Talking About Games: The Compatibility Problem

Words: 2516 Approximate Reading Time: 18-23 minutes

A recent Twitter thread was brought to my attention on the subject of whether certain game mechanics and game genres fit together. Raising the question of how compatible certain ideas are in the abstract, that is, without having to actually experiment and put them together to find out.

If you’d like to see the full context for yourself, I suggest reading this Twitter thread by Erik Robson (it’s only three tweets, so it won’t take long to get through).

If you’d rather not read the tweets, here is a very brief summary. Robson claimed that horror games and puzzles “do not mix,” and that puzzles “kill” the pacing and immersion of horror games. The argument Robson makes is that since you’re focused on trying to figure out what the designer wanted you to think when you’re solving a puzzle, you’re not scared anymore. Similarly, since the game is “put on hold” while you solve the puzzle, it destroys any tension in the game.

The conclusion was that designers should entirely avoid combining puzzles with horror games, because “the combo doesn’t work.”

I don’t want to use this space to just harp on this and explain the problems with the argument being presented. Instead, I want to step back and examine this thread through a couple of lenses.

The first is how we talk about games more generally. Namely, when we try to make these kinds of claims, how do we best examine and present them?

The second is examining the overall compatibility issue. Namely, to what extent is it true that certain mechanics and certain genres “do not mix”?

The latter question relates to principles of game, narrative, and thematic design, while the former relates to our conversations surrounding those topics.

In the first part of the essay, I want to look at the claim itself and explain the underlying problem as a matter of discussion. In particular, the way in which various points are made at best create confusion, and at worst suggest an incorrect perception of the underlying ideas.

In the second part, I want to examine the broader argument about whether certain combinations are genuinely incompatible. Overall, I’ll suggest that while the claim might be true in theory, actual incompatibility is a rare phenomenon, and the problems that we see are more about execution.

The Definition Problem

Let’s begin by trying to take this claim apart and investigate the separate parts.

And the first problem that should jump out to us is: what does Robson mean by these things? What is “horror”? What is a “puzzle”? What is “immersion”?

This might seem like a pedantic point. Why should we care about what these terms mean? We all know what “horror” means and what a puzzle is. This is just semantics.

But that misses the very problem at hand.

Let’s take horror. What does horror mean? While it seems easy to define it as “things which are scary,” that actually misses a huge portion or how the term is used. Think, for example, of things like “cosmic horror” (i.e. the Lovecraft mythos) or “psychological horror.” Or even go back and read old literary works of horror, such as Edgar Allen Poe.[1]

The variety of things that count as “horror” suggests that “scary” is not a useful stand-in. Horror can involve things that are scary. But not all horror will be scary. Or at least not “scary” in the sense that it frightens you or instills you with terror.

Perhaps a better, more general definition, would be to say that horror is a genre that is about making you feel uncomfortable. Specifically, the kind of discomfort that stems from fear more generally. It may be the kind of fear that comes from worrying about your life (or your character’s life). It could be a fear that comes from having everything you thought to be true ripped from you (this is a simplified explanation of cosmic horror). It could be a fear that comes from just feeling uncertain and not in control of things (which is part of what psychological horror aims at). The idea is that there are a lot of ways of instilling fear and using that fear to set us on edge. I’ll note that I’m not trying to make an exhaustive definition. Just to point out the broad variety of what “horror” means.

The importance of this broader definition is that it captures not just the “scary” part, but also the other ways in which we can be made afraid. Sometimes these forms of fear can be combined. Sometimes they can be separated. Sometimes certain components can be highlighted at different times. You don’t just need “scary” to get horror.

So why go through all of this?

Well, Robson’s claims don’t really make sense if we’re using that broader definition. It really only works if we’re sticking to the idea that horror is only that which is scary. In other words, we have to use an overly narrow definition of the term to actually fit the argument.

Puzzles

Now let’s examine the same topic through the issue of puzzles. That is, what is a puzzle? Why would puzzles ruin immersion and pacing?

If we think about puzzles in terms of isolated mechanics that must be solved to progress, like a jigsaw puzzle that must be put together, then it can be very easily seen how a puzzle would cause these problems. After all, stopping everything to put together a jigsaw puzzle would absolutely ruin the pacing of a horror game. Of course, it would probably ruin the pacing for plenty of games. And jigsaw puzzles don’t generally set people on edge, or even make them uncomfortable in the slightest. So something like a jigsaw puzzle definitely would ruin immersion.[2]

If we think of puzzles in that sense: here is a specific thing you need to put together to progress, then the claim makes sense. And while I’ve used jigsaw puzzles as an example, there are plenty of similar puzzles that would fit that same description. Slide puzzles. A Tower of Hanoi puzzle. The list, in fact, is quite extensive.

But not all puzzles need to be set up like that. Puzzles can be constructed and played much more organically, so that they don’t have to take the player out of the overall experience. These puzzles could be physics puzzles, or riddles to search for objects, or rely on several other methods. These kinds of organic puzzles would certainly fix the pacing problem: they would in no way take the player out of the “action” of the game.

Moreover, the immersion factor depends on puzzles being largely these generic. But puzzles can be more dependent upon the atmosphere of the game itself. So puzzles can certainly draw you out of the game world by just not fitting with the theme of the game. A jigsaw puzzle, for example, is usually not going to be consistent with the tone of, say, a cosmic horror game. But a puzzle that relies on warping the player’s perception of the game’s physical space definitely would. And in that way, even a puzzle that removes a player from the action doesn’t have to take away immersion.

So again, the claim makes sense, but only so long as we are relying on a very narrow understanding of what a puzzle looks like. When we think of puzzles in the sense of jigsaw puzzles, then we obviously are going to run into issues of puzzles being inconsistent with the game’s overall setting and gameplay.

As a final note on this topic, it might be easy to say that these problems are the result of the method of communication: Robson was using Twitter, which meant working with a strict character limit per tweet. But that argument ignores the way in which social media works (the tweets were threaded, which means they were connected together in a way to designate that one followed the other). More importantly, it ignores that this is a problem of human communication more generally. Laying it at the feet of social media as a poor vehicle for discussion misunderstands the fundamental flaw of how we talk to each other. This is not a problem that arose because of Twitter or the internet. It is a problem that human beings have been dealing with since the creation of language itself.

And so it still falls to us to be careful about how we communicate our points. Not just relying on words as we understand them, but how we think other people might understand them as well.

“Incompatibility”

So what do we mean when we say that a certain “combo doesn’t work”? We can formalize the logic of the statement as follows:

For all possible combinations of Game Mechanic X and Genre Y, there exists some subset of combinations that make for inherently bad games.

So when we say “inherently bad” here, we mean that there is no way to make the combination work. It cannot merely be a case where the combination is difficult to do right. It cannot be a combination that usually results in bad games. If we’re going to say they “do not mix” and “kill the game,” then we can only understand that claim as an absolute statement.

But this brings us to two problems.

The first is one of discourse. If we say two things “don’t work” together when we really mean something else, then we’re ultimately creating a false impression of what we’re saying. If, for example, I don’t like horror games but love puzzle games, I might be inclined to say the two never mix. And yet, that statement would be in no way based on actual experience. Just my own personal likes and dislikes.

In other words, I’d be presenting my own subjective views as an objective fact.

And that presentation means that I’d be misleading people about what I mean. And anyone listening to me or reading what I say would generally get the impression that I am making this objective claim in a way that invites disagreement. As opposed to a subjective claim which is something that can be acknowledged without needing to spark controversy.

So if we’re not being careful, we create arguments that we didn’t mean to create.

But let’s say that we really mean what we say that the combination doesn’t work. That brings us to the second problem.

And the second problem is one of theory. When we make the claim that a combination doesn’t work, we are generally basing that claim off of a set of particular examples. Perhaps you remember a specific game that wasn’t very good that used that combination.

But when we rely on these particular examples, we tend to mistake our feelings about that specific game for a general principle. Even when it’s not a subjective claim as described above. So we can play a game, enjoy the mechanic and genre in general, and see that the combination doesn’t work in that game. And so our feeling can be based on an objective claim, and yet confuse that feeling with the idea that the problem is the combination, rather than the game.

In other words, there is an important difference between the idea of a combination and the execution of that idea. That is, just because a combination doesn’t work in a particular game, does not mean the combination should be avoided entirely. Even if it the combination doesn’t work in most games does not mean we get to draw that conclusion.

We need to be able to determine an incompatibility not by pointing to specific games, but through examining the concepts in a more abstract form. Which means thinking about the various ways that a particular mechanic can be introduced, or the different ways that a genre can be explored. Hence why we looked at how “horror” and “puzzles” mean so many different things. We need to examine every possible combination, and try our best to think expansively about the possibilities.

Because a problem of execution is actually quite easy to create. As much as any designer tries to avoid this problem, our intentions often get away from us. And with any sort of big project, such as a video game, the vision we begin with (“I’m going to make a horror game with tons of awesome puzzles that mesh well with the setting”) can transform into something else entirely (“here’s a bland horror game with a bunch of frustrating puzzles that pull you out of the game”).

But that’s not the result of the combination being inherently bad. It’s the execution. Which is why we need to be careful when we fixate on specific examples that frustrate us, or specific games that don’t work well. Their failures do not necessarily lead to the conclusion we wish to draw – that the experiments were doomed to failure because of an incompatibility – and we should not be hasty in establishing those conclusions.

Concluding Remarks

I have used Robson’s tweets here not as a means of calling him out. My presumption is that he enjoys puzzle games, and he enjoys horror games. That he has experience with both, and many if not all of the games that combine puzzle and horror he has found dissatisfying. And indeed, it can even be the case that he was dissatisfied because those games weren’t very good.

And yet, the conclusion drawn and the argument Robson makes is useful precisely because it helps us to see a pitfall that all of us commonly fall into when talking and thinking about games. Which is that when we look at concepts – horror, puzzles, goodness, compatibility – we begin from our own feelings. And while those feelings are not wrong, they are not a good foundation for broad conclusions.

We can, of course, step outside of those feelings. We can examine our feelings, stepping back to look at things from other perspectives that differ from our own. And we can use those new perspectives to revise our own feelings, or establish different conclusions. This process is certainly possible, but it is by no means easy.

But the error we are all prone to is mistaking our initial reactions for careful analysis. It is an easy trap to fall into. And so by looking at the compatibility problem, we see a bigger problem in discourse surrounding video games – and really, plenty of other subjects as well.


[1] I do not pick Poe as a random thought. The very idea of Poe’s “The Raven” being something that is “horror” without being scary was played off as a joke in an episode of The Simpsons. Back in Season 2 (which, in case you might not be aware or have forgotten, was in 1990). This is by no means a new discussion.

[2] Although perhaps there are ways to make even a jigsaw puzzle fit within a horror theme. It is at least a useful problem to think upon, and perhaps even experiment with in various ways, rather than rejecting it immediately.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: