Fresh young hopeful?

So, last time I talked about a couple of ideas I’d already discussed in depth here on InI for game remakes/redesigns, with a little bit of imagination and ingenuity (and maybe even a bit of innovation!)

Today I’m going to look at one of the myriad ideas I’ve had lately. A lot of them seem to be distinct old-school influences that I’ve seen, and whether the ideas are salvageable into something very new – most of the time, this old-school stuff didn’t work because the idea didn’t have the right execution, and with a new take on execution, often the idea becomes much more awesome.

First up, haunted by a game I played as a kid called Microbes. Like most games of the late 1980s/early 1990s, there’s a really lame story that explains why everything’s going to hell in a handbasket and why you and only you are equipped to fix it. Something about the US govt. making a super bug or something.

Anyway. You’re in a circular environment, you can only move left and right around the perimeter of the environment, blasting inwards like some kind of odd Robotron clone. Naturally the enemies reproduce and spawn and creep closer to your safety area that is the edge of the … petri dish? … and if they do that, you lose health/die/whatever.

The mechanic is cute: player moves around a circular area but not within it, but the game doesn’t give anything back. It’s essentially a time waster, and judging by some of the magazine reviewers, essentially boring because there’s no difficulty to it. The 8 year old me had trouble with it, but the 28 year old me had very little trouble with it, so yes, that seems fair comment.

Now, the question I’ve been pondering is whether there’s any real mileage in doing something with the mechanic. Can a fun, engaging game be done with the mechanic of moving all around the action and never touching it?

I think to answer that, we need to start by revisiting our history; where does the game style as a whole, and more specifically this example, come from?

Well, historically, Space Invaders. The interaction is distant, you’re mimicking a survivalist response – avoid bullets, shoot back in self defence. The only differences to this model are how the fact enemies spawn (in Space Invaders, they just get closer until you die, they don’t spawn in the level space), and that it’s in a circular not planar environment.

Oh, and the most important difference: Space Invaders stimulates the survivalist response, Microbes doesn’t. There’s a psychological trigger of seeing your actions move one thing (the base) and to have all this *stuff* coming at you.

But not so in Microbes. They spawn, multiply, can also spawn little separate entities that come at you, but it’s not so visceral or emotional as Space Invaders is. It just doesn’t have the same feeling of ‘coming at YOU’, and I think that’s more systemic to the mechanic in the game than anything else. When you’re a little ship in a big ocean of pixels, there’s a response triggered of seeing you move your little ship on the screen.

However distanced, it’s still representative of you, you’re controlling it. That’s why generally you’re at the bottom of the screen, because in most of those old machines, the screen’s tilted. It’s physically nearer to you. Triggers more of the response.

But by effectively separating you from that, by making it an arbitrary place to move around, you lose that trigger. If you can make the mental shift towards things coming at you from all around, and that you’re the nearest thing to omnipresent in the plane, the mechanic still works. But I soon realised that my recollection of the game was influencing me more than anything else, and that my reactions to the game weren’t emotionally driven, but purely intellectual. It wasn’t bringing me into the game, it was forcing me out of the game to handle the logic required to beat it.

And ultimately it’s the mechanic at fault, not the execution. One for the bin, then.

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