The art of visual storytelling and subtle gameplay instruction
One of the things I wanted to do with this game was go for an extreme minimalism, or as the director of Ico called it: game design by subtraction. There were several reasons for this, the primary one was to avoid feature creep. The other reason was to boil down a game to its bare essentials and go with that. Too many games these days feel so cluttered with their interface, and I wanted to get back down to the simplicity of older games. It felt like that made things more of a challenge in some ways, since you had to give information to the players using different methods, and make sure that this information comes across.
Even though health bars are very simple, I wanted to strip that out. That was one of the first design by subtraction ideas I had, and I knew that I wanted the player to fade the more they got hit. They can also regain health just by hanging around, and they become more solid when they do that. This seemed like an elegant way to provide that same information for a player, and yet keep it immersive, without the distraction of a game HUD. I did have to make some compromises to this philosophy, of course. Since a lot of players will be using a keyboard instead of a gamepad to play this game, it would be unreasonable not to provide them with some kind of information telling them which key/button does what. They can't simply experiment like they can with a gamepad, and press buttons to see what happens.
But I didn't want to add those millions of "press x over me!" textboxes you see so common these days. Nor did I want to have something pop up telling you what to do the minute you get an item, or whatever. Instead, I stripped out all this noise and made it as simple as possible. The key you press when picking up an item locks that item to that key/button. It felt intuitive, and could be discovered by the player by just pressing the button or key and see what happens.
Being able to use arrows as platforms was a different story all together, as was giving items that gave you back your help. I wanted no text in the game at all, to keep it both simple but to also emphasize the loneliness of being in a strange world devoid of any people. So I didn't want any text boxes telling you what to do, I just wanted players to find out they can do that. But since no other video game allows you to stand on arrows as platforms, players were getting annoyed, thinking they were bad at jumping, and that's why they couldn't get to a certain area.
So, what to do, what to do. I realized the best way to do this was to have the second area you go into have arrows on a cliff already ahead of time (maybe someone else shot them before you, who knows, it's a mystery...), and the way the ledge is set up you *must* land an arrow to get on the platform. This shows the players that you can jump on the arrows, use them as a platform, without telling the player outright. It seemed to work, and beta testers who had problems with this before got it right away.
Another area where I had this issue and I had to add in a clue or tutorial by way of example is the light eaters. Those living shadows who eat fire and light and must be trapped in order to beat a boss later on. For this I made it so the were attracted to lamps and lanterns strewn across the world as well, and every time this enemy is in this area, there is a lantern for it to glom towards. Now, if a player walks in with a lantern on, the shadow will go towards them, if they drop the lantern they go towards the dropped lantern. In these two cases, it ignores the already existing lamps and goes right towards them (and in daylight, they don't act any different at all, and just patrol about).
This scenario then allows the player to witness the light attraction, and notice a change if they shut off their lamp, or have the enemy go towards it if they drop it. The fact that it gloms to existing lamps *before* the player gets the lantern is enough of a prompt to keep this working right. And yes, the player might get to the lantern first before going to this area, that is a possibility, but I think it doesn't negate this teaching gameplay through environment and gameplay.
I have a few more instances of this already. Climbable vines to get to weird places are found way before you get the vine grow ability. Eating mushrooms that restore health has tiny hearts float up around you. The ones where it gets tricky is this idea of allowing the player to increase their health. Increasing damage is easy, just allow them to get better weapons and it makes sense. But how do you show the player that their health increased and they can now take more hits without a healthbar?
It's a conundrum. Though I think players are smart, and I have some ideas that can allow them to infer what happens after they do it.
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