Big Picture Mode
Industry issues given the widescreen treatment
Nathan Brown on bad baby design and the RNG of real life
A few months after my son was born I remember holding him and thinking: ‘This thing is terribly designed’
As a parent, it’s inevitable that someone will ask you for advice on their own impending parenthood. But even now, with my son closing in on his third birthday, I’m still not sure what to say. I remember asking the same question and people would tell me to enjoy it, which at the time felt reassuring but now, with the benefit of hindsight, seems like a thoroughly cruel joke.
Instead, leveraging my experience of sitting across tables from videogame developers who have just been asked something they’d rather not answer, I choose to reframe the question. Do I have any advice? Well (quick, awkward glance to PR rep), we’re not talking about that just yet – please look forward to Gamescom. Steve, it’s Gamescom for that, right? Perhaps we can email something over nearer the time.
So perhaps I can’t give the hypothetical new parent any advice as such. But I can tell them the one thing that’s caught me most by surprise, that I was least prepared for: how random the whole thing is. As my son gets older, his cognition and coordination improves, and his tantrums become less frequent, and shorter. That should make things easier, but I’m not sure it does; at least when he was having a meltdown every five minutes about every little thing, I was prepared for it. Now they come from anywhere, for no reason. This morning it was socks; yesterday it was parsnips (‘But you
loved parsnips last week!’); one day a few weeks back he got so angry about being presented with a broken breadstick that he clenched his fists and shook them, forgetting he was actually holding a piece of breadstick in each hand. Amusing, yes, but also quite unnecessary, and thoroughly unforeseen. Later that evening I found a piece of breadstick in my sock.
This randomness is the bane of my bloody existence at the moment. Yet when the boy goes to bed, the house falls silent and what passes for normality these days resumes, randomness is precisely what I crave. Part of the reason I’ve found the unpredictability of parenting so difficult, I think, is a lifetime playing videogames. A few months after my son was born I remember complaining about precisely this problem. I would be holding this screaming thing that couldn’t even hold its own head up straight and think to myself: ‘This thing is terribly designed. It needed another six months in the oven, minimum. ’
As players, we expect linear progression; that things, once learned, are never forgotten. Once you spend a skill point on unlimited sprint, you do not expect to find your avatar pulling up and leaning against a lamppost to catch their breath. Yet within that context a little randomness can work wonders, whether it’s subverting our expectations – some little moment of emergent magic in an open-world game, perhaps – or even defining the game as a whole, as in my two long-standing obsessions, Puzzle & Dragons and Destiny. Take away the random element of these games’ core systems and you are left with, respectively, a novel spin on the match-three puzzler and a new Halo game with super moves, 27 kinds of grenade, and a really bad story. So I spend the day wishing life would settle back into a nice, predictable rhythm, and my evenings playing things that are shot through with so much randomness that I can get just as frustrated playing them as I do when my toddler has a meltdown about bagels in the bakery aisle.
There are a few possible reasons behind this, I think. For one, I have an addictive personality, and used to like fruit machines a bit when I was young and stupid, so the random wheelspin of a loot drop has an obvious appeal. My misspent youth also taught me that life’s lows really help you appreciate the highs; that the Monday mornings give meaning to the Friday nights, that the 300 times you don’t get Gjallarhorn make it all the sweeter when it finally shows up. And obviously there’s the fact that randomness is just a very useful tool in game design, especially in games that want a big base of regular, engaged players, but don’t have enough raw content to support one.
Could it be that I like this parenting lark more than I’ve let on? That actually the wrong-kind-of-bagel freakout makes the weekly shop more fun? That the fuckparsnips meltdown makes us more creative with what we cook? And that the socks thing… well, no, the socks thing is just infuriating. Damn it. For a minute there, I really thought I might be onto something.