Design Bites: Mirror's Edge

The "Design Bites" series is about learning or appreciating just one design element of one game. It's about applying an analytical eye, even if it doesn't touch on everything.

What's Mirror's Edge?

Mirror's Edge is a Action Adventure First-Person Platformer developed and released by DICE in Late 2008. The player free-runs across city heights, jumping between rooftops and scaling walls. Occasionally you fight enemies with timing-based attacks but mostly it's about running away from things.

What's Awesome?

Games often instruct the player directly, spoken or written in UI, but the majority of instructions are actually given indirectly - A muzzle flash means "find cover", even without gruff military voiceover. Good level design is not just about what's challenging or fun, it's also about communication - it's a direct channel between the designer and the player.

Mirror's Edge showcases some awesome ways of getting your players attention and feeding them information. You might jump ahead here and bring up "Runner Vision", a mechanic that highlights objects in the world. This is a great feature but it's not what i'm talking about. I'm talking about how the game feeds you lore.

Take a look at this elevator sequence:

You hit this elevator button to advance, it's a mini tutorial on interacting with objects. It could have been empty, but instead there is a screen with a couple of short news articles. As you bend down to press the button, a small section of the screen is right there in view. You catch a glimpse of a headline, which just happens to be about a character that you're about to meet.

Some players may completely ignore the screen, others might stop and read, but no matter the choice the player has been signaled - directed towards an optional nugget of information. This example is quite direct: text on a screen in a closed space but, even so, not all players will stop to read this. The game is filled with mindful placement of objects - both key to platforming and as a tool for imparting story.

Many games do this, so the next time you're exploring Tamriel or Azeroth, take some time to appreciate how conveniently features of the world are laid out for you to see.

Design Bites: FTL: Faster Than Light

The "Design Bites" series is about learning or appreciating just one design element of one game. It's about applying an analytical eye, even if it doesn't touch on everything.

What's FTL: Faster Than Light?

FTL: Faster Than Light is a roguelike top-down space-sim developed and released by Subset Games in Late 2012. The player manages a small spaceship and crew, arranging them on the ship and adjusting power levels for various systems like shields, weapons and engines. You jump from area to area, where you may encounter other ships or answer distress calls. All the while, the rebel fleet advances on your position, making areas behind you dangerous.

What's Awesome?

Permadeath, an important element of the roguelike formula. When used correctly it creates a bond between the player and their character. It immerses us by making our decisions carry more weight and encourages us to care for the characters we're controlling more deeply - emotionally. FTL is great example of these things.

As a new player, FTL excels at creating a feeling of desperation - every choice carries tension. Each time you jump to a new location, you are presented with a choice. This could be the choice to avoid or engage a hostile ship, but it could also be to answer a call for help, a trade offer or any number of other things.

These, sometimes moral, choices have a large impact on your ship both immediately and for the long term future. You need resources like fuel to make the trip, and missiles to defend yourself.

You may begin the game by fighting all slave ships you encounter on moral grounds but, eventually, you might reach a point where doing business with a slave trader might be the key to your survival. You are put into positions where you may need to take advantage of someone, fight unwillingly, or give away precious scrap just to avoid dying and losing all your progress. 

Moral choices in games often amount to a choice between some absolute "good" and "evil", where the only difference is who gives you quests and what color your eyes glow. In FTL they are about doing the right thing versus doing the smart thing, and I found myself agonising over both.

Design Bites: Cubetractor

The "Design Bites" series is about learning or appreciating just one design element of one game. It's about applying an analytical eye, even if it doesn't touch on everything.

What's Cubetractor?

Cubetractor is a tower-building action puzzle game with bullet-hell elements developed and released by Ludochip in mid 2013. The player character pulls cubes along the ground, combining them into structures like turrets, barricades and many others. The goal is to destroy all enemies, either with turrets or by crushing them.

What's Awesome?

Games with levels will often feature a grade system, where the player gets a star rating or grade letter at the end of each level based on their performance. This feature is often used to motivate the player to replay levels to beat their old performances. Most of the time this amounts to encouraging players to take on restrictions to increase multipliers, or find point-maximising strategies. Cubetractor makes great use of this feature with cleverly designed optional mechanical difficulty. Here's an example:

Early Cubetractor towers fire very. slowly. So their bullets are very easy to dodge. Because of this, it's trivial to get past most of the early levels with a little patience.

But if you want to get that Master Rating, you're going to have to live a little more dangerously.

Pulling the cubes in quick succession, all while dodging the odd tower shot, makes Cubetractor a lot more challenging. Moving cubes hurt you if you touch them so you essentially create more projectiles for yourself to dodge - especially true in later levels where the hail of bullets really kicks in.

The key here is that the level is not hard on its own, instead it becomes hard when the player chooses to make it so. It's not a discrete difficulty setting - the player makes a choice to increase the mechanical difficulty for themselves and they feel damn cool doing it 

Design Bites: Ikaruga

The "Design Bites" series is about learning or appreciating just one design element of one game. It's about applying an analytical eye, even if it doesn't touch on everything.

What's Ikaruga?

Ikaruga is a Japanese arcade bullet hell shmup developed and released by Treasure in Late 2001. It features a color-swapping mechanic where the player can switch between blue and red, making them impervious to bullets of the same color.

What's Awesome?

When we play games, we often try to "outsmart" them. We look for broken spell combinations, overpowered guns, experience farming tactics and other things to give ourselves the edge.

In Ikaruga, the story is the same: "By staying in blue form forever I can ignore half of the danger on screen! All I need to do is kill off all red enemies."

About 2 minutes later you're presented with a pair of alternate colored enemies that slowly but surely push you to switch, as you are placed in a position where simply dodging one color is impossible. The game doesn't really tell you that you need to switch, it just sort of lets you slowly realise it yourself. Soon after you are pummelled with a wide array of different bullet patterns that require you to switch frequently.

The cool thing about Ikaruga is that it likes to gently dispel notions like these with small challenges before hitting you with the hard stuff. It's a good lesson in tutorial design.

Further encounters teach you to use color switching strategically even when its not necessary to switch, one instance is killing off the small opposite-color enemies in the first boss fight to make switching during the bosses alternating patterns uninhibited.