Before I tried Cuphead I was always very curious about the criticism the game always got for being extremely difficult. I couldn’t believe that the developers, who seemed to have spent quite some time and effort in building such a big thing, would just mess up with a basic principle of game design such as balancing.
I had also heard about the hypothesis that by making the game purposely difficult, the developers would manage stretching out the limited content of the game so that it felt like more to the player.
After playing Cuphead myself, though, and even considering that production limitations might have been part of it, I think that looking at the way difficulty is formulated as a design pillar, and how consistently that vision executed, Cuphead it a greatly designed game in its own terms.
For me Cuphead is, basically, a statement on difficulty.
Gris, by Nomada Studio, is a platform game with art of paralyzing beauty, and visual and design influences taken from games such as Monument Valley or Journey.
The narrative doesn’t carry the weight of a heavy plot, but it rather develops some themes through cinematics, and exposing certain motifs in its gameplay, by using resources like color, light, or physical distance.
In this analysis I’d like to focus in the latest. How can a game like Gris make, not only a skilful, but also a meaningful use of distance, which we usually take for granted as a property of space and a basic component of the game feel, but rarely as an entry point for thematic exploration?
I’m always surprised by how differently story-driven games with mechanics where content branches approach their narrative design. Each game seems to have its own understanding and implementation of what the player will feel is a satisfying experience.
There are only certain types of systems in video games where choices and branching have been implemented successfully, at least so far. Based on where the player agency is in a game, I think most of the times choices are:
However, it’s easy to be mislead by its aesthetics if one knows nothing about what this game really is about. On the surface, it looks like an old school RPG game with a traditional combat system. Since I hadn’t read a lot about it before playing, it took me some time to realize that the occasional deviations from the genre weren’t just out of a gratuitous weirdness, but that they were actually helping in making a point at a deep level.
Undertale is not just a game where you fight. It’s a game about fighting (and not fighting). Which I had never seen before.
In this article I would like to reflect on some of the quirks that surprised me the most, and on some of the components that help reinforcing the theme.
When thinking about themes for story-driven games with choice mechanics, I can hardly think about one that fits better than helping a civilization gain the right to choose their future.
Yep, Detroit is a game where theme and mechanics flow wonderfully together, exploring all the scenarios that are related to the nature of choice itself.
Throughout the different story lines and chapters, you’ll repeatedly take part in dynamics such as:
The freedom to choose not to choose, and stay loyal to the status quo (which gets reflected in the storyline of Connor)
An expansion of the significance of the choices your character is presented by choosing to choose (or reveal against the status quo), which is symbolically represented with a sequence where characters literally break a wall:
I noticed the traditional theory estates that even if players lose rounds, you need to reinforce them positively, appreciating the attempt. That way they will keep on trying and not understanding loses as failure, but as part of the process.
Then checking how games handle this with their end or round flows and with their UI and UX, I noticed examples with different levels of positive reinforcement, and others with completely different approaches. Here are some:
Here’s Overwatch showing you your personal achievements after a game, even if you lost the game with your team.
So the outcome is not completely reduced to a binary lose/win estate, but there’s also a layer of emotional reward that’s meant to nuance the feeling of failure.
Whenever I have the chance I ask friends or family what games they’re playing and what they think about them. But the nicest insights I get when we talk about what other games they played but abandoned eventually.
I think we game designers expect players to tell us that they churn in a game because they find progression slow, gates are too long, or because they just don’t engage with the story. And those pieces of feedback we can just friendly assimilate with a ‘not all games are for everyone’, or with a ‘for a free to play game to be sustainable, we need to some times bring the player to some gates’.
It’s been my first year at GDC, and I went back home with so many learnings! What I liked the most about the conference is that you can make the most of it in any way you want. The talks, the expo, the networking, the parties… all that is there for you to schedule your time and balance your experience towards any direction you’re interested in. I’m already looking forward to the next year.
Here are a few tips and learnings I’d like to share:
I’ve always been curious about the use of camera angles as an expressive resource in story telling.
I remember studying some film history and theory back in the day, and being especially struck by some specific shots from some classic movies, which brought the storytelling to a different level. You can find a few on films like The Third Man: