Here’s a game design conundrum for you: what do Halo and football have in common? I’ll save those of you who are now deep in the process of trying to find a punchy Red Vs Blue pun the trouble. What Halo and football have in common is verbs. Or rather, a verb. Shoot.
Halo is a game about aiming a projectile, usually a bullet, to hit a target, usually someone’s jaw. Football is about aiming a projectile, usually a ball, to hit a target, usually a rectangular, poorly weatherproofed shack which is home to an angry man who jumps a lot.
Oh, wait, I should have said. That football. Real football. Sorry.
I’ve found it makes people uncomfortable when I call football a shooting game. Often this is because they fear I’m trying to be a smartarse, which is an understandable concern. Other times it’s because they’re focused on the specific meaning of ‘shooting’ in football, which they rightly point out is only a small part of the game, which is also about defending and maneuvering and passing and tackling.
For once, though, I’m not trying to be a smartarse. From my exhaustive study of the rules of football, you can only win if someone makes a projectile hit a target, and that to me is a shooting game.
Interesting things happen when you think about games in terms of verbs. I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week, which I’ve mostly spent bunking off doing one of two verbs: watering and sculpting. Watering, because spring has sprung, and my garden with it, which means lots less rain and lots more thirsty green shoots.
And watering, I think, might be one of the finest experiences in the world. There’s an intensely sensual kick to be had from watching the water pool stubbornly on the top of parched earth, listening out for that first wet crackle that starts the moisture sinking slowly, then quickly, into the crevices of the darkened, gleaming soil.
Sculpting, because of an addiction I thought I’d cured myself of weeks ago but can’t seem to shake. Rittai Picross for the DS, which Wikipedia assures me translates directly as Solid Geometry Picross, is just that – a 3D take on the classic picture-making puzzle game.
Moving it into 3D changes it from a painting game to a sculpting game, as you chip away cubes to reveal the puppies and strawberries and anglepoise lamps that lurk within each blank block. And sculpting, too, is one of life’s great pleasures – destructive artistry at its finest, with just a hint of witchcraft.
Most of the games we make are inspired by real life, and by the activities and the scenarios that fill our time. It sounds like a sensible place to start, but the very literal approach it encourages often delivers an overly complex game experience with no guarantee of satisfaction. Designing around verbs fixes both of those problems.
Rittai Picross isn’t a sculpting game, but it’s a game where I get to sculpt. Rather than limiting the nature of the overall design, it’s a way of guaranteeing that the central interaction – if not the central game mechanic – is engaging in its own right.
And the time I’ve spent tending to my weigelas doesn’t make me want a gardening game (I’ve tended acres of tomatoes in Harvest Moon and mulched my pechas from one end of Sinnoh to another without finding satisfaction), it makes me want a watering game.
And who knows what that might look like? It could be a space strategy game, it could be a suburban survival horror game, it could be a platformer set in a talc factory. As long as you capture the joy of that furious, devout drench, I’m sold.
Thinking in verbs also alerts you to all sorts of other neglected mechanics. Pinging! Why aren’t there more pinging games? Beyond the venerable Spaced Penguin and the odd bit of Mario Galaxy I can’t think of any. Painting, despite the efforts of de Blob and Okami, is still weirdly under-represented for something which has such fundamentally happy dynamics.
And, speaking of Picross, shaving. Or mowing, or pruning, or whatever you prefer. I rarely played the DS version not set to the grass theme, which let you trace little shorn furrows into the grid, spraying a gratifying plume of clippings as you went. Bonsai Barber, not yet out for us Europeans, is rare in the purity of its focus on the pleasures of trimming away dead wood.
And on and on it goes. You’ll have your own list – picking scabs? Cleaning windows? Polishing shoes? – each one guaranteed to bring gratification. Actually, that’s still my list. Is there anything that makes you feel nobler and happier than working at a bit of scuffed, sore leather until it shines, bright as a beetle?
What I’m proposing isn’t radical. It’s at the heart of what makes Super Mario 64, for many, the best game ever made. Miyamoto famously directed his team to start with nothing but a cube. If making it jump wasn’t fun, the game wouldn’t be fun. But it was, and is, and ever shall be, even once every other element of the game has been outdated and surpassed.
Get the right verb, and do it right, and the rest will follow. Bill Watterson had it right when he had Calvin warn that ‘verbing weirds language’. But for us, there’s cheerier news: verbing awesomes games.
[Margaret Robertson is the former editor of Edge magazine and now videogame consultant. One More Go is her regular Offworld column in which she explores the attractions of the games she just can't stop going back to.]
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