Gameplay conventions in video games are changing constantly. From the rise and fall of quicktime events in the mid-2000’s to the “Ubisoft Towers” present in most open world games today, video game development trends determine how players interact with the virtual world. Sometimes these conventions, like the previous two mentioned, can overstay their welcome. What was once an innovative design choice can become derivative and tedious. While it’s easy to note the design trends that get on players’ nerves, it’s just as important to discuss the current conventions that improve the player experience and why they’re effective. With that in mind, here’s the inaugural kickoff to a new game design appreciation series: Game Design Trends.
What’s the difference between a gamer and Batman? Aside from a few billion dollars and a mansion, the big one is training. Batman is a master tactician, martial artist, and detective. While it’s relatively easy to give a player the feeling of being a strategic thinker or powerful combatant, trusting players to discover clues and solve environmental puzzles like The World’s Greatest Detective just isn’t feasible. Enter detective mode.
In 2008’s Batman Arkham Asylum, players had the capacity to toggle between two viewing modes: regular vision and detective mode, an X-ray vision that highlights POI’s (points of interest) the player can interact with. Other games would implement similar features such as Geralt’s Witcher Sense, first introduced in The Witcher 3, and Aloy’s Focus in Horizon: Zero Dawn. In effect, these features grant players access to enhanced senses, allowing them to interact with the game world in a manner that is consistent with their character’s abilities.
Suddenly it’s possible for players to perform actions that would previously have been beyond their skillset like tracking monsters through a forest or identifying anomalies in the environment that are worth investigating. On the surface, this feature may seem like it adds little to overall gameplay. After all, hitting a button to effectively “scan” the environment for what you’re supposed to do isn’t the same kind of challenge as puzzling out a string of clues or solving an environmental puzzle. However, this feature is a fantastic method to increase player immersion in the game.
The great majority of gamers don’t have the expertise to be able to track enemies through a vast wilderness. Giving them enhanced senses that allow them to more clearly perceive the virtual world through their character’s perspective is empowering and immersive. Sure, it’s not difficult in the traditional sense, but as a natural extension of the character’s abilities, it should be second nature. The point isn’t to add difficulty, it’s to make you feel more like the character you’re inhabiting.
Enhanced senses truly entered mainstream game design in Arkham Asylum. At that time, there was some controversy surrounding its utility. Having detective mode on constantly was, simply put, a better way to play the game. You didn’t miss collectibles or secrets, it made it easy to keep tabs on enemies in stealth sections, and the only thing players sacrificed for these upgrades was a less engaging art style. There wasn’t a compelling reason to play the game in normal vision. Over time, however, the feature evolved, with developers trying different methods to make it a necessary, but not overpowered tool.
In Arkham Knight, detective vision emits a sonar frequency that will scan the environment up to a certain radius. This alteration forces players to move around the environment in order to get more information and actively keep track of enemies rather than passively observe them. Geralt’s witcher senses reduce player’s peripheral vision and distort the graphics in such a way that moving through the environment is more difficult. In Horizon: Zero Dawn, Aloy’s Focus only extends a certain range and she is forced to walk while using it. Shadow of Mordor’s Wraith World all but obliterates the player’s visibility except for highlighted enemies and POI’s. The way developers use this feature to hamper player’s abilities can be just as interesting as how it empowers them, and hopefully, game designers continue to explore ways to make this feature feel fresh and distinct.
While enhanced senses do make some games “easier,” the amount of information they allow developers to present and the unity they bring to the player-character dynamic are invaluable, subtle tools for deepening a player’s sense of immersion. They’re fun, empowering, and immersive, and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing them in many more games to come. In my opinion, that’s a very good thing.