Game design: spatially near, but temporally distant

MetroidI’ve been reading a lot recently about game design in the “early days” – the NES era.  In those days games were real games, difficulty curves could be like brick walls and tutorials simply didn’t exist as a game design concept.

This post explores one particular element that comes up – the notion of the “spatially near, but temporally distant” objectives.

The two series in particular are:

If you’re at all interested in game design, regardless of whether you are experienced or – like me – an inept newbie, I highly recommend you read both series. They’re fascinating.

In part 3 of the spatial vectors series, Dragon Quest comes up. In that game as soon as you step outside and see the overworld map you can see your objective. The castle is right there, just over the water. Of course it’s not that easy, and you have to get there the long way round, but the game opens with a tantalizing view of your final objective. In a game without tutorials, Nathan describes this as “smart aspirational design: the end is spatially near, but temporally distant”.

Let’s compare this with a similar system in a more recent game – Neverwinter Nights 2. Before you continue, read Shamus Young’s rage-filled screed on the Neverwinter Plot Door. That way you’ll read the rest of this post with an appropriate amount of hate and bile.

The gate barring the player from their goal is narrow and see-through. The player can walk right up to it. You can see your objective. But… But. Despite there being – as Shamus notes – a multitude of ways around this, any and all of which could be exploited by players in a tabletop game, you have two options. The incredibly long, boring and roundabout “good” quests, or the incredibly long, boring and roundabout “bad” quests. Neither of these advance the plot to any degree beyond letting you through a door. A door that opens soon after anyway, and through which your enemies have already passed. Presumably they had to go via Mount Doom too. Or pretended to be the pizza boy.

“Spatially near, but temporally distant” indeed. If you’re going to make your players go around the houses doing make-work for people, at least have the process mean something beyond opening the door. If it’s going to be a significant chunk of the game, at least have the characters and places involved become equally significant. The quest should do more than open a door.

I stopped playing NWN2 after I got through the door, when it became apparent just how much of my time the game had wasted. Plot Doors. The only thing worse than a Plot Door is NPC Plot Armour (I’m looking at you, Kai Leng).

There was a point floating around here somewhere… Oh yes, that’s it. Why is the Neverwinter Plot Door so much more objectionable than the Dragon Quest opening? I think the key word here is “aspirational”. In Dragon Quest you are just starting out, and while you catch a tantalizing glimpse of your goal it is far across the sea, unreachable and justifiably so. “One day,” you think, “I will find a way there”. The gate at Neverwinter docks, however, is a gate. Just a gate, and all you want to do is talk to someone. It’s not an aspirational moment, it’s just an inconvenience, one that grows and grows beyond any reasonable proportion.

So, in summary, fuck Plot Doors.

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