Written on January 18th, 2018
Warren Robinett's Adventure for the Atari 2600 is one of my favorite games of all time.
Playing Adventure from the floor of my childhood family room is one my earliest video games memories. For a game experience that is almost four decades old, it has held up incredibly well. This Youtube player sums it up well:
... One of the beautiful things about this game is just the crazy situations it throws at you sometimes. And it's a great example of how simple rule sets in video games can often lead to very unpredictable and very fun results and you don't need to make an incredibly complicated and fun game from scratch. Sometimes just putting simple rules in place and letting them do their thing is all that you need to do. And that's kind of how Adventure works.
Warren Robinett's Adventure only has a handful of colors. The characters are blocky and simple. And yet it was among the very first video games to ever merge action and adventure. It emerged from the soil of legendary text-based game Colossal Cave Adventure which is the very same game that also gave rise to the "roguelike" game experiences named after the titular Rogue. And like Adventure, Rogue is a game of systems over graphics.
During a talk at GDC, there is this beautiful moment where Warren Robinett answers a question about the clearly aging artwork of Adventure. As a bit of a joke, the questioner asks, "... which end of the sword is the hilt and which one is the tip?". Warren's reply:
I don't know. That was not a question I ever worried about or even thought about and - you know what? I'll tell you something. I did not agonize over things in this game. I had certain problems that were clearly problems to me that I worked hard to solve.
Warren Robinett's Adventure is a great reminder that good systems can produce good results alongside graphical simplicity. And this is especially encouraging when you are just getting started.
All I have are systems
Last week, I mostly overhauled several subsystems that really deserved attention such as this unintentional rave:
But the best news of the week was in the way that the very small tweaks to simple systems began to produce challenging and unexpected results:
What seems at first to be a straight-forward set of gameplay options - kill slow moving red things, navigate the environment to the exit - quickly becomes a strategy - quickly look ahead, backtrack, dodge down different hallways, watch your back. The thing to keep in mind here is that I am forming a strategy while I am playing even though I am the game designer. I should already know what to do, but I don't. The game is making me question my own decisions as I try to make progress through the corridors. The fact that my character reaches the exit marker at the end of the video is a result of my own understanding of my options after repeated failures.
Sometimes just putting simple rules in place and letting them do their thing is all that you need to do.
Likewise, these same systems rapidly swing my game experience from "I got this" to "I am completely trapped" situations. But instead of it being unfair, getting trapped is mostly a result of moving too quickly and not calculating the available options:
As a game designer, being caught off guard by my simple systems feels like a great start.