Does Size Matter? Not to the Greatest Game Ever!


 

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I was sat contemplating some of my favourite games the other day, and one thing that seemed consistent (in most cases), was that they weren’t large sprawling games, but smaller, tighter experiences.

GTA certainly opened up the world of the action game, but they never, EVER, had me until the end. They were always games that I’d go into, mess around doing daft crap for a while, because I could, then I’d just leave it, never to be played again. It was a good game, but why hadn’t it kept me enthralled to the end?

The games you play, may be a reflection of yourself, who knows, but I do know the reason why I can’t sit and play games like GTA or WoW are the same. It’s a simple equation; Rewards vs Time. I cannot dedicate large chunks of time to complete decentadvances in either of the games aforementioned, I just don’t have the time. Games that I’m enjoying right now are more quick feedback & fun. I have a stack of games and when I look at them, I see time commitments; I have a large family and time is precious at home these days…games take a back seat.

The thought of the SIZE of the game actually puts me off, they feel like a bond of marriage, when what I really want is a mistress, something that doesn’t need a commitment, a satisfying fling that will feed all my desires quickly and consistently. Am I becoming more of what the press likes to call, a Casual Gamer? I don’t know, am I?

 

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I’ve played a lot of games, and I have fond memories of everything from Pong to Gears of War, but whenever anyone asks me of my favourite game, there is only one for me; “”ICO“. It’s something more than most games will ever dream of being. If I was given a choice to create one game ever, it’d be ICO.

I’m going to go on a bit of tangent here, before I explain a little more of my ICO experience. I want to put a notion out there that a lot of games probably never even consider; “the moment”. What I mean by this is; as with films, books, people or anything, the “moment” you interact with these things for the first time is beyond the “first impression” analogy, because this is about where you are physically and mentally at the time you play a game, see a film, meet a person etc. Dependent on where you play a game (is it noisy? crowded? comfortable? etc.) and your state of mind (tired? excited? relaxed? etc.), these two things combine toward the first impressions of a game, because they are modifiers on your thoughts, and ultimately, how you’ll judge it.

I use to play Silent Hill, only at night; when the kids were in bed and my wife at work…it’s was quiet, still, the room illuminated by the games images stretching across my living room floor. My ears became acute to all the sounds emitting from the gogglebox and the slightest creak or breath of wind, I heard it, all my attention was there…it was an atmosphere that fed into the game, it was pretty intense. As a survival horror game, Silent Hill geared toward the psychology, rather than the JUMP SCARES of Resident Evil. I’m not saying it was a better game (I love RE’s), but it was scarier. The “moments” I played that game made it more powerful than it would’ve been in a crowded room during a party, where my reflection of the game would’ve been very different.

Anyways, back to ICO, I’d heard good things (it had just been released), I had also briefly played it during the buzz and mayhem of an E3; I wasn’t fully bought in. One day, I was browsing the shelves at a computer fair (Bowlers in Manchester), and there, brand new, still in its wraps, was ICO and several other new PS2 titles. I asked the guy how much, he said “20 quid each, some guy owed me some money and, when his game shop went down, I got a few games off him for paymet”. 20 quid for ICO? which was going for 40 in the normal shops…too good to pass. I picked up ICO and about 3 other games and left.

I didn’t play the game straight away, it was the afternoon and I was spending time with the family. Night rolled around, my wife went to work and I pulled it out of the bag, unwrapped it, checked out the free postcards and popped it into the PS2. I waited as it whirred away….the game’s opening story cutscene began, all my attention was on it, my hand brushed the Right Analogue stick by accident, the CAMERA MOVED!?!?, cool, I can look around during the cutscenes, no big deal, but it helped me think I was watching over this story, recalling it, rather than being told it…simple, but great.

I took in the entire story (which is unlike me); the outcast boy, thrown into and imprisoned within a castle due to the horns on his head…released by the sheer luck of a wayward tremor during a storm.

As I looked at the little kid Ico; stood within the great castle..I thought, where’s the hud? My feedback, what am I supposed to do? And that’s when it became clear, it was brilliant, again simple, but meaningful. There was no hud because the designers wanted the player to feel isolated and bewildered; just like ICO.

I don’t want to do a play-by-play walk through, but I do want to point out what makes this game so brilliant. The fact of there being no hud is still a big deal to me, because I don’t remember another game without ANY sort of in-game “gui” guidance, yet it was designed so well, the game told you everything, because it was so tightly constructed. ICO forced the game player to observe where the camera was positioned, each room telling a different story, you merely had to be “involved” to appreciate it.

Once I released Yorda, another thing started to become apparent, she was just as important to me, as I to her..but it wasn’t only that, she had character, was brilliantly and meticulously animated; scared, waif-like in appearance, yet powerful in magic. There was more to Yorda than met the eye though, she was also a guide and companion. When I was stuck in some of the areas, I would trek around the place several times, looking for clues, something subtle, a way out, then…stood on her own, observing the scenery, I noticed she was pointing at something, speaking in a voice I couldn’t understand…but it was clear to me; she was showing me a way out. I followed the direction of her interest, and there was part of the puzzle I was solving…at last! Now this may not seem like much, but to me, it’s a big deal. Yorda didn’t give me this straight away, I had been given time by the designers to look for myself first, before she took notice and nudged me in the right direction, again it was subtle, again it was brilliant.

Another time I was stood, overlooking a courtyard, Yorda stood by my side as I swept the place for clues, I wasn’t sure what to do, damn it, I thought and I tapped the attack button, my stick weapon hit the floor, its sharp sound echoing…at this point, Yorda jumped back, scared, quivering…I stopped and looked at the animating pixels, it was weird, I felt “wrong” for scaring her..but she was just a game character, but I was more curious of why I had felt like that. It was because over the course of the game, by observing everything within the environment, and Yorda’s movement and reactions, there had been an emotional connection building, slowly, without words. I was a little taken back by it, I’d never been bother about game characters before, until that “moment”. I stood looking at the screen longer…”brilliant”, I thought to myself.

If you haven’t played ICO, skip over to the end of the spoilers.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

At the time I opened up the way over bridge out of the castle, I was excited and elated…I was feeling great, but in the course of doing this, Yorda had been injured, she couldn’t keep up with me, I began to pull her, guilt baring down on me as she limped to try and keep up. As you know, the bridge collapses and, if my memory recalls, she is taken by the queen and ICO falls into the caverns below the castle. For the last 1/5 of the game (or whatever it was), you have to do it alone…this apparent DIP in success, was part of the whole HERO’s JOURNEY story path; the hero must suffer loss or defeat, to really appreciate the real victory!

After defeating the queen in a really awesome, yet simple boss battle, Yorda, even in her evil state, sacrifices herself to aid me out of the castle, her parting gift to me.

As I watched the credits roll, I didn’t automatically turn off console as I usually do, I sat there, watching everything that was transpiring..and then, I was on the beach, I still had control!!! I walked the beach for a few minutes, and there, swept upon the shore was Yorda’s body…it was a very powerful movement, as if they threw her death in your face, to show you the results of your life.

*** SPOILER END ***

No game, ever, has ever instilled the sorts of emotions that I went through playing ICO. My wife, home from work at night would sit and watch me, suggesting where to go, and pointing out when Yorda was doing something out of the ordinary…even my wife became connected to it, and she HATES GAMES!!! If you haven’t played this game, it’s a MUST PLAY, believe me…but play it when the moments right, like a good wine, don’t just guzzle it all down, sip it, enjoy it and most of all, don’t have any distractions, the game must have ALL YOUR ATTENTION!

ICO rolled in at around 8 hours, this is seen as a small game, yet to me, it was the biggest game I’ve played to date. If I knew ICO was going to be that good, I’d have paid double or triple what I paid for it, no problem. Games like this don’t come around too often; in fact, nothing has ever come close again, except Shadow of the Colossus, funnily enough, by the same development team who created ICO.

I played ICO in small 1 hour sessions late at night, alone, totally focus, each time being rewarded with great puzzles and subtle feats of awesome design, it also had so much depth that could be uncovered, not because they HAD to show all the content at once, they allowed players to REALLY discover new elements.

I’d progress and unfold a decent part of the game each time I played. There was no big commitment of being forced to play X amount of time before a real reward; ICO continually rewarded, and when you don’t have much time to enjoy a game, its critical for players like me to feel this way.

On different levels, games like Geometry Wars gives lots of player feedback and rewards, continually pushing to progress…it’s addictive, I still return to it a lot now. Burnout is another franchise that gives me lots of visceral rewards/feedback, without the commitment of completing X amount of boring races to earn a badge, or enough money to get a car that starts to feel fun… my point:

FUN shouldn’t be given as a reward for PAIN or TEDIUM.

People always talk about quality over quantity, but so many developers are taught that their game should be at LEAST 10-12 hrs, or it simply isn’t good enough. To quote a Macedonian, it’s BULLSHIT!

The ICO team knew exactly what they were doing, they chose a small-ish environment so they could focus their time on developing character interaction and emotion, gating player progression with great puzzles that only their own observations could unlock.

I can totally understand why so many developers have decided to quit next generation work in favour of xbox live arcade or general casual games. They can get back to the FUN of creating games, rather than the grind they can currently turn into.

To answer the question, does size matter? NO, of course not, but the experience does.

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About Haydn Dalton

Creative Lead 30 Years Developing Games

5 Responses to “Does Size Matter? Not to the Greatest Game Ever!”

  1. “Rewards versus time”. Taking World of Warcraft as an example, how do you quantify the “reward” that is overworld exploration? A game like WoW is constantly rewarding (especially the first time through), as a newb player encounters new content. The act of exploration — knowing you can go anywhere you want, at any time, and that you exist in a living, breathing world — is perpetual reward.

    Sure, after a while, you’ve seen “everything” and this reward goes away, as is the case with any game. But to those gamers with a mind for discovery and exploration, simply existing in the world can be a constant reward. GTA can evoke a similar feeling, but not on a grand scale, simply because it lacks any external human element beyond that of the player. Encountering other thinking, reacting, and (mis)behaving humans adds an incomparable element of excitement to exploration.

    In other words… play it!

  2. The continual reward of exploration can never be under-estimated, especially within a multiplayer game, I’m also not saying that the rewards in WoW or other such games are minimal, they contain a wide range of huge rewards, but they are rewards that take time to attain. My whole point is that if I had more time to retrieve the bigger rewards of such games, I’d do so.

    Reward vs Time, I guess for me, is that I either complete 0.0001% of a much larger game in an hour, or I complete 10-15% of a smaller game, and make some real progress, usually attached to being rewarded.

    I’m also not saying I will never play WoW. LOL

  3. Progress is a relative term. Games like Ico exist to allow a player to progress to an eventual end — point A to point B, towards an absolute conclusion. A good MMO transcends that familiar structure, instead providing an alternate, ambient existence mixed with the “achieve and reward” pattern of single player games. The per-hour feeling of achievement is the same (if not more) as the player finds, acquires, overcomes, learns, and not to sound cheesy, but simply *lives* in the world. While the sense of accomplishment relative to the game’s overall offering may be less, the sense of fulfillment can be even greater!

    I loved everything this article said, by the way. I’m just being devil’s advocate (as our former art director is wont to say) in reference to that single quip about “time versus reward” 🙂

  4. By the by, if there’s any game that can help justify video games as art, it’s Ico. Let’s hope games of its nature aren’t a dying breed.

  5. I cannot fully justify my Time vs Reward comment specifically towards WoW, as I haven’t played it, but I’m pretty confident that after playing just 8 hours of it, I wouldn’t get the satisfaction, or have been through an emotional rollercoaster ride the likes of ICO. In 8 hours I’d finished it, but I was utterly satisfied, happy and content when the game was completed.

    I think ICO’s beauty is its focus on the subject matter and, that it had a conclusion with a strong emotional arc that had a start, middle and an end.

    If WoW can give me that in 8 hours, maybe I’ll have a new GREATEST GAME EVER on my list.

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