Serious Play August 16, 2019
In the room: Nathan Humpal (playing), Kelly Brajevich
This week, the Lunch Zoners played Playtonic Games’ 2017 platformer Yooka–Laylee, which borrows off nostalgia from the developer’s previous experiences creating the cult classic N64 title, Banjo-Kazooie (the names resemble each other too!). I couldn’t help but notice a familiar conflict in these open stage platformers (think Super Mario 64): getting lost.
Getting lost is common place and part of the allure in open-world games like The Witcher 3 or Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which attempt to present a wide world filled with opportunity and intrigue. But in “open stage” games, in which the area of play is not strictly designed to lead the player from one challenge to the next, but instead present a multitude of various challenges to be completed in any order, getting lost is a nuisance. Nathan remarked, “I reluctantly enjoy this game, I think. But I don’t think I have the time for this game right now.” The time factor enters the equation not because of the difficulty of the game’s challenges or its lengthy content, but just because getting lost is time consuming and frustrating.
I get lost in similar games all the time, and ironically it isn’t because these stages are overly complex or because they are designed to be confusing, often it is the opposite. The player misses something that wasn’t meant to be hidden, but because of the sheer amount of challenges to complete, some easily fall through the cracks. These kinds of open stage games ask the player to complete all of the goals and get all the collectible items lying around their hills and valleys. Skipping over one accidentally and seeing something like 7/8 [insert object here] can lead to a significant amount of backtracking to find the laid out challenge previously missed. I would certainly agree with Nathan’s assessment later in the stream that in games like ideally the player should be going in the “right direction or know you’re going in the right direction.”
While these open stage games might be frustrating for the novice player, they present, by far, the most popular opportunity for a particular community of competitive players: speed runners. Consistently the most popularly run speed running titles follow an “open stage” design, such the 3D Mario titles, the Legend of Zelda series, and the Metroid series (speaking of nostalgia, it is no coincidence that these titles are all flagship Nintendo IPs). Specifically, the most logged speed running title of all time is Super Mario 64 and the most popular one from this decade (from my very amateurish perspective) is Super Mario Odyssey, which was mentioned on stream as being similar to Yooka-Laylee. Both of these games follow the same format of having open stages with collecting hidden objects as the goal.
These kinds of games are intriguing for a speed runner precisely for the same reason we get lost playing them, because there are many different paths to complete the same goal. Once the player knows the exact location of each of the objectives due to extensive experience playing the game, the nature of gameplay shifts from being able to find these objectives to creating the most efficient path through the open stage to get them all. To not belabor the point anymore, I’ll just point out that game design that we can find tedious can also be design others find invigorating and interesting in another context. Maybe getting lost isn’t always so bad.