One of the goals of a good video game is to immerse the player in the world that s/he is playing in, to feel connected to the events on-screen, and as if the world is not only real but one that they have their own unique impact on. This was harder to do in the older days when the technology was new and interaction was limited to pressing one or two buttons, but as consoles and computers have become more and more powerful the capabilities for immersion have grown. The Oculus Rift as well as Sony’s Project Morpheus immediately come to mind by providing enhanced visual immersion, but before quality stereoscopic technology video games tried other methods to get the player more absorbed into the world.
One of the more successful and innovative methods was to allow the player to change play styles to utilize an item or tool to accomplish smaller tasks within the larger game itself. For example, in Okami Amaterasu can use the Celestial Brush to paint shapes on paper to attack monsters and interact with the world. In the handheld world, the DS game Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow utilized the DS’s unique touch screen to give the player the ability to lock away boss monsters by drawing magic sigils on the screen. Perhaps most famously, Link is able to play an ocarina in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
All of these actions could have easily been accomplished by simple menu selection. Want to heal a withered tree? "Menu -> sigils -> Healing Circle." Finally got the last hit on Abaddon? "Magic Seals -> Seal #5" and the demon is locked away. "Songs -> Serenade of Water", instant teleport to Lake Hylia. This is simple, efficient, and certainly easier on the programmers. So why not just do it this way instead of programming a more elaborate input method?
From a creative perspective, allowing the player that level of player agency adds a whole new level of verisimilitude, further immersing them within the game world and allowing them to believe it is just that bit more real. From a mechanics perspective it can help maintain flow, particularly in an action game.
So when should a designer use it? When does it make more sense to have an interactive item, and when is it better to have just a menu?
First, when it’s a small selection of things that need to be done. Okami and Dawn of Sorrow had relatively small repertoires of sigils and seals the player had to learn, so while the player’s memory would be challenged there wouldn't be a mountain of mental data they’d have to sort through.
Compare this to the spell list of most fantasy RPGs, the Final Fantasy series in particular, where you will have spells for elements of fire, ice, lightning, poison, silence, life, comet, blind, and more. Often times these spell elements will have two or three levels of potency, single target versus multi target, plus extra disciplines of time magic and summoning. Requiring the player to draw on a pad or enter a specific button combination for each individual spell would become cumbersome to the point of being unusable. When the options are multitudinous, simple selection from a well-nested menu is best.
Then, it needs to not break the game flow. This can be a delicate balancing act, but generally speaking if everything on screen abruptly shifts to something happening on a new screen, you’ve broken the flow. The first Bioshock game yanked the player out of the high-action game world to play a Pipe Dream-style mini-game during hacking sequences. It was a good way to invite player skill into a hacking challenge, but it broke the flow. Bioshock 2 improved upon this by having the hacking panel pop up as a meter on the bottom of the screen with a needle that swept rhytmically from left to right. By popping up on screen as an overlay rather than shifting to a new screen, the action flow of the game was maintained.
Next, the player needs agency. Picking on Bioshock Infinite this time, specifically during the Burial at Sea DLC when the player gains control of Elizabeth. As you sneak around, you can pick locked doors if you have the proper tools. The lock cuts to a side view where you can watch Elizabeth’s lock pick moving up and down different tumblers, each color-coded as to whether they’ll pick the lock, pick the lock and grant a bonus, or pick the lock and trigger an alarm. Since the focus for Elizabeth's segment of Burial at Sea is slow, deliberate stealth rather than action, it doesn't break the game flow nearly as bad as the hacking from the first game.
However, the lock pick moves up and down the tumblers erratically, leaving the player in a game of “Don’t Press Your Luck” hoping they press the A button at just the right time to get the best possible outcome. This lack of agency can be immensely frustrating and result in the player blaming the game for failures rather than their own lack of skill.
Lastly, the action on screen should ideally approximate what the player is trying to accomplish, or provide and engaging metaphor. Playing the ocarina in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time did this very well as the player was given a full-on virtual instrument to interact with in the form of the Fairy Ocarina, and later the titular Ocarina of Time. Conversely, Skyward Sword failed drastically with the Goddess Harp as all the player did was sweep the Wii remote to the left and right in time with an on-screen metronome. A stark departure from the deep interactivity a player experienced with the ocarina, the designers (unintentionally, I'd wager) made the metronome instead of the Harp itself the interactive element.
When those four elements are present - brevity, flow, agency, and approximation - it makes sense to create an item or method that has a skeuomorphic level of interactivity. Otherwise, keep it a simple menu selection. In my next post, I will expand on Okami, Dawn of Sorrow, and Ocarina of Time to examine in detail how they succeeded and failed with those four elements.