Sunday, July 22, 2007

Climbing as a puzzle

The other day, Brent asked, "Why are we stuck to the ground all the time?" He was complaining about MMOs that don't let the player jump.

When I read the comment, I didn't think much of it. The ability to jump doesn't seem to make much difference in games that don't involve aiming or dodging in combat. City of Heroes provides slightly more meaning to jumping, allowing the player to take shortcuts to catch fleeing enemies... and maybe even to leap out of reach of melee enemies (though the time-consuming attacks mean the enemy will probably have time to reach you and hit you).

But this morning, something happened to change my mind.

I was playing Oblivion on my 360, finally tackling the main quest line. I've had the game for many months, but I've been doing most of the side quests first. Anyway, I was in the daedra realm trying to close an Oblivion gate and couldn't find the way up to the tower. I had circled my way around the mountain, but the path didn't lead all the way to the tower at the mountain's peak.

Had I thought to look at my map (idiot!), I would have seen that there was a door I passed by and didn't notice. The door leads into a cave path which leads up through the mountain and eventually exits to a higher mountain path, the path that leads to the tower.

But I didn't look at my map. Instead, I thought of my character's advanced skill in acrobatics (he can jump high and far) and decided I'd find a way up the mountain without a path. I scouted a bit for the best climbing route, then started leaping and crawling from rock to rock. More than once, I cursed myself as an idiot, knowing that the devs at Bethesda didn't design the mountain for climbing and there must be another way. But I'm a stubborn bastard, so I kept on for about 20-30 minutes.

I made it! I climbed the side of the mountain up to the new road (where I noticed the door that told me I could have simply gone through the cave path).

So then I remembered Brent's complaint, and I realized that this could be made into a regular avenue of gameplay.

It's basically puzzle-solving. Yesterday, Alex pointed out a cool game called Orbox, or Prachka (the real name's Russian). The player succeeds by finding the particular series of movements which is the only way of getting from Point A to Point B. Mountain-climbing could work the same way.

The developer designs the mountain so that the surfaces flat enough for the player to stand on or grip are arranged in a particular order. Only (ideally) by following the arranged series of points can the player make it to the top of the mountain. The player might find the correct path just through trial and error, but scouting for a path first and planning ahead are rewarded (perhaps just by saving time).

Obviously, each climbing location would be different. Most might be mountains, but there could also be colossal statues, fortifications, and other objects to climb.

If the game includes falling damage or places enemies/traps at the base of the climbing location, then some climbs might be more forgiving than others. One may provide a lot of leeway for error, while another leaves the player nothing but an endless chasm below to catch his fall.

There could be traps or creatures which encourage the player to hurry. Perhaps, if you linger too long in a particular spot, the humanoid beings nearby will start hurling stones at you... possibly knocking you off your ground or grip. Or there might be small avalanches of rocks that the player must time his leap between.

Or there might even be completely random events which the player has little or no control over. While climbing an enemy fortress, there might be a constant barrage of arrows from a battle raging below. The arrows aren't aimed, but the player might occasionally be struck. Another example is a swarm of gnats, or birds upset by someone encroaching on their nesting ground, that buzz around the player's head and impede his ability to see the next griphold or flat ground he needs to progress up the mountain.

There might be character skills associated with climbing. In City of Heroes, there's a skill to improve jumping height and distance. Oblivion has an acrobatics skills with five basic tiers.

Rewards could vary. There might be treasure at the top. There might be an NPC with a quest, knowledge, or skill training. There might be an enemy, perhaps epic or quest-related. And maybe the player isn't made aware of the reward before he starts the climb.

The bigger challenge
Combining this sort of puzzle design with quality artwork in a way that makes the climb location more part of an RPG experience than an arcade game -- that would be a challenge. But the feature is certainly feasible and would please a lot of gamers.

The bigger question is how to incorporate climbing into overall gameplay. Should climbing puzzles ever be required of a player, or is it just optional fun? Should leaping and grasping skills be included so that one player can be a better climber than another, apart from strategy?

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