Having A Plan: Non-Traditional Game Design
By Josh Snyder
Everyone loves Yoshi, the adorable, always-eager helper of the Mario brothers, even if he is often put into an unfair amount of dangerous situations. At some point, Nintendo realized this and began releasing Yoshi-centric games, starting with the aptly named Yoshi in 1991 and, more famously, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. It was a no-brainer of a move – after all, everyone loves Yoshi.
It came as no surprise that, when Nintendo released the Nintendo DS, a handheld system with two screens, they would release alongside it a Yoshi game to attract a wide-range of gamers. After all, it had been quite a while since Nintendo released the Game & Watch, their first console with two screens, and the DS was one of those pieces of hardware that gamers needed to have in their hands to fully understand. A great way to ensure that level of interest would be to release the system and a new Yoshi game. So it was with great delight that I sat down to play Yoshi Touch & Go, ready to accept Nintendo’s crazy new world of dual-screen gaming and revisit an old friend. While the two screens provided some unique experiences, there ultimately wasn’t much more to offer – the game grew repetitive quickly, an achievement considering how short the game was. Sadly, Nintendo used Yoshi as a fancy tech-demo.
Nintendo altered the landscape of gaming with both the DS and the Wii, and although those consoles came out nearly a decade ago, the industry still isn’t sure what to do with non-conventional game design. Microsoft and Sony haven’t been able to release games on their home consoles that take full advantage of the Kinect and the Move, but that didn’t stop either company from investing millions into those endeavors. Even Nintendo, the company that started this supposed revolution, releases games that hardly take advantage of the console’s unique capabilities. Super Mario Galaxy uses the Wii controller as a pointer to pick up Star Bits scattered around levels, but other than that, the game could be played with a traditional controller; and the latest Donkey Kong game, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, released on the Wii U, doesn’t even use the built-in touchscreen in the infamous Gamepad controller. All of this amazing technology, and the most that can be done with it is either a very short, shallow tech demo, or a game that just barely manages to use a fraction of the potential.
Which is why I am so taken aback by Escape Plan, a puzzle game developed by Fun Bits Interactive. Released on the PS Vita in 2012, Escape Plan is a game with a simple concept, but one that uses all of the bells and whistles Sony placed onto the front and back of the Vita. But unlike Yoshi Touch & Go, it’s more than a proof of concept – it’s a fully realized puzzle game, one whose appeal comes from the way players interact with the game. For that reason alone, Escape Plan is arguably one of the most important releases of the last few years, because it is represents potential realized.
Meet Lil and Laarg
Escape Plan is a visually striking game – presented entirely in black and white, the atmosphere is one of dread and despair, which allows our protagonists Lil and Laarg to stand out, even if they are not all that expressive. Lil and Laarg are prisoners, and are trying to escape a twisted, insane prison filled with poisonous gases, spike pits and sheep. The player controls either Lil or Laarg and navigates them from the beginning of the level to the end, avoiding any number of hazards along the way. Each level takes anywhere from fifteen to sixty seconds to beat, but gamers will spend far more time than that figuring out how each level works and devising a strategy to get Lil and/or Laarg to safety. If one of them dies, the player has to start the level over again, and as a reminder of player failures, both Lil and Laarg keep a running tally of how many times they have died at the player’s hand, which they conveniently display on their stomach.
With over seventy levels in the base game, there is definitely enough time for Fun Bits Interactive to explore all of the ideas presented in Escape Plan. Most levels have players only controlling one of the protagonists, but for lengthy stretches the player will have to guide both Lil and Laarg to safety, resulting in some mind-bending (and sometimes frustrating) scenarios. Both characters have unique abilities – Lil can drink coffee which allows him a few burst of energy that send him running at breakneck speed (perfect for avoiding spinning fan blades that would otherwise pop him like a balloon), while Laarg can butt-stomp through weak points in the ground, unlocking new paths. The point is, this isn’t a short or shallow game – there are enough levels to let players explore all of these ideas more than once, and though some hazards become repetitive, they are almost always thrown at the player in a new way or combined with other obstacles to form something new.
Developing a substance-filled puzzle game is, sadly, a bit of a rarity these days (or rather, this genre isn’t as successful as other genres), so that in itself is an achievement. Today, when we think of puzzle games, we think of mobile gaming – the Angry Birds and Candy Crush Sagas of the world – games meant to be played in quick bursts on the go. But Escape Plan manages to be more than that, thanks to its level design and the amount of content available. But most importantly, it does all of this without using any traditional video game input methods, and it manages to maintain its freshness throughout the experience. Escape Plan accomplishes this feat by both embracing the non-traditional design elements allowed by the Vita hardware, while also adhering to some classic gameplay design.
Reaching Out To (And Through) A Virtual World
Where Escape Plan stands out is in how Fun Bits Interactive utilized both the touch screen and the rear touch panel on the Vita. Escape Plan takes place on a two-dimensional plane, but unlike most side-scrollers or platformers played from this view, Escape Plan feels like a three-dimensional experience. Players use the touch screen to move Lil and Laarg – swiping across them from left to right will send them walking in that direction, and tapping on them will stop them from walking. It’s a really simple way to control a character, but how does the player deal with enemies that are trying to stop Lil and Laarg from escaping? How does combat work?
The answer – there is no combat, but there are plenty of ways the player can reach behind the world of Escape Plan and trick the enemy AI into defeating themselves. The rear touch panel can be used to knock on the background of the level, which will cause enemies to run to that point in utter confusion, while the player slowly raises the platform they are standing on into a wall of spikes. Brutal, but effective. After enemies have been dispatched, the player can then push blocks out from the wall by touching the rear panel, providing Lil and Laarg with safe platforms to cross. Of course, sometimes an obstacle gets in the way, and the player can tap the touch screen to push the item out of the way or back into the background of the level.
Sometimes those paths have a very limited amount of time before they retract, and if Lil or Laarg is still standing on them, they will unfortunately fall to their demise. This is where Lil’s coffee-infused manic running comes into play. In order to activate it, Lil must (naturally) drink some coffee. But then he (it?) will simply stand there, eyes spinning, body shaking with built-up energy waiting to be released. How does the player help Lil get rid of that energy? By pinching him. The player must, at the same time, tap the front touch screen and the rear panel at the same place, causing Lil to let out a quick scream as he goes running for his life. This is where gamers start to realize that there is more to the touch controls in Escape Plan than simple gimmicks – the game world is not one that simply sits in the player’s hand, the screen acting as a window into another world. The whole world exists in their hands, and players can pick up that world and squeeze it from the front and back, interacting with it in a way that is just not possible on other platforms. If that wasn’t enough, Lil also has the ability to inhale gas that lets him float up to elevated platforms. How does the player move Lil? First, they swipe across him, sending him, gently, upward, like a balloon. But right above the player is a bed of nails, and in order to avoid them, the player has to use the built-in motion sensors of the Vita. Turning the system to the right will cause Lil to float that way, and pinching him while twisting the console will send him flying forward, landing perfectly at the exit and avoiding a spiky death.
Escape Plan uses every motion sensor and touch surface on the Vita in numerous ways, providing an experience that cannot be replicated elsewhere. But most importantly, the game feels as though it was designed with the core puzzle elements in mind first, and the non-traditional design was implemented afterward.
Many games that utilize non-traditional design elements fail to provide fulfilling experiences because they start out with the experimental elements first and then add the core gameplay in later (or, as is often the case, not at all). Yoshi Touch & Go is a prime example – the game utilized both screens, and allowed the player to control and manipulate the world with the touch screen. But everything about the game was in service to these elements, meaning that there was no meaningful game developed to take advantage of these mechanics. All Yoshi could do was throw eggs wherever players pointed on the touch screen – beyond that, there was nothing else left to do.
Escape Plan provides a simple premise – get the player character from point A to point B without dying. Doing so will complete the level, and at the end of each level the player is graded on a three star scale based on how long it took them to complete the level and how many moves the player used. These are simple mechanics found in many puzzle games, and with a variety of obstacles for the player to navigate, the gameplay and level design was very likely completed before implementing one touch screen gesture. Fun Bits appears to have created a game first and then overlaid non-traditional controls on top of it – Yoshi Touch & Go seemingly created a few touch-based gestures, slapped them on some 2-D sprites and called it a day.
Of course, it is a bit unfair to compare a launch title for the DS from 2005 to a Vita game from 2012. The problem is that many developers, for whatever reason, didn’t fully understand the ideas Nintendo was presenting to the world back in the mid-2000s, and still don’t to this day. One of two problems emerged during the era of motion/touch-based gaming – either developers barely utilized the unique hardware (such as the case with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze) or they went all-in on these non-traditional design choices, but forgot one important lesson – make them feel natural.
Looking back, the early days of the Wii seem like the wild west – no one knew what to do with this new technology, but everyone knew they wanted to do something. It eventually led to some amazing games – MadWorld, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, No More Heroes and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption are all games that are technically playable with a traditional controller, but all are games that benefit from non-traditional controls. They are at their best when utilizing Nintendo’s unique Wii controller. But for every MadWorld, there are games like 2007’s The Godfather: Blackhand Edition for the Wii. Instead of utilizing the pointer and motion controls in natural ways, the game boasts over twenty-five “unique” motion-based “execution moves,” which allegedly allowed for a far more immersive experience. I remember watching a friend pick up a molotov cocktail, and in real life they began swinging the Wii controller wildly, as if it were literally on fire. In the game, I watched as the player character leaned back, molotov in hand, and threw the explosive as hard as they could, directly at their own feet. My friend put the game down and never went back to it.
Moving With Style And Grace
This is what makes Escape Plan so important – it manages to be a unique, compelling game with enough content to justify purchase, all while incorporating numerous non-traditional control methods naturally without becoming stale or shallow. The touch screen isn’t used just once or twice – it is the primary method of input, and it feels natural. There is a version for the PS4, but I don’t want to play that version – I can’t pick up the world and push blocks out of the way, or reach behind it and trick enemies into running off a cliff. Technically I can do those things, and still experience the clever puzzles and level design, but it wouldn’t be nearly as fun or engaging.
These types of experiences help open up new avenues of design that will only strengthen the medium and attract a wider audience, while also keeping the current audience hooked and engaged. But in order for them to work, developers have to stay committed to them, using them when they feel right. It can work, despite evidence to the contrary (looking at you, Kinect Star Wars); Escape Plan is proof of just that.