Knack: An Underappreciated Lesson in Accessibility, Variable Challenge, and Cross-Generational Appeal

I have been waiting and waiting but finally, the time has arrived when my first-born is able to play games. Proper games that is, with an actual controller, rather than the simplistic tablet-based apps that we have previously suffered through together.

It has been surprisingly difficult finding contemporary games on current consoles that are both appropriately rated for a 3-4 year old and, more importantly, actually playable for someone with tiny hands and developing reflexes. So much so in fact, that we have spent a number of months relying on my back catalogue of Gamecube and Wii titles to fill our gaming time.

About a month ago though, Knack appeared as a monthly game on PlayStation Plus. A few weeks later, it was the first game that my son had ever finished, almost entirely of his own volition. Moreover, I had also finished it (on a harder difficulty level) and had a pretty damn good time playing it as well.

Watching my son play on Easy and then playing through myself on Hard gave me a unique perspective that I would have missed had I simply played through once by myself. Given the fairly mediocre review scores the game received upon release, I felt it was necessary to argue the case for this game being an excellent lesson in game design for accessibility, variable challenge, and cross-generational appeal, even if by other measures of design it may fall over a little bit. Let’s have a look!

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The Divide?

I don’t know whether us gamers are just programmed to enjoy a good argument – or flame war – but it seems to me that for a social group that essentially all love the same form of entertainment we have a daft amount of internalised divisions.

Console vs PC. ‘Core’ vs ‘Casual’. Single-Player vs Multiplayer. Inverted Y Axis vsNon-Inverted Y Axis…

The particular division that has been discussed multiple times in the space of a few days recently is that of gender. This is not a new debate within games, and this is the fact that makes this particularly odd, because in modern society there are few things where an obvious division between masculinity and femininity would be tolerated. Yet within the games industry there is a trend for making a mountain out of a molehill over the fact that sometimes, the fairer sex also indulge in this entertainment medium.

On the one hand, we have the recent column in Edge magazine by Clint Hocking who says that studios need to encourage more women to join their development staff. As Quinn Dunki rightly points out, making an issue of the fact that there are minimal female staff is part of the problem – any women wanting to break into the industry immediately feel singled out.

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RPG Cinderella Life

On top of this sort of attitude, there is another assumption bubbling under the surface that all female gamers can be tarred with the same brush – the one that drips with NintendogsCooking Mama, and the entire Imagine series. The image above is from a recently announced game from the developers of the Professor Layton games entitled, rather worryingly Cinderella Life. CEO of developer Level-5, Akihiro Hino, also stated that the majority of the development team were female.

This smacks of an incredible level of patronisation. Not only is the subtext here stating that female gamers want an abundance of pink and the ability to dress up their avatars in the same way they may have dressed up a Barbie when they were little, it also suggests that even when these girls grow up and become professional game developers, that all they are then capable of doing is producing more of such games. I’m not female, and even I feel offended on behalf of the numerous female gamers I know that like nothing better than to shotgun soldiers’ faces off…

It is as though the industry is saying that ‘boy games’ – i.e those that contain war, fighting, blood, guns, most sports and generally not much pink – are all far too hard or far too scary for the feminine mind which requires pretty colours, nice clothes, and not a lot else. It is misogonystic to medieval proportions.

The likely reason that there aren’t so many female gamers is precisely because they are prevented at every turning from liking games – because after all, girls don’t play games. It is a never ending cycle. It is an entertainment medium like any other, those that like it, like it, those that don’t, don’t. Stop making an issue out of a non-existent divide and that’ll be that.