As I'm sure many readers can relate to, over my years of gaming I have been conditioned to expect certain gameplay elements to be in place from each game I play. When I pick up a controller and begin a game, my fingers instinctually know which buttons to press. This isn't because there is something intrinsically correct in using A to jump or B to cancel a menu selection, but because these are the conventions games have grown to adhere to. Of course, this phenomenon differs by genre, but within each genre there are expectations for how each game will control. But what happens when a developer goes against these ingrained gameplay tropes? Is it simply a matter of poor controls, or could there be a deeper reason behind a less conventional approach? I am constantly fascinated by unconventional gameplay, and in these Gaming Against the Grain segments I will endeavor not just to observe how a developer has strayed from gameplay norms, but to examine what purpose is served by nonstandard control schemes.
Not long ago I wrote a review for Explodemon, an action-puzzle-platformer hybrid recently released on PSN. However, looking back at that review, I fear that I have done the game a great disservice by not elaborating on some of the finer details of its gameplay mechanics. While the game's control scheme does not stray far from what is expected of platformers, the core mechanics of its gameplay stand directly in contrast to genre norms.
The first, and most obvious, of Explodemon's deviations is that of double-jumping. Double-jumping has long been a part of platforming games, and, as any veteran gamer can attest, it is performed best by pressing the jump button when at the highest point of the first jump. This is because in most games the double-jump is treated as just that: a second jump. However, this is not true in Explodemon, and could easily throw off some gamers. In Explodemon, the method for taking full advantage of a double jump is to press the explosion button at the very beginning of the jump. Yes, at the beginning, the lowest point of the jump. How utterly absurd!
And yet, in the context of the game this actually makes perfect sense. All objects in Explodemon are governed by in-game physics, and the titular character is no exception. With this in mind, also note that double-jumping is performed with an explosion; a burst of energy that will accelerate Explodemon along his current trajectory. So think for a moment at what point it would be best to activate that explosion. It won't be at the top of the jump, where his trajectory slows and begins to arc downward. Exploding in that moment simply helps him hover in midair briefly. Instead, it is best to explode at the bottom of the jump, where the explosion will accelerate the point with the highest momentum, propelling Explodemon higher into the air. Gamers and critics alike often talk of putting physics into games, but we have become so accustomed to the distorted physics governing most games that we often don't know what to do when confronted by more realistic simulations.
The other major deviation, or perhaps simply a game mechanic that will strike players as limiting, is that of wall-jumping. In games, wall-jumping is often implemented as a safety measure, allowing players to climb vertical surfaces to recover from missing a platform. The character will press against the wall, then jump to launch the character more vertically than horizontally so that they can latch to a higher point on the wall, repeating the process until reaching level ground. Explodemon does not give players this luxury. The beginning of Explodemon's wall-jump is the same: sliding slowly down a wall and jumping more vertically than outward. However, Explodemon cannot return to the wall and continue climbing in this manner, at least not immediately. Explodemon must, as the name implies, explode before he can return to the wall and jump again.
Initially, I must admit, this struck me as an odd and limiting gameplay mechanic. But really, it simply solidifies the primary focus of the game: explosions. The game's singular focus is on using explosions for everything: attacking enemies, puzzle solving, and traversing levels. Forcing an explosion between wall-jumps is a method to ensure that explosions are in every facet of gameplay. The level design even compliments this limited wall-jumping ability, as I have yet to find any pitfall in Explodemon deep enough that it would require more than a wall jump and an explosion (with the explosion adhering to the rules governing double-jumps, as detailed previously) to recover from. Since there is no gameplay situation in Explodemon that would require continuous wall-jumping, its inclusion would only serve to mimic other games while diluting the explosions that make Explodemon a unique experience.
So we have these non-conventional gameplay mechanics, and explanations for why they might have been implemented, but I am not simply interested in being an apologist for the developer. The greater question still stands: what purpose do these gameplay deviations serve? After all, there is a fine line between being innovative and being obtuse. Thankfully, Explodemon falls into the former category. Though Explodemon's jumping mechanics may initially confuse platforming aficionados, if taken on their own merits outside of genre conventions, the core mechanics are still fun to play with. It doesn't reinvent the genre by any means, but it provides an elegant physics-based solution that could well be implemented in the right scenario, like platforming with a jetpack for example. Explodemon is one of the rare examples where gaming against the grain pays off with an experience that both follows genre conventions, but still gives players something new in how those conventions are presented.
If you have a game in mind with gameplay or controls that differ from the norm, good or bad, we would love to hear about it. Email game ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.