Thursday, 7 July 2016

Cool Game Design Moments: That Haunted Armour in Castlevania's Second Stage

Here's the video. Text version is after the jump.


Castlevania is a game whose design I hold in high regard. There's lots of elaborate analysis I could do of the game as a whole, but for now I'll simply describe the game as one that understands the language of 2D platformers. It uses this language to teach a player the rules of the game. This means there's no need for an instruction manual, or even text beyond PRESS START until you either run out of lives or finish the game. A classic rule of writing is William Shakespeare's "Brevity is the soul of wit". This is a game that understands how to make more out of less.

And yet, there's a pretty simple counterclaim. If this game is so smart, explain this haunted armour in Stage 2! If computer games follow similar rules to writing, then it's a completely superfluous creature! It's not blocking your progress and can't even hurt you unless you jump into it! Pichy, are you sure this game's level design didn't just fluke a lot of its good moments?
That is what I really want to talk about today. Not only do I believe this armour has a place, it's one that's integral to the game's themes of horror and suspense!

To understand this armour, let's talk about positive reinforcement. It's a psychological tool where you get someone or something to perform a behaviour you want by giving them a tangible reward every time you do. For example, giving a pet dog food every time they obey a command. Or, say, giving a large star pickup for using the Cutter ability on a rope.
B.F. Skinner secretly worked for HAL Laboratory.
Castlevania uses this technique from the very first screen of the game. Assuming a player has never encountered the game before, they will inevitably press the controller's buttons to see what they do. Upon doing pressing the B button for the first time, they will strike a flame and discover doing so drops an item!
The game even subtly introduces items hidden inside walls by making a bat spawn close to the first such location. There's also a level 2 sub-item powerup in the first boss area.
Without saying a word, the game is communicating a rule to you that's something like this.

Don't just whip prominent objects! Exploring will net rewards!

Stage 2 goes one step further by revealing that rewards don't even have to be inside the wall. If you explore, you can find bounty anywhere! 
You're the king of exploration!

So far, so good. By the time you can find the crown you've already likely discovered hidden wall meat, hidden floor powerups and smashed a large pile of candles. You might have even found an invulnerability potion! Let's walk on up those stairs and see what else awaits us!
This screen poses even less challenge than the previous. The only enemies are a bat conveniently in range to whip from jump height and a haunted armour who the previous screen has established only walk back and forth. Pragmatism would suggest there's no need to to go near that armour, but our knowledge of the game suggests otherwise. Castlevania really seems to want us explore and whip everything we can, so let's do so! Hell, the first screen even introduced the crucifix! Perhaps this armour exists so we can prove we understand that sub-weapon's applications! Let's kill that armour!
I'd have used the crucifix, but the bat happened to drop a rosary that killed the armour automatically. OTL
Great! It's dead! What treasure awaits us now?
...nothing? Nothing?! NOTHING?!?!?
Yes, the haunted armour is guarding absolutely nothing. There really is no reason to go after it beyond a player's assumption that they will be rewarded for going out of their way. Some would call this sloppy design.

I call it a violation of trust.

From this point on, nothing is the same. Before this screen, you could expect that if you worked hard and moved out of your way, the game would reward you for potential losses in resources. After this point, you can never be entirely sure this is true.

This subtle betrayal also happens immediately before the dreaded medusa head enemy is introduced. The game's difficulty increases dramatically from that moment onwards. Dracula's castle has now given you a conundrum through these tough times: do you risk further damage exploring every nook and cranny only to maybe get something in return? Or do you just press on as best you as can playing as cautiously as possible.
Are those stairs a floating aid to help avoid crows, or are they a background art asset goading a bad jump?
I said earlier that Castlevania is about horror and suspense. The myriad death traps and infuriating enemy placements encourage caution, but it's this violation of trust that I feel really adds to the first-time experience. When a game always rewards, even the most dangerous trials will feel that much more achievable if you keep at it. When a game instead keeps a player wondering whether it's worth putting in extra effort, well... maybe you could just choose to END after the next Game Over.

Maybe this time Dracula gets to win.

No comments:

Post a Comment