… think about CLARC

CLARC is game that is a masterclass in teaching the user without the user realising they are being taught.  You guide your cute robot around the digital-movement world, one square at a time, you pickup, you put down, you press switches, you block lasers, you redirect lasers, you split lasers, you destroy blocks, you move, you dance, you avoid, you rescue, you guide.  Each puzzle room picks some of these tasks for you to perform, an ever changing potpourri of options that makes every room fresh.  No puzzle repeats itself.  And the game introduces you to each and everyone of these actions, possibilities one at a time and almost entirely implicitly.  No laboured tutorials or insulting ‘advice’ from a sidekick character  as you step into a room you can see the new thing that has been introduced already active and tactile.  The first time you are introduced to the block that redirects laser beams you can see it redirecting a laser beam – you don’t need to be told.  The first time you see a block that is heavy enough to trigger a switch but lets lasers shoot straight through it, that’s right, you can see it sitting on a switch with a laser beam shooting through it.  Show don’t tell is magnificently adhered to.  Every game designer should play this game and then immediately cut the flabby bullshit that passes for a tutorial from their game right now.

CLARC is a game that has a bizarre and aggravating mis-step.  In a game of careful, discrete movement, of contemplation the designers have added Tanks.  In a game of study and predictability the Tanks are agents of Eris.  The concept of Tanks is not wrong.  Mobile, actively hostile Lasers that hunt the player down is a good idea.  The actual execution undermines the enjoyment of each and every room they appear in.

CLARC is a spiritual successor to the classic isometric games of yore.  Your Knightlore, Batman and Head Over Heels.  Jon Ritman made a discovery in creating these style of gmes: he categorised the rooms as action rooms, puzzle rooms or action-puzzle rooms.  In the action rooms it was all about testing the players reflexes, in the puzzle rooms it was testing the players brains, in the action-puzzle rooms it was about the player trying to solve simplified puzzles against the pressure of the action component.  The action-puzzle rooms didn’t work – if a player failed they wouldn’t know why, was it because they were failing to solve the puzzle or was it because they were being defeated by the action?  Failing and not knowing why is the single most frustrating thing in playing games.

The Tanks are the action-puzzle rooms of CLARC.  The Tanks are an analogue menace in a digital world.  They are constantly in motion, seemingly working to their own system of rules whilst the player is stuck moving one fixed square at a time.  What’s particularly aggravating about the Tanks is that about half the time they are used simply as mobile lasers.  They are fenced off from the player – restricted to a predictable path, another intriguing twist on the smorgasbord of challenges, familiar yet different enough to pique the interest.  The other fifty percent of rooms they are let loose in the same space as the player, bumping up against them, targeting their laser in a seemingly random fashion, choosing a direction of travel that seems predictable only for the player’s prediction to be frustratingly thwarted.  They are almost certainly completely deterministic but their continuous movement means they do not mesh with the player’s inputs and so become an arbitrary random factor.  Rooms that seem to be simple puzzles become trial-and-error frustration-fests as a Tanks laser manages to catch the edge of CLARC once again.  Did you fail because you didn’t move fast enough or because you chose the wrong route?  You don’t know.  Failing and not knowing why is the single most frustrating thing in playing games.

If the Tanks had simply followed the rules, if they lived in the same square-by-square world that CLARC lives in.  If they had been introduced with the same incredibly careful care of every single other element.  If they were governed by a visible rule system that could be understood and manipulated rather than being a rolling dice they would have worked.  If they only moved when CLARC moved, each action followed by a reaction they would have worked.  We do not want capricious free will in our enemies.  Especially when our enemies are programmed robots.

CLARC is a masterclass – so much can be learned from both its good and its bad.


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