Joris Dormans, November 2005
When Shigeru Miyamoto designed Donkey Kong he invented a new genre of computer games. The platform game where the player jumps around a two dimensional game world, dodging various pits and pendulums, became a recipe one which many successful games were based throughout the eighties and early nineties. With the rise of 3D games in general and the first person shooter genre in particular, the classic platform game has lost its edge. Gamers have moved on, and the release of new platform games is a rare occasion, these days.
Still, the genre lives on in many ways. A lot of games on mobile consoles, PDAs and smart phones are still 2D, and the platform genre thrives on these gadgets. However, how long this is to be remains to be seen. The technology of is making giant strides forward and I doubt it will take long before most of these games have also moved to 3D. Next, there are the retro-games and retro-gamers, who keep the genre alive. Retro-gaming has become a trend that is recognised by gaming magazines and scholars alike. The classic platform games are one of many game genres that are being rediscovered. Old school fans still produce platform games in order satisfy their appetite for new and original titles. The freely available (and fiendishly difficult) game Eternal Daughter is an example of this. Finally the typical action and gameplay of platform games lives on as some series have made a successful move into the 3D area (Super Mario, Prince of Persia) and has spawn new series (Tomb Raider).
In this article I will investigate the popular appeal of the 2D platform game during the genre's heyday. What are critical and essential elements of the typical platform game? It is my view that the answer must be looked for in the particular blend of platform gameplay. I think the kinaesthetic pleasure of movement and timing is what enthrals the player to keep on playing and keep on coming back, especially when this is tied in closely with the design of the levels and a form of storytelling that builds on the arch-typical quest.
Before we can proceed to analyse platform games we need to define the ever elusive notion of gameplay. As most gamers will testify gameplay is a crucial element of any game. A game can look and sound fantastic, with out half-decent gameplay, it will still be poorly received. Yet, what this gameplay entails is more difficult to pin down.
In Rules of Play Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define gameplay as "the formalized interaction that occurs when players follow the rules of a game and experience its system through play" (2004: 303). Three elements in this definition are essential: 1) gameplay is an interaction between player and game, 2) it is formalised and follows rules, and 3) it is an experience through play. Most accounts of games and gameplay acknowledge the interaction (1); in fact interaction is often postulated as one of the defining aspects of games. The fact that this interaction is formalised and follows rules (2) is perhaps less obvious, but has been on the map since the writings of Johan Huizinga. It is on the one hand related to the "lusory attitude", the gamer's voluntary submission to a set of rules that effectively limit her means for reaching an end (ibid. 97) and, on the other hand, implies that it something that can be designed. Finally, gameplay is the subjective experience of play. This is what probably makes the term so illusive, for it is hard to design this subjective experience for players whose tastes and skills vary.
Gameplay is not only a subjective experience, it is also subjected to strong sentiments about quality. To a certain extend, all games have gameplay, but not all games have good gameplay. Good gameplay is often a subtle balance to many factors in a game. In The Art of Computer Game Design Chris Crawford associates gameplay with game's pace and the cognitive effort required by playing. A fast-paced game should not require to much cognitive effort, while a slow-paced game can ask more difficult decisions of the player. Games that strike a good balance between these two are said to contain good gameplay (1983: 21-22). In a Gamasutra article Doug Church (1999) stresses the importance of control and coherence. He illustrates this with a discussion of Super Mario 64 in which the player is given a sense of control by "offering a very limited set of actions, but supporting them completely".
Control is also one of the magic ingredients that sets Japanese game design apart from Western game design in Power Up (Kohler, 2005). It is a point that returns throughout the book and is stressed by many game designers. Miyamoto is paraphrased to say: "Graphics, music, even characters and story mean little, if play control isn't interesting and fun" (Kohler 2005: 273). The difference in Japanese and Western design philosophies is largely attributed to the difference in cultural status that early games enjoyed in Japan and the West. While the Western game business attracted engineers, computer scientist and businessmen, the Japanese designers often had artistic backgrounds. Miyamoto holds a degree in Industrial Design and came to Nintendo with the idea of designing toys. Before he started designing games he had worked on the case design of some of the companies earlier electronic games. When he started working on Donkey Kong he had no real programming experience (ibid: 26-35).
Japanese designers brought a different mentality to game design than their Western counterparts, a lot of attention was paid to the interaction of the user with the game. This eye for detail is in stark contrast with the Western pre-occupation with the technical side of designing games. Japanese based designer Dylan Cuthbert sums it up: "We want the good technology, but we really want the game to be quality. We want the player to be happy, not for us, the designers, to be amused by pulling off programming tricks" (quoted in ibid. 180). The Japanese successes are focused games that were designed around a simple idea, or verb as Pokémon's designer Satoshi Tajiri explains: Pac-man is designed around the verb 'to eat' and Pokémon around the verb to trade (ibid: 240). Likewise, Mario games are, of course, designed around the verb to jump.
Clearly, a large effort was made while designing the gameplay of those early platform games. But this effort alone does not explain the success of the genre. To understand that we need to understand the peculiar balance of movement, timing and exploration that makes up the gameplay. We need to answer the question why it is fun to defeat you enemies by jumping on them?
You grasp the controller with renewed vigour as the as you make your way through the initial stages of the new level. The opponents are quickly disposed and you reach the door with ease. Now comes the arched hallway that has eluded you for a while. Getting past the first level's boss is already hard enough, but these flying heads that dance up and down in sinus patterns are to fast, and too many. There is little time to anticipate their trajectories and let alone to try and hit them with you whip. You rush in, dodging left and right, occasionally trying to jump over them. To no avail, you are hit time and time again by the fast and elusive critters. But then you find a spot in the hallway where your save. With only a few hitpoints left it dawns upon you, if you hop from column to column you stay out of their trajectories, and all of the sudden getting past this part is easy. You make it to the stair and rush up the steps, only to discover more flying heads that run in new patterns which you fail to analyse in the few seconds that you last.
The previous paragraph illustrates a brief sequence of gameplay experience with the game Castlevania (see also figure 1). It illustrates some aspects of platform gameplay that contributes to the genres appeal. First of all playing a platform game is a strong embodied experience. A sense of immersion and agency is the providence of many games, when this is directed at an avatar on the screen or projected in the game world it is a sense of tele-presence that enthrals the player. You are not just playing a game, you get a sense of being there, in the game world, a sense that you occupy a body in the virtual realm. This effect is most prominent in modern 3D games that present the game world as your avatar can see it. The player occupies the same space as its avatar. In platform games and so called third-person games where the avatar is visible on the screen the feeling is only slightly less. In order play these games we need to direct our avatar past various traps and trough a multitude of levels. The player's identification with the avatar is usually quite strong.
Not all games offer such a strong sense of embodiment. Friedman (2002) describes how players interact with strategy and simulation games where the player needs to interact directly with a whole system at a time. This interaction is disembodied, all the information provided by the game feeding directly into her awareness, almost as if they were direct cybernetic extensions of her body or brain. "To learn to think like a computer" is the way Friedman describes the transcendental feeling these games of leaving ones body behind and achieving a cybernetic awareness of the game's simulation and its underlying system.
The embodiment of platform games does not necessarily mean human embodiment. In fact, it rarely does. Mario possesses a super-human ability and stamina to jump around platforms. His favourite way to dispose of his enemies by jumping on their heads has little to do with real life physiology. Learning to control a body like this is as much an interface to 'something other' as the disembodied trance of strategy games, but where the pleasure of disembodied experience comes from the hyper awareness it requires from the player, the pleasure of the embodied experience is kinaesthetic. It is the fun and feeling of control and achievement that accompanies a series of well-executed moves that makes playing a platform game pleasurable. Jumping on turtles and beetles is a fun way of disposing of ones enemies because it requires us to make the most of our excellence in moving our cybernetic body through the computer space.
However, platform games do not deliver a purely embodied experience. The levels of a well designed platform game are at the same time spatial puzzles for which the avatar and its movement is the key. As much as we identify with the avatar, the player's external perspective is often instrumental in designing and resolving levels of the game. In the Castlevania example it is no coincidence that the save spots coincide with the columns in hallway. It is designed that way to provide the players with a clue to solve the particular problem of dodging the flying heads. Platform games make extensive use of this type hints and clues. Learning to recognise the system of signs in a level is vital in conquering the level. Learning to 'think like Mario' is to master the physical laws that govern the game, to master the control of the avatar, and to understand how these interact.
Victor Nicollet (2004) details different type of obstacles that players encounter in platform levels. These are:
These elements are combined in complex patterns to form levels and obstacles of increasing difficulty. The sequence of play detailed in figures 2-6 details such a pattern that combines all elements of all three types. It is a sequence taken from the 'Rattle Battle' level of Donkey Konk Country 2. The avatar (the snake on the left) needs to avoid barrels shot at her at regular intervals (pendulums, figures 2 & 3), and jump over a gap (pit, visible in pictures 4-6) by jumping on a barrel which is immediately destroyed (unstable floor, figure 5) and finally jumping on the crocodile that fires the barrels to destroy him (who can be considered to function as a pit, figures 6).
To get past this obstacle requires some practice but once the player discovers that she needs to jump on the barrel to cross the gap, and when she has figured out the best timing to do this, it becomes relative easy and satisfying to execute the moves ("take that you crazy crocodile!"). This is the first puzzle of a series of three that occur in the same level. In the second puzzle the player needs to dodge cannon balls (which cannot be used as a jumping platform) and jump on a bee that hovers over the gap (figure 7). The trick is to initiate the series of jumps from a fixed point where the player cannot see the actual fire balls but can hear them being fired, and start jumping towards the obstacles at the same time a new shot is fired (figure 8). The last obstacle requires the player to perform a tricky high jump unto a barrel and immediately jump onwards from their to defeat the crocodile (figures 9 and 10). Notice that the best spot to start the jump is marked by some barrels in the background while the place where the player needs to hit the barrel is marked by the position of the bananas.
Nicolette does not discuss enemy characters in his article. Many enemies behave just like a pit, pendulum, unstable floor or a combination there of. The bee in figure 7 functions as an unstable floor. The crocodile gunner is the source of a pendulum and functions as a pit. Some enemies introduce more complex behaviour, such as the advancing, jumping crocodiles (figure 11). These are defeated by jumping on them, but they will kill the player if they land on them. In this way they act as pendulums: they are dangerous when they are high in the air, but can be defeated or avoided when they are close by the ground. Because they also advance on the player, she has little time to get the correct rhythm required to defeat it.
Enemies in other platform games show more complex and sometimes autonomous behaviour or introduce a different gameplay altogether. An example of the latter are the guards in Prince of Persia (figure 12). The swords duels the player fights with them cannot be understood as pit, pendulum or unstable floor. Examples of the former can be found in abundance in Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus (figure 13), in which the enemies operate as agents, which behaviour is to a certain extend predictable, but never fixed into pre-set patterns. Such enemies cannot be defeated by discovering the correct series of moves but require the player to react quickly to the moves of the enemy. A type of control reserved for confrontations with level 'bosses' in most earlier games.
Still, the fixed and predictable obstacles and the autonomous enemies are both overcome by the player who masters the control of the avatar. She needs to be able to execute the jumps with 'pixel perfect timing'. Levels increasingly challenge the players dexterity and timing, often by string series of obstacles together, increasing the difficulty by putting more and more pressure on the player to perform long series of moves without pause or rest (cf. Nicolette 2004). In fact, one might argue that a well designed platform game trains its players not unlike students of martial arts are trained. The earlier and easier levels let the player experiment with the basic movement techniques. The player is given the chance to hone her skill with the individual technique (kihon), before she is required to execute it in a repeated series (kihon kata). When several obstacles are overcome and the player makes use of her skill with the individual moves to form the combinations of moves required the overcome the obstacle (kata). The sequences from Donkey Kong Country 2 above, are perfect examples of this concept and show how jumps evolve into control and timing into rhythm. These sequences prepare the player for the more open duels with the enemies as later stages, in which the behaviour of the opponent grows increasingly more difficult to predict (kumite). A role typically played by level bosses, which behaviour indeed grows more intelligent and unpredictable with every stage.
The link between games and martial arts practice and philosophy is also described briefly by Chris Kohler when he discusses the notion of 'flow', taken from the martial arts book The Book of Five Rings. Flow is a key element in immersion and amounts to "perfect aesthetic experience", a more or less altered state of perception in which movements combine seamlessly with other elements of the game (Kohler 2005: 267-268). In this state the player's experience of movement is almost physical, which explains the kinaesthetic thrill of executing a series of well executed moves ending in the jump that kills the enemy by landing on its head. The state of flow can also be related to the most awkward of Roger Caillois' four fundamental categories of play: ilinx. This category is described as "playing with the physical sensation of vertigo" (Salen & Zimmerman 2004: 307). When understood as such it seems to have little relevance for many types of games, but when 'vertigo' is extended to include sensations such as the 'vertigo of speed' and physical sensations as described above, ilnix describes the pleasure of playing platform games better than Caillois' other categories: agôn (competition), alea (chance) and mimicry (role-playing).
Flow as discussed above is not unique to platform games. The link with martial arts practices should make it obvious that also fighting games share this element. However, platform games combine flow with another important element: discovery. Platform games are also games of exploration. The object of the game is not to score points and set a new high score, nor is it to defeat as many enemies as possible. Rather, it is to reach the end of the level, and ultimately to reach the end of the game. Platform games are games of exploration and spatial puzzles that need to be discovered and solved before the player can progress to the next level. In this section I will investigate this element of platform games.
In the first platform games the levels where the same size as the computer screen, although these games often proceeded through several levels. With the development of the side-scrolling games (such as Super Mario Bros. or Eternal Daughter), or the games that combine many static screens into a single level (such as Prince of Persia or Oddworld), the games expanded to huge sizes. This expansion also lead to the introduction of save points or locations where the player could save her progress, which in turn enabled designers to increase the difficulty of the challenges imposed on the player. The introduction of levels with multiple exits opened up the possibility for non-linear gameplay. Other games required the player backtrack and re-investigate old levels, which adds a new dimension to level design and gameplay. As the player traverses the game world she familiarises herself with it. She uncovers its many secrets and she learns how to read it signs, which prepares her for more complex puzzles, and helps her find better hidden, but vital resources.
The elements that make up a level and facilitate the discovery can be broken down into four basic types: secrets, tests, triggers and riddles. These are discussed and illustrated below with some examples taken from Prince of Persia. Most examples are taken from the game's first level which is mapped if figure 14.
Again, these elemental types are often combined to make varied and complex levels. We already saw one of those combinations with the sword that acts as a trigger or key, which is required to pass the test of defeating a guard, and which is the core design behind level 1. The secret passage in level 1 that consists of (parts from) screens 1 to 6 is the most important subsection. It can be opened by destroying the unstable floor connecting screen 10 to screen 2, and involves tests in screens 2 (spikes) and 5 (the guard), and a trigger in screen 6. The most important hint the player gets is by climbing up from screen 9 to screen 1. In this screen the player can see the passage but cannot reach it (see figure 26) The potion is positioned as an incentive for the player to find the passage. Finally there are some passages below (screens 18 to 20 and 21 to 22), which are relatively easy to find, but which yield only a single potion.
The first level of Prince of Persia is relative simple and features only one exit. In fact, the whole gameplay of Prince of Persia is pretty straightforward. No other level sports a secret passage as in the first level. Although the puzzles and the tests become increasingly more difficult to solve. However, Prince of Persia does make good use of letting the player see certain parts of level before he can reach it, rewarding those players who pay attention to level lay-out and design.
Levels of platform games can become quite complex. Levels can have multiple exits, several secret sections, or games can require the player to traverse the same level again, after some minor changes have been made. Every time the player (re-)enters a level she embarks on a journey of discovery. New levels have new secrets to be uncovered, new sights to be seen and new types of play to master. Travel in the platform world can in itself form a source of pleasure, not unlike the kind of pleasure a real-world traveller experience (cf. Flynn 2003). For Maaike Lauwaert the type of play and pleasure that stems from discovery and progression is reason enough to extend Rogor Caillois' dimensions of gameplay with a fifth: repens or surprise. Repense is differentiated from alea (chance) because it rewards the player that has a high level of mastery of the game and uses this to her benefits (Lauwaert 2003: 83).
Both the dimensions of flow and discovery share a common trait: both incorporate a learning curve. As the player progresses through the game the tests become increasingly difficult and the discovery of secrets, and the solving of riddles becomes increasingly important. Towards the end a game tends to become so difficult that the player well have to rely on all her skills to finish it. A well designed game makes good use of this double learning curve to add extra depth to its levels and design. Especially when it manages to tie the double learning curve with some sort of narrative development or quest. Most platform game have a story element that sets up goals for the character. Usually this story element takes the form of a basic quest. The supply of virtual princesses needing to be saved is endless (it also the final goal of Prince of Persia, see figure 27). The story frame of the quest is convenient as it is straightforward, taps into a well known discourse of fairytales, and supports the linear gameplay of a hero that overcomes many obstacles. But the straightforward character of the quest can be deceiving, and its structure is all to often undeservingly dismissed as a primitive form of storytelling.
The quintessential quest stories as described by Joseph Campbell (1949) are also stories about the spiritual growth of the hero. By overcoming the obstacles the hero of the quest also grows as a person, and learns about her role and position in life. This part of the typical quest is associated with the spiritual coming of age of the hero. Frequently the hero starts out as an adolescent and ends the story as an adult; by overcoming the obstacles he (for Campbell's heroes are almost always males) learns who he is and what his role is in life. Although the full cycle of the Campbell's hero myth also includes the hero's stay in the realm of adventure and subsequent return to the normal world, game quests favour the part where the hero is tested. Obviously, this can be explained by the ease by which these tests are translated into a game, and partly because of the average age of the game audience. However, it would be interesting to see games that attempt tom incorporate more or different parts of the full cycle.
In a game quest there is little doubt that the hero will, inevitably, save the princess. There is no real need to design an 'interactive story' that includes many different endings to the same quest. Design effort is better directed at the question how the hero reaches the conclusion of her quest and how this might contribute to different experiences of closure. What has she learned while being tested, in what ways did she grow? The quest story ultimately is a story of transcendence and it is therefore more interesting to reflect and include this growth into the game.
Character growth is not an uncommon feature of games. The character growth is reflected directly by the increase of various statistics (such as strength, dexterity or charisma), frequently the player can only complete a game when her characters have grown sufficiently strong. This and similar mechanisms originate from role-playing games that for long have incorporated intricate systems that reflect a character's experience and powers, up to the point that the label 'role-playing' has come to mean statistic-based 'character building'. Platform games have traditionally offered an alternative to this type of growth in games. A strong advocate of this view is (again) Shigeru Miyamoto. He has expressed a strong dislike of role-playing games (in Kohler 2005: 88) and tries to create games in which "players themselves can grow" (quoted in DeMaria & Wilson 2004: 240). In many of his games growth is first of all incorporated by creating levels in which the player needs to rely on an increasingly higher level of control over his body. This way the growth is not 'reflected' or 'simulated' directly but becomes an aspect of the gameplay itself. If growth is reflected within the game its dominant form are new powers that directly affect the gameplay rather than abstract measures such as strength or dexterity. Sometimes this process is interrupted by giving the player a different avatar to control (as is the case with the 'Rattle Battle' level of Donkey Kong Island 2, discussed above).
Eternal Daughter is a good example of making use of this type of growth. In this game the player controls Mia, who sets out to restore her world that was overrun by the evil Dungaga. From the start of the game it becomes clear that the powers of Mia's mysterious father are also bestowed on his daughter (see figure 28). Through out the game Mia develops her strength and powers. This is reflected by a number of health points and attack strength, but also by special weapons and moves she discovers as she makes her way through the world. As the story unfolds Mia grows from a simple human girl into a powerful woman that defeats the evil powers and reunites the different peoples she encounters.
Eternal Daughter makes clever use of the levels and makes sure the player traverses them several times. Many levels have multiple exits and the order in which some of the quests can be solved is non-linear. So travelling from level to level is and finding all the exits is an important part of the game. Furthermore, the powers gained from each quest give Mia new moves that can allow her to reach previously unreachable sections of the world. She learns how to 'double jump' (jump once more while in the air), 'wall jump' (jump again when jumping against a wall) and slide (useful to get though small holes). When used in olde levels these moves can uncover new secrets. For example, early in the game, just after Mia reaches the Lorain Forest, there is a way up that in the beginning she cannot reach (see figure 29). Only after she learns to wall jump she can get to the resources that lie beyond this path.
The quest of Eternal Daughter ties in the directly with the gameplay; with the control and flow of the superhuman, computer mediated body and with discovery of a wonderful world. It is platform gameplay at its best. The player and Mia journey through the land together and as both grow into the hero role. Slowly the quest is resolved, and what matters is not that the world is saved in the end, but the experience of saving it is what counts. As they travelled together Mia and the player have met colourful characters, and seen some wonderful sights. They have learned to use their powers and in the process they have respectively become a better woman and better player of games. And who knows, maybe the player has picked up something besides a pixel perfect timing and a perfect understanding of a fictional world…
With the advent of the first person shooter in the 1990s the genre of the 2D platform game has slowly faded away, but platform gameplay lives on. The 3D descendants of the 2D platform game, such as Tomb Raider and the latest instalments in the Prince of Persia series, are successful enough, but in my opinion lack a certain quality. It might be that the mix of control, discovery and the quest is not quite optimal in these games. Lara Craft, definitely, is notoriously difficult to control, making flow a rare occasion in those games. Most 3D platform games struggle to balance between a fairly abstract gameplay on the one hand (superhuman jumping) and the standards of realism set by the first person shooters on the other.
The first person shooters themselves also build upon a very similar mix of elements. Some of them are direct descendants of platform game (Duke Nuke'm). The potent mix of control, discovery and the quest is apparent in the best of them. The game flow that is the result of finding the correct rhythm of reloading your weapons in Half-Life or doing rocket jumps in Quake; growing your cyborg body to fit your chosen role in Deus Ex are but a few examples. However, without the fantastic and colourful worlds of the 2D platform game the storytelling in these newer games started to follow the conventional patterns of storytelling of your average Hollywood science-fiction thriller. As a result a very interesting aspect of 2D platform game, the quest that is really integrated within the gameplay remains relatively undeveloped.
[*]Although, there are two other elements in Prince of Persia that are arguably riddle-like. The first is the 'leap of faith' the player is required to take immediately after he reunites with his mirror image. The other is the little mouse that comes to the player's rescue in level 8.