By Charlie Anderson
I recently explained to someone why our game is a 2D platformer, something I have to do every time I talk about what I am working on. However, this time I had to tell a fellow teammate who was surprised when I showed her a newly polished demo of the game. “Why,” she asked me, “are we making this a 2D platformer, especially one that is mechanically heavy? I feel like we are, on the business side, selling a completely different game.” This took me aback a little, because in the day to day sometimes I forget about the reasonings of decisions made a while ago. Normally, I would tell people something like, “Well, originally we were making this game for one little girl named Ava, who really loved Mario games you see…” or I would say “we wanted to have strong conversational elements but didn’t want our game to be social skills practice drills (or even worse, boring), so we added platforming to be the fun part.” This line of reasoning is obviously weak and something of a retroactive justification. So why was I confident about these two seemingly disparate elements of platforming and strong narrative themes existing within the same game?
I spent a while thinking about two questions: What experience are we creating for our players? What sort of game elements would give them that experience? To answer the first question, all I had to do is simply look at Social Cipher’s mission. Empowerment. Empowerment. See, at the core of every game that has ever existed, there is a central fantasy that exists deep in the DNA of that game. In Skyrim, it is the idea of being an adventurer in a wild environment, exploring deep into a dangerous land. In Mario, it is the simple, escapist fun of the its platforming. It is why people play the game, why they enjoy it. A common core fantasy, one that we are using, is empowerment. We are creating a game for players who may feel alone, misunderstood, or ashamed of who they are, driven by the story of a protagonist who reflects the player and shows them what they’re really capable of. Ava’s character starts the game afraid to leave her safe planet and uncomfortable with engaging in social intricacies. Over the course of the game, she gains confidence, new skills, and represents the empowerment that our core audience might want themselves. Now, then, how does this relate to the central question of why our game is a platformer?
It is because empowerment can also be the essence/core driver/motivator of a 2D platformer. How, you may ask? Let us look at a game called Metroid Prime. Metroid Prime is, strictly speaking, a 2D platformer. It is also its own genre called a metroidvania because it was so successful that other games use it as a foundational inspiration for themselves. The core of MP is also empowerment. The character starts with limited abilities on top of an asteroid in space and slowly traverses their way down into its cavernous depths filled with scary monsters and bosses set to a cold and lonely soundtrack. In the beginning, Samus, the protagonist, feels weak and vulnerable, but that changes. Over time, Samus acquires upgrade after upgrade and at the end of the game, no longer is Samus fearfully dodging enemies as she leaps from platform to platform. Instead, she’s zipping through the air,shooting massive missiles and dropping bombs. Though they play a part, is not just that the upgrades that have been acquired lend themselves to empowerment. Rather, it’s that the player originally experienced feeling afraid and alone in this exact environment and by the end they feel like they can do anything. They know the ins and outs of the gameplay, the type of enemies they are likely to see and how to beat them, optimal routes, and more. The player has been empowered not just in the game, but beyond the screen.
The point of the Metroid tangent is to show that creating the fantasy of empowerment in a platformer is not only possible, but powerful. It is what we are going to achieve with our game. Ava will acquire new abilities over the course of the game, and more importantly, I believe, there is enough of a skill ceiling in our core mechanics that mastering those mechanics means something. This idea of a skill ceiling being not only a part of the game, but absolutely essential to the experience we are giving our audience, is what I believe has caused friction on our production team. Not necessarily because they disagree, but because it is not well understood, for which I am largely to blame. Thus I try to rectify that.
Our game is a platformer because it serves as an excellent vessel for empowerment. The player will experience a strong story about the character learning and gaining newfound confidence. Simultaneously, they will acquire new abilities, master mechanics, and most essentially overcome the obstacles of the game. They will not just be told that they are learning and becoming more confident, it will actually be happening as they progress through the game. This is the answer to the second question I came up with all the way back in the second paragraph – what game elements contribute to the experience we want to sell.
Now, there is a very valid question that might still be lingering after my explanation That question is: If we want empowerment, is platforming the only way to do this? Could we have combined it in the narrative? Why didn’t we consider an RPG, where the fantasy there is quite often empowerment?
Platforming is certainly not the only way we could have gone. Given our abilities and talents at the start of the project, a potential path that we could have pursued is a 2D RPG with strong narrative elements. At the end of the day, we could have made quite an excellent game with this approach. However, I believe we will make an excellent game without it.The approaches offer different benefits and cater to different people. I love platformers, while my brother only loves RPGs. There are also a lot of conventions when it comes to 2D RPGs that don’t necessarily fit our game, such as stronger combat elements or loot based progression.
Ultimately, I believe that platforming is the better choice because it allows us to empower the player long after the game credits roll. RPG empowerment is entirely a fantasy of power of the character and through extension, the player. But we want the player to feel powerful themselves. We want the player to feel capable because of their own skill, not because they happened to loot the legendary sword of Bolog the Destroyer with +17 fire damage. Of course, we’re have to take special care in creating our game to do this well. If the skill cap is too high, we will alienate our base that aren’t gamers, and if it is too low, we will bore our gamer audience. Our approach to this is the stratification of difficulty. Also termed the optionality of difficulty, by me. We will approach this by making the base game very accessible and straightforward, providing a modest challenge. In each level, we will provide optional collectables that are more difficult to get and provide cosmetic and bragging rights rewards. Thus, people who are striving for completionism and mastery can go for these more difficult rewards while the more casual audience can and probably will just ignore them. Additionally, for Social Cipher we are planning on adding special difficulty runs that are pre-existing levels with some added difficulty that will be accessible after the level has been completed. Thus, we will allow players to pursue their own mode of difficulty by letting them choose their own challenge.
I hope this essay can be helpful for those wondering why we have gone down the path we have. To the teammate who asked that very question, I would say now that the reason is that we are creating a fantasy of empowerment and as disparate as our modes of gameplay seem – narrative storytelling paired with platforming puzzliness – they feed into a single experiential vein. We want our audience to grow in parallel with our protagonist. We want them to feel cool and capable in their mastery of the game. We want them to feel empowered.