One of the most challenging aspects of video-games culture for a newcomer, especially for a busy parent, is trying to learn and understand the many, many acronyms and specialised terms. GameHub HQ entries are jargon-free, so you can get the information you need as easily and painlessly as possible, but there are still some words worth knowing. Every Monday, we break down one Word Worth Knowing from the world of gaming.

This week, we look at the frustrating conundrum of the “Invisible Wall.” What is an invisible wall and why do you need to care?

What It Is: Invisible Wall = Bad level design

What It Means: An invisible barrier that prevents the player from exploring, invisible walls are a serious obstacle to immersion and enjoyment. Because there is no visual indicator that the area is inaccessible (eg a fallen tree, roadworks sign, locked gate etc), the player will likely run or drive head-first into it, coming to an abrupt and occasionally fatal stop.

Why You Care: Invisible Walls make players angry. If you’ve ever walked past your son or daughter’s bedroom door to hear nothing but an endless stream of expletives followed by a protracted wail of “its not faaaaaair!” chances are they have just barrelled head-first into an invisible wall and lost all their progress. When this occurs, it is, for a split-second, not “just a game.” At that moment, the presence of the invisible wall it is the single greatest injustice that has ever been perpetrated against a human being – the player has been betrayed by the game. To understand why an invisible wall is the cause of all this drama, we need to briefly touch on a fundamental of game design.

A video-game is, like all visual experiences, made up of signs and symbols which the player must interpret and react to accordingly in order to do well. Making these signs and symbols easily interpretable to the player when they are moving fast and multitasking is the hall-mark of good game design. For example, ensuring an enemy can be identified and distinguished from a friend. Or by making it clear to the player that they are about to die by making the screen flash red and their character’s breathing loud and laboured. These symbols are how the designer communicates to the player where they are to go, what they are to do, and whether they are doing it well. Game design is, at some fundamental level, about communication through symbols.

Invisible walls, because they cannot be seen, have no symbols telling the player they cannot go there. A physical obstacle, such as a fallen tree blocking the path, a chest-high wall, or a “No Entry” sign on a locked gate, visually communicates to the player that they cannot go that way. It is a symbol of obstruction, and one instantly understandable by the player – you can’t walk through a wall in real-life either, you use a door. If there is no marker, the player will naturally assume they have found a short-cut and attempt to follow it. Games appeal to the “exploring and discovering” aspects of the brain, with the brain getting a dopamine “reward” for “finding” something that it registers as “hidden” or “secret” or “clever” to have uncovered. When hit in the face with an invisible wall, all those Happy Brain Feelings are usually instantly converted into righteous rage. The contract between designer and player has been broken, because, whether due to laziness, oversight or external forces, the designer hasn’t bothered to give the player a sign to interpret. If the section of the game is intended to be played at speed, this sense of betrayal worsens – the last lap of a racing game, the escape sequence of an action game, where the player is in the zone and in a state of complete and seamless flow…and then is yanked out of it by an unseen and unanticipated obstacle that brings them, quite literally, to a dead stop. It’s the gaming equivalent of being promised an ice-cream, and then, for no reason whatsoever, being told you are not having ice-cream either from this van, or any van for the next week, because how very dare you assume I will buy you an ice-cream!? Not only is it unfair, but its also a breach of the contact between you and the ice-cream offering party, because they offered you ice-cream, and then they retracted the offer without explanation, cause or apology. It’s not fair! you cry, accompanied by a bit of robust swearing. And no, it isn’t. In a person, ice-cream fickleness is an indicator of an evil and immoral  tempter/temptress who cannot be trusted. In games, its an indicator of a lack of polish. Games with a poor level of polish have more bugs, glitches and instances of poor design than games with high polish. For each game in the GameHub HQ database, you can find information about polish and cohesiveness under the Engagement Tab. Ice-cream double-crossers, sadly, are beyond our remit.

Invisible walls make players angry. Really angry.
Invisible walls make players angry. Really angry. Angry enough to create this image and post it on the web. Which, let’s face it, is pretty angry.
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