So I just started designing an indie game and I thought it would be neat to publish my game logs. Basically, I'm playing the first few hours of a video game each week and commenting on the game's design. So feel free to join me every week as I discover how games work! First up is...
The design in Pokemon does a lot of things right for a game which needs to appeal to young children as well as long-time fans. But the game I'm designing needs to be more mature and subtle in relaying information to the player to avoid moments like...
"Hi, do you have a moment to talk about our Lord and Savior the Save Menu?"
The NPCs in SoulSilver have a disturbing need to tell you every single detail about the game's mechanics. Like, I broke into someone's house and instead of yelling at me, they calmly explained the theory of Pokémon evolution.
Even as a younger player I remember feeling patronized by the game's characters. And all the stilted, clunky dialogue breaks narrative immersion. This isn't as much a problem for a game with a loose story like SoulSilver. And besides, immersion in Pokémon really comes from exploration and battles, not character interaction.
Still, I think a game aimed at teens or adults should avoid explanatory dialog whenever possible.
Say you want to get the player to open their bag for the first time. Instead of having an NPC say Press the START button to open your bag!, try something a little less on-the-nose. You can have NPC say Can I take a look inside your bag? and show the player the button they should press with an image of the start button in the corner of the screen. Or something to that effect.
This preserves immersion in one really important way: it helps the NPC stay in character.
In the "bad" example, the NPC directly references the "Start" button--an item that shouldn't exist in their world. By showing the player a picture instead, you preserve the fourth wall and the idea that the NPC really believes the world exists. It's simple, but opportunities like these are dead easy ways to maintain player immersion.
How to Train Your Dragon(ite)
I think the game designers themselves realized they were throwing a lot of information at the player in a really awkward way. So they made the Pokémon School: a shameless information dump that isn't nearly as world-breaking as feeding you information via random people on the streets.
I actually like the idea of the Pokémon School, but I would implement it a little differently.
In SoulSilver there's only one Pokémon School. But considering all the information the game insists you know, I would make Pokémon Schools a staple in every town. This way, you could get your daily dose of information gradually as the game develops. This would also free up some regular NPCs to talk about normal people things. Imagine all the mood setting and world building you could do when NPCs don't have to read lines from the game's manual!
But most importantly, it would be the player's choice whether to learn or not. An older player might have been playing Pokémon games for years. A person like this doesn't want every single NPC to tell her what she already knows.
Shaping the Player's Learning
In Pokémon, the player learns that people outside of towns will often want to fight you. Having a distinction between "town" people and "route" people could inadvertently signal to the player that all non-town NPCs will want to fight you. That's not a good thing. Here, SoulSilver does something clever.
Immediately after the player learns NPCs will attack on-sight, the game presents the player with a non-combatant NPC to remind the player that not everyone is looking for trouble.
I think it's important to carefully shape what your player thinks about the game world in a similar fashion. Note everything you want to teach the player, and be mindful of the fact that sometimes people learn the wrong thing.
The "Pokégear" (cell phone) system is very interesting, but the game doesn't take full advantage of the mechanic in the narrative. The cell phone should exist to make the player feel connected to the world, but it fails because the only "people" you talk to in SoulSilver don't sound like people at all.
Plus, being a silent protagonist means all of the dialogue is very one-sided. Having a cell-phone is a terrible idea for a narrative-heavy game with a silent protagonist. But a cell phone could do wonders for a game where the character speaks, if done right. Maybe you could offer the player a choice of responses to keep the "conversation" going.
The game "Catherine" kind-of sort-of did this with its Phone Mail system. Periodically, characters would send you messages which you could reply to with a list of canned responses. The dialogue options in Catherine's Phone Mail system were really meant to give insight to the player's own mind, but you could handily use this system to develop the player character's relationship with the world's NPCs.
I like the idea of your mother and your home. Few adventure games give you a home to come back to. Fewer give you a family to check in on every once in a while. A narrative designer can do a lot of cool psychological things with the concept of "Home", but in SoulSilver the only real thing to do is ask your mom for cash. (Maybe that's supposed to be a clever commentary on life?)
I've got a thousand more thoughts about the level design in Pokémon, but I think I'll wrap up the log here. Thanks for reading! If there's a game you really think I should play, why not comment or shoot me a message? Find me on Twitter @MrHassanSan.