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What Lies Beyond: Doorways in Gaming
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What Lies Beyond: Doorways in Gaming

June 10, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

The Walking Dead (Ep. 104)

As previously noted, adventure games have historically made effective use of doors as puzzles, but Telltale Games manages to up the ante with a remarkable level of tension in the game's fourth episode of season one of The Walking Dead.

The Doors

An abandoned house serves as temporary refuge for the characters, and our protagonist Lee must clear the ground floor by checking out several ominous closed doors.

The Experience

The implementation is deceptively simple -- we click once to direct the player's character Lee to open a door; he readies himself and his gun to face whatever lies behind it, and we have to click a second time to actually open the door.

This Is Your Brain On...

All of this activity seems to fly in the face of modern, friendly game design -- why force the player to click twice when a single click would do? -- but it all has to do with player emotion. The game's established context suggests to our brains that we shouldn't be too sure about opening any strange new doors. Emotionally, we aren't quite as ready for the unknown as we would be in a friendlier context.

It therefore takes a certain amount of bravery to go ahead with that second click; by simply forcing us to prepare mentally to open the door, to really commit to doing it no matter what the consequences may be, the design ups the ante tremendously. 

At these moments, our brains are prepared for the worst -- and even when there's nothing of note behind the door, the tension doesn't drain away as immediately as we might like. Our brains remain prepared for something to go terribly wrong, and each door we have to open presents a new psychological challenge.

Doors and Design

What can we learn from these examples and counter-examples? A general conclusion is that doors -- portcullises, wormholes, transporters, whatever form they may take -- mean something natural and specific to the human beings out there in the gaming universe.

From a game design perspective, the act of opening up a door can be rewarding in and of itself. The very presence of a gated passage suggests that the player should put some effort into trying to open it. And when, as human beings proxied to a visible or imagined in-game avatar, we go through a door to a new section of the game world, we are effectively resetting our brains and preparing for a new experience.

As a counterpoint, we might suspect that if the player goes through an in-game door, especially one that suggests wondrous things beyond, and does not discover something new and interesting, he or she may be vaguely or explicitly disappointed in the designer's work.

A secondary but more far-reaching implication is that a design approach that mirrors the way our human brains work, not pandering to but respecting our animal predilections, may lead to solutions that seem comfortable and "natural" in a game structure or interface. If there's a door, it should denote some sort of boundary within the experience. If the experience shifts radically without some sort of milestone to let the player reset and prepare, the player may feel disoriented or overwhelmed.

A corollary of the "doorway effect" is that in-game signposting will be most appreciated when it helps the player work around natural human limitations -- Where am I again? What am I trying to accomplish? -- and get back to the task at hand. Having twenty different NPCs yammer on about the game's primary objective or the author's deeply fleshed-out backstory isn't very helpful when the player is lost and confused. A mechanism that reminds the player about the current MacGuffin at hand, especially when life intercedes and the player has been away for a while, can make the difference between a game that gets played to completion and an experience that stalls out after the first few saves.

Doors are a venerable human construct, seen in every culture that has left a historical record behind. Buried deep in our evolutionary history is a belief that opening a door moves us forward into new places and experiences, but our brains also tend to get a little bit lost when we do so. Game designs that recognize and accommodate these basic human needs and tendencies are more likely to provide rich and rewarding human experiences.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

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