It’s ¼ to midnight. My partner & I are still awake. On an old TV screen, we play the 1st Harry Potter video game, on the PlayStation. The dull grey of an old control hasn’t left our hands for hours. There is nothing else to do.
Let’s be clear: I am not reviewing the game. I don’t really do that. With that said, the 2001 Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone™ is an awful video game. I want you to understand why.
Mechanically, HP&tPS™ is quite ambitious. I’m not joking when I say that pretty much the entire game is used to introduce new “things to do”. Over the course of the game, you will learn how to levitate things, how to burn things, how to turn owl statues into living birds & even how to become invisible. There are boss fights. There is broomstick flight. There are quicktime events. Sounds exciting, right? A skill-curve that never quits!
Well, no. Pretty much nothing about HP&tPS™ is skillful.
Interestingly enough, the problem behind this is replicated in modern video-games pretty much constantly. The only place it doesn’t seem to apply is in the quote-unquote “indie scene”*. What is that problem? Context sensitive mechanics.
Every single mechanic in HP&tPS™ I’ve mentioned is context sensitive. To turn invisible, you need to find a collectible. To levitate objects, you need to find specific objects to levitate. Flying is a very, very rare mini-game. Etc etc etc.
This, in itself, isn’t necessarily a problem. It becomes a problem when you design your entire game around these mechanics. The core mechanics – platforming – of the game are never really expanded upon. Given that jumping is done Zelda style & everything else is achieved by pressing X, the game can be summarised in a single sentence: pushing forward & pushing X.
This results in a skill-curve that, essentially, remains flat. This isn’t to say that HP&tPS™ is not ever difficult. Sometimes it can be. This is because the game is unfair. It’s difficulty spikes occur when it introduces a new mechanic & shits you into a ridiculously constructed puzzle, or an unfair fight.
Y’see, HP&tPS™ really wants to be Zelda. Like its idol, it bases a dungeon around a new mechanic. The difference is that Zelda takes its time in order to introduce a new mechanic which will then reoccur. By taking theit time, the Zelda games expand on their core mechanics, keep a consistent skill-curve & allow for interesting, varied gameplay.
HP&tPS™ does not do this. It throws a new mechanic at you, ramps up the difficultly on the final puzzle in that mechanic’s dungeon (usually the 3rd puzzle) & then promptly throws the new mechanic in the bin.
I want to give an example, from the game. About 4 hours in, you visit Gringots. This results in a mini-game which requires you to collect coins from a swinging machine, in a manner similar to Temple Run. Not only is this a new mechanic, the game expects a perfect run from you the 1st time you use this mechanic. The game uses the mechanic twice more. After that, it is never seen again.
This results in gameplay that swings between 2 emotional states. The player is either bored because they are sick of pushing forward & pushing X, or the player is annoyed because the puzzle they’re playing is unfair.
There is an important reason why Zelda games introduce mechanics as items. Alongside making a player feel as if they have achieved something, it serves as promise that the mechanic will remain useful for the entire game. It is a promise, from the developer, that nothing has been introduced as a gimmick.
There are 2 lessons we can take from this. Good game design treats its core mechanics as the most important mechanics in the game. Equally, if a game introduces a new mechanic, it must take that mechanic seriously. The design flaws in HP&tPS™ are prevalent in so many modern games it feels important to be very clear on this. The point isn’t that context sensitive mechanics are bad, but that context sensitive mechanics aren’t gimmicks.
Why? Mechanics are very important in video games. Not only do they condition play, they form a synthesis with the game’s use of traditional aesthetic form (that is, its visual design, sound design, writing etc) & the content of the game. I’ve written before that content is realised through form in traditional art. The same applies to video games & form includes mechanics. Content, in a loose sense, is human meaning, be that strictly emotional, ludic, kinaesthetic etc.
If you design mechanics well, they can tell most of your story. If you put mechanics in your game as gimmicks, then those sections of your game lose meaning.
An example? To return to Gringots: there is absolutely no reason in the fiction of HP&tPS™ why the game should insist that you repeat the section if you fail to collect enough coins. In fact, that this happens contradicts the game’s fiction. Put it this way, when you go to the bank, do the bankers make you run around & collect money to timer? No. Would they deny you access to your money if you proved incapable of catching money whilst doing a somersault? No. Would either of those things make sense in the world of Harry Potter? No. It makes no sense. The game shapes its content around a gimmick mechanic, which breaks its fiction. Moreover, there isn’t even a plot motivation for your presence in Gringots. You’re there to do Hagrid’s shopping.
Video games, as a medium, do not excuse this. Just because “it’s a game” does not allow a developer to break their fiction. Gimmicks break fiction. Gimmicks break games.
Anyway, if you’ll excuse me, I have an awful video game to finish. It has come to my attention that my partner is a rage-quitter.
* “Indie games” don’t do this because they can’t. Most studios can barely afford 1 mechanic.