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Analysis: Gaming Up The Wrong Tree
Analysis: Gaming Up The Wrong Tree
November 16, 2010 | By Jeffrey Matulef

November 16, 2010 | By Jeffrey Matulef
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[Gamasutra correspondent Jeffrey Matulef examines the success and failure of games that misdirect players from their true goal, from classic PC adventure game Myst, to Gregory Weir's The Day and Jorgnsn's Get Home.]

A vast majority of games are very straight-forward: you're given a goal (save the princess, save the world, kill the bad guy) and a step-by-step guide how to achieve said goal. Usually this involves going through a series of levels until you beat a boss. Sometimes you make choices that effect the story, but your overall goal and how you get there typically remains very predictable.

For example, there's a scene in Deadly Premonition where the player character briefs the town on their serial killer situation. Before attempting to unravel the mystery on your own, you're unable to progress until interrogating every main cast member.

Afterwards people will go about their daily routines and you can intercept them at any time to discover new information. Unfortunately, doing so won't help you solve the case any faster.

If anything it'll slow you down, since if you want to discover the mystery behind the killings you'll have to go down a clearly prescribed set of missions. By knowing how to go about achieving our goal, we're not really solving anything but rather going through the motions.

Recently I've played a couple free browser based games that defy this, by using our knowledge of handholding game design against us. Both Gregory Weir's The Day and Jorgnsn's Get Home seem very straight-forward initially, yet use clever misdirection to hide their true nature.

Both games are less than 10 minutes long, so I'd recommended playing them before reading on as this will be very spoiler heavy.

The Day thrusts you into an bleak village. As a child celebrating her birthday you're given a trading card and tasked with playing a simple card game with other children until you have a deck powerful enough to make you the best player in the camp. The cards escalate in ranks from citizen, soldier, tank, to a centipede-like monster, to the highest ranking card, a missile silo. Beating the card game accomplishes nothing (you just go home to eat cake, a possible reference to Portal) and is but a fool's errands to distract the child from the horror of her situation.

Spend some time talking to the adults, however, and you'll realize your uncle is missing and presumed dead, your dad's spent his whole life here, and everyone's afraid of the guards that roam outside the camp just beyond an inconspicuous path in the trees. If you go down this path it becomes apparent that the guards have abandoned their post long ago, your uncle died as a result of a security protocol while hacking a terminal, and upon entering the outside world you discover a skeleton of a giant centipede-like creature. The war has ended, the colony is alone, and the cards were telling the story of the war.

I wonder how many people discovered the outside ending first. There's certainly no barrier stopping you, but in my case I didn't want to leave until I was the top card player. It's our Pavlovian reaction as gamers to level up and leave no stone unturned. As such, it was brilliant misdirection leading us down the path of a game when just as romantic comedies have taught us time and time again, the answer was right in front of us the whole time.

Get Home has a different concept, but follows a similar design. The premise is you're late getting home and must rush there before the song playing on the soundtrack (Weathervanes & Chemicals by Team Me) ends.

This journey takes you through the suburbs, sewers, and eventually the skies as you collect potions that allow you to jump higher and eventually fly. So it will probably come as a shock when upon bursting through the skies you end up tumbling down in front of your front stoop with your girlfriend/wife/mom scolding you for your chemical abuse and not allowing you in.

You're then tasked with an impossible sounding mandate, "get home without using any chemicals!" But how? You can't jump high enough to get past even the first set of obstacles. It's only upon closer examination that you'll run into the ultimate "facepalm" moment -- the very first set of steps in the game can be bypassed entirely and you can simply keep going right until you get home.

I'm usually pretty good at finding secrets in games, but I missed this one. Had there been no impending time limit I might have poked around to see what was over there but I panicked as the song marched on.

Furthermore, this is a platformer. There's a jump button. We're trained to jump on stuff. So to create a platformer where the most positive outcome requires next to no jumping or manual dexterity of any kind is like hiring a movie star to headline a film taking place entirely in a coffin, but there you have it.

If there's one failure in the game, it's blocking the drug free path with a "road closed" sign if you're sharp enough to discover this your first time through. As such you don't have as much agency as the surprise ending will have lead you to believe. Still, the game succeeded for me by distracting from the obvious with tried and true platforming challenges.

This sense of misdirection isn't new, though. At one time the world's top selling PC game, Myst, awed the gaming world with its ambiguous structure that refused to outline your goal.

Early on you discover two books, one red, one blue, each containing a man trapped within it. The men are brothers and each tells you to bring them the corresponding pages missing from their respective book to free them. Both men warn you against each other, claiming that it was their brother that resigned them to this cruel fate. Figuring out who to trust is a game in itself.

Surprisingly, both brothers are evil and the correct solution lies elsewhere. There's a note torn in half that if found and assembled will unlock the key to a hidden entrance taking you to the men's father, a grave man who laments having to lock up his wicked offspring.

So in essence, half the game didn't need to be completed to find the two note halves and come to this conclusion. But that thought never crossed my mind at the time. There are five islands in the game, each with their own set of puzzles and mysteries to uncover. Why would they be completely superfluous?

The answer is they're not. Much like The Day's card game and Get Home's psychedelic journey, these adventures are both fun in their own right and fulfill a necessary role as a red herring. These games succeed by easing us into a familiar rhythm only to pull the curtain back and reveal how conditioned we've been by years of games telling us what to do.

[Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer for G4TV.com, blogs about games at JumpingMoustache.com and is a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]


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