September 27, 2016

How do you Do It?

Tags: A Gamedev Plays

This post is from the now defunct website “A GameDev Plays…”, copied here for posterity

There is just one big problem with How do you Do It?, and that is… I didn’t think of it first! This free, super-short, story-based game executes brilliantly on its premise - simple, quick and evocative. It raises the question of what story games need to be successful. By the way, those last two words in the title are supposed to be capitalised - “Do It” - for reason that will soon become clear.

How do you Do It? tells a little story in a few minutes. Basically, you play a little girl who, while her mother is out, tries to determine how sex works with her dolls. Most people from a similar cultural background to the creators will quickly understand what is going on and may even have a similar event in their childhood. The action of the game is moving and rotating the dolls and then mashing them together while the little girl talks about her questions. How the dolls are moved doesn’t seem to make any difference to the game, it is as if the little girl doesn’t really know what she is doing. This lack of player agency doesn’t matter, mainly because that is not the point of the game. Evoking the feeling of trying to work this stuff out when young and embarrassed, that is the point. Also, the game is very short.

Mash those dolls!

It is just a minute or two long. Personally I think the length of the game is just right. Many people might consider it brave to make a game just a minute long. But it is perfect for this game; it gets the relevant experience across and then moves on. The pace is forced, after a little time the mother returns and the game ends. That’s it. There are two possible endings, one where there dolls are put away in time, and another where they are not - and everyone is embarrassed. There is also the statistic “you might have done sex XX times”, for instance 109 times or 59 times. After playing a few times I’m not sure that number has any relation to what happens during the game - clever! It is not like the character would know. So the disconnect is completely thematic.

Embarassed

I have a love-hate relationship with story games. I keep playing them, but find the vast majority disappointing. Story games are hard. Probably too hard for me to even attempt creating one. However playing How do you Do It? made me think about what it takes to make a good story-game, or at least, where most fall down. Strangely, that failure is rarely the story itself. Most have an acceptable story, enough to keep my attention for a short while. It is the game part around the story that is the problem.

So without further delay, and based on nothing more than a few minutes’ introspection, here is my list of the most common problems in story games in order of increasing importance:

  • The story in a story-based game needs to be well told. This largely comes down to either writing well (which is hard) or acting well (which seems to be even harder!). A few have had bad writing and more have bad acting and both greatly detract from the experience. If the player is laughing at the delivery even in moments of high emotion - that is a bad sign.
  • Gameplay elements need to be thematic and enhance the story. Tacking on a story as an afterthought to an existing game is a bad idea, especially if the story is the main focus. So why do so many story-games have uninteresting gameplay that has little to do with the story. Go around and bash the monster generally does nothing to help a story. Most of the time players are just waiting for the next story beat to drop and wondering if they need do to perform a specific action in order to trigger it somehow. How do you Do It? gets away with pointless actions by making it thematic and very short. Other successful story-games make the game progress at the players pace, or use the gameplay to heighten players’ connection to characters.
  • Pacing! Pacing is the number one problem in story-games. Usually the game progresses too slowly when not actually telling the story. There seems to be some belief that games must be above a certain length to qualify as worthwhile. I completely disagree. Games need to be long enough to get their experience across. In story games, that means long enough to get the story done. Nothing more. A couple of hours maximum, usually much, much less (depending how much story is actually there, and normally there is only enough story for a much shorter game). I think many devs feel the need to expand their games to fill time, but this greatly detracts from the story. Unfortunately based on the internet reactions to many shorter games I am on the wrong side of the public’s opinion here. But personally, I would much prefer a good short game, than a long mediocre one.

How do you Do It? is available for free on Steam (PC and Mac) at it’s Steam store page.

Title screen


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