Imagine the prototypical, stereotypical, exaggerated, and possibly unrealistic indie game maker. The lights are dim. The hour is late. And the programmer is hunched over a keyboard trying to iron bugs out of the code. He or she adjusts the numbers and runs the code every 30 seconds or so to check. He/she is the creator, programmer, and play tester. And as he/she continues to design levels for this game something interesting happens. Without anyone else to test the levels or provide feedback, the difficulty of the levels continues to increase. As the programmer develops skills he/she continues to tweak the challenges of the game to challenge his/her ever increasing level of skill. By the time the game comes out, the difficulty is tuned for nuance and mastery and not the beginning player.
I wrote about nuance vs power here, but it's worth revisiting for clarification.
- Power: the obvious, straight forward actions/interactions that achieve a functional goal (most likely the goal of the game). If a game is about moving and shooting, then anything that helps you do these things directly fits on the scale of power.
- Nuance: any effect/property/detail that cannot be placed (or easily placed) on the scale of power of a game. If a game is about moving and shooting, then a quick reloading technique might fall on the nuance side. A technique that helps you evade the radar during a scan is even more nuanced.
I typically use the word nuance to describe elements of player mechanics, but it can describe any interaction in a game. Like elegant and brute force solutions there is a bit of subjectivity involved with defining what is a nuance and what isn't.
I started this blog by examining Super Mario Brothers (SMB). The mechanics of SMB should all be very familiar to us by now. We've certainly internalized many of the design philosophies and rules that Miyamoto and the team had in mind when they created the game. When I say that every coin in SMB is placed so that they can be grabbed safely (without dying), this statement should ring true to you. Also there are no traps in the game so that when you fall in, you cannot escape forcing you to kill yourself or wait for the time to expire. There are no areas that can only be accessed with Small Mario. This makes it so that players never feel truly disadvantaged for being Super/Fire Mario. Along with these rules, there are many structures, enemy arrangements, and layered challenges that are never implemented into SMB to keep the core challenges clear and straightforward.
So what do all of these guiding philosophies amount to? There's a reason why Super Mario Bros. is one of the greatest games of all time. The way I see it, it's not because the game helped pick up the video game industry. It's not because Mario helped start off Nintendo and the platforming series. It's not because there was nothing better around (there are still few games that are of SMB's quality today). Super Mario Bros. is great because the designers were conscious of every element and arrangement anticipating how gamers really play games, how difficult it is to develop knowledge skills (especially nuance), and how emergent play and gameplay is.
The smooth Super Mario gameplay runs without a hitch because the core challenges strictly adhered to the rules without forcing the player to learn many nuances. There's no better way to understand why the level design of SMB is so great than to compare it to an indie developer who's made a series of levels via an editor. Any old level modder won't do. I need to scrutinize someone's modded levels who knows game design and Mario well. So...
I submit my own work. Before we get into it, here's a list generally gauging the nuance of Super Mario Bros. interactions.
- JUMP: Move through the air. Surmount obstacles. Dodge enemies. Crush enemies. Breaking bricks.
- RUN: JUMP higher. MOVE faster. Longer skid and slide when DUCKing. Because time isn't much of a factor and you don't have to RUN to beat the game, we can consider this a secondary mechanic that has many nuanced uses.
- DUCK: Another optional mechanic that comes into play when Super/Fire Mario. DUCK+JUMP and a DUCKing slide are all optional ways to maneuver with a Small Mario size hitbox.
- SHOOT (fireball): Kill certain enemies.
- Tight Squeeze: When Super/Fire Mario squeezes into tight spaces and stands up, he slides out to the right always. To stop the squeeze-slide just DUCK. This design feature keeps players from getting stuck. There aren't many opportunities for players to experience this in Super Mario Bros.
- Koopa Shell Shield: If you can manage to stand inside a Koopa Shell after you squash it, it will deflect incoming enemies. See here or here.
- Camera Work: The camera does a nice job of following the player keeping the upcoming action in view so players can react to challenges even at top speed. This is the only Mario game where players cannot scroll/travel backwards (ignoring the extra mode in NSMB DS). So on the edge of the left side of the screen, there's a barrier that prevents you from traveling back. Understanding how easily the camera follows you and pushing off this invisible barrier are outside of the realm of player mechanics and game fiction. This makes techniques and strategies that involve the camera very nuanced.
- Off Screen Interactions: Like the camera work example above, understanding how the game keeps track of off screen elements is outside the domain of player mechanics or clear gameplay actions. Not immediately off screen but just beyond it, items enemies and objects aren't rendered. A technique or strategy that depends on this knowledge is very nuanced.
Nuance lv. 4
- Looped Sides: The left/right and top/bottom parts of the screen are actually connected. You can grab a Mushroom/1up falling into a pit by jumping up off the top of the screen directly over the area. See video here.
- Double Jump Glitch: When you grab a Super Mushroom or a Fire Flower, you can perform a double jump in mid air by timing the JUMP just right. See video here.
- Wall Jump Glitch: I'm not sure exactly how to do this one, but it involves colliding and JUMPing off of vertical walls. See video here.
- Walk Through Walls: Pretty self explanatory. See video here.
As you can see, many of my secrets require nuanced techniques. A few areas push even the whimsical, unrealistic Mario fiction for some slightly inorganic structures. I destroyed the purity of coin placement. I created some powerups locks that only Small or Super/Fire Mario can access respectively. And some enemies push the player's reflexes to the limit. If you didn't know it coming in to this article, you should realize by now why my levels have that indie feel. Sure, there are some neat ideas, but what did I sacrifice to achieve them?
Certainly these levels won't fit in with the Super Mario Bros. levels. Perhaps my ideas mesh better Mario: Lost Levels or Bros. 3. The lights are on, my eyes are open, and I can see the mistakes I made in my design past. The bottom line is, we can measure skill, level challenge, difficulty, and even nuance. I won't stop refining my design until I can do it all. I have much to learn. Until next time.