One of the many things I’ve heard said about games that is always bobbing around in my head is a line from Tim Schafer, of Monkey Island and Double Fine fame. He was talking at a Develop conference in Brighton about a decade ago most likely, and he was talking about the problem of the player getting stuck in video games. “Getting stuck,” he said, or something along those lines. “We used to call that gameplay.”
I can attest to this in a very personal way. Getting stuck – often getting stuck in games Schafer had helped create – was very much gameplay when I was at school in the 1990s. I remember sitting in maths class with my friend Gareth, passing notes back and forth about what to do with the key we’d found in the chandelier in Maniac Mansion. (I don’t think that’s one of Schafer’s.) A year or so later we’d be talking about how to get through the maze in Monkey Island, or what to do with the Red Herring.
This came back to me this week because I’ve been playing Cocoon. Cocoon is brilliant. It’s one of the best things I have encountered in an absolute age. I am in awe of how it is put together, and what I’m largely in awe of is this: Cocoon is a very intelligent puzzle game with brilliantly devious challenges, and yet I was never stuck for too long. Despite not being particularly brilliant myself, Cocoon found a way to arrange its puzzles in a way that encouraged me to solve them quickly, rather than become overwhelmed and give up.
And this surprised me, because so many of the puzzles here are the kinds of things I would struggle to solve most of the time. They’re just so ingenious and clever, and involve taking what you’ve learned and subverting it, turning it inside out, using it against itself. How did I end up doing this stuff? How did Cocoon, in essence, make me a slightly smarter version of myself, to the point where I was solving puzzles in ways that I understood but could not put into actual words?
The way Cocoon does this, I think, is it focuses you. It follows you through the game and whenever there’s a puzzle it quietly locks down your options. By this I mean that the perimeter of the puzzle, as it were, is very clear. You don’t have to worry that the solution is halfway across the map in another direction, or that it hinges on something you learned to do eight hours ago, or with an object that you’ve long since accidentally discarded.
This immediacy, this careful curation of puzzle pieces, makes Cocoon brilliant to play. It’s challenging, it’s just not frustrating, and it never seems arduous. I’d like to make this clear up-front: I love this approach to design. I think it’s really democratic, because it encourages as large an audience as possible into completing a game and enjoying its riches.
It also made me think: how do I feel about games that don’t do this?
I can remember, just about, where I was when I started to see games working in this way: quietly shepherding me in a certain direction and shutting off false and possibly distracting avenues. It was in Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath. I’m sure it happened many times before in games where I didn’t even notice it taking place, but in Stranger’s Wrath I would sometimes notice that in the course of an adventure I’d dropped down a cliff that I couldn’t then rescale, and I realised that what the game was doing was telling me: that’s done. What’s past is prologue. You’re facing in the right direction, and the rest of the adventure is ahead of you.
This is a simple version of the trick that Cocoon regularly plays. And at the time I remember exactly what I thought about it. I thought: I wonder if the old Tomb Raider games ever did this?
Rightly or wrongly, the old Tomb Raiders – by which I mean the original Core Design games – are my touchstone for games that do not curate their puzzles quite as tightly. I’m sure they did all sorts of clever focusing stuff that I didn’t notice, but I also have lots and lots of memories of walking around in these games, stuck between three or four different puzzles, none of which I could solve, wondering what to do and where I went wrong. And eventually, of course, because this kind of thinking always curdles the same way, wondering whether the game was broken.
An example: I can remember being stuck in Tomb Raider Chronicles for about a week in a series of ornate rooms with a door that I couldn’t open. Did I need to force it open? Find a switch? Or maybe trigger something in the game world, like an enemy attack that I had so far failed to trigger? The solution – in my memory at least – was a key, an actual key, that was hidden on a floor that had a really complex design on the tiles or carpeting. It was hard to see that key, and the only way I found it was by pacing the entire gameworld with my eyes focused on the ground, in much the same way I’d used to wander the house looking for a very specific missing piece of Lego when I was a kid.
Was this gameplay? I don’t know. But when I think back at those Core Tomb Raiders, which I remember as being evocative and transporting, spooking and slightly wild, deeply placeful, if you’ll allow that term? I also remember that I found them frustrating, stop-starty, a little beyond the person I was at the time. That key was one thing, but I remember that I had to sneak back into the university I had recently graduated from and sneakily access the computer centre to solve a progress puzzle in Tomb Raider 2, which hinged, in the end, on a means of extending the jump that I hadn’t had to use since the game began. Frustrating! Stop-starty! Not fun.
And this week I started to think: were they all these things for the same reasons? Was what’s good about these games, what’s special and remarkable, innately tied to what I used to find maddening about them?
What I’m getting at, I think, is this: did I find these games more evocative and transporting and placeful at least in part because I spent so much time in their worlds, because I was often stuck? Take the Opera House in Tomb Raider 2, which I often think of being one of my favourite video game spaces of all time. I know that place so well because I spent so long backtracking, walking around stuck and hoping a puzzle solution would come to me. And this in turn was because Tomb Raider gave you such a big space to explore, with multiple puzzles, and so you never knew whether the solution to a puzzle would be right there with it, or five miles in the other direction.
So I still think what Cocoon does is brilliant and democratic and completely ingenious. But I also remember that there were upsides to games where you got stuck a bit more often. I’m not sure if the trade-off was fair or intended, but when I think of Tomb Raider 2, say, I think of places where I really feel I have lived for a bit. That opera house. The deserted De Chirico version of Venice. The upside-down ship, sunk in an air pocket at the bottom of the ocean, with chairs and tables hanging from the ceiling and rusting machines down below decks. These are places I know so well in part because I spent so long wandering them wondering if the game was broken. Not gameplay, then, but something else – and something I will never forget.