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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Incest, Bestiality & Infanticide: Why is Game Horror Often Afraid of Taboos?

The purpose of horror is to unsettle people, to make them feel afraid, disgusted or dirty, to make them stare in the face of the very worst aspects of the human psyche, all within an ultimately safe and controllable environment. The screen, or the page, is the barrier between unspeakable terror and relative safety. It is a barrier, through which we should be able to experience things that we would be unable to face in the real world for any number of reasons.

However, even within the realms of darkness that is the horror genre of games (and to some extent also, of films and literature) there remain certain subjects, certain taboo content that is forced to remain under the surface, slowly circling in the depths. Everybody knows that they’re down there, but very, very few choose to acknowledge them. As the title suggests, two candidates for these lurking topics are child killing, or infanticide, and bestiality, but there are many others. Just about any perverse or depraved sexual or necrotic act one could imagine is likely to be on the very list that horror is almost too scared to show you.

But you can imagine it. We all know that these awful things happen in the real world – in that regard, what we hear on the evening news is infinitely more horrific than any horror game, film or book. Murder, rape, imprisonment and torture are all frequently discussed on prime time evening broadcasting, yet are shunned by the very media that is supposed to portray that content in a way that is safe and more readily approachable.

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Philosophy of Computer Games (POCG2016) Conference Paper & Talk

The first post-doc publication following on from the work completed during my PhD was presented today at the Philosophy of Computer Games (POCG2016) Conference in Malta’s Institute of Digital Games.

Titled A Theoretical Framework of Ludic Knowledge: A Case Study in Disruption and Cognitive Engagement, it presents the culmination of my work looking at how different knowledge types and different memory types may be leveraged by game designers to produce different types of gameplay experience. The case study in question is of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs which I co-designed alongside Dan Pinchbeck at The Chinese Room.

The paper can be found in full here and, if you really want to listen to my lovely voice, my full conference session can be watched here.

Ghosts, Gulls & Goats: Analysing Reactions to Dear Esther

For me, experiencing Dear Esther was like a balmy summer’s day. I didn’t really mind the meandering paths, the dead-ends and the ambiguous (at least at first) story because it all came together to form a comforting blanket – a warming glow that suggested that so much more was still capable of coming from my favourite entertainment medium. Walking around the deserted island for the best part of an hour and half, I felt more relaxed, more calm, more utterly serene than I have for a while – in the real or virtual world. The heart-wrenching story that unfolds across such a short (in game terms) narrative time line only helps solidify the feelings not only of solitude, but of a form of self-discovery. You have no real clue exactly who you are playing as, but nevertheless, you feel for them; you appreciate every line of masterfully delivered prose almost as if they were coming from your own mouth.

Subsequent playthroughs offer surprising levels of continued depth, and I found myself stumbling upon new sights and small changes to the game world, as well as slowly forming my own interpretation of the game’s plot to more and more refined levels of detail. This is not a one-playthrough-wonder; there is so much more here for the eye that pays attention to the finer details. Even if one takes a step away from the immersive experience itself and looks upon it as a piece of technology, it is impossible to not occasionally stop and simply stare in awe at the visual and auditory depth on show. If ever a screenshot key was a good addition to a game, this was it.

As is to be expected of course when anything pushes the boundaries of a medium, Dear Esther has wildly split the opinions of critics and consumers alike. It is an undoubtedly Marmite-esque experience; I have yet to see a ‘mediocre’ score afforded to it. Some of the reasoning behind the scores however opens up some very interesting avenues of enquiry into players, gameplay, perceived value and the future of the industry on a broader scale. For a game with such an apparently plain face, it has truly sunk its Hebridean mitts into the heart of gaming and given it a mighty good jiggle.

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Are Developers Purposely Stifling Local Split-Screen Play?

It used to be a simple activity, going round to your mate’s house, sitting down in front of your (then) rather small television set and playing some four-way split-screen Mario Kart. For example. Now it appears that developers are going to the effort of actively discouraging this simple pleasure – sometimes in the most utterly ridiculous of ways.

Two recent games have brought this to my attention; namely Killzone 3, andF.E.A.R 3. Both of these games are big, Triple-A titles from established development studios. Both lend themselves perfectly to cooperative, tactical game play. Yet both have decided to adopt what has got to be the ugliest split-screen solution I have ever seen. The screenshot at the top of this post taken from Killzone 3 shows the bizarre misuse of screen real-estate in action.

The reasoning purported for this design is that it was found in play testing that a more traditional horizontally split-screen made it harder for players to see above and below them. Other reasons, such as being less processor intensive have also been suggested. Surely however, what has worked for many many years on previous consoles is just as acceptable in today’s games; heck, it worked absolutely fine in Gears of War – and that is a 3rd person game, with even less freedom of camera movement.

Now the cynic in me would suggest that by making the process of playing locally with a friend so aesthetically and functionally displeasing developers are aiming to shift more copies of games as players take to playing over the Internet. The optimist in me hopes that these titles are simply anomalies, and the play testers that thought that this method of split-screen was better have been put out to the proverbial pasture.

I know there are plenty of people who don’t care either way about this, but equally a quick browse around the interweb shows I am certainly not the only one who does care; and I wonder, like me, how many of those have decided to put off purchasing games because of problems with the local multiplayer design?

Of course, I could just be annoyed that my investment in a big HD television seems somewhat void as I squint at a tiny box of game play in the corner of it…