I recently got around to hotseating a game that’s been sitting on my PS3 for a while now: “Rain” by Japanese studios, Aquire and SCE Japan. It’s basically a puzzle/platformer where the central mechanic of the game is that the player’s character can’t be seen unless there’s rain falling on his head. When you picture it, it’s actually easier to imagine it as you being invisible but still having a physical form. This means that, since it’s always raining throughout the entire game (so far: I’m not done yet), your form is “outlined” by the rain bouncing off your body. If you still don’t get it, watch this video that Playstation posted of “Rain” gameplay.
So the game is a pretty basic puzzle game, leading you here and there, introducing you slowly to new mechanics, likehow running through puddles attracts monsters, or how walking through mudmakes you visible at all times, even if you’re not getting hit by rain. What struck me as I was playing, though, was how they presented the goal marker for each level. To put this next part into context, think about how goal markers usually exist in level-based games: Robotnik signs in Sonic, flagpoles in Mario, even completely non-diegetic stuff like the big floating arrows you see in some open-world games. These types of markers, in my opinion, have always taken away from letting the player feel immersed in the game. Other games do a quick camera pan to the exit/ending of the stage which is KIND of what Rain does, but in a less obvious way. We’ll get into that in a sec.
Some more context: the story of the game is fairly simple with only minor impositions by the narrator. The invisible boy you play is chasing an equally invisible girl because it seems that she’s being chased by invisible monsters. You start the game by following her through the street in front of your house. Every time you enter a new stage/area after that, the camera shows you the girl escaping the area and what direction she’s heading in. Immediately, the player can see how the goal markers in the game make use of the STORY to show meaning and instruction, not just the game’s ability to use non-diagetic tools. This is key to making a good game, in my opinion. In “Rain,” you instinctively where you’re going; there isn’t a single moment where you consider whether or not that’s the way you’re supposed to go. I don’t know whether that instinct is just as a result of me thinking about the game as a GAME and not a story that I’m writing or whether this is something inherent in the game that makes me want to follow their instructions. Either way, the game does a good job of conveying what it wants you to do. (I suppose someone more cold-hearted than me might try to go off on their own and ignore the girl entirely. They would soon find out that this is impossible to do, but I’d be curious to hear the thought process that would lead someone to trying something like that.)
All of this goal-marking and story-building helps to contribute to a keystone quality in game design: immersion. Immersion can mean a lot of things, things I won’t get into now (google it if you’re not sure what I’m talking about), but one of things it most often means to me is avoiding the use of HUDs or UIs that impose too much on the player’s suspension of disbelief. For example, is it really realistic to say that I KNOW I have two hits left before I die? Is it even humanly possible to know that there are enemies lurking behind me by looking at some mystical “minimap”? Good thing I can just check my stats to see when I’ll level up and get enough to Speed to be able to RUN. LIKE I CAN’T RUN WITHOUT FIRST KILLING PEOPLE? WHAT KIND OF MESSAGE IS THAT FOR THE KIDS?
I’m being unreasonable, of course. Not having hit points could break a game. We actually do need minimaps and compasses to reasonably navigate some worlds. If you gained Speed by only by walking around, you’d have an absurd Speed stat almost immediately. All these things are results of catering to the player’s inevitable experience of the game AS A GAME. You can’t assume, as a designer, that the player will always have sound on just lik you can’t assume that they’re keeping track of how many times they were hit with a Broadsword+ in the last battle. So you make up for that with non-diegetic elements and just hope they’re not too much to make the player feel dirty. Conversely, I do appreciate games that shoot for minimal HUDs and UIs in general, games like Mirror’s Edge, for example. Unfortunately, one of the disadvantages that minimalism had was a feeling of shallowness, like there wasn’t anything overly complex about the game (and there really wasn’t, just great physics and a cool premise).
My point in all of this is that I really liked the way that “Rain” showed goal markers. I never felt like it was pulling me out of the story. In fact, by the end of my hour-long play session, I was desperately trying to catch up to the little girl that I knew nothing about. Every time she came close to getting mutilated by the ominous invisible creatures, my heart jumped a bit. Had she been a floating arrow or a red blip on a map, I’m sure i would have put my controller down after a couple of minutes.
I do have more to say about this game, but I’ll save it for another time. In the meantime, try this game out! As far as I know, it’s only out on PS3 through PSN, though, so bug your friends with PS3s to let you play it if you haven’t already got one.