Visual clues in computer games

13th May 2008 – 2.12 pm

One aspect of Mario Kart Wii that I noticed and appreciate is how there are tyre tracks or skid marks leading off the road to extra sections of track or to show that it's possible to jump off certain sections. Rather than having to guess at the extra track features of Mario Kart Wii over previous versions of the game, or lose positions bumping in to scenery trying to find every alternative route or short-cut, although there are doubtless short-cuts available that are there to be discovered.

This got me thinking back to other games I've played that have used visual clues, or failed to use them. Three games from the 8-bit days spring to mind quite quickly. Although only one uses a visual clue the other two either needed something to help the player or managed to be clever enough to avoid the need.

Nebulus had floor sections that 'collapsed', and it didn't help the player out at all in finding this out. The floor would simply disappear beneath you, sending you back and wasting time or even dropping you to your doom. There was no way of telling which floor sections would collapse so you had to activate them at least once to find them, and then either map or remember them or go through the same process of falling in to their trap each time. It led to a frustrating experience, which was a shame as the game had visually impressive graphics for its time and some otherwise solid gameplay ideas.

Great Giana Sisters, a blatant clone of Super Mario Bros that I believe got withdrawn from sale because of the similarities, had a similar problem to Nebulus. Like Super Mario Bros, Great Giana Sisters had hidden sections for the player to discover. The player found these sections by dropping in to pits in the ground. The problem was that a normal pit caused the loss of a life if fallen in to, and as the game was a sideways-scrolling platformer there were a lot of pits to jump. Expecting a player to find all the hidden areas by trial-and-error would be time consuming and horribly frustrating, much like the problem with Nebulus where lives would be lost in a haphazard manner. The game designers got around this by adding a pixel-tall visual clue that a pit led to a hidden area. However, whilst visual clues are generally helpful this one had the effect of making the safe pits obvious at almost a glance, and the experience of finding the hidden areas was ruined by not having them hidden at all. It is possible that a similar solution for Nebulus, with different coloured or otherwise graphically differentiated floor sections, could also have made the inclusion of disappearing sections too easy to overcome, but some kind of visual clue would at least have kept the player alert in Nebulus rather than bringing a hidden feature in to plain sight as in the Great Giana Sisters.

Super Mario Bros had a better solution, and one that the designers of the Great Giana Sisters probably didn't want to push their luck by copying. Instead of hidden areas being in pits access to them was through pipes. These pipes were sometimes empty, but sometimes had a flower with teeth living inside. Either way, the pipes were safe to stand on. The flower did not come out when Mario was standing where the flower in the pipe would kill him, and the pipes themselves were harmless. This allowed players to test every pipe for a hidden entrance safely, allowing for as much game exploration as any player wanted to get involved in, but had the initial problem of how to know to duck down on a pipe to enter one in the first place. With the animation at the start of the second level, world 1-2, showing Mario disappear down a pipe, and the end of the level requiring the player to duck down a pipe to exit the underground level, the idea of going down a pipe was presented to the player early on, solving the problem. The game managed to have areas that were hidden without presenting any kind of visual clue to the player as to their whereabouts, but there were other visual clues that hinted to their existence separately.

I'm sure I'll remember more games in time and return to the subject of visual clues within games.

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