Posted on Leave a comment

Camera Movements for 2D Platformers: How Do I Know Which One to Choose

As a huge fan of 2D side-scrolling platformers, looking at how beautifully a 2D world is constructed with art assets and motion designs has always been an enjoyable process. Among various details that constitute a coherent platformer experience, I often time find the camera movement being something that could instantly change the feel of the game. Cameras are the eyes with which we players perceive the game world, and given the lack of one dimension, it is of more significance to have a properly designed camera movement for 2D games since what players can see is already less than in a 3D experience.

While the camera movements in Super Mario being the one that players and designers often look at, there are other renown 2D platformers that in fact have very different designs that are worth looking at.

Super Mario Bros (1985)

In the classic Super Mario Bros, given that the level mainly expands horizontally, the camera will only move horizontally. The camera movement is affected by a camera window--the camera will only follow the player when the player reaches the edge of the window, in this case is roughly the center of the screen. When moving, the camera directly snaps to where the player is, meaning that there's no smooth movement or any slight delay. But players still perceive a smoothing effects because the movement of Mario himself has a fade-in and fade-out process. Interestingly, when players try to walk backwards in Super Mario Bros, the camera won't follow them to go back and therefore restricts how much players can go back.

Mega Man

Technically, it'll be a bit inaccurate to talk about Mega Man series as a whole since different games under the franchise have slightly different camera movement design. In the original Mega Man series, the levels are divided into chunks. A lot of chunks are just the same size as the camera view, and the camera would be still most of the time when players move inside a chunk. There are, however, some chunks of the level that are longer or taller than the camera view. In those chunks, the camera will directly follow the player in a linear fashion, placing the player almost at the center, until the camera reaches the edge of a chunk. When players go from one chunk to another chunk, the camera will entirely shift from one chunk to another before players can start moving.

In Mega Man Zero series, although the camera design is very similar to the original Mega Man, the levels are divided into bigger and less chunks. Therefore players experience a lot more camera movements than in the original Mega Man.

Ori and the Blind Forest & Hollow Knight

Ori and Hollow Knight, though their camera design is not exactly the same, do share a lot of common approaches when creating a more organic than mechanical camera movements. In both games, the camera movement is smooth, meaning that the camera smoothly travels from one point to another with some slight fade in and fade out effects, as opposed to linear movement which is what Mega Man uses. Both games also have inconsistent camera offsets, meaning that the relative position of the camera to the player can change depending on the area the player is in. This dynamic design allows designers to control what players can see at certain point of a level with more flexibility.

Comparing to Hollow Knight, one thing that Ori did and former did not do is the resizable camera view. This benefits the storytelling aspects when the designer intend to convey certain feelings. 

So when you make your own 2D side-scrolling platformers, well, you could certainly invent your own camera movements, but how do you know where to start? Which one should you choose? The immediate answer would be to choose the one that "feels" right given the type of experience you are building.

Posted on Leave a comment

Level Design of Beat Saber: How Does the Game Take You To the Subconscious State

When it comes to playing rhythm games, there's a lot of similarities between that and playing actual instruments. Apart from pressing right keys at the right moments, both "activities" require sinking yourself into the subconscious state to play well. Taking piano for an example, certainly at the beginning you would need to pay attention to how you move your fingers when you are learning the music, but when you are performing fluidly, your mind would barely be conscious of which keys your fingers are pressing. Instead, you are "overtaken" by the music flow--your subconscious and muscle memories do most of the job. Similarly in conventional rhythm games where you are trying to hit some boxes or press some buttons according to rhythm, your mind would barely be conscious of every single block that's falling and tell your fingers what's the next button to press. You are taken into this subconscious state where you rely on reflex and instinct to master the game.

Beat Saber being one of the most innovative and successful games in the rhythm game genre has added some "spice" into the conventional rhythm-based gameplay. Apart from taking the gameplay into Virtual Reality, Beat Saber added more layers onto timing your actions with different colors of blocks that require different hands to cut as well as arrows on the blocks that require players cutting blocks from particular angles. While these layers seem to have added more difficulties and therefore require more attention to what's coming, the game utilized certain approaches in its level design to still take players to their subconscious state.

Since Beat Saber has a built-in level editor that allows players to make their own levels however they want, here I'll only be discussing the pre-made levels from the developers.

Arrow Patterns that Allow Continuous Hand Movements (Believer)

By continuous hand movements I'm referring to the consecutive cutting movements that don't require players to deliberately re-position their hands between cuttings. For example, when a bunch of consecutive blocks approach and the arrow patterns on them are "Up, Down, Up, Down, Up, Down". While cutting through this kind of block groups, players can just intuitively move their hands up and down without giving a second thought. Such setup allows players to focus more on following the rhythm without paying attention on arrow patterns (maybe except for the first one), which makes it easier for players to rely on their subconsciousness.

With that being said however, there will occasionally be cases where several blocks that are close together approach but you do find patterns like, for example, "Up, Up" which requires an awkward instant re-positioning of hands. Although this instance seem to be breaking that subconscious state, it is an effective way to introduce more challenges into the gameplay.

Arrow Patterns that Allow You to "Draw Circles" (Beat Saber DH Expert, Escape SH Expert)

This arrow pattern is like an advanced version of the "Up, Down, Up, Down" pattern I was talking about in the last section. As opposed to the last pattern where all blocks are aligned and are coming one after another, in this pattern the "Ups" and "Downs" could be in two or even more different lines. Although beginners might think they have to pay attention to each arrow and their positions, the trick is that you could just draw circles with your hands--you start with the an "Up", cut through the following "Down", and go back to the next "Up" to complete a circle, and vise versa. This pattern is designed in a way that allows players to, again, focus on the rhythm itself by reducing the amount of attention players need on the arrow patterns.

Among all the modes in Beat Saber, this "circle pattern" is most common in the single-hand mode. And similar to the previous pattern, occasionally you would encounter sudden changes of arrow directions within a group of blocks that you thought you could cut through by drawing circles. These variations are used as a difficulty diversifier.

Posted on Leave a comment

How Do Meditation Games Raise Emotions

I was first introduced to the idea of meditation games when I played Journey two years ago. As one of the most successful games made by Thatgamecompany, Journey provided a very calm and meditative game experience where I could take my time appreciating the beauty and the aesthetic of the game. I remember sitting on the couch for 20 minutes after beating the game, letting my feelings and emotion sink in. Impressed by how games could provide such emotional experience as opposed to pure excitement, I went on playing a few other meditation games with this question in mind: how did these games raising emotions in players?

Among the meditation games I have played since Journey, other two of my favorite meditation games are Flower, a game Thatgamecompany was known for before Journey, and Gemini, a mobile game developed by Echostone Games and was mentored by Jenova Chen--The CEO and Creative Director at Thatgamecompany--while it was being incubated at NYU. The three games shared certain similarities in design that I think are what crafted the emotional experience: simple player agency, an ordeal in their level, and procedural music generated by player actions.

Journey (2012)
Journey (2012)
Flower (2009)
Flower (2009)
Gemini (2016)
Gemini (2016)

Simple Player Agency

In all three games, the player agency is much simpler than games that are highly intense and provide pure excitement. In Journey, though you control a character, your only action is jumping (which can be extended into gliding) and resonating (which is how you interact with the environment and other players). For most part of the gameplay you will just be wandering around, leaving space for appreciating the virtual environment. In Flower, you control a flow of wind that carries flower petals to move around, and in Gemini, you control falling stars to move around while rising up to the sky. In those two games, the player agency is even simpler and as a result the "puzzles" in games are also designed simple enough not to distract players from the meditative experience.

The simple player agency in Journey, Flower, and Gemini ensured a very linear and focused game experience that makes emotions easier to arise, just like how movies can affect their audiences because the audiences don't have to make much effort other than simply perceiving.

An Ordeal

The concept of the Ordeal was originally from the Hero's Journey, a commonly used storytelling structure for a lot of Hollywood movies nowadays. The word refers to the biggest challenge a hero usually faces before reaching his end goal. The integration of this concept into levels is what I would argue the most important element that made those three games emotion-provoking. In Journey, while the first two stages are relaxing and easy, the third stage suddenly put the character in a snow storm where he has to struggle a lot to move forward. In Flower, after recovering a lot natural landscape to life, you suddenly arrive in this area full of dark and sharp city ruins. And in Gemini, after rising through the first two level, you arrive this part of the space full of asteroids that eventually "killed" the other tiny star who's been accompanying you throughout the game.

The snow storm in Journey.
The snow storm in Journey.
City ruins in Flower.
City ruins in Flower.
The area full of asteroids in Gemini.
The area full of asteroids in Gemini.

The Ordeal in those level design rose the difficulty of gameplay and contrast against the feeling the game experience has built up. Contradictory as this might sound, this contrast is what makes the feeling coming after more memorable and effective--the feeling of relief and hope towards the ending where players break through the toughness and return to "light".

Procedural Music

As tiny as this detail might be, it's interesting to have noticed how all three games had their players generate very subtle music apart from the pre-composed background music. In all three games, this takes form of random music notes triggered my player actions such as interacting with environment or collecting flower petals. This procedural music added an aesthetic layer to the player agency, enhancing the calmness and meditation the game provides.

Although Journey, Flower, and Gemini have shared those similarities that help them raise emotions in player, they cannot speak for all meditation games. But to recognize those design choices will be helpful to creating feelings in games, and even to incorporating meditative experience in a game that also produces excitement.

Posted on Leave a comment

Unconventional Music-based Gameplay

Music games have been popular for some time. One of the most common ways that those games utilize music as game mechanics is to design the gameplay based on existing music composition, which in many cases is synchronizing player actions with music rhythm. Games such as Guitar Hero or the Taiko series took this approach. In those games, players often see a bunch of bars or icons moving along the screen based on music beats, and the gameplay is limited to pressing right buttons when corresponding bars reach the end of their lane. Such design indeed takes advantage of music rhythm but at the same time constrains the player agency. Nowadays as music and audio are playing more important and diverse roles in media content, what are some new ways to design game mechanics based on music?

Guitar Hero (2005-2015)
Guitar Hero (2005-2015)
Taiko No Tatsuji (2001-2019)
Taiko No Tatsuji (2001-2019)
Common Types of Audio-based Gameplay

Before focusing our lens on music, let’s take a look at audio in general as gameplay. Aaron Oldenburg, a professor at University of Baltimore, wrote a journal article discussing intersections of music, sound arts, and video game designs. Through looking at the history and development of those three fields, Oldenburg suggests that common types of audio-based gameplay are either built around pre-composed music pieces or built to allow players to generate “dynamic music” with their actions, leaving other forms of sound under-explored in the field of games. As he then proceeds into analyzing a few recent experimental audio games, Oldenburg suggests new possibilities in utilizing sounds as means to unfold game space to visually impaired audiences, in creating chance-based composition with gameplay, and in simulating sounds in games without reproducing them, etc.

Oldenburg mentioned a wide variety of audio-based games and projects that range from PaRappa the Rapper, which follows the conventional rhythm game design of pressing buttons, to more recent experimental games such as Optic Echo, which uses audio as the input and visualizes echolocation. When looking at music-based gameplay, however, some approaches--such as using existing compositions and generate "dynamic music"--could be more applicable than others. Certainly, one can build experimental experiences around visualization or using sound as the input, but this approach doesn’t take advantage of what’s unique to music as opposed to general audio—it’s structure (rhythm, harmony) and flow (melody, progression).

PaRappa The Rapper (1996)
PaRappa The Rapper (1996)
Optic Echo (2011)
Optic Echo (2011)
Unconventional Music Games

While most music games would utilize rhythm as mechanics, they are a number of them who did it in a way that doesn’t constrain player agency to merely “pressing the right button at the right time”.

| 140

140 is a minimalistic platform game that creates synesthesia with electronic music as players proceed through levels. In each of its level, the platforms, obstacles, and traps change their colors, positions, and even shapes along with the rhythm of the background music. The player will have to synchronize their actions with the rhythm pattern to be able to proceed in a level.

Created by Jeppe Carlsen who directed gameplay for the well-known Playdead’s Limbo, 140 is a successful example to combine music rhythm with mechanics of a platform game. While players have the freedom to move their character within the game space, the strategy to solve puzzles or to get over traps and obstacles is to some extent defined by the music rhythm. Such mechanic therefore creates a balance between player agency and the significance of music rhythm: the rhythm defines your strategy but not your movement.

140 (2013)
140 (2013)
Klang (2016)
Klang (2016)
| Klang

Klang is an innovative rhythm game that aim to push the genre out of the convention of merely pressing right buttons at the right time. Set in a virtual world of music and beats, players play as a hero who uses two tuning forks as weapons and navigates through space while eliminating enemies according to background music rhythm.

Similar to the design of 140, in Klang there are traps in each stage that change along with music. Players have to time jumping and moving with the beat pattern to be able to proceed. During the combat phase, there will be enemies floating around the character. In that phase, enemies would stay at the same relative positions to the player no matter where the player goes. The enemies shoot projectiles according to the music beat, and players will have to deflect the projectiles back to enemies by pressing corresponding direction buttons when they come close.

Though Klang aims to push rhythm games beyond pressing buttons and it does well-incorporated the action aspect of platform games, the fact that the battle phase is constrained to accurate button press still resembles the old convention. With their combat UI design resembling the look of conventional rhythm games, the mechanics of Klang somehow feel like an arbitrary combination of rhythm and action.

| Patapon

Patapon is a Japanese rhythm action game where players command an army of soldiers by playing different drum patterns. Players can tap four different types of drum beats, and depending on the order and the combination of those beats they would be able to commend their army to do things such as charging, dodging, retreat, and attack, etc. While players have absolute freedom in terms of when to give those commends, the closer they align their drum beats with the background rhythm they better their army will perform the commend.

Although the player actions in Patapon still take the form of accurate button press, the player agency is not constrained by the music rhythm because the gameplay lies heavily on when and what commends to perform in different situations in addition to accurate button-pressing. The strategy and decision-making added depth to the rhythm-based actions.

Patapon (2007)
Patapon (2007)
Direction to Experiment

As a huge fan of action games and a musician, those unconventional music games inspired me to explore and experiment with combining music game mechanics with action game elements. What are some other interesting ways of making rhythm-action mechanics? And, while most music game tend to utilize rhythm, how would one use other qualities such as melody or harmony to build gameplay?

| A Platformer about Harmony and Music Chords 

When I first started making games two years ago, I experimented with combing music chords and harmony with platformer mechanics. I built a prototype called Monic in which players choose the right ability to shoot at enemies based on the music chords they hear. In that world, every type of enemy and the player ability have their own sound--sometimes it's just one note and sometimes it's a chord. Players will only be able to kill an enemy with the ability that has the note which harmonizes with the chords of the enemy.

Different from identifying music rhythm, recognizing chords and harmony has a much higher bar--sometimes it'll take a few years of training for a person to be able to hear the nuances. Therefore, a game built around that wouldn't be so playable. When making Monic, one thing I did was to add color cues that corresponds to each chord, so that players can rely on the colors to make their choices even when they fail to hear the nuances.

In the end, this prototype became a game that can be played purely by matching the colors. And music chords lost their significance in the gameplay. If I were to further iterate on this concept, the use of color cues could be limited to only a few levels where players can rely on them to learn about hearing the nuances. The game could slowly progress into the stage where colors are removed and players have to really rely on hearing.

Summary

To summarize my point, while music rhythm is very over-utilized as a game mechanic, there have been innovative ways to break it out of the convention of accurate button press. Beyond rhythm, there are also many other qualities of music and sound that are under-explored as game mechanics. While they might be inherently more difficult than rhythm to get good at recognizing, the integration could be designed to softly introduce these music concepts without overwhelming the player. And if designed properly, these games could even have the potential for players to learn about those music concepts and to strengthen their music instinct.