Please note: This article includes a few minor spoilers for Axiom Verge.
Playing Tom Happ’s excellent Metroid-channelling Axiom Verge recently reminded me of a gaming move I’d almost forgotten I had in my repertoire, the ‘jump/move/shoot shuffle’, also known less catchily as ‘dealing with enemies who are a pixel or two above or below the angle at which I can fire’. Axiom Verge uses a digital-style aiming system that only allows you to aim and fire in six directions (the eight compass points minus down-left and down-right), and in certain situations, the combination of the environment layout and enemy positioning conspire to mean that there’s no ‘good’ place from which to stand and shoot in order to eliminate them. Instead, the player has to jump, move and shoot all at the same time in a way that always feels slightly awkward.
On the face of it, this might seem like a minor annoyance, yet Axiom Verge is smartly designed enough to develop this limitation into a mechanic of its own. As the game progresses, the player picks up weapons with different fire modes – area-effect missiles that can be detonated at will, for instance, or a gun that can shoot a short distance through walls – which gradually expand their reach. With these weapons, seemingly awkwardly-positioned enemies become not an irritation but a satisfying challenge for the player, as taking a moment to pick out the right tool for the job makes for a much safer and less awkward fight than deploying the jump/move/shoot shuffle.
This aiming system demonstrates a useful rule of game design – that games are defined as much by what the player can’t do, as they are by the things they can. What initially appears to be a frustrating limitation becomes a mechanic ripe with possibilities, giving the player an interesting choice each time they encounter it.
Many games create engaging experiences from the limitations they put on the player. The maximum of two weapons the player is allowed to carry at any one time in Halo: Combat Evolved initially seems mean-spirited. Yet this limitation transforms scouring a battlefield post-gunfight to locate discarded weapons and ammo from a process of hoovering up everything the player can find into an agonising series of choices, as the player weighs up which two weapons they should carry forward into the next area.
In both cases the limitations are far from arbitrary – they work because the rest of the game design is not only sympathetic to them but actively works to balance them out. So the aiming in Axiom Verge avoids becoming an irritation because it is exploited only sparingly early on, and the player quickly gains access to weapons with different fire patterns to give them more choice. Similarly, in Halo: CE Bungie carefully balanced the player’s gun, grenade and melee abilities to be equally powerful, ensuring that any situation in the game is manageable with any weapon combination – albeit from different ranges.
Every game places limitations on the player at some level, but Axiom Verge and Halo: CE demonstrate what’s possible when the things the player can’t do are given as much attention and thought as the things they can.
Axiom Verge was developed by Thomas Happ Games LLC http://www.axiomverge.com
Halo: Combat Evolved was developed by Bungie, Inc and published by Microsoft https://www.halowaypoint.com/en-gb/games/halo-combat-evolved/xbox