Before I had video games, I had action figures. G.I.Joe and He-Man toys were with me wherever I went growing up. The insane battles and adventures I had with them seemed endless. They were the epitome of play.
While checking out some antique stores with my wife, I came across a cache of He-Man toys. After my initial glee, then shock that the memories of my youth are now apparently antique, I rummaged through the paint chipped plastic men looking to see if I could find some of my favorites. And as I did, I was amazed at how I could remember their names and how to work their kung-fu action grip mechanics, as if I had just been playing with them the day before.
My childhood rushed back in waves, which is saying a lot considering the walls of nostalgic figurines and past pop-culture icons that litter the shelves of every game studio I’ve ever worked at. Being around toys is common place. But being around their mechanics of play… well that seems to have been lost as I’ve grown up. The beat up play things have been traded for more expensive, highly detailed statues that you display proudly on your mantle. And while everything about the action figures were truly tactile, these new monuments are often times a very hands off affair.
As my wife and I moved on to the next aisle of antique dust collections, I couldn’t help but draw the parallels between toys and player vs. developer authorship. And while I love nothing more than animating something with a strong, scripted narrative, I began to realize my inner child was screaming out to just play on its own terms.
Standard Action Figures
These are the workhorse of action figures. You’ve got some arms, legs and a head either rubber banded or ball joint snapped onto a torso. You can crudely pose them within the set limits of the toys rig, but it’s more than enough to get across anything you would want. Points, punches, kicks, arms in the air, grabs, flips… they can communicate all the major verbs you need. And whether it’s a main character or some random red shirt, they all capable of the same actions. These are tools for pure imagination, and give just enough personality in their model to lay the ground work for whatever story or roll they need to fulfill. They often had some tacked on accessories, like helmets, weapons or armor, but those were quickly lost if they weren’t able to be firmly snapped onto the core of the figure.
These were also the first to get chipped, broken or lost since they were played with the hardest. But if that happened it just added to the play scenarios. If a character’s leg broke off from the torso, well now he is going to lose his leg in the story. If the paint was gouged off of a characters face, then those were scars of past battles. And if a toy went missing all together, then legends were told of its bravery.
Making a game like this toy is a scary and hard idea. It means giving complete authorship to the player, and building strong enough core systems as tools to allow free play, finding the right balance between too many restrictions and not enough rules . Then you need to make those core systems so much fun, that when something breaks or happens beyond the control of the creator, that the player wants to continue on and actively finds a way to make that potential disaster a personal victory.
And like those weapon accessories, we have to realize that unless a mechanic is able to be easily carried or snapped onto the core of game, the player is going to abandon them. Other wise the mechanic will feel as tacked on as a pizza shooter is on a ninja turtle.
Minecraft, Little Big Planet, Elder Scrolls, Just Cause 2. All of these games allow and even encourage the player to make the world and its characters their own. And it is what sets them apart from the more forgettable open world/sandbox games. They embrace and encourage the player to try and break or test the limits of what they can express within the confines of the game. This can actually allow the player to look past a lower visual fidelity or more stylized visual fidelity. In fact, that can often allow the player to project themselves into the world more, without too many developer authored details conflicting with the player’s imagination. In fact, adding a story to these can be a double edge sword, often times not matching the player’s actual actions even if they can nudge a player into finding new ways of using the mechanics.
Yes, player control and creation means you will get plenty of penis monsters, but that’s not new. These were also the toys that would be posed in the raciest of positions for a cheap laugh. Its just part of what comes with embracing the player’s authorship. If you have more to offer than a cheap laugh, they will move past that in due time.
Single Action Figures
These took the standard action figures, and added some sort of physical mechanic to the toy. Your kung-fu action grip if you will. Sure, you sacrificed some poseability but often times you could work around that easily enough because if done right, what that single action brought to the table could strengthen a slew of other play options.
Take for instance Ram Man. At first blush, he isn’t very poseable. In fact, he just stands there. But the magic comes from him being able to squash his legs into his body. Then, with a small switch on the back of his foot, you could spring him forward, ramming anyone who stood in front of him.
This simple feature blew me away. I could have him knock down enemies in a tactile way I hadn’t done before, with domino like effects. When he got smacked on the head, he would recoil and squash. The way those two options strengthened any scenario I had with him allowed me to get into his interactions on a deeper level than any of my standard figures. I was able to transfer my unique action to his, identifying with his specific character. And because this action fit in with his character’s personality and purpose, it didn’t come across as a gimmick.
But if his squash/stretch would malfunction, I was quickly ripped out of the experience, cursing whatever jammed up the works. Adding that function meant a giant disconnect if it didn’t work as promised.
Much as with the toys, games of this nature are the ones that I have had the deepest connection to. Mario Bros, Braid, Tetris, Portal. All have one major mechanic that they have distilled down to such an elegant manner that allows both the player and designer to develop deep, rewarding experiences. When both sides are intimately aware of the language and pieces used in completing a task, a real sense of personal attachment is inherited by both sides, and true player/designer communication is taking place.
But that mechanic must be flawless to have so much hanging on it. When it is only half thought out, half functioning, an obvious gimmick or poorly implemented into the play space, the player will turn away faster than if something is broken in an open world game. There, if something isn’t at its best, there are other options to turn to, so the player can forget about the action that isn’t working. But with a single action game, if it malfunctions or doesn’t operate as promised, the player is instantly ripped out of the experience.
Starting this type of single action game can be pretty easy. It doesn’t require a lot of inputs, you can get it up and running fairly quickly and the initial in game challenges are almost instantly devised. But it takes a fair amount of time to dig down deeper. What makes that mechanic work? Is it compelling enough to be the single action of the game? How far can you push and polish it? Is it capable of having any paradigm shifts? That is what makes the difference between a cookie cutter game and a trend setter in the single action genre.
Non Action Figures
It would be easy to say McFarlane toys started this trend, but Army Men are in the same boat. Either posed or modeled in a static yet expressively detailed manner, these were always big on the initial wow factor, but quickly became that toy that just sits on the side until you need it for that one thing it does. But boy did it do it well. Its stern gun point, death scream, or heroic uppercuts were second to none. But just don’t ask it to do anything else. If you do it will either break the toy or your imaginative narrative rather quickly when it rigidly holds to its pose.
These are the heavily scripted, quick time event gameplay experiences. They are pretty, they are over the top, they grab you instantly and make the commercials and gameplay reels of everyone involved. And as long as you do exactly what is intended of them, you will be rewarded with satisfaction. When done well, you won’t even notice the fact that they are holding your hand, keeping you in the trolley towards exactly where they want you to go. But if you try to break free, or play them again, you will quickly notice where the polish and intent stops, which will quickly end the two way conversation between designer and player.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is a perfect example of this type of gameplay. Its first mission, set in Cuba, is so deftly scripted that while most players actively participated in the action, they didn’t even realize or care that they weren’t really driving it. And while that may infuriate a lot of game purists, until the player tries to jump the rails, it is certainly immersive and successful in capturing the imagination of players around the world.
Considering the amount of people who love or marvel over beautifully rendered statues that are proudly displayed on desks, coupled with the rare chance to polish the art to the closest we have come to film yet, it is easy to see why publishers, developers and players alike flock to these games. And as time goes on, everyone will realize, like those statues, they are fun to look at, but just be careful not to use them in an unintended way.
Everyone has their favorite toys growing up, same as everyone has their favorite games now. To say that one type of game is any more valid than another is to say He-Man is better than Transformers. Everyone will have their favorites and specific tastes at different moments in their life. What’s important is taking our experiences from those childhood play things, what we liked about them, and what we didn’t, and use those in the games we make today. It validates all those toys we still have around now and all those times we clung to them in the past. Even when we were “too old” to be doing so.