The Theory

We have long passed making children’s toys and now can concentrate on serious business.

It was once said that videogames by their nature cannot be art. Now that Flower has done away with that prejudice and the Citizen Kane of videogames, Portal, is extant, we can collectively look at the art form critically.

To view videogames critically is a new approach, but only because videogames themselves are so very new. From the beginning the the critical frame work was setup in the form of reviews in many gaming magazines (most now represented by online counterparts) and now they are judged in the same way movies and books are.

The primary benefit of videogames to other forms of art is that they let the player be other people. To finally take the second personyou” and incorporate it into a story. Literature has long struggled with this, there are a few stories written in the second person, but they’re gimmicky and often come across as an insecure first person narration. Videogames, however, have many more second person narratives than first. In videogames, first and third (I and him) are really just you and you alone. All videogames except for RTS and god games are you games (and a strong case can be made for RTS and god-view games being second person as well). This ability to place a person in a foreign personal space is very great. The novel perhaps surpasses the videogame in empathizing with characters, but the level of removal from the subject is unavoidable because the reader is never in direct control of the protagonist. I do not wish to say that videogames are better than novels, or paintings, or any other art form, only that they like all art have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.

Like all art, videogames have both good and bad examples. The below is inspired by two things. One is a particularly bad game that I played recently, itself violating rules 7, 24, and 25. The other is The Elements of Style, a work whose influence is plain in the following.

The following are either rules governing playability, player irritation, or bad form and are in their respective sections.

Basic Rules

    Rules Governing Playability

1. Make game play paramount

Do not sacrifice game play for anything including story or style as those can rarely support a game alone. Indeed there are games without any story that do just fine and style can often be distracting. Both can enhance a game but they should never be more important than the game play.

2. Do not release a buggy game

Bugs, or programming errors, are the typos of the videogame world. They should be actively pursued and destroyed. Much like typos in books, bugs in games can slow down, halt, or if egregious enough force players to quit entirely. Catch bugs before release and do not rely on patches to fix a broken game. Remember, it is not the job of the reader to catch the mistakes of the author, likewise it is not the player’s job to find errors by the programmer.

3. Controls should be intuitive

Do not force the player to fight the joystick, keyboard, or game pad. The conventions for how controls work are well-established. Follow them.

4. Avoid complicated menus

Menus should be clearly labeled and easy to navigate. If the player cannot find how to cast spells or save his game, he will likely abandon it for Tetris.

5. Use a consistent save system

Make sure the player knows how the save system works and that it does not frustrate him. There are many types of save systems ranging from check points to collectible power-ups. Whether saves are collectible or not, rare or not, make sure their frequency is consistent.

6. Place saves both before and after boss fights, puzzles, and difficult areas

Do not force the player to defeat a boss and then have to re-fight it because he was killed by an orc two seconds later.

7. Do not let the game’s seams show

Wherever possible avoid invisible walls, glitches out backgrounds, faulty AI, clipping errors, messed up palettes or anything else that interrupts the fictional reality of the game world.

    Rules to avoid player irritation

8. Do not force a player to backtrack

If a player must return to an area he has already cleared make it interesting to do so.

9. Do not lead the player

Flashing icons leading the way between goals is evidence of game designers underestimating their audience. That said:

10. Level design shouldn’t be confusing

Make it hard for the player to become lost.

11. Eschew escort missions

There are few examples of good escort missions. Half-Life 2: Episode 1 is an entire escort mission that is successful, but in general the player would rather not have to baby-sit his AI buddies.

12. Eschew training levels

Training levels should be kept short or dropped entirely in favor of a natural learning curve. Give new weapons, powers, and abilities non-dangerous obstacles to overcome and slowly ramp up the challenges they are needed for. Do not make training levels mandatory as they are boring to replay.

13. Make cut-scenes skip-able

Do not force players to watch cut-scenes. They are not playing for the game for the story. Some games make their cut-scenes un-skip-able for the first play through only, but this is a weak and deplorable compromise.

14. All dialogue in dialogue trees should be skip-able

Do not bore your players with dialogue they’ve already read.

15. Be wary of quick time events

Unless they are a fundamental aspect of game play, quick time events are best left on the cutting room floor.

16. Be wary of water levels

Any section of a game that dramatically changes the controls including, but not limited to water areas, antigravity locks, and vehicle sections should be used sparingly.

17. Have a sensible difficulty curves

Follow Freitag's Triangle to a crisis moment. Earlier levels should be easier than later levels and the difficulty should increase at a steady pace, not shoot up or down unpredictably.

18. Do not make minigames mandatory

Minigames should never be necessary to open doors or get through areas.

19. Do not overpower the player

To keep dramatic tension, the player character should be equal to the threat presented. If he is too weak, the game will be too hard and frustrating. If he is too strong, the game will cease to be a challenge. Cheat codes are recommend for gamers who wish to breeze through levels.

20. Allow small breathing areas after hard areas

This allows the player to rest after difficult sections and prevents him from being overwhelmed. This can be accomplished with a puzzle area or bonus room. Likewise, slow areas should be broken up with action segments.

21. Make early enemies easy to kill

Do not have a basic enemy take forty hits later in the game. Early enemies should, by the end of the game, be very easy to defeat thus preventing the player from feeling like he is slogging toward the ending.

22. Take control out of the player’s hands as little as possible

Such shifts are often jarring, whether it be a cut-scene to show a door opening or other change in point of view.

23. Do not kill off a point of view character to advance the plot

This makes the player wonder why he can’t load a saved game to get out of one particular death just like the many other deaths he has experienced up to this point.

24. Do not make the player repeat the same puzzle twice

This is tedious. Vary puzzles of similar themes enough to avoid boring the player. Do not use a mirror image of an earlier puzzle to increase game time.

25. Use timed puzzles sparingly

Timed puzzles, especially hard ones, lend themselves to backtracking. Repeated failures become exceedingly frustrating.

26. Use pleasing voice actors

Also known as Avoid Irritating Characters Unless the Player gets to Kill Them.

27. Do not overstock or under-stock power-ups

Too many items, ammo, or weapons scattered in the game world can make the game too easy, likewise too few items can make the game too hard.

    Rules to avoid bad form

28. Do not copy and paste areas

This is the hallmark of laziness.

29. Do not release a rushed game

Take all necessary time to make a game. Do not release an unfinished project.

30. Pay attention to ports

If ported to another system, make sure the game is still playable. A gamer for a console deserves the same experience as a gamer on a computer, especially if they paid equal amounts of money for the game.

I would suggest that knowing why such things are rules is more beneficial than the rules themselves.