A few months ago UK Resistance, perhaps the finest gaming website in the world, launched what it called its ‘Blue Sky In Games‘ campaign. Boiled down, this said that the current crop of dark, gritty, nihilistic games are no good, and developers should go back to making games with blue skies like, for example, the works of Sega 1991-2002 with particular reference to Sonic the Hedgehog. I’ll come back to this, but I think that in this fine joke they’ve hit on something quite fundamental in the difference between games that are good, games that are great and games that become part of your life.
Let me ask you this: what’s the best games level you’ve ever played? Not the best level of the best game you’ve ever played, but the best single level, ignoring the rest of the game around it. Put it another way: what do you choose when you have twenty minutes to kill, not enough time to get stuck into any gaming proper but maybe time to play through one level of something, or just prat around in it for a while, having fun.
(Yes, fun. Remember when that’s what games were about?)
In 1992 Sega released Ecco the Dolphin for the Megadrive. It was a revelation: fantastic sprites and fluid animation, responsive controls, huge scope, Sega at the peak of its powers. It was also bastard hard. I reckon I logged fifteen hours on that game, though I never got beyond level four. Part of that was the aforementioned bastard hardness, but mostly it was something much more fundamental. Guiding a dolphin through mazes filled with enemies and puzzles was okay, but it was much more fun to stay on level 2, the open ocean, and just prat around being a dolphin.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2006. My father is diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the aesophagus. I take the news rather badly and retreat into myself (one of three traditional ex-public schoolboy ways of dealing with emotional trauma, the other two being declaring war on something and suicide). More specifically I retreat into my Nintendo DS and Animal Crossing: Wild World (Nintendo, 2005).
AC:WW is essentially a community simulator: a small, simple world that follows fixed rules, most of them to do with capitalism. The way to do well in AC:WW (“well” is an arguable term since the game has no stated goals, is open-ended and cannot be won or lost) is to establish routines. AC:WW plays in real time, so there’s a limit to how much one can achieve in a single day: once you’ve picked all that day’s fruit you can stilll earn money by catching fish, but if the shop’s closed then you can’t sell or buy anything. But there’s always something to do: interacting with the other residents, rearranging the furniture in your house, collecting bugs or going after an elusive rare fish. However the returns are diminishing, and playing AC:WW for more than two hours a day is a bit futile. (Nintendo has built a similar mechanism into another DS game, Brain Training: I have a future post brewing about the Ninty habit of replicating mechanisms from successful games, with particular reference to the influence of Pokemon on, well, everything.) Is it this inability to keep playing, the thwarted desire for more that keeps players coming back every day? Is it what kept me engrossed and immersed in AC:WW for roughly half a year?
In a word, no. But I did play it for half a year. Not in an obsessive must-get-everything way (my bug collection is woefully incomplete), but simply because I enjoyed the experience of being in the small town of Yarswood, interacting with its two-dimensional inhabitants and doing active things that affected the town and townspeople in an immediate and beneficial way. The environment was attractive and while there were still surprises to be had, they were all pleasant ones.
Animal Crossing became a comfort space for me: somewhere I understood, where I could safely hang out knowing that the worst news I was going to get would be that a townsanimal was moving away, or that a painting I’d bought was actually a fake. I felt occupied, busy and useful while in the game-world, and though there were still challenges and tasks undone, I felt safe.
It’s unusual to find a title like AC:WW where the entire game-world functions as a comfort space. Usually it’s a part of a game, one play-mode, level or map. But it’s not something inherent to all games, and why that may be is almost as good a question as what makes a comfort space in the first place. To put my original question another way: why have the Halo and GTA games inspired an entire community of scenery explorers, virtual mountaineers and digital spelunkers while other successful FPSes with equally detailed and varied worlds—looking at you, Unreal, Farcry and Black—haven’t?
I believe it boils down to one thing: these games, or these levels of games, are places where we like to be. Not necessarily where we like to achieve things and progress in game-terms, or where we want to sandbox and look for glitches: I’m simply talking about a part of the game we can either play over and over, or where we enjoy spending time. A blisteringly simple answer, I know, but it immediately begs the question of why we like certain game-spaces so much that we come back to them over and over again, often eschewing (good word) new experiences in favour of ones we know inside out.
For example, the first half of the underrated Oddworld: Stranger’s Curse (EA/Oddworld Inhabitants, 2005) is set in a hyper-stylised Old West populated mostly by chickens. Its landscapes and vistas are beautiful, the sun beats down from a cloudless sky and thistledown floats past on the breeze. It would be idyllic if there weren’t outlaw frogs trying to kill you. I can revisit it endlessly to explore its nooks and crannies and play through its boss-battles. The second half of the game, which is arguably more interesting in pure game terms, is darker and more dystopian, and doesn’t encourage you to hang around and smell the desert flowers. I’ve played through it once, and once was enough.
I believe that most comfort spaces in games are accidents. I think it’s very hard to design them, not least because different elements appeal to different players. Not all of my comfort spaces will appeal to everyone, nor my reasons for coming back to them, but here are a few reasons why a particular zone or area may particularly appeal to us:
Familiarity and repetition. The act of doing something familiar is enormously reassuring. Children never grow tired of hearing favourite books read night after night and you, you sad goober, how many times have you watched Star Wars? Doing something familiar in a video game like replaying a favourite level doubles the pleasure because it’s an active experience and yet—in most games—absolutely predictable. Beating a personal best or discovering a new secret makes us feel a little bit better and cleverer than before, and even finishing a favourite level for the umpteenth time reassures us that however the outside world may be treating us, some things are consistent and our ability to beat the game’s obstacles is one of them.
Feelgood characters. Sometimes we simply enjoy controlling a particular character. Often it’s a character with cool moves. Ecco, above, is a good example, as are the skaters from Jet Set Radio (Sega/Smilebit, 2000) and Jet Set Radio Future (Sega/Smilebit, 2002). Sometimes they have a tool or weapon we really like, such as the grav gun from Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004).
Oo pretty. We like to be there. It looks nice, or sounds nice, or there’s a synergy of sound, visuals and gameplay that’s really lovely. How many times have I played through Rez (Sega/United Game Artists, 2001)? Too many, and at the same time not enough.
Ease of access. You’ve got to be able to get there easily. Usually that’s as simple as some kind of level-select or save-game, but with earlier console or arcade games it can present some problems.
Comfort spaces may seem antithetical (another good word) to the traditional idea of gameplay, which requires progression. In fact the idea fits with several facets of modern game design: the sandbox principle, in which players are given elements to play and experiment with; the side-quest, a diversion from the main game-narrative resulting in a reward of some kind, into which I will be inserting my boot when I get round to writing up my thoughts on Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess; and the post-Pokemon collect-em-all tendency in which the gameworld must be explored to find all instances of a particular set.
But those kind of challenges treat the whole game-world as a comfort space, and while that can certainly pull users back to a game, to “finish” it by doing, beating, killing or collecting everything, comfort-spaces are not about finishing a game. You may have conquered it a hundred times, you may never have got beyond the early levels, but there’s one bit where you’re comfortable and you’re going to do your own thing there for a bit. There’s something faintly subversive in the nature of a comfort space: the game wants you to move on to the next level, the next region or set-piece, but you’re not going to.
A comfort-space is not the same thing as a game that’s explicitly designed as a sandbox or a software toy. These are virtual spaces created for exploration and experimentation, often with catch-em-all quests and easter eggs to keep a player’s attention. They’re designed to encourage the sort of behaviour that occurs spontaneously in comfort spaces within games, though without the emotional resonance of doing something familiar, practised and much-loved.
That’s not to say that loading that archetypal software toy Sim City and tinkering once more with the teeming metropolis of Jamesburg can’t be a satisfying and reassuring experience. But comfort spaces arise at the moment that we become so familiar with a game that it becomes a software toy. The usual strictures of level-progression and game-narrative cease to be important and what’s left is the stripped-down essence of the game experience and our connection to it.
This sensation, this way of entering into a game by going beyond the experience of being a player, toÂ almost become an inhabitant of the game-world, has a lot of crossover with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. Both ideas are fundamental to the core questions of how and why we enjoy games, and I’ll be returning to that huge subject in future posts.
Are comfort spaces important? I think so. The whole idea of a comfort space, or of a game that we replay over and over again, goes against the design principles of most commercial releases. Within the standard revenue model a games company gets the same revenue if a player spends five hours or five hundred playing their product. The benefits of designing longevity into a title are small: one fewer copy in the secondhand market, goodwill towards sequels, the franchise, the developer or the publisher, the possibility of selling add-on packs. Yet our comfort-space games are the ones we remember most fondly and the ones that stay in our collections, and the ones that influence what we think of as ‘good’ game design. It’s not about challenge, or overcoming adversity, or the completion of a satisfying narrative. It’s purely and simply about finding a virtual space where we like to be.
At least, that’s the best reason I can find to explain why, when I booted the original Sonic the Hedgehog to get the screenshot I needed for the header of this blog and found myself at the start of the Green Hill Zone for the first time in maybe fifteen years, the only thing I could think was, “Oh wow…