real-time world-editor). Just give them the tools to create things.

    Actually, back in the day when I heard that DDO was in development, that was my first thought about what it would be.

    1. Because a: you’re limited by the tools, and b: you can’t create content faster than the players will consume it.

      Neverwinter Nights comes with a live GM feature, but I don’t know how effective that ended up being.

      1. You wouldn’t have to have people constantly doing this just occasionally have random different events going on that are human guided. This kind of thing is alot easier in text-based games though since you don’t need new art assets for it.

  3. I’m a big Don Norman fan (or Papa Smurf as we designers like to call him) so I’m enjoying your various takes on his ideas in relation to games. Great stuff!

Comments are closed.