[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time -- a look at VVVVVV and the ups and downs of environment focused design.]

I've been playing VVVVVV so much I've started fearing my column will flip upside-down ever time I make a carriage return. Even editing this column was a traumatic experience, as rows of spikes greeted me at every turn. The game’s unpronounceable title is evocative of its number one cause of death, but there's more to VVVVVV than spikes, spikes, and more spikes.

Terry Cavanagh's puzzle platformer is a compelling argument for simplicity in games. There are only three gameplay-relevant keys in VVVVVV: left, right, and flip. Cavanagh describes VVVVVV as focusing on "one single gameplay mechanic and exploring it in detail." It's a sly way of stating it, since VVVVVV has much more to it than a single mechanic. There are rooms that loop on themselves, conveyor belts, companions to herd about, and many more complications that result in an experience that is far from simple.

VVVVVV's simplicity is a clever lie. The game delivers with its promise of not gating player progress and stilll providing variety and challenge by powering up the environment instead of the player. In VVVVVV the environment and enemies become increasing complex, taking the role of the player-oriented upgrades. In fact, those power-ups are an even bigger lie. Under the pretense of upgrading, they actually exist to introduce players to newer or more complex puzzles, a premise VVVVVV turns upside-down.

Every Step is Up a Steeper Slope

These power-ups are deceptive because they actually makes the game harder while giving the illusion that it is an enhancement. Take Metroid's Ice Beam. It's a powerful weapon, but once you get it the game starts demanding you use it climb by jumping from frozen enemy to frozen enemy. The game suddenly becomes more complicated, and now there's another element for players to keep track of and master.

The ability may feel empowering at first, but they actually make the game harder because there is a new element to keep track of when solving new puzzles. It's possible to even say this about pure upgrades like health tanks. Although they make the player objectively more powerful, as the game progresses the player will encounter more damaging enemies and environments. This forces players to go out of their way to find and acquire the extra health.

This is a good thing. When upgrades do make life easier, it can be a serious problem, since it means the beginning will be the hardest part of the game. This inverted difficulty curve turns off new players and bores hardcore ones. Games must remain challenging to remain interesting.

Player Oriented Design

Braid, in contrast to VVVVVV, has a combination of variety through level design and variety through player ability. In Braid, there are objects that behave differently in respect to time, and levels in which time moves in unusual ways. But there are also two worlds that grant special abilities, a time shadow that repeats your action and the power to create a bubble of slowed time.

However, VVVVVV and Braid have similar design because both strictly monitor player capacity relative to the challenges and puzzles. The special skills in Braid are only usable in the worlds that revolve around the mechanic, so players cannot use the skills to skip or trivialize other puzzles.

This is really the key lesson of VVVVVV's design. It keeps things simple for the player and designer. The challenges are all clear: the game promises the player that all the puzzles can be solved with what they have. The player will never skip content or become frustrated with it because of their ability set.

How to Make Us Have Fun

We can already see how much more complicated design becomes when players are powered up. Controlling players is much easier without granting them new abilities.
VVVVVV throws everything including the kitchen sink at the player, and the gameplay is literally as simple as how much you press left or right after flipping. VVVVVV asks, "how hard can we possibly make this task?" and the answer is "really hard, I lost 150 lives on Edge Games."

It's not just, as stated earlier, that the variability in game elements is located in VVVVVV's level design. VVVVVV hits players with a concept, then keeps hitting them with it in harder forms and multiple variations and then adds on some other stuff that you've seen before but not in that context and then throws it all together for the grand finale. The game takes about three hours to finish but it fleshes out every element of design in detail.

VVVVVV doesn't run its potential into the ground. It doesn't have filler, and part of the reason that it can deliver this is because the player cannot subvert challenges. Players still feel satisfied and accomplished even when there's just one solution.

The Player as Level Designer

The contrast to this is the more sandbox approach taken by games like Bioshock. The first problem that games like Bioshock encounter, and Bioshock thankfully overcomes, is having enough content for the player to play around in. Metal Gear Solid 4 suffers from having a huge number of tools for the player but not enough situations to use them all.

Bioshock is long enough for players to get their plasmid's worth out of it, but the levels do not have a tremendous amount of variety. This is not a case of bad design. In Bioshock's case especially, it isn't necessary to have the variety of VVVVVVV. The player will be constantly growing in power, and while the challenges become greater and enemies become more powerful the level design is not actually much different. This isn't a problem because Bioshock counts on the player to find new ways to play with the environment.

Bioshock is in a separate category from games like metroid, which provide more complex abilities for more complex situations. Bioshock comes close to placing the player in the role of game designer, while there are still limits like ammo, health, and cash also have the effect of forcing the player into scenarios where they have to fall back on alternate methods to solve problems.

Beating the Game Before It Ends

The issue with this design is that it doesn't take much for one solution to be superior to another. A game that will only accept a certain specific solution to a puzzle limits the player, but it ensures that the player experiences a distinct and unique challenge every time. Bioshock expects more from players, but provides a different kind of fun, more akin to the joy of creation than of solution. In VVVVVV, the player tries and tries until figuring out the solution. In Bioshock, the player crafts the solutions themselves.

Once players craft solutions, the game becomes much less complex. One of my personal solutions was to locate and freeze the nearest turret and hack it before doing anything else. I tried other solutions, but the freeze made the turrets easier to hack as well and the defensive position gave me a huge advantage. Since hacking paused the game, this was actually even easier than killing it.

The consequence is that once I figured this out, I never approached a turret any other way. Essentially, I beat the turret game of Bioshock. Let me tell you, there are a lot of turrets in that game. To oversimplify, it would be like a single room from VVVVVV repeating intermittently throughout the game. VVVVVV repeats themes and challenges, but always in new contexts and in more complicated ways. It knows players won't have any fun solving a puzzle they've already answered.

VVVVVV is far from simple. If anything the only person it's simple for is the designer. In turn, VVVVVV creates a very compelling pact with the player: you can solve everything in this game with three buttons. It will not allow you to experience the joy of tricking solutions out of the game. All you can do is figure out what you need to do and do it right. Freedom, on the other hand, is much harder to make fun.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which is updated less often than this message, and can be reached at [email protected]]