How Michael Brough's love of exploring a single game mechanic beget Cinco Paus
Focusing on the roguelike genre, he subverts common tropes in ways that are typically unusual but impressive. Some of his biggest hits such as 868-HACK and Imbroglio have gone on to garner numerous award nominations for game design at the IGF.
In each case, what they lack in looks and presentation, they more than make up for with some neat ideas that you just can't imagine anyone else pulling off with such aplomb.
His latest release, Cinco Paus, is also potentially his most divisive. It's a mobile game solely available in Portuguese, much to the chagrin of many of its App Store reviewers. However, that's not the only reason why it's so interesting.
Like roguelikes of old, Cinco Paus doesn't explain much. It has you equipping yourself with magical items (five wands), but you have no idea what they do until you start using them. It's an unusual move for a modern game, one that calls back to classics like Rogue and Castle of the Winds.
In the course of a recent conversation with Gamasutra Brough opened up a bit about his approach to game-making and shed some light on why, exactly, he made such interesting design choices while crafting Cinco Paus.
Finding inspiration in conversation -- and Rogue
"It came from a conversation with Zach Gage [SpellTower, Ridiculous Fishing, Sage Solitaire] about item identification in roguelikes," starts Brough. "It got me thinking about how this is usually binary (you find an unknown item, then you find out what it does) and how I could construct something more gradual, where you can have partial information about an item's effects."
"I get a lot out of cleaning up ideas to get at the heart of them."
That's reflected in Cinco Paus's design. As a player, you'll only know whether a wand can inflict extra damage on a particular creature if you zap that creature with it. Otherwise, it's a mystery of symbols and Portuguese words that won't make sense to many.
However, Brough points out this isn't exactly new; it was implemented in the original Rogue in the 1980s. As he points out, "there's this tendency in games to repeat features out of habit."
Rogue has become something of a touchstone for Brough, and in delving into his feelings on the game it becomes clear how it influenced his latest project. Much as in Rogue, nothing in Cinco Paus is identifiable at first glance -- the player only learns what things are by using them.
"[Not labeling things] adds uncertainty to finding treasure: you don't just find a new sword with a bigger number on it and so it replaces your old sword," he explains. "The new one might be worse, it might be cursed and harmful to you, and you don't know yet so you have to choose whether to stick with the safe-but-weak option or gamble on the unknown."
Brough seems to appreciate the way this creates tension for players. There's that constant balancing act of wanting to "use your resources in risky situations when you need them most, but also you want to use them in safe situations where you can most deal with unexpected bad effects."
The designer also appreciates how this sense of mystery helps players tell themselves an interesting story while playing. "Magic items are mysterious," he adds. "It's risky for someone who doesn't know what they're doing to try to use them."
Building upon earlier design choices
Referencing his earlier work and conversation with Gamasutra about grid layout and size, Brough says he continues to believe that a lot of space "isn't necessary to create interesting interactions." In his eyes, it can even get in the way of achieving his aims as a great games designer.
"I've been designing these [kinds of games] for a couple of decades," he adds. "So...I have a lot of intuition for what will work and what won't."
"I've become very accustomed to not understanding everything around me, and not needing to, but there are others who still need to work through that process."
And what of the choice to have the game entirely in Portuguese?
"I'm living here and trying to learn the language...on a whim I decided to do some work in the language too," Brough explains. "The game could have simply had no text at all, but this gives it a bit of local character and gives me an excuse to practice while I'm also working."
In the past, Brough considered making a game in an invented language, but Cinco Paus "was always going to be either text-free or Portuguese." He appreciates that using a real language is pretty different from a bespoke one, as it ensures there are plenty of people who can still read it. More interestingly though, as Brough points out, a lot of people get "riled up" by such a seemingly trivial decision.
"Make a game with no text or just symbols and you'll get praised for the sense of wonderful mystery; make a game in a real language other than English and some people get very upset," he explains. That's clear for anyone to see if you consult forum threads or App Store reviews - many players are frustrated by the language choice, and having to work through the process of learning how everything works.
Pursuing a more non-violent path
And Cinco Paus, like so many roguelikes, is at its core an experience of working through things. Player progression -- through a dungeon, through items of power, and through their own understanding of the game's systems -- is a key piece of Rogue's design, something Brough says he's painfully aware of.
"There are often a lot of progression arcs overlapping each other [in roguelikes]," he explains. "And it's messy."
For Brough, it seems much of his game design work comes down to tidying up that mess and polishing up a single facet of a game (usually Rogue) so that it really shines.
"I make these games with killing, but I'm uncomfortable enough with this that I...try to avoid making killing things the main goal."
"Learning to identify magic items, the progression of collecting more and better items...gaining experience as you kill enemies...going down stairs to levels with stronger enemies but richer treasure...learning new spells...how many of these do we really need?" Brough asks. "I get a lot out of cleaning up ideas to get at the heart of them,"
At its core, Cinco Paus is a game about finding mysterious items and figuring out how they work by pointing them at something (most often, monstrous enemies) and pulling the trigger. Brough seems uncomfortable about the sort of magical mayhem this often entails; he appreciates the way games are often criticized for their depictions of violence, and calls on fellow developers to "keep asking... [and] challenging these defaults."
However, as fellow designers may appreciate, "Designing games is hard; you can throw in a lot of interactions but somehow they have to actually work together, so we often end up using crude simplifications to make this process easier," says Brough. "Rather than a realistic network of different groups with different goals and motivations, maybe we just have two sides: you and the enemy with no common interests."
For Brough, the convenience of simplified conflict in game design outweighs -- but does not eliminate -- the discomfort of creating something which sometimes requires players to kill other creatures in order to learn how a given wand works.
"When I've tried to go down the more complex path, modeling a rich ecosystem with varied non-violent interactions...it gets messy and complicated and it doesn't usually get anywhere," he admits. "So I make these games with killing, but I'm uncomfortable enough with this that I...try to avoid making killing things the main goal."
Brough's earlier game Zaga-33
He cites his 2012 game Zaga-33 as "very crude in a lot of ways", but still to date the work where he's "best expressed this". In Zaga, every time the player fights a hostile creature they're guaranteed to lose at least one hit point without gaining anything like treasure or experience in exchange. Thus, it's a game which tells players the best way to succeed is to avoid conflict altogether.
"Cinco Paus is following that same model," Brough explains. "But it's less ideologically pure. Often it's worth trying to kill something at least to gain information."
In this fashion, Brough's latest game asks players to take the video game conceit of "kill enemy to gain experience" quite literally. It's not the first game to do so, but it may be the most finely-honed examination of the "unidentified item" mechanic in game design to date. The fact that Brough wrote it in a language other than his native tongue, and seems to have no interest in providing translated versions, is just icing on the cake.
"As someone who grew up in a multicultural environment and who has now had the opportunity to travel, I've become very accustomed to not understanding everything around me, and not needing to," adds Brough. "but there are others who still need to work through that process."