The Review Review: Music of the Spheres Laura Kate May 27, 2013 Features The Review Review This is The Review Review, where we put ourselves on the line and give Developers free rein to respond to our review of their game. This is a chance for the Reviewer to air any grievances they had with our review, delight in any surprises they hadn’t expected and generally lift the curtain on how it feels to read someones review of your game. Also, it’s an awfully good way to hold ourselves accountable and make sure that we’re being fair in our praise and criticism as a site. If you’d like to respond to a review we’ve written in this segment, or would like us to review your game (then let you respond) then drop an email to Laurak@indiehaven.com and please let us know what you think of the feature in the comments below, as this is something we’ve not seen attempted before. Today we’re allowing Hamish Todd to respond to our review of his Puzzle game Music of the Spheres. I highly recommend reading our original review before reading his Review Review. Music of the Spheres Review Review What is it that makes you want to play a game? Hearing about its cool story? Seeing a clever trailer? Noting the involvement of a game designer whose work you’ve previously enjoyed? Those could all be pretty good. But imagine this: “Tetris” has just come out, and you have not yet played it. How do you find out about its goodness, when it is so austere and weird-looking? To turn this into a more urgent question: if you were Alexey Pajitnov, how would you communicate to people that Tetris is a thing they should try? What is it that makes a game fun? (this is a very complex question, but don’t worry, we’re only going to look at the surface of it here) If you can answer this question in a truthful and clear way, you can go a long way in game marketing. You’ll do equally well if you can pretend to answer the question in a truthful and clear way, though you’ll probably have a negative impact on people’s understanding of game design. In my opinion, the best fun comes from level design that shows you lots of interesting possibilities. To give an example, in the picture you can see above, there’s a cool platforming challenge from the game Canabalt. I really like this challenge. I like that it gets me to turn “falling” to my advantage, when in most platformers it is something you want to avoid. I like how it is a jump that is different in intent from other jumps (usually you’re thinking “I want to land on that ledge” where here it is “I want to get as close to that ledge as I can without touching it”). I genuinely feel it makes me think about gravity in a new way. It is the definition of what I want from a game. Though jeez – much as I like it, imagine someone trying to market canabalt to you by talking about that! “This game can get you to think about parabolas in a new way, because there’s this part where you have to briefly jump BEFORE you would ordinarily jump from a ledge in a platformer…”. No, nobody wants to hear that – even if they would find it enjoyable were they playing it. Super Meat Boy is clever in this regard. You’ve got this wacky concept for an avatar, decent art, and the knowledge that “this game is haaaaard”. Few people would say “hard always means fun” – everyone knows that it is more complicated than that. But you can trust super meat boy’s gameplay to be the correct kind of hardness. Going back to Tetris and games like it though, how do we explain the goodness of their gameplay? Above is a picture of “English Country Tune”, one of my favourite games of 2011. I like it for the same kind of reasons I like that bit in Canabalt. But English Country Tune isn’t as marketable as Canabalt or Super Meat Boy. Not many effects, no story, not really much art. Lots of people like it, but it’s not easy for them to explain to you “you should get it because…”. I’m talking about this, by the way, because my game is basically in the same situation as English Country Tune. My solution was to employ something like a metaphor. My game’s backgrounds are made with “Girih tiles”, which are mathematicall fascinating and beautiful constructs from Islamic art. I originally did this to give the game a serious, religious feeling, although by the end I was more interested in the beautiful mathematics of Girih tiles and how it resembled the beautiful mathematics you can have in a game. Anyone can look at a nice Girih-tile pattern like the one above and say “yeah, that’s pretty beautiful” and then you can tell them there is interesting mathematics in it and they say “hmm, right, that definitely makes sense”. It’s the same with a game – everyone loves Portal, and they can usually understand what you might mean when you say that Portal has interesting maths in it. Portal doesn’t really come out and say that outright, and Valve certainly didn’t rely on that to market the game. If you want to say to people “you will enjoy my game because it has lots of nice maths in it”, you should be careful, because it is a strange idea. You want to introduce the idea with tact, and that’s what the metaphor of Islamic art can help you do. Now, for what it’s worth (probably not very much), the game’s design is more closely linked with Islamic art than Laura suggests when she says the art is “invisible”. There are ideas and experiences in MotS that are pretty close to how you can experience Islamic art, or wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t found Islamic art. Laura says I should have been more “upfront” – perhaps I could have had a textbox or a cutscene with an Islamic architect in it? Well, I think that would suck – games are for playing, and I hate reading and tolerating the insipid characters that games try to present to me when I know the important stuff is in the experience of playing the game. If you’re interested in the influences and insights that can come from the game, you’ll just have to think harder about your play experience. One small extra thing: I want to say it is really remarkable that Laura said “several of the games levels just don’t teach you the ideas required to complete them”. I won’t be arguing that she’s wrong – I just want people to give a bit of context… There is a level design technique called an “antepiece” that is used in a lot of famous games including Portal, Half Life 2, Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man. It’s when the designers have some hard, complex setpiece in a game and decide to anticipate it by giving the player an unchallenging, simple, educational task just before it (but it’s not a “tutorial”; there are no text pop-ups). An easy example from the first level of Super Mario Bros is depicted above. Look at the jump on the right. You have to clear that gap with such a tiny run up. This is an important and interesting skill in SMB; the player should be educated about it in a slow, smooth way. So they give you a way of practicing the skill, by inserting the almost-identical setup on the left. If you fail the one on the left (which you come across first), there will be no consequence for your failure beyond a slight hindrance. It doesn’t exist to challenge you, it exists to wordlessly warn you about something that you’re going to be doing very soon. I actually take the teaching of gameplay ideas extremely seriously – I invented the word “antepiece”, while writing this article. Music of the Spheres is filled with antepieces; at least a third of the levels exist purely to teach you important stuff for use in later levels. The final puzzle is the most complex and expresses a physical phenomenon called the “doppler effect”; this is the one Laura described as “stunning, worth taking the time to get to”. And it has, I shit you not, four preceding levels that I created purely to establish things that you need to use in that puzzle. I’m so glad I did that; I have no doubt that Laura enjoyed it so much because it was so well-anticipated. A while ago I worried that I had hugely overdone it – that players might start to think things were overly established and that I was patronizing them! But evidently, in certain places, I didn’t do enough. Having made that apology, I’ll say I wish that journalists could understand design better. Do journalists notice antepieces when they happen? Do they appreciate how much work went into them and recognize how much nicer they makes a game? I suspect that if Laura had been sensitive to the things, she might have qualified “several levels just don’t teach you…” with “… though having said that, sometimes things are taught to you pretty well!”. There’s a whole new world of beautiful design that can open up to you, if you decide to start noticing it. And don’t worry, I’m not just being a butthurt “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAAND ME!” artist – I have written about this stuff before!