Challenging Conventions 11: Playing Hard to Get

The Cave Story re-release on WiiWare has been much anticipated

Let me break it down for you. There’s one sequence where, upon entering a room, you’ll see a dude fall down a vertical shaft, encouraging you to follow. If you go down there you’ll find that there’s no way to get back up because the ledges are too high. After talking to the guy he’ll give you a gravity booster before passing away. With your enhanced jumping capabilities in tow, you can continue making your merry way through the game.

The kicker is that in order to unlock the secret/special ending, you have to bypass this sequence entirely. If you don’t go down the shaft and talk to the dying man, he’ll survive on his own only to meet up with you later and give you an even more powerful gravity booster. While it went against my nature, I’m glad I inadvertently read about this because I could have played the game a dozen times and never thought to skip talking to him.

So what does this mean? On one hand, the game encourages exploration and collecting with it’s Metroid-like level design and hidden power-ups. Therefore, bypassing the character and this sequence is asking you to do the exact opposite of everything you’ve been doing up to that point. Is this fiendishly clever game design that demands the player to think critically? Or wildly obtuse design that arbitrarily punishes the player for playing well?

 

In this case, I’d argue for the latter, if only because it doesn’t make sense that the guy miraculously survives if you don’t talk to him. I would have thought leaving him would merely result in his laying there in a constant state of about to die. I think the connection the player is supposed to make is that if talking to him ends in his death, then not talking to him will lead to his surviving. But that doesn’t make sense as I never got the impression that talking to him was the cause of death. I respect that Pixel wants players to think critically about their actions and not just blindly go about collecting stuff and following the sparkly thread of story laid out before them, but I did find this a vaguely deceitful bit of misdirection.

There are other times when this obscureness works better. For example, early on the player is given a choice to trade their wimpy pistol for a machine gun. At this point in the game the player has likely said "yes" to everything. In my case, I thought, "why not?" I’m glad I traded it as the machine gun was very useful and my go-to-weapon for the rest of the game. I’d only later read that had I not traded in the pistol then I would have had other opportunities to trade it later on for even better weapons. Not trading for the machine gun is something I never would have thought of since the game doesn’t inform you that there will be later trade-in options available, but it makes sense as the vendors are looking for your particular pistol.

Generally speaking, game designers want players to experience as much content as they can in one playthrough since people are less likely to play through a game a second time. So what is it Pixel is trying to convey by hiding the game’s most interesting nuggets in a place so few players will ever find them?

Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo head honcho and the designer of The Legend of Zelda, said he made that game’s secrets arbitrary to encourage players to work together, sharing their experiences to dig deeper into the game’s obscure maze. Demon’s Souls opts for a similar approach in that it’s nearly impossible to uncover certain secrets and events without the aid of a FAQ or walkthrough. That game had an innovative social hint-system, though, that was based on other players leaving cryptic messages to aid you in you quest. Given that Cave Story was made by one man it’s understandable that it wouldn’t feature such a complex online component, but shouldn’t the game design be more forgiving? When The Legend of Zelda premiered in the mid 80s we didn’t have the Internet and had to rely on collecting data socially, making discoveries int he game feel all the greater. Nowadays it’s all about whether or not to cheat or not not to cheat. One wonders if Pixel was deliberately trying to recall the spirit of earlier, less helpful games, fully aware that we now have the tools to easily overcome such obstacles.

The Legend of Zelda set the template for explorative adventure games.

It’s worth mentioning that if the player misses out on the secret ending, the story still makes complete sense. There’s no plot holes (at least that I could spot) and it fulfills the requirements of telling a complete story with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. The secret elements don’t change the story, but they add to it.

Perhaps it comes down to what was most important to Pixel in the creation of the game. If it was to tell a complex narrative with a rich backstory, the game’s obscure elements are to its detriment. Yet if it’s to add a layer of mystery and chance onto an already solid story arc, it’s quite brilliant. Tighter design and better clues would have helped, but this is a nitpick that happens to go against my stubborn gaming ways. Ultimately, I like secrets in games. Finding missile expansions in Metroid and pieces of heart in Zelda continue to enchant my inner explorer to this day. I’m just not convinced that hiding vital story elements in such obscure ways is the right way to go about it.

 

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