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Designs Lessons: Little Nightmares II

The second game in this series improves over the original in some respects and retains many things that make the first game fun.  However, there are some lingering issues that make for interesting discussion of game and narrative design.


Summary

The first game, Little Nightmares, has some very strong visuals and narrative.  The game guides the player through a dark, grim world where you play as what appears to be a child, but the scale is very far off.  The adults in the world are monstrous parodies of adults, at about 50-100% larger than your character.  The second game follows very closely to this.


The second game is subtly different in that there is much less material to interact with.  In the first game, this could lead the player to fool around with debris and junk that had no impact on the current situation.  However, this made the world feel more real, more like an environment for players to explore.  The second game scales this back where it almost, but not quite, feels like exploring flat rendered environments (similar to some parts of Myst).

Player Input

The controls of the game are fairly straightforward; move, run, use flashlight, pick up, etc.  Yet some of the options are used so infrequently, that it is easy to forget which button will make the character slide (to pass under things quickly).  

Also, there are some controls that just seem like needless complexity, for example, your character will not automatically grab or hold onto ledges.  I really wonder if a player would experience frustration if grabbing was automatic.  I know I have been frustrated when I jump off a ledge and hit the wrong button and end up dropping to my death.  I don’t know how that death added to my game experience.

Good Points  

Theme

The world is not over explained, leaving the player to decide if it is a post apocalyptic setting, some other world, or even some kind of nightmare.  The theme is complemented by the visuals in so many ways.  Even the larger than life adult monsters, reinforce this kind of child like vision of the world.    The game world is designed with this scale in mind.  The player never finds a door scaled to their character, you are always finding an alternate way between rooms in a building, from vents, to crawling under floor boards, or even in ventilation ducts. 

The overall theme isn’t explicit shock or gore.  There are graphic elements, but the game definitely focuses on atmosphere and evoking feelings of fear and dread. Both games do an excellent job of this.  

Technical

There are some technical improvements, most notably load times are hugely improved.  In the first game, each time a player died, the game would do a full reload, just like when you first start up the save file.  This was particularly frustrating at points in which the game would kill you within 10 seconds of starting to play.  I actually timed the load time at 55 seconds, which may not sound bad, but please, take out your phone and watch a timer for 55 seconds.  Now imagine that this is the 5th time you are doing this, with just 10-20 second breaks in between.

Challenge vs Puzzle

LN2 has many challenges and puzzles.  For this discussion, I want to clarify the terms 'challenge' and 'puzzle'.  A puzzle is a subset of challenge, but with the idea that a puzzle has a unique, specific way to overcome the challenge.  A classic puzzle is a locked door that requires a key to open, but the player must find the key.  

A challenge can be broken down into clues to the solution (a cracked rock), the tools of the solution (bomb) and the solution to overcome (blow up the boulder).  

The classic 'boulder blocking a door' challenge is a good example.  A player can use a bomb, or a hammer, with each tool providing another way to overcome the solution.  The framing of the challenge can restrict the player or open up a wide variety of play.  For example, if the goal is to blow the up boulder, the player has once choice, get a bomb.  But if the goal is reframed as 'destroy the boulder', then a bomb or maybe a hammer can overcome the challenge.

But what if the challenge is reframed as 'get past the boulder'?  Then maybe you have to remove the boulder, or find another path, or maybe look through a crack to see what is there.  The "Legend of Zelda" series provides examples of the narrow challenge and the wide challenge.  "A Link to the Past" has many caves blocked by rocks.  While you can use a bomb, you can also dash into some and break them.  

In "Breath of the Wild", the challenge of the shrines is to talk to a Monk.  Each shrine has an obvious way to overcome, but the player has a lot of freedom to use their tools to find another way (or ways) to overcome the challenge.  A player might put a ball near a fan to have it blow onto a switch, or glide into the monks cage.  The game still rewards the player for getting to the Monk.  It doesn't care how the player got there.  

There are common glitches where a player can get to the goal, but if they haven't triggered all the specific parts of the quest, the game will not allow the player to complete the quest.  This is symptomatic of the one solution school of design.

So, puzzles are challenges with a single, specific solution.  This can be categorized as door-and-key challenges.  Often in video games, a player must find a key to get into the next area.  There is one key, there is one door, and only the key will open the door.  

The bombable wall (lock) is the same thing, except there are many bombs (keys) in the game.  But the idea is that there is one solution to open that wall.  The Legend of Zelda for the NES takes this route.  Each obstacle/challenge has exactly one solution.  The bomb destroys the cracked wall, the raft crosses water, the ladder allows character to cross a 1-square gap, etc.  

Contrasted with the combat in the game and you have a challenge mentality.  Players can use different methods and tools to inflict damage and while there might be an optimal strategy, many will work.  Part of the game is to find the best strategy for each enemy and master them, but a player can still get past an enemy using sub-optimal strategies.  

This means that we can view the "Legend of Zelda" game as a series of gates, with each new tool acting as a key to unlock certain areas of the game.

Design Issues

Issue #1

The big issue of the game is that it can be viewed as a more free form Quicktime Event.  There seems to be only one way to ever overcome a boss or even a lot of enemies.  When you are running away from a boss that will crush you, you always have to slide under a specific piece of furniture, then jump at the same spot, etc.  The button presses don’t flash on the screen but the experience is very, very similar.

There are some free form elements, for example being given a hammer and allowed to attack murderous dolls, but the controls are clunky and more frustrating than thematic.  I could see the argument that the hammer is huge and should be unwieldy (which it is), but the controls to use it are imprecise and easy to miss by a fraction.  That isn’t theme, just poor controls.

The Fix

There are a number of ways to address this, but the easiest is to allow for more freedom.  Instead of only having option, allow more.  Like the ability to jump over or slide under a shelf, instead of only one.  Having multiple escape paths so that characters can feel like they are doing more than precisely timed button presses would help.

Issue #2

A big issue with the game play is that it is an outdated model, but still a popular one.  In the game, if you are seen or grabbed, you instantly die.  This has been the standard approach to the horror genre for many if not all games.   

The one-hit kills mechanic reinforces issue #1, reducing the game to a Quicktime event.

The Fix

If you look at early combat or action games (such as "Super Mario Brothers" or "Pacman"), this is the exact same mentality.  A single touch of an enemy is a killing blow. But even before that, games had the idea of hit points.  

It boils down to the idea that a character can take more than one hit from an enemy.  The idea of hit points (or hearts ala "The Legend of Zelda"), creates a a large space of game design.  For example, that some enemies hit harder than others, or that defenses can be acquired or deployed to reduce damage.

This idea could be expanded to "Little Nightmares II" (LN2) quite easily.  The theming of the health points could be anything, from Cover Points or Presence, etc.  The big thing is that the enemies could deplete these points not through physical contact, but through seeing or hearing enemies.  Again, following the hit point analogy, bosses could inflict greater loss on the points.  

The idea is to reduce the game play from a series of perfectly executed button presses to, something more free form.  To even allow players the choice, to spend points getting past some minor enemies, to get to a boss quicker, or to do more sneaking to preserve their reserve.   

Issue #3

The game often evokes frustration.  While this could be an intentional design decision, it doesn't seem to be intentional.  It is important to examine why this is an issue.  If the game is attempting to evoke fear, then it fails if that fear turns into frustration and anger.

The frustration arises from the issues where the player is not making progress or feels lost.  One of the biggest frustrations in the game is being chased into an area and not being able to figure out where to do next.  Often, the character dies before the player can look around and determine where to go or what to do.  This leads to a cycle of character death and repeating the same parts that have been mastered.   Repetition that isn't fun or rewarding can be frustrating.

The Fix

The game does try to lessen the frustration by having the player restart at a point near where they died.  However the issue is lack of knowledge.  The player cannot explore or look at an area effectively while being chased and once dead, they are stopped from exploring further.  There are several fixes, but ultimately, it comes down to two choices.

First, allow the player to scout the path they will be chased through.  "Silent Hill" for the Wii often took this approach where a player would be allowed to explore an area before the chase began.  Another solution would be to allow the player to scout after death, to look around in an altered state (the ghost can't interact as the character and would allow the player to scout the immediate area.  

There are numerous fixes for allowing the player to gain more information, so that I won't list them all here.  For another example, a player could slow down time in the game, to allow them to look around.

The other choice is to give the player enough information so that the path they are supposed to take is obvious.  However, since this will be highly subjective, the game might have 'clues' that are very obvious to some players, but not so much to others.  

Being chased is a standard horror game mechanic and often evokes a variety of emotions.  The key is to give the player enough control, to avoid feelings of frustration.  Often, control is seen as as oppositional to feeling to fear.  Control gives the player confidence and mentally prepares them for challenges.

Lack of control can inspire fear, but it can also push over to frustration.

Issue #4

The game feels like a big movie set.  The player can run around the scenes, but there is so little going on in the game, that it really doesn’t matter.  There are a some things to interact with, such as bookshelves or tables, but the majority of them do nothing.  They don't lead anywhere and they don't allow the player to gain anything (either materials or narrative).  

When there is nothing to find, there isn’t any point to exploring, just walking through the scene.  So at that point, while it does create atmosphere and show off the world you are in, it doesn't really matter.  Having space in the game will lead the player to explore it.  But without anything to find, there is no point.  

In "Breath of the Wild"(BotW), there are many collectibles, from cooking ingredients to hidden forest spirits or even information about the world.  These are all rewards for exploring.  Exploring for the sake of just going somewhere doesn't reward most players enough to incentivize play.  

Even just exploring to find out narrative is rewarding, but with the game controls and atmosphere, that task is difficult.  For example, in one room there are posters of the main antagonist of the game, drawn by children.  This is a kind of narrative reward for the player, except that it is hard to see the posters, as there is no way to zoom in and look around.  The room is also poorly lit, which again makes it hard to see.  If a player cannot perceive the reward for exploring, it doesn't actually mean anything to them.

The Fix

The solution to this issue is pretty straightforward.  Reward the players for exploring.  The reward doesn't have to be an advantage in the game or even a collectible.  The reward is the game interacting with the player.  The specifics of the interaction are of a lesser importance.  

A game such as Resident Evil 4 handles this issue by giving the players narrative information in the form of notes and other rewards for searching.  But LN2 is so bare bones, there isn't much design space to work with.  The only collectibles are hats and glitch children  There are so few of each that 90% of the searching doesn't pay off in any reward for the player.

Contrasted to BotW where almost everywhere you go there is something to collect, either by picking up, taking a picture, or reading some narrative.  The feeling of exploration can align with a horror game, as what you find may feed into a feeling of fear.

Big empty spaces with nothing to motivate the player to explore, creates the feeling of a partially finished game. 

Issue #5

One of the most basic and biggest frustrations of a video game, is issues with player input/control.  If a player pushes a button and it doesn't register, it jerks the focus from the game to the process of inputting commands.  This process is ideally second nature, occurring almost without conscious thought.  

However, LN2 has several input issues that break any sense suspense or fear and instead leads to frustration and anger.

The Fix

This is an easy issue to fix and should be caught during play test of the game.  The biggest two issues in LN2 are both crucial to various specific scenes in the game.

While exploring a hospital, the player must use a flashlight to freeze mannequins in place.  One of the crucial parts of that process is to walk backwards with the flashlight, however, this ability seems to be very situational.  Even when you have the flashlight, you cannot always walk backwards (experimented in other parts of the game).  Also, using the same controls to walk backwards, you do not always perform that action.

Another big issue is the controls to pick up an object, often crucial for surviving what limited combat there is.  This is done by holding down the R button.  However, the game has issues where the character will often drop what they are holding for no reason, or will pick up an item, then immediately drop it.  This happens while holding the R button, making the player think that perhaps you only need to press the button to pick up the item, however doing this, makes the character immediately drop the item.

Since holding items are crucial to getting through the game, this control should work 100% of the time, seamlessly.  Imagine a "Legend of Zelda" where attacking didn't always work!  This single issue makes the game almost unplayable, except that doing the exact same thing again will often make the character behave correctly.

Issue #6

The biggest frustration of the game, may be intentional, but still has significant drawbacks.  The issue is that almost all challenges presented have only one solution (making them puzzles).  This is partly what reduces the game to a quicktime event feeling.  But it also reduces the game to a point and click scenario.  If there isn't any point to being able to move around the environment, then it can be removed.

The wider issue of a 'one solution to a puzzle' is that your audience will not have a uniform experience (besides the fact that the wider the audience, the more diverse and fewer commonalities they will have).  Some players will find it obvious and immediately grasp what is required to solve the puzzle.  

An example in the game, occurs in the school.  There is a portrait hanging on the wall, well within jumping distance of the character.  It is not clear that you must knock the photo down, but if you try to jump and grab the frame, nothing happens.  There is some furniture nearby you can climb and jump from, to no avail as well.  

If you bring a toy from another room and throw it, you must be in a very particular spot for the frame to drop.  Even after having played through once, I knew what to do, and I still had trouble hitting the right spot to knock it down.  Note that I did hit the painting each time, but just not in the magic spot.  If a player didn't know this is the correct solution, they might try, fail, then move onto a incorrect solution.

The Fix

There will always be a portion of players who just cannot figure out what they are supposed to do.  This can be a huge source of frustration, particularly if there is no reward for any trial and error.  Add in a penalty of death for not grasping the one way to do something and the frustration is greatly increased.  While it would be impossible to make a puzzle that everyone always solves, games should try to minimize player confusion.

Solving this issue can be complicated and is touched on in the issues below.  The short solution is twofold; don't create one solution puzzles and to anticipate what players will do.  If you have something low enough to jump and grab, but that isn't the solution, then raise the item out of jump reach!

Issue #7

Most, if not all challenges in the game are designed with just one clue on how to proceed.  This is fragile challenge design, as missing a single clue prevents the player from moving forward.  Being stuck causes frustration and isn't scary.

An excellent article about mystery design is "Three Clue Rule" [https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/three-clue-rule] by Justin Alexander.  The article is a great read, but I'll reduce it down to this:  For every conclusion/solution you want someone to realize, you should provide 3 different clues.

In video game design this is a crucial, as there is not another human there to lead a player to the correct conclusion when they don't pick up on a clue.  While the internet is the greatest strategy guide, I feel a game has failed if I am forced to search for a solution online.

When a player fails to solve a puzzle, they did not fail, the designer did. It is humbling to realize and acknowledge when you are the designer of that puzzle.  The goal of a game is that the player will be able to progress through the game, which is why a challenge with multiple clues and multiple solutions, will be more successful than a single solution puzzle with one clue.

The Fix

Providing clues for the player to see what is required is the base level of puzzle design.  Giving only one clue is fragile design.

A perfect example occurs later in the game.  The player navigates their character through a series of doors, leading to the start room if you chose the wrong door.  However, there is the sound of a music box that provides a clue as to the correct door to walk through.

When I first played this section, I had the sound turned off as I was listening to a podcast.  There were no other clues in the game.  Obviously, this puzzle fails on accessibility.   But it also stands out as it is handled differently than the visual aspect of the game.  The menu has a brightness calibration screen, but there isn't any sound calibration, nor any note that sound is required to play the game.  

The biggest issue with that particular challenge is the clues provided, but were there more than one clue to the puzzle, it would give another avenue for the player to succeed.  The correct doorway could have flickered as you walked near it or a slight rumble felt on the controller.  Those solutions cover just the basic Sight, Sound, and Touch, but multiple clues in each category will ensure success.

There is the concern that these kind of changes will make the game "too easy", (which could be  seen as patronizing gate-keeping).  However, there two very obvious answers to that "concern".  First, and easiest is to allow players to chose their difficulty.  BotW does this by allowing players to control how powerful they become.  A player can go through the entire game without getting any health, armor, or weapon upgrades, if the player chooses to do so.  

That works in an open world game, so other mechanics might be needed in a more linear game, but the idea of letting players set their difficulty shifts the priority from the developer's ego, to the player's enjoyment.

The second solution is to make the game adaptive to the players.  By making the game smarter, clues can be doled out to players when the game deems they are needed.  An early, brute force example is "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of TIme".  The Navi character acts as an alarm clock, reminding the player of the next goal.  Navi can also provide contextual clues for certain challenges/puzzles.  Again, the specifics don't need to be copied, but the premise of revealing more information to players (at a players request) within the game will increase enjoyment by a wider audience.  

It is easy to forget that a game centered on fear or scares is still supposed to be enjoyable.  Like a roller coaster or haunted house, the idea is for people to enjoy the experience.  When providing a space for players to safely explore fear, frustration and anger destroys the player enjoyment.

Conclusion

Sometimes, it is appropriate that a challenge only have one solution, such as a gate that needs a specific key.  But if the focus is shifted to 'how the key is acquired', players can be given more choice.  

For example, instead of just having to beat an enemy to get the key, provide multiple paths.  Maybe the key can be stolen?  Can the enemy only be defeated in one way?  This is a classic strategy of a "Legend of Zelda" games.  In "Wind Waker", when you get a new tool that lets you swing on a rope, the boss of the level, requires the use of this tool to win.  You literally cannot win if you do not use the tool to swing from a dragon's tail.  Clues are given to guide the player to using the tool to defeat the boss, but there is no other path to victory.

The issues for LN2 isn't that some puzzles have a single solution, but that most if not all have a single solution and most of them have just a single clue for the player.  This is a very narrow path for the players to travel and any deviation will leave them lost, confused, and frustrated.

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