One of the silver linings of being bed-ridden 70-80% of weekends for the past 5 months is being able to play video games guilt free. When you don't have the mental focus to do anything productive, and don't have the physical ability to do much of anything period, working your way through your Steam backlog feels like a solid option.
During this mass-play of games, two games lodged in my designer-mind for similar reasons: The Witness and Vampyr. While these two games are very different from each other, they share a common design flaw: design choices that distract from the game's core elements.
The Witness is the only game in my life I have played for 10 hours in one day. Usually I last 30 minutes to 2 hours with a game in the same day. I think my previous record was probably Dishonored 1 with 6 hours. (I don't count "installing and adjusting mods for Skyrim" since that's not the actual game).
As someone who loves non-competitive, non-violent, but mentally engaging puzzles AND someone who thinks in pictures not words, The Witness was as close to a perfect game as I've ever played.
For those who haven't played, in The Witness, you are the only living creature on an island, a varied landscape rendered in Disney-like vibrant colors, presented with visual puzzles. There is no intrusive game tutorial other than a visual prompt to use your mouse and trace a line on the first puzzle. All other tutorials are embedded in the game: when you find a new puzzle type, you are presented with a very simple version of the puzzle, and then work your way through a series of increasingly more difficult puzzles around the same rule to insure you understand the puzzle's concept.
With this learn-by-doing approach, this puzzle goes from nonsensical to extremely easy to solve:
While the game is mostly about the puzzles, they are embedded in an island that seems to hint at a story of its own through remnants of a missing population. There are buildings in various stages of disrepair and statues of humans mid-action scattered throughout the island.
Those visuals add a level of extra interest and possible meaning behind your exploration of the island, but importantly, all reinforce the overall focus of the game: visual questions and problem-solving. Just as you try to piece together the meaning of a certain puzzle object through trial and error, you naturally begin to piece together what might have happened on the island. A huge part of the appeal of the game is its ability to build layers of complexity and discovery into this tight focus of visual communication.
All of this visual reasoning is nearly ruined by the presence of audio logs and video. You can find abandoned audio logs that rattle of quotes and stories about philosophy and religion. Not only do they feel tacked on, they shatter the strength of the game: visual storytelling. The videos feel even more intrusive. You go from landscape storytelling to loud, moving, overly-obvious video lectures.
The saving grace of The Witness is that you can choose to ignore the audio/video logs; the unfortunate reality of Vampyr is that you cannot avoid its flaws.
Vampyr is mostly a game about socializing with people. Sure, in the game you are a famed surgeon who unwilling becomes a vampire and tries to continue helping people despite your predator nature, but the mechanics are mostly about talking to people, uncovering personal details called "hints", and using that information to unlock new missions, solve missions, or open up new dialogue paths with other characters. You can also diagnose people's ailments, and once you uncover the formula, craft serums to cure them.
The game builds upon this simple gameplay loop with an interesting dilemma: You gain xp by feeding on people. The more time you have invested in the person, (the more hints you unlocked and if you cured them of illness), the more xp they are worth. In the current system this choice is made meaningful because you have to fight vampire hunters and other vampiric creatures throughout the game. A fight is too tough? Go kill one of your new friends for their blood. The majority of your skill advancements are around becoming a better fighter.
Here is my problem: the combat system and relationship system feel like two different games. Anytime I come across a combat sequence I internally groan and think, "Let me get back to talking to people." (Which is a huge compliment to the social system, since I usually dislike dialogue heavy games.) My distaste isn't even about the combat style, which many describe as "clunky", but the simple fact is feels disconnected from the true gameplay loop.
After a few hours I decided to start feeding on citizens so I could become powerful enough to rush through combat. Not because I was making a choice about wanting it "easier" but because I wanted combat over as fast as possible. That choice means reducing the people from my socialization game...which didn't feel like a meaningful impact or choice because it was driven by wanting to compensate for uninteresting gameplay. Essentially, the unengaging part of the game drove me to undermine the interesting part.
I appreciate the game needed to tempt us to feed on people--and having people worth more xp the more you know about them is brilliant--but I wish they had found a different way to make xp useful than combat. For example, I wish they had tied xp progress into the doctor-side of the game. In the game you uncover new medicines and craft them to cure people. It would have felt more tight and consistent mechanically to tie xp to becoming a better doctor and saving more people, instead of most of advancement being about fighting better. That would have also raised the question of, "Is it better to kill a few and save the many, or to refuse to hurt anyone even if it causes others to die?"
Editing down game mechanics is difficult. As I comb through the redesign of my game's next version, I am constantly removing, rethinking, refocusing, and it's still not there. But for all that difficulty, The Witness and especially Vampyr show why that revision is so important: mechanics that reinforce the core gameplay loop enhance it; mechanics that distract or counter that core weaken or even potentially ruin it.
For me, Vampyr will always be the game that was close to being great, but instead became a major disappointment due to poor editing or understanding of its essential gameplay.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.