One of my favourite obstacles in a game was in Beneath a Steel Sky. Though I worked on this game, I didn’t contribute to the gameplay design; so I think it’s okay for me to feel this way. One of the reasons I enjoyed my eleven years with Revolution was that I had such respect for the people I worked with.
The obstacle in question involved getting into a security building with the use of a grappling hook and cable. The route to getting these objects had a convoluted series of steps that involved finding a spanner, fitting the robot, Joey, with a welder shell, trading objects with others, distracting people, getting Joey to melt through a loose cable and then have him cut the anchor off a statue in order that you could use it as the hook. Mixed into this were other minor obstacles and much humour as you explored the world and put up with the sarcastic comments of a less than enthusiastic sidekick.
What worked best for me was the way that I never felt that I was simply solving a small puzzle and then moving onto the next one – the gameplay seemed more continuous and free flowing than that. Being able to wander around the world with relative freedom also helped give the impression that I was in control of what was going on.
Another obstacle I particularly admire is in Half-Life, where you must kill the monster with the test rocket engine. Of course, you must get past the monster a few times in order to get the fuel and power flowing to the engine and console, working out how to distract it temporarily as you work through the tasks involved. The elegance of the obstacle is that not only was it clear what your objective was, but it acted as a secondary obstacle to completing the other tasks. Then, when you completed the tasks and fired off the rocket engine, it was such a satisfying thing to do, rewarding you well for overcoming the obstacle.
One of the things that strikes me, is that a successful obstacle is one that doesn’t give the impression that it’s insurmountable, even if you’re struggling to complete the tasks needed to beat it. If the objective is clear and the tools are to hand (though they may be difficult to obtain), then all that’s left is for the player to put the parts together. Of course, simply put like that, it may seem as though making the obstacles easy is the key, but that’s not the case. It’s not about ease, but clarity – difficulty should arise from the way the route to beating the obstacle tests the skills of the player, not by making the steps along the route obscure or illogical.
There have been games in the past, where playing them has felt, at times, as if it’s a battle with the designer. Searching for the important object was reduced to a mind-numbing pixel hunt, or leaping across the chasm could only be achieved by a professional gaming ninja with skills enough to press twenty buttons or keys at the same time.
When the designer of an obstacle begins to think, “There’s no way the player will beat this one!” then it’s time that the designer should be re-thinking his approach to obstacle design. Thankfully, few games have this flaw, today, but thinking carefully about obstacles will only improve the whole gaming experience for all of us.
© Steve Ince, 2004