Opinion – Logic in Games

Déjà vu for the first time.

At one point in my life, I applied for a job at a temp agency.  As part of the intake process, they had me test on various office programs.  After scoring well on the programs I knew, the instructor encouraged me to try accounting software that I had never touched before.  Ultimately, I agreed to do so and scored very well on a test for a tool that I had never seen.  In a seemingly unrelated situation, I was searching for a toilet in a new (to me) building in a foreign country.  After finding an out-of-order bathroom next to a staircase, I correctly guessed that there would be a similarly placed bathroom just one floor down.  Despite never having been in that building before, I successfully identified where to find one of its rooms.  What’s going on here?

We could assume that I am some kind of rare accounting-poop polymath, but let’s set that aside for the moment.  Instead, consider that many aspects of our lives are ordered according to an underlying logic.  According to some consistent rule, be it intentionally derived or naturally ordered, much of our environment follows a certain path.  I tested well on the accounting program because of its similarity to the underlying logic of other programs I used.  I found the bathroom by assuming that toilets next to staircases were centrally located and, therefore, a sound design for a building.  In short, I understood the logic of the thing I was analyzing and so made successful predictions about that thing.  Nothing I did is special.  The Albert Einstein of poop counting need not apply.

Video games are lousy with internal logic with much of it going unnoticed.  Think back to the level design of many games.  Most levels have a start, challenge rooms, and a boss at the end.   Play a million games and each one will follow a similar pattern.  As a result, the player can make guess about the level with only a little information.  For example, games often incentivize exploration by providing items and secrets for players who stray from the main path.  If a player reaches a fork and goes down a tine that continues for a while, they may then backtrack on the theory that the other path carries valuable loot.  On a related note, some games tell the player if the boss is in the next room.  The unstated, but widely understood, purpose of this is to let the player know that they should finish exploring the level (and collecting goodies) before challenging the boss.  The other unstated piece of logic is that no level requires the player to backtrack after beating the boss and therefore will remove the player from the dungeon once the fight is over.  Fight the boss and you’ll have to start at the beginning to get any leftover items.

Think about it and you’ll likely find other examples.  Unkillable bosses are usually fights the player needs to lose to advance.  Powerful units and attacks in a multiplayer game inevitably have some kind of counter.  The value of internal logic in games is that it smooths out the player experience and provides them with the tools to overcome challenges without being told the solution.  For an example of the first value, you need only look at the paragraph above.  By maintaining consistency, the player learns how the game is laid out and how to access the parts they like without getting bogged down in the parts they don’t.  Consistent control schemes across games (triangle for menu, x for confirmation, etc) is another example of this.  Internal logic also gives the player the means to overcome challenges.  By establishing consistent rules, the player learns a rule book to evaluate and exploit.  The player can then develop their own strategies and beat the game on their own terms.

Lacking internal logic can have the opposite effect.  Without a consistent, understandable rule set, the player is liable to become frustrated over seemingly insurmountable challenges.  The game appears random and the player’s losses appear arbitrary.  No one likes playing an unbeatable game.  The most obvious example of poor internal logic is adventure game logic.  Early adventure games contained puzzles ostensibly requiring clever solutions that were actually just random combinations of things.  An example of adventure game logic would be sailing a rubber ducky down draining water in a street that inspires a cat to chase after the ducky resulting in the revealing of the key to the next location.  There’s no logic for the player to grasp except combining all possible solutions until one turns out to be “correct.”

No one likes randomly mashing things together.  The joy of gaming is discovering the rules and applying it to a challenge.  Games with strong internal logic are a lot of fun to discover.  Those that aren’t, well, go the way of the old adventure games.

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Filed under Opinion, Uncategorized, video games

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